The cosmology of the “priesthood” restriction

By February 8, 2013

In this post, I use the term ?cosmological priesthood? to describe the sacerdotal network of heaven and earth as mediated through the Nauvoo Temple. This network comprised priesthood, salvation, kinship, and government relationships. Participants in the Nauvoo temple quorums referred to their organization and this cosmology as simply, the ?priesthood.? Before reading this post, I heartily recommend reading this excerpt from my adoption paper that shortly introduces and contextualizes this usage, and more preferably pp. 56-81 of the paper.

The cosmological priesthood incorporated familial relationships, and as reified in Temple practice on earth, the most exalted station of human kind was to be king and priest, or queen and priestess over one?s progeny, biological or adoptive, throughout all eternity.[n1] The primary justification for sealing children to parents from Nauvoo to the early twentieth century was to establish heirship to the cosmological priesthood. As the governing quorums declared in preparation for the return of the temples in Utah, ?Which of them, if he understands the laws of God, can feel indifferent as to whether his wife shall be his for eternity or for time only; or whether his children shall be born in the covenant and be legal heirs to the priesthood or have to become such by adoption??[n2] Though addressed to men, implicit in this statement is the belief that both men and women had to become heirs to the priesthood network of heaven.

It is with this context that Brigham Young?s justification for excluding black people from the temple liturgy (the cosmological priesthood) and the administrative priesthood, which are so incongruous to current church members, become at least coherent. Historians frequently describe the liturgical exclusion of black people before 1978 as a ?priesthood ban? but it was far more than a ban on the administrative priesthood of the church. Despite a precedent of priesthood ordination for black men, after leaving Nauvoo and over a protracted period, Brigham Young formulated a policy that prohibited all black people, both men and women, from participation in the temple liturgy, and incidentally barred black men from priesthood office.[n3]

As a justification for this exclusion, Young translated the common Christian beliefs that black people were descendants of Cain and/or Ham into the cosmology of the Nauvoo Temple. In doing so he crafted a new Genesis narrative. In a February 12, 1849 meeting, Apostle Lorenzo Snow ?presented the case of the African Race for a chance of redemption & unlock the door to them.? Brigham Young responded and ?explained it very lucidly that the curse remains on them bec[ause] Cain cut off the lives of Abel to hedge up his way & take the lead but the L[or]d has given them blackness, so as to give the children of Abel an opportunity to keep his place with his desc[endent]s in the et[erna]l worlds.?[n4] Though Thomas Bullock?s longhand notes are somewhat disjointed, the narrative which Young repeated frequently throughout his life is clear. Murder has never had the systematic ramifications in Mormon thought that Young ascribed to Cain?s fratricide. But Young taught that Cain?s murder of Abel represented more than a killing, it was an attempt to cut off Abel?s posterity qua kingdom in the cosmological priesthood–a strike at the fabric of the cosmos.[n5] As a consequence, Young taught, black men and women were not to be integrated into that priesthood until Abel?s posterity was somehow restored. The administrative priesthood restriction that was an incidental manifestation of this fractured human network obfuscates the degree to which black Mormon women and men like Jane Manning James were not to be integrated into the family of God. That she was sealed in an ad hoc temple ritual to be a servant to Joseph Smith was not because John Taylor or other Church leaders viewed black people as eternally servants, but because it was the only way to link her to Joseph Smith without integrating her into the priesthood family.

Brigham Young?s narrative remained the de facto explanation of the temple and priesthood restrictions for several decades after he passed away (see, e.g., here). However with the shift in priesthood language, and the associated decline in the cosmological priesthood as a means of comprehending the temple, Young?s narrative became incongruous to church members and leaders, who found other explanations, like premortal valiancy, to have much greater explanatory power.[n6] Additionally the incomprehensibility of Young?s narrative resulted in a focus on the exclusion of black men from the administrative priesthood as the locus of restriction and deemphasized the temple restriction on both women and men. Moreover, the inability to understand Young’s basis for cleaving the human family has resulted in a narrative of plausible ignorance of the origins of the restriction.


  1. Stapley, ?Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,? JMH.
  2. Brigham Young et al., Letter to Bishops and Members, October 25, 1876, in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965?75), 2:279.
  3. The most comprehensive treatment of this shift is W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), esp. ch. 3-5.
  4. General Church Minutes, February 13, 1849, digital images of manuscript, CR 100 318, Box 2, fd. 8, LDS Church History Library.
  5. See particularly BY’s 1846 dream/vision of Joseph Smith, the premortal world, and the cosmological priesthood, in which the pattern on earth was an attempt to restore premortal order. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” 79-80.
  6. Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, ch. 6.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. As we learn more about the history of the early church it seems likely that our history might yet become like that of the Catholic Church where we will have our “good popes and our bad popes”. Brigham Young already seems to have crossed the line and my sense it will only get worse for him as more research is done. More important for Latter-day Saints is how to find the way to get “good fruit” from a bad tree. How do we acknowledge Young’s work for the church and not acknowledge that fundamentally much of his “doctrine” would be reprehensible to many church members today, and when compared to many great religious leaders, even some of his time, he would be found lacking. Was he the most flawed of our leaders or are we in for a wild ride as much more is written about the others that succeeded him?

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — February 8, 2013 @ 8:52 am

  2. Thanks Ignacio. I’m a huge proponent of looking to the Roman Catholic tradition. E.g., the modernist crisis of the late 19th and early 20th century makes for some insightful comparative analysis. Though I don’t think I like the polarity of good/bad in this instance. My general shtick is that we should exercise great compassion, charity and empathy as we approach historical figures (well, anyone really). I understand that many believing Latter-day Saints found, e.g., Rough Stone Rolling difficult to process. I imagine that a similar reader might choke on Turner’s Pioneer Prophet. My opinion is that subsequent Church Presidents are likely to be more palatable to modern readers.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  3. Fantastic, J.

    Comment by Ben P — February 8, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  4. Brilliant and innovative, J. To me, it’s a chicken and an egg thing about the priesthood and the temple (I think the ban on black priesthood holders came first, but as you so clearly demonstrate, one cannot separate the priesthood from the temple).

    Wonderful and powerful

    Comment by Max — February 8, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  5. J, To what extent, if any, do you think Young used his interpretation of scripture to justify (or mask) an underlying prejudice? Do you find any evidence of clear, unmistakable racial prejudice in Young’s thought, speech, or actions?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 8, 2013 @ 11:12 am

  6. Great stuff.

    (Question: Was Jane actually sealed as a servant to the Smith family? I thought that that was an offer they made to her, which she declined.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 8, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  7. Point well taken J about being compasionate and understanding of other people. But as a person of color I am not as willing to be nonchalant about people’s racial views or their “cosmology”. Seeing some people as less capable of receiving God’s full love is racism no matter how the view is couched. In this sense Brigham’s views were no less racist than the other religious racial theories of the time. I always tell my students that they cannot excuse Mormons for things they condemn on others. I don’t particularly dislike Brigham Young but it has been years since I’ve looked to him as a spiritual leader. I only dread what we will discover about his views and some of his co-horts of Mexicans. We already know Moses Thatcher’s during his mission to Mexico. Caramba!

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — February 8, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  8. Also, what do you think of the line of thought that what really drove BY over the rails on this issue was the prospect of miscegenation among the races? Not too long before his negative statements in 1852 he had said something about there being no problem with the blood of blacks, but after one or two black elders married white women, he seemed to lose it. That seems like it might mesh with this temple priesthood idea.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 8, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  9. Interesting.


    Murder has never had the systematic ramifications in Mormon thought that Young ascribed to Cain?s fratricide. But Young taught that Cain?s murder of Abel represented more than a killing, it was an attempt to cut off Abel?s posterity qua kingdom in the cosmological priesthood?a strike at the fabric of the cosmos.

    is reminiscent of the Talmud’s commentary on murder.

    Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

    – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a)

    Comment by Ben S — February 8, 2013 @ 11:32 am

  10. This helps fill in a large part of the saga of the priesthood/temple restriction. I agree with what Ignacio and J said, Brigham Young’s personality and theology can be incredibly difficult to swallow, even just to understand.

    I hope you flesh this out into an article, J!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 8, 2013 @ 11:33 am

  11. Do you have a reference for when the shift happened from the cosmology to the preexistece for justification?

    Comment by Jessica F — February 8, 2013 @ 11:36 am

  12. Thanks all.

    Gary, Brigham Young made statements that were entirely consistent with the racism of the period. E.g., he made pejorative comments about “niggers.” I don’t have enough information to know whether the construction of this narrative was a conscious attempt to validate such sentiments. I tend to think not, but I honestly don’t know.

    Kevin, near the end of her life Jane remembered JS offering to adopt her in Nauvoo and declining. There are aspects of that that seem sketchy to me, but we don’t have much else to go on. Later, at the end of the century, in an effort to placate her desire for participation in the temple liturgy, the FP sealed her as a servant to JS. As noted, I think the best place to look forward to the chronology of the restriction and the relating events/pressures, is to look forward to PAul’s book. Sorry for the cop-out.

    Ignacio, fair enough.

    And Ben, that is really interesting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  13. Jessica, it is early/mid 20th century. Paul’s book will hit on it. And while I have a lot of primary sources documenting the shift, I don’t think there is anything currently published.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  14. Excellent point about the usage of the term “priesthood ban” as it does not just apply to administrative priesthood. It is interesting to think how the usage of the terms also may exclude black Mormon women from the conversation. Your post does a lot to begin to rectify that and leads to even more thinking on the subject. Thanks!

    Comment by NatalieR — February 8, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  15. This is really helpful. I look forward to further discussions during this month here at JI.

    Comment by Saskia — February 8, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  16. Brilliant, as always J. I’d really like to see your ideas make it into a book (or books) at some point. Journal articles and blog posts are important steps, but books seem to have broader and longer lasting impact.

    Comment by David G. — February 8, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

  17. “The inability to understand Young?s basis for cleaving the human family has resulted in a narrative of plausible ignorance of the origins of the restriction.”

    Causation is up for discussion here, I believe. Was the ensuing confusion caused by (i) the inability to understand Young’s basis (e.g., Cain’s attempt to cut off Abel from cosmological, progenical heirship), or was is caused by (ii) Young’s application of this rationale to only blacks? For example, when frontier Saints killed other men (e.g., Indians, “outsiders”, outlaws, enemies of the Saints, etc.), BY did not pronounce the same condemning and color-cursing of the white murder as he ascribes to Cain. In other words, white murders were not as “cut off” as blacks were. Otherwise, no race would be able to enter the temple as all races can be traced back to a murderer at some point. I think you suggest as much when you say, “Murder has never had the systematic ramifications in Mormon thought that Young ascribed to Cain?s fratricide.”

    I’m just not convinced there is any real “misunderstanding” here. Seems like the alleged “misunderstood” Cain/Able rationale is just that: a religious rationale for racist motives.

    Comment by observer fka eric s — February 8, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  18. Thanks for the encouragement David. I’ve got some things brewing in that direction. I just need to commit and then make time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

  19. wow…, what an interesting article!
    each time i reflect on BY and the context, with which the priesthood ban became enforced, i wonder how future generations will view our present stand on certain issues…
    in the end, Charity & Understanding, are all we have to make do with.

    Comment by FrancisE. — February 8, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

  20. It’s not just for Brigham Young, et al but the entire purpose of the Priesthood and its covenants and ordinances is to unlock the door that makes exaltation possible. Naturally, the ordinances and covenants lead to the temple and priesthood ordinance was the first step.

    Unless I’m misunderstanding though how you see Pres. Young’s subsequent statements that they’d receive the Priesthood? Specifically this, lazily dug up on wiki –

    “And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the Holy Priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to… If the Lord could have his own way, he would have all the human family to enter into his church and kingdom, receive the Holy Priesthood and come into the celestial kingdom of our Father and God, by the power of their own choice.”

    He seems to be teaching what you suggest he’s not teaching, right? He said they’ll receive all the blessings we now are entitled.

    Comment by kaphor — February 8, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

  21. kaphor, I don’t think I am following you. He taught that when Able’s posterity was somehow restored and integrated into the priesthood network then black people, who he believed were decedents of Cain would be integrated into the priesthood. I’m not sure what you are saying I’m suggesting he didn’t teach.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

  22. Innovative and cogent, J. Nicely done.

    Comment by Ryan T — February 8, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

  23. Goof stuff, J. I don’t have anything to add to others’ insightful comments and questions other than my thanks for this thoughtful and innovative take.

    Comment by Christopher — February 8, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

  24. Great stuff, J.

    Comment by WVS — February 9, 2013 @ 1:57 am

  25. Excellent, J. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 9, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  26. Really interesting blog J. and I think you are definitely on to something.

    I do have two comments – both lengthy so I will split them into two posts.

    First, I don?t believe that Emma originally asked Jane to be adopted to her and Joseph as a child, although in 1893 that?s what Jane believed retroactively, when she dictated her autobiography ? or at least what she wanted others to believe. Given the context of when and where Emma?s request was made, I believe it is likely that Emma approached Jane to be sealed to Joseph as a wife, not a child. Jane herself admitted that she did not understand at the time the request that Emma made.

    I don?t believe any others were adopted to Joseph and Emma while he was alive, since the adoptive sealing was allegedly the highest temple ordinance performed and it must be officiated within a temple proper.

    Were others asked by Emma to be adopted to them? No. But note that she did ask other women ? in fact the Partridge and Lawrence sisters who were living with Jane ? to be sealed to Joseph as ?his Spiritual.?

    Why else would Jane have turned Emma down? I suppose she could have been afraid that if she were in fact ?adopted? to Joseph and Emma that she would lose her connection to her own mother and step-father (Cato Treadwell) who were both there in Nauvoo. Did Jane then misinterpret Emma or did she just not want to be sealed to Joseph as a wife? The latter seems far more likely. Then once temples had been constructed in Utah, Jane resurrected Emma?s request. But if Joseph had asked her to be sealed to him as a Spiritual, what would the clearly anti-miscegenist church leaders have thought of her request? With utter disgust and contempt most likely. I can thus easily see her modifying the story to be about an adoptive sealing, which had become so prominent in the temples at that time.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 9, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  27. No. 2

    J., as for James?s singular eternal servitude sealing of May 19, 1894, I think you too easily dismiss (or at least mollify) church leaders? racism as a motive for officiating at it. I believe Wilford Woodruff and his 2nd Counselor Joseph F. Smith (who officiated and stood as posthumous proxy for his uncle) BOTH only saw people of African descent as divinely-appointed, eternal servants AND this racist sealing ritual was the only way to link Jane James to Joseph without tainting the Smith ?priesthood family? with her black blood.

    As for integration into Joseph?s priesthood family, I must point out that this ad hoc ritual did not ?attach? Jane James to just Joseph Smith. The 1894 ceremonial wording twice connected Jane to Smith?s entire family as a ?Servitor for eternity? and lastly, Jane was pronounced to be ?a Servitor to the Prophet Joseph Smith?and to his household for all eternity.? Thus Jane literally was made an eternal servant to Joseph Smith, all his 33 (plus?) wives, all his biological children, his several civilly adopted children, all the scores of women who were posthumously sealed to Joseph Smith, all their children, and to all the men and women who were sealed by proxy to Joseph Smith as his adoptive children ? that vast web of priesthood family that Smith conjured in his cosmology is now to be serviced for eternity by one black woman.

    I find the following elements particularly troubling:

    1) Holding it in the temple when other sealings had been done all across the plains, on Ensign Peak, and Brigham Young?s office ? even after the Salt Lake Endowment House was dedicated; this prevented Jane James from physically being present herself
    2) Instead, the minutes report, ?Bathsheba W. Smith as proxy for Jane Elizabeth Manning James (living)?. Why Bathsheba and not one of Smith?s five surviving plural wives? Bathsheba W. Bigler Smith was a southerner, born in Virginia (a slave state), whose mother, Susanna Ogden Bigler, had grown up in a wealthy, slave-owning family
    3) Jane (via Bathsheba) was admonished to ?be obedient to him [Joseph] in all things in the Lord,? further enunciating her inferior position to Smith
    4) The general Mormon attitude was that theologically, cosmologically Blacks could only be cursed, as with their ancestor Cain, to be ?servants of servants? ? barbers, hotel porters, maids, footmen, cooks, laundresses, etc. They could be allowed to wield no sacerdotal or civic administrative authority over anyone white, regardless. Thus the anger of Augusta Adams Cobb (second plural wife of Brigham Young) when she was a servant to a woman she only referred to as ?Mrs. G.? ? in September 1852 she wrote to Brigham, ?last winter I felt as if I was a servant to servants for if the blood of Cain is not in Mrs. G. I will never try to guess again, if I can help it.?

    Understandably Jane was at best not satisfied with this unparalleled temple ritual, and just months renewed her petition ?to admit her to Temple ordinances,? which reached the First Presidency on August 22, 1895.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 9, 2013 @ 11:49 am

  28. I think Connell is exactly right in asserting that Jane was offered as a wife. As Jonathan points out in his adoption article, there were no sealings of parents to children during JS’s lifetime. The only sealings were marriages. Jane also mentions being overjoyed when she first heard about plural marriage from JS’s wives. Why would she be so happy about it?

    Also JS himself may have been the one who was reticent about marrying Jane since he had said he would “confine them to their own species” (is that the right wording?) and had fined two black men in Nauvoo for attempting to marry white women. JS was apparently very kind to Jane but may have been sqeemish about marriage.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 9, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  29. Connell (and Steve) I tend to agree that if a sealing was offered in Nauvoo that it would have been for marriage. For the reasons you both point out, an offer as an adoptive child doesn’t make sense at all. As to whether a sealing as wife was offered, I think it is a plausible reconstruction, but without more information it is hard to be definitive.

    Your second comment is important Connell, and I appreciate it. That whole episode in the temple is brutal. The reason I make the claim that they didn’t view black people as eternally servants is because they do virtually all agree that black people will eventually be integrated into the priesthood network at some point in the future. I agree that their positions regarding black people in this life and in the immediate future was not so encouraging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 9, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  30. Also, as an additional bit of context for the James sealing. When the temples returned, the adoption sealing ritual was modified. Instead of being a sealing to a couple it was a sealing to a man and a diffuse female line, impying a broader connection (perhaps similar to though not nearly as broad as household).

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 9, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  31. Cursing what amounts to millions (billions?) of people throughout history for one man’s action is ridiculous. BY suffers from imposing his ideas on a historical Cain figure. From the story, Cain didn’t know about “the fabric of the cosmos” and eternal ramifications of his action, it simply sounds like a simple crime of passion (jealousy). Being denied inclusion simply because of where your ancestors lived (and developed more pigmentation) is, at it’s core, racism.

    The LDS religion rejects the Catholic idea of “Original Sin” by deeming that all children are born blameless, yet, for most of it’s history also adhered to the idea that if you were born with skin too dark, you were to be excluded from parts of their org.

    It is really hard to see it for anything else than original racist ideas perpetuated until the civil rights environment in the US occurred.

    Comment by Eddie C. — February 9, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

  32. Eddie, it may very well be ridiculous, but it is an idea that virtually every Christian believed for several hundred years before the restriction was in place. There is beginning to be a nice body of literature on the topic. The point isn’t what Cain knew or if Cain existed. From our modern perspective of course the idea that black people are decedents of Cain or Ham is silly.

    Now as I mentioned JS and other early Mormon’s ordained black people. The point of this post is to make some sense of beliefs of the Mormons who brought the restriction into place and then maintained it. The idea that the narrative was invented out of thin air because of racism not only doesn’t jibe with the documents of our past, but it isn’t helpful, I think, in learning from that past.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 9, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

  33. Okay I see your point Jonathan. Still, with this “brutal” ritual, the profoundly faithful Jane James was made an eternal servant – so she alone is eternally blessed/cursed with such a charge. With all other faithful Black people now being integrated into the cosmological priesthood web, only Jane remains a “Servitor for eternity”. That seems incredibly unjust to her memory.

    It might behoove believing Mormons to petition to have this unique sealing ritual canceled.

    Oh! I just thought of something else! (Here comes my Homosexual Agenda:) If the LDS sealing power is expansive and elastic enough to seal a black servant to Joseph and his household for eternity, is it not likewise expansive and elastic enough to do something far more positive and affirming by sealing Gay and Lesbian couples together, so they too can join the cosmological LDS priesthood family?

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 9, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  34. I think it is possible that the offer for Jane involved plural marriage. She was aware of the practice and talks about the plural marriages of the Partridge and the Lawrence sisters in her history–and of course tried to get into the temple on the strength of Q. Walker Lewis’s priesthood, claiming that he had proposed plural marriage to her during his brief stay in Utah.

    When we filmed our documentary interviws, Newell Bringhurst had one moment of rolling his eyes and exclaiming, “Brigham Young was such a racist!” It was an entertaining moment, but not one we included in the completed doc.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 9, 2013 @ 11:53 pm

  35. Connell, I’d be shocked if it hasn’t been cancelled already. I’m not sure how we would go about verifying that, though.

    Thanks for stopping by, Margaret and for the interesting anecdote.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 10, 2013 @ 2:56 pm


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