Blacks in Mormonism: Are Mormons Racist: The Racist American Context the Church Was Born Into (Part 2)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode by Church History Matters, click here.

Blacks in Mormonism: Who Were Cain and Ham?

Those who accepted the view of historical justifications throughout various events believe that blacks in Mormonism and God’s curse on Cain was the mark of dark skin. So a hundred years before the church was organized in America, this goes back way further over in Europe, but in America, 1730s, they’re teaching that Cain was the ancestor of the black Africans, and he received a mark on his skin of blackness. Now, can we just pause here for a second and say that this is an indefensibly wack reading of the Cain story? But this understanding was pervasive among Protestant Christians in America, especially those with a vested interest in slavery. It was believed by people who joined the church a hundred years later in the 1830s and forties, and they carry this idea with them into the church. 

We’re going to see this play out in future episodes of this podcast, but can we just briefly review the Cain story for our listeners, And before we get into Genesis 4, I’m just going to advise everybody that we all bring assumptions to the scriptures, right? But before we read Genesis 4 or review its contents, try and set all your assumptions aside and just look at what the story says. 1 Number one: Cain killed Abel. Remember the story? The first recorded murder of scripture. So God cursed him to be a homeless wanderer, right? A wanderer and a vagabond. Cain then worries that “Everyone that findeth me shall slay me,” he tells God. So the Lord put a protective mark on Cain so that people wouldn’t kill him when they found him. And that’s the end of the whole story. So what was the mark, and what’s that got to do with black Africans? I mean, like, the text says nothing about the mark. 

Early rabbinic tradition speculates that this Mark may have been that Cain was given a dog as his companion or that a horn grew from his forehead or that a permanent Hebrew letter was seared onto his forehead. In other words, nobody knows what the mark was. It’s not in the text. So it’s all just speculation, right? So I want to speculate. Maybe it was male pattern baldness. How about that? Every male who’s got male pattern baldness, that’s the mark of Cain, right? See, I can do it too. We can all do this. It’s all speculative, right? Male pattern baldness is just as justifiable in the text as is black African skin. So to associate Cain’s mark with black Africans and blacks in Mormonism, what in the world, right?

Key Points

So let’s just review a few key points. What do we know from Genesis 4, and what do we not know? OK, so first point: The mark placed on Cain was a mark of mercy. Did you catch that in the narrative? It’s a mark of mercy meant specifically to protect Cain from being killed, right? Number two, nobody knows what the mark was. The text itself just doesn’t say, so any attempt to define exactly what it was is purely speculative. Number three, nowhere in the narrative is there even a hint that Cain’s protective mark would, in any sense, be passed down genetically to his children. 

And so just to go from that story to say, “Therefore it is justified to enslave black Africans because they carry the mark of Cain” is just a colossal leap unjustified by scripture. And we should point out that there were critics of this in the 1830s in the environment the church comes into. David Walker said, “Some ignorant creatures hesitate not to tell us that we, the blacks, are the seed of Cain and the murderer of his brother Abel. But where or of whom those ignorant and avaricious wretches could have got their information I am unable to declare.”

He’s saying, “Where are you getting this from?” He goes on to say, “Did they receive it from the Bible? I’ve searched the Bible as well and have never seen a verse that testifies whether we are the seed of Cain or Abel. Yet those men tell us that we are the seed of Cain, that God put a dark stain upon us that we might be known as their slaves. Who acts more like the seed of cane by murdering, the whites or the blacks?” “How many vessel loads of human beings have the blacks thrown into the seas?” “How many thousand souls have the blacks murdered in cold blood to make them work in wretchedness and ignorance to support them and their families?” Like, powerful arguments. 

Historical Background and Arguments

And I’ve got to point out fast, that the longevity of this argument about the mark of Cain is astounding. I mean, I have heard well-meaning but misguided church members within the last 20 years make that argument about blacks in Mormonism.”Of course, black people are descendants of Cain. That’s just how it is.” And sometimes we have to be willing to look at the scripture and question our assumptions. What’s in the text and what’s not in the text are important. It can be a matter of life or death for some people. So the Gospel Topics essay is showing us that as far back as a hundred years before the church was established, this is the narrative already entrenched, right? And then think about it, this is a Protestant America. Many of those Protestant Americans joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Do they automatically shed all of their assumptions? They do not. They do not shed those assumptions. And so it starts to become woven into some church narratives, right? And like you said it continues even to this day, with some segments of church members believing that this is still the case, because there have been some apostles who, in the early church and the mid-1900s, mention this again, and we’re going to get into all that, right? 

Again—we’re going to track this whole story carefully, but today we’re just focusing on how the climate in America got such that this racial prejudice was customary, and then how does that influence church members and blacks in Mormonism? I think this is a big example of that. This is going to influence how they read the Bible. And “As good Christians, how do we make sense of black Africans?” And since this answer was already entrenched in their culture, in their biblical environment, it’s no wonder that they brought it with them into the church.

Curse of Ham

There’s another tragic example of this that we need to talk about as well: the curse of Ham, right? Should we talk about that one? This is in Genesis chapter 9. This is even a bigger whopper than the Cain story in my mind. So let me just review the story real quick. So you remember after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard. He drank the wine. He got drunk, and then he lay naked in his tent. Do you remember this story? And then his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father, and he went and told his two brethren, Shem and Japheth,” who got some kind of cloth, and they walked backward toward their father, and they covered his nakedness. OK. So far, this is a weird story, but then number three, when Noah wakes up, he somehow “knew what his younger son Ham had done unto him. And so he exclaimed, ‘Cursed be Canaan.’” That’s Ham’s son. “‘Cursed be Canaan. A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ He then said of both Shem and Japheth that Canaan shall be his servant.” OK, so three important points here. First of all, this is the weirdest story in the whole Bible, all right? And then number two, nowhere in this narrative, if you were tracking carefully here, was there any sort of a mark given nor any sort of condemnation to the servitude of an entire race of people, right? 

Checking Biases and Assumptions

Associating this story with black Africans is unjustified by the text and therefore wildly irresponsible. Wildly irresponsible. But it was used by Christians 200 years ago to justify slavery and to further affirm the inferiority of blacks to whites. Crazy. Yeah. This is a strange story, right? Yes. And to associate it with black Africans and blacks in Mormonism—I don’t know. I mean. But it’s also an example of a story I’ve heard people use to justify racism and racial practices. 

We’ve just got to be extremely cautious with how we use the scriptures because our assumptions and biases can—that’s what’s happening in the early American republic. And by the way, not just in America but generally among white Christians around the world these assumptions prevailed, and a cold, hard look at the scriptures shows that it was an addition. It wasn’t actually in there, to begin with. It was an assumption they brought to the text. So it would be a really important thing, I think, for us in the modern age to just take a cold, hard look at ourselves, right? Just to ask ourselves what do we accept as “common knowledge?” And what social assumptions do we accept without question? What interpretations of scripture do we just accept without having ourselves examine the text? I think that’s a very healthy practice. 

Just always question your assumptions, right? Realize that there’s probably more to it than what you thought or what you’ve heard, and go to the text itself examine it for yourself, and see if you come to those same conclusions. I should also say that as far as biblical interpretation goes, on top of the curse of Cain and the curse of Ham readings, there are verses in the Bible that explicitly talk about slavery, right? Like, Paul talks about this, talks about how to deal with your slaves benevolently, that kind of thing. 

But we’ve got to realize that this wasn’t about whites enslaving black Africans. It was Mediterranean people enslaving Mediterranean people. Not that even that’s right, but it was a practice in Paul’s day, and so he talks about it. But the text is in no way justifying whites enslaving black Africans, right? That’s the point here to read it that way, is to read it with an agenda. And, I mean, this is unpleasant stuff, right? I am an American. I love my country. At the same time, too, I don’t want to have my eyes covered when it comes to our history because I believe that America has a divine destiny and purpose, but the narrative given in scripture is that people have to qualify for those things. 

They have to live up to the ideals that they have. And to understand and be better in the future, we need to know this background a little bit. To just give a fair assessment of what the Saints did in the 19th century we have to do a little bit of work to understand the world that they’re living in, particularly with regards to this complex issue. 

Conclusion

So I know it’s taken us an hour, and all we’ve done is set the table, basically, but this is such a complicated issue that we could probably go a couple more hours on this, couldn’t we Scott? To just introduce the world that the church is born into. Church members can’t just look at this academically, either. This is the world they exist in. And early on they’re going to start bumping into these ideas and responding, and that’s the legacy that we still have to grapple with today. 

And so our point today has been to hopefully help everyone understand that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was organized in 1830, was organized during the height of this stuff, right? It was the height of the Protestant acceptance of the curse of Cain doctrine in North America, as well as the even more popular curse of Ham doctrine. Most converts were from Protestant sects, and they carried these ideas with them into the church. There are these other unexamined assumptions, right, that were brought in by prevailing scientific thought and by the prevalence of African enslavement in certain parts of the country. It’s against that backdrop of entrenched racial prejudice in America that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established. And so we’ve just got to keep in mind that these unexamined assumptions about blacks being inferior to whites, blacks carrying the curse of Cain and Ham, and especially that interracial marriage was bad or unhealthy, they’re all there when the church is organized, all there just stewing in the background.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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