Although I have drafted this post, I acknowledge that the idea for it and one of the sources comes from frequent commenter and guestblogger Steve Fleming.
As Connell O’Donovan has shown in his brilliant research on Walker Lewis and the origins of the Priesthood ban, Brigham Young initially did not see black skin as an impediment to a man holding the priesthood (unless otherwise noted, all quotations come from O’Donovan’s article). In fact, as late as March 1847, Young is quoted as saying that
Its [that is, priesthood restrictions] nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent [to] regain what we av lost – we av one of the best Elders an African in Lowell.[that is, Lewis] (Brigham Young Papers, March 26, 1847, LDS Church Archives)
However, Young’s ecclesiastical egalitarianism probably ended (in part) when he discovered that a white woman in Massachusetts had married a black man. Intermarriage between the races was largely seen as taboo in early America (indeed, it was illegal in Utah until the early 1960s – See Pat Mason’s article in the USHQ). An important figure in Young’s shift in views toward the priesthood and race was William I. Appleby, an early convert and missionary from New Jersey. On the 19th of May, 1847, Appleby recorded in his journal:
Left this Afternoon, for Lowell, where I arrived in about one hour and a half, distance 25. miles. Here I found a branch of the Church of about 20 members in tolerable good standing. Elder [Darius] Longee presiding. In this Branch there is a Coloured Brother, (An Elder ordained by Elder Wm. Smith while he was a member of the Church, contrary though to the order of the Church or the Law of the Priesthood, as the Descendants of Ham are not entitled to that privilege) by the name of Walker Lewis. He appears to be a meek humble man, and an example for his more whiter brethren to follow. (Autobiography and Journal of William Appleby, May 19, 1847)
According to O’Donovan, this entry is “what appears to be the first very clear explanation of the “curse of Ham” doctrine, as the reason for the priesthood ban against black men,” but he is quick to clarify that the document we have now is probably an 1850s expansion of a now non-extant journal, so we should be hesitant to place this language in an 1847 context.
On May 31, Appleby wrote to Young that
At Lowell…I found a coloured brother by name of ‘Lewis’ a barber, an Elder in the Church, ordained some years ago by William Smith. This Lewis I was informed has also a son who is married to a white girl [Enoch Lovejoy Lewis and Mary Matilda Webster Lewis]. and both members of the Church there. Now dear Br. I wish to know if this is the order of God or tolerated in this Church ie to ordain Negroes to the Priesthood and allow amalgamation [inter-racial marriage]. If it is I desire to Know, as I have Yet got to learn it. (William I. Appleby to Brigham Young, May 31, 1847, LDS Church Archives)
Steve Fleming, who at one time was considering doing a critical edition of Appleby’s autobiography (I’m not sure what the status of that is), found another reference to Appleby’s views on intermarriage, that O’Donovan apparently is not aware of.
June 16, 1847 Naushua, Massachusetts In looking for a Br. in the Church, I called at a House, a coloured man resided there, I set myself down for a few moments presently in came quite a good looking “White Woman, about 22 years old I should think, with blushing cheeks, and was introduced to me as the negro’s wife, an infant in a cradle near bore evidence of the fact. Oh! Woman, thought I, where is thy shame, (for indeed I felt ashamed and not only ashamed, but disgusted, when I was informed they were both members of a Church!) Respect for the family, thyself, for thy offspring and above all the law of God. (Autobiography and Journal of William Appleby, June 16, 1847)
As Fleming asks, “What was it about Black men marrying White women (good looking ones especially)?”
For those interested in this subject, I highly recommend reading all of O’Donovan’s article for more information. For a broader treatment of intermarriage in American history, see Martha Hodes’ fantastic White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. (Yes, I did read a book about race and sex for a class at BYU, of all places)