Reconsidering the Lamanites

One of the major points of discussion in recent weeks is over an error in the printed “Come, Follow Me” manual.  A Joseph Fielding Smith quote with racist content was included in the discussion of 2 Nephi 5 and it was only noted that it does not accurately reflect Church doctrine after the manuals were printed.  The decision was made to change the digital version of the material but to send out the manuals as printed, with the belief that most members would be using the digital version.  Church statements to the press have focused on re-affirming that Church rejects racism in any form and disavows racist teachings.  At a meeting of the NAACP in Utah, Elder Gary E. Stevenson expressed that the quote was a mistake and that he wants members to disregard the printed version.  He also stated that: “I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others.”[1]  It’s been an issue that has fed into the ongoing discussion of the Church’s efforts to deal with racism.

Now, there are many unresolved questions with this error.  For example, what exactly is the review process for the “Come, Follow Me” manuals and how did the quote pass inspection?  Will the official institute manual for the Book of Mormon also be updated to remove the quote?[2]  Will the Church tell members to disregard the printed version via Church’s websites or other means of direct communication?[3]  How will this incident affect how we read the Book of Mormon in the future?  There are a lot of things to consider here.

One thing is clear, though—this incident has brought racial views in the Book of Mormon to the fore.  Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote draws on the racist beliefs that dark skin is a result of a curse on wicked ancestors and that interracial marriages are wrong.  It reads:

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. [see 2 Nephi 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-10].  The dark skin was the sign of the curse.  The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord [see 2 Nephi 5:20]. … Dark skin … is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse.[4]

In contrast, the Church’s official stance is that it “disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.”[5]  President Smith’s quote goes against that stance.

That being said, Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote draws on things that are stated in some of the more painful sections of the Book of Mormon.  Nephi states that God caused “the cursing to come upon” the Lamanites “because of their iniquity.”  While they had been “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome,” they were made to have “a skin of blackness” so that they would be “loathsome” and “not be enticing” to the Nephites (2 Nephi 5:21-23).  This is reiterated by Mormon in Alma 3 where he draws on Nephi’s words to describe Lamanites.  Much of what is present in the Joseph Fielding Smith quote is there in the Book of Mormon.

What follows here is an attempt on my part to make sense of the context of those statements in the Book of Mormon.  I’ll be the first to admit, however, that I don’t really know a good answer to the issue at hand.  I am disturbed by what Nephi and Mormon wrote about the Lamanites, but I don’t have enough context to really understand why they said what they said.  Perhaps the online version of the Come, Follow Me really does offer the best answer available with the information we have when it discusses the issue, affirming that we don’t really know much about what is stated and that it doesn’t reflect our doctrine today.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt.

When I was younger, I viewed the Book of Mormon almost as if God had sat down with dozens of different faces over the course of a thousand years and wrote the whole book Himself.  I took everything at face value as truth.  As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve started to ponder more on the fact that the authors of the Book of Mormon were human.  They were imperfect and some of their imperfect ideologies and agendas may have made their way into the text.  Moroni admitted that this might be the case when he wrote that: “If there are faults they are the mistakes of men.”[6]  Nephi likewise wrote that: “I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred.  And now, if I do err, even did they err of old” (1 Nephi 19:6).  Two of the most prominent authors in the Book of Mormon were aware that they were human and took responsibility for mistakes that they made in their writing.  Perhaps human faults had an impact on how the Lamanites were handled by Nephi and Mormon in their writing.

One example of personal agendas being blended with spiritual agendas is the fact that Nephi had a vested interest in defending his claims of leadership against the competing claims of his older brother, Laman.  Nephi saw himself as being chosen by God (and his father Lehi) because he was a better political and spiritual leader for their family than his brother.  Laman, on the other hand, felt that it was his responsibility and right to lead as the older brother.  Hence, those in the family who sided with Laman repeatedly complained about Nephi’s efforts to take “it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher” over those “who are his elder brethren. … He has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure.”[7]  To counter this, Nephi’s narrative emphasizes that his older brothers struggled to receive revelation; were hard-hearted, fearful and frequently angry; and were often unwilling to follow directions from the Lord through Lehi and Nephi.  In contrast, Nephi speaks of receiving revelation and being obedient to his father’s revelations in courageous ways on a regular basis.  While it may be true that Nephi was indeed a more suitable leader than Laman, it must be kept in mind that Nephi spent his adult life asserting controversial claims to leadership, which and might have affected how he presented his account.

After the point in the narrative where the two factions in the clan separated, Nephi continued to lay out the value of his leadership by describing the results in the lives of the members of each faction.  He emphasized the contrast between his own followers and those of Laman, describing how he “did cause my people to be industrious, and to labor with their hands” (2 Nephi 5:17), while those who followed Laman are described as “an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety” (2 Nephi 5:24).  Nephi’s followers practiced agriculture, “for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance.  And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind” (2 Nephi 5:11), while Laman’s followers “did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey” (2 Nephi 5:24).  Nephi’s followers built a temple and accepted him as their ruler and leader while the Laman and his faction “were cut off from the presence of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:20).  In many ways, Nephi is laying out a narrative where those who follow his rule represent civilization while those who reject it in favor of Laman’s rule become barbarians.

It is in this context that Nephi makes the disturbing statement that Laman’s group was given “a skin of blackness” as opposed to being “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome.”[8]  Now, I realize that Nephi would know better what his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, and nephews looked like than I do.  What I don’t know is exactly what Nephi was seeing or the exact skin tone that anyone in his family had.  I also do not know enough of Nephi’s cultural context to understand why he saw being white and fair as being better than blackness.  It certainly sounds like racism, though his close relatives wouldn’t be considered a different race.  It could be that Nephi was making a bigger deal out of something than we, as 21st century viewers, would in the same situation.  For example, maybe Laman’s group encountered other inhabitants of the land and intermarried with them while Nephi’s group did not.  That could explain physical differences from Nephites and higher numbers among the Lamanites within a few generations.  Another suggestion is that maybe Laman and Lemuel just had a genetic disposition to higher melanin production than their younger brothers and Nephi read too much into fact that they looked tanner than him.  It might sound like a laughable suggestion, but confirmation bias may have affected how Nephi saw his brothers’ appearance after they went their separate ways.

Whatever the case, the idea that Lamanites are portrayed in such a negative light to serve political agendas can be seen in later portrayals by Nephites as well.  Enos, Jarom, and Zeniff all described a Lamanite stereotype of a lazy, ferocious, thieving, underdressed, and idolatrous people who were obsessed with blood and meat.[9]  Mormon seems to have seen the Lamanites of Alma’s time in similar ways when he wrote about them hundreds of years later (see Alma 3:5-12).  As Joshua Madson observed, however, much of this can be seen as the language of demonization and scapegoating.[10]  The Nephites were locked in frequent warfare with their cousins and some of the wartime propaganda may have become so ingrained into their society that it also became a part of the Book of Mormon.

The Nephite casting of Lamanites as stereotypical barbarians, however, doesn’t hold up too well when we read the Book of Mormon more closely.  Jacob, for example, noted that they often treated their families better than Nephites, and Zeniff was surprised to realize that Lamanites were not totally evil (contrary to his original expectations) when he spied on them.[11]  There are also indications that the Lamanites may have been more advanced than we usually give them credit for.  The Lamanites were able to support a larger population than the Nephites,[12] which indicates that they had to have practiced some form of agriculture rather than living solely off hunting and raiding.  The ability to wage large-scale warfare for an extended period like we see in the Book of Alma is also indicative of the ability to organize and supply an army—something we would expect of a relatively complex state rather than a coalition of barbarians.  It can also be noted, as J. Christopher Conkling did in a journal article years ago, that when you compare Ammon and Aaron’s 14-year mission among the Lamanites to Alma’s contemporary mission among the Nephites, the two groups that they ministered to were on par with each other for signs of civilization and in their treatment of missionaries.[13]  These things lead me the wonder whether the Lamanites were as barbaric as the Nephites generally portrayed them.[14]

Another complication to portrayals of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon comes to mind.  The two major factions had fluid boundaries, making the designations of Nephite and Lamanite often more political or religious than ancestral in nature.  To paraphrase a line from Disney’s Mandalorian, Nephite is not a race, it’s a creed.[15]  Nephites defect to Lamanite society on a regular basis and Lamanites (like the Anti-Nephi-Lehites) defect to the Nephites as well.  We even see the Nephite nation absorb a third group (known to us as the Mulekites) into their cultural and political systems.  After the Lamanites are converted in final century B.C., the boundaries become even more fluid, with open borders and extensive commerce flowing between the two nations (see Helaman 6:7-9).  After Christ’s post-ascension visit, the boundary between Nephites and Lamanites seems to collapse completely, and they spend centuries as a unified people (see 4 Nephi 1:15-17).  By the time Mormon is writing, the re-emergent nations of Nephites and Lamanites seem to be largely an artificial construct rather than a direct continuation of the earlier nations and groups.

Thus, when Mormon wrote about the Lamanites in Alma 3, he did so through a few lenses that we should keep in mind.  First, he is approaching early Lamanite society through written records, hundreds of years after the boundaries between the Lamanites and Nephites ceased to exist.  As such, Mormon never saw the Lamanites he describes in Alma and depended on the writing of Nephi and Nephite authors to understand what the Lamanites were like in that age. Second, he spent his life fighting a war against a group who has chosen to identify as Lamanites and had set their minds on destroying his people and his religion.  That doesn’t bode well for him to see any Lamanites in a positive light.  Third, he was writing a morality epic with a focus quite apart from detailing inter-group strife in his homeland over the course of a millennia.  One of his central points seems to be that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked.  Throughout the earlier parts of that epic, the Lamanites are brought up most often as a contrast to the Nephite’s righteousness or to punish the Nephites when they fall into wickedness.  All three of these lenses do not lend themselves to a positive portrayal of the Lamanites and likely impacted his description in Alma 3.

My point in discussing all of this is that the Book of Mormon was written by people who had their own imperfect perspectives.  When we come across descriptions that cast the Lamanites in a negative light, we need to keep in mind that the authors may have had their own agendas and ideologies that bled through into their writing, even though they had righteous and devotional purposes for composing the Book of Mormon.

That being said, the central messages of the Book of Mormon do shine through any mistakes of men.  One of those, as Nephi wrote, is that the Lord “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 26:33).  Within the Book of Mormon, both Lamanites and Nephites went through periods of righteousness and unrighteousness and both groups had many individuals who chose to come unto Christ.  Hence, we read in the digital version of the Come, Follow Me manual that: “Differences in culture, language, gender, race, and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer.”[16]

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Sean Walker, “We are all part of the same divine familiy,” KSL.com 20 January 2020 for the full statement from Elder Stevenson.

[2] The current Institute manual for the Book of Mormon uses the quote in full.  It is very possible that it was lifted from this manual in preparing the “Come, Follow Me” manual for this year.

[3] So far, the only way to know that the Church has said anything about the error is to read Utah news sources.  Even the Church Newsroom report of Elder Gary E. Stevenson’s meeting with the NAACP makes no mention of his statement about the manual.

[4] Cited in Book of Mormon 2020, “Come Follow Me–For Individuals and Families,” (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2019), 24.

[5] “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics Essay.

[6] Book of Mormon title page, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/bofm-title?lang=eng.

[7] 1 Nephi 16:37-39.  See also 1 Nephi 18:10 and 2 Nephi 5:2-3.

[8] 2 Nephi 5:21. See also 1 Nephi 12:20-23, 1 Nephi 13:15, Alma 3:6 for more commentary that seems tied to skin color of Nephites and Lamanites.

[9] See Enos 1:20, Jarom 1:6, and Mosiah 9:12.

[10] Joshua Madson, “A Non-Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher,; Richard L. Bushman. War & Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Kindle Locations 667-671). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.

[11] See Jacob 2:35 and Mosiah 9:1.

[12] Jarom 1:6 and Mosiah 24:3.

[13] J. Christopher Conkling, “Alma’s Enemies: The Case of the Lamanites, Amlicites, and Mysterious Amalekites,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 115, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1395&context=jbms.

[14] Some of this may be due to learning from the Nephites, as is described in Mosiah 24:5-7, but I don’t think all of it can be ascribed to that source.

[15] Mormon indicated as much when he wrote that: “And it came to pass that whosoever would not believe in the traditions of the Lamanites, but believed those records which were brought out of the land of Jerusalem, and also in the tradition of their fathers, which were correct, who believed in the commandments of God and kept them, were called the Nephites, or the people of Nephi, from that time forth” (Alma 3:11).

[16] Russell M. Nelson, cited in Come, Follow Me For Individuals and Families: Book of Mormon 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-individuals-and-families-book-of-mormon-2020/06?lang=eng.

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