User Intent Key in Landing Page Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a website I am not longer running. I am reposting it for the historical record and it has some good content. 🙂 

Your Website is like a Where’s Waldo poster

Earlier this year I attended a landing page optimization webinar on user intent that was excellent. The presentation was by Gord Hotchkiss, President of Enquiro, a search engine marketing agency out of British Colombia. Mr. Hotchkiss started out by comparing our websites to a Where’s Waldo poster. Without intent, a purpose such as finding Waldo, users will see the picture as nothing more than a detailed blur. But with intent, the user can match promising areas of the poster and information scent with what they know they are looking for–a man in blue pants and a red-striped sweater.

Focused Intent: A Case Study

Focused inter vs unfocused intentThe Belagio hotel website provides an interesting case study in which an eye tracking comparison was made on people with different user intent. The first group of users had unfocused intent, no specific task was assigned. They were sent to the site and the eye tracking indicated their attention was scattered all over the page.  The second group was given a specific task to register and book a room.  The group with focused user intent, according to the eye tracking, concentrated their attention in the top and side navigation where they were most likely to find links for registering and booking room. This study shows that user intent determines how people use the site.

Web User Intent Guidelines

Mr. Hotchkiss has found through his research that people generally follow these three steps upon arriving at a Web site:

  • Orientation Scan (elapsed time – 1 to 2 seconds).  Web site visitors first quickly decide if they are at the page they expected to be.  Does the site, the titles, the headlines, look and feel align with the user’s intent?
  • Primary Paths (elapsed time – 2 to 10 seconds).  Second, visitors begin examining the navigation and other, what he called, eye candy, or major calls to action. The user now begins to consider options and where those links will likely lead.
  • Choice (elapsed time – less than 30 seconds). Finally, the user will make a selection: either an action on your site, or the back button.  The information scent of the available choices, and how well that aligns with user intent will largely determine the choice. Visitors will, conscientiously or not, ask how rich is the information or experience on the other side of these links.

Intent Clusters

Intent Clusters on Apple's websiteFinally, Mr. Hotchkiss discussed what he called intent clusters using Apple’s website to illustrate the concept. He said that 80% of visitors can generally be found to have one of about 3 major intents in mind when they visit a site. (2018 update: I guess I didn’t make note of what those three major intents are. Perhaps they are informational, navigational, and transactional. Those of the three major intent classifications used to describe users on search engines.) Your site, to be successful, must meet those intentions and intent clusters is a powerful way to communicate to visitors that your site is the right choice for them. An intent cluster generally consists of an image (which communicates much faster than text), surrounded by reinforcing text, and a call to action. You’ll notice the intent cluster for the iPod and for iTunes in the illustration to the right of Apple’s Web site.

Conclusion: Understanding User Intent Is Key in Optimizing Landing Pages

Your home page and other key landing pages will perform better when you understand user intent and design the site to meet those end user desires. Here are some other insightful take aways from Mr. Hotchkiss’s presentation:

    • It is better to make assumptions about user intent based on research and data, than to ignore it and present your website visitors with a Where’s Waldo poster.
    • 70% of people listening to the Webinar indicated that they are too busy with current work load to spend time optimizing landing pages.  A sad trend common inside many organizations, but a real opportunities for those willing to take the time to understand user intent and optimize pages for it.
    • Most sites need a higher number of landing pages that better align with user intent. Other options also include personalizing landing pages based on web analytics data such as geo-location, search engine keyword, etc.

Is the Lamanite Dark Skin Literal or Figurative?

variety of skin colors from light to dark
Summary: I believe that statements about the dark skin of the Lamanites is figurative because when the scriptures use adjectives like black, dark, and white, as well as the noun skin, they are metaphorical references to people’s spiritual state. What follows is my research and reasons for believing so.  

My Daughter’s Experience in Seminary

I have been thinking about writing this article for a few years. One cause of delay has been the need to research the subject, and while that’s not complete something happened recently that prompted me to finally do it. A few months ago, my oldest daughter started early morning LDS Seminary. She has good teachers and this has been a good experience for her spiritual development. Several weeks ago, when I got home from work, my daughter asked if the dark skin of the Lamanites was literal or figurative. I’m sure she only asked because she has overheard me tell my wife that I think it is figurative. I responded that I felt it was spiritual in nature and not literal but that I am understanding of other Latter-day Saints who believe it is literal.

My daughter continued by saying that her class had recently studied the part of the Book of Mormon talking about the dark skin of the Lamanites. In class, she asked her teacher the same question about whether the dark skin was literal or figurative. The teacher said it was literal and that was the end of the discussion. While I understand the teacher’s position, it was disappointing that the alternative viewpoint was so summarily dismissed. As far as I know, the Church has never made a statement on whether the dark skin is literal or not. A search of this topic on LDS.org will yield no helpful results, at least it hasn’t for me and I have tried many variations of keywords. I did, however, find several articles and lesson manuals that just assume the dark skin of the Lamanites is literal and it is treated that way in the literature.

My Evolving Thoughts on the Subject

Growing up in the LDS Church, I learned at an early age the story of how “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon” the Lamanites, a group of people, generally known for their wickedness, in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 5:21). I was taught that the black skin mentioned in that verse, and the dark skin mentioned in several others, was a literal reference to their skin pigmentation turning a darker color. As a young man, I had no reason not to accept this explanation, so I believed it. Later, in my own Seminary experience, I recall a teacher stressing that the dark skin of the Lamanites was a sign of the curse, and not the curse itself. The curse was being cut off from the Spirit and presence of God and thus being cut off from God’s blessings.

In recent years, though, I have had many experiences that have caused me to question the literal interpretation of the dark skin of the Lamanites. I have read and studied the scriptures and what many Church members with a variety of opinions have said about those verses. (The present-day Church leaders, as reflected by content on LDS.org, has almost nothing to say on the subject.) My research has revealed mounting evidence that the references to dark skin, and black skin as well, are not literal but rather figurative and spiritual in nature. While the issue is not completely settled in my mind. I think there is more evidence that it is metaphorical and I’m finding it harder and harder to believe that God changed anyone’s skin color because of unrighteous behavior.

Blacks in the Scriptures

One of the first times I can remember questioning the literal interpretation of dark skins was when I watched some material put together by Darius Gray and Marvin Perkins. Brother Perkins came across my Mormon Mission Prep website and reached out to me. He and Brother Gray had put together a video series called Blacks in the Scriptures in which they discuss in depth many of these topics about race and skin color. I link to them below and highly recommend watching the videos.

Brother Gray’s video called Blacks in the Bible, does a great job documenting some of the prominent people in the bible that were black—black being defined as descendants of Ham, since the Bible really doesn’t talk about race or skin color in the same way we do today. Prominent black, or bi-racial with some degree of black ancestry, figures in the Bible include Melchizedek, Abraham’s wife Hagar, Joseph’s wife Asenath, Boaz, Uriah, King David, and therefore even Jesus Christ.

Brother Perkins’ video, titled Skin Color & Curses,  is also excellent and in it he shows that “the words black and white do not refer to literal skin color in the scriptures.” He points out that “every scripture in the Book of Mormon that made you believe that the Lamanites had a darker skin than the Nephites, every last one of them, have a new footnote on it” in the post 1981 edition of the scriptures leading reading to the Topical Guide entry on Spiritual Darkness. Brother Perkins points out that the adjectives dark, black, and white and the noun skin, as used referring to people, are figurative and spiritual in nature.

  • Black means: gloomy, dark, impure, and hidden
  • Dark means: filthy, wicked, impure, and the absence of light
  • White or fair means: clean, pure, true, and righteous
  • Skin means the outward appearance and countenance

Studying the Scriptures on Skin Color Myself

To me, the interpretation that the dark or black skin is a spiritual, metaphorical reference feels right, and equally, the literal interpretation feels that it is not right. So, after watching the videos above, I was sufficiently motivated to research the subject in more depth myself. It’s not that I didn’t believe Brothers Gray and Perkins, quite the contrary, they make an excellent case. But I did want to study it myself, do the keyword searches they talk about (and others), see what conclusions I would come to, and then see what the Spirit of God had to say on the subject.

It is so wonderful that modern computing and internet technology allows us to not only access the scriptures at our convenience, but the ability to perform keyword searches to improve our studying and the comprehensiveness of our learning. I won’t present my full research here in this article, as it is quite lengthy, but please go to LDS.org/scriptures and perform your own searches to confirm my findings. If you have already come to the conclusion that the Lamanite’s skin was literally physically darker than the Nephites, then these scriptures may not persuade you from that view. But if you take a step back, reserve judgement, and try to understand the full context, the Lord’s intent, and the original meaning that the author was trying to convey, you very well may come to the conclusions I have.

Adjectives Black and Blackness in the Scriptures

The non-human uses of the adjective “black” are numerous in the scriptures—they are used to describe horses, the weather, fire, lack of visibility, and the landscape.  I’m not sure how much they influence how we look at the adjective in reference to people, but perhaps there is a connection. By my count, there are only about 16 instances of the word black or blackness in the scriptures that talk about people. Removing references to hair and leprosy and others like that, we are left with these that seem to be relevant to our discussion.

Scripture Verse Scripture Quote My Comment
Lamentations 4:8 Referring to the wickedness of the House of Israel, Jeremiah says “their visage is blacker than a coal.” Visage is a person’s face, form or features; the surface of an object. This reference could be literal but more likely is metaphorical.
Job 30:30 Job cries, “my skin is black upon me.” This is probably not a reference to skin pigmentation here. He was sick, so if it is literal, the black skin was a reference to diseased, rotting flesh.
Lamentations 5:10 “Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.” I don’t think it’s describing skin pigmentation here. Seems to be more of a reference to general health.
Song of Solomon 1:6 Solomon says, “Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me.” There are no footnotes to help. It seems like a reference to tanned skin.
Jeremiah 8:21 “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black.” The footnote on black says it is a Hebrew idiom meaning “gloomy.”
Nahum 2:10 “faces of them all gather blackness.” Again, “gloomy.”
Joel 2:6 “all faces shall gather blackness.” Ditto
2 Nephi 5:21 “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.” We are given some clues like the parallelism to “delightsome” to indicate Nephi is speaking of spiritual blackness. And even if you believe the skin was literally darkened, “blackness” seems like an exaggeration as a physical description of their skin being a little darker than their peers.
2 Nephi 26:33 “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” Applying the context of skin color to this mention of black and white is subjective and certainly a contemporary way of thinking, but there is no objective evidence this this is a reference to race or skin color.
Moses 7:8 “and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.” Without more information, it’s impossible to say if this is a literal or figurative use of the word black.
Moses 7:22 “the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.” Ditto.

While I certainly understand why some people have concluded that uses of the adjective black are referring to the color of people’s skin, as you can see, such a conclusion is far from certain. In fact, I think it is a far greater stretch to say these are references to literal skin than to say they are metaphors. At the very least, people on the literal side of the fences should acknowledge that the figurative interpretation is equally valid for these verses. For me, looking at the use of the word “black” holistically, the bulk of the references seem to clearly be figurative references to spiritual darkness.

Adjectives Dark and Darkness in the Scriptures

Like the word black, dark can be used in a variety of ways. Most of the instances of the words dark or darkness in the scriptures are meaning the absence of light, evil works, and also many instances where it refers to weather, or often it describes things that are hidden. To focus our discussion, though, let’s just talk about those instances dealing with people.

Scripture Verse Scripture Quote My Comment
Matt 6:23 “if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness” Darkness is a metaphor for not having the guidance of God.
1 John 1:5 “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” Clearly metaphorical, meaning spiritual darkness.
1 Nephi 12:23 “after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.” Loathsome, filthy, idle, and abominable are all figurative descriptions of their spiritual state. Would “dark” be any different?
2 Nephi 30:6 “for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people.” Scales footnote takes you to the Topical Guide entries for Spiritual Darkness and Spiritual Blindness. Pre-1981 it said “a white and a delightsome”. Obviously, the Church considers “white” a reference to spiritual purity and not skin color.
Jacob 3:9 “revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness” Dark skin is again made a literary parallel with filthiness. To me, it’s clearly figurative darkness.
Mosiah 27:29 “I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God.” Clearly this is spiritual darkness that Alma was talking about.
Alma 3:6 “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression” Even those who believe in the literal dark skin color believe that skin color is a sign of the curse not the curse itself. Yet the scripture clearly says the dark mark was the curse. If the dark mark is the curse, it must be referring to spiritual darkness, or separation from the light of God.
Alma 19:6 “he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God …yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul” Clearly, this verse is talking about spiritual light and spiritual darkness.
Alma 26:3 “for our brethren, the Lamanites, were in darkness, yea, even in the darkest abyss, but behold, how many of them are brought to behold the marvelous light of God!” Again, it’s obvious that this is spiritual darkness and spiritual light.
Mormon 5:15 “for this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people” Again, dark is lumped together with filthy and loathsome. It doesn’t make sense to insert a comment about skin color here, therefore it would have to be a reference to spirituality.
D&C 84: 50, 53 “by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me… And by this you may know the righteous from the wicked, and that the whole world groaneth under sin and darkness even now.” This “darkness” doesn’t refer to a person, but it does equate darkness with wickedness and the bondage of sin.

Again, the overwhelming majority of times the word darkness is used to describe people, perhaps every time depending on one’s interpretation, it is clearly a spiritual darkness. This leads me to believe that the few times where it is ambiguous, darkness is more likely than not a figurative description.

Adjectives White and Fair in the Scriptures

If one believes, as I do, that black and dark are metaphorical references describing the spiritual state of people in the scriptures, then it would follow that the adjectives white and fair would also be spiritual references. Let’s take a look.

Scripture Verse Scripture Quote My Comment
1 Ne 13:15 In reference to the one or more of the groups that colonized America: “I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.” You can interpret that as a reference to skin color, I presume, but white as in good and righteous and holy makes more sense to me.
2 Nephi 30:6 “for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people.” While this verse doesn’t presently say “white”, before 1981 the verse did say they were “a white and a delightsome”. Research shows “pure” was the original intent of Joseph Smith, but it is very interesting that “white” and “pure” convey the same meaning.
Jacob 2:32 “I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.” I suppose, you could interpret fair as light colored, or fair skinned, but I tend to think not.  Fair more likely means good, honest, pleasing, clean, and pure.
Jacob 3:8 “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” White skin here is clearly a metaphor for spiritual cleanliness.
3 Nephi 2:14-15 “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” I interpret this as their countenance became bright and pure and spiritually clean.
3 Nephi 19:25 “And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus” White here is clearly a reference to purity, brilliance, and glory and not literal skin color.
3 Nephi 19:30 “And when Jesus had spoken these words he came again unto his disciples; and behold they did pray steadfastly, without ceasing, unto him; and he did smile upon them again; and behold they were white, even as Jesus.” The footnote on white in this and the verse above takes you to the Topical Guide entry for Transfiguration.
Morm. 9:6 “that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb” Few, if any, would argue that white here is a reference to skin color. It clearly equates white with spotless, pure, and spiritually clean.

On the white end of the spectrum and the black end, these adjectives are consistently used to describe people’s spiritual state.

The Noun Skin in the Scriptures

It was a bit surprising to me, though it should not have been, that in this research I realized that not only are the adjectives black and dark metaphorical, but even the noun skin is figurative in nature. To prove the point, I’ll go through a similar exercise as above. Many of the scripture references are repetitive from above, so I’ll try to be brief. I do, though, feel it is worthwhile to point out that skin is often a metaphor in the scriptures, as are clothing or garments. Filthy garments are often a representation of wickedness, disobedience to God’s commandments, and spiritual uncleanliness. Again, for brevity, I’ll leave out the obvious and non-human references to skin

Scripture Verse Scripture Quote My Comment
2 Nephi 5:21 “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.” There is simply no precedence, throughout the course of Biblical history, for the Lord changing people’s literal skin color due to wickedness or righteousness. Why would this case be any different?
Jacob 3:5 “the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you.” “filthiness” is certainly spiritual in this verse. So would “skin” be physically or spiritual here? The scripture says the curse is on their skins and even literalists say dark skin is a sign but not the curse. Therefore I conclude that the cursed skin must be figurative.
Jacob 3:8 “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.” We talked about this one above. Skin in this verse reminds me of garments in 1 Nephi 12:10, “because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.”
Mosiah 17:13 “scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death.” Now this is one that does appear to be literally human skin.
Alma 44:18 “But behold, their naked skins and their bare heads were exposed to the sharp swords of the Nephites” Skin is most likely literal here, though it could mean leather clothing or their person in general.
3 Nephi 2:15 “And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.” Based on everything else we’ve learned, it seems like white skin is a reference to a pure demeanor.

With a few exceptions, the use of the word “skin” in the scriptures is usually a reference to one’s outer appearance or general countenance and not the literal outer layer of the physical body.

Summary of Scripture Analysis

After conducting my own in-depth analysis of what the scriptures say about black and dark and white skin, I was more convinced than ever that these are metaphorical statements talking about the spiritual situation of people. The vast majority of the scripture verses that use the words “dark” and “skin” and “black” to describe people are obviously metaphorical–references to spiritual realities, rather than physical realities. This causes me to believe that the few scriptures that might appear on the surface to be literal references to dark skin should be reconsidered. And I pray that all will do that.

This figurative interpretation makes sense and feels right. I can certainly understand why the prophets who wrote the scriptures used this language. I know people who appear dark, gloomy, or otherwise troubled emotionally and spiritually, yet their skin pigmentation doesn’t change. While saying they have a black skin isn’t the type of contemporary language we would use, many people would certainly say they have a dark look about them. And that, I believe, is what the scriptures are saying.

Though the logic and reason I put forth are compelling, I could be wrong. The most important evidence is that which comes through the Holy Ghost, the arbiter of truth. So decide for yourself through study, prayer, and pondering and ask God what is correct. As the prophet Moroni taught, “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4)

The Heart Metaphor

When I finished my scriptural analysis, I began to wonder if there is any other precedent in the scriptures for speaking metaphorically about bodily organs? Well, yes, as it turns out, there is a blaring obvious one: the heart. I didn’t perform the same in-depth study on this word, but a quick search on the scriptures section of LDS.org shows 1,475 occurrences of the word “heart” in the scriptures. I’m willing to bet that 99% of these instances are metaphorical and not the literal bodily organ that physical pumps blood through our veins and arteries. “Heart” is rather, in the scriptures, a reference to our inner most feelings. It’s our metaphorical core.

Who did sin, this man, or his parents?

During my in-depth scripture study, I had another troubling thought that made me run away from the literal interpretation. As I understand it, people who believe in the literal skin change also believe that African Americans, Hispanics, Polynesians, Native Americans, and anyone else through the history of time with non-white skin, got that way because either they or their ancestors sinned. Literalists take comfort is telling dark skinned people today that it was their ancestor and not them to blame for sinning and bring dark skin upon them and their posterity. But that doesn’t sit well with me. And such thinking reminds me of a story from the New Testament.

In John chapter 9, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:1-3). To suggest that someone has dark or black skin color because they or their ancestors were unrighteous seems just as absurd as suggesting someone is born with a birth defect because of their or their parents wickedness. As Jesus taught, you cannot judge the righteousness of someone or their ancestors based solely on physical characteristics. And also very interesting is that Jesus used this moment to launch into a sermon on spiritual blindness (see John 9: 39-41).

What are Others Saying on the Subject?

After pondering and praying and doing the in-depth scripture study referenced above, I came to the belief that the Lamanite’s dark skin (and perhaps the blackness described about Cain, though I haven’t study his case in depth yet) was figurative. I could be proven wrong someday, but for now I do not see the proof, logic or reason behind the literal interpretation. The living prophets don’t appear to want to weigh in on the subject, based on the fact that there is next to nothing discussing this topic on LDS.org. But after coming to my conclusions, I thought perhaps I should check the wider internet and see what other faithful LDS Church members and are saying on the subject.

In the following sections, I will present what other church leaders and opinion leaders are saying on the subject. The first three are literalists. The four after that are figurative-ists, who appear to agree with my metaphorical interpretation of the subject. While two of the three literalists are former presidents of the Church, there statements are about 50 years old. The figurative-ist statements, do not carry the weight of prophets, but they are trustworthy sources and much more recent. My feeling from reviewing what is currently being said on the subject is that the tide is turning in the favor of the figurative interpretation of the Lamanite’s dark skin.

Joseph Fielding Smith – Literalist

The following quote is the only one I can find on LDS.org today about the subject. It is a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1970 to 1972. This passage is quoted in the Book of Mormon Student Manual for Institute in a section that goes to great lengths to teach that dark skin of the Lamanites was the sign of the curse and not the curse itself.

“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. …The dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. … These converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 3:122–23).

While I hate to disagree with a prophet, clearly I do. Neither President Smith nor the Seminary manual explicitly state their opinion that the dark skin is literal skin pigmentation, there is no need to go to such lengths to separate the curse from the skin if they didn’t think that. Their opinion is clearly implied.

I agree with them, of course, that there is nothing inherently cursed about literal dark skin. Yet I believe it is incorrect to say that the dark skin spoken of in the scriptures is not equivalent to the curse. Alma 3:6 says “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, …which was a curse upon them.” And Jacob 3:5 talks about “the cursing which hath come upon their skins.” In both cases, the curse is clearly equated with the dark skin.

These scriptures present a problem for those who feel that dark skin is literal, yet don’t want to offend and don’t want to think that dark skin is a sign of a curse any longer. If one believes the figurative meaning, as I do, and that the dark skin is a metaphor that means living spiritual darkness, then there is nothing wrong with saying the dark skin is the curse. I find the more consistent position with the scriptures is the figurative interpretation about skin and color.

Spencer W. Kimball – Literalist

Spencer W. Kimball, 12th president of the Church, made a statement indicating that he believed in the literal interpretation of skin changing from white to dark and back again. In the October 1960 General Conference he said: “I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today … they are fast becoming a white and delightsome people…. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised…. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”

A statement like this would obviously be offensive to many people today and I only include it to illustrate his viewpoint that skin color literally changes due to righteousness and wickedness. I don’t know if his anecdotal evidence was ever corroborated. The program he spoke of was one in which Latter-day Saint families were asked to take native American children in need of foster care into their homes. My grandparents participated in the program and they gained great love for the children they brought into their home, but unlike President Kimball, I never heard that their skin tones became physically lighter. I think it’s unlikely that we would find any miraculous changing of skin color today, either lighter or darker, based on righteousness or wickedness.

Rodney Turner – Literalist

Prior to my research on this subject, I had never heard of Rodney Turner. He is a retired professor who taught in the College of Religious Instruction at Brigham Young University (BYU) for thirty-two years. In his 1989 essay titled The Lamanite Mark found, he is adamant that the darkened skin is a literal reference to skin pigmentation. He goes so far as to say this physical change was a miracle of God. While I disagree with his literal interpretation, I wanted to present his argument as it represents what was taught at BYU for many years and the thoughts of many members of the Church still today.

“Symbolic of the withdrawal of the Spirit from their lives, a “skin of blackness” [2] came upon the rebellious Laman, Lemuel, their families, and those sons and daughters of Ishmael who chose to affiliate with them. There can be no question but that their altered skin color was a miraculous act of God; it cannot be understood in purely metaphoric terms, nor as being nothing more than the natural consequence of prolonged exposure to the sun. Nephi was explicit that “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Nephi 5:21).” (Rodney Turner, “The Lamanite Mark”, BYU Religious Studies Center)

I find it fascinating that even Rodney, in his footnote 2, admits “the Lamanite mark was only a relatively darker pigmentation, not a literally black skin.” So he will admit that the black skin reference is hyperbole, but he’s not willing to say that’s it’s metaphorical altogether.

Hugh Nibley – Figurative-ist

Hugh Nibley is one of my favorite LDS authors. While he never held a position of high leadership at the Church, he was a scholar, a professor at BYU and is highly regarded within the LDS community for his support of archaeological, linguistic, historical, and doctrinal claims of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. On this topic, he made these two statements:

“Lamanite darkness was ethnic in the broadest sense, being both hereditary and cultural, shifting between “white and delightsome” and “dark and loathsome,” along with manners and customs as well as intermarriage (Alma 3:4—10). But inseparable from the cultural heritage of ancient tribes were the markings that members of the society put on themselves, without which they would be considered outcasts. People who marked their foreheads with red after the Lamanite custom “knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their foreheads,” thus showing that the Lamanite curse had fallen on them (Alma 3:18).” (Abraham in Egypt – The Trouble with Ham)

“The Book of Mormon always mentions the curse of the dark skin in connection with and as part of a larger picture: “After they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people,” etc. … We are told (Alma 3:13, 14, 18) that while the fallen people “set the mark upon themselves,” it was none the less God who was marking them: “I will set a mark upon them,” etc. So natural and human was the process that it suggested nothing miraculous to the ordinary observer. …The mark was not a racial thing but was acquired by “whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites” (Alma 3:10); Alma moreover defines a Nephite as anyone observing “the tradition of their fathers” (Alma 3:11). Which makes the difference between Nephite and Lamanite a cultural, not a racial, one. Does this also apply to the dark skin? Note that the dark skin is never mentioned alone but always as attending a generally depraved way of life, which also is described as the direct result of the curse. When the Lamanites become “white” again, it is by living among the Nephites as Nephites, i.e., adopting the Nephite way of life (3 Nephi 2:15—16).” (Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites  >  Desert Ways and Places)

Brother Nibley makes an excellent point about how the Book of Mormon defines Nephites and Lamanites by the traditions they follow, thus making it a cultural divide and not a racial one. Brother Nibley says more on the subject if you want to read the whole chapter. For example, he goes on to say that “the cultural picture may not be the whole story of the dark skin of the Lamanites,” but it is the predominant one and any differences in skin tones between the two groups are likely only incidental.

John L. Sorenson – Figurative-ist

Dr. John L. Sorenson was chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University when he published his thorough work of scholarship, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. While I haven’t read this yet, I have read another book by Sorenson, Mormon’s Map, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is what he said:

“The skin shades of surviving peoples in Book of Mormon lands include a substantial range, from dark brown to virtual white. These colors cover nearly the same range as were found anciently around the Mediterranean coast and in the Near East. It is likely that the objective distinction in skin hue between Nephites and Lamanites was less marked than the subjective difference. The scripture is clear that the Nephites were prejudiced against the Lamanites (Jacob 3:5, Mosiah 9:1–2, Alma 26:23–25). That must have influenced how they perceived their enemies. The Nephite description of the Lamanites falls into a pattern known in the Near East. The Sumerian city dwellers in Mesopotamia of the third millennium BC viewed the Amorites, Abraham’s desert-dwelling relatives, as “dark” savages who lived in tents, ate their food raw, left the dead unburied, and cultivated no crops. Urban Syrians still call the Bedouin nomads “the wild beasts.” The Nephite picture of their relatives, in Jarom 1:6 and Enos 1:20, sounds so similar to the Near Eastern epithets that this language probably should be considered a literary formula rather than an objective description, labeling applied to any feared, despised, “backward” people. But all this does not exclude a cultural and biological difference between the two groups. The question is how great the difference was; we may doubt that it was as dramatic as the Nephite recordkeepers made out.” (Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 90.)

Armand L. Mauss – Figurative-ist

Armand L. Mauss is a professor emeritus of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University. He is a lifelong Mormon and a returned missionary. He is recognized by some as one of the leading Mormon intellectuals of his generation. He has authored many books on Mormonism such as The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, and is the coeditor of Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church. I haven’t ever read anything but a few excerpts from him, so I’m not sure how much weight to put on his writings. But he does appear to be an opinion leader in the LDS community and he does agree with me, so I include a quote from him below.

“In modern colloquial English (or American) we sometimes speak of people as having “thick” or “thin” skins, without intending any literal dermatological meaning. Attributions of “white” versus “black” or “dark” skins could be read in a similarly figurative manner, as they might have been by Joseph Smith himself (or by his Nephite authors). The reader therefore need not attribute racist intentions when the Book of Mormon uses such terms as dark or filthy versus white or pure, especially when “racial traits,” such as skin color, are not even explicitly mentioned—which is the case most of the time.” (Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children, 128.)

Brant A. Gardner – Figurative-ist

Brant Gardner writes for the FairMormon website, a publication of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). I have read many of their articles over the years and belief it to be a trustworthy source. Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of many papers and presentations on Mormonism including “Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon” and “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon.” The following is an excerpt from his book, “Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon,” a chapter entitled What Does the Book of Mormon Mean by “Skin of Blackness”?

“It is much easier to compile a list of writers who take the phrase literally than of those who suggest an alternate reading. The most typical reading is that there was some type of dramatic change that turned white skin into black skin. A representative of this school of thought is Milton R. Hunter of the Council of the Seventy: ‘As is well-known, two peoples—a white race and those of a darker color—inhabited ancient America for approximately one thousand years’ time. The white race was called Nephites and the darker race Lamanites.’ … For Elder Hunter, the change in the skin color is absolutely physical and remains a distinction throughout Book of Mormon history. He provides no explanation for how this alteration occurs, other than to note that it comes through God.”

“…With this much disagreement on a single phrase in the text, how can we know how it should be read? There are some keys that we should use, and the very first is to remember the dangers of reading ourselves into a text in ways that the text did not intend.”

“…Before beginning with the text itself, it is important to clarify some facts that will help us sort the textual usage from our modern assumptions. The first is the notion of a particular color associated with skin. All human populations have variations in color, and there are pigmentation differences in all populations. While there is a set of people whose skin can be very black, they are not native to the western hemisphere. Saying that any Amerindian has a black skin is incorrect even in modern skin color nomenclature. They are called “red.” It should be recognized, however, that they are not “red.” Those whose skin is called “white” are also not white. Asians are termed “yellow,” although they certainly do not have yellow skin. Skin color designations are cultural descriptions, not scientific ones. They are based on some visual perception, but coalesce into large categories that reflect the human tendency to categorize people.”

“…Captain Moroni, working to free Nephite prisoners, sends wine to their Lamanite guards, hoping to intoxicate them (Alma 55). Because they would not accept such a gift from a Nephite, Moroni finds a Lamanite in his own troops, a former guard of the Lamanite king. Accompanied by other Nephites, this soldier takes the wine to the guards, and Moroni’s plan is successful. Of significance is the fact that Moroni had to “search” for a Lamanite soldier. Had he been “black” in contrast to the “white” of the Nephites, his identity should have been readily apparent. Furthermore, on his mission to the guards, Nephites accompany him. A color difference should have immediately been apparent to the guards, but they do not notice the discrepancy. The best explanation for needing an authentic Lamanite is that Moroni needed his language skills, not his skin color, for the ruse.”

“…The mark is pigmentation if and only if the curse is pigmentation. Marking the forehead with paint appears to be sufficient to create an identifying “mark” that falls significantly short of altering body pigmentation. Possessing the mark cannot prove that the curse is skin color, because that would beg the very question that needs to be proved. The function of the mark is social separation, but it is the same insider/outsider barrier already discussed. Since the mark/curse can be removed by simply traversing that boundary, I conclude that it is unlikely that the mark or curse had anything to do with pigmentation.”

Conclusion

As lengthy as this article has been, it represents only a fraction of the research I have done. Overall, looking holistically at the topic, I believe there is little evidence to support believing that God literally turned the Lamanite’s darker brown or black because of their wickedness. And I don’t believe God has ever withheld blessings from anyone because of the color of their skin. Nor do I believe that physical skin color, lighter or darker, is a consequence of righteousness or wickedness. While in this article, I haven’t talked much about the blackness of Cain and his decedents, much of this analysis would of course apply to that subject. But as I have not specifically studied Cain or Ham or their descendants or the implications on them, I’ll have to leave that for another day.

To me, the conclusion is clear. Mentions of dark, black, white, and skin, in reference to people in the scriptures, is a metaphorical device used to convey the state of people’s spirituality. The discussion of skin color in the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, can easily be interpreted as figurative and spiritual in nature, and not literal skin pigmentation. I wish the Church would at least officially acknowledge this as a valid interpretation, but until then, me and the others who believe this way will have to move forward with faith.

Why Does This Matter?

As I have been studying this issue over the past days, week, months, and years, I have often shared my findings and conclusions with my wife. I appreciate her listening to me, even though she is less interested in the subject than I am. Recently she asked me why this issue matters so much to me to cause me to spend so much time studying it and writing up this report. This is my answer:

  1. The Truth. I am always interested in finding and understanding the truth. I think there is intrinsic value in coming into alignment with the truth. I think at some point in the future all truth, religious, historic, and scientific will all come together in one whole truth. There is power in the truth: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
  2. Racial Equality. I think the things discussed above, if embraced by the members of the Church, would go a long way to showing that we truly believe and will act in harmony with the scriptures that teach that God loves all his children, regardless of race or other external factors. Scriptures like:
    • 1 Samuel 16:7 “For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
    • Acts 10: 34-35 “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
    • Romans 10: 12 “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.”
    • 2 Nephi 26: 28 “Hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.”
    • 2 Nephi 26:33 “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him … all are alike unto God.”
  3. Healing. As a Church overall as well as many members within the Church, we have often not acted in accordance with the teachings in point #2 above, and therefore much healing is needed. Acknowledging these truths and acting in harmony with these teachings of Jesus is a necessary step to heal the wounds caused by sin and mistakes and start the process of atonement.
  4. Unity. There is one race that matters eternally—the human race. We have been commanded by God many times to be united as one:
    • D&C 38:27 “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”
    • John 17: 11,21 “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”

I pray that they day will soon come when we will be one with God and with each other. When “we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

The Meaning of Atonement

Summary: The atonement, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ mean separate things and understanding the difference can help us apply atoning principles in our lives.

atonement basic doctrine least understood truths McConkieWhen I was a freshman at college, I remember hearing a quote from Bruce R. McConkie about the atonement that resonated with me. In the April 1985 General Conference, he said, “The atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths” (The Purifying Power of Gethsemane). Wow! How could that be? If the atonement is the most fundamental doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it seems like it should be the most studied and most understood gospel truth. I took Elder McConkie’s statement as a personal challenge to study and understand the atonement better and I have strived to do so throughout my life since then.

One of my initial efforts to learn more about the atonement was to read James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, one of the books on the approved missionary reading list, when I was a full-time missionary in Argentina. That was an educational and spiritually uplifting experience. Through the years I have read countless talks from LDS Church prophets, general authorities, and scholars on the subject of the atonement. A few years ago, I read Brother Callister’s book, The Infinite Atonement, and that was a very enlightening and helpful book. But the biggest strides I have made in understanding the atonement and how it applies to us has come through my personal scripture study and the spirit of revelation that has come to me as I have done so.

A few years ago, I had a major breakthrough in understanding the atonement when I was studying 2 Nephi chapter 2. I had a marvelous spiritual enlightening about the meaning of atonement. I had begun reading the Book of Mormon that time through with a new mindset and a fresh pair of eyes. I tried to erase any preconceived ideas about the gospel, and I tried to take in the concepts of the Book of Mormon in their purest form from God and the prophets who wrote the book. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was applying some advice from the McConkie talk referenced above to search the scriptures and “cast aside the philosophies of men and the wisdom of the wise and hearken to that Spirit which is given to us to guide us into all truth.”

As I read 2 Nephi chapter 2 verse 10, I realized that this was the first time in The Book of Mormon that the word atonement was used, so I paid special attention to its context and meaning. This led to a major outpouring of enlightenment from the Spirit of God, and somehow, in that moment, I gained great new insight into what atonement is and what it means. It seemed to me that the atonement was being spoken of in a way I had not previously defined it. Atonement sounded like a gospel principle that was being applied, not an event or something the Savior did for me. Of course, the Messiah did lay “down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit” as mentioned two verses earlier. But Lehi, who was speaking in this chapter, did not seem to equate the Savior’s death and resurrection with the word atonement.

first use of word atonement in the Book of Mormon2 Nephi 2:10 “And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement.”

 

I began to realize that the previous definition of atonement in my mind was limited and the Lord started to expand my understanding. I’ll elaborate on my expanded view of the principle of atonement as we continue in this article, but suffice it to say for now that taking the shackles off my definition of atonement was key to understanding its meaning, power, and application to my life.

My understanding of atonement has continued to grow and evolve in the proceeding years as I shed misconceptions and gained new understanding through scripture study, reading articles by authorities, and through the spirit of revelation as I pondered the subject. While I think many Church members will benefit from my perspective on the atonement which I will share, I don’t claim that that my knowledge or understanding is complete or perfect. I simply feel the Lord has explained things to me in a way that my brain can understand them. This is my mental model of the atonement, if you will. If your mental model is different, then that’s okay. And if my mental model is wrong, then it is the fault of man, and not the fault of God.

Definitions of Atonement Differentiated

In my research, study, and pondering, I have identified three differentiated definitions of atonement:

  • Atonement as in the Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ = The act of the Son of God suffering for our sins, bleeding from every pore, dying on the cross, and resurrecting on the third day.
  • Atonement as in the Atoning Mission of Jesus Christ = Everything that Christ has done and will do to make it possible for each of us to become like Him and the Father and become one with them and live in their presence eternally.
  • Atonement as in the Application of Atoning Principles = The eternal process of becoming one with God that each one of us must experience to become like Him and live in His presence eternally.

atonement meanings differentiated circles

Our Savior Jesus Christ is a key component of all three definitions. The Savior’s role is obvious in the first two, and the third cannot be completed without Him. We cannot each personally and fully apply the principles of atonement to our lives without the assistance of Jesus Christ. “Since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance” (Alma 22:14).

I may be getting a little bit ahead of myself, though. Before we dive into more detail on each one of the three meanings of atonement, let’s talk about the overarching meaning of the root word atone.

At One – The Atonement Etymology

I think one of the first keys in understanding the meaning of the atonement is understanding the origins and root meaning of the word. The “ment” suffix in the English language denotes an action or resulting state, a product, or means. Thus, the noun “atonement” is a form of the verb “atone,” and atonement means the action of atoning, or the resulting state of atoning, or the product of atoning, or the means of atoning. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, who played an important role in helping increase my understanding of the atonement, confirms the etymology of the word atone. “Atonement, an accepted theological term, comes from neither a Greek nor a Latin word, but is good old English and really does mean, when we write it out, “at-one-ment,” denoting both a state of being “at one” with another and the process by which that end is achieved.” (The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1 by Hugh W. Nibley).

Atonement state of being at one Hugh Nibley

When you take that as your definition of atonement, a whole new world of meaning and applications open up—at least it did so for me. For example, I have often thought long and hard about what it means that God the Father and Jesus Christ are one and what it means for us to be one with God (see John 17: 11, 21). My improved clarity on the meaning of the atonement helps me understand more what that means and how it is possible. I also begin to see how foundational the atonement is to the gospel and how it is an all-encompassing principle of truth. I begin to understand more the statement from Brigham Young that “Mormonism includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fulness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, Chapter 2).

If it’s not all coming together yet, I apologize. The Spirit of God has, at times, given me great bursts of much knowledge all at once and also taught me line upon line over time. It all makes sense in my mind, but sometimes it’s difficult for me to figure out how to best present these topics in a linear fashion like this article. I think if we continue, it will start to make more sense. Let’s go back to those three definitions of atonement and look at each in more detail. We’ll start with the more granular definition and move up to the larger and overarching definitions.

Atonement as in the Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ

Throughout my life in the Church, I have often heard the atonement equated with Jesus’ suffering in the garden of Gethsemane when he bled from every pore (Luke 22:44 and D&C 19:18). Or some have expanded that definition to say that the atonement began in Gethsemane and continued through the Savior’s scourging and crucifixion and resurrection. As I now understand, though, the Lord’s excruciating suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross, which he faithfully endured to the end for us, is better labeled the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While the events over those days could qualify as the most crucial part of the atonement, I do not equate them with the atonement. The atonement, the general and overall term, is much bigger and we will explore that further in a moment.

I think people limit and hurt themselves by abbreviating the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ to a simple phrase like the atonement. Misuse of the term atonement may be a contributing factor to many members not understanding the atonement or how to apply the power of Jesus Christ in their lives. I think we as a Church would be better off to not use incomplete generalization phrases like “the atonement” or even “the atonement of Jesus Christ” to describe the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even though those shortcut phrases have been used quite frequently by both Church members and leaders for many years. I know it will take a lot of time to break this habit, but it needs to happen if we are to really understand and benefit from these gospel principles.

President Russel M. Nelson, at the April 2017 General Conference, made some remarks to help us as a Church begin the process of better drawing on the power and blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he corrected our language around the use of the word atonement. He said:

It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases, such as “the Atonement” or “the enabling power of the Atonement” or “applying the Atonement” or “being strengthened by the Atonement.” These expressions present a real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ….There is no amorphous entity called ‘the Atonement’ upon which we may call for succor, healing, forgiveness, or power. Jesus Christ is the source. Sacred terms such as Atonement and Resurrection describe what the Savior did, according to the Father’s plan, so that we may live with hope in this life and gain eternal life in the world to come” (Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives by President Russell M. Nelson).

doctrinally incomplete shortcut phrases atonement nelson

I have been talking to my wife for years about the real meaning of atonement and the frequent misuse of the term, so I was very glad to hear a high-ranking authority like President Nelson address the subject with all members of the Church in the worldwide General Conference.

As I believe is now clear, the atonement isn’t the same as the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The atonement, in its true definition, includes much more than just the suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross by our Savior. I don’t wish to diminish in any way those events and what He did for all humanity by suffering in dying and resurrecting for us. I just think the atonement, as a principle and process, is much larger and grander. Even the phrase “the atonement of Jesus Christ” means much more than the atoning sacrifice because it includes His life and mission and that leads us into the second definition of atonement.

Atonement as in the Atoning Mission of Jesus Christ

If we delineate the atonement of Jesus Christ from His atoning sacrifice, it’s clear that His atonement is bigger or encompasses much more. Again, the atoning sacrifice was the crucial part, but in my mind, the atonement of Jesus Christ neither began in Gethsemane nor ended at the resurrection. I believe His atonement is the entirety of His mission. If we had to put starting and ending point on the atonement of Jesus Christ, I would say it began at the foundation of the world when Jehovah said “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27) and it will not end until all mankind returns to the presence of God (see 2 Nephi 2:8-10 and Alma 42:15,23).

atonement began at the foundation of the worldAs I have read the scriptures and studied and pondered them, I no longer equate the atonement of our Savior with what He did for us on the cross or in the garden of Gethsemane. Rather, I think of the entire, eternal mission of Jesus Christ as His Atonement, including the process, power, and ultimate completion of making us one with Him and the Father. President Nelson, in his talk referenced above, backs up this definition of the atonement. “As Latter-day Saints, we refer to His mission as the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which made resurrection a reality for all and made eternal life possible for those who repent of their sins and receive and keep essential ordinances and covenants.”

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is real and powerful and cannot be underestimated in its eternal importance and infinite reach. But I think that perhaps the Latter-day Saints would understand the atonement better and how it applies to their life if we would talk about it differently. In my experience, many people talk about the atonement as if it is a magical power Jesus hands to us or a magic wand we can wave in order to get blessings or other results. I believe that the atonement and the power therein and the applications in our lives are much more tangible than that, if we come to truly understand it. And I believe that if we would talk about atonement like we talk about other principles of the gospel that it would be more applicable to our daily lives and overcoming our struggles. And that’s a nice segue to the third definition of atonement.

Atonement as in the Application of Atoning Principles

At its highest level, I believe atonement is an eternal, ongoing principle. Understanding this principle is what has been really impactful in my life in recent years. As I have come to understand the atonement as a principle, I realize why the confusion exists for many people between understanding the atonement of Jesus Christ and applying it to our lives. In order to understand the atonement as a principle, let’s visit again the definition of the word atone, which, as Brother Nibley pointed out, literally means the state of being “at one.” In the religious sense particularly, being at one means being at one with God, whole, complete, or integral, and atonement is the process by which that state of being at one is achieved.

Brother Nibley points out that “the word atonement appears only once in the New Testament (Rom. 5:11 in the King James Version), and in the Revised Standard Version it does not appear at all, the translators preferring the more familiar word reconciliation. (See also footnote to Rom. 5:11 in the LDS edition of the King James Version.) Reconciliation is a very good word for atonement there, since it means literally to be seated again with someone (re-con-silio)—so that atonement is to be reunited with God” (The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1 by Hugh W. Nibley). He further explains other near synonyms for atonement are redemption, rescue, and resurrection. In my own study, I have found additional near synonyms of atonement throughout the scriptures such as unity, oneness, sealing, one eternal round, circumspection, return, repent, perfect, opposition, overcome, restore, truth, and integrity. Even the scriptural literary pattern of chiasms, which I will not go into here, illustrates the eternal principle of atonement.

third law of motion isaac newton

Newton’s Third Law of Motion – For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction. Graphic by Simply Fresh Designs

In my mind, I often visualize the principle of atonement as symmetrical patterns or a complete circle. Newton’s Third Law of Motion—For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—is also a good illustration of the principle of atonement. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi, I believe, was articulating this understanding of the concept of atonement when he said “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). This statement, not coincidentally, came immediately after the first usage of the word atonement in the Book of Mormon as discussed above.

Many, perhaps all, laws and principles and ordinances of the gospel have root in the principle of atonement. Repentance demands that we make recompense for our mistakes, where possible, so things that we have broken can be made whole, or at one again. Because of the effect of our sins (the first half of the symmetry), baptism washes us (the second half of the symmetry), thus bringing us back to our former state of cleanliness, wholeness, or oneness before God. The law of sacrifice illustrates many principles of atonement, not the least of which is how it points to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ which was completed to make things whole, or at one again. A central part of Jesus earthly ministry was healing, or making whole or at one, things that had gone wrong in this life.  In the law of consecration, everything that God gives us (the first half of the symmetry) we give back to Him (the second half of the symmetry), thus returning to a state of oneness. Vicarious temple work for our ancestors is an example of the effort to make things at one, as we do ordinances for those who, if not for the sins of the world in which they lived, would have received them during their life.

Part of the Law of Moses, as I understand it, illustrates the principle of atonement by prescribing a punishment equal to the crime with an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20). Jesus taught the higher law to the Jews when he was on the earth, and that higher law also has roots in the principle of atonement. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:38-39).

You may wonder how turning the other cheek is an illustration of the principle of atonement. I think the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi explains it well as he describes the suffering and crucifixion of the Savior which he saw in vision. “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men” (1 Nephi 19:9). We as mortal, imperfect beings commit sins, which is one half of the symmetry, and Jesus willing suffers for it, and that is the other half of the symmetry, thus bringing things back to a state of atonement.

When Jesus applied atoning principles to his life, we call that the atonement of Jesus Christ. We also need to apply atoning principles in our lives if we are to inherit the kingdom of Heaven and thus we need to perform our own work of atonement. In the Church, I’ve never heard anyone use language like that before, so I hope I’m not out of bounds putting it that way, but that is the natural conclusion of this line of thinking and the Spirit confirms its truthfulness to me. We help ourselves and others in the world get to the state of atonement by applying gospel principles. Take the following as a real-world, common example.

When someone cuts us off in traffic, we could get mad at them and yell and scream and cut them off in return, and that would be justified, but it does no one any good. Alternatively, we could also forgive them, let ourselves pay the consequence for their rude behavior, and then it does a world of good for them and for us. For us, it gives us power over our emotions and keeps us in control rather than being a slave to the natural man’s reaction. For them it also brings blessings, though it may more long-run than short-run, as they realize their mistakes and your magnanimity towards them, it will create feelings of sorrow initially, and then love and devotion toward you for enduring the effects of their mistakes. And you can see, then, how principles of atonement will eternally bless all parties in this fallen world in which we live. Applying atoning principles is what will eventually rise us from our fallen state and bring us back to the presence of God.

You see, then, how we can be “joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). You can see, then, how atonement is not something Jesus did for us so much as it is the application of principles of the gospel which we do together with Jesus. The Savior’s atoning sacrifice and His atoning mission are things Jesus did for us, and those cannot be replaced, nor can we progress without them. But one of the most common things Jesus taught during His earthly mission to was follow Him, and we are to do that by following His example in applying atoning principles in our lives. And we can better make that application and receive the blessings associated with it when we better understand the meaning of atonement.

With this new and improved understanding of atonement, I hope it is clear why President Nelson labeled as ‘doctrinally incomplete shortcut phrases’ the common things we tend to say in the Church like “applying the atonement of Jesus.” Throwing that phrase out like a sound bite or using it out of context will often twist, or perhaps obscure, the meaning of atonement. Because I have recognized the need to apply the larger concept of atonement to my life, in recent years, I have found myself speaking more in terms of principles of atonement, and only speaking of the atonement of Jesus Christ when I really mean his mission, and of course referring to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ as just that and not with any shortcut phrases. Again, the very way that we talk about this subject could be the source of the trouble many people have in understanding and applying atonement to their lives. I have found that this mental and verbal change has made the atonement more applicable in my life and circumstances.

I should also point out that the “atonement” as a principle and the “atonement of Christ” as in His mission, could be considered synonymous if you think of the later phrase not as a singular event but rather as the atoning process that we all must go through for eternal life and exaltation, which is the same atoning process that Christ went through. I believe that each one of us needs to work out an atonement. That’s not to say that we must perform the same infinite atoning sacrifice that the Savior did—that is a gift from God. “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). We do need, however, to reach a state of atonement, or unity with God. And the need to be one with God shouldn’t be a foreign concept to anyone familiar with the scriptures. “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27).

If being saved, in a religious sense, means being one with God, then I think we can safely paraphrase the third Article of Faith and encapsulate much of this discussion: We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be made one with God, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

Conclusion

Atonement is both a central and all-encompassing principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The implications of this understanding of atonement are indeed infinite and eternal, as described in The Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 9:7, Alma 34:10-12). If your experience is anything like mine, as you come to understand the atonement more fully, the scriptures and the plan of salvation will open up to your mind like never before. You’ll start seeing the atonement, or atonement principles, everywhere in the gospel, throughout the scriptures and in all the dealings of God with man.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but these are my thoughts on the subject of atonement and do not necessarily represent those of my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Of course, I feel my opinions are founded in the teachings of the prophets and in the scriptures, and most importantly in the inspiration from the Holy Ghost that I have received. If there are errors in what I have presented, they are my errors as an imperfect reflection of God’s perfect light and truth. The Spirit reveals many wonderful truths to my spirit, but my temporal mind and body is not yet in a state of atonement nor able to fully understand nor communicate these beautiful eternal principles.

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in answering the question about what the atonement means, but hopefully this has provided a good launching pad for you in your personal studies. I hope this explanation of how I see things has expanded your vision of the meaning and application of the atonement and that the Spirit of the Lord will continue to give you additional insights into how to apply it to your life.

The Exhausted West

Alexander SolzhenitsynI was only recently introduced to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and I look forward to reading and learning more about him in the future. From what I understand*, Alexander was a loyal communist in his youth. Born in 1918, he became a commander in the Russian Soviet army during World War II. As the war in Europe drew to a close, Alexander was arrested by the Soviets for writing a letter to a friend that was disrespectful toward Joseph Stalin. He was sentenced to eight years in labor camps and it was during that time of imprisonment that he appears to have abandoned Marxism and developed the Christian religious and philosophical positions he was known for later in life.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is perhaps best known as the author of “The Gulag Archipelago” and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. Solzhenitsyn may be the originator of the term Gulag for the vast network of punitive institutions in Soviet Russia, or if not he at least gave the term prominence in the western world. In 1978, not long after his deportation from the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered Harvard’s commencement speech. In that same year, Harvard published an article from Solzhenitsyn entitled The Exhausted West in which he charges the Western world with losing its courage and spiritual direction. I found the article most fascinating, prescient, and just as relevant today as when it was written nearly 40 years ago. Below are some of the quotes I found most interesting.


“The blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day Western systems, which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is the belief that all those other worlds are being only temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life; countries are judged on their progress in this direction. However, this is a conception that developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.”

“The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”

“Decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents that cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.”

“When the modern Western states were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence.) Now at last, during past decades, technical and social progress have permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee, in theory, the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense that has come into being during those same decades.”

“People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law, and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice, and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.”

“A society that is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very small advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be, simply, impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

“A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly: there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well founded and absolutely flawless. In fact, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”

human obligations Alexander Solzhenitsyn“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”

“Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”

“There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? …Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified; they will slay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it.”

“Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.”

“Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or- be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development.”

“It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development, even though in the past years it has been strongly disturbed by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current. I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative.”

socialism total destruction of the human spirit Alexander Solzhenitsyn“A brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death.”

“I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”

“The fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their offensive-you can feel their pressure-and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?”

“Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against Communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events.”

“The most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam War. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or Communist, self·determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve, and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundred fold Vietnam now looms over you.”

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of will power.”

“The mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world, which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression in the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.”

“The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs.”

“Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our day there is a free and constant flow. Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.”

“However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.”

“A total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”

“All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty.”

socialism could never resist Communism Alexander Solzhenitsyn“Humanism without its Christian heritage cannot resist such competition. We watch this process in the past centuries and especially in the past decades, on a world scale as the situation becomes increasingly dramatic. Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could never resist Communism.”

“The Communist regime in the East could stand and grow thanks to the enthusiastic support it received from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see Communism’s crimes. When they no longer could ignore the crimes, they tried to justify them. In our Eastern countries, Communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. But Western intellectuals still look at it with interest and with empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.”

“Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes that were not noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our day we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity, which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.”

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully to get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty. so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self·restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.”

“If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing up to the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but–upward.”


* Alexander (often Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn, according to Wikipedia, “was a Russian novelist, historian, and short story writer. He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. …Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature …[and] was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the state’s dissolution.” In February 1945, “Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin. …He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of “founding a hostile organization” under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labour camp.”

Mormons’ View of Christopher Columbus

While I have always had high esteem for Christopher Columbus, he seems to be increasingly criticized into today’s world. I hear reports that kids growing up today are told in school that he was a horrible man. Not fully understanding these criticisms, I recently undertook to studying about his life and accomplishments, including reading a new biography on Columbus called “Christopher Columbus: A Man among Gentiles” written by an LDS author, Clark B. Hinckley. While I have titled this post “Mormons’ View of Christopher Columbus” it might be better titled “This Mormon’s View of Christopher Columbus.” Please be aware that my writings are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What the Prophets have Taught about Christopher ColumbusThis PowerPoint presentation was given at the LDS Institute of Religion on Nov 3, 2017.

That We May be RedeemedColumbus Appeared in Spirit to Wilford Woodruff

In August 1877, Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was the first president of the recently dedicated St. George Temple of the LDS Church. He reported that one day, the spirits of the founding fathers of the United States of America and other prominent men, and possibly women as well, appeared to him and asked for temple ordinances to be performed in their behalf:

“The spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” . . . They waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them . . . I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister [J. D. T. McCallister, first counselor in the temple presidency] to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others.” (Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 19:229. Also see Benson, Ezra Taft This Nation Shall Endure, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, 22.)

Columbus–A Man among the Gentiles

Portrait of Christopher ColumbusWhile it is interesting to note is that Christopher Columbus was among these “eminent men,” for Latter-day Saints, this is no surprise given the mention of him in the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe that Christopher Columbus is mentioned, though not by name, in the Book of Mormon when the ancient American prophet Nephi sees in vision the discovery and colonizing of America.

“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land” (1 Nephi 13:12).

James E. Talmage, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the early 1900s, said this in his seminal book, Jesus the Christ, regarding Columbus:

“Unto Nephi, son of Lehi, was shown the future of his people, including the degeneracy of a branch thereof, afterward known as Lamanites and in modern times as American Indians. The coming of a man from among the Gentiles, across the deep waters, was revealed in such plainness as to positively identify that man with Columbus; and the coming of other Gentiles to this land, out of captivity, is equally explicit. … The establishment of a great Gentile nation on the American continent, the subjugation of the Lamanites or Indians, the war between the newly established nation and Great Britain, or “their mother Gentiles,” and the victorious outcome of that struggle for independence, are set forth with equal clearness in the same chapter.”

Elder Mark E. Petersen, another apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve, also confirmed that that man among the Gentiles is Columbus.

When Columbus went to King Ferdinand, he said, “I came to Your Majesty as the emissary of the Holy Ghost.” When he stood before the clergy of San Esteban, he insisted to them that he must be regarded as a man inspired. Columbus’s own son, Fernando, in a biography of his father, quotes the discoverer as saying on one occasion, “God gave me the faith and afterward the courage so that I was quite willing to undertake the journey.” And the last will and testament of Christopher Columbus includes this expression: “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, who inspired me with the idea and afterward made perfectly clear to me that I could navigate and go to the Indies from Spain by traversing the ocean westward” (Wasserman, Columbus, pp. 46, 61). Columbus was inspired, and Nephi looked upon him and beheld him coming to the Western Hemisphere” (Elder Mark E. Petersen – The Great Prologue, BYU Speeches, Sep. 29, 1974).

Finally, Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed this about Christopher Columbus:

“The entire world is celebrating this month the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, his biographer, says, “This night of October 11–12 [1492] was one big with destiny for the human race, the most momentous ever experienced aboard any ship in any sea.” (Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942, p. 223.)

“In my private commemoration of this event, I have read and reread one important and prophetic verse from the Book of Mormon [1 Ne. 13:12], and also a very long biography of Christopher Columbus. …We interpret that [verse] to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him. After reading that long biography, a Pulitzer winner of forty years ago, titled Admiral of the Ocean Sea—I have no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a man of faith, as well as a man of indomitable determination” (Building Your Tabernacle – Gordon B. Hinckley – October 1992).

Christopher Columbus Vicariously Ordained a High Priest

President Ezra Taft Benson,  13th president of the Church, said that not only was Christopher Columbus among the eminent men who appeared to Wilford Woodruff, but Columbus was one of only four men ever known to be vicariously ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood office of High Priest.

“The temple work for the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence and other Founding Fathers has been done. All these appeared to Wilford Woodruff when he was president of the St. George Temple. President George Washington was ordained a high priest at that time. You will also be interested to know that, according to Wilford Woodruff’s journal, John Wesley, Benjamin Franklin, and Christopher Columbus were also ordained high priests at that time. When one casts doubt about the character of these noble sons of God, I believe he or she will have to answer to the God of heaven for it.” (Benson, Ezra Taft This Nation Shall Endure, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, 22.)

The Lord Opened My Mind

Now let’s take a closer look at Christopher Columbus’ life and events and the things he is known to have said and done which provide evidence as to why the eminent figure of history has been so honored by Mormon prophets and members. In chapter 1 of Christopher Columbus –  A Man among Gentiles, author Clark B. Hinckley says,

“Columbus himself knew exactly why he was compelled, against all odds, to do what he did. He described his motivation in these remarkable words: ‘With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project . . . This was the fire that burned within me . . . Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit . . . urging me to press forward?’ (West and Kling, Libro, 105.) The story of Columbus is, among many other things, a story of the fulfillment of prophecy. More than two thousand years passed from the time that simple prophecy was recorded by Nephi in the wilderness of Arabia until the fulfillment of that prophecy with Columbus’s successful voyage of discovery. And without access to Nephi’s prophecy, Columbus himself described its perfect and exact fulfillment.”

Columbus further stated about the years he spent getting approval and financing to make the voyage across the Atlantic: “I spent seven years here in your royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets” (West and Kling, Libro, 107).

Near Mutiny Almost Terminated the Voyage before His Discovery

Christopher Columbus on Santa Maria in 1492On August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Spain with three ships: the Santa María, captained by Columbus, and two smaller vessels, the Pinta and the Niña. Columbus first sailed to the Canary  Islands, where he restocked provisions and made repairs to his ships. The three ships then departed on September 6th for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean, though they weren’t without drama before they reached their destination on October 12, 1492. This is what Hinckley reports in Chapter 6 of his book:

“On 9 October, when the winds were light and the ships were traveling at only about 2 knots, the Pinzón brothers came aboard the Santa María, where they ‘held a more or less stormy conference with Columbus in his cabin, demanded that the search for land be abandoned, and that advantage be taken of the southerly breeze to start home.’ Morison concludes that Columbus convinced his captains to carry on for three more days and that the captains returned to their respective ships. On the morning of 10 October the wind picked up and the ships sped along at 7 knots. The renewed easterly winds fueled fears among the crew that a return voyage would be impossible, and the men confronted Columbus ‘with one voice’ demanding that he turn back. (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 220–21.) This was where the enterprise came the closest to failure.”

“…One can hardly blame the sailors for their concerns nor consider them cowardly for their desire to turn around and head home. They had experienced two false landfalls, they had been in open ocean at least twice as long as any previous expedition, and by every reasonable measure they were beyond where they had been told they would find land. They had passed the 65th meridian and were north of Puerto Rico. If one looks at a map today and blocks out the Americas—unknown to Columbus and his crew—one might begin to sense the growing despair, even fear, felt by the crew. Morison characterized the attempted mutiny with these observations: ‘It was . . . the inevitable conflict between a man of one great, compelling idea and those who did not share it in anything like the same degree . . . Their issue with their commander was the eternal one between imagination and doubt, between the spirit that creates and the spirit that denies.’ (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 215.) Columbus was unwavering, and his vision prevailed.”

Guardian Angel of America

Landing of ColumbusOrson Hyde said that the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni “calmed the troubled elements” during Columbus’ voyage, he might well have been referring to those events of October 9-10, 1492. Orson Hyde was called as one of the original members of the Twelve Apostles by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the early days of the restoration of gospel of Jesus Christ. He gave a patriotic talk about America in Salt Lake City on July 4, 1854 in which he referred to Moroni as the “guardian angel of America.” Elder Hyde said, “That same angel of God that appeared to Joseph Smith presides over the destiny of the United States of America.” Elder Hyde said that Moroni was in the camp with George Washington and helped when he had trouble. He said that same angel was with Christopher Columbus and gave him deep impressions and dreams and visions respecting the new world. And according to Elder Glen L. Rudd in a BYUI Devotional, “that same angel was with Columbus on the stormy deep. He guided his frail vessel to the desired haven, and he calmed the troubled elements” (see The Angel Moroni by Elder Glen L. Rudd, BYU–Idaho Devotional – March 11, 2003).

Comfort from a Celestial Voice

During Columbus’ fourth voyage to the Americas, he and his crew encountered many terrible storms, they had a failed attempt to establish a settlement in Central America, they had many battles and with the native inhabitants, and eventually became shipwrecked and stranded on the island of Jamaica. During this voyage, on 6 April 1503, Columbus had one of the seminal experiences of his life where he heard a celestial voice both chastise him and comfort him and buoy him up.

“I was completely alone outside on this dangerous coast in a high fever and a state of great exhaustion. All hope of escape was dead. I struggled up to the highest point of the ship, weeping and calling in a trembling voice to your Highnesses’ Lord of Hosts in every direction for comfort, but there was no reply. Exhausted and groaning, I fell as if asleep and heard a very compassionate voice saying:

‘O fool, slow to believe and serve thy God, the God of all! What more did he do for Moses or David his servant than he has done for thee? Since thou wast born, ever has He had thee in His watchful care. When He saw thee at an age that pleased Him, He caused thy name to sound marvelously in the land. The Indies, which were so rich a part of the world, He gave thee for thine own; thou hast divided them as it pleased thee, and He enabled thee to do this. Of the barriers of the Ocean Sea, which were closed with such mighty chains, He gave thee the key; and thou wast obeyed in many lands, and among Christians thou hast gained an honorable fame. What did He do more for the people of Israel when He brought them out of Egypt? Or for David, who from a shepherd He made to be King of Judea? Turn thyself to Him, and know now thine error; His mercy is infinite; thine old age shall not prevent thee from achieving all great things; He has many inheritances very great. Abraham was over a hundred years old when he begat Isaac, and Sarah was not a young girl. Thou criest for help, doubting. Answer, who has afflicted thee so greatly and so often, God or the world? The privileges, letters and promises that God gives are all fully kept, and after receiving service his favors increase and He grants his servants paradise. I have spoken of that which thy Creator has done for thee and does for all men. Now in part He shows thee the reward for the anguish and danger which thou hast endured in the service of others.’

“I heard all of this as if I were only partially conscious, and I had no answer to give to words so true, but could only weep for my errors. He, whoever he was who spoke to me, ended by saying: “Fear not; have trust; all these tribulations are written upon marble and are not without cause.”( Varela and Gil, Textos, 491–92)

A Divinely Chosen Person

The Book of Prophecies (in Spanish, El Libro de las Profecías) is a compilation of writing and revelations written by Christopher Columbus towards the end of his life. In Delno West’s introduction to the English translation of the book, he summarizes Columbus’ character and motives:

“Christopher Columbus looked upon himself as a man of destiny who had been given a charismatic gift to understand Scripture, navigation, maps, winds, tides, astronomy, cosmography, mathematics and related sciences. His understanding of his mission, or enterprise, was drawn from the Bible or proved by the Bible, and he knew that he was opening up new lands rich with gold and other valuables. He believed himself a chosen person working for the good of all Christendom in opening up the rest of the world to the gospel message. He knew that he would be misunderstood and maligned, but he accepted that as the lot of a divinely chosen person” (Libro de las profecias, p. 105. Raccolta, pt. I, vol. ii, p. 79. Also see Columbus and the Hand of God by De Lamar Jensen, Emeritus professor of history at BYU, Ensign Magazine, October 1992).

A Man Alone with God

Samuel Eliot Morison, author of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, said this of Columbus.

“For he was not, like a Washington, a Cromwell or a Bolivar, an instrument chosen by multitudes to express their wills and lead a cause; Columbus was a Man with a Mission. . . . He was Man alone with God against human stupidity and depravity, against greedy conquistadors, cowardly seamen, even against nature and the sea. Always with God, though. . . . Men may doubt this, but there can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston: Little, Brown, 1942), 46—47.)

Columbus and Revelation

LDS Church scholar Hugh Nibley wrote about Christopher Columbus in chapter 2 of his book, The Prophetic Book of Mormon. Said Nibley:

“[Columbus’] contemporary and friend, Las Casas, in an oft-quoted passage says he was as certain of finding what he said he would as if he had it already locked up in his trunk. Las Casas tells how “from all sides and in many ways did God give Columbus motives and causes that he should not doubt to undertake so great a deed,” and that “God seemed to move him on by constant pushes.” (Bartolome de las Casas, Historia de las Indias (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951), 27—34.) Everything else in Columbus’ life is subservient to the carrying out of that one mission. The aim and purpose of all his work and suffering was what happened at 2 A.M. on the morning of October 12, 1492, and must not be judged by what happened after (it was “the wrath of God upon the seed of my brethren,” says Nephi), or by any other quirks or misadventures. In retrospect we see that this is so—but Columbus himself always knew it was: God had chosen him to do this one great deed.

“… Sailing into a perfect blank on the map, Columbus infallibly did the right thing: “He did not make a single false move in the entire voyage!” says the geographer Professor Nunn. He maintains that Columbus must have been the discoverer of the Trade and prevailing Westerly Winds since it was only by taking fullest advantage of both that his journey was possible—yet his subsequent voyages show that Columbus knew nothing about the wind system. (See George E. Nunn, The Geographical Conceptions of Columbus, New York: American Geographical Society, 1924.) This was not Columbus’ doing. Neither was the flight of birds that appeared just in time to keep the ships from turning back, nor the sudden rising of the sea that at another time inspired the expedition to continue. Call it what you will, Columbus was convinced he was being helped.

“Finally a day came when he was forced to give the whole fleet his solemn word that he would turn back within two days if land was not discovered—and on the morning of the second day land was discovered. About eight or nine hours before the discovery, at sunset on October 11, Columbus gave a strange and sudden order for a marked change of course. ‘Why he did this, nobody explained,’ writes Professor Morison, a very sober historian and a nautical expert. (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 223.) But he assures us that if he had not done it, the great discovery of October 12, 1492, would have been a tragic discovery of deadly reefs that lay but a short distance dead ahead of the little fleet on its original course….’No man alive,’ says Morison, speaking as a mariner, ‘limited to the instruments and means at Columbus’s disposal, could obtain anything near the accuracy of his results.’ (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 195.)

Columbus and the Hand of God

“I could sense [God’s] hand upon me,” wrote Columbus, “so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies, and he gave me the will to do it” (Raccolta, pt. I, vol. ii, p. 79.). Regarding Columbus’ feeling of guidance by the hand of God, professor of history at BYU De Lamar Jensen said:

“Perhaps nothing irked his contemporaries more than Columbus’s frank assertion that he was divinely chosen. ‘God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah,’ Columbus wrote to a friend and confidant of the queen, ‘and he showed me where to find it.’ (Columbus to Doña Juana de la Torre, Raccolta di documenti e studi pubblicati della R. Commissione Colombiana, pt. I, vol. ii; I Scriti di Cristoforo Colombo, ed. Cesare de Lollis (Rome: 1894), p. 66.)

“…Columbus was convinced that the key to his enterprise was the spiritual gifts given him by the Lord: ‘He bestowed the arts of seamanship upon me in abundance, and has given me what was necessary from [astronomy], geometry, and arithmetic; and has given me adequate inventiveness in my soul.’ Columbus was certain that God provided these gifts to be used in His service, ‘encouraging me to go forward, and without ceasing they inflame me with a sense of great urgency.’ (Ibid., p. 79. also see Columbus and the Hand of God By De Lamar Jensen, Emeritus professor of history at BYU, Ensign Magazine, October 1992)

God Gave Me the Spirit and Intelligence for It

From chapter 18 of Clark B. Hinckley’s book, he summarizes Christopher Columbus’ life this way:

“Finally, what emerges from Columbus’s words as we have them in his letters, journals, and other documents is a man of deep and abiding faith. His piety was not a hollow set of daily rituals or outward appearances; his faith in God was the foundation of all he did, it was the driver of his life, and it sustained him through disappointment, rejection, and deep discouragement. He was ‘longsuffering in the challenges and adversity that always beset him, which were incredible and infinite, always with great faith in the divine Providence’ (Las Casas, Historia, 1:44). His faith begat hope that enabled him to do what others deemed impossible. He prayed with faith and received answers through faith: ‘I prayed to the most merciful Lord concerning my desire, and he gave me the spirit and the intelligence for it’ (West and Kling, Libro, 105).”

Columbus as a Forerunner to Christ like John the Baptist

Historian and biographer Felipe Fernandez-Armesto observed that Columbus, “saw himself, like that other hero of his, John the Baptist, as ‘a man sent from God.’”(Columbus on Himself, 156.) Columbus saw himself in a similar role as the forerunner of Jesus Christ to help pave the way for our Savior’s second coming. Christopher Columbus expert Delano West observed, “John the Baptist was . . . the messenger of the New Testament. He paved the way for Christ’s mission during the First Advent as Columbus would pave the way for the Second Advent.”(West and Kling, Libro, 73) Washington Irving, in his landmark biography of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, observed that Columbus “considered his great discovery but as a preparatory dispensation of Providence.” (Irving, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 57)

Why Columbus Matters: The Protestant Revolution

Columbus historian Clark B. Hinckley notes:

“When Columbus’s little storm-battered ship floated into Lisbon in March 1493, it was as if someone had struck a match in dry tinder. The news spread across Europe with remarkable speed, and as old ideas faded, a new landscape—not just geographical but intellectual, artistic, and spiritual—emerged. …Not only did Columbus unlock the gates of the Ocean Sea but his accomplishments were a decisive factor in unlocking the intellectual and spiritual darkness that had encompassed Europe for centuries and was just beginning to fade. An awakening of the human spirit would be felt across Europe and manifest in many ways. In 1517, Martin Luther would publish his ninety-five theses, daring to speak out against corruption in Rome and forcing reforms in the Church. Luther would later translate the Bible into German, a work that would have an enormous effect on German culture. Luther’s work would be followed by William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525, the publication of which would change not only English history but the English language. …With new protestant churches in Germany and England, the Reformation would become the Protestant revolution.” (Christopher Columbus: A Man among Gentiles, Chapter 17, Why Columbus Matters)

It all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said

One of the most remarkable aspects of Christopher Columbus’s life and character is the degree to which he understood his God-given mission, divine protection, and place in history. Said Columbus:

“The Lord purposed that there should be something clearly miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies . . . I spent seven years here in your royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets.” (West and Kling, Libro, 107)

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization ChecklistSome time ago, I created this landing page optimization checklist to make it easier for the people at my company who build landing pages to do them in the most optimal way. The checklist mentions 29 points, primarily to do with conversion optimization but also with search engine optimization topics. Download a PDF of the checklist with the button below or below that you can see the text of the checklist. Enjoy!

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization Checklist:

Step 1: Planning
 Goal or goals of the landing page (LP) have been set by business sponsor
 Keyword research has been conducted to identify terms the audience uses most

Step 2: Content and Copy
 Duplicate content has been checked for. (Do a Google site search “site:yoursite.com ” and if a page on that topic already exists, consider using it instead of creating a new page.)
 Copy has clear and compelling value proposition and is aligned with goals
 Copy is concise and to the point, but detailed enough to help users make their decision
 Copy focuses on benefits to end-user rather than features of the product
 Important keywords are placed in prominent locations (headlines, titles, bolded, front-loaded)
 Links are descriptive of where they take the user (e.g. no “click here” or “read more”)
 Link text users click to come to the page match the LP headline (for our emails and website pages)

Step 3: Layout and Design
 LP has one, primary call to action (CTA) which is easily recognizable and above the fold
 The page is free from clutter, distractions, or undue cognitive load on end-user
 Images are relevant and add value (not just pretty and take up space)
 Brand guidelines have been followed for layout, fonts, graphics, tone, etc.
 Design and tone are consistent across all marketing channels (email, LP, fliers, post cards, etc.)
 All links, especially the primary and secondary CTAs, appear to be clickable
 The page, including copy and layout, are approved by sponsoring department, brand, and legal

Step 4: Technical Considerations when Building LP
 Page title matches H1 headline and is unique on website (Do a Google site search to verify)
 Meta description uses keywords, has compelling call to action, and is less than 160 characters
 CTAs are tracked as success events in your web analytics program
 Images use descriptive alt-text and title
 Image file names are optimized and human readable (screw-driver.jpg rather than 123xyz.jpg)
 Social media meta tags are populated for title, image, and description
 URL uses dashes “-“ rather than underscores “_” to separate words
 URL matches page title (e.g. if title = “Screw Driver” the URL should be “/screw-driver”).
 When the page is taken down, a 301 redirect to a relevant page is put in its place

Optional: Additional Search Engine Optimization
If the page is a short-term promotional page, these SEO elements are not required but still good to do.
 LP is optimized around a single, high-value keyword or phrase (i.e. the target keyword is used in the title, headline, URL, main body copy, and meta description)
 Keyword synonyms are used in the copy to make language more natural and varied
 LP has healthy amount of text (at least 100 words, preferably 500 or more) to give search engines an opportunity to understand what the topic of the page is
 High value keywords on page are linked to other optimized SEO landing pages, if they exist

Landing Page Conversion Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

Today’s post will discuss some of the principles of landing page optimization. Particularly, I’d like to talk about optimizing landing pages for conversion as opposed to optimizing for search engines, though those two disciplines have increasingly merged over the years as discussed in When Search Meets Web Usability. The quotes below are take from Anna Jacobson’s article in the MarketingExperiments Blog called Overcoming friction and anxiety: Suitable optimization suggestions for Men’s Wearhouse.

What is a Landing Page?

If you search the internet, you’ll find a variety of definitions of a landing page from very specific ones (like “a lead capture page”) to very general ones (like “any page a visitor lands on”). I personally prefer the more general definition with the caveat that a landing page is an entry point to your site and has a purpose to convert you, or entice you to take further action on the site. Landing pages are often arrived at in response to clicking an online advertisement, a link from a social media site, an email campaign, a search result, or a pay per click (PPC) campaign. Landing pages enhance the effectiveness of these off-site marketing channels be providing visitors with addition details (sales copy, videos, information, etc.), and provides your company with a better chance to win over those visitors.

Principles of Landing Page Conversion

Below is a formula published by Daniel Burstein of MarketingExperiments about the factors that lead to (or prevent) landing page conversion. A conversion, in this sense, refers to converting browsers into buyers, or in the case of media sites or non-commercial enterprises, getting people to take any key action. The “C” in the formula is for “conversion,” and the rest of the factors are labeled and explained below.

landing page conversion equation

Now don’t be overwhelmed is you are not a mathematician. This is not a formula to be numerically solved. The presentation as a formula and the numbers are there to help you understand how all the pieces fit together and to help you see the weight and importance of different factors. As you can see, if customers (site visitors) are properly Motivated and see the Value of the offer, it will overcome the Friction and Anxiety about taking the action (to buy something or perform another desired outcome). The friction and anxiety must be overcome by value, motivation and incentives communicated clearly on the landing page. If it helps, instead of thinking of it as a math formula, Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights points out that you can think of landing page conversion probabilities as a scale where the positive has to outweigh the negative, as shown in the image below.

landing page conversion scales weight

To help understand the equation, or the scale, whichever model you prefer, below I explain each of the factors in a little more detail.

Motivation

A landing page (including your home page) “must connect to the customer’s demand or need for a product. If they clicked on your ad, something in the ad motivated them to do so. To continue reaching that motivation, the landing page must immediately connect with your natural [or paid] search ad. The best place to do this is with a headline. Without a headline that connects with the channel, the visitor may initially question if they are in right place.”

Value Proposition

“Your value proposition communicates the unique value you have to offer your ideal prospect.” “You will also want to convey your unmatched quality.” Do not “relying on the visitor to do all the work, to search for this essential part of your value proposition.” Make sure the value is clearly communicated, not “buried on your site and you make visitors dig for it.”

Incentive

“An incentive’s function is to stimulate a desired action by your prospect.” With the Men’s Wearhouse, it’s a Buy One Get One Free offer. With you’re a religious website, the incentive might be to learn more about Jesus Christ.

Friction

“In order to identify sources of friction, we need to look for any element that may make it more difficult for a visitor to buy.” “And we cannot just identify sources of friction by looking at the page. We have to analyze how a visitor will experience the page, because friction is psychological, existing in the mind of the visitor.” “When someone lands on the page, they shouldn’t have to think about where to click. It should come naturally and instantly.”

Anxiety

As marketers, there are generally actions you can take on landing pages to help mitigate the anxiety of the end users. “Anxiety is associated with a concern about something, and [for e-commerce sites] is usually located in the payment process.” For Men’s Wearhouse, a money-back guarantee can make the difference in overcoming this anxiety. “When a customer is aware that any purchase is essentially ‘risk free,’ then it makes the final click on the purchase button so much easier.”

 

Menu Link Standards and Checklist

Menu Link Standards and ChecklistIn my work as a digital marketing analyst for Hilti, the subject of the website’s main menu comes up often. My colleagues often want to know how effective the various links in the menu are in driving traffic to the pages they care about. And the requests to put new content in the menus can be numerous at times. A recent request to add some items to the main navigation got me thinking about best practices and standards our company should have regarding the links in the menu. Such a checklist of standards could help us avoid some of the political battles we all face regarding inter-departmental competition for space in the website’s menu.

So I went back and reviewed much of the material I’ve collected over the years regarding menu purposes and principles, as well as my library of resources on information architecture (IA). What I came up with was this following checklist of ten items to consider when adding new links to the main menu of your website.

Download Menu Link Standards and Checklist

The checklist has both brief descriptions of things to check for and more details citations of why those things are important. You’ll notice that all my citations come from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). This is because a few years ago I took a course about information architecture for websites as part of my UX certification program from the NNG. During this course, we discussed the main purposes of website menus, the primary one being to help visitors find what they are looking for. On the internet, competitor websites are also just one click away. Therefore, it is important to help visitors find what they are looking for quickly to keep them on the site and engaged with us.

Good menus, says Jakob Nielsen, “improve the navigability of your site [and] by helping users find more, they’ll help you sell more” (see Mega Menus Work Well for Site Navigation). I believe if you and your company strive to follow the guidelines in this document you will achieve just that–users will be able to more easily find your content that they are looking for and your conversions rates will go up.

The following guidelines should help your site, whether your information architecture is the result of research and testing, or if your menu has a less than optimal IA that you inherited and has more influence by company politics than usability best practices. And while I think the checklist is pretty good, that’s not to say it can’t be improved. If you have any suggested edits or additions, please let me know. Thanks.

Here’s the Checklist:

Standard Details Citations
□ Link is truly necessary in menu Too many links in the menu can cause clutter, make things harder to find, and ultimately do more harm than good. Rather than cramming everything into the menu, “Instead, make each top-level menu choice clickable, leading to a regular Web page where you present all dropdown options in plain, fully accessible HTML.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/mega-menus-work-well/

 

□ Link goes to content that is important to end users The menu should reflect content most desired by end-users rather than company internal initiatives. Exceptions may occur but should be rare. “To engage users, website copy must speak to readers and not at them. …Users want to know what the product or service will do for them. …On the web, users are task oriented. They are often looking to answer a question, solve a problem, or find information.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-centric-language/

□ Link is at highest logical place in information architecture A flat shallow menu hierarchy is preferable to deep and narrow one. “Content is more discoverable when it’s not buried under multiple intervening layers. All other things being equal, deep hierarchies are more difficult to use.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/flat-vs-deep-hierarchy/

□ Link is placed where users are most likely to look for it Think like an end user hunting for information. Where would they look first, second, and so forth? “Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/wrong-information-scent-costs-sales/
□ Link text uses words familiar to our audience Avoid using company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive for the average users. “Ideally, jargon and branded terms that aren’t universally understood should be used only within the content pages, where users have context clues to help them understand what the unfamiliar terms mean. Findability is maximized by old, well-known words instead of new, made-up words.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/fixing-bad-intranet-navigation/

□ Link text incorporates high-value SEO keywords. Menu links are among the most crawled by search engines, and their SEO value is high. Do keyword research to find effective terms. “There are many elements to search engine optimization, but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, ‘speak the user’s language.’ Or, more precisely, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/web-writing-use-search-keywords/

□ Link text leads with high-value keywords The highest value keywords should be front-loaded in the menu’s hyperlinked text. “Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice. …They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/
□ Link text accurately describes the destination page Users should easily understand what every link leads to and not be disappointed when they get there. “Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/link-promise/
□ Link text and URL is unique on menu Each link in menu should be unique, both in URL destination and the link text should clearly differentiate itself from other options. “Unclear naming is one of the biggest and most important projects to tackle when it comes to [information architecture]. Each navigation category must be descriptive, specific, and mutually exclusive so that users can pick where to navigate without hesitation.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/intranet-information-architecture-ia/

□ Order of links is as meaningful as possible Menu items should only be in alphabetical order if there is no better way to organize. “Consider: Is there another organizing principle that would be more meaningful? …Usually, there’s another way to organize content that is better than alphabetical organization.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-questions-navigation-menus/

Writing Headlines for the Web

Note: This article was originally written in December 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

writing headlines for the webWhen writing headlines for the Web, copywriters must take everything they have learned about traditional print headlines, and add to that the need to optimize for search and make them usable for Web audiences.  Striking the proper balance between traditional headline strategies, search optimization, and web usability needs will help improve the likelihood that articles will be found, headlines will be read, and articles will be enjoyed by the reading public.

Traditional Headlines

The headline is the first impression made on a prospective reader, so it better be a good impression to keep them reading. The importance of taking the time and effort to write good headlines cannot be overstated, and some say that nothing distinguishes a professional author from an amateur so quickly as the quality of the headlines.

When writing headlines or titles to articles there is a lot to consider.  Well-written headlines must distill the essence of the story, they should grab the readers get attention and lead the reader into the rest of the story.  Without a headline or title that converts a browser into a reader, the rest of the words in the article may as well not even exist.

Search Optimized Headlines

While authors and journalist have traditionally spent a lot of time crafting the perfect headline, if you are writing for the Web, there is even more to consider. In crafting traditional headlines, you can assume that potential readers have already found the article; they have the newspaper or magazine already in hand.  But on the Web, there is a crucial prior step that relies heavily on the headline content: making sure the article gets found. If the article can’t be found by search engines, and by the target readers query on a search engine, then the article may never be found, much less be read by the target audience.

SEOmoz, a leading search engine marketing consultancy firm, ranks the page title as one of the top elements in search engine ranking factors that will boost your article’s findability.  Therefore, the words in the title of your article will have a greater impact than any other on whether or not that article is found by search engines, and consequently, found by the majority of Web surfers who begin their Internet experience at a search engine.

So what does a search optimized headline look like? It is simply one that uses words that people use: words that people search for and scan for. So be sure to do your keyword research to find out what those words and phrases are. And of course, remember to consider information scent.

Usable Headlines

Frequently, search optimized headlines are naturally usable, but not always. With short attention spans and the competition being just one click away, Web headlines must also follow usability guidelines.  Jakob Nielsen, renown Web usability expert, gives the following guidelines for writing web headlines:

  • Keep headlines short because people don’t read much online.
  • Make headlines rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the article.
  • Front-load headlines with the most important keywords, because users often scan only the beginning of headlines.
  • Make headlines understandable out of context, because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results.
  • Create headlines that are predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click it. (People don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver.)

When Search Meets Web Usability

Note: This article was originally written in August 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

When Search Meets Web Usability is a great little book by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica about how to help users find what they are looking for on your website. One of the first things the authors do is to establish that their view that traditional search engine optimization (SEO) should go beyond optimizing content for search engines, and even beyond optimizing content for search engine users. In the book, they talk about search usability, the combination of SEO and web usability, and how it means optimizing the entire experience of finding what you are looking for on the web, regardless of how you search.when search meets web usability

“On the web, it is easy to see why the word search is associated with search engines only…Billions of searches are performed on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live every month. Millions of websites have a site search engine. Therefore, considering the tremendous use of web and site searches, millions of people associate online searching with search engines.”

“However, people do not use only the commercial web search engines to look for content on the web. People might go to a specific web page after they remember a reference from newspaper, billboard, television show, radio program, or even word of mouth…In addition, people might look for web content by clicking a link from an email, text message, or an online advertisement. They also locate web content by clicking links from one site to another, commonly known as surfing or browsing the web…When searching these other ways, we still “search.”

“On the web, search usability refers to how easily users can locate and discover content on a site via retrieval (searching/querying) and navigation (browsing).” When Search Meets Web Usability, pages 2 –3.

The book goes on to talk about information scent in great detail and many other search usability topics. Here are some of my favorites quotes from the book:

Understanding Audience Needs Up Front: “If searchers’ needs and abilities were not considered when determining the requirements, design, and programming of a website, then the site is likely to require more changes and enhancements. Result? Businesses must allocate more staff and/or more staff time to a website to fix problems that should have been addressed before the site was launched.” p. 14

Large Flash Animations and Videos Can Be Distractions: When users are on transactional searches, “don’t delay, diminish, distract from, or hide the scent of information by initiating an action” (p. 70) such as playing a video or displaying a Flash animation. “Many Flash sites appear to be misleading links in search listings because searchers do not see keywords in the search listing also appearing on the landing page.” p. 80

Searching Does Not End When a SERP Result is Clicked: “Searching does not end after a person clicks a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website.” At that point, “they have two choices: They can either stay on your site, or they can abandon it.” p 71-72. Much of that decision rests on the information scent on the landing page.

Place Keywords and Calls to Action Prominently: “Recent studies show that users only read about 20 percent of the words on a web page. Therefore…important keywords and calls to action need to be featured prominently (above the fold) on web pages.” p. 72

Help Visitors Get Oriented: “The presence of easily scanned you are here cues makes users feel your site is trustworthy and credible.” p. 81 “Websites that facilitate scanning and orienting help searchers reach their goals more quickly and efficiently; increasing user confidence, trust, and credibility; and can help sites achieve and maintain top search engine positions.” p. 85

Search Usability Reduces Costs: “The more a call center or customer’s support is resolved online the less need there is to staff a call center or customer service department. That could mean significant savings for a company’s bottom line. Search usability efforts can help control operational expenses by reducing the number of phone calls that customer service receives.” p. 98

Effective Landing Page Designs: “Everything cannot be the most important thing on a web page. Home pages are usually the biggest casualty of the ‘everything is important’ disease…By making everything look equally important, the message you are sending to users is that nothing is important…Additionally, the resulting web page often looks cluttered, which can irritate and confuse site visitors.” p. 110

Write with the Words People Use: Web “copywriters should have access to the results of keyword research to understand what words and phrases users use in  their queries…and scanning, foraging, and browsing on your website. If possible, web copywriters should observe usability tests, talk with focus groups, and have access to other market research noting the words users use to describe products and tasks.” p. 116

Search Usability Impact on your Brand: “The more users are forced to muddle through your website not finding what they are looking for, the more your website communicates a negative brand experience.” p. 117

High Quality of Search Engine Traffic: “Traffic from the commercial web search engines is user initiated, pre-qualified, and task-based. Therefore, [these] users…should be more interested in your content than users who landed on your website by clicking links out of curiosity.” p. 121

Importance of Keyword Research: “Web usability professionals should familiarize themselves with the paid and free keyword research tools.” Through these, “you’ll see the most popular keywords users use to query, keywords usage trends, and variations of keyword phrases users favor.” p. 125

Understand Users Before You Build: “If you don’t take the time to understand your users, you can expect they will abandon your site and go to your competitors’. As a result, a good portion of your website maintenance will go to correcting your lack of user understanding.” p. 126

Focus Groups Are Not Usability Test: “Focus group participants may tell you that they want specific information and functionality on your website, but you really don’t know if that’s true until you usability test…People say one thing, but do another. Therefore, do usability testing if you want to know how users will use your site.” p. 131

Avoiding Unnecessary Features: “Features are only cool if users think they’re cool. Users may find features annoying and distracting. Avoid worshipping the cool. Focus on the useful and relevant.” p. 136

Don’t Start Construction without a Blueprint: “One of the biggest and most common mistakes made when building websites is when graphic designers go straight to [a] graphics program and start designing. This is like a construction company starting to construct a building without a blueprint…Bad information architecture will cripple your [website].” p. 137

Look and Feel are Easy to Change, Information Architecture Is Not: “Look and feel, and the emotions evoked from images, are very important, but those shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of the website information architecture. More thought and discussion is typically put into a photograph that can be easily swapped out than the backbone of the site—the information architecture. This needs to change if search usability is to succeed.” p. 138

Insight by Watching Someone Use Your Site: “Watching a user freely explore your website will open your eyes to stumbling blocks that you may have never considered otherwise.” p. 160

Good Web Sites Require User Feedback: “There are plenty of software applications and tutorials online that will help you technically put together a website. This explains why there are so many mediocre websites. You need to interact with people similar to your users if you want to create a good website.” p. 164

Ignore Users and They’ll Go Away: “You can be apathetic and ignore your users until they go away, or you can be empathetic and help your users, and they will eventually make your site a success.” p. 166