The past couple of months, there have been a lot of comments and questions about the Priesthood, specifically why some races couldn’t hold the Priesthood. There appears to be a lot of confusion on this subject and I thought I would provide the facts I can from the scriptures to help shed light on this subject.
In 1978 at the Semiannual General Conference Official Declaration 2 was announced. I will post the letter included in the linked page. I will add bolding to what I think is most pertinent to this explanation.
As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
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 priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
This Declaration brought up many new questions, the biggest being “Why was the Priesthood restricted from some in the first place?” Usually this is framed “Why couldn’t black people hold the Priesthood?”
Most would answer that it is the curse of Cain, but a careful look at the scriptural account mentions nothing of skin color. Moses 5:36-41 , Genesis 4:11-16 The curse is from the earth, that it shall not yield her strength when Cain tills the earth. It also mentions that Cain would be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth. Cain expresses concern that he will be killed, the Lord sets a mark on Cain so that people will not kill him when they find him. The scriptures do not specify what this mark is and it is purely speculation that states it is skin color.
Laman and Lemuel come out in rebellion against God and seek to kill their brother Nephi. They and their seed receive a mark to distinguish them from the Nephites. 2 Nephi 5:21-24, Jacob 3:5, 8-9 accounts this mark was blackened skin and the curse was being cut off from God’s presence. In Alma 3:6-10, 13-19 Mormon reminds us of this curse and explains how the Amlicites, an apostate group of Nephites, put a red mark on their foreheads to distinguish themselves from the Nephites not realizing that they were fulfilling the word of the Lord that they should be cursed if they come out in open rebellion against Him (the Lord).
So while one might assume that the mark on Cain and his seed was black skin because this is the mark set on the Lamanites, it is important to remember that the Amlicites marked themselves with red foreheads, so such assumptions have little foundation.
Now, to a different curse. After the Flood, Ham discovered the “nakedness” of his father Noah. What this means is not abundantly clear, though I personally believe Ham attempted to duplicate the Priesthood garment that he saw on his father. Genesis 9:21-25 What’s odd about this story, is that rather than curse Ham, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. Clearly there is more to this story and many seek to explain it. Some believe Egyptus, the wife of Ham was of Cain’s lineage and thus the curse of Cain carried on through Ham and Egyptus’ children. I ask, what about the other son’s of Ham; Cush, Mizraim, and Phut? Why were they not included in the cursing? At any rate, the curse on Canaan was the only curse that was specified to be pertaining to the Priesthood. This fact isn’t even accounted in Genesis, but is given to us by Abraham in explanation of the Egyptian government. Abraham 1:21-27 explains Pharaoh was the name of the eldest son of Egyptus the daughter of Ham. (Ham had both a wife and daughter named Egyptus) This daughter discovered the land and at the time it was underwater. She settled her sons there and appointed Pharaoh as king by royal blood. This government imitated the patriarchal order and we learn that Pharaoh was blessed by Noah with blessings of the earth and with blessings of wisdom but he was cursed pertaining to the Priesthood. Whether this was a specific blessing given to Pharaoh or whether this was part of the blessing’s and cursing of Canaan, it does not specify. Abraham is certain to state that Pharaoh did not have a right to the Priesthood because of his lineage, though Pharaoh attempted to establish that right from Noah through Ham, his ancestors.
This is the only cursing that specifies that there was no right to hold the Priesthood. Now, later on, Abraham goes to this Pharaoh in Egypt and teaches him and his household the things he learned from God while on his journey to Egypt. The fact that Abraham teaches them is represented in Facsimile 3. Pharaoh is Fig. 2 and a slave named Olimlah is Fig. 6. A quick inspection of this facsimile suggests that the only one present that was black is Olimlah.
This seems to prove that restrictions on the Priesthood were never due to skin color, but to lineage.
A pattern that seems consistent in the reign of the Patriarchs is the birthright, or right of the Priesthood Patriarch, being upon the firstborn. Yet, in most instances the firstborn is NOT the one that receives the Priesthood due to unrighteous conduct, and in the case of Ephraim and Manasseh, because of inspiration. Whether the other son’s were able to hold the Priesthood or not is not specified directly. However, after Moses has led the Children of Israel out of Egypt God reveals His will that each member of the congregation receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and be prepared to enter His presence in the Tabernacle. They covenanted that they would do according to His will to this end that they could then enter His presence. As Moses was in the Mount receiving the details of how they would live to receive these blessings, the people broke the covenant and built a golden calf. They hardened their hearts; therefore the Lord swore they should not enter the fulness of his glory while in the wilderness and he took Moses and the Melchizedek Priesthood out of their midst. Doctrine and Covenants 84:19-26. Only the sons of Aaron, the Levites, were able to hold the Aaronic Priesthood during that time. Occasionally God would call a Prophet that He would endow with the Higher (Melchizedek Priesthood) but these did not ordain many others to the same Priesthood.
So we see that for the most of man’s existence on Earth, the majority of men could not hold the Priesthood.
Another proof that the Priesthood had little to do with skin color is the aforementioned Lamanites. At some point in their journeying, it appears that Lehi and his son’s received the Melchizedek Priesthood. Jacob and Joseph were called of God and ordained after His holy order, and were consecrated Priests and teachers 2 Nephi 6:2 . About 400 years later in Nephite history, the Sons of Mosiah journey on a mission to the Lamanites. They spend 14 years there and have great success, converting 7 lands and cities of Lamanites to the Gospel. As they receive new converts, they consecrate many Priests and teachers among the Lamanites Alma 23:4. Later on, Samuel the Lamanite is called on a mission to proclaim repentance and Prophesy of the imminent birth and death of Christ Helaman 13- 15 .
Finally, pointing back to the page on lds.org on Official Declaration 2, the first paragraph states that a few black members were ordained to the Priesthood, but that this practice stopped early in Church History. Little explanations are given and only baseless assumptions are prevalent on why this happened.
The final point I would like to make has to do with the Priesthood throughout the Plan of Salvation. Alma 13 teaches that those who receive the Melchizedek Priesthood were called to do so from before this world. Always having our freedom to choose, many exercised exceedingly great faith in Christ in the pre-mortal realm and all of these received the Priesthood then are the ones who can receive of the Priesthood now. Perhaps the restrictions on the Priesthood in this life had to do with choices from the Pre-mortal realm.
Edit December 10, 2013
I just saw a post on Facebook linking to Race and Priesthood on lds.org. At the turn of the 20th Century, Premortal Valiance was a dominating theory of why black people could not hold the Priesthood, but these were theories. Footnote 13. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, wrote in 1907 that the belief was “quite general” among Mormons that “the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest.” Yet this belief, he admitted, “is not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men.” Joseph Fielding Smith to Alfred M. Nelson, Jan. 31, 1907, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
Had I seen that page earlier, I probably would have just posted the link to it instead of writing out this post, and including my theory which has proved false. On further study, Alma 13 is speaking very specifically of those who are called as High Priests within the Melchizedek Priesthood having exercised exceedingly great faith in Christ. Nor does this disqualify anyone from ordination to the High Priesthood for this life has many opportunities to exercise exceedingly great faith and The Lord qualifies those He calls.
At any rate, I feel it is important to remember that Official Declaration 2, like all worldwide revelation, is retroactive. The opportunity to receive of the Priesthood does not apply just to all men living after 1978, but can be received in the Spirit World through vicarious ordinations in the Temple. Just as many souls had to wait until Christ’s coming to receive the Gospel in the Spirit World, many that were restricted from the Priesthood in this life had to wait until God willed that they could receive the Priesthood.
His Plan of Happiness is for ALL His children. The Atonement of Jesus Christ provides the means that everyone will have fair and equal opportunity to receive His Plan and their level of Happiness is proportional to how much they are willing to receive, whether in this life or in the next.
I am grateful for His Plan, and the privilege to hold His Priesthood. I know that seeking answers to these sorts of questions by ASKING HIM will always strengthen my Testimony and understanding of His Gospel. I have a greater appreciation for the privilege to bear His Priesthood and a greater resolve to step up and stop living beneath my Priesthood privileges.