Found in the Archives: Joseph F. Smith, Jr., letter to Alfred M. Nelson, January 13, 1907

By October 3, 2012

I don’t remember what I was looking for specifically; it was in August, 2007. When I am rolling through microfilm, I have the habit of stopping at random spots–a researcher’s version of the lottery. I’ve come out the winner on more than one occasion. It is an experience that is difficult to replicate in the digital source mining I often do from home. That day I found a previously unpublished letter from Joseph F. Smith, Jr. The topic: blacks and the priesthood.

[Joseph F. Smith, Jr., letter to Alfred M. Nelson, January 13, 1907, Salt Lake City, microfilm of original typescript, MS 14591, LDS Church Archives.]

LDS Historian’s Office
Alfred M. Nelson, Tooele, Ut.
Dear Brother:-

I received your letter of the 28th inst the following day, but on account of the pressure of other matters have delayed the reply until now.

There is nothing in our standard works, nor any authoritative statement to the effect that one third of the hosts of heaven remained neutral in the great conflict and that the colored races are of that neutral class. The statement has been put forth at various times until ^the belief^ it has become quite general that the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest. But this is not the official position of the Church, merely the opinion of men. In the Pearl of Great Price we learn that the children of Ham were cursed as pertaining to the Priesthood, but no reason is there expressed. Tradition states that the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the reason why the children of Cain cannot receive the Priesthood is that Cain cut his brother Abel off from the earth before he had seed, and therefore the Lord declared that Cain’s posterity cannot hold the Priesthood until Such time and place as Abel shall have posterity, which of course will not be in this mortal life. Whether this is true or not, – and I believe it is – the fact remains that the children of Cain cannot hold the Priesthood, but this does not debar other colored races.

Jos. F. Smith Jr

This letter is particularly important as the young, not-yet-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, documents a transition period in the development of popular Mormon theology regarding people of black African ancestry. Brigham Young had clearly outlined reasoning for the priesthood and temple restrictions that required a cosmology and language that had been nearly outmoded. The restrictions required a justification and the church had not yet developed a system of doctrinal consistency. Folk channels of instruction were still paramount in the church. And Joseph Fielding Smith decries beliefs that in subsequent decades became so compelling that the First Presidency and later he himself would defend as “doctrinal.”

Article filed under Miscellaneous Race


  1. I do the same thing. I just can’t whip through film without stopping, and often there is some little, and sometimes some large, reward. Great find.

    Comment by WVS — October 3, 2012 @ 8:02 am

  2. Ah, the researcher’s lottery. I can’t count the number of times I’ve done similar things and the percentage of time that it’s paid off is quite remarkable. Thanks for sharing this letter J. This is an important snap-shot of developing theology.

    Comment by Robin — October 3, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  3. What a great find–for many reasons! Thanks, J.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 3, 2012 @ 9:54 am

  4. Great find, J. And fun game.

    Comment by David G. — October 3, 2012 @ 10:54 am

  5. This is a great find. I recently did some research on this issue in connection with Nephi Anderson–and I brought in Joseph Fielding Smith’s stance on the neutrality theory. I think it’s interesting that he always remained firm on the neutrality fallacy–even as he affirmed the rightness of the priesthood ban. This was not the case for his fellow apostle George F. Richards, who was still citing neutrality of spirits as the reason for the priesthood ban in General Conference in 1939.

    Comment by Scott Hales — October 3, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  6. Interesting letter. I wonder who Alfred Nelson was and why he was asking about the topic.

    It looks like he was born and died in Tooele (1878-1965). He was of Swedish parentage and was president of the Tooele County Board of Education and assistant postmaster.

    Previous to that, he was the head of the commercial department at Weber Academy in Ogden, a missionary in Sweden, principal of Tooele High School, leader of the Tooele Military Band and Tooele Orchestra, and a violin teacher.

    It sounds like he was a talented and energetic and intelligent man and perhaps if he lived nowadays he would be an active member of the Bloggernacle. : )

    Comment by Amy T — October 3, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  7. Thanks all.

    Scott, it is my memory that JFSII eventually advocated for this position later in life. I’ll have to go through my materials when I am able to confirm, though. Also, Nephi Anderson wasn’t the first, but it is a tremendous example of his influence.

    I appreciate the background. I had done some searching and found some similar information. But when it came time to put the post together, I ran out of time and went with the above. That he was in a position of educational influence is, I think, very notable.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 3, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  8. Fascinating, J. This letter shows that the Saints were, it seems, constantly working and re-working this theology (and as Scott points out this re-working continued after the end of the ban!).

    Comment by Max — October 3, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  9. Fascinating find, J. I wondered the same things as Amy T–who was Alfred Nelson (thanks for the biographical info, Amy!) and why was he asking? And as Max notes, this letter illustrates how little we still understand about the complicated ebbs and flows of Mormonism’s theological justifications for its policies of priesthood and temple exclusion.

    Comment by Christopher — October 3, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  10. J.,

    I just checked my “Doctrines of Salvation” (vol. 1, pp.65-66) and it seems we’re both right in a sense. Smith firmly rejected the idea that there were neutrals in the war in heaven. However, he strongly hints at the idea that those who were born with black skin were less valiant than those born with white. His wording in “Doctrines of Salvation” is very telling. In the end, his belief was not much different from the neutrality theory.

    Comment by Scott Hales — October 3, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

  11. The theory I heard from others during the period of the ban was not that those individuals were neutral, but that they favored the plan (that is why they came to earth) but were “less valiant” in favoring it. Whatever that means.

    Comment by DavidH — October 3, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  12. This is an excellent find. And I am glad to know I am not the only one who plays the researcher’s lottery.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 4, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  13. […] began scanning every page to my thumb drive. About 40 or 50 pages in, I decided to play what J. Stapley aptly referred to as the “researcher’s lottery,” stopping on a random page and hoping for an […]

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