From the Archives: “Who May Bear the Priesthood?”

By July 21, 2012

I came across an intriguing article not long ago, published in a 1927 issue of the Cumorah Monthly Bulletin. The Bulletin was the official publication of the South African Mission from 1927-1970.[1] I suppose you know what’s coming next based on the title of this post, so I might as well get right to it.


This is a subject of frequent inquiry in the South African Mission, where so many good people are unable to declare, with certainty, a genealogy pure from the Hamite or Canaanitish blood.[2]

In 1927 questions about priesthood restrictions preventing black Africans from being ordained were “of frequent inquiry in the South African Mission.” Although the mention of “pure” genealogy or blood is a recurrence of similar statements from Utah leaders, mission president Samuel Martin (the article’s author) presents an argument I had not encountered before. Citing John the Baptist’s ordination of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, President Martin states:

He [John the Baptist] gave no wider privileges to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery than were enjoyed in the days of Moses and Aaron regarding the Hamite or Canaanitish race receiving the authority of the Priesthood, and although at times where there is only an indication of the dark skin and the withholding of the Priesthood may seem an hardship, the servants of God dare not presume to confer it, but humbly submit to His judgement.[3]

President Smith links the contemporary interpretations of Old Testament priesthood restrictions (curse of Cain/Ham = dark skin/slavery) to John the Baptist’s conferral of the Aaronic Priesthood.  Maybe this is not necessarily novel, but it is an example of a church leader outside of the Mormon Corridor preaching such folklore to a dominantly black nation. Intriguing stuff. So, feel free to read the entire article and continue the discussion here.


[1] Samuel Martin, “Who May Bear the Priesthood?”, Cumorah Monthly Bulletin (July 15, 1927), Vol. 1, No. 2, 1:

[2] LDS Church News, “Country information: South Africa”, LDS Church News (February 1, 2012):

[3] Samuel Martin, “Who May Bear the Priesthood?”, Cumorah Monthly Bulletin (July 15, 1927), Vol. 1, No. 2, 3:

Article filed under From the Archives


  1. Nice find, Tod. This is a really fascinating entry. I don’t think I’ve run across such a direct reference to John the Baptist either.

    Thanks for drawing attention to the resources on the Archives page. The Church has been putting up a lot of other mission publications.

    Comment by Jared T — July 22, 2012 @ 1:21 am

  2. Very, very interesting Tod. Thanks. I think international sources like this are going to be crucial to scholarship on the priesthood ban and Mormonism and race moving forward. Friend of JI Jeff Cannon has done some research on Mormonism in South Africa; let’s hope he sees this and weighs in.

    Comment by Christopher — July 22, 2012 @ 6:36 am

  3. This is really interesting. Do you know what it took to prove “a genealogy pure from the Hamite or Canaanitish blood” in South Africa?

    Comment by Kevin G. — July 22, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

  4. Very cool find. And ditto about drawing attention to the page.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 22, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

  5. This is a great find, Tod. Thanks for posting it. You’re right that this is a fascinating way of justifying the ban, not only in content but also context. I’m also interested to know what Jeff Cannon has to say about this.

    Comment by David G. — July 23, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

  6. This is a really interesting find. Thanks, Tod.

    Rather than the issue of ordination for black Africans, who in 1927 were not being actively proselytized because of the priesthood ban then in effect, is the ordination of men who appeared white. This gives some context to the lengthy discussion of mixing races in Samuel Martin?s full article. Prior to David O. McKay?s visit in 1954 all men in Africa were required to trace their ancestry out of the continent. In some cases, men who bore no physical manifestation of black ancestry were denied ordination because their genealogical research ran into black lines six or seven generations in the past or because they simply could not produce any records tracing their ancestry outside of Africa. McKay changed the policy, allowing ordination for those who otherwise appeared white, even if they could not prove their lack of African blood.

    I find one point of particular interest in Samuel Martin?s argument that John the Baptist ?gave no wider privileges . . . regarding the Hamite or Canaanitish race? and that is that by conferring the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who were not Levites, John had already given wider privileges outside the previously designated tribe. The canonical account of John the Baptist?s visit from D&C 13 (which Martin reproduces in his article) actually seems to make a point of the Aaronic Priesthood then being given outside the previously designated tribe. No mention is made that the priesthood thus bestowed on non-Levites (i.e., JS and OC) should not be bestowed on non-Levites descended from Ham.

    Comment by Jeffrey Cannon — July 23, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  7. Jeffrey,

    Those are some fabulous points. Was McKay’s change to the previous policy published in the Priesthood Bulletin?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 24, 2012 @ 12:20 pm


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