Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Mormons and Lineage: The Complicated History of Blacks and Patriarchal Blessings, 1830–2018

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Mormons and Lineage: The Complicated History of Blacks and Patriarchal Blessings, 1830–2018

Article excerpt

Declaring the lineage of Black Latter-day Saints is a challenging problem for patriarchs in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons, like many Protestant Christians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, asserted that Black people were a cursed race. Mormons and Protestants believed that God placed a curse of dark skin on Black people as descendants of Cain, the biblical counterfigure who murdered his brother Abel, to distinguish them from God's covenant people. The curse, carried on through the lineage of Noah's son Ham, relegated Blacks to a lifetime of servitude and bondage to white people. The divine curse provided a rationale for early Americans to enslave millions of Africans and to impose harsh penalties on Blacks and whites who transgressed strict laws forbidding interracial intimacy, love, and sex.1 For Mormons, the divine curse prohibited persons of African ancestry from holding the priesthood and participating in sacred temple rituals-a prohibition that lasted from 1852-1978.2

Somewhat quixotically, Mormons claimed to be the literal descendants of the House of Israel, in particular the lineage of Ephraim-the favored son of Joseph, the great grandson of the powerful Hebrew patriarch Abraham. As the self-appointed heirs of Ephraim, Mormon leaders theorized that Ephraim's descendants would play a significant role in the restoration of ancient priesthood rituals foretold in Mormon scripture. Mormon scripture also affirms that Ephraim's descendants would preach the gospel to the other tribes of Israel and lead the Church in the latter days.3

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mormon leaders articulated more fully what it meant to be God's covenant people.4 They tied their "chosen status" as Ephraim's descendants through "assignment to a particular lineage that preceded birth itself."5 Lineage would be assigned by a patriarch, either from the Office of the Patriarch or from a local patriarch in one of the stakes of the Church. Patterned after Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons in the Bible, Mormons accept these patriarchal blessings "as sacred words of instruction and promise."6 In these special blessings Mormons would learn their designated Israelite lineage, through which they would receive eternal blessings and salvation. As Michael Marquardt has shown in his compilation of patriarchal blessings, most Mormons claim lineage through the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, but other lineages are named too.7 According to the Church Historian's Office, which made a report to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1970, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel are represented in lineage pronouncements and as many as "fifteen other lineages had been named in blessings, including that of Cain."8

The Church Historian's report is not available, nor are the blessings themselves, which accounts for the dearth of scholarship on Blacks and patriarchal blessings.9 Nevertheless, enough blessings are available through archives to make informed judgments about Blacks and lineage. Enriched by meeting minutes from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, as well as firsthand accounts of patriarchs who gave the blessings, these valuable documents allow us to construct a rich narrative examining the complicated problem of declaring lineage to Black Latter-day Saints.

In this essay, I argue that Mormon leaders created an inchoate, confusing, and unevenly applied policy. Some patriarchs pronounced "the seed of Cain" on Black members during their blessings; others the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; while still others no lineage at all. Not until the late twentieth century did Mormon leaders begin to address the inconsistent and haphazard manner in which patriarchs declared lineage on Black Latter-day Saints. Eldred G. Smith, the great-great grandnephew of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and the eighth patriarch of the LDS Church, claimed that Blacks should not receive a lineage designation because God had cursed them, which placed them outside of the House of Israel. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.