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.

Time Magazine presciently explained “The Mark of Cain” problem for the LDS church in a fascinating article from 1970:

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 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 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 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?


  1. Interesting post! I live not for away from a huge Mormon church.
    I didn’t know about either of these things, and have to say I’m disgusted. But I also have to say, I’m part of a ‘minority’ (non-Christian) religion, and we’ve had our fair share of people totally misrepresenting or misunderstanding us and what we’re about.
    ~But having said that, we’ve never killed anybody or been racist, and we have a healthy population of all kinds of ethnicities and sexual preferences.
    Any religion that teaches or practices any kind of intolerance or hatred isn’t going in the right direction, no matter what absurd ways they justify it. And sadly for the world, and for God, that doesn’t just mean Mormons right now. Why can’t we all just get along???
    I hve to say, I have FAR more respect for you as an atheist right now than all the stupidity that usually passes as religion.

  2. Hey Chandira!
    Thanks for the comment on this difficult and touchy topic.
    Are you comfortable revealing the name and the lessons of your religious minority?
    I agree that hatred and demonization only hurt people — but those two ideals seem to be heavy consequences and requirements for many Faiths today.
    The Mormons are especially keen in trying to recruit new converts. They pepper the streets and the nations of the world to bring their message and to create a larger mandatory tithing pool. You’re pretty much required to tithe at least 10% as a Church member, as I understand it, or you aren’t going to get a Temple pass or other chits of the church.
    I watched a show on MTV about two kids marrying young. The girl was a Mormon and the boy and his family were not so his family was banned from the Temple marriage.
    The boy’s mother was driving to the Temple to meet everyone outside after the marriage and she had to keep reminding herself not to cry because she was not allowed to attend her marriage ceremony of her only son.
    I think being an Atheist makes me a non-competitor in the world of religious doctrine. I’m no threat. I’m a blank page open to all writing. I think Catholics and Mormons have more trouble with each other concerning dogma than either of those purposes have with me. 😀

  3. Hi David,
    Though I was not aware of any of this incident but it didn’t surprise me. Till date in India no one can become a priest in a temple other than the highest caste. Exceptions are there but those are just that – exceptions.
    India witnessed a lot of religious riots, I personally witnessed one against the Sikhs – when one of India’s prime ministers got killed by her bodyguards in her own house.

  4. Hi Katha!
    Are women allowed to become priests in India?
    Wow! Now that’s some story about the Sikhs! I know they are very resolute and devoutly religious — brushing your hair and not properly disposing of the hairs that fall out in your brush is a sin against God as is not collecting toenails and fingernails that are clipped from the body. I guess the argument is that you insult God by throwing away in the trash bits of you that He created?

  5. Hi David,
    They generally cannot, but things are changing gradually –
    I was aware of the basics of Sikhism about their uncut hair and so on, but didn’t know about collecting nails as a mandatory ritual. It might be the case, but I am not sure.
    I have a few Sikh friends who I have seen following the basics of their religion, but never knew about anything deep.

  6. Hi Katha!
    You are so good with those links — BUT ARE YOU AS GOOD AT BEING LOGGED IN?!! :mrgreen:
    I had a Sikh student who schooled me in the ways of her religion. All body hair must remain. Even on arms and faces and head and that includes eyebrows and private parts! 😀 To shave or to get a haircut is to go against God. All the things we would normally throw away are saved in a special box for appropriate burial or something as well.

  7. Hi Katha —
    I don’t think that many young, Americanized, Sikh women follow the rituals as closely as their parents would like. They get their hair trimmed. They maintain their eyebrows. They wax. They shave their legs. If their parents ask — and many have learned not to ask — they just deny, deny, deny. 😀
    It’s funny how you can be logged in one second and the next you’re not! 😆

  8. Yes, that’s what my gut feeling says, because I came accross few Sikh male/females in Calcutta who seemed pretty wellgroomed!
    Actually the problem begins when I start searching for links, instead of minimizing this window I just close it and when I come back to reply…
    You know it! 🙁

  9. Hi Katha!
    Yes, the parents have learned to observe, but not ask, because if they press it they will get an answer they don’t like. Other things like the knife and the special bracelet are honored because that can be hidden rather easily.
    I don’t understand why you keep getting logged out. Are you on a public school terminal or something?

  10. Yes, pressure doesn’t work.
    I met a Sikh guy once in Calcutta who didn’t follow any rituals except wearing the bracelet. He used to cut his hair, shave regularly, never saw him wearing a turban – but the bracelet was there.
    Nope, right now I am home – but I think it happens because I unitentionally close this window sometimes.

  11. Katha —
    Did you parents urge any religious requirements on you?
    The bracelet is big. Sometimes, if it clashes with other bracelets, they shove it all the way up to their elbow. 😀
    Ah! Yes, closing a window will log you out.

  12. Not really, because none of them are that rigidly religious.
    I used to go to temples and participate in prayers and all when I was young but stopped doing it after a certain point of time.

  13. Oh, forgot to mention, I am a confirmed vegetarian on Saturday; that is a special prayer/ritual day for our family and along with prayers we pay our tribute to the higher power by not eating some of our favorite food.
    I still follow the “being vegetarian” part on Saturday no matter wherever I am.

  14. Oh, Katha?
    Are you using tabbed browsing with Firefox? CTRL+T will open a new tab. Then you can just keep opening tabs and you won’t get logged out when you to go other sites.
    You can set Firefox preferences to open new sites in a new tab and not the same window.

  15. Hi David,
    I officially stopped participating in religious rituals when I started learning Sanskrit – may be in 6th/7th grade.
    The mantras (Sanskrit hymn) we used to chant while offering our prayers sounded too demanding to me – all I heard was “give”.
    “Give me this, give me that, help me, save me and so on…” – I felt sorry for the poor creature – with me not asking for those same things – at least one burden is gone!!! 😉
    I found a relatively ok sort of translation, check that out –
    I have a very no-nonsense kind of relationship with “God” – if he/she is there – well, “hello” from me – if not, well – so be it!
    Yes, its funny to be vegetarian on Saturdays, because 99% parties, receptions, social get-togethers are arranged on Saturdays and I eat “rabbit food” while virtually drooling over chicken wings!!!
    Jokes apart, I take it mostly as a functional ritual to express my willpower – there are many days a week that I have vegetarian meals by choice but Saturday is a day when I stay away from eating non vegetarian food no matter how mouthwatering the meal is.
    I never tried CTRL + T, will do – thanks!

  16. That is a great and insightful comment, Katha, thanks! The chants of devotion are fascinating. I can understand the distaste for “gimme” in those prayers. Very revealing!
    I’m with you on the testing of your willpower on Saturday. Good job! It is an important thing to honor.

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