In this post, I use the term “cosmological priesthood” to describe the sacerdotal network of heaven and earth as mediated through the Nauvoo Temple. This network comprised priesthood, salvation, kinship, and government relationships. Participants in the Nauvoo temple quorums referred to their organization and this cosmology as simply, the “priesthood.” Before reading this post, I heartily recommend reading this excerpt from my adoption paper that shortly introduces and contextualizes this usage, and more preferably pp. 56-81 of the paper.
The cosmological priesthood incorporated familial relationships, and as reified in Temple practice on earth, the most exalted station of human kind was to be king and priest, or queen and priestess over one’s progeny, biological or adoptive, throughout all eternity.[n1] The primary justification for sealing children to parents from Nauvoo to the early twentieth century was to establish heirship to the cosmological priesthood. As the governing quorums declared in preparation for the return of the temples in Utah, “Which of them, if he understands the laws of God, can feel indifferent as to whether his wife shall be his for eternity or for time only; or whether his children shall be born in the covenant and be legal heirs to the priesthood or have to become such by adoption?”[n2] Though addressed to men, implicit in this statement is the belief that both men and women had to become heirs to the priesthood network of heaven.
It is with this context that Brigham Young’s justification for excluding black people from the temple liturgy (the cosmological priesthood) and the administrative priesthood, which are so incongruous to current church members, become at least coherent. Historians frequently describe the liturgical exclusion of black people before 1978 as a “priesthood ban” but it was far more than a ban on the administrative priesthood of the church. Despite a precedent of priesthood ordination for black men, after leaving Nauvoo and over a protracted period, Brigham Young formulated a policy that prohibited all black people, both men and women, from participation in the temple liturgy, and incidentally barred black men from priesthood office.[n3]
As a justification for this exclusion, Young translated the common Christian beliefs that black people were descendants of Cain and/or Ham into the cosmology of the Nauvoo Temple. In doing so he crafted a new Genesis narrative. In a February 12, 1849 meeting, Apostle Lorenzo Snow “presented the case of the African Race for a chance of redemption & unlock the door to them.” Brigham Young responded and “explained it very lucidly that the curse remains on them bec[ause] Cain cut off the lives of Abel to hedge up his way & take the lead but the L[or]d has given them blackness, so as to give the children of Abel an opportunity to keep his place with his desc[endent]s in the et[erna]l worlds.”[n4] Though Thomas Bullock’s longhand notes are somewhat disjointed, the narrative which Young repeated frequently throughout his life is clear. Murder has never had the systematic ramifications in Mormon thought that Young ascribed to Cain’s fratricide. But Young taught that Cain’s murder of Abel represented more than a killing, it was an attempt to cut off Abel’s posterity qua kingdom in the cosmological priesthood–a strike at the fabric of the cosmos.[n5] As a consequence, Young taught, black men and women were not to be integrated into that priesthood until Abel’s posterity was somehow restored. The administrative priesthood restriction that was an incidental manifestation of this fractured human network obfuscates the degree to which black Mormon women and men like Jane Manning James were not to be integrated into the family of God. That she was sealed in an ad hoc temple ritual to be a servant to Joseph Smith was not because John Taylor or other Church leaders viewed black people as eternally servants, but because it was the only way to link her to Joseph Smith without integrating her into the priesthood family.
Brigham Young’s narrative remained the de facto explanation of the temple and priesthood restrictions for several decades after he passed away (see, e.g., here). However with the shift in priesthood language, and the associated decline in the cosmological priesthood as a means of comprehending the temple, Young’s narrative became incongruous to church members and leaders, who found other explanations, like premortal valiancy, to have much greater explanatory power.[n6] Additionally the incomprehensibility of Young’s narrative resulted in a focus on the exclusion of black men from the administrative priesthood as the locus of restriction and deemphasized the temple restriction on both women and men. Moreover, the inability to understand Young’s basis for cleaving the human family has resulted in a narrative of plausible ignorance of the origins of the restriction.
- Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” JMH.
- Brigham Young et al., Letter to Bishops and Members, October 25, 1876, in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75), 2:279.
- The most comprehensive treatment of this shift is W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), esp. ch. 3-5.
- General Church Minutes, February 13, 1849, digital images of manuscript, CR 100 318, Box 2, fd. 8, LDS Church History Library.
- See particularly BY’s 1846 dream/vision of Joseph Smith, the premortal world, and the cosmological priesthood, in which the pattern on earth was an attempt to restore premortal order. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” 79-80.
- Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, ch. 6.