The most accurate description of race in The Book of Mormon is not that dark skin is bad and light skin is good, but rather that “all are alike unto God” and that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
Context is everything. Critics of The Book of Mormon often cite isolated passages as evidence that Latter-Day Saints view dark skin as a curse and white skin as an indicator of God’s favor. Taking those verses in the context of the entire record, however, one finds something far richer and much more satisfying: a book of scripture in which dark-skinned peoples are the prophesied recipients of great blessings and are often morerighteous andmore favored by the Lord than their fair-skinned counterparts. The Book of Mormon teaches definitively that “ye shall not esteem one flesh above the other, or one man shall not think himself above the other” (Mosiah 23:7). It is my intention to examine the racial history recorded in The Book of Mormon, including the curse upon the Lamanites,the record’s teachings of equality, an overview of its dark-skinned heroes, the removal of the curse, and the Lord’s promises to its surviving people. I hope to provide a resource for members of our faith, as well as information for others who want to know what the book actually says on this subject.
A Curse Misunderstood
For those not of our faith, a quick primer is in order. We believe in The Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The Book of Mormon is a companion scripture, another testament of Jesus Christ. Its primary narrative follows an Israelite family as they flee Jerusalem around 600 B.C, build a ship under God’s direction, and sail to the Americas. The family then split into two tribes: those who followed the prophet Nephi were called Nephites while those who sided with Nephi’s rebellious brother Laman were called Lamanites.
At this point the controversy begins and understandably so.Writing of the division in his family, Nephi described the consequences of the Lamanites’rejection of God:
“Wherefore 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 behold he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity.
“For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, 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 a sore 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, emphasis added).
One must concede that, taken on their own, these verses appear damning to Mormon theology. Critics are quick to conclude that dark skin was, in our view, a curse from God. A closer look at the text, however, clarifies that the curse was actually separation from the Lord, His blessings, and His guidance. This has always been the consequence for disobedience, as seen in the case of Adam and Eve, who were cast out of the presence of God after their transgression in the Garden of Eden.
The dark skin served a different purpose. President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that “the dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing. The dark skin was the sign of the curse [not the curse itself]. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols [1957-66], 3:122-23). It was this withdrawal of God’s Spirit that caused the Lamanites to be “an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety.” It is important to remember that the Lamanites chose this and effectively brought it upon themselves (Alma 3:19).
The curse, therefore, had a second aspect to it: the forbidding of intermarriage. Why keep the two groups from mixing? Quite simply, to prevent Nephites from marrying Lamanites, which would lead to their believing “in incorrect traditions that would prove their destruction” (Alma 3: 7-9). This has always been the case with the people of God. In the Bible, the Lord commanded ancient Israel not to marry outside of their faith, as they could not bless the nations of the earth (Genesis 26: 4) if their beliefs had become corrupted through marriage to nonbelievers. Speaking to the Jews about those not of the covenant, God commanded: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods…For thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God, [who] hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself” (Deuteronomy 7: 3-6).
Some might ask: “Why set a mark on the Lamanites? Was that really necessary?” A study of the scriptures reveals that the Lord has done this multiple times. Later in The Book of Mormon the fair-skinned Amlicites marked themselves with red on their foreheads, fulfilling the prophecy of God that those who rebelled against Him would be marked and separated from His people (Alma 3: 13-19). In the Bible, being uncircumcised was a mark of ungodly people, with whom Israel was not to marry and procreate (Genesis 34: 14-16; Judges 14: 3). It is worth noting that such marks were only valid for as long as the Lord had use for them, after which they were considered of no importance (1 Corinthians 7:18-19).
Others may ask: “But why mark the Lamanites with dark skin? Doesn’t that imply racism on part of the God of Latter-Day Saint theology? Doesn’t that prove that The Book of Mormon is a prejudiced record?” First of all, there is ample argument from Gospel scholars that the dark skin spoken of doesn’t signify a literal change of ethnicity.For example, Hugh Nibley has said that “black” in the phrase”skin of blackness” is likely a translation of a Hebrew phrase meaning dark as in “bad and unpleasant” (similar to modern uses of dark such as “works of darkness” and “the Dark Lord Voldemort”).
He argued that because the Lamanites became uncivilized and savage their outward appearance became unkempt, unhygienic, and literally dirty, thus becoming ineyes of the Nephites dark (meaning bad or unpleasant), loathsome, and unattractive. Therefore the change the Lamanites underwent may have just been spiritual and cultural, not a literal change in racial makeup (see Nibley, Teachings of The Book of Mormon, pp. 228-229).
That said, because many critics and Church members take The Book of Mormon at face value and assume that a literal change in skin color occurred, in this particular article we’ll follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion. Even if that assumption is correct, arguments that the document is racist often don’t account for itsteachings of racial equality in the eyes of God, the numerous stories of its dark-skinned heroes, or the Lord’s loving promises to the Lamanitenation.
Nephi and Jacob Preach Equality, Condemn Racism
In the very same generation in which the curse was given, the prophet Nephi preached racial equality, declaring God’s love for all people, including the Lamanites: “[The Lord] doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world, for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him…and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:24,33; emphasis added).
After Nephi died, his brother Jacob was called to lead the Nephites, who were already falling into sin. Jacob told his people to repent for putting the love of riches before caring for the poor. He also rebuked them for breaking the hearts of their wives and children by disobeying the law of monogamous marriage, which was (and still is) the standing Gospel law, except when the Lord directs otherwise (Jacob 2:27-30). The latter practice is relevant to the topic at hand, as Jacob taught that, in this regard, the dark-skinned Lamanites were more righteous than the fair-skinned Nephites:
“Behold, the Lamanites…are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given to our father, that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should be no whoredoms committed among them…
“Behold, 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: 5,7; emphasis added).
Jacob then says something that has given pause to many, including myself: “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” (Jacob 3:8). Hugh Nibley explained that Jacob was speaking metaphorically of “white in the moral sense of the meaning of white” (Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Part One, p. 305); in other words purity, not actual skin color (see also Isaiah 1:18; Alma 5:21). Jacob’s metaphor, compared to modern racial sensibilities, reminds me of Moroni’s assertion on the title page of The Book of Mormon: “And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of God.”We should not judge Jacob too harshly by holding him to modern standards.
This is apparent when contrasted with the godly doctrine Jacob teaches immediately thereafter: “Wherefore 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; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers” (Jacob 3:9; emphasis added)
Notice that not only does Jacob renounce racial hatred, he also draws a clear distinction between dark skin and filthiness. They are not one and the same. Filthiness comes from sin, and in that regard the Nephites were here even more culpable than the Lamanites. The latter sinned out of ignorance and tradition, while the former willfully rebelled against God.
Enos Prays For the Lamanites
Jacob’s teachings illustrate that while some Nephites held notions of racial superiority, those who knew the mind of God considered the Lamanites to be their brothers and sisters, a concept reemphasized by Enos. While hunting in the wilderness, Enos spent all day and night in prayer for forgiveness of his sins, then for the welfare of his people the Nephites. When God answered and forgave him, Enos said that “my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord, and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren the Lamanites” (Enos 1:11, emphasis added). Enos pleaded with the Lord that the scriptures would be preserved so that the Lamanites, one day, could come to the knowledge of Christ and be saved. The Lord promised him that his desires would be granted (Enos 1:13-16).
Zeniff Recognizes the Good in His Enemies
Zeniff was a soldier in the Nephite military, possibly a leader. Like so many throughout history, he wanted to forcibly take landfrom his enemies. Sent to do reconnaissance among the Lamanites and observe their movements and numbers, he amazingly ended up leading a revolt in order to protect them. His story speaks for itself:
“I…having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites to spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them- but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them; but he being an austere and bloodthirsty man commanded that I should be slain. But I was rescued by the shedding of much blood, for father fought against father, and brother fought against brother, until the greater number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness; and we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children” (Mosiah 9: 1-2, emphasis added).
Zeniff later ended up trying to make a peaceful arrangement with the Lamanites for the desired lands.
The Sons of Mosiah Defy Nephite PrejudiceTowards the Lamanites
Several hundred years later, the sons of the Nephite king Mosiah asked their father for permission”that they might impart the word of God to their brethren, the Lamanites, that perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God…and that perhaps they might cure them of their hatred towards the Nephites, that they might be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, that they might become friendly one to another” (<a href="https://www.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/28.1-2?lang=eng”>Mosiah 28: 1-2).
In their desires, the sons of Mosiah faced Nephite prejudice. One of them, named Ammon,later recounted: “Now do ye remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi to preach unto our brethren the Lamanites, and they laughed us to scorn? For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language. And moreover they did say: Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26: 24-25).
Though many Nephites thought that the Lamanites were savages and not worth the effort of saving, the sons of Mosiah clearly saw them as their equals. Ammon testified that “God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in. Yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth” (Alma 26:37). Their father, fearing for their safetyif they were to preach among the Lamanites, inquired of the Lord, who told him: “Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life“ (Mosiah 28:6-7). These Lamanite converts and their descendants would become some of the most inspiring and courageous figures in all of scripture.
The Dark-Skinned Heroes of The Book of Mormon
Lamoni, the Queen, and Abish
Lamoni, king over a Lamanite province, was converted through Ammon’s preaching. Upon receiving the gospel of Jesus Christ, Lamoni pled for the Lord’s mercy and was so overwhelmed by the power of God that he fell into a type of coma. Though the servants insisted that he was dead, Lamoni’s wife believed Ammon when he said the king would rise again, leading him to say of her that “there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites” (Alma 19:10; emphasis added). Lamoni awoke, testifying that he had seen Christ, who would redeem all mankind, at which point he, his wife, and Ammon were all overpowered by the Spirit and fell down, comatose.
All the servants fell down as well, except for Abish, the queen’s handmaiden, who had been converted many years earlier due to her father having a miraculous vision (proving the Lord’s concern for the Lamaniteswell before the arrival of Mosiah’s sons). Abish alerted the people and revived the queen, who boldly testified of Christ, spoke in tongues, and revived the king. This set off a chain of events leading to the ministering of angels and the baptism of Lamoni’s people, whose “hearts [were] changed, that they had no more desire to do evil” (Alma 19:33). Their miraculous conversion is rightfully attributed as much to the faith and humility of Lamoni, the queen, and Abish as it was to the missionary efforts of Ammon. These Lamanites were described as “zealous for keeping the commandments of God” (Alma 21:23). We read of their conversion: “And thus the work of the Lord did commence among the Lamanites; thus the Lord did begin to pour out his Spirit upon them. And we see that his arm is extended to all people who will repent and believe on his name (Alma 19:36, emphasis added).
King Lamoni was subject to his father, who was king over the larger territory. Initially eager to imprison or kill any Nephite he could get his hands on (displaying how prejudice went both ways), Lamoni’s father was deeply touched by Ammon’s genuine care for his son. Accepting the preaching of Aaron (Ammon’s brother), he became convinced of redemption through Jesus Christ and offered this beautiful prayer:
“O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God, and if there is a God, and thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me? And I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:18).
The king and his household were converted to the Lord, leading to the establishment of religious freedom in the land and the conversion of seven Lamanite cities. We read that “thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord…and were brought to the knowledge of the truth…[and] as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away (Alma 23:5-6). These converts became, arguably, the most righteous people in The Book of Mormon before the appearance of the resurrected Christ.They came to be known as the Anti-Nephi-Lehies.
Before their conversion to Christ, these Lamanites had been guilty of murder many times over, both against the Nephites and among their own people. Having not known the Lord or His law, repentance was still possible, but only through incredible sorrow and remorse (Alma 24:10-12). However, once they’d accepted Christ, been cleansed by His atonement, and covenanted to keep His commandments, full repentance may not have been possible if they murdered again (Alma 39:5-6; Alma 24:13). So complete was their commitment to peace, and to never becoming bloodthirsty again,that they buried their weapons deep in the ground. They promised the Lord that they’d never again take a human life, even out of self-defense (Alma 24:15-18).
This promise was put to the ultimate test when thousands of unconverted Lamanites, angry at their countrymen for converting to Christianity, marched against them with the intent of overthrowing the king and slaughtering the believers. Incredibly, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies not only refused to fight, they also refused to run. Bravely they knelt before their attackers in prayer: “Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren…would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword…they did forbear from slaying them” (<a href="https://www.
lds.org/scriptures/bofm/alma/24.23-24?lang=eng”>Alma 24:23-24).Many Lamanites, moved to repentance by the courage and love of their martyred comrades, also laid down their weapons of war and were converted to Christ.We read “…it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved…but there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth; thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people” (Alma 24:26-27).
Time passed and many more Lamanites embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, coming to understand that God truly loved them (Alma 24:14). Though their courage prevented a total massacre, their nation ultimately turned against themonce again. The sons of Mosiah, fearing the total annihilation of their beloved friends and converts, suggested that they immigrate to the Nephite nation. The Lamaniteking agreed to go if the Lord told them to (which He then did). Wishing to make penance for years of violence, the king suggested that he and his people become slaves under the rule of the Nephites. Tellingly, Ammon responded that “it is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father [King Mosiah, who was also a prophet of God] that there should be any slaves among them; therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren” (Alma 27:9; emphasis added). The Nephites, amazed by the virtue of the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi (Alma 27:27-30),were moved to compassion and forgiveness.They gave the converts their own province to inhabit and pledged to protect them with the Nephite armies.