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).

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