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.

14 comments for “Reconsidering the Lamanites

  1. rickpowers
    February 6, 2020 at 1:33 am

    My question has always been: at what point did a Semitic group like the Hebrews, who lived in West Asian, with roots in Africa, ever become “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome,” ?

  2. Bryan
    February 6, 2020 at 3:08 am

    What bugs me about all this is the lack of an alternative interpretation from the Church. The Church “disavows” not just the interpretation taught by all previous prophets and apostles, but also the obvious meaning of the text. It will be hard for people to accept that the obvious interpretation is not the correct interpretation without an explanation for why the obvious interpretation is wrong and/or how the correct interpretation fits the text. As is, all we have is a disavowal.

    In any case, it seems the Church has turned a corner on the issue, so what’s the punishment for someone who continues to interpret 2 Nephi 5:19-25 the way it’s always been interpreted? What happens to those of us who insist that, in lieu of a better alternative, the verses mean what they say? What if I were to read Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote approvingly in an Elder’s quorum meeting? At what point do I become a heretic for believing that, as a result of the curse “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon” the Lamanites “that they might not be enticing unto” the Nephites?

  3. February 6, 2020 at 10:06 am

    Bryan, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to shift from reading Nephi as a perfect narrator to reading him as a human narrator. It seems accurate to say: Nephi perceived racial differences between his people and the Lamanites, and he attributed those differences to divine punishment for their wickedness; today we would say that we have a better understanding of apparent racial differences, and we should avoid seeing them as markers of wickedness or righteousness. Or, if you insist on reading Nephi as an objective narrator, we would still say: Nephi described God as changing the skin coloring of the Lamanites as punishment for their wickedness; but there is nothing at all to connect that incident with any perceived racial differences today, and we should avoid inventing connections since doing so has a long history of pernicious consequences, and in any case something that may have happened a few thousand years ago certainly has nothing to do with the character of anybody living today.

    Somewhere in there, there should be a way for everyone to co-exist. As for heresy, that point can be reached if you insist on following a past prophet over the living prophet. So lots of options are available, probably beginning with Genesis. If you’re aiming for heresy on this particular issue, you’d probably get there by insisting that contemporary Native Americans, those of African heritage, or anyone else labors under a curse for the wickedness of their ancestors.

  4. JR
    February 6, 2020 at 11:24 am

    “Will the Church tell members to disregard the printed version via Church’s websites or other means of direct communication?”

    The North America Southeast Area Presidency has done so, per a letter posted on Twitter by Kanisha Carson. Maybe others will follow. My bishop suggested that our SS teachers communicate that directly to their classes. I have heard of varying concerns about letting SS turn into a racism discussion, so I’m not anticipating a uniform approach unless directed by First Presidency letter to be read from the pulpits.

  5. Travis
    February 6, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    Ancient Israel has a racist past (think about the commands after the Exodus to destroy non-Israelite women and children, leaving nothing to “blend” with). The culture of the modern-day nation-state of Israel can be seen as racist in its treatment towards native Palestinians.

    Cultural discrimination is not racism. But it sounds like it. Got to be careful.

    For me, the scripture about “white delightsome people,” versus “dark people,” is a translator’s attempt to describe how one people fell into behaviors and practices that led to bondage, and how this could be compared to the slavery of the early United States. The scripture is used to illustrate one of the themes central to the prophetic Book of Mormon, namely, that “the righteous will prosper in the land.”

    Because racism was so unconsciously present in Joseph’s time, the phrasing of “white delightsome,” in contrast to “dark-skinned,” would not be understood in a racist context: it would be understood as a microcosm for the bondage of the Latter-Days. We can see the bondage pay out materially in a system of ownership and debt, and we can see the bondage play out spiritually in light and dark consequences—neither of which pertain to skin color.

    The big question for me is: who is responsible for writing the “Come Follow Me,” manuals? Hire new people. Even aside the inexcusable racism, the “Come Follow Me” manuals are terrible. Thrown together in a chapter-verse context (Very evangelical, easy to ride out any out-of-context babble). Thankfully, the “examples and helpful hints” are more useful than the lesson context. The lessons are so dumbed-down, they impart religious dyslexia (did a Jesuit oversee the manual?!).

    The greatest benefit derived from the manual is that it keeps the congregation in a systematic sync, it keeps us reading the same things so we are prepared to commune with each other. But almost any manual will do that.

  6. Ryan Mullen
    February 6, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Chad, thanks for this post. There’s no easy answer here. I appreciate your wrestle with the text, and your frank admission that there are “more painful” parts of the Book of Mormon. As Melissa Inouye stated in her recent book Crossings, (and I’m paraphrasing): That our church has survived long enough to need to critically re-examine canonized doctrines is the problem we want to have. Most new religious movements flame out within a decade.

    Bryan, “It will be hard for people to accept that the obvious interpretation is not the correct interpretation…” I don’t think it will be. IME most readers of the BoM don’t want the “obvious interpretation” (i.e., the racist interpretation) to be true. Since this racist language is canonized in our scripture, we’d rather attribute it to a fallible human than attribute it to God.

    “At what point do I become a heretic for believing [in racist tropes]?” Now. There is no place for racism in the LDS church.

    Jonathan Green, “Nephi described God as changing the skin coloring of the Lamanites as punishment for their wickedness[. He was wrong]; there is nothing …” I appreciate your willingness to dialogue across the aisle, so to speak, but please don’t equivocate on the issue that racial differences (or any physical or genetic differences) are not now and never have been a divine punishment.

  7. Bryan
    February 6, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Jonathan,

    I get it, Hardy-esque character analysis is very fashionable right now. There’s a core truth to it: the prophets were human and their humanity is reflected in their writing. What’s troubling is when folks use that core truth to disregard scripture they find uncomfortable as old-fashioned opinion or, in this case, racist propaganda. What’s the limiting principle on which verses we get to ignore or contradict? If we can’t rely on a “thus saith the Lord God” statement from a prophet of God, recorded and Providentially preserved in scripture, then what verses are safe?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that the Church has fully embraced the “Nephi was a racist and propagandist” interpretation popular among the bloggernacle elite. Current leadership has left us in no mans land. We shouldn’t believe our lying eyes, but they haven’t provided an alternative interpretation either.

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If it is legitimate to reject scripture because ancient prophets were influenced by the racist sensibilities of their time and place, then it is legitimate to reject the current disavowals as reflections of the anti-racist sensibilities of our current time and place.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    February 6, 2020 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. I feel like these are some valuable conversations to be having.

    rickpowers, I’ve often wondered the same thing. Sometimes I wonder if that has something to do with the Book of Mormon coming to us through Joseph Smith, or if it might be something like Nephi is speaking in relative terms.

    Bryan and Jonathan, I appreciate your thoughts. It’s a thorny situation no matter how you look at it, which is probably a part of why Church leaders seem to avoid the issue as much as they can. You are right, Bryan, in that they’ve told us what they want us to move away from, but not been clear what they want us to replace it with other than the general idea that everyone is welcome to come unto Christ. It’s been left to us to work out as best as we can. I think that your point that dismissing this statement opens up everything in the scriptures and from current Church leaders to question is a big reason that Church leaders have not gone in this direction. I suspect that they may simply not have a good answer at this point in time.

    I’ve heard a lot of different suggestions of ways to handle the issue. There have been some suggestions online about editing racism out of the scriptures, but it’s hard to imagine anything like that actually happening. I’ve also seen a lot of people trying to make it a more spiritual thing to be dark or light when that’s referenced in the scriptures, as in it was an effect on Laman’s countenance rather than his actual skin. I like the idea, but I don’t know that that approach holds up well here. Nephi and Mormon seem to be speaking pretty clearly about skin color and a mark that can be easily seen by Nephites. I can see where you’re coming from along those lines, Travis, and it’s an interesting idea, but it’s still very uncomfortable to equate a skin of blackness with bondage.

    Despite the difficulties that Bryan pointed out, I still feel like it’s a realistic route forward to just accept that Nephi and Mormon said what they said, but to state that they saw racial differences in different ways than we do today and that we don’t accept how they saw those differences. It’s a bit like how we handle the things President Brigham Young said that we definitely don’t agree with in the Church today. We affirm that he was a prophet, but that those things aren’t binding on us as doctrine. The big difference and difficulty, of course, is that Nephi’s words are in the canonized standard works while President Young’s comments on things like race or Adam are not.

    JR, I suspect that the worldwide Church leaders are allowing regional or local leaders to become aware of the issue and address it. I’m grateful that there are some examples of Church leaders doing so that you were able to share.

  9. February 6, 2020 at 2:10 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this piece! A couple of weeks ago, I read 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, Alma 3, Alma 26, and Zeniff’s words in Mosiah 9-10 with this same question in mind – what if these prophets and writers were dealing with racism in their time as much as we do in ours? Not the black/white racism of slavery but the Hebrew type – who kept the covenant and who did not. And then – what were the mistakes that Mormon wrote of on the title page. Was racial prejudice was their big mistake? Seeing the entire destruction of a people, fueled by us/them mentality, were Mormon and Moroni pointing toward that? I don’t know of course, but Jacob 3 especially transformed for me with these thoughts in mind. Jacob seems to be fighting against the way the Lamanites are already being caricatured. Thanks for more to think about.

  10. Brandon
    February 6, 2020 at 9:19 pm

    The idea of dark skin as a sign of a curse and skin lightening as a result of living righteously appears throughout the Book of Mormon. This reflects Joseph Smith’s beliefs about Native Americans. Joseph Smith was a racist, like most whites of his time, in that He viewed dark skin as a mark of inferiority, but I don’t think He was a malicious racist. He viewed the Native Americans who were not integrated with whites as being cursed with dark skin and more “savage.” The Native Americans who has embraced Christianity and white culture tended to be whiter because often their parents or grandparents were a mix of white and Native American. One of Joseph Smith’s earliest endeavors was the 1830 mission to the Lamanites on the Western Missouri border, then the border of the US with Indian territory. He clearly hoped to create a following among Native Americans and that the would find the faith of their fathers that he believed himself to have restored and that their skins would turn lighter as a result. It didn’t work out. Instead he ended up finding Sydney Rigdon and several other white followers in Ohio.

    In sum, the racist passages in the Book of Mormon are simply a reflection of Joseph Smith’s racialist attitudes.

  11. Wally
    February 7, 2020 at 11:57 am

    This is just another point that brings up questions about what the Book of Mormon really is. A couple of relevant observations: First, if we are to believe the eyewitness accounts of those who observed Joseph’s “translation” work, Joseph did not translate anything. He could not and did not read the text on the plates and convert that into English. He had his face in a hat and was apparently reading English text that appeared there. This means that Joseph did not “translate” the text. He read it aloud. So, if it was a translation, who translated it? This brings us to the second point, and I’ll quote Royal Skousen here: “Is the Book of Mormon English translation a literal translation of what was on the plates? It appears once more that the answer is no. The blending in of specific King James phraseology, from the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, tells us otherwise. The Book of Mormon is a creative translation that involves considerable intervention by the translator (or shall we say translators, since we’re in a speculative mood). There is also evidence that the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation” (BYU Studies Quarterly 57.3). He brings up anachronisms to support this final assertion. There are all sorts of other textual clues that argue against it being an ancient document. So, if the book is not a literal translation of text written down centuries ago, it may have all sorts of cultural baggage that the “translator” included. This baggage may include racial notions, because one thing the Book of Mormon purports to be is an explanation of where the American Indians came from. Thus, it contains an explanation for where their darker skin came from. This may be nothing more than a cultural insertion by whoever wrote the text. We are nowhere near understanding where this text actually came from. It certainly didn’t come out of Joseph Smith’s head fully formed. It is far too complex. But it appears also to not be a literal translation of an ancient document. What is it? That’s the question we ought to be asking.

  12. w
    February 7, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    The change of interpretation has been extremely well publicised in my stake, but I’m afraid that it raises some very difficult issues for our more woke and educated youth, who will read the words in scripture for what they say. A more adequate explanation would require some speculation, that for instance Nephi feared miscegenation between what had become the two tribes and the consequent dilution of his culture, and came to percieve his brother’s phenotype as repugnant as a consequence. Which is also unpleasant, but puts the responsibility for racism in the right place.

  13. Dave B.
    February 7, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    Whatever the particulars of the editing process was, it certainly consisted of review at several levels, including some member or members of the senior leadership. And no one, at any level, hit the “we have a problem! button. What does this mean?

    It means the “disavowal” of all those racist beliefs (“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”) have been disavowed in theory, but not in practice. And that’s a leadership failure. Instead of using Conference and manuals to reinforce the disavowal and change attitudes, they have ignored it in Conference and are (through ignorance) using the manual to reinforce the very beliefs they have supposedly disavowed. Instead of spending millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours reprogramming the name “Mormon” out of official usage, they should be working to reprogram member and leadership racist beliefs out of official usage. Leadership failure.

  14. Joseph Kingfisher
    February 11, 2020 at 12:35 pm

    You make an excellent point about Mormon as editor. We know he had both the large and small plates of Nephi, but his entire understanding of how the racial separation came to be must have been heavily influenced by Nephi’s perceptions.

    Moreover, reading Nephi’s black/white description through the lens of the modern US racism that grew out of slavery is a category error, and it is appropriate to consider carefully what was really going on at that time and place.

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