When I was a teenager, I read Spencer W. Kimball's “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” I can still remember being taken aback when I read of David W. Patten’s infamous encounter with “Cain:”
“As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me . . . . His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and traveled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth, but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight . . . .” (Lycurgus A. Wilson, Life of David W. Patten [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1900], p. 50., as quoted by Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness [Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, Inc.] 18th printing 1991 p.p. 127-128)
At about this same time, a friend in my home ward in Michigan had just returned from his mission and “confirmed” that indeed Cain had survived the great flood and was currently being hunted by modern man as the elusive Bigfoot. My friend even went so far as to use the scriptures to show me how Cain was cursed as a fugitive and a vagabond for the rest of eternity, and that he would be dark skinned and hairy. He insisted that this was Cain’s "curse," and that the scriptures were clear about this.
Being a naïve teenager, I ate this up and believed everything he told me. Heck, he was a returned missionary, right? At that age, that was like the equivalent of being a Bishop, or at least one of his counselors.
Now, I’m not going to propagate the Cain = Bigfoot theory, because I don't believe it to be true. Instead, I think a review of Cain’s REAL cursing should be touched upon. Interestingly enough, what happened to Cain is quite similar to the oft misunderstood cursing of the Lamanites as recounted in the Book of Mormon.
As a consequence of murdering Abel, Cain understood that he was to roam the earth as “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that he that findeth me will slay me, because of mine iniquities” (Moses 5:39). It should be noted that roaming the earth as a fugitive was not Cain’s “curse.”
Why would those that find Cain attempt to kill him? Well, because they were living under the patriarchal law of blood vengeance: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). This law, commonly referred to as the “an eye for an eye” law, was later incorporated into the Law of Moses (see Num. 35:19).
Under blood vengeance, the nearest kin had a right and responsibility to avenge the death of his relation by killing the murderer. Because Abel’s murder was known, Cain realized that it was only a matter of time before blood vengeance took its lawful toll. Is it any wonder that Cain cries out to the Lord, “my punishment is greater than I can bear” (Moses 5:38)?
Since God is merciful, he does not necessarily desire the loss of one life to lead to the loss of another. So he offered Cain two protective elements. First, God decreed that “Whosoever slayeth [Cain], vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Moses 5: 40). In other words, God declared that the Cain's slayer would in turn suffer the loss of seven lives from his or her family; quite a severe toll. Because the avenger is not to suffer loss under the law of blood vengeance, the fact that vengeance was to come against the avenger contradicted the current system.
The second protective element is that God “set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Moses 5:40). Accordingly, a mark, presumably of darkened skin, was placed upon Cain to visually remind any avenger of God’s decree about the seven lives for the life of Cain. One may speculate that the mark was placed upon Cain at his own request so as to prolong his life. However, Cain’s darkened skin was not his “curse,” but instead was the sign of his curse.
So, what was Cain’s curse? Not unlike the cursing placed upon the Lamanites for rebellion, Cain’s curse consisted of being “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (Moses 5:41). Indeed, Cain declared that God had “driven me out this day from the face of the Lord, and from thy face shall I be hid” (Moses 5:39). The Lord's presence is routinely equated with the temple and other holy sanctuaries or geographical locations; consequently, Cain essentially had his temple recommend revoked so that he could not access the Lord any longer.
Similar to Cain, a dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites as a sign of their curse, but did not necessarily represent the curse itself. If you read the text of 2 Nephi 5:20-21 closely, you will see that the curse placed upon the Lamanites was being “cut off from the presence of the Lord,” or, in other words, having access to the temple restricted. The Lamanites' darkened skin served to distinguish themselves from the Nephites in order to keep the unbelievers and believers from mixing (see 2 Nephi 5:22-23).
That the darkened skin was only a sign of the curse and not the curse itself, is further emphasized later in the BofM when the curse was removed from a certain group of Lamanites after the conversion of King Lamoni’s father and his people throughout seven lands. “The king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren” (Alma 23:18)(emphasis added). In a clear allusion to the temple, the “new name” that they received was Anti-Nephi-Lehi. Thus, after returning to the temple (i.e., God’s presence), Mormon explains that “the curse of God did follow them no more” (Alma 23:20). Once the curse was removed, it should eb noted that no mention is made of any alteration in skin color. Instead, the converted Lamanites were once again allowed access to the Lord's temple.
As a last side note on the demise of Cain, I also do not believe, as some Mormon myths purport, that Cain is an immortal being and thus roams the earth today. As extrapolated from the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, Hugh Nibley reports that Cain was killed when his stone house fell on him. “For with a stone he had killed Abel, and by a stone was he killed in righteous judgment” (Hugh Nibley, “Temple and Cosmos,” pg 223, quoting Jubilees 4:31). Nibley also taught that Lamech, Cain's great-great-great-grandson, may have killed him and thus ascended to the title of Master Mahan (Moses 5:47-49).