Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price
Hyrum L. Andrus
First published in 1967
Hyrum L. Andrus taught Pearl of Great Price classes at Brigham Young University.
The former decree of God concerning the Negro [i.e. the one found in the Pearl of Great Price] has been reaffirmed in modern times. According to George Q. Cannon, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the following doctrine: "That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain's off-spring." Other reports confirm the fact that Joseph Smith taught that the Negro cannot yet receive the priesthood. In May, 1879, President John Taylor and other prominent men in the Church who had known the Prophet personally discussed the status of the Negro. Among these men was Zebedee Coltrin, who was intimately associated with Joseph Smith and had been appointed by him a member of the First Council of Seventy, when that Council was organized in this dispensation. President Taylor opened the discussion with the comment:
Some parties have said to me that Zebedee Coltrin had talked to the Prophet Joseph Smith on this subject, and they said that he (Coltrin) thought it was not right for them [i.e., Negroes] to have the Priesthood. Whereupon, Joseph Smith said to him that Peter, on a certain occasion had a vision wherein he saw heaven open, and a certain vessel descended unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth, wherein were all manner of four footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise Peter! Kill and eat, but Peter said, Not so Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common (speaking of the Gentiles).
President Taylor then asked Brother Coltrin, "Did the Prophet Joseph Smith ever make such a statement to you?"
Brother Coltrin, "No sir, he never said anything of the kind in his life to me."
President Taylor, "What did he say?"
Brother Coltrin, "The spring that we went up in Zion's Camp, in 1834, Brother Joseph sent Brother J. P. Greene and me out south to gather up means to assist in gathering out the Saints from Jackson County, Mo. On our return home, we got into a conversation about the Negro having the right to the Priesthood, and I took the side that he had no right. Brother Greene argued that he had. The subject got so warm between us that he said he would report me to Brother Joseph when we got home, for preaching false doctrine, which doctrine that I advocated was that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood. 'All right,' I said, 'I hope you will.' And when we got home to Kirtland, we both went in to Brother Joseph's office together, to make our returns; and Brother Greene was as good as his word, and reported to Brother Joseph that I had said that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood. Brother Joseph kind of dropped his head and rested it on his hand for a minute, and then said, 'Brother Zebedee is right, for the Spirit of God saith the Negro has no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood.' He made no reference to scripture at all. But such was his decision. I don't recollect ever having any conversation with him [on the subject] afterwards, but I have heard him say in public, that no person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the Priesthood." . . .
President Abraham O. Smoot said, "D. W. Patten, Warren Parrish, and Thomas B. Marsh were laboring in the Southern States in 1835 and 1836. There were Negroes, who made application for baptism, and the question arose with them whether Negroes were entitled to hold the Priesthood; and by those brethren it was decided they would not confer the Priesthood until they had consulted the Prophet Joseph. Subsequently they communicated with him and his decision, as I understood, was they were not entitled to the Priesthood, nor yet to be baptized without the consent of their masters. In after years, when I became acquainted with Joseph myself in Far West, about the year 1838, I received from Joseph substantially the same instructions. It was on my application to him what should be done with the Negro in the South, as I was preaching to them. He said I could baptize them by consent of their masters, but not to confer the Priesthood upon them."
Those men who knew Joseph Smith and received their understanding of the priesthood and its rights from him taught the same doctrine that he expressed. Brigham Young stated: Cain conversed with his God every day, and knew all about the plan of creating this earth, for his father told him. But, for the want of humility, and through jealousy, and an anxiety to possess the kingdom, and to have the whole of it under his own control, and not allow any body else the right to say one word, what did he do? He killed his brother. The Lord put a mark on him. . . . When all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, and of coming into the kingdom of God, and of being redeemed from the four quarters of the earth, and have received their resurrection from the dead, then it will be time enough to remove the curse from Cain and his posterity. He deprived his brother of the privilege of pursuing his journey through life, and of extending his kingdom by multiplying upon the earth; and because he did this, he is the last to share the joys of the kingdom of God.
The fact that descendants of Cain are presently denied the right to hold the priesthood is not based wholly upon the actions of their fathers. Deeper reasons go back into the pre-earth life, to the appointments that were made in sending spirits into the world to obtain bodies among the several families of the earth. Here one must understand the great doctrinal points taught in the Pearl of Great Price concerning the placement of man on earth. The problem must be viewed in light of the demands of eternal truth and justice, not merely in light of an immediate issue, for man is an eternal entity and God deals with him accordingly. In a letter to a student at Brigham Young University, President David O. McKay expressed his views on the subject as follows:
In your letter to me of October 28, 1947, you say that you and some of your fellow students have been "perturbed about the question of why the Negro race cannot hold the Priesthood."
In reply I send you the following thoughts that I expressed to a friend on the same subject:
Stated briefly your problem is simply this . . . Since, as Paul states, "the Lord hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth," why is there shown in the Church of Christ discrimination against the colored race? . . .
I believe, as you suggest, that the real reason dates back to our pre-existent life. This means that the true answer to your question (and it is the only one that has given me any satisfaction) has its foundations in faith . . . (1) Faith in a God of justice, (2) Faith in the existence of an eternal plan of salvation for all God's children. . . .
It was the Lord who said that Pharaoh, the first governor of Egypt, though a righteous man, blessed with the blessings of the earth, with the blessings of wisdom . . . "could not have the right of the Priesthood."
Now if we have faith in the justice of God, we are forced to the conclusion that this denial was not a deprivation of merited right. It may have been entirely in keeping with the eternal plan of salvation for all the children of God.
Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man's mortal existence, extending back to man's pre-existent state. . . .
Manifestly, from this revelation ("Abr. 3:22"Abr. 3:23Abraham 3:22-23) we may infer two things: first that there were among those spirits different degrees of intelligence, varying grades of achievement, retarded and advanced spiritual attainments; second that there were no national distinctions among these spirits such as Americans, Europeans, Asiatics, Australians, etc. Such "bounds of habitation" would have to be "determined" when the spirits entered upon their earthly existence or second estate. . . .
If in their eagerness to take upon themselves bodies, the spirits were willing to come through any lineage for which they were worthy, or to which they were attracted, then they were given the full reward of merit, and were satisfied, yes, even blessed.
Accepting this theory of life, we have a reasonable explanation of existing conditions in the habitations of man. How the law of spiritual attraction works between the spirit and the expectant parents has not been revealed, neither can finite minds fully understand. . . .
By the operation of some eternal law which men do not yet understand, spirits come through the parentage for which they are worthy—some as Bushmen of Australia, some as Solomon Islanders, some as Americans, as Europeans, as Asiatics, etc., with all the varying degrees of mentality and spirituality manifest in the parents of the different races that inhabit the earth.
Of this we may be sure, each was satisfied and happy to come through the lineage for which he or she was prepared.
The Priesthood was given to those chosen as leaders. There were many who could not receive it, yet who knew that it was possible for them at some time in the eternal plan to achieve that honor. Even those who knew that they would not be prepared to receive it during their mortal existence were content in the realization that they could attain every earthly blessing, progress intellectually and spiritually and possess to a limited degree the blessings of wisdom.
George Washington Carver was one of the noblest souls that ever came to earth. He held a close kinship with his Heavenly Father, and rendered a service to his fellow men such as few have ever excelled. For every righteous endeavor, for every good deed performed in his useful life, George Washington Carver will be rewarded, and so will every other man—red, white, black, or yellow; for God is no respecter of persons.
Sometime in God's eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood. . . .
From a statement of the First Presidency to President Ernest L. Wilkinson of the Brigham Young University, the position of the Church may also be ascertained. On that occasion, they wrote:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. . . .
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind; namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of the principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the principle is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood, is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the Priesthood by Negroes.