For most of the world’s post-biblical history the story of naked Noah and his sons has been the single greatest justification for the enslavement of individuals of African heritage, according to David M. Goldenberg author of “The Curse of Ham: Race Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
According to Goldenberg the scripture describing Ham’s act denied minorities equal treatment wherever religious majorities believed, as a matter of faith, that racial variation from “whiteness” was malignant.
Goldenberg describes how Mormons, during the 19th century, accepted the idea that people of African ancestry were under the curse of Ham’s son (Noah’s grandson) Canaan, and in 1852, Brigham Young made a statement that Black people of African descent were not eligible to hold the church’s priesthood.
The ban on Blacks in the priesthood was not used as a reason for segregation of congregations, which was common in churches in the southern United States during the time, but it affected Black members more than in other churches, because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a lay priesthood in which virtually all worthy male members become priests. While Young never made clear the reasons for the priesthood ban, several of his successors defended it as a being result of the curse on Canaan.
Early members of the Mormon church were, for the most part, converts from Protestant sects, said Goldenberg, and it is understandable that they naturally brought this culturally conditioned belief in the curse of Ham with them into Mormonism.
According to the Bible, Noah had three sons, which Christians generally associate with the three great races: Japheth (European races), Shem (Asian races), and Ham (African races). After rescuing humanity from the Great Flood, Noah planted a vineyard and drank of the wine, which rendered him drunk. Ham reportedly saw his father’s nakedness and amusedly told his two brothers. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said according to the Genesis 9:25-27 account (English Standard Version):
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
Goldenberg’s book explains how fundamentalist (Bible-based) theology, especially in the South, posited that the immoral conduct of Ham and his African offspring have generated for them a degraded status as matter of Christian belief.
He references how religious leaders often justified slavery as part of the social order to which religion should defer, but they also deployed Bible-based arguments to support the notion that the Word of God sanctioned the slavery of Africans.
However, according to respected theologian and scholar James Montgomery Boice, the curse never involved Africans. “. . . .this curse was pronounced on the ancient peoples of the Near East, most of whom were later conquered by the Jews under Joshua. But notice this: they were not the Negro races. In an earlier generation prejudiced minds used this text to justify their enslaving of Africa’s Black populations, but this is without any biblical basis and is a proof rather of the expositors’ sin. Not until the middle of the 19th century, when the slave trade was at its height, did anyone ever imagine that Ham was the father of the Black races or that there was a curse on them.”
Author Stephen R. Haynes details in his book, “Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery,” how pro-slavers associated Noah’s curse of Canaan with a general indictment of the Hamitic race, namely persons of African descent. Thus understood, Noah’s curse of Canaan provided an authorization for the enslavement of the descendants of Ham (Africans taken to the American colonies) to the descendants of Japheth (the English colonists).
A second argument was founded upon the fact that slavery was commonplace in the Old Testament. Apologists for slavery noted that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) owned slaves. Although the Gospels of Jesus Christ provided no support for slavery, Haynes points out how the Apostle Paul’s letters endorsed the Christian validity of servitude through positive commands of fidelity to slave masters. He wrote in Ephesians 6:5 (King James Version):
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh . . . .”
These biblical references were the basis for schism and secession within the leading Protestant denominations before the Civil War.
In an interview, Preston N. Williams, Ph.D., of Harvard University Divinity School stated that many years prior to the Civil War, during the colonial period, the three great English religions–Anglican, Puritan-Calvinist, and Roman Catholic–accepted slavery with few qualms; only the Quakers consistently raised moral objections to slavery.
Williams believes that the American Revolution stirred religion-based opposition to slavery among Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. But after 1818 these same religions moved decisively toward a stance either tolerating or supporting slavery.
After the end of slavery, segregation of and violence against Blacks were tied to Blacks’ supposed sexual appetite for Whites, which was offensive to Christian belief. The 20th century witnessed a civil rights campaign for racial equality within society, within legal circles, and within churches, according to F. Stanley Jones, Ph.D., at California State University, Long Beach’s department of religious studies.
“As Americans gradually came to accept the notion that racial variation is tolerable and, ultimately, benign, the moral objections to racial integration and miscegenation abated, and American Christianity underwent its own conceptual revolution, with exception to the Church of Latter Day Saints or commonly called the Mormons.”
The Mormons were founded in 1823 by Joseph Smith who claimed to have received visits, and visions from an angel named Moroni. Supposedly, the angel instructed Smith to find golden plates that were buried on a country hillside in a wooded field in Palmyra, N.Y.
Smith found the plates buried exactly where the Angel described. The plates were supposedly inscribed with the sacred history of an ancient Israelite civilization in North America. The plates also contained teachings said to have come from Jesus during a post-Resurrection visit to America.
They were written in an ancient language spoken 600 years before Christ, and Smith transcribed them into English; this translation became the Book of Mormon. After the translation was complete, the plates were returned to the angel Moroni.
Brigham Young embraced the curse of Canaan and prevented African Americans from joining the priesthood. But there is evidence that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, did not consider the restriction between Blacks and the priesthood to be relevant in modern times, since he himself (and other church leaders close to him) did ordain Black men to the priesthood, notably Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis, according to LDS.org.
Fuller Seminary graduate and Probation Counselor Daniel Triggs was questioned about segregation and religion while enjoying the African drums in Leimert Park, he believes “churches in the African American community have been the bedrock of civil rights and community activism and a place of worship since slavery.” “We were introduced to Christianity by our slave masters, some allowed us to have church services presided over by a White preacher and others even allowed us to conduct our own services, as long as it was Christian-based, and this legacy has led to Blacks worshipping with Blacks.”
“However most African Americans were upset at the exclusionary practices and racist’s statements of the Mormon church and I believe they didn’t want any brothers involved in polygamy with White women.”
The Mormons held African Americans out of the priesthood until what is known as the Revelation of 1978, which came to LDS President Spencer W. Kimball.
“He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy vow,” reported Kimball. Kimball said he had wrestled with the priesthood issue before the revelation was announced on Sept. 30, 1978, at the 148th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when he made he announced that the Mormon church was extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members, including members of African heritage.
“I had a great deal to fight, of course, myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life til’ my death and fight for it and defend it as it was . . . .,” Kimball said in an interview the Deseret News. “It went on for some time as I was searching for this, because I wanted to be sure . . . I offered the final prayer and I told the Lord if it wasn’t right, if He didn’t want this change to come in the church that I would be true to it all the rest of my life, and I’d fight the world against it if that’s what he wanted.”
The proclamation was signed by the following elders, Kimball, Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney, who was a second cousin of presidential candidate Mitt Romney,
Prior to the revelation, the LDS was being pressured by the following measures:
California college athletic departments were boycotting intercollegiate games against Brigham Young University (BYU). Stanford and San Jose State University both refused to play BYU in any sport because of what they called racism at BYU.
The Boy Scouts of America was putting a lot of pressure on the church since only non-Black priesthood-holders could be Boy Scout troop leaders in LDS scout troops. The LDS has a unique relationship with the Boy Scouts. It is the only religious organization that has adopted the Boy Scouts as its only youth program for boys (with some modifications). As a consequence, each and every Mormon boy is automatically registered with a Boy Scout unit when he starts second grade.
Further, members and missionaries the world over were embarrassed and ashamed at what the church taught in Sunday school about Blacks. The members were not racist and did not like believing in and teaching racist doctrine. The Carter Administration had threatened BYU and the LDS church with denial of their tax-exempt status if they continued to discriminate against Blacks.
“The church was becoming a global church,” according to www.lds.org. Thus, the Revelation of 1978 was necessary if the church wanted to succeed in Africa and countries with large Black populations.
It is difficult to trace the beginnings of racism in the Mormon church. The majority of elders questioned state that they are unsure of the origins, and those that speak out may face penalties for doing so. BYU professor Randy Bolt, Ph.D., was fired after sharing his views with the Washington Post. However, the religion professor explains a possible theological justification of the ban:
“According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who slew his brother Abel, were Black. One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed [actually, only Canaan, one of Ham’s son was cursed] and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah.
Bott points to the Mormon holy text, the Book of Abraham, as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus Black and barred from the priesthood.” Bott does not believe withholding the priesthood from Blacks was discrimination.
“God has always been discriminatory when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood,” argues Bott. He quotes Mormon scripture, which says the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares Blacks to a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that Blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott argues that the denial of the priesthood to Blacks on earth, though not in the afterlife, protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the Blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could have done.”