Stephen Smoot addresses Dan Vogel's argument about race in the Pearl of Great Price.

Academic / Technical Report
Stephen O. Smoot

Stephen O. Smoot, "Framing the Book of Abraham: Presumptions and Paradigms," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 47 (2021): 302-304

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship
Joseph Smith, Jr., Dan Vogel, Stephen O. Smoot
Reading Public

Race, the Priesthood Ban, and the Book of Abraham

The issue of race in the Book of Abraham and the nature of the priesthood “curse” described at Abraham 1:23–27 is one that will likely continue to provoke strong feelings, especially among readers living in the United States who are still grappling with the deeply regrettable legacy of anti-black racism in America. The sad reality is that historically, and in some lingering cases even today, Latter-day Saints have used the Book of Abraham to justify racist policies and attitudes, chief among them the pre-1978 prohibition on men of African descent from holding priesthood offices and the restriction on both men and women of African descent from participating in temple ordinances. Although contemporary leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have officially rejected attempts to use scriptural justification for these past racist policies and teachings, this does not change the unfortunate ways in which Latter-day Saints have used scripture in what can charitably be called deeply flawed and misapplied readings.

As would be expected, Vogel sees the Book of Abraham as the product of Joseph Smith’s nineteenth century racist ideas about the origins of people of African descent (95–117). As Vogel correctly notes, a number of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, like generations of Christians before the nineteenth century, read certain passages in the book of Genesis (such as the enigmatic story of Noah cursing of his son Ham in Genesis 9 and details about the descendants of Ham in the so-called Table of Nations in Genesis 10:6–20) to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. For Vogel, Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions are merely the outgrowth of these racist theories.

“As early as 1831,” Vogel writes, “Smith’s revelations explained that the mark God had put upon Cain for murdering his brother, Abel, was black skin” (108). To support this, Vogel cites Moses 7:8, 22, which speaks of how in vision the prophet Enoch saw that the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people. … [And he] beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

He likewise draws attention to Joseph Smith’s revision or translation of Genesis 9 (KJV 9:25–26), which reads, “And he said cursed be Canaan a Servent of servents shall he be unto his breatheren and he said blessed be the Lord God of Shem and Canaan shall be his servent and a vail of darkness shall cover him that he shall be known among all men." As Vogel goes on to argue, the Book of Abraham merely amplified Joseph Smith’s racist predilections enshrined in his prophetic engagement with the biblical text. “In the intervening years between working on his Bible revision and dictating the text of the Book of Abraham, Smith modified his ideas about the origin of the Black race” (109).

The most glaring problem with Vogel’s argument, of course, is that these passages say positively nothing about Cain’s descendants having black skin. If, as Vogel believes, Joseph Smith was conjuring the contents of his “new translation” of the Bible from his own mind, there was nothing to stop him from explicitly making black skin the mark of Cain’s descendants. But the text never actually does this. Instead, it uses the much more abstract “blackness” and “darkness” to describe the people. Vogel infers that Moses 7:8 “seemed to allude to Africa” (109) but provides no justification for this reading beyond his own supposition. What’s more, the opening chapter of the Book of Moses subverts Vogel’s reading, and supports the notion that the “blackness” of the children of Cain and Canaan, and later the “veil of darkness” over Canaan, was not skin pigmentation, but a withdrawal of the glory of God from among the people. Moses 1:15 describes how Moses could detect Satan’s deception because the latter’s “glory” was “darkness” unto him compared to God’s own incomparable glory. In OT1 this passage reads that Satan’s glory was “blackness” unto Moses, thus providing a clear thematic link with Enoch’s prophecy later in Moses 7. This, of course, is in strict keeping with ancient Jewish idiom, which uses “darkness” to describe evildoers, demons and their realm, and those who are in a spiritually benighted state. Ironically, Vogel is imposing on the text of both the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham the same racist (mis)reading that Latter-day Saints after Joseph Smith’s death imposed on these texts.

The glaring problem for Vogel and others who wish to portray Joseph Smith as imbibing in commonplace nineteenth century American racism with his scriptural productions is that there is “no contemporary evidence” that the Prophet ever appealed to either the Book of Moses or the Book of Abraham in his racial thinking. Indeed, “There is no [Page 304]evidence that during his lifetime [Joseph] Smith or any of his followers cited the book of Abraham to deny black Mormon men the priesthood.” Vogel admits that “how [the Book of Abraham’s teachings] applied to Smith’s church [sic], and the priesthood Smith established, was never explicitly stated during Smith’s lifetime” (110), which is a bashful way of conceding that he has no actual evidence for this reading that he merely assumes must have originated with the Prophet. “While not addressing slavery directly,” Vogel writes, “[the Book of] Abraham supports the white supremacist ideology of slave owners” (116). This bizarre claim is made all the stranger by the fact left unaddressed (but certainly known) by Vogel that Joseph Smith not only approved of the ordination of at least two black men to the priesthood (Elijah Able and Q. Walker Lewis), but also that he ran on an anti-slavery platform during his 1844 presidential bid.

Vogel correctly observes that in April 1836, in what was probably a move to distance the Latter-day Saints from the more radical antebellum abolitionist movement and to ameliorate the tense situation with the pro-slavery Missourians, Joseph Smith published an anti-abolitionist editorial in the Messenger and Advocate. What Vogel seems not to appreciate, however, is that with this editorial Joseph had a perfect opportunity to use his supposedly racist scripture to bolster his case. But he didn’t. Instead, he quoted the KJV rendering of Genesis 9:25– 26, not the Book of Abraham and not even his own translation of this same passage (the one Vogel thinks is clear proof of the Prophet’s racist thinking). Vogel never stops to ask why. I can only assume that this is because Vogel has already come to the conclusion that as nineteenth century texts, the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham must necessarily reflect their racist nineteenth century environments. As with his utterly farfetched attempt to use the issue of race in the Book of Abraham to attribute the authorship of the Grammar and Alphabet to Joseph Smith (96–115), his attempt to depict the Book of Abraham as projecting a “white supremacist ideology” is entirely unconvincing (116). Suffice it to say that more responsible, informed treatments of this topic should be sought elsewhere.

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