As an avowed atheist — I prefer to worship art and nature — it may seem strange that I have a long list of religious friends. Of my many Mormon friends, I have discovered there are two topics that, when mentioned, will cause them to give you the stink eye and turn away from the conversation. If you press the matter, they will refer you to the LDS website for official commentary.
The first verboten topic is colloquially known as “The Mark of Cain” and it is an interesting and undeniable stain on the Mormon church where Blacks — men of African descent — were denied the priesthood because of their “mark”… their skin color.
For the faithful male member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, few matters are as important as the Mormon priesthood. He enters its lower ranks, the deaconry, for example, at puberty. By the time he is a middle-aged adult, he may well be a high priest. Some 70% of practicing Mormon males advance all the way through the priesthood, hoping thus to assure themselves and their families of a place in the highest level of the afterlife, the celestial kingdom. But the priesthood, and with it the key to that kingdom, has been for most of Mormon history barred to anyone with the slightest evidence of Negro ancestry. Last week, in reply to charges of racism, Mormon elders reaffirmed their belief that blacks cannot be admitted to the priesthood.Mormon belief depends largely on the writings of Prophet Joseph Smith, the church’s 19th century founder. Though Smith’s first book of revelations, the Book of Mormon, clearly states that “the Lord denieth none that come unto him, black and white,” in The Pearl of Great Price, Smith’s later translation of revelations supposedly made to Moses and Abraham, he took a dimmer view. Smith there concluded that Negroes are the descendants of both Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, and Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the reason for their exclusion from the priesthood is “the mark of Cain.”
Though racist 19th century Christian preachers once advanced similar arguments, the Mormons go farther, maintaining that in a spiritual “preexistence” blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain. Since those who are barred from the priesthood cannot marry or be “sealed” in Mormon temples, few Negroes bother to belong to the Mormon church at all. Mormons, however, do believe that revelation is a continuing process, and their leaders have predicted that a revelation will one day open the priesthood to Negroes–just as a revelation ended polygamy during a critical confrontation with the U.S. Government in the past century.
In 1978, the Mormon church recanted their position on Blacks in the priesthood:
David Briscoe and George Buck refer to June 9, 1978 as “Black Friday” because this was the day that Mormon leaders announced the death of the anti-black doctrine (see Utah Holiday, July 1978, page 33). Prior to that time blacks of African lineage were not allowed to hold the Priesthood nor go through the temple even though they lived exemplary lives.
I could find no information on a “Mark of Cain” search on the LDS.org website. Was the Mormon church racist? Is it still? Do you think the church was just following misguided doctrine?
If the Mormon position on Blacks was reversed — is there any other doctrine that is currently punishing the innocent that might be reversed as well? Here is what the LDS website presently says about Gays and Lesbians:
Applying the First Presidency’s distinction to the question of same-sex relationships, we should distinguish between (1) homosexual (or lesbian) “thoughts and feelings” (which should be resisted and redirected), and (2) “homosexual behavior” (which is a serious sin). We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice in respect to the critically important matter of sexual behavior.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre is the second, verboton-but-head-turning topic that most members of the LDS church do not want to discuss. Mark Twain wrote about the killings in his novel — Roughing It — saying, “The whole United States rang with its horrors:”
A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrent wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons, and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them. At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy.They retired to the upper end of the ‘Meadows,’ resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleagured emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer….
If you ask a Mormon about Mountain Meadows, you will, once again, be referred to the LDS.org website. Here’s a deeper description of what happened from a third party source:
The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands without a parallel amongst the crimes that stain the pages of American history. It was a crime committed without cause or justification of any kind to relieve it of its fearful character…When nearly exhausted from fatigue and thirst, [the men of the caravan] were approached by white men, with a flag of truce, and induced to surrender their arms, under the most solemn promises of protection. They were then murdered in cold blood. — William Bishop, Attorney to John D. Lee On September 11, 1857 approximately 120 men, women, and children in a wagon train from Arkansas were murdered by a band of Mormons set on a holy vengeance.
Known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the history of this event continues to generate fierce controversy and deep emotions even to this day. In April, the California bound wagon train assembled near Crooked Creek, Arkansas, approximately four miles south of present day Harrison, Arkansas. The group included some 120-150 men, women and children, primarily from northwestern Arkansas, as well as hundreds of draft and riding horses and about 900 head of cattle.
When the train began its journey it was first identified as the Baker train; however, en route, it became known as the Fancher train. As the emigrants were traveling westward, tension was mounting among the Mormon people of Utah. Receiving distorted reports of terrible activities in the state, President James Buchanan had sent a new governor to replace the existing Mormon governor in office, Brigham Young. At the same time, there were widely reported news reports that President Buchanan had ordered a large contingent of the US Army to Utah to suppress what he believed was a “Mormon rebellion.”
These actions contributed to a general distrust of outsiders and non-Mormons as the Mormon people feared their own destruction by the federal government. As a result, Brigham Young issued a proclamation of martial law on August 5th which, among other things, forbade people from traveling through the territory without a pass. In addition, the citizens of Utah were discouraged from selling food to immigrants, especially for animal use.
The LDS.org site makes it clear the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a terrible thing in the long history of the church:
This September marks the 150th anniversary of a terrible episode in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On September 11, 1857, some 50 to 60 local militiamen in southern Utah, aided by American Indian allies, massacred about 120 emigrants who were traveling by wagon to California. The horrific crime, which spared only 17 children age six and under, occurred in a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows, roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City.The victims, most of them from Arkansas, were on their way to California with dreams of a bright future. For a century and a half the Mountain Meadows Massacre has shocked and distressed those who have learned of it. The tragedy has deeply grieved the victims’ relatives, burdened the perpetrators’ descendants and Church members generally with sorrow and feelings of collective guilt, unleashed criticism on the Church, and raised painful, difficult questions.
How could this have happened? How could members of the Church have participated in such a crime? Two facts make the case even more difficult to fathom. First, nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all of it were true, came close to justifying their deaths. Second, the large majority of perpetrators led decent, nonviolent lives before and after the massacre.
My question today is this:
Why is the LDS church so quick to condemn Mountain Meadows, but so slow to clearly and wholly recant “The Mark of Cain?”
Is it because “The Massacre” is historically specific and cannot be defended as inspired by scripture? Is “The Mark” more difficult to remove as church doctrine because so much literature and teaching and human capital was spent by Mormons to enforce the Racist identification for separation? Are we not required — as a non-denominational and cogent society — to confront and defeat our demons of the past by discussing them brightly and bringing light to them, and refusing to bury them in the dustbin of Dark Things Not Discussed? Doesn’t darkness create its own everlasting supernatural power?