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.”


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