Teaching about Cain and Race in LDS Gospel Doctrine

Lesson 5 on Cain and Abel is coming up, and the proverbial elephant in the room endures: what of the Curse of Cain?

Mormons live in a new era when it comes to racial exegesis. Grandfather’s talking points about “the negro,” Cain and Ham aren’t en vogue.  “We now know,” we tell ourselves, with a breath of relief, “that African people aren’t descended from Cain.”  That early Mormon leaders accepted the Cain-African  theory as Gospel Truth (TM) is a matter of a fairly well-established history that needs no belaboring here (for a sound overview of Mormon use of the theory, see here and here). 

But beyond having a sense of what is/isn’t PC, most Latter-day Saints couldn’t articulate a good reason to set aside President Young’s theorizing, other than because The Suits Say So.  Just as often, Mormons dismiss the whole embarrassment as yet One More Reason to Believe that Prophets Make Mistakes (TM–and, if we’re feeling especially angsty, we might place it in a list alongside our other concerns).

All of this might be dismissed as an embarrassing and repulsive product of a white-dominant America.  Church leaders were men of their time, after all; can’t we afford them the longsuffering not to condemn them by contemporary standards?  This request is not unreasonable; social media discourse on matters historical generally suffers from varying degrees of presentism–ranging from milder forms (selection bias) to the blazing fever of unscrutinized condemnations from atop the lofty mount of Perspective.

But for adherent Mormons who believe that scriptural texts offer some kind of explanatory and/or moral value about the 21st-century world, talk of Cain and African identity cannot be so easily dismissed. The connection between Cain and “blackness” (whatever that means–more on that later) is enshrined in Mormon sacred text. In Joseph Smith’s translation of the King James Bible–now known as the Pearl of Great Price–he dictated:

“And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 7:22).

(Note: this post deals solely with the Moses 7:22 verse; Moses 7:8, which refers to a “blackness” sweeping over the “children of Canaan” requires a separate exegesis).

For adherent Mormons, the problem is straightforward: 1) did the author of the Book of Moses believe that descendants of Cain come from African descent?; 2) does the text require that we give it moral/explanatory value for 21st-century readers?  Simply denying that Africans are the descendants of Cain does not satisfy most people; after all, we have on-the-record statements in both sacred text as well as from prophetic commentary that seem to suggest otherwise.  If it’s a text we take seriously–and perhaps we don’t and should place it in the ash heap of all the other forgotten scriptures–then it merits dismantling.  It is not enough to declare what the text does not say. We must engage the text in what it does say.  I, for one, am not satisfied with: “Our leaders said not to talk about that anymore.”

The Meaning of “Black Cain” 
African peoples (and I place emphasis on their plurality–that is relevant later) represent not a single “race” but rather, an immensely diverse continent filled with thousands of languages, hundreds of ethnic groups, and a vast array of cultural diversity. To call Africa “black” is to engage in an anachronism and, essentially , to demand that African peoples accept a construction imposed upon them by European slave traders and colonizers.  The notion that a “black race” (in regards to skin pigmentation) existed arose no earlier than the 14th-century C.E.   In the earliest accounts of European engagement with Africa (ca. 15th- and 16th-centuries), almost every observer commented explicitly on indigenous Africans, from Henry the Navigator to John Hawkins; the notion of “blackness” in skin started them.

Those who have descended from the African-American slaves, over time, were compelled to re-construct an identity for themselves against the context of the New World. Rather than being Igbo, Balanta, Efik, or Mbundu, they became “black.” While not all African slaves lost their identity (e.g. in Brazil, Yoruba slaves were able to band together as part of Catholic lay brotherhoods and in Georgia, Igbo slaves embraced a collective identity to facilitate a mass suicide. For Beyonce’s interpretation of this event, see 1:14-2:56 here), enslavement created an environment in which Africans (and I use the term “African” only as shorthand: “black” identity only developed through engagement with Western countries–an engagement largely (though not at all solely) driven through the Atlantic slave trade.  By the 18th-century, the slave trade had created an entrenched economy in which white Westerners came to assume that African peoples were fundamentally inferior.

A wide body of scholarship has shown how Western slave traders constructed, manipulated, and sold an image of African identity in order to facilitate human bondage.But those peddling such images entered a broader conversation about what Winthrop Jordan calls an environment of “puzzlement, skepticism, and shotgun explanation” (Jordan, White Over Black, 241).  The Old Testament’s origin stories provided a ready framework for those trying to understand the entirety of human origins. However, Chinua Achebe has argued that the racial construction of African peoples was deliberate, intentional, and premeditated; it did not happen organically nor by chance (Achebe, “Africa’s Tarnished Name”).  Whether the product of curiosity or an ad hoc explanation to facilitate African slave trading, David Goldenberg has shown that the “idea that Cain was smitten by God with a dark skin has an early pedigree” and thus, provided ready-made fodder for Westerners seeking to situate–and enslave–African populations (Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 179).

The Text
Following Cain’s murder of Abel, Genesis’s author records: “and Cain was greatly saddened (or, distressed) and his face fell” (Genesis 4:5) The latter clause is most relevant here; translators for both the New Jerusalem Bible and the New International Version conclude that it ought to be translated to read: “and he was downcast.” Nothing in the Pentateuch can be used to connote skin color.

For the origin of Cain’s “blackness,” might we turn to the Midrash?  [His face] became like an ember [ke-‘ud].” Goldenberg maintains that the use of Cain’s face in this text–not his body–is relevant here, thus highlighting a change in countenance, not a change in skin pigmentation.  Similarly, the Septuagint, unlike the Peshitta, translates the verb to mean: “to be pained.” Evidence from subsequent texts do interpret Cain’s “downcast” face as being a “black face.” The Animal Apocalypse, a second-century, B.C.E. Enoch text , uses blackness to describe a bull that is intended to represent Cain (1 Khanokh, 85). The Armenian Adam-Book relays the Cain story thusly: “[The Lord] beat Cain’s face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face.”

Goldenberg concludes, alongside Lipscomb, that the notion of literal blackness entered the Armenian text through Syriac texts. The Peshitta (the Syriac translation of the Bible) renders the Cain account to be: “and Cain was very displeased and his face tkmr“–the Syriac verb for “to be black”–but  it can also mean “to be sad” (for a full discussion, see Goldenberg, 179-182) (given the limited knowledge available about the origins of the Peshitta, it is difficult determining the particulars of this rendering’s origin, though most scholars acknowledge it can be dated to the first or second centuries C.E.). More, Ephrem (an early Syriac Church father) interpreted Cain as  the archetypal “dark” figure: Cain was, he wrote, “tkmr as the darkness”–again, leaving it unclear whether tkmr refers to “sadness” or “blackness.” The Armenian Adam-book text misread tkmr to mean “black,” and from there, the reading spread.  In both the Midrash and the Peshitta, Cain is more properly described as becoming emotionally distressed rather than becoming “black.”

Centuries of observers echoed this “blackness” rhetoric, to the point that it reached the level of folk discourse (albeit not as frequently deployed as the other Biblical argument: that Africans descended from Noah’s son, Ham).  As one New Jerseyian recalled of his late eighteenth-century childhood a fellow “white” friend “in a disdainful manner, curs[ing] a black boy and call[ing] him the seed of Cain.”  In 1773, African-born Phyllis Wheatley referenced the  association: “Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain/May be refined, and join the angelic train.” Josiah Priest forcefully argued for the Cain interpretation in 1849 in his treatise, Slavery, as It Relates to the Negro, or African Race, Examined in the Light of Circumstances, History, and the Holy Scriptures.   That Mormon leaders would echo this sentiment–and as forcefully as they did–reveals America’s national sin of racism, even as it reveals the degree to which Mormon leaders absorbed a number of belief systems that developed as a product of America’s racist economies.

I do not recommend this line of argument for apologetic purposes; the case, even in its most ambiguous form, is ambiguous–after all, plenty of sources contemporary to Joseph Smith described Cain’s seed as “black.” Therefore, while adherents could read the text as reflective of antiquity, skeptical observers could also see it as reflective of de rigueur 1830s language.  As African-American abolitionist David Walker wrote one year prior to the receipt of Moses 7 (a long passage, but it is worth the read):

Some ignorant creatures hesitate not to tell us that we, (the blacks) are the seed of Cain the murderer of his brother Abel.Where or of whom those ignorant and avaricious wretches could have got their information, I am unable to declare. Did they receive it from the Bible? I have searched the Bible as well as they, if I am not as well learned as they are, and have never seen a verse which testifies whether we are the seed of Cain or of Abel. Yet those men tell us that we are the seed of Cain, and that God put a dark stain upon us, that we might be known as their slaves!!! Now, I ask those avaricious and ignorant wretches, who act more like the seed of Cain, by murdering the whites or the blacks? How many vessel loads of human beings, have the blacks thrown into the seas? How many thousand souls have the blacks murdered in cold blood, to make them work in wretchedness and ignorance, to support them and their families? . . .let us be the seed of Cain, Harry, Dick, or Tom!!! God will show the whites what we are.” (emphasis added*”)

Application for Gospel Doctrine
When the story of Cain and Abel is discussed in Gospel Doctrine lessons over the coming weeks, it will be tempting to avoid the topic entirely. Don’t. I guarantee that this thought lingers in the mind of any moderately well-informed Latter-day Saint and in the minds of older Saints.

Here, then, are some takeaways:
1. Blackness is not African-ness. The term, “Black,” developed solely through the encounter with European traders and colonizers–prior to the slave trade, indigenous Africans in Africa did not identify themselves as “black.” That category is a term imposed on Africans through outside influence; while it has been re-appropriated in more recent days, it has no rooting in indigenous discourse prior to the Atlantic slave trade.
2. The claim that Cain literally changed his skin tone likely derives from a misunderstanding of the Syriac: “to be black” instead of “to be sad.”
3. Using “black” language to describe Cain’s descendants enjoys a meaningful presence not only in antebellum America but also, in some ancient texts.

Typically, we have placed tremendous cultural value on Moses chapter 7: it provides Saints with the lofty rhetoric regarding Zion, its origin and aspirations. The Second Coming has been romanticized as a reunion with “Enoch’s band.” We can’t dismiss that one verse from the chapter while celebrating the rest of it as a glorious representation of Mormonism’s highest aspirations. If we dismiss Moses 7:22 (even if we do it tacitly), we dismiss Moses 7–and ultimately, Joseph Smith’s Bible translation project.  Far better to “lean in” and attempt to unpack the language rather than let old, lingering assumptions continue to fester.

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