Many people have pointed to the Book of Abraham as providing the link between priesthood restrictions and descent from Ham and presumably back to Cain via Ham's wife. There is no official LDS doctrine that explains why the Church had the policy - not doctrine - of temporarily limiting the priesthood by race. In their attempts to explain the policy, many LDS people, even leaders, sought to craft explanations to rationalize the practice. Some hypothesized that blacks might have been less valiant in some way in the premortal existence - an idea that is now repudiated, being utterly unjustified and non-doctrinal. More frequently, LDS people saw Abraham 1 as providing an explanation for the exclusion. But this is based on an erroneous interpretation of Abraham 1 and the LDS scriptures. Abraham 1 states that Pharaoh, a descendant of Ham, was of the lineage that did not have the "right to priesthood." It was assumed that Ham married a descendant of Cain - though the text does NOT say this - and that this (so the argument goes) is why Pharaoh could not have the priesthood. But wait a second: it doesn't say that he could not have the priesthood, but that he could not have the "right to priesthood," which actually refers to the right to preside as THE presiding officer, the patriarch. That right went to Shem, not Ham. Naturally, Ham's descendants could not have that right, but they still could have the priesthood - nothing indicates they could not.
Alma Allred devastates those old myths in his chapter, "The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). I love this book, and especially enjoyed Alma Allred's chapter. Here is an excerpt from pages 45-47:
Brother Allred concludes his article with a word of counsel to white members. Instead of trying to figure out what blacks did to be banned from the priesthood, perhaps white members should have been looking at themselves "to see if we were the primary hindrance." (p. 48)
Little doubt remains that intermarriage between Canaanites and Israelites destroyed any chance for a pure, non-Canaanite race among the chosen seed [see pages 40-45 for details]. One third of the house of Judah is Canaanite with an unknown portion among the other tribes. What then can we make of the curse pronounced by Noah and of Abraham's comments that Pharaoh's lineage could not have the "right of priesthood"? (Abr. 1:27). It may be that Mormons have simply misinterpreted those passages of scripture.
In the Book of Abraham, Abraham explains that he sought the blessings of the fathers and the right to be ordained to administer those blessings. He says that he became an heir holding the right belonging to the fathers. According to LDS theology, the right to administer the ordinances is held by the presiding priesthood authority on the earth. In the days of Abraham, that right was held by the presiding patriarch. It started with Adam and came in due course to Abraham. Abraham 1:3-4 stipulates that the appointment came by lineage. The right to preside was the birthright which went to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and finally to Ephraim.
According to these LDS scriptures, even though the priesthood did not remain exclusively with Ephraim, the right to preside did. Moses presided over Israel even though he was of the tribe of Levi. Joseph Smith, however, claimed to be a "lawful heir" because he was of the house of Ephraim (D&C 86:8-11). Since this authority was passed from father to only one son, when Noah gave it to Shem, Ham could not be the heir. Ham and Japheth, together with their descendants, did not have the right to administer the priesthood because it was given to Shem. Esau lost the right to Jacob. Reuben lost the right to Joseph. Manasseh lost that right when Jacob conferred it upon Ephraim. Each man who lost the birthright did not lose the right to be ordained to the priesthood; rather, he lost the right to preside as the presiding high priest in a patriarchal order. The scripture does not say that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood; it says that he could not have the "right of priesthood" (Abr. 1:27). This right had been given to Shem, who in turn gave it to his successor in the patriarchal office.
Years after the right of priesthood had been passed to Abraham, the Pharaohs were feigning a claim to it from Noah. They did not merely claim priest- hood; they claimed the right to preside over the priesthood. Pharaoh, the son of Egyptus, established a patriarchal government in Egypt; but he was of that lineage by which he could not have the "right of priesthood" or "the right of the firstborn," which belonged to Shem and his posterity. In response to the Pharaoh's claims, Abraham states: "But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands" (Abr. 1:31; italics Allred's). In other words, Abraham retained the right to preside over the priesthood.
The words right, priesthood, and lineage all prominently figure in Abraham's history; and Joseph Smith used the same words to describe the appointment of his father, Joseph Smith Sr., as church patriarch:Blessed of the Lord is my father, for he [Joseph Smith Sr.] shall stand in the midst of his posterity and shall be comforted by their blessings when he is old and bowed down with years, and shall be called a prince over them, and shall be numbered among those who hold the right of Patriarchal Priesthood, even the keys of that ministry. (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 23; italics added by Allred)
Joseph Smith used the same words to later appoint his elder brother Hyrum as church patriarch after their father's death:And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant William be appointed, ordained, and anointed, as counselor unto my servant Joseph, in the room of my servant Hyrum, that my servant Hyrum may take the office of Priesthood and Patriarch, which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right; (D&C 124:91; italics Allred's)Still, we should consider the curse pronounced upon Canaan. It parallels Jacob's blessing pronounced by Isaac and, conversely, Esau's curse. A side-by-side comparison of the two illustrates that Esau received the same curse as Canaan [Allred uses a table comparing Gen. 9:25-26 to Gen. 27:29].
This order of priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made. (D&C 107:40; italics mine)
Noah's curse upon Canaan directly parallels Isaac's promise concerning Esau. They both promised lordship to one son and servitude to the other. The ability to hold the priesthood was not the issue; it was the ability to preside in a patriarchal order that allowed only one lineage.
The revelation of 1978 announced by President Spencer W. Kimball giving all worthy men the privilege of holding the priesthood is consistent with the principles of LDS theology and essential to a consistent interpretation of its scripture. As recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith claimed that at some future day, high priests will be ordained out of "every nation, kindred, tongue and people" (D&C 77:13). It is impossible to have high priests from every nation while excluding Africans. Joseph Smith stated that, if the work progressed, we would see people of every color, including the African "Hottentots," worship in the house of the Lord [History of the Church, 4:216]. . . .
Temple worship in LDS theology requires priesthood ordination for men. Consequently, Joseph Smith's idea that "Hottentots" would soon worship in the temple is a de facto promise of priesthood ordination. Brigham Young got on the same bandwagon when he claimed in 1860 that the restriction would be lifted within one generation: "Children are now born who will live until every son of Adam will have the privilege of receiving the principles of eternal life." [Brigham Young, July 8, 1860, Journal of Discourses, 8:116] There can be no doubt that this meant priesthood ordination to every male descendant of Adam, regardless of race.
Heavy food for thought.