William McCary: the black prophet

By: Mormon Heretic
August 1, 2011

In a previous post, I documented Early Black Mormons, and gave a brief history of some of them.  William McCary is a little-known black Mormon from the early days of the church.  He was ordained an Elder by Apostle Orson Hyde in October 1846 and was known as the “black prophet.”  McCary claimed to be part-Indian, though historian Connell O’ Donovan said in my previous post that

Warner “William” McCary was NOT half-Native American, although he claimed to be Choctaw. His mother was an African American slave and his father was her white master, a carpenter born in Pennsylvania. McCary made up his Native American heritage and traveled around the country putting on shows as an “Indian”, claiming to be the lost son of Moshullah Tubbee, a great Choctaw chief. It was a scam to make money.

I found some more detailed information about William McCary from the book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks by Newell Bringhurst.  Following the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo in 1847, the saints traveled to Winter Quarters, Nebraska to start their journey to the west.  It is at this point in history that (from pages 84-86),

McCary had arrived in the Mormon Camp sometime during that bleak winter of 1846-1847.  At first, Brigham Young and other Church leaders welcomed or at least accepted McCary into their midst.  McCary, an accomplished musician, entertained the encamped Saints during the months of February and March 1847.2

However, by late March 1847, McCary fell from Mormon favor.  Young and others were apparently upset with McCary for using his powers as a musician and ventriloquist to claim supernatural powers of transmigration, that is, the ability to assume the “identity” of certain Old and New Testament peoples.  At a “meeting of the twelve and others” McCary exhibited “himself in Indian costume” and purported “to be Adam, the ancient of days.”  He “claimed to have an odd rib which he had discovered in his wife.”3 Then McCary “Showed his body to the company to see if he had a rib gone.”  At this same meeting, McCary also tried to pass himself off as the ancient Apostle Thomas.  He did this by throwing his voice and announcing that “God spoke unto him and called him Thomas.”4 Young and other church leaders were not impressed.  The expelled McCary from Winter Quarters, and Apostle Orson Hyde preached a sermon “against his doctrine.”5

Undaunted, McCary remained in or returned to the area around Winter Quarters and proceeded to set up his own rival Mormon group; drawing followers away from Brigham Young.6 Accordint to a July 1847 account, the the “negro prophet” exerted his influence by working “with a rod, like those of old.”7 By the fall of 1847, McCary’s religious practices took a new turn when the black Indian taught his own form of plural marriage of polygamy.8 McCary’s ritual involved a number of women,

seald to him in his way which was as follows, he had a house in which this ordinance was preformed his wife…was in the room at the time of the proformance no others was admitted the form of sealing was for the women to go to bed with him in the daytime as I am informed 3 diforant times by which they seald to the fullist extent.

These activities angered Brigham Young and his followers, particularly the relatives of McCary’s female disciples.  One irate Mormon threatened “to shoot” McCary for trying “to kiss his girls.”  But McCary, aware of the ruckus caused by the disclosure of his unorthodox practices, “made his way to Missouri on a fast trot.”9

The storm caused by William McCary, however had consequences far beyond the black Indian and his small following.  In the wake of McCary’s activities at least two Mormon leaders were willing to affirm that blacks could not hold the priesthood.  The earliest-known statement came from Apostle Parley P. Pratt in the spring of 1847.  Pratt maintained the “McCary had ‘got the blood of Ham in him which linege [sic] was cursed as regards [to] the priesthood.’”10  Brigham Young alluded to this same position during the fall of 1847 when he suggested that blacks in general were ineligible to participate in certain sacred temple ordinances.11

It might be tempting to trace the priesthood ban to this particular episode.  Certainly it played a part, but Bringhurst argues on page 86,

black priesthood denial did not emerge simply as the result of William McCary’s bizarre activities.  A number of factors, complex and interrelated, caused Mormon leaders to deny blacks the priesthood.

The rest of the book discusses these complex factors.  I have to say this is an amazing book.  What do you make of William McCary?

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8 Responses to William McCary: the black prophet

  1. mh on August 1, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    I am surprised by the lack of comments. while this isn’t the only reason for the priesthood ban, certainly it was a big catalyst.

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  2. FireTag on August 1, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    There have certainly been cases where whites took advantage of people in the church WITHOUT there being a ban imposed by skin color. So was McCary a cause or an excuse?

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  3. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 1, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    I think we’ve revisited McCary a number of times, it is really too bad this post did not come before all of that instead of afterwards, or I think it would have drawn a good deal of thought and comment.

    I think McCary was a bit of a cause, together with the bar/bordello opened up in SLC by a Black attorney. First attorney to be disbarred in Utah, he also generated a good deal of negative attention.

    Ah well, a lot of bad things have happened throughout history.

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  4. mh on August 1, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    I would say he’s an excuse.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on August 1, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    It sounds like McCary’s activities just preyed on the existing prejudices of the day against blacks: that they were oversexed and dishonest / untrustworthy (justification for white slave owners to be in charge of them).

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  6. SilverRain on August 2, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    I think most people are willing to give uninformed prejudices a suspension of belief for awhile. However, if one person’s behavior seems to corroborate those prejudices in even small ways, the prejudices become much more entrenched.

    Say you’d heard all your life that doctors were snooty. You hadn’t known many doctors, and the ones you did know from a distance didn’t seem too snooty, so you were on the fence about it. Then someone wearing scrubs and a doctor’s coat, and driving a Hummer cuts you off on the freeway.

    Suddenly, the entire block of prejudices becomes more feasible to you.

    I’m guessing that this sort of thing played a part here.

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  7. mh on August 2, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    steve, do you have any info on this bordello in slc? i’ve never heard it before and I would love to get some more info.

    for those wondering how we went from blacks holding the priesthood to the ban, I think this mccary episode is one of the most important reasons for the change in policy. it is too bad that elijah abel wasn’t viewed with as an example of a faithful holder of the priesthood.

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  8. John on August 2, 2011 at 3:11 PM

    I’m with you, MH, I think he was used as an excuse [though I'm saying that without having done much research on the issue]. Humans are quick to castigate people aside who don’t match their ideologies… so you get an outlier like McCary and he’s an easy target for saying, “See, they are an inferior race…” or something like that.

    Too bad, too.

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