What Did Brigham Young Really Say When He Said Interracial Marriage Meant ‘Death on the Spot’?
This is part 2 of a 9-part series on the topic of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and race relations. See the rest in the category section: http://www.latterdaytimes.com/category/blacks-priesthood/
One of the most infamous quotes from the second president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that critics of love to use for shock value is as follows:
“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”
At first sight, the quote is repugnant and it is hoped by critics to portray the Restored Church of Jesus Christ as a racist organization and to elicit feelings of contempt for its claim as the one true church.
As usual, reading anything in its complete context – as you will see below – provides a much more intellectually honest understanding of history than it does to take short cuts.
For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”
The reader is supposed to take away from this incomplete quote that Latter-day Saints are, or were, so opposed to interracial marriage that the penalty was death. Seems clear enough. However, the above quote is actually a condemnation of the abuses of the African race by white men and was recorded about the time of the American Civil War, a time when interracial marriage was illegal. Here is the quote again with the surrounding text.
“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. The nations of the earth have transgressed every law that God has given, they have changed the ordinances and broken every covenant…”
First, looking at this statement in isolation makes it difficult to come to the conclusion that Latter-day Saints believed the death penalty was justified for interracial marriage. However, the quote begs a few questions? One, who is being threatened with death, and what is meant by “death”? What does it mean to be the “chosen seed”? Finally, who are these people who have “broken every covenant”? Before we move on, let us finish his train of thought:
“If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been…For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”
Simply stated, if the U.S. government possessed the power to ban polygamy, it must have surely possessed the power, at a minimum, to protect slaves from abuse. Further, whites and not blacks, Young said, were to be cursed for their actions unless they changed their ways.
It would seem apparent that if anyone with the priesthood or of the “chosen seed,” had relations in the context meant by Brigham Young, that of sexual relations outside of marriage – again, it being illegal to intermarry – meant spiritual death, or ex-communication – not physical death. Notice there is no surrounding statement related to the death penalty. In context, Brigham Young was referring to fornication and ex-communication, or spiritual death, for any church member who broke both the spiritual laws of fidelity and temporal laws of the land.
Further attesting to the character and worldview of President Young and his contempt for the white man’s behavior (slave masters and the pro-slavery crowd), he continued:
“I should certainly be against the pro-slavery side of the question…I have not much love for them, only in the Gospel. I would cause them to repent, if I could, and make them good men and a good community. I have no fellowship for their avarice, blindness, and ungodly actions.”
Brigham Young continued in the same approach to the slave question in the manner of his predecessor, Joseph Smith, towards the U.S. South and slavery, which strongly desired that slave masters forsake their ways and come to know the true gospel, a position Joseph Smith learned from the New Testament. The optimism behind this approach hoped that slave masters would peacefully end slavery themselves, or at the very least, treat their servants as brothers in Christ, even if that meant freeing them. Clearly, Young demonstrated no love for the pro-slavery crowd in his remarks.
If a statement is overused again and again for an apparent agenda, in this case, to smear an organization, it is unwise to jump to conclusions before viewing all the available evidence. As Latter-day Saints, we are faced with the two-fold challenge of spreading the Gospel while coming face-to-face with those seeking the truth, and whose progress has been hindered by negative spin against the Church.
The lesson here is to recognize these that are used against the Restored Gospel. Although the information in this article primarily comes from the Journal of Discourses, which are not considered canonized scripture, a careful reading can still salvage a repudiation of the critic’s twisted interpretation.
This single quote barely scratches the surface of insensitive comments made by past Church authorities. Addressing several more of those requires another post all of its own.
 Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young, Vol. 10 BYU, Provo, UT (1865) page 110.
 Walsh, John. Interracial Marriage a Sin? Light Planet: http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/qa/blacks_chosen.htm (Accessed August 18, 2015).
 Young, Ibid., 111.
 JS, Letter, Kirtland, OH, to Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland, OH, ca. Apr. 1836; Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, pp. 289–291.
Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and taught U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas and for Alvin Community College. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academia, the Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State University, LDS Living, Meridian Magazine, and East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.