Adjusting the Narrative: Part 1a–The Scriptural Curse and Seed of Cain

See the introduction to this series here: Adjusting the Narrative: Introduction and Proposal. I highly suggest reading the introduction before proceeding.


As part of Joseph Smith’s prophetic literary output, he greatly expanded on the biblical figure of Cain in texts that became Standard Works, or Canonized Scriptures of the Church.

These texts were produced and promulgated in an America where people of black African descent were assumed by many Christians to be lineally connected to the cursed Genesis figures of Cain and/or Ham. The biblical curse on Ham’s son Canaan condemning him and his descendants to lives of servitude was widely used to justify a view of divinely authorized black slavery.

The historical record makes clear that early Latter-day Saints continued this traditional (yet historically untenable) belief. Joseph Smith even on occasion remarked that he believed “Negroes” were the descendants of Ham and Canaan.

While some of the texts produced by Joseph Smith were used by later leaders as further proof-texts in perpetuating their traditional beliefs concerning the relationship between blacks and the figure of Cain, a full examination of the texts – without the need to read the old traditions into them – find that not only is there cohesive and robust doctrinal material surrounding the figure of Cain, and the curse associated with him, but that the idea connecting the perpetuation of this fleshed-out curse upon his assumed genetic descendants is actually substantially debunked by those same scriptures.

This post will explore the unique authoritative teachings surrounding Cain and his posterity found in the scriptural texts produced by Joseph Smith, how they relate to each other, and even how biblical references and allusions within them point even farther away from the justification of the idea of a perpetual genetic curse – let alone applied to all people of black African descent.

Cain’s Influence in The Book of Mormon

In terms of production, the first modern LDS expansion of the Cain story comes in the Book of Mormon, in the context of the group known as the Gadianton Robbers, who are epitomized by a secret society of murderers, thieves, and cover-up-artists that are presented explicitly as Cain’s covenant successors:

Now behold, those secret oaths and covenants did not come forth unto Gadianton from the records which were delivered unto Helaman; but behold, they were put into the heart of Gadianton by that same being who did entice our first parents to partake of the forbidden fruit— Yea, that same being who did plot with Cain, that if he would murder his brother Abel it should not be known unto the world. And he did plot with Cain and his followers from that time forth… And behold, it is he who is the author of all sin. And behold, he doth carry on his works of darkness and secret murder, and doth hand down their plots, and their oaths, and their covenants, and their plans of awful wickedness, from generation to generation according as he can get hold upon the hearts of the children of men.” (Helaman 6:26-30)

Note what is new here that does not appear in Genesis – the idea that the figure of Satan personally plotted with Cain to develop a plan of murder, betrayal, and deceit. This is the same plan the Gadiantons are following, but through a renewed direct pact with Satan.

Cain in Joseph Smith’s Bible Revision (Moses)

When Joseph Smith worked on his revision of Genesis, the backstory of Cain’s covenant with Satan as presented in the Book of Mormon was drastically expanded, in addition with other new characteristics associated with Cain:

Rather than being simply one of a pair of siblings, Cain was simply one among many of the posterity of Adam and Eve. (see Moses 5:2, 16) There was great hope for Cain’s potential, with prayers that he would “not reject [the Lord’s] words.” (Moses 5:16)

Nevertheless, this covenant child grew to love the ways of Satan more than the ways of God. (Moses 5:18). As a warning, God personally gives Cain a choice, to return to the Lord’s ways, and be blessed, or continue in the path he knows to be wrong, cementing his apostasy. If he does this, he will find himself cursed, as follows:

  • He shall be “delivered up, and it shall be unto thee according to [Satan’s] desire”
  • Cain shall “rule over” Satan
  • Cain will become the “Father of Lies”
  • Cain shall be called “Perdition” – literally, The Lost. [1]
  • “And it shall be said in time to come – that these abominations were had from Cain”
  • It is “a cursing which I will put upon thee, except thou repent”

With this knowledge of the declared results of his actions, Cain performs a blood oath to Satan, and declares “Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness.”(Moses 5:31) – Cain deceives and plots to kill Abel, accomplishes the slaying, steals his possessions, and pridefully boasts of his accomplishments.

These actions being accomplished, God’s voice returns, the promised Curse is pronounced as being in effect, with the additional practical ramifications that he will now be a fugitive.

Cain is marked by God with a sign (not described) intended for physical protection. An interesting note is that man is specifically warned that they are not authorized to take vengeance against Cain into his own hands. The punishment is God’s to dole out, not man’s.

As the narrative continues, Cain’s descendants take on the Curse by their choices, and by willing covenant. Murder continues in association with the satanic covenant.

For Lamech [a descendent of Cain] having entered into a covenant with Satan, after the manner of Cain, wherein he became Master Mahan, master of that great secret which was administered unto Cain by Satan; and Irad, the son of Enoch, having known their secret, began to reveal it unto the sons of Adam; Wherefore Lamech, being angry, slew him, not like unto Cain, his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain, but he slew him for the oath’s sake.” (Moses 5:49-50)

– and it is for this reason, not because he had any number of drops of Cain’s genetic material in him,

Wherefore the Lord cursed Lamech, and his house, and all them that had covenanted with Satan; for they kept not the commandments of God, and it displeased God, and he ministered not unto them, and their works were abominations, and began to spread among all the sons of men. And it was among the sons of men.” (Moses 5:52)

Please take note: Lamech did not inherit the Curse begun by Cain, even though he was his descendent, his literal ‘seed’. He brought it upon himself by following in his dark footsteps.

It is here where culture, rather than context, had traditionally colored our reading of a further development. It is stated, in the context of Enoch’s story, that Sons of Adam in general are differentiated by the ‘Seed of Cain’ – those who have entered into the dark and wicked Covenants of Satan, with a note that ‘the seed of Cain were black and had not place among them.’ (Moses 7:22)– I see no reason, context, or justification for this being anything to do with skin pigmentation, and everything to do with the statement in Moses 5:55 that, “the works of darkness began to prevail among all the sons of men” (see also Moses 7:61), and 2 Nephi 28:9 concerning those who “shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark” (see also the language in Isaiah 29:15 which inspired this verse.)

Cain as antithetical Covenant Father (New Testament Referents)

In both Book of Mormon and Book of Moses narratives, the curse and covenant was applied to those who plotted, planned, deceived, rebelled, attempted to hide their works from the Lord, and chose to take a life. Cain is designated in Moses as the “Father” of their deceptions.

In the scriptures, being one’s Seed in any theological context – at least canonically from the New Testament forward – involves behavior, decisions, and motivations – but not genealogical lineage.

When the Pharisees claim to be the Seed of Abraham and heir to those blessings, Jesus rejects their claim, not because they can’t trace it back genealogically, but because they do not do the works of Abraham, but rather act contrary to them.

In fact, much of the language and ideas used by Christ in the Gospel of John was appropriated in the Cain/Satan material in Moses:

“I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.

They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father.

Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father.

Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.

Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. (John 8:37-44)”

Joseph Smith’s Moses account takes those designated as the devil’s children, and grants them to Cain.

In direct contrast to this, individuals become the Children of Christ in Joseph’s scriptural writings by choosing Him as their Father. This opposite end of the spectrum is presented in the Book of Mormon, in Benjamin’s discourse :

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.(Mosiah 5:7)

Likewise, in the scriptural tradition, believers are adopted into the family of Abraham, and into the House of Israel in the same manner. In an 1832 ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’, Joseph Smith expressed that those who take upon themselves Priesthood responsibilities become the ‘Sons of Aaron and Moses’ .

“They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God.” (D&C 84:34)

Even those whose patriarchal blessings designate them as being theologically adopted into the tribe of Ephraim are also said, through covenant and desire, to be additionally adopted as Levites. [2]

The Existing Priesthood Restriction in the Doctrine and Covenants

Many are unaware that a specific priesthood and temple restriction is presented in a canonized 1839 revelation, Doctrine and Covenants 121:16-21. Connected with the popular verses 36-37 in that same document, I propose that it very specifically lays out the Doctrine of the Seed and Curse of Cain, connected with the story of Cain, and, for the first time, explicitly invokes the matter of Priesthood – something which has not even been mentioned in the narrative Cain stories previously explored.

“16 Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.

17 But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves.

18 And those who swear falsely against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death

19 Wo unto them; because they have offended my little ones they shall be severed from the ordinances of mine house.

20 Their basket shall not be full, their houses and their barns shall perish, and they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them.

21 They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation

36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

Further, I propose that Brigham Young’s isolated declaration in the name of Jesus Christ that the Seed of Cain will not hold the priesthood (see the Introduction to this series for a discussion on this quote), can be seen as scripturally compatible, doctrinally sound, and currently in line with present Church practice. It simply didn’t carry the traditional baggage with which he interpreted it.

It does not have reference to genetic offspring, but those who are one’s behavioral posterity – those who abuse power, authority, and pride, and actively rebel against God. Cain is presented as the typical worst-case-scenario Apostate. He is their spiritual Ancestor, from which their heritage is traced. The scriptural texts present that in addition to saying that such behaviors when identified should not be granted authority in the first place, that those Church members who exhibit such behaviors should (and will) have their conferred authority declared null.

While preparing this blog post, I was reading Brian Hales’ excellent Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Volume 1 – History, and came upon an interesting Joseph Smith era expression of this idea, from Allen Stout’s undated Journal entry where he recounts that Orson Hyde had told him that, during the period of his apostasy, he had received a “vision in which it was made known to him that if he did not make immediate restitution to the Quorum of the Twelve, he would be cut off and all his posterity, and that the curse of Cain would be upon him.” – (See Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy 1:75 ) – note that the belief expressed is that the Curse of Cain would be applied to Hyde, a non-African.

While D&C 121 does not explicitly mentioned Cain, the elements outlined in his expanded LDS narratives are clearly present. As an additional support for this idea, Apostle Orson Hyde explicitly connects the wording in that revelation with the ‘Curse of Cain’.

In 1978, the revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball and his associates made clear that the automatic affiliation of people of black African descent as heirs to the doctrine of the Seed of Cain was not relevant. Official Declaration 2 being canonized solidifies this understanding. The 2013 header which does not defend a revelatory beginning for the policy applying the ban to blacks further invites this reading.

Doctrine and Covenants 121, however, remains in force.

NEXT: Part 1b – The Blood of the Canaanites

LATER: In part 2, I will present the proposal that the Book of Mormon contains a pattern of events that could place the modern mistaken association of those of black African descent with the Seed of Cain, as well as its explicit revelatory correction, narratively as the fulfillment of a Book of Mormon typology.

[1] It perhaps should be noted that this is a name which in D&C 76:26 is given to Lucifer – it is therefore inherited or passed on to Cain from Satan. The ‘Sons of Perdition’ are described in the same section in the voice of the Lord as “those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power— They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born;

[2] Which presents an interesting idea – if one is adopted into multiple tribes, Ephraim, Judah, Ephraim, and also generally as the Seed of Abraham – would that make a personal and individual Gathering of the Tribes be occurring? That’s perhaps a discussion for another post!


Adjusting the Narrative: Part 1a–The Scriptural Curse and Seed of Cain — 11 Comments

  1. Fantastic!! Thank you. The underlining problem here is that few people actually study their scriptures. If they did so, seriously, without preconcevied notions in mind about this matter, you and the dozen others in the past wouldn’t have to write one bit about this topic. It saddens me that the scriptures are clear, but some see through a glass darkly, hindering the spirit of revelation and common sense.

  2. Very interesting post, David! I hope that you send your thoughts about the Curse of Cain to the scripture people in Salt Lake because I think that your arguments here are persuasive and could help many members who are bothered by the priesthood and temple ban.

  3. Something interesting is that when Adam and Eve sinned, they weren’t cursed, the serpent was. Cain is the first man cursed for his sin.

    This was noted by many early commentators, including St. John Chrysostom.

    “You see, since Cain perpetrated practically the same evil as the serpent, which like an instrument served the devil’s purposes, and as the serpent introduced mortality by means of deceit, in like manner Cain deceived his brother led him out into the open country, raised his hand in armed assault against him and committed murder. Hence, as God said to the serpent, “Cursed are you beyond all the wild animals of the earth,” so to Cain when he committed the same evil as the serpent. (Chrysostom,
    Hom. Gen. 19.11 [Hill])”

  4. Indeed, such a shame that previous presidents of the Church failed to study their scriptures. So many denied their blessings because of the false teachings, and continued acceptance of those teachings, by Prophets, Seers and Revelators.

    And all because these leaders of the Church, God’s mouth pieces on earth, could not study the scriptures correctly, could not receive the correct revelation, and left so many without the light and truth.

    None of the excellent post above gives any reason why God has allowed His Saints to be so mis-lead for so long.

  5. Fascinating subject! How do you understand the statement in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 9:26 (JST Genesis 9:30) that “…Canaan shall be his servant, and a veil of darkness shall cover him, that he shall be known among all men”? Also, what was the mark or token of the curse placed upon Cain? Is there any connection between the two?

  6. God is not always a micromanager for perhaps the reason of avoiding infringing too heavily on mankind’s free will. And because so sometimes the consequences of God’s absence of intervention produces injustice and opinions/traditions that hurt or exclude classes of people in the name of religion (e.g. Native Americans/Black Africans, etc.) that prevails over the written word–Holy Writ.

    I think the responsibility fell/falls on all of Israel, to understand correctly God’s words (what God means and what he doesn’t mean). Unfortunately this is too much to ask for some, and they tend to fall on tradition and opinion as if it was the tenets of scripture because it’s much easier to do so.

    All men have blind spots (even past/current LDS leaders) and see through a glass darkly. The issue of blacks and the priesthood unfortunately was/is a tremendous and universally hurtful blind spot that persisted.

    May God forgive us for our sins and shortcomings, for we know not what we do or have done.

  7. I once read a fairly interesting argument that the references to dark skins in the Book of Mormon were actually references to the animal skins the Lamanites were wearing rather than to the skins of their own bodies. The author argued that “skin of darkness” was a similar metaphor to bloodstained garments: it was the antithesis of the animal skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden. I wasn’t persuaded by the argument, but if I were a Book of Mormon believer then I think I would have been. I was actually quite surprised how much of the racial material in the Book of Mormon could be satisfactorily explained with this paradigm.

  8. Thanks for the comments. The Canaan/Ham/Egyptus material will be covered next. The Book of Mormon Lamanite curse tradition will likewise be covered in a part of its own. There are a lot of separate scriptural narrative threads that, in my view, tend to get needlessly tangled together. The Book of Mormon tradition is seen as a separate witness to the possibility of God cursing with dark skin. I will say that the BoM narrative does stand as a second witness to something related, but this isn’t it!

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  10. Pingback: Adjusting the Narrative: Part 2a–Nephi and the Skin of Blackness | Worlds Without End