Race issues in the Book of Mormon: Part I

There are four principle themes in the Book of Mormon: politics, religion, war, and “race.” This post will explore the last of the four. Though the Book of Mormon says, “[God] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female,” and “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33), when it mentions people cursed with a “skin of blackness” it smacks of racism.

Even though I have titled this post “Race issues in the Book of Mormon,” the people involved are actually of the same family.

The beginning

The Book of Mormon is a narrative comprising mainly of an abridged history of people descended from a Hebrew man named Lehi. His six sons are, starting with the oldest: Laman, Leumuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph. Guided by God Lehi takes his family from their Jerusalem home into the desert (circa 580 B.C.). In the course of the journey they join up with the family of Ishmael and pick up an individual by the name of Zoram. Together they travel to the New World. Early in the Book of Mormon it becomes clear that Laman and Lemuel are rebellious, while Sam and Nephi are obedient and God fearing--Joseph and Jacob are born later. After they arrive at the New World the family divisions become acute. The source of the contention had several dimensions. On his deathbed Lehi indicates that Nephi would lead the family (2 Nephi 1:24)--Jewish society was patriarchal and normally the oldest son would lead. Lehi also gave Laman and Lemuel a blessing, and revealed his fear that they might be curse because of their rebelliousness:

I have feared, lest for the hardness of your hearts the Lord your God should come out in the fulness of his wrath upon you…Or, that a cursing should come upon you for the space of many generations; and ye are visited by sword, and by famine, and are hated.
(2 Nephi 1:17-19)

Wherefore, if ye are cursed…I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you [i.e. your descendants] and be answered upon the heads of your parents [i.e. your descendants will not be held responsible]. Wherefore, because of my blessing the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish…but in the end thy seed shall be blessed. (2 Nephi 4:4-7, 8-9)

After their father’s death Laman and Lemuel plotted to kill Nephi (
2 Nephi 5:3)--they had tried to kill him on at least two other occasions (1 Nephi 7:16; 1 Nephi 17:48). But Nephi, having been warned in a dream, fled with Sam, Jacob, Joseph, Zoram, their families, and others (2 Nephi 5:3-8). He also took the sacred records with him. These two groups drifted apart culturally and became known as Lamanites and Nephites. With the Lamanites adopting the more violent ways of Laman and Lemuel.

According to Nephi’s account, the curse that his father feared did come upon the children of Laman and Lemuel (the Lamanites). He writes,

…the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. And he had caused the cursing to come upon them…because of their iniquity…w
herefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey. (2 Nephi 5:20-24)

The wording is tricky. The curse itself was to be cut off from the presence of the Lord (1 Nephi 2:21), which is realized in a number of ways. One of which is in the way the Nephites perceived the Lamanites. The Nephites, for whatever reason, believed if a people fell under a divine curse there would be an outward sign or mark of that curse.[1] Nephi believed the darker skin of the Lamanites was that mark. Because the lighter skinned Nephites detested the darker Lamanites they would not intermarry with them. “That they might not be enticing unto my people,” wrote Nephi, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” God had said to Nephi, “I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent,” and “cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed” (2 Nephi 5:22-23; compare Alma 3:5-11).[2] The curse of being cut off from God is thus realized in three ways: the Lamanites usually rejected the Nephites’ proselytizing efforts, the Nephites detested the Lamanites, and the Lamanites’ hatred of the Nephites. On the one hand, the Lamanites’ way of life and darker complexion was offensive to the Nephites who believed if they intermarried with the Lamanites they would be cursed to become Lamanites. On the other hand, the Lamanites hated the Nephites for “stealing” the sacred records and taking their birthright of leadership (Alma 20:13; 54:17; Mosiah 10:15-16). And so long as the Nephite nation was the only Christian culture in that part of the world, to be cut off from association with the Nephites was to be cut off from God.

The Nephites are usually characterized as a peaceful, refined, Christian culture with correct traditions (
Alma 3:11), while the Lamanites follow the “traditions of their fathers, which were not correct” (Alma 21:17; Alma 17:9; Mosiah 1:5). According to the prophet Enos,

[The Lamanite’s] hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us. And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses. (Enos 1:20-21; compare Jarom 1:6)

A believer in the Book of Mormon might feel compelled to accept Enos’ portrayal of the Lamanites; but, one could also conclude his description is biased. At any rate, if one believes the narrative in the Book of Mormon then the Lamanites were a hunter-gathere
r, plundering culture, and the Nephites were Christian-pastoral farmers (4 Nephi 1:39; see also Alma 3:11, 17). The Nephites viewed the Lamanites as “dark and loathsome...a filthy people” (1 Nephi 12:23), and themselves as “pure and delightsome” (2 Nephi 30:6; 1 Nephi 13:15). To the Nephites the hunter-gatherer way of life was directly opposed to civilized righteous living (2 Nephi 5:24).[3] And their “refined” way of life made them extremely proud. They were “stiffnecked” and “hard to understand,” “And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness…continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God…[that] would keep them from going down speedily to destruction” (Enos 1:22-23). Their hatred of the Lamanites became so intense that Jacob (the younger brother of Nephi) felt compelled to speak out against it.

The Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you…Where
fore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness. (Jacob 3:5-9)

He says a lot about Nephite vices and Lamanite virtues.

the Lamanites…are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father--that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them…their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator? (Jacob 3:5-9)

Jacob went on to make a statement that probably caused a good deal of consternation among the self-loving self-righteous Nephites.

O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God…revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers. (Jacob 3:5-9)

Jacob also prophesied that “The Lord God will not destroy [the Lamanites],” and “one day they shall become a blessed people” (Jacob 3:6). This blessing was not extended to the Nephites.[4] (For more examples of Nephite prejudice see Alma 26:24-25; Mosiah 9:1-2.)

Even after several hundred years Nephite prejudice remained strong. A Lamanite prophet by the name of Samuel prophesied to the Nephites: “because I am a Lamanite, and have spoken unto you the words which the Lord hath commanded me, and because it was hard against you, ye are angry with me and do seek to destroy me, and have cast me out from among you”
(Hel. 14:10).

As is typical when a “refined” culture comes in contact with a “barbaric” one, the very name of the barbaric culture is adopted as a word for savagery, a lack of refinement, or primitiveness; or is even used as a pejorative. In Nephite culture the name Lamanite became just such a word. The Nephites who “mixed with the Lamanites” became “wicked, and wild, and ferocious, yea, even becoming Lamanites” (Hel. 3:16; compare 4 Nephi 4:17).[5] But to the Nephites the word Nephite was synonymous with righteousness and purity (Alma 19:14; 4 Nephi 1:36-38).

Is it literal or a metaphor?
Should the purported difference in skin color be taken literally? Or is it a metaphor? As far as I can tell the answer is both. In addition to indicating a real difference in skin color the Nephites used blackness to indicate separateness from God and whiteness synonymous with righteousness. The quote from Jacob above (“their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought…before the throne of God”) illustrates that it is used metaphorically. For example, “turn ye unto the Lord…that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white” (Mormon 9:6). The book of Daniel uses it in a similar way: “Some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white” (Daniel 11:35; see also Daniel 12:10).

In the Bible, blackness is usually used to indicate despair. Jeremiah said, “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me” (
Jer. 8:21). And during a famine the writer of Lamentations said, “We gat our bread with the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness. Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine” (Lam. 5:9-10).[6] (See also Joel 2:6; Nah. 2:10; Jer. 14:2.) Those examples are metaphorical and should be understood as meaning black with gloom, or indicating destitution--having been burned black from tremendous heat. Conversely, some Bible verses use whiteness as a metaphor for righteousness or purity. “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment” (Rev. 3:5), and “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18) are two. The Book of Mormon also uses the white robe metaphor (1 Nephi 12:10; Alma 5:21, 24).

The use of white and black to symbolize righteousness and wickedness is not without parallel in Middle Eastern cultures. A verse from the Koran reads, “One day some faces will turn white while other faces will turn black. Those whose faces are blackened [will be asked]: ‘Did you disbelieve after your [profession of] faith? Taste torment because you have disbelieved!’ while those whose faces are whitened will live for ever in God’s mercy” (brackets original; here for three translations). But the use of black and white in the Koran is also figurative. A different translation reads, “On the Day when some faces will be (lit up with) white…” (Ibid).

A mark or a curse?

Mormon apologists like to point out that the darker complexion of the Lamanites was not the actual curse, but rather the mark of the curse. But as I have illustrated above, the curse was to be cut off from God, which in part was due to the prejudice of the Nephites. Hence the “mark” was also part of the curse. According to the Nephite prophet Mormon, “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression” (Alma 3:6).

Some have speculated that the darker complexion of the Lamanites was in part due to their way of life. The Lamanites are described as “naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins,” and having shaved heads (
Alma 3:5; Enos 1:20-21). Because they lived a hunter-gatherer life they were more exposed to the sun, making their complexion darker. (The late Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley--famous among Mormons--believed this partially explained the physical difference between Nephite and Lamanite.[7]) That, coupled with the Nephites’ dislike of the Lamanites’ way of life led the Nephites to view them as dark and loathsome. There is a biblical parallel in this. One of the wives of Solomon wrote, “I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards.” (ESV, Song 1:5-6; note the KJV reads, “I am black”). Another reason supporting this interpretation is the mark of the curse did not always take the form of a darker skin. The Book of Mormon mentions a group of Nephite dissenters who joined the Lamanites. According to Nephite belief, any person or group who rebelled against God and fought against the Nephites would be cursed, and that there must be a mark of the curse. But there is no mention that the dissenters developed a darker complexion. Rather, to distinguish themselves from their Nephite brethren they “had a mark set upon them; yea, they set the mark upon themselves, yea, even a mark of red upon their foreheads…[they] knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their foreheads; nevertheless they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them” (Alma 3:13-18; italics mine). But why didn’t they develop the darker skin of the Lamanites? It is posited they retained many Nephite ways of life, they did not shave their heads and there is no mention of them wearing only a loincloth, thus they did not develop a darker complexion.[8]

A curse of perception

According to Nephi the mark of the curse was a darker complexion. But its purpose was, according to Nephi, to make the Lamanites loathsome to the Nephites; to prevent cultural mixing. So repentance took an unusual form. It meant changing one’s life and associating with the people of God (Alma 2:11). Since for most of their history the Nephites were the only Christian nation in that region of the world, repentance meant being “numbered” with the Nephites, for the Nephites were the people of God. Thus the curse would be lifted, and the Nephites would no longer perceive the Lamanites as loathsome. “Those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:14-16). After they adopted the Nephite way of life they were no longer detested; they were no longer “loathsome” to the Nephites (2 Nephi 5:22). When the Lamanites became “exceedingly fair” I take it to mean that is how the Nephites saw them. Which is, in fact, a restoration of how the Nephites originally perceived them. Before the curse came upon the Lamanite peoples they were seen as “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” (2 Nephi 5:21).

The end of the Nephites

After the coming of Christ the distinction between “white” and “dark” was abandoned: “neither were there
Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ” (4 Nephi 1:17).[9] They were also “married, and given in marriage” (4 Nephi 1:11). This happy state of affairs lasted for several generations. But eventually “they began to be divided into classes” (4 Nephi 1:26) and “did dwindle in unbelief and wickedness, from year to year” (4 Nephi 1:34). Eventually they fell back into their old divisions: “there arose a people who were called the Nephites, and they were true believers in Christ; and among them there were those who were called by the Lamanites” (4 Nephi 1:36-38; compare Mormon 1:8-9). Soon afterwards, “there began to be a war between the Nephites…and the Lamanites” (Mormon 1:8). Though the Lamanites were wicked, the Nephites eventually became just as vile (Mormon 9:7-10). So much so that the leader of the Nephite armies, Mormon, cried out, “Come out in judgment, O God, and hide their sins, and wickedness, and abominations from before thy face!” (Moroni 9:15).

The Nephite prophets knew their culture and way of life would be destroyed. They knew the Lamanites would eventually become God’s blessed people in the Americas. As prophesied, the Nephites were destroyed (see footnote 4) with only a “mixture” of the seed of the Nephites remaining among the Lamanites (
1 Nephi 13:30; compare Moroni 9:24; WoM 1:16). It is prophesied that the Lamanites and the “mixture” of Nephites will “one day…become a blessed people” (Jacob 3:6).

In that light the “curse” was turned into a blessing: The favored Nephites were destroyed and the cursed Lamanites are destined to become God’s favored people. According to common LDS thinking they, as a people, have yet to realize their favored place among the peoples of the world. The Doctrine and Covenants speaks of the Lamanites blossoming as the rose (
D&C 49:24). A difficult prospect considering the way Native American people have been abused by white Americans-- not just physically, but emotionally as well.[10]

It was once common for Mormons to refer to Native Americans as Lamanites, or our Lamanite Brethren (
here). Today this is seen as pejorative (Lacee A. Harris, “To Be Native American—and Mormon,” Dialogue, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 143-152).

Continued in Race issues in the Book of Mormon: Part II

End Notes____________________________________________

[1] Jesus’ own disciples saw blindness as a mark for unrighteous: “who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (
John 9:2). In the book of Revelation those who follow the beast are marked on their right hand or on their foreheads (Rev. 13:16; 14:9; 20:4). Those who follow Christ have the Father’s name written in their foreheads (Rev. 14:1; 22:4). And after Cain killed Abel “the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Gen. 4:15). Even circumcision was a token of favor with God, a “covenant in the flesh” (Gen. 17:11, 13).

[2] There
are Biblical parallels that illustrate the danger of cross mixing between cultures. Abraham’s servant was forced to take an oath so that he would not select a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites (Gen. 24:3, 37). And Solomon’s foreign wives led him into idolatry (1 Kings 11:1-8).

[3] It seems odd that the Nephites hated the Lamanites because “many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat” (
Enos 1:20), when for a time Lehi and his family “did live upon raw meat in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:2). Perhaps the Lamanite practice of eating raw meat can be traced back to that, in that it was seen as miraculous (see 1 Nephi 17:12). (The reason Lehi and his people did not eat cooked meat was to avoid making fire, 1 Nephi 17:12. It is believed they were commanded to do this because, as they traveled through the desert the smoke would attract bandits and thieves, see Lehi in the Desert: Part III, by Hugh Nibley)

[4] The Book of Mormon prophet Alma prophesied the destruction of the Nephites.

Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief. Yea, and then shall they see wars and pestilences, yea, famines and bloodshed, even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct--Yea, and this because they shall dwindle in unbelief and fall into the works of darkness, and lasciviousness, and all manner of iniquities; yea, I say unto you, that because they shall sin against so great light and knowledge, yea, I say unto you, that from that day, even the fourth generation shall not all pass away before this great iniquity shall come. And when that great day cometh, behold, the time very soon cometh that those who are now, or the seed of those who are now numbered among the people of Nephi, shall no more be numbered among the people of Nephi. But whosoever remaineth, and is not destroyed in that great and dreadful day, shall be numbered among the Lamanites, and shall become like unto them.
(Alma 45:10-14)

[5] Jacob was only adopting a name for the sake of identification, “I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi” (
Jacob 1:14). But once adopted the word Lamanite could easily develop into a name associated with barbarity. Though I should point out that many Book of Mormon prophets referred to the Lamanites as brethren (Enos 1:11; Jarom 1:2; Mosiah 1:5; Alma 17:9).

[6] The ESV of
Lamentations 5:10 reads, “Our skin is hot as an oven” rather than “black as an oven.” “Black” should be understood as burned black with heat, or shriveled.

[7] Nibley writes,

A way of life produces this darkening of the skin, and it’s the same way all over the world…The people that live in the stone houses have white complexions, and the people that live in the tents (the houses of goat's hair) have dark complexions. Among the Arabs they always distinguished between these people. They are the same people, the same blood, but there
is a great deal of difference between them. One is much lighter than the other. It's the same thing in Greek vase paintings. The women were always painted with white faces because they were in the house all the time. They also used white lead. The men were always painted quite bronze, especially in those marvelous paintings from the various islands. They show these things very clearly--the dark and the light. The Egyptians were the same way too. The women were always painted a very pale color, and the men were always a dark brown. It's a matter of living outdoors. This would account for one part of their [color]. (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, p. 244; brackets original)

[8] As another group of dissenters did (Alma 43:20).

[9] This verse says, “There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17). The Lamanites are put on a list with robbers and murderers, and it doesn’t say if there were no more Nephites. Though one could argue that since there were no manner of –ites then there were no Nephites. But then why are the Lamanites singled out?

[10] I remember one of my father’s Native American acquaintances talking about growing up on a reservation in Oklahoma. “If they caught you stealing a horse you could be forgiven, but if you drank out of the white only drinking fountain they would probably lynch you,” is how he described it.

One Chief Dan George wrote,

Do you know what it is like to be without pride in your race, pride in your family, pride and confidence in yourself?...

...I shall tell you what it is. It is not caring about tomorrow, for what does tomorrow matter?...It is getting drunk and, for a few brief moments, escaping from ugly reality...

And now you hold out your hand and you beckon to me to come across the street. Come and integrate, you say. But how can I come? I am naked and ashamed. How can I come in dignity? I have no presents. I have no gifts. What is there
in my culture you value? My poor treasures you only scorn.

Am I then to come as a beggar and receive all from your omnipotent hand? Somehow I must wait. I must delay. I must find myself. I must find my treasure. I must wait until you want something of me, until you need something that is me. Then I can raise my head and say to my wife and family, “Listen, they are calling. They need me. I must go.”

Then I can walk across the street and hold my head high, for I will meet you as an equal...Pity I can do without; my manhood I cannot.
(Chief Dan George, “My People, the Indians,” Dialogue, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 130-132)

Race issues in the Book of Mormon: Part II

Interpreting the physical differences between Nephites and Lamanites as due to sun exposure is a recent development. In the recent past Mormons saw the difference in racial terms, visualizing the Lamanites as looking like Native Americans and the Nephites as Caucasian looking. So according to that view the Native Americans still carry with them the mark of the curse, and the Native American way of life--once so detested among white Americans--is evidence they had not given up their wild ways. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (d. 1972) wrote in Answers to Gospel Questions: “The dark skin of those [Indians] who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. Many of these converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord. Perhaps there are some Lamanites today who are losing the dark pigment. Many of the members of the Church among the Catawba Indians of the South could readily pass as of the white race; also in other parts of the South” (p. 124; published 1957-1966). Also, LDS art in the recent past tended to depict the Nephites as very European looking. More recent art tends to downplay the difference, but the Nephites are still depicted as being lighter complected than the Lamanites. (See here for some art samples from lds.org.)

Critics of the church point out that the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon changes a passage from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome.” The passage read, “many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people” (2 Nephi 30:6). “Pure and delightsome” use to be found only in the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon.[1]--the 1840 edition was carefully revised by Joseph Smith. But since the use of “white” does have metaphorical value and because the reading goes back to Joseph Smith I am not bothered by the change. (See Cambell, below; and Robert J. Matthews, “The New Publications of the Standard Works—1979-1981,” BYU Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 396, 398.)

Apologists, attempting to mitigate the so-called racist passages, point out that the Book of Mormon was written to Jew and Gentile. And that the “gentiles are the non-Jews. Black Africans, brown Hispanics, yellow Vietnamese, black Melanesians, fair-skinned Scandinavians, or olive-complected Italians are not Jews,” writes one Douglas Cambell (“White’ or ‘Pure’ Five Vignettes,” Dialogue, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 1996, pp. 119-135). In that light when Moroni speaks of Gentiles they should not be visualized as Caucasian. However this passage, “The wrath of God…was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles…and I beheld that they [the Gentiles] were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain” (1 Nephi 13:14-15), supports the traditional view of Caucasian looking Nephites. Though it is the Gentiles who scatter and afflict the Native Americans--both in secular history and in Book of Mormon prophesy--the people who did this were not black American, nor Asian, nor Melanesian. They were Anglo.

Many Mormons don’t accept the view that the Lamanites’ darker complexion was due to natural causes. Rodney Turner (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU) writes,

There can be no question but that their altered skin color was a miraculous act of God; it cannot be understood in purely metaphoric terms, nor as being nothing more than the natural consequence of prolonged exposure to the sun. Nephi was explicit that “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them”

… The darkened pigmentation of their skins became a dominant genetic trait that was inherited by their posterity from that time forth. (Rodney Turner, “The Lamanite Mark,” Third Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, 1989, Religious Studies Center, BYU.)

Turner also made a good point about apparent genetic inheritance: “whosoever did mingle his seed with that of the Lamanites did bring the same curse upon his seed” (Alma 3:9).


After the Nephites are destroyed there is no mention of the mark of the curse returning. Though it is written, “[the Lamanites] shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people” (Mormon 5:15), there is no mention of a “skin of blackness.” One reason for believing the mark of the curse didn’t return is that it was intended to enforce cultural distinctions (Alma 3:8)--thus the Nephites were not marked when they fell into wickedness. According to the prophet Mormon the curse came on those who intermarried with the Lamanites and/or fought against the Nephites (Alma 3:15-16). After the Nephites were destroyed the mark would serve no purpose. (See Alma 45:11.) As I say at the beginning of this essay, and also in my conclusions, the Nephites perception of a vile “skin of blackness” was in a large part due to their self-righteousness. Their perception of the Lamanites was to view them as dark and savage. So again, no more Nephites, no more mark of the curse. Having said that, many Mormons do believe the mark of the curse did eventually return.[2]

One might ask, “How could the Nephites’ prejudicial views have crept into Holy Scripture? Wouldn’t God inspire his prophets to leave that stuff out?” We have never had an inerrant view of scripture and generally accept that prophets are far from perfect. Though God sometimes gives revelation that begins with “thus sayeth the Lord,” I believe a prophet’s personal views influence what he writes and how he runs the church. The most obvious example of this is the belief held by early (and recent) church leaders that black people were descendants of Cain, and that their black skin was the mark of a divine curse, albeit a different one from the Lamanites. (See Blacks and the Priesthood.) One might then ask, “If scriptural inerrancy is rejected, and the possibility of error in what a living prophet says is accepted, how can a person have confidence about what is the word of God?” The all to easy answer is through a personal witness of the Holy Ghost. Though that is true, the sustaining vote of leaders and members should also be emphasized. Among other things, it provides a community testimony. The decisions of the prophet also require the unanimous support of the Twelve Apostles, which provides another level of confidence. (See D&C 46:13-14.) This approach might frustrate people who want a clear dividing line. But often we must rely on the unanimity among leaders and the sustaining vote of the church, as well as the voice of the Spirit. Because that is how the process works the imperfections of members and leaders occasionally come through; it also means a prophet’s imperfections are part of his leadership. Great prophets are men for their time, but they are also men of their time--Nephites included. The Nephite prophet Moroni wrote, “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31; italics mine).[3] I believe this applies to the views the Nephites had of the Lamanites; the once common belief that black people are descendants of Cain; as well as Paul’s view that homosexuals are worthy of death (Rom. 1:27-32) and “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (NIV, 1 Cor. 14:35). Moroni wrote in the preface to the Book of Mormon, “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.” One could also say, “if prophets have faults, they are faults men are prone to; wherefore, condemn not the prophets of God.”

In this post I have treated the Book of Mormon as an historical record from a people who really did exist--which is what I do believe. They were just as self-obsessed as people today can be. They looked down on others who did not fit their image of beauty and refinement. They despised the Lamanites’ way of life, were proud of their heritage, class conscious (Alma 32:2; 4 Nephi 1:26), distinguished for their wealth and fine clothing (Alma 4:6; 4 Nephi 1:24; Mormon 8:36-37; Mosiah 4:16-18), had well developed legal and political traditions, and political power tended to say within families (Alma 50:39; Hel. 1:4-13; Mosiah 17:2; Mosiah 25:13).[4] They also believed that righteousness leads to material prosperity (1 Nephi 4:14), as many people do today. And one must wonder, if Nephite culture was so great for all those among the Nephites, why were there so many dissenters over to the Lamanites? (Jarom 1:13; WoM 1:16; Alma 31:8; Alma 43:13; Alma 47:36; Alma 63:14; Hel. 11:24).[5] (See Sherrie Mills Johnson, The Zoramite Separation: A Sociological Perspective, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005.)

The unusual thing about Nephite culture was their associating righteousness to a light complexion, and savagery to a darker one. Part of their belief seems to stem from an expectation that a cursed people would be externally marked. Nephi said, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Nephi 5:21). But a careful reading reveals that was Nephi’s interpretation of what happened to the Lamanite complexion. The reason for it, he believed, was that “they might not be enticing unto my [Nephi’s] people” (2 Nephi 5:21). He saw it as divine protection. Because Nephi was the father of the Nephite nation, once he interpreted the mark as being a darker complexion his view became fixed in the minds of the Nephite people for nearly their whole history.

We are all aware of the existence of racism between whites, Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. But that experience does not always translate to conflicts between closely related people. The Nephite-Lamanite conflict was based on differences in political and religious traditions, but it was also driven by differences in external appearance.

Because discussing outward appearances and social preferences tends to involve some level of self-identification the subjects are sensitive ones. Promoting skin color preference is controversial, and unfortunately not uncommon. A friend of mine who is from India once told me people from lower casts tend to have a darker complexion. A news article from the BBC reads, “In Asian culture, skin-shade snobbery is rife, with the general consensus the browner you are, the less desirable” (Yasmeen Khan,
Briget Jones? She's got it easy; see also here, here for TV commercial). And another one about skin lightening in Africa is titled, “Fighting against skin lightening.” And from an article from the Guardian, “The Japanese have long been derma-obsessed…tanned skin is traditionally looked on with disdain in the Orient, where poets and writers wax lyrical about fair-skinned women. Even that Japanese icon, the geisha, was rated by the condition of the skin on the back of her neck - the paler and softer it was, the more beautiful she was deemed to be” (Nicole Mowbray, Japanese girls choose whiter shade of pale, Sunday, April 4, 2004). And the character Sir Walter Elliot from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion says, “a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree” (Chapter 3). This attitude also extended back to Old Testament times. “Her princes were purer than snow, whiter than milk; their bodies were more ruddy [of a red color, healthy looking] than coral, the beauty of their form was like sapphire. Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets” (ESV, Lam. 4:7-8); and “His arms are rods of gold, set with jewels. His body is polished ivory, bedecked with sapphires” (ESV, Song 5:14).[6] (Compare Song 7:4; 5:10.) All of this simply illustrates that Nephites were not very different from modern people when it come to self righteousness and unjust social preferences.

There is a profound lesson in all of this: Christianity did not make the Nephite peoples more tolerant. Nor does it necessarily make any culture or nation more tolerant, or morally superior to non-Christian cultures. And, being favored by God does not always lead to righteousness. The Hebrews were told very plainly, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations.” (NIV, Deut. 9:5-6). Even a casual reading of the Gospels provides many examples of Pharisee and Sadducee intolerance. Eventually the gospel was taken from the Jews and given to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6; 28:27-28). But a quick perusal of Christian history yields atrocities, slavery, bigotry, mass murder and religious wars. And though Mormon history has yet to span 200 years we have our own sins: we once embraced views that black people were descended from Cain and were less valiant in the pre-existence; there is the mass murder of approximately 120 people committed at Mountain Meadows, which Brigham Young tried to cover-up after the fact; and Mormons tended to hold the same racist views that other white Americans held about non-whites.

Mormons never viewed the Native Americans (the “Lamanites”) as black, so the “skin of blackness” was never interpreted as such in any contemporary sense of the word. It was once common for Mormons to think of all Native Americans (in North and South America) as the descendants of the Lamanites. We believe that includes any person with Native American blood, including Mestizo; but also Polynesians (see “Polynesians,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism; also Alma 63:5-8). This very broad interpretation is becoming less common. An increasing number of Mormons believe the descendants of the Lamanites and Nephites are among the aboriginal Americans.[7] That interpretation makes it nearly impossible to identify what the Nephite and Lamanite peoples looked like. As mentioned, after the Nephites were destroyed and the Lamanites became “a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people” (Mormon 5:15), there is no indication the mark of the curse ever returned.[8] Consistent with the new interpretation, because the descendants of the Lamanites and Nephites are among the aboriginal Americans they have likely intermarried with them, making any identification statistically impossible. But given the latitude Mormons often allow when interpreting scripture this interpretation is not especially problematic. And many Mormons would argue that it should be favored because of its consistency with DNA testing of Native American populations--that there is no genetic signature of middle eastern people among the aboriginal Americans.

Personally I lean toward the natural causes theory of the Lamanite mark. In this post I have emphasized Nephite self-righteousness to a degree much greater than other LDS writers have done. I emphasize that the Nephites’ perception of the Lamanites is part of the curse. If that is true then the Nephite people were extremely stuck up and proud. But why not? Aren’t real people, real nations, just like that. My treatment of Nephite culture indicates what I believe: the Nephite nation did once exist, and that it is not a story concocted in Joseph Smiths fertile imagination.

I haven’t tried to cover all the bases of my arguments in this post, nor do I feel it is especially important for me to do so. I mainly wanted the reader to get a sense of how Mormons think about the Nephite-Lamanite conflict, and throw in some of my own opinions. I believe the Book of Mormon is scripture, but also that it contains the views of those who wrote it. To me this adds to its relevance; it makes it more human, so to speak.

Anti-Mormon writers like to highlight the more shocking verses from the Book of Mormon--there are several. At the same time they judiciously overlook verses that contribute to a deeper analysis of the politics described in it. After a superficial glance it appears that racism is an integral part of the Book of Mormon. However, if you look a little deeper you’ll find plenty to think about. Like many things in Mormonism, there is much more then what first meets the eye.

See “Book of Mormon Peoples,” “Lamanites,” “Native Americans” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

End Notes__________________________________________
[1] The 19th century editions were published in 1830, 1837, 1840, 1841, 1849, 1852, and 1879. (See “Book of Mormon Editions,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)

[2] Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,

After the people again forgot the Lord and dissensions arose, some of them took upon themselves the name Lamanites and the dark skin returned. When the Lamanites fully repent and sincerely receive the gospel, the Lord has promised to remove the dark skin. The Lord declared by revelation that, “before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 3, p. 123)

One Richard Cowan said at a Book of Mormon Symposium,

Nevertheless, the mark of the dark skin had not yet returned to the wicked. Mormon noted that the remnant of this people would “become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites” (Mormon 5:15). (Richard O. Cowan, “The Lamanites - A More Accurate Image,” Seventh Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, 1992, Religion Studies Center, BYU)

And again from Rodney Turner

Whether or not the ancient sign of the loss of the Spirit was imposed immediately or gradually over a period of many years or only after the final destruction of the Nephite nation in the late fourth century is unknown. There is no explicit reference to the restoration of the dark skin in the Book of Mormon.
…How long they dwindled in unbelief before the mark was reimposed upon them we can only conjecture, but one thing is certain -the presence of the physical sign reflected the spiritual darkness into which Lehi’s posterity fell after the coming of the Savior…. (Op. Cit.)

[3] He is not speaking of imperfections in the language as in Mormon 8:12 and Ether 23:25.

[4] The Nephite general Mormon referred to himself as “a pure descendant of Lehi” (3 Nephi 5:20) and a “descendant of Nephi” (Mormon 1:5).

[5] Some of this class conscience attitude was probably inherited from Jewish society through Lehi. Even after Zoram had lived among Lehi’s family for many years as a free man (1 Nephi 4:33), Lehi says to him, “thou art the servant of Laban…” (2 Nephi 1:30; italics mine). Also, why would Mormon, at the age of sixteen, be appointed to lead an army of the Nephites? This only makes sense to me if he was descended from nobility, coupled with a Nephite belief that nobility should lead.

[6] The highly regarded Bible scholars Johann Keil (d. 1888) and Franz Delitzsch (d. 1890) wrote in their commentary on the Bible,

The white and the red are to be understood as mixed, and shading into one another, as our popular poetry speaks of cheeks which 'like milk and purple shine. (K&D on Lam. 4:1-11 and Job 28-17-20)

White, and indeed a dazzling white, is the colour of his flesh, and redness, deep redness, the colour of his blood tinging his flesh. Whiteness among all the race-colours is the one which best accords with the dignity of man; pure delicate whiteness is among the Caucasian races a mark of high rank, of superior training, of hereditary nobility; wherefore, Lam. 4:7, the appearance of the nobles of Jerusalem is likened in whiteness to snow and milk, in redness to corals; and Homer, Il. iv. 141, says of Menelaus that he appeared stained with gore, “as when some woman tinges ivory with purple colour.” In this mingling of white and red, this fulness of life and beauty, he is…distinguished above myriads. (K&D on Song 5:10)

[7] Prior to 2006 the introduction to the Book of Mormon read, “[the descendants of Lehi] came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites…After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” It now reads, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” Apparently Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote the introduction. Since DNA evidence does not support the view that “they are the principle ancestors of the American Indians” a reinterpretation is necessary. (See here for video on this subject, Quicktime required; it might take several minutes to load; as of 1/19/2008 the church has not yet updated the introduction to the online scriptures. For original introduction at lds.org see here; second paragraph)

See these articles: “Single word change in Book of Mormon speaks volumes” from the Salt Lake Tribune, November 11, 2007 (Article ID: 7403990); and “Book of Mormon intro change of a single word sparks debate” by Jennifer Dobner from the Associated Press, January 12, 2008.

[8] One possible clue that the darker complexion did return is found from Moroni: “[the Gentiles] were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain” (1 Nephi 13:15). The fact that he compares the Gentiles to his own people creates an image of Caucasian Nephites. But because he says nothing about how the Lamanites looked it is not sufficient to make an argument for the return of the “curse.”