In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.
It’s not clear whether Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, who ordained at least one black priest, supported the ban. But his successor, Brigham Young, enforced it enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the “mark” on Cain was “the flat nose and black skin.” Young subsequently urged immediate death to any participant in mixing of the races. As recently as 1949, church leaders suggested that the ban on blacks resulted from the consequences of the “conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence.” As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
The current president of the Genesis Group, Don Harwell, considers such thinking vile. Driving to a local shooting range, he pulls over to find a bit of Mormon scripture on his iPhone.
“He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free,” reads Harwell. “I have it right here.”
Harwell joined the church 30 years ago after his “womanizing” ended his marriage. As a young man, he considered Mormons “racists” for their ban on black priests, but in 1983 he met a women who was Mormon and underwent a profound spiritual conversion. That marriage eventually didn’t work out because “it was hard for white girls married to black guys” in those days, he says.
At the Magna Gun Club, he opens up his rifle case, which displays a business card identifying him as the Genesis Group president, and laments the lousy shooting conditions with his friends — overwhelmingly white, Mormon and regretful of their church’s past.