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 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…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 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. 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). 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-gatherer, 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). 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…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. (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. (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 1:17). 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). (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.) 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). 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.
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). 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 more so (Mormon 9:7-10). So much that the leader of the Nephite armies 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. 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 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.
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
 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).
 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).
 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)
 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)
 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).
 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.
 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)
 As another group of dissenters did (Alma 43:20).
 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?
 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)