The Mormon Faith & Black Folks
Question #38

Q. Didn’t Joseph Smith himself at one time approved of Negro slavery, and condemned Abolitionists?

A. Yes. Joseph Smith did condemn abolition in the early 1830s. In the 1830s the Prophet Joseph Smith seemed to agree with slavery. In 1836 he wrote:

“I do not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not have slaves, than the South have to say the North shall.

All men are to be taught to repent; but we have no right to interfere with slaves, contrary to the mind and will of their masters. In fact it would be much better and more prudent not to preach at all to slaves until after their masters are converted, and then teach the masters to use them with kindness; remembering that they are accountable to God, and the servants are bound to serve their masters with singleness of heart, without murmuring.” (Messenger and Advocate 2:289)

The Prophet Joseph Smith, like many in his day, believed that African slavery was a result of the Curse of Canaan. The Prophet once wrote:

“It is my privilege then to name certain passages from the Bible, pronounced by a man who was perfect in his generation, and walked with God. And so far from that prediction being averse to the mind of God, it remains as a lasting monument of the decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South, in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude. ‘And he said, Cursed be Canaan: a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.’ (Gen. 9:25,26).” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p.42)

*The Curse of Canaan

In Genesis it says that after the Great Flood was over Noah grew a vineyard, and one day got drunk off of the wine he fermented. It says that Ham, the sons of Noah, “uncovered his nakedness”. Because of this Noah became angry at Ham, but didn’t curse Ham; he cursed Canaan and his descendants to be the “servant of servants” unto the descendants of Shem and Japheth; the other sons of Noah. The Jews accepted this as their belief that Canaanites were “dogs” (servants). This was also accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, and was a reason they gave to justify the enslavement of Negroes. This was also accepted by Martin Luther and most Protestant leaders. This was accepted by the Puritans; the first whites to settle in North America. This was also accepted by the Southern whites who owned black slaves, and who founded the Confederacy.

Abolitionists, who were mostly Northerners, usually did not accept this. They argued that the Curse of Canaan applied only to the ancient Canaanites, and not to black Negroes who had no relation to Canaan. They preached that Negroes were the descendants of Cush, or Mizraim, but not Canaan. Therefore, they said, the Curse of Canaan applies to Canaanites, and not to Negroes.

The Book of Abraham presents the ancient Egyptians as being of “the blood of Canaan”. This would be true if in fact the Canaanites intermingled with the other sons of Ham, or in fact if Mizraim, Cush, and Put (who settled in Africa) were in fact the sons of Canaan. There is no Hebrew word for “grandsons” other than “sons”.

The Bible itself does not preach against servitude. The Apostle Paul wrote:

“Servants be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye service as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall be received of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven: neither is there respect of persons with him.” (Ephesians 6:5-9)

The Prophet Joseph Smith commented:

“Here is a lesson which might be profitable for all to learn; and the principle upon which the Church was anciently governed, is so plainly set forth, that an eye of truth might see and understand. Here certainly, are represented the master, and servant; and so far from instructions to the servant to leave his master, he is commanded to be in obedience, as unto the Lord; the master in truth is required to treat him with kindness before God; understanding, at the same time, that he is to give an account. The hand of fellowship is not withdrawn from him in consequence of his having servants.” (History of the Church 2:439)

But there is a difference between ‘servitude’ and ‘slavery’; a big difference.

The Prophet Joseph Smith did condemn “abolitionists” in 1833; soon after the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia. Nathaniel Turner was a black slave who claimed that a black angel visited him and commanded him to free the Negroes from slavery. Turner ran away from his master and gained a following of run-away and free Negroes. His methods were violent, and his rebellion ended-up with the deaths of many innocent people; both black and white. He was hanged, and his rebellion failed. Not only did it fail, but it inspired the Southern states to cease their liberalizing of the rights of slaves, and it also ended the Southern white colonialist movement which sought to free blacks and repatronize them to Africa. It was, for the Negroes and those whites in the South who wanted blacks free, a total and absolute disaster.

Joseph Smith did condemn radical Abolitionists who advocated violence, or who sought to free blacks without thought of the impact of the Southern economy or how blacks would fair in the South. To avoid these problems, Joseph Smith recommended that Congress sell federal public lands (at that time the federal government, in the name of the people, owned millions of acres of land) and use the money to purchase the slaves, and then either to send the freed black slaves into Mexico (where classism existed but not racism), or to “educate them and give them equal rights”. The Prophet knew that without these collateral moves the blacks would not be freed without violence, and the freed blacks would not be equal to the whites. History has proven him correct. Although blacks were free, their lives changed very little. They were soon on the bottom-half of a caste system, and apartheid-like laws kept them powerless and most often poor.

The servitude that existed in the time of Abraham (who had servants) and Israel was much different than the slavery of the South in the United States at the time of Joseph Smith!. Servants in the time of Abraham was considered part of the family; although they did not have equal rights to sons and daughters in regards to inheritance. Southern slavery did contain such patriarchal attitudes on occasion, but stealing people from Africa, bringing them across the ocean in chains and horrible living conditions where up to half would perish, and then treating them like animals was not a noble system of servitude but rather an evil and corrupt institution that the Prophet came out squarely and openly against in the 1840s; when he became more familiar with the Southern system of slavery.

Please feel free to e-mail Darrick Evenson

This article is not copyrighted. Return to Main Page
Site hosted by Build your free website today!