In a candid moment in January 1858, an early Church leader named Zerah Pulsipher told his family that: “Most of you are young therefore you have the advantage of me because [yo]u have less Gentile Traditions to over com[e].” This is an interesting observation from Pulsipher—all of the early Church members (including leaders) were converts to the Church and they brought much of their previous beliefs and traditions with them into the Church, including many good and correct beliefs, but also some incorrect beliefs as well. In the latest volume of the official history of the Church, an example of the latter is brought up in a discussion about the position early converts to the Church that were Black, such as Jane Manning James, found themselves in. We read: “Jane … knew that white Saints generally accepted black people into the fold. Like other groups of Christians at this time, however, many white Saints wrongly viewed black people as inferior, believing that black skin was the result of God’s curse on the biblical figures Cain and Ham. … Brigham Young shared some of these views.” It is significant that this Church publication brings this issue up and to state, point-blank, that the early Saints (Brigham Young included) were wrong to believe this traditional idea. Likewise, Elder Quentin L. Cook recently stated that Brigham Young “said things about race that fall short of our standards today.” I have discussed one part of these traditions or beliefs (the curse of Cain) in a previous post. Today, I want to continue this discussion by focusing on the other narrative brought up in Saints—the story of Ham (and his son Canaan) in Genesis 9.
Let’s turn to Genesis 9 to see the story that sits at the heart of this discussion:
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”
Now, the story is bizarre and leaves scholars and lay readers both scratching their heads at a few points along the way. For example, what exactly did Ham do that was so wrong? Why was it Ham’s son Canaan rather than Ham himself who was cursed?
There have been some tentative answers to these questions offered by Biblical scholars. For example, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, we find the following:
Some have speculated that Ham had sex with his father, since seeing nakedness refers to incestuous behavior in Lev 20.17. Nevertheless, a more common expression for sexual intercourse in Leviticus is “uncover nakedness” (e.g., 18.6; 20.18) or “lie with” (e.g. 20.11-12). Moreover, the description of Ham’s brothers’ contrasting behavior … makes clear that the problem with Ham’s behavior was that he did not look away. In the ancient Near East, sons were expected to protect the honor of their father, including caring for him when he was drunk. … Ham here does the opposite, both looking upon his father naked and telling his brothers about it. … Many have puzzled over why Canaan is cursed for his father, Ham’s, misdeed (9.25-26). Some speculate that a story originally focusing on Canaan was modified to focus on Ham, featured in the broader context. Yet it is more likely that a later editor redirected an earlier curse on Ham towards Canaan, so that the curse could help justify the conquest on the land of Canaan.
Thus, various suggestions for the first question (what did Ham do that was so wrong?) include some sort of sexual misdeed or a failure to protect his father’s honor, leading to a breakdown in family relationships. Possible answers to the second question (why was it was Ham’s son Canaan rather than Ham himself who was cursed?) may have to do with Israelite redactors using the story as a justification for conquest and enslavement of Canaanites in the western Levant region.
This latter point—the story of Ham and Canaan having to do with Israelite conquests—ties into the next chapter of Genesis, where the Table of Nations is presented. The chapter describes the peoples of the ancient Near East and northeastern Africa as being the descendants of Noah’s three sons, and outlines where each are located. I’ve included a figure below that shows the rough breakdown of where the table indicates the various groups settled in relationship to modern geography. In general, Shem’s group (which includes the Hebrew peoples) is depicted as settling in southern Arabia and throughout Mesopotamia. Japheth’s descendants are located in the north—Asia minor, surrounding islands, and the steppe peoples (who included groups located in modern-day Ukraine and the Medes (Madai) in the east). Ham’s descendants are placed in northeast Africa (including Egypt) and surrounding areas. All three groups, however, intersect in the Middle East, with Canaan settling in land that was later occupied by the kingdoms of the Israelites. With that in mind, what is being suggested above is that the story of Noah cursing Canaan functioned as a justification for Israelite conquest of the land settled previously by Canaanites, with the repeated curse from Noah that “let Canaan be his slave” being seen as fulfilled by that conquest.
Eventually, however, this curse on Canaan began to be used in a much broader context—a justification for the enslavement of black Africans. Since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 indicates that Ham was the ancestor of the groups that occupied northeastern Africa, it was assumed that Ham was the ancestor of all African peoples (with some etymological suggestions that Ham meant “black” or “dark” used to support the idea). Early Muslim sources worked within this understanding and shifted the assumption that the curse applied only to Canaan to assuming it applied to all of Ham’s descendants (or all Africans). As one scholar has observed, this shift in understanding happened at a time “when the Black became strongly identified with the slave class in the Near East, after the Islamic conquest of Africa,” which indicates that the social structures of the time influenced the assumptions brought to the story in Genesis. Centuries later, as the Portuguese began to take their share of the African slave trade, these ideas reached European Christians when (according to Diarmaid MacCulloch):
A celebrated Portuguese Jewish philosopher, Isaac ben Abravanel, suggested that Caanan’s descendants were black, while those of his uncles were white, and so all black people were liable to be enslaved. Genesis 9 gives no support to this belief; nevertheless Abravanel’s innovative exercise in biblical hermeneutics now proved extremely convenient for the same Iberian Christians who persecuted his own people, and later for Christian slavers everywhere.
The idea that all Africans were under Canaan’s curse of slavery caught on. There were issues with only one of Ham’s sons being cursed, so suggestions that Ham’s wife was a descendant of Cain, (warranting a curse on all of Ham’s descendants) arose to work around the issue, but there was also belief in some quarters that all Africans were descendants of Canaan, justifying European enslavement of any African through Noah’s curse on Canaan. As the slave trade shifted to England and North America, the idea of the curse of Ham/Canaan as a justification for slavery came with it.
Now, let’s take a moment unpack the transition in understanding the story of Noah cursing Canaan that happened over the course of time and some of what is problematic about it. First, we have the theological question of why something like a failure to protect a father’s honor or sexual deviancy (whichever it was) result in a curse of slavery on the descendants of one son of the transgressor for millennia afterwards? Along those lines, why would God honor Noah’s curse on this occasion, but then never deal out similar long-lived punishments for similar transgressions elsewhere? Second, the story in Genesis as we have received it states that the curse was focused on Canaan and his descendants rather than Ham and all his descendants. Canaanites were a people who settled in western Asia rather than Africa and were not among the black races of the ancient world. Thus, even if we assume that all black Africans are descendants of Ham, the Bible does not link them to being descendants of Canaan and connected to his curse. It was only as Muslims and Christians began to enslave black Africans that they began to look towards the story to serve as a justification for doing so—the tail wagging the dog in interpreting the story, so to speak—by claiming that the curse applied to the people they were enslaving. As one author put it: “First we exploited people for their resources, not according to how they looked. Exploitation came first, and then the ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.” The use of the story of Noah cursing Canaan became a central part of the justification that followed exploitation in this case.
The early Latter Day Saint movement sprung into existence in a country saturated with the slave-trade-based understanding of the curse of Ham and Canaan, making it a part of the “Gentile traditions” that many of the early Latter-day Saints believed in. Joseph Smith, for example, wrote in an 1836 letter, published in the Messenger and Advocate, that: “The fact is uncontrovertable, that the first mention we have of slavery is found in the holy bible,” and that fact “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!” While he admitted that he couldn’t say why the Almighty would do this, he wrote that “the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come.” In this case, Joseph Smith simply accepted the tradition of his ancestors (and neighbors) that black Africans were descendants of Ham and Canaan and that Noah’s curse of slavery applied to them until God Himself reversed the decree. Many other sources can be cited from early Latter Day Saint literature with similar statements.
As time passed, the story began to take on more connections with the priesthood when it was retold in the Church. For example, an 1845 article in the Times and Season newspaper stated that: “Ham had dishonored the holy priesthood” by his actions when Noah slept and as a result of Noah’s curse, “the descendants of Ham” received a black skin for apostatizing from the priesthood and “have been servants to both Shem and Japheth, and the abolitionists are trying to make void the curse of God, but it will require more power than man possesses to counteract the decrees of eternal wisdom.” While this interpretation mentions dishonoring or apostatizing from the priesthood as the cause of the cause of the curse on Ham, it limited the results of the curse to slavery and skin color. It was only in 1847 that we find the first suggestion that Black men couldn’t hold the priesthood. Elder Parley P. Pratt noted in passing that a controversial man with African ancestry in Winter Quarters “has got the blood of Ham in him which lineage was cursed as regards the priesthood.”
The language of Elder Pratt’s comment is borrowed from the Book of Abraham 1:21-27. Thus, while Brigham Young would later focus on Cain as the cause of the priesthood ban rather than Ham, it seems that Parley P. Pratt’s understanding of the Book of Abraham was a key part in his suggestion that a priesthood ban existed or should exist. It would continue to serve as a key text in justifying the ban, especially after it was canonized in 1880. It is in the Book of Abraham that we have our reference to a lineage that “could not have the right of Priesthood” and Noah cursing Ham or the first Pharaoh “as pertaining to the Priesthood.” There is also the comment that the Pharaoh “was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites” and that “from this descent sprang all the Egyptians.” There a number of confusing points in the text, but putting references to Noah cursing someone and “blood of the Canaanites” in the same place does seem to suggest that there is something related to the story of Noah cursing Canaan in Genesis 9 going on here (though it’s not completely clear).
Now, Elder Pratt and others with similar interpretations brought many assumptions from their culture when they interpreted the Book of Abraham to mean that all men of black African descent were cursed as regards to the priesthood. As the late sociologist Armand Mauss pointed out:
The Book of Abraham is the only place … where any scriptures speak of the priesthood being withheld from any lineage; but even then it is only the specific lineage of the pharaohs of Egypt, and there is not explanation as to why that lineage could not have the priesthood, or whether the proscription was temporary or permanent, or which other lineages, if any, especially in the modern world, would be covered by that proscription.
Thus, there is a lot of vagueness in the Book of Abraham that makes it difficult to interpret. When Church members (including apostles like Elder Pratt) interpreted it through the lens of justifications for slavery used in the ante-bellum United States, they made assumptions about the text. These included the idea that all Africans (including William McCary, the man Parley Pratt was referencing) were of Canaanite (or Hamite) blood. Second, they assumed that when the text refers to the idea that Noah (as Pharaoh’s ancestor) “cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood,” it meant that all men of Canaanite or Egyptian linage (and thus, by their assumptions, all Blacks) were cursed to not hold the priesthood.
What is interesting is that those who were closest to the text didn’t enact it in the way it came to be understood by Elder Pratt and others as an indication of a priesthood and temple ban on individuals of black African ancestry. Joseph Smith revealed the text of The Book of Abraham, chapter 1 in late 1835. Yet, Elijah Abel (or Ables)—a man with a significant amount of black African ancestry—was ordained an elder on 25 January 1836, and then later as a seventy. Abel was known by Joseph Smith on a personal basis and his priesthood was reaffirmed through renewals of his priesthood license up through the end of his life. President Joseph F. Smith openly stated that Abel was “entitled to the Priesthood and all the blessings” during the late 1870s. Likewise, Kwaku Walker Lewis was baptized by Elder Parley P. Pratt in 1842 and ordained the next year by Elder William Smith. In 1846, President Brigham Young would refer to Lewis as “one of the best Elders” in the Church. At least these two Black men were knowingly ordained the priesthood during the period between when Joseph Smith revealed the Book of Abraham, chapter 1 in 1835 and his death in 1844 without any reliable indication of an objection on the Prophet’s part. This seems to indicate that Joseph Smith didn’t understand the text to mean that Blacks were subject to a priesthood ban.
It also seems that Joseph Smith did not intend to withhold temple blessings on the basis of race, even knowing about the Abraham text. Elijah Abel received the washing and anointing ordinances associated with the Kirtland Temple in the 1830s and participated in proxy baptisms for the dead shortly after the doctrine was announced. While Abel and Lewis was not in Illinois during the era that temple endowments began to be practiced there, the First Presidency released a statement in 1840 that predicted that “people from every land and from every nation” would flock to Nauvoo and “worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple, and offer up their orisons in his sanctuary,” including “the degraded Hottentot” (an offensive term for the native Khoikhoi peoples of southwest Africa) and “persons … of every color.” This statement would indicate that Blacks were expected to participate in temple worship by Joseph Smith and his councilors. There is also evidence that the Smith family may have offered to have Jane Manning James, a Black woman, adopted or sealed to Joseph and Emma as a daughter, though she turned down the offer at the time. Thus, there are strong indications that the denial of temple rituals to individuals of black African ancestry arose at a later date and not from Joseph Smith—the person who revealed the text of the Book of Abraham.
In the Bible, we also don’t see evidence of fears about a similar ban in place on the basis of Egyptian, Hamite or Canaanite ancestry, with significant figures marrying into Egyptian and Canaanite lineages. Abraham sired Ishmael with Hagar, “an Egyptian slave-girl.” Judah married the daughter of “a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua” and had three sons with her, while Simeon had a son by a Canaanite woman. Joseph (the son of Jacob/Israel) married an Egyptian named Asenath, the “daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” while in Egypt, who bore him two sons—Manasseh and Ephraim. Moses married a Cushite, while Nathan, the prophet in King David’s time who “had the keys of this [the sealing] power,” had a grandfather who was Egyptian. And among Jesus of Nazareth’s ancestors is Rahab, a Canaanite woman from Jericho. Thus, there was significant amounts of intermarriage and intermingling with both Canaanites and Egyptians in the House of Israel without indication that this limited their descendants’ priesthood.
The fact that Joseph Smith and the ancient patriarchs didn’t seem to interpret or implement the statements in the Book of Abraham about Pharaoh being “cursed … as pertaining to the Priesthood” and that he was “of that lineage by which he could not have the rights of Priesthood” as a general priesthood ban on all black Africans indicates that perhaps there are alternative ways to understand the text than it has traditionally been treated. A few examples have been suggested. Hugh Nibley wrote that he believed that the priesthood was passed along patriarchal lines in ancient times, and the Pharaoh tried to claim the priesthood through matriarchal lines instead. Thus, he was unsuccessful because “a matriarchal line cannot claim patriarchal authority.” Alma Allred has also suggested that perhaps what was at stake when we discuss the “right of priesthood” was the right to act as the presiding priesthood authority on earth (as the high priest or patriarch over God’s people) rather than the ability to hold the priesthood at all. He wrote that: “The scripture does not say that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood; it says that he could not have the ‘right of Priesthood’ (Abr. 1:26). This right had been given to Shem, who in turn gave it to his successor in the patriarchal office.” Abraham became the presiding priesthood authority in his day, but “years after the right of priesthood had been passed to Abraham, the Pharaohs were feigning a claim to it from Noah. They did not merely claim priesthood; they claimed the right to preside over the priesthood.” While I’m not completely satisfied with either of these suggestions (neither really address the statement about how “Noah … cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood”), I think that they do show some possibilities for other ways to understand the story in Abraham, chapter 1.
Ultimately, my point is that we shouldn’t use the problematic curse of Ham as a part of our justification for the Church’s former priesthood and temple ban on individuals of black African descent. While our predecessors in the Church were shaped by what Elder Zerah Pulsipher called “Gentile traditions” they had inherited from their culture, we are far enough away from both defending slavery in the antebellum United States and defending the priesthood and temple ban of the Church as a current policy that we should be able to overcome this tradition. There are a lot of problems with claiming that all individuals of black African ancestry were cursed on the basis of Ham’s actions or that the curse in question included skin color or denial of the priesthood (even when looking closely at Genesis, chapter 9 and Abraham, chapter 1, the standard proof-texts for the idea). And, if the latest volume of the Church’s official history or the Gospel Topics Essay on “Race and the Priesthood” are any indication, our current Church leaders would tend to agree that the curse of Ham is a belief that we can and should leave behind.
 Zerah Pulsipher record book, circa 1858-1878 MS 753 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 “Apostle Encourages Educators to Build Faith in Jesus Christ and Be Not Weary in Well Doing,” Newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 24 August 2020, accessed 14 September 2020, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/elder-cook-byu-faculty-build-faith-jesus-christ.
 Genesis 9:20-27, NRSV.
 The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, ed. Michael D. Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 22-24.
 D. M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Princeton and Oxford, 2003), 170.
 MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 868). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. See also D. B. Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, 2006), 55.
 See Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 16, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V08N01_13.pdf.
 See Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham, 168-177.
 See Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham, 7.
 Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 16.
 If we look outside of a literalist approach to the Bible as well, further problems emerge with the story. Simply put, there is not a lot of strong evidence we can find outside of the Bible that the early stories in Genesis are historical fact. Instead, there is considerable evidence that modern humans developed in eastern Africa and migrated out from there (without a catastrophic flood interrupting that migration) rather than the idea that all humans descended from Noah’s three sons, spreading out from a post-diluvian landing in the ancient Near East (See, for example, Jiu-Hwa L. Upshur, Janice J. Terry, James P. Holoka, Richard D. Goff, and George H. Cassar, Comprehensive Volume: World History, 4th edition [Wadsworth Group, 2002], 2-3. For an easily accessible (if not exactly peer-reviewed) source, see https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-human-migration-13561/). There is also considerable evidence that the Torah as we have received it reached its final form during the Babylonian Captivity (i.e., the sixth century B.C.) rather than during Moses’s time. Taking that into account with the possibility that the story of Noah cursing Canaan was shaped to justify Israelite conquest of Canaanite lands, this indicates that the story may be an example of exploitation followed by justification from its outset.
 “Letter to Oliver Cowdery, circa 9 April 1836,” p. 290, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 12, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-oliver-cowdery-circa-9-april-1836/2
 Minutes 26 March 1847, Brigham Young Papers.
 Armand L. Mauss, “Dispelling the Curse of Cain, Or How to Explain the Old Priesthood Ban Without Looking Ridiculous,” Sunstone October 2004, pp. 56-61, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/134-56-61.pdf.
 Smith, Joseph F. (c. 1879). “Joseph F. Smith biographical transcript for Elijah Able, Joseph F. Smith Papers” (PDF). The Joseph Smith Papers Project. Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Brigham Young Papers, March 26, 1846, LDS Church Archives.
 Minutes of the Seventies Journal, kept by Hazen Aldrich, 20 Dec. 1836, LDS Church Archives. See “Elijah Abel bapt for John F. Lancaster a friend,” as contained in Nauvoo Temple Records Book A100, LDS Church Archives. Also see two other entries in this same record: “Delila Abel bapt in the instance of Elisha [sic] Abel. Rel son. Bapt 1840, Book A page l”and “Delila Abel Bapt. in the instance of Elijah Abel 1841, Rel. Dau. Book A page 5.”
 “Report of the Presidency” at General Conference, 3-5 Oct. 1840, in Times & Seasons, 1:188, or History of the Church, 4:213.
 Genesis 16:1-4, NRSV.
 Genesis 38:1-5, NRSV.
 Genesis 46:10.
 Genesis 41:45, 50-52, NRSV. Some efforts have been made to try and distance Asenath (and Ephraim and Manasseh by extension) from being Egyptian by claiming that Joseph was in Egypt during the period that the Hyksos ruled and that therefore she would likely be Hyksos rather than Egyptian. In addition, some Biblical midrash claims that she was actually a daughter who was conceived by Shechem’s rape of Dinah (Joseph’s sister) and who ended up being adopted by Potiphera. The problem with these arguments in the context of the priesthood ban is that the Hyksos are most likely a Canaanite people and Shechem was also a Canaanite (see Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Bibilcal World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology [New York: Bonanza Books, 1966], 298-299). Thus, no matter how you cut it, Asenath would almost certainly have been either Canaanite or Egyptian, either of which would have placed her descendants under the priesthood ban according to how the Book of Abraham has historically been interpreted.
 Numbers 12:1.
 D&C 132:39.
 “Now Sheshan had no sons, only daughters; but Sheshan had an Egyptian slave, whose name was Jarha. So Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage to his slave Jarha; and she bore him Attai. Attai became the father of Nathan, and Nathan of Zabad” (1 Chronicles 2:34-36, NRSV).
 See Matthew 1:5, Luke 3:32.
 Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 133 – 134.
 Alma Allred, “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings,” in Black and Mormon, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, Kindle Edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 45-46. Note that I’m not able to capture all the nuances of his argument here in the brief summary I’ve provided, so I recommend reading the full essay.