Thompson argues that historical justifications of the priesthood ban that rely on passages in the Book of Abraham are based on modern assumptions rather than being present in the text itself. Those passages instead appear to align with an ancient understanding of legal inheritance (both by lineage and by covenant), as well as the natural consequences of failing to keep covenants. Thompson suggests that modern conceptions of race are not relevant to Abraham’s understanding of the priesthood, and emphasizes that a lost inheritance can be restored through the Atonement and through temple ordinances.
In this article, John S. Thompson charts a middle path on the use of the Book of Abraham to justify the historical priesthood ban, arguing against the use of certain passages to justify a ban based on racial characteristics (e.g., skin color), yet maintaining Abraham’s application of an authentically ancient framework of generational curses. Thompson demonstrates that traditional understandings of the Book of Abraham as (1) supporting a racial prohibition against the descendants of Ham due to his marriage to the ostensibly dark-skinned Egyptus, or (2) a race-based prohibition applied generally to all Canaanites, are not explicitly present in the text and must be read into it on the basis of modern assumptions. Thompson instead outlines how the “right” to the priesthood was understood as heritable through lineage and through covenant (the purpose of covenants being to create kinship relationships where they did not already exist), and how breaking covenants could remove that right, leaving nothing to pass on to one’s descendants. Thompson provides concrete examples of this perspective in the Bible (in both Old and New Testament contexts), in ancient Egypt, in Restoration scripture, and in the teachings of Joseph Smith. Such removal was not understood as permanent, and could be restored to those descendants through repentance and the making of new covenants.
Thompson begins by outlining the passages in question, as well as more recent attempts to deal with their racist interpretations, which generally try to dismiss the generational curse as a relic of 19th century influence or as unjust and not actually generational (or only applied to the “right to preside”). For Thompson, both approaches are incorrect—Abraham’s view is ancient and not necessarily unjust. Just as the loss of a family heirloom would prevent that heirloom from being passed on to the next generation, so too would the breaking of a covenant prevent covenantal blessings from being passed on. This is reflected in how family circumstances often operate in real life, with broken covenants creating an environment where children are less likely to take up the values and traditions of their forefathers.
Through careful examination of the Book of Abraham text, Thompson concludes that the lineage in question is most likely Ham’s (rather than Canaan’s, or the pre-flood “people of Canaan” identified as cursed in the Book of Moses), which Abraham contrasts with his own status as a rightful heir, “holding the right belonging to the fathers”. Despite being framed as a righteous man, the original Pharaoh does not hold that same right, due to being “cursed…as pertaining to the Priesthood”. Ham’s wife Egyptus is herself not directly associated with the curse, despite the traditional connections that have often been made. The origin and nature of this curse is unspecified in the text, but Thompson associates it with being “disinherited”—the removal of blessings passed down through familial or covenantal lines.
The source of this curse is identified as Noah, and Genesis records a specific cursing associated with the actions of Ham. Though that curse is applied to Canaan, an inheritance framework suggests that Canaan’s curse is due to the removal of inherited blessings from Ham, which could not be then passed down to Canaan. This disinheritance would ultimately apply to Pharaoh as well. Though Ham’s marriage to Egyptus is often assumed to be the reason for the curse, according to Thompson “there is nothing to indicate that marriage was the cause for any loss of priesthood in Ham’s family”.
Covenantal blessings are strongly emphasized in the biblical record, and Thompson suggests that familial connections are required when granting divine blessings, whether it be of land or of the priesthood, with genealogy being sought as proof to inherit both types of rights. These covenants are confirmed with each successive generation, and their blessings were understood as something eternal–meant to be passed down to one’s children. The importance of these covenants is reiterated in the New Testament, where becoming God’s heir through adoption was necessary for those not of Abraham’s literal seed. Obedience and fealty to God were integral parts of that covenant, even for direct descendants, with evil doers—“they that be cursed of him”–being cut off from their inheritance. This perspective on inheritance also applied to ancient Egypt, both in terms of land and priesthood authority.
This emphasis remains strong in the theology restored through Joseph Smith. The inheritance of land is an important blessing throughout the Book of Mormon, with righteousness remaining a required element. Similarly, Joseph Smith taught that the priesthood is an inherited right by lineage. Thompson suggests that ecclesiastical priesthood authority will eventually, through the work of the temple, be “sealed up into familial lines of authority”, and the restoration of the priesthood representing “a temporary measure due to broken inheritance lines caused by apostasy and broken covenants”. In the case of the Lamanites, those lines are characterized as having been broken by their own iniquity and refusal to harken to prophetic counsel, and this curse was transmitted to their children through “belief] in incorrect traditions”.
Recovery from this curse is possible through the Atonement of Christ, with generations welded together through the ordinances of the temple. Were it not for those ordinances, the earth would’ve been smitten with a curse (as predicted by Malachi), which Thompson characterizes as being consigned to a state of disinheritance following the apostasies in the Old and New World. As Thompson summarizes:
“In nothing mentioned above is one’s racial profile a qualifying test to receive an inheritance. The only legal requirements are righteousness (including repentance) and covenants that bind the generations so that the blessings can be received by inheritance. While an entire family or lineage can be cut off from an inheritance due to the actions of a forefather, the inheritance laws of the scriptural traditions discussed do not discriminate based on race, in the modern sense of that word. Every individual and their family can be heirs, whether by natural birth or by adoption.”
It takes a certain amount of courage to discuss the topic of race in the context of Restoration scripture, and I’m glad Thompson has shown that courage. Some will read this and see in it the reification of lineage-based priesthood proscriptions, which, for them, will be evidence enough that the church’s doctrine remains racist. Others will content themselves with a 19th century explanation for the content of the Book of Abraham, and see no reason to engage with Thompson’s reasoning. But for those of us who see reason to accept the Book of Abraham as authentic, Thompson provides a reminder of what we should expect authentic scripture to look like. As strange and foreign as it might seem to us, for the ancients, lineage mattered, and inheritance mattered, and we should expect a real Abraham to have felt the same way. For that perspective to find echoes outside the Old Testament—including inside the rituals we hold most sacred—should make them matter to us as well.
We, through our lineage, and through our covenants, stand as heirs to divine power. Not all have been or will be able to benefit from that power in this life, and that may strike us as unjust. But as with all of life’s injustices, the scales will eventually balance. The tools exist for us, here and now, to begin to set them right in our own way. Part of that will be looking into the past, in taking advantage of the temple, to help spread that lineage as far as it’s able. The other part takes place in the here and now–in making and keeping our own covenants, and in helping our children see the value in them that we see. Some may look at Abraham’s perspective and see only our blighted past. I choose to look at it and see something else—to see our future—the unified family of God that Abraham’s ancient covenant will help produce.