I don’t remember what I was looking for specifically; it was in August, 2007. When I am rolling through microfilm, I have the habit of stopping at random spots—a researcher’s version of the lottery. I’ve come out the winner on more than one occasion. It is an experience that is difficult to replicate in the digital source mining I often do from home. That day I found a previously unpublished letter from Joseph F. Smith, Jr. The topic: blacks and the priesthood.
[Joseph F. Smith, Jr., letter to Alfred M. Nelson, January 13, 1907, Salt Lake City, microfilm of original typescript, MS 14591, LDS Church Archives.]
LDS Historian’s Office
Alfred M. Nelson, Tooele, Ut.
I received your letter of the 28th inst the following day, but on account of the pressure of other matters have delayed the reply until now.
There is nothing in our standard works, nor any authoritative statement to the effect that one third of the hosts of heaven remained neutral in the great conflict and that the colored races are of that neutral class. The statement has been put forth at various times until ^the belief^
ithas become quite general that the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest. But this is not the official position of the Church, merely the opinion of men. In the Pearl of Great Price we learn that the children of Ham were cursed as pertaining to the Priesthood, but no reason is there expressed. Tradition states that the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the reason why the children of Cain cannot receive the Priesthood is that Cain cut his brother Abel off from the earth before he had seed, and therefore the Lord declared that Cain’s posterity cannot hold the Priesthood until Such time and place as Abel shall have posterity, which of course will not be in this mortal life. Whether this is true or not, – and I believe it is – the fact remains that the children of Cain cannot hold the Priesthood, but this does not debar other colored races.
Jos. F. Smith Jr
This letter is particularly important as the young, not-yet-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, documents a transition period in the development of popular Mormon theology regarding people of black African ancestry. Brigham Young had clearly outlined reasoning for the priesthood and temple restrictions that required a cosmology and language that had been nearly outmoded. The restrictions required a justification and the church had not yet developed a system of doctrinal consistency. Folk channels of instruction were still paramount in the church. And Joseph Fielding Smith decries beliefs that in subsequent decades became so compelling that the First Presidency and later he himself would defend as “doctrinal.”