Cursed with a Black Skin?

Huzzah! Another question in the inbox! This is another anonymous question about Mormonism:

It is my understanding that Mormon’s teach that African American people are “cursed with a black skin” for sins committed by them before they were born and that no announcement or revelation has removed that particular teaching. I know that in 1978 there was a revelation in regards to African Americans serving in the priesthood (A rather conveniently timed revelation IMHO, as there was pressure from the IRS, negative news stories and sports boycotts going on etc.) But is the idea that African Americans are cursed with their skin color still an official church teaching? How is it viewed by members of the church?

Good Question!

Is it still an official teaching? I have no idea, because trying to figure out what is or isn’t an “official” teaching is terribly difficult. There is no book or manual a person can look in to know what the “official” teaching is about anything – even having the President of the Church specifically say something doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s an “official” teaching. And since the teachings in the church are continually evolving (which is a good thing), I’m not sure we can ever really make any definitive statements about what is or isn’t an “official” church teaching (past or present).

In fact, relating to this specific topic, several Mormon scholars have reported that David O. McKay, Mormonisms President from 1951-1970, said that “There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse.” So there’s that.

My understanding is that Mormon scholars are currently busy trying to draw distinctions between the curse of Cain, and the mark of Cain, and of course we’re all slowly moving towards redefining both of those terms in a more symbolic sense. But this is all largely semantics and apologetics (while still being both important and interesting).

But you’re right, everything you’ve mentioned is clearly within the bundle of ideas that at some point have been associated with (and embraced by) Mormonism, and there has never been an official repudiation of those teachings. But the church rarely officially repudiates anything, so I’m not sure that’s the event we should be waiting for so that we no longer call something “official”.

How do current church members view it? Well, without a doubt, if you visit an LDS chapel this sunday, you will find folks who believe the folklore you’ve mentioned (they’ll probably even use the word “fence-sitters” to describe folks with dark skin). And they will feel strongly about it. However, I think they are a minority, and I haven’t actually heard someone mention the topic in church for many, many years. I like to think that the majority of church members agree with what Elder Holland said about it in 2006 for the PBS documentary about the church when he was asked to explain some of this:

Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …

We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic.

It’s certainly not the repudiation a lot of folks (including myself) would like to see, but it’s better than nothing. I am not anticipating that we will ever see an official repudiation, but I am looking forward to the day when the Church will be both unequivocal and declarative on this subject as Elder Holland describes.

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11 thoughts on “Cursed with a Black Skin?”

  1. Well, there’s another folklore that may be relevant here: the “5 R’s of repentance.”

    Let’s see how the church does on this:
    Recognition: credit given even if done, as your questioner suggests under intense pressure
    Remorse: don’t see a lot of that
    Resolve: nope
    Reformation: done
    Restitution: maybe all the missionary work in Africa and Black communities in US and elsewhere show progress in this, but more is needed.

    Final grade: C+

  2. For whatever reason this topic came up at lunch one day with a gal who is inactive (and has been for years). She read a book once that included an experience of a pioneer coming across the plains. Supposedly he had one experience that basically leads one to believe that “bigfoot” is real, and that they are people with the curse of Cain (supposedly the one bigfoot that this pioneer came across claimed to actually be Cain).

    This was the first time I’d ever heard that one! She couldn’t remember the book title either otherwise I’d say you should read it and give us a review 😉

  3. @Casey – the book your friend is remembering is probably Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness. That story is a great example of how the President of the Church can publish a book that completely permeates the LDS book market and yet it’s still not “official”.

  4. Reuben, you give great answers to these questions.

    My understanding is that the “official doctrine” of the Church is what is contained in the officially canonized standard works. Since there’s no mention whatsoever anywhere in LDS scripture of black disloyalty in Heaven, or the mark of Cain being punishment for it, I think it is safe to declare that this has never been official doctrine.

    My impression is that this became popular as an explanation for a more or less indefensible Church policy banning the ordination of men of African descent. As you know, no formal revelation exists initiating the beginning of this policy, which was a departure from practice in the early Church, under Joseph Smith’s presidency, of ordaining blacks to the priesthood. I’ve never seen any evidence that this account of “black disloyalty” was ever anything more than speculation on the part of members and leaders of the Church.

    I’ve actually observed a similar process at work more recently in relation to gay folks. For example, I saw one Mormon speculating on-line that homosexuality was an outcome of ancient “secret combinations,” in which Satan mocked the sacred institution of marriage by “revealing” to ancient evil-doers his own counterfeit version of it. I’ve seen other (less offensive) examples of folks creating speculative theologies of marriage, to explain why God wouldn’t sanction same-sex relationships.

  5. @John – Thanks. One thing I struggle with is what to think about situations where things we dismiss as unofficial, policy (as opposed to doctrine), or folklore today certainly were “official” to the folks that believed and taught it in times past. These were very real and official doctrines to many people, including some presidents of the church.

    When we start saying that something never was official, but virtually the entire church thought it was, it just feels like we’re being a little dishonest.

  6. Well, part of the problem here is that I’m not sure the LDS Church has “official doctrines,” period. Mormon “doctrine” is complicated by the fact that we consider the teachings of Church leaders to be on a par with scripture — though as you point out, an analysis of conference talks might reveal a lot of contradictory “doctrine.”

    The closest thing we have to an official body of teachings is the scriptural canon. Again, I guess I would say since the mythology about blacks can’t be found anywhere in the canon (I even suspect we’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere in conference talks, though I’d be curious to learn more if someone can point me to such a talk), I’d love to have someone explain to me on what basis we might consider the mythology about blacks ever to have had “official” standing.

    If a member (or even a leader) feels strongly that some particular belief is a doctrine of the church, isn’t it possible for them to be wrong? Isn’t it even possible for a majority of believers to be wrong about what is true doctrine? And if so, shouldn’t there be a rational process by which we can try to distinguish between “Christ” and “culture”?

  7. Hello! I will speak to this for a moment: I was told by a stake presidency member while living in Provo and attending BYU for a summer that this was the preface and reasoning for the “ban,” etc… Although we know there was never an official ban, just a lift on a ban. Earlier this summer I felt unrest with that answer and called my old stake president who was in the meeting where this whole conversation came up. He assured me that the “curse of Cain” is NOT LDS church doctrine, it’s a myth and something that has been sadly reiterated by some members.

    This short conversation simply changed everything I thought abut the LDS church and its validity. Making me rethink so many things. It’s been interesting, but the bottom line is, it’s not doctrine.

  8. creole wisdom — That is consistent with my experience.

    I remember asking my dad (before 1978) why blacks were not allowed to be ordained. He essentially said to me, “Well, we really don’t know, but…” That’s when I got the story about the pre-existence, etc., etc.

    I think a lot of Mormons wanted an explanation and there was none… If anyone wanted to learn more about the history of the mythology, Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children has some excellent information, both about the history of the whole “curse of Cain” belief as well as the pre-existence mythology.

  9. @John –
    @Creole Wisdom –
    Yes, I do think it’s possible (even probable) for the President of the Church or the general Church membership to believe something that isn’t true. To this end, I think I’m using a different definition of the word doctrine than you two. Is something a church doctrine because it’s true, or because we think it’s true? Is a church doctrine “something the church teaches” or is it “something the church teaches that also happens to be true”? If the church teaches something that turns out to not be true, does that mean it was never a church doctrine? Just because we say something was never a doctrine, does that make it so?

    I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of this because, like I said in the original post, I don’t really think we have any reliable method of knowing what is or isn’t a current or former “official” doctrine.

    But I am sure we are all very relieved to know that the church is no longer teaching these things.

  10. I find it frustrating and unsatisfying how often church members have to say “We just don’t know” when talking about church history. Isn’t the point of having a living prophet precisely to give us guidance on these things? If there are murky questions of historical fact and church doctrine, church leaders should clear them up immediately. And if they don’t know the answers, they should keep praying until they do.

    Unfortunately, I think that church leaders would rather whitewash the past than confront these issues.

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