By Jonathan Decker
Note: This article is written from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
Context is Everything
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 more righteous and more 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 my 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 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 separation 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 that those who rebelled against God 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 that God is racist in Latter-day Saint theology? Doesn’t that prove that The Book of Mormon is a prejudiced record?”
“You Keep Using That Phrase. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means.”
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 in eyes 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).
There is a similar concept in the Quran: “On the Day when some faces will be whitened, and some faces will be blackened. As for those whose faces are blackened: ‘Did you disbelieve after your belief?’ Then taste the punishment for having disbelieved. But as for those whose faces are whitened: they are in God’s mercy, remaining in it forever.” (Holy Quran 3:106-107). Given how many devout Muslims have darker skin, and have for over 1500 years, it’s clear this is a spiritual concept, not a racial one.
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 its teachings of racial equality in the eyes of God, the numerous stories of its dark-skinned heroes, the times when its people of color were more righteous than the fair-skinned communities, or the Lord’s loving promises to the Lamanite nation.
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, given in poor taste when 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. To me, Jacob’s unintentionally insensitive metaphor is one of the “mistakes of men” Moroni referred to.
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 land from his enemies. Sent to do reconnaissance among the Lamanites (observing 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 Prejudice Towards 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” (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 safety if 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). Ammon’s acknowledgement that this dark-skinned woman had more faith than any of the fair-skinned Nephites, male or female, is reminiscent of the Savior’s recognizing the faith of the Roman centurion: “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:10).
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. Abish had been converted many years earlier due to her father’s having a miraculous vision (proving the Lord’s concern for the Lamanites well 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 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 that 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 dark-skinned 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 God’s law, the Lord allowed them to repent; they were forgiven after incredible sorrow and remorse (Alma 24:10-12). However, if they became bloodthirsty again once they’d accepted Christ and covenanted to keep His commandments, God would likely not have forgiven them again (Alma 39:5-6; Alma 24:13). So complete was their commitment to peace 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” (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 them once again. The sons of Mosiah, fearing the total annihilation of their beloved friends and converts, suggested that they immigrate to the Nephite nation. The Lamanite king 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.
The Two Thousand Warriors (and Their Mothers)
This protection came to be necessary, as war broke out between the Nephite and Lamanite nations. Keeping their promise to protect the Lamanite converts, the Nephites were dying by the thousands in nightmarish battle. Though the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi were willing to die rather than defend themselves, they were heartbroken that others were dying on their behalf, and were about to break their covenant and take up arms to defend their Nephite friends. The Nephite prophet and solider Helaman begged them not to, exhorting them to keep their promise to God.
Roughly two thousand of their young sons, barely older than boys, had not made the same covenant. Though untested in battle they offered to fight for their families and their allies. We read of them: “And they were all young men, and they were exeedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity, but behold, this was not all- they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. Yea, they were men of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him. Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives, they had been taught by their mothers that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” (Alma 53:20-21, Alma 56: 47-48).
Their unshakable faith in God, learned from their wonderful mothers, protected these young warriors when many of their more experienced Nephite brothers died in battle. Time and time again, the righteous young Lamanite warriors were protected and fought with incredible strength. Helaman, who led them in battle, wrote “according to the goodness of God, and to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul of them who did not receive many wounds. And now, their preservation was astonishing to our whole army, yea, that they should be spared while there was a thousand of our brethren who were slain. And we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe- that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power” (Alma 57:25-26).
These young Lamanite warriors were instrumental in bringing peace to the land. Their story gives us a wonderful example of interracial cooperation, friendship, and love. The Nephite prophet-soldier Helaman, their commander in the army, loved these Lamanites so much that he called them “sons” and they called him “father” (Alma 56:46). He spoke of them with the kind of righteous pride a father has for his children, saying of them “never had I seen so great courage, nay, not amongst all the Nephites” (Alma 56:45), that “they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness” (Alma 57:21) and that “their minds are firm, and they do put their trust in God continually” (Alma 57:27). Millions of readers worldwide, since the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been inspired by their story.
The Converted Prisoners
About thirty years later, the prophets Nephi and Lehi (named after their forefathers), embarked on an ambitious mission to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to both the Nephite and Lamanite nations. Preaching with great power and authority, they brought thousands to repentance from both groups (Helaman 5:17-19) until they were finally arrested by a Lamanite army and thrown into prison. When their captors came to execute them, Nephi and Lehi were surrounded by fire from heaven. An earthquake shook the prison walls; mists of darkness and despair surrounded the Lamanites, who heard the still, small voice of God commanding them to repent. They witnessed Nephi and Lehi speaking to angels and were encouraged to pray for faith in Christ, the forgivenes of their sins, and the removal of the mists of darkness.
Their prayers were answered and they were surrounded by heavenly fire. They were then filled with the Holy Ghost and unspeakable glory, joy, and peace. Angels descended to teach them. They left the prison and taught their fellow Lamanites, convincing the majority of the entire nation to believe in Christ and abandon their hatred, false traditions, and their weapons of war. This story can be read in Helaman 5:21-52.
The preaching of these converted prisoners brought about three great changes that had never happened in the history of Nephite-Lamanite relations.
The first was that “the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites, because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith” (Helaman 6:1). Throughout the record, the Nephites, as a whole, had been more faithful than the Lamanites, but no more. God began to bless the Lamanites more than the Nephites, proving the scripture which says that “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God” (1 Nephi 17:35).
The second change was that, instead of Lamanites being converted through Nephite preaching, now it was the other way around: “And it came to pass that many of the Lamanites did come down into the land of Zarahelma, and did declare unto the people of the Nephites the manner of their conversion, and did exhort them to faith and repentance. Yeah, and many did preach with exceedingly great power and authority, unto the bringing down many of them into the depths of humility to be the humble followers of God and the Lamb” (Helaman 6:4-5).
Finally, for the first time “there was peace in all the land, insomuch that the Nephites did go into whatsoever part of the land they would, whether among the Nephites or the Lamanites. And it came to pass that the Lamanites did also go withersoever they would…and thus they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and sell and to get gain, according to their desire” (Helaman 6:7-8). As Nephi, Lehi, and the Lamanite converts spread the Gospel, it brought peace and unity to two races that had been devastated by hatred and war for centuries.
Opposers of Gadianton, Disciples of Christ
That peace, sadly, was not to last. The Gadianton Robbers, a secret society of organized crime and satanic rituals, came out of hiding, luring people into their ranks with promises of power and riches. We read, however, that the dark-skinned Lamanites responded better to this rising evil than did the fair-skinned Nephites:
“And it came to pass that the Lamanites did hunt the band of robbers of Gadianton; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites.
“And it came to pass on the other hand that the Nephites did build them up and support them…until they had overspread all the land of the Nephites, and had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to…join with them in their secret murders…And thus they did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did…turn their backs upon the poor and the meek and the humble followers of God” (Helaman 6:37-39).
I must point out that this development, of Lamanite righteousness and Nephite wickedness, flies directly in the face of critics’ overly simplistic portrayal of race in The Book of Mormon as “light skin is good and dark skin is evil.” Here it is exactly the opposite! We read that “the Nephites did begin to dwindle in unbelief and grow in wickedness and abominations, while the Lamanites began to grown exceedingly in the knowledge of their God; yea, they did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him. And thus we see that the Spirit of the Lord began to withdraw from the Nephites, because of the wickedness and hardness of their hearts. And thus we see that the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his words” (Helaman 6:34-36).
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 the Savior’s assertion in the Bible that “many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Nowhere is this principle more clearly illustrated than when the Lord sent a righteous dark-skinned prophet to rescue the wicked light-skinned nation, a nation which had turned their backs on Christ and embraced evil works.
Samuel the Lamanite
The prophet Samuel was a Lamanite, sent by the Lord to preach to the rebellious Nephites. Cast out of the city but compelled by the Lord to return, he stood upon the city walls and loudly preached the words God placed in his heart. He prophesied destruction unless the people repented. He rebuked them for their love of riches, their ingratitude, and for persecuting and murdering. He condemned them for supporting false prophets while rejecting true ones and declared that there is no happiness in sin.
He had the privilege of foretelling to the people in the New World the signs they’d see of the Savior’s birth, death, and resurrection (which would occur in the Holy Land). Samuel taught the Nephites of physical death and spiritual death, and that both were overcome through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He testified of the principle of agency and that people are free to choose good or evil, but must accept the consequences. He testified of God’s great love for the Nephites and His promises to the Lamanites (more on that later).
After Samuel delivered his message, some believed and sought repentance and baptism. Others were angry and tried to kill him, firing arrows and slinging stones at him on the wall. We read that “the Spirit of the Lord was with him, insomuch that they could not hit him with their stones neither with their arrows” (Helaman 16:2). Many more believed when they saw this, though predictably others attributed his protection to the power of the devil. When they tried to arrest him he fled and preached among his own people.
The Curse is Removed
The Gadianton Robbers had grown so numerous and aggressive that Nephites and Lamanites, who until this point had had peaceful interactions but maintained separate nations, officially united to protect themselves from their common enemy (3 Nephi 2:12). At this point we read another controversial set of passages:
“And it came to pass that 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 daughters became exceedlingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:14-16).
While some have interpreted these verses to imply that the “curse” of dark skin was removed in an instant as a reward for righteousness, I do not believe that the scriptures support this idea. For one thing, there had been righteous Lamanites for decades, with no mention of a change in skin color. The Lord had no problem with them being both dark and righteous. Furthermore, we read of the faithful Anti-Nephi-Lehies that “the curse of God did no more follow them” (Alma 23:18), yet when they buried their swords and laid down their lives rather than fight, their attackers recognized them as fellow Lamanites (Alma 24:23-24); clearly their dark skin had remained. From this we see that the dark skin was not the curse, which is supported by the remarks of Joseph Fielding Smith cited earlier.
You’ll remember that President Smith taught that the curse had two parts. The first was the removal of the Spirit of the Lord, which seems to be the part referred to when the “curse of God” no longer followed the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who were then granted “the spirit of prophecy” (Alma 25:16). The second part was the denial of marital unions with the Nephites. The Lord had told Nephi, speaking of the Lamanites “I will cause that they shall become 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” (2 Nephi 5:22-23, emphasis added). We see from this that the prohibition of the “mixing of seed” (marriage and procreation) between Nephites and Lamanites was meant to last only so long as the Lamanites were estranged from God.
The dark skin, like circumcision among the Jews, was a mark designating who God’s people could and couldn’t marry, in order to preserve their religion (Genesis 34: 14-16; Judges 14: 3). Just as circumcision ceased to matter after the Gentiles embraced the Gospel (1 Corinthians 7:18-19), it appears that the dark skin here ceased to matter and the Lord allowed intermarriage. See the wording of the aforementioned scripture “…those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites…and their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair…and were called Nephites.”
Though righteous Lamanites had previously been counted as members of the Church and lived in the Nephite nation (Alma 27:27), had friendships with Nephites (Alma 23:18), and had traded with them during times of peace (Helaman 6:7-8), as far as I’ve seen they had never before been numbered among the Nephites. Even the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who were loved by the Nephites and whose sons fought alongside them, were given their own land as an inheritance (Alma 27:22). But here they all lived together, united, with the scripture specifically mentioning that their children became fair-skinned, suggesting an inter-generational process that occurred over time.
There is one last indicator that the change in skin color was a gradual effect of Nephite-Lamanite intermarriage and not a “magic moment” as is so often suggested: there were righteous, believing Lamanites roughly fifteen years later who were still called Lamanites, not Nephites (3 Nephi 6:14). They were not numbered among the Nephites, nor is there any indication of change in skin color. This effectively debunks the idea that all of the righteous Lamanites, from the curse’s removal onwards, became fair-skinned Nephites. The verses about a change in skin color seem instead to be the historian Mormon’s description of what happened when members of the two nations united.
The Savior Comes: All Are One Race
The Book of Mormon indicates that both righteous Nephites and righteous Lamanites survived the natural disasters that followed the Lord’s death (3 Nephi 10:18). Therefore, it stands to reason that when the resurrected Christ descended from heaven in the Americas He taught, healed, and prayed for Nephites and Lamanites alike. It wasn’t until sometime after His ministry that the races became so fully integrated that they became indistinguishable from one another:
“The people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them…And they were married, and given in marriage, and were blessed according to the multitude of the promises which the Lord had made unto them…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: 2,11,17).
It’s clear that, after the Savior’s coming, Nephites and Lamanites married and procreated until racial lines were blurred completely.
Divisions Arise, a Nation Falls
This utopian society continued for about two hundred years, after which pride, the love of money, lust, persecutions, and violence gradually emerged and many began to deny Christ. Those who rebelled against the Gospel began again to call themselves Lamanites (and other related tribal names) while those who followed Christ were again called Nephites (4 Nephi 1:37-38), though it is important to note that these were cultural labels by this point, not ethnic ones. There is no mention here of skin color or denial of intermarriage. Although two nations rose up once again, their bloodlines by this point were forever mixed together.
Renowned Gospel scholar Sidney B. Sperry explained: “Latter-day Saints have concluded too readily that the Lamanites are direct descendants of Laman and Lemuel. Actually much Nephite blood flows in their veins” (‘The Lamanites Portrayed in The Book of Mormon,’ Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume 4, Issue 1, Pages: 246-254; Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1995).
By 400 B.C. the Nephites and Lamanites were engaged in a fight to the death, but we must conclude that this was not a fair-skinned nation battling a dark-skinned one. In terms of race, by this point they all looked very much the same. Bruce A. Van Orden of Brigham Young University taught that “present day Lamanites…are not necessarily descendants of Laman, but actually are a mixture of Book of Mormon peoples- the ‘children of Lehi’” (Book of Mormon Reference Companion, Largey, 2003, p.497).
During this time the prophet Mormon and his son Moroni compiled and abridged the history of their people, known today as The Book of Mormon. Moroni buried it in the earth. The Nephite nation was wiped out, with only Lamanites remaining.
God’s Promised Blessings to the Lamanites
Roughly 1400 years later, Moroni appeared as an angel to the Prophet Joseph Smith and directed him to the location of the buried records, which Joseph translated into English by the gift and power of God. While translating, Joseph discovered wonderful promises made to Lamanite descendants, whom the Lord later prophesied would “blossom as the rose” (D&C 49:24). Latter-day Saints believe that the Lamanites are among the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (responses to DNA-based questions have been addressed at length elsewhere).
God promised His merciful protection to the Lamanites: they would not be destroyed, but would remain forever on the land (2 Nephi 4:7; Alma 9:16). Though they had rebelled against the Lord, it was prophesied that they’d become a blessed people (Jacob 3:6), come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Nephi 30:5-6), and be numbered among His fold (Helaman 15:12-13). The Book of Mormon was preserved, in part, to teach Lamanite descendants about where they came from, to invite them to follow Jesus Christ, and to be saved (Enos 1:13-18; Title Page of The Book of Mormon). The resurrected Savior taught that the remnant of Jacob (in other words, the descendants of the Nephites and Lamanites) would help to build the New Jerusalem on the American continent (3 Nephi 21:22-24).
The Lamanites are promised even more tremendous blessings, blessings which ought to give pause to those who accuse The Book of Mormon of racial prejudice. Richard Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History (Emeritus) at Colombia University, explains:
“The fact that [the Lamanites] are Israel, the chosen of God, adds a level of complexity to the Book of Mormon that simple racism does not explain…the book champions the Indians’ place in world history, assigning them a more glorious future than modern American whites…According to the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are destined to return to favor with God and given this land, just as Jews are to be restored to the Holy Land…
“In its very nature, the Book of Mormon overturns conventional American racism. The book makes Indians the founders of civilization in the New World. The master history of America’s origins is not about Columbus or the Puritans but about native peoples…European migrants are called “Gentiles” in the Book of Mormon and come onstage as interlopers. They appear late in the narrative and remain secondary to the end. The land belongs to the Indians. The primary role of the Gentiles is to serve the natives, to build them up by bringing them the Bible and the Book of Mormon. If the Gentiles fail to help Israel, they are doomed. After nourishing the remnant of Jacob, they must join Israel or perish…The Book of Mormon is not just sympathetic to Indians; it grants them dominance- in history, in God’s esteem, and in future ownership of the American continent” (Bushman, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling; 2006, pp. 98-99).
One Final Thought
Much has been said and written about The Book of Mormon, both for and against. Attempts have been made to prove and disprove it using archaeology and scientific research, with convincing evidence mounted and arguments made on both sides. That debate will continue to rage on, back and forth, round and round, but I submit that the Lord never meant for the issue to be resolved that way. Critics will take, and have taken, verses out of context is to attack the book. But the only fair assessment, and the only way to know if the book is true, is to consider it as a whole by reading it and prayerfully asking God about it. James, in the Bible, asserts that “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:5-6).
The promise of The Book of Mormon is built on this very principle (please take a moment to read that promise). I have studied this book, I have applied its doctrines, and I have prayed about it, believing that God would answer me. Doing this, I have received a witness by the Holy Ghost, to my mind and to my heart, that the book is the word of God. It is scripture, as sacred and useful to me as the Holy Bible.
Contrary to critics’ implications, the topic of race is one that receives relatively minor emphasis in The Book of Mormon; we’ve held a magnifying glass to it here, but in truth the book is rich with practical wisdom and rewarding doctrines on many subjects. Its central purpose, however, is “the convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations” (Title Page).
It is another testament of Christ, teaching us that Jesus “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).
It is my sincere hope that we can see one another as equals, brothers and sisters before God, as taught by The Book of Mormon.
Please see also my article “Race in Mormon History.”