The Priesthood Revelation of 1978, The Book of Abraham and Missionaries

Growing up in Utah, I had little contact with blacks of any sort, let alone those of African descent. That is until the 6th grade. My family seemed to be on the borderline of everything. So when there was overcrowding in one school, guess who got tapped to change schools? Right. In the 6th grade I was sent to a new school, a mile or two from my house, rather than the school about 200 yards from my house. In my new school there was, wonder of wonders, a black kid. Both being outcasts for one reason or another in the natural order of 6th grade (I think I was more of an outcast than he was, but he was a nice kid), we became reasonably good friends. We lived nowhere near each other, so there was small to zero possibility of seeing each other outside of school. But at school, we stuck together. So Carl (that’s not his name) and I were pals at school, and the other kids seemed to think little of it as far as I could tell.

At the end of 6th grade, I went back to my normal middle school/junior high track and I never saw Carl again. My first and last black friend in pre-college days. I’ve often wondered what became of him.

At home it was a bit of a different story. My parents kept their racial ideas to themselves mostly, but occasionally an interracial marriage of some sort or some racial body feature would be commented on at the dinner table, or in the car. My parents were both from rural farming backgrounds and had (in my limited knowledge of their early lives) little interaction with different races. Most of their thinking about blacks I suspect was generated by the LDS church’s policy of exclusion of blacks of African descent from the priesthood and temples. There had to be “something” wrong with them? Didn’t there?

The struggle to come up with an explanation for the practice generated speculations from very early on in Utah Mormon history. Some were home-made, others had some connection with some authority or other. One of the more used ones involved a passage from the Book of Abraham, chapter 1:

20 Behold, Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea. And the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroyed them, and smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh; which Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood.
21 Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.
22 From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.
23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;
24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.
26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.
27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry;[1]

People who used this quote in justification of restriction of priesthood, had to connect it with skin color somehow, but there was already an inherited argument from Southern Antebellum Protestantism which made the connection to black skin.[2]

In any case, as a pre-1978 LDS missionary, we were tracting a Boston suburb when we came into a neighborhood which contained a religious college sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene. The first door we knocked on belonged to the football coach of the college. He was a very athletic looking man, dressed in shorts and still having a whistle around his neck. When he discovered who we were, he went on offense, telling us, among other things, that he could never be associated with a religion which was so intolerant of people of color, or something like that. Then he asked us point-blank why blacks could not be full participants in the Mormon faith. “Show me where it says that in the Bible,” he said, after we hemmed and hawed. Having passed my tolerance for insult that day (not just from coach), I said, “it’s in the Book of Abraham.” He immediately got a puzzled look on his face, then said, “Well I’m going to look that up (in the Bible).” We said goodbye and left, wondering if he would really try to find it.

So I guess I admit to promoting two falsehoods that day.[3] But so be it. After some study and then finding Lester Bush’s Dialogue article (with the assistance of my friend, Max Parkin) I gradually came to the conclusion that this was a thing that needed to change, but probably wouldn’t in my lifetime. I was dead wrong about the timing.

The thing I find strange, curious and a bit disgusting is that some publishers who cater to the LDS audience are still putting out books from LDS authors that repeat the arguments of antebellum Protestantism and a naive set of scriptural proof-texts (which unfortunately includes the Book of Abraham) to justify the former policy. Mormonism is not unique in this kind of problem. The inertia of knowledge transfer and the backflush of obsolete (even though innocently promoted) and corrosive literature is inevitable among believers and critics alike.

[1] The use of the word “Egyptus” is the passage is interesting, to say nothing of *how* it is used in reference what appear to be two persons (wife of Ham, daughter of Ham?). The manuscript texts suggest a resolution to this usage, and a resolution to the appearance of the name.

[2] Daniel Walker Howe has a nice succinct treatment in his What Hath God Wrought. I am amazed to find that these arguments are still in existence in currently published items directed to LDS audiences.

[3] In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that I think the Book of Abraham is false. I don’t. That position is partly what is about.

3 Responses to The Priesthood Revelation of 1978, The Book of Abraham and Missionaries

  1. Anthony says:

    Most active Mormons believe that the priesthood ban (as well as its subsequent repeal) was the will of God. As long as they believe that, why not connect it with the Book of Abraham?

    A few years ago, a black friend of mine received the missionary discussions in my home. She asked about the priesthood ban, and the missionaries explained that God can give his priesthood to whomever He wants, that at one time it was restricted to descendants of Levi, and that it was not given to the descendants of Ham until 1978. That’s essentially the same thing that I told people when I was a missionary. I told my friend that I didn’t believe that the priesthood ban was the will of God. The missionaries were very angry and disappointed with me for that. This was about 2005.

    As long as Mormons are allowed to think that the priesthood ban was God’s will, it’s perfectly natural for them to connect it with the Book of Abraham. Telling investigators of the church that “we don’t know why black people couldn’t hold the priesthood” does not satisfy them a bit. Falling back to testimony bearing doesn’t satisfy them either. Nor should it.

  2. WVS says:

    I usually refer people to though I don’t have too much direct contact with investigators. It’s very important I think to see the kind of practical outcome that exists for persons formally impacted by the ban. It will take time for any change of view generally about the origins of the ban. And I don’t think the final say exists yet in terms of ban history.

    A close friend of mine is an LDS mission president in the southeastern US and he found initially the greatest hurdle was that blacks there thought of the LDS church as a “white church.” He has become quite effective in disabusing people of that idea (including his missionaries). That in turn has resulted in many doors opening. Some members there though, even church leaders, still carry old prejudices. That will take time too.

  3. Jared T. says:

    Thanks WVS. I think a list of publications that perpetuate these ideas would be useful, but whether anyone is interested in taking that task up is the question.

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