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Is Skin Color a Curse by God?
by W. John Walsh
When I first opened your holy eternal Book of Mormon, I read 2 Nephi chapter 5, (specifically verses 21-23). I found it particularly applicable to my situation since my wife happens to be a so-called "Lamanite" descendant as a Mormon acquaintance pointed out. Would you be willing to clarify the current position of the church regarding these verses? It would appear that the term "Lamanite", is or at least was, one of derision. How in the world can you attribute this arrogant, racist attitude to God at any time? It is divisive and certainly does not help anyone.
In spite of the Church's very public stand against prejudice (See Are Mormons Prejudiced?), anti-Mormons often misrepresent LDS scriptures and theology to make it appear that we promote racial intolerance. One of the major points of attack used by anti-Mormons for this false claim is that Latter-day Saints believe that in at least two instances the Lord darkened the skin color of specific individuals. In both cases, the people involved had rebelled against the Lord prior to receiving a darkened skin. Therefore, the anti-Mormons make the argument that Latter-day Saints believe that people with dark skins are inherently evil. However, as will be shown below, not only is this a flawed interpretation, but such an interpretation stands in direct contradiction to the message and teachings of the Church when taken in context.
In the first case, the Bible records that "... the LORD set a mark upon Cain..." (Genesis 4:15) LDS Church leaders have consistently taught that the mark of Cain was a dark skin. Some scriptural support for this interpretation is found in "for the seed of Cain were black" (Moses 7:22)
In the second case, the Book of Mormon teaches that a group of Jews known as the Lamanites also had their skin darkened:
"And [the Lord] had caused the cursing to come upon [the Lamanites], yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto [the Nephites] the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them."
And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. (2 Nephi 5:21-23)
It should be pointed out that there are only two accounts of rebellious persons having their skins darkened by God. On the other hand, we have multitudes of cases where evil men did not have their skins darkened. Therefore, if any lesson can be drawn from Latter-day Saint beliefs, it is that if you rebel against God, you are very unlikely to have your skins darkened.
To set a contextual background, let's define racism. The dictionary states racism is:
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usu. involving the idea that one's own race is superior. 2. a policy, system of government, etc. based on such a doctrine. 3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 1991 edition)
Let's begin by using the Book of Mormon to explain God's view of racism:
[Jesus Christ] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)
Does the Book of Mormon "attribute [an] arrogant, racist attitude to God" as you claim? No, the Lord invites everyone to partake of salvation.
But what about the other verses quoted above? Let's examine them in context so we have a proper understanding of their meaning.
Regarding the mark of Cain, the Bible teaches that
"And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him." (Genesis 4:15)
The mark of Cain was not a part of Cain's punishment. It was actually a protection.
Now let's discuss the "skin of blackness" given to the Lamanites. Who are the Lamanites and Nephites? The majority of the Book of Mormon relates the story of a prophet named Lehi, his wife Sariah, and their descendants. Shortly after their arrival in the promised land, the children of Lehi split into two factions. Each faction was named after it's strongest leader. The Nephites were named after Lehi's son Nephi. The Lamanites were named after Lehi's oldest son Laman.
The first point to be made is that the Nephites and the Lamanites were all members of the same Jewish family. Nephi and Laman were brothers. Therefore, this verse actually has nothing do with inherent differences between white and black races.
Second, these verses do not even say anything about inherent differences between people at all. According to 2 Nephi 5:21, Laman and his followers were cursed "because of their iniquity" and not because because God was indiscriminately prejudiced against them. 2 Nephi 5:21 is found on page 66 in the Book of Mormon. Throughout the first 65 pages of the Book of Mormon, Laman and the family members who followed him continually murmured and rebelled against the Lord. They even tried to murder Nephi and their father Lehi.
It should be noted that since the Lamanites performed many of their evil actions before they received the "skin of blackness" (i.e., when they were the same skin color as their brethren), the Book of Mormon does not teach that their evil actions are correlated with or due to the color of their skins. Their favor with God or lack thereof was due to their attitudes and not their skin color.
One of the major messages of the Book of Mormon is that we prosper when we exercise faith in God and keep his commandments and we are cursed when we fail to do so. I will cite just a few of the many, many examples that are available.
In these verses, Nephi is told that he is blessed because of his faith in Jesus Christ, while his brethren are cut of from the presence of the Lord for rebelling against God:
"And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart. And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord." (1 Nephi 2:19-21)
In these verses, Father Lehi speaks to his rebellious sons Laman and Lemuel:
"My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow from time to time, for I have feared, lest for the hardness of your hearts the Lord your God should come out in the fulness of his wrath upon you, that ye be cut off and destroyed forever; Or, that a cursing should come upon you for the space of many generations; and ye are visited by sword, and by famine, and are hated, and are led according to the will and captivity of the devil.O my sons, that these things might not come upon you, but that ye might be a choice and a favored people of the Lord. But behold, his will be done; for his ways are righteousness forever. And he hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence. (2 Nephi 1:17-20)
Furthermore, while they were still living in Jerusalem, Nephi specifically warned Laman and Lemuel of the consequences of sin by using Joshua and the ancient Israelites as examples:
"And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.
Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it." (1 Nephi 17:33-35)
Therefore, due to their own actions and not because of any inherent differences, the Lamanites were cursed by God. What was the cursing received by Laman and his followers?
One of the favorite techniques of anti-Mormons is to falsely say that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin. They falsely say that Latter-day Saints believe that there is something inherently wrong with someone because he has dark skin. By the dictionary definition of racism, this idea is certainly racist. However, it is not a Latter-day Saint teaching and stands in direct opposition to the Book of Mormon (the keystone of our religion): "... [Jesus Christ] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God ...(2 Nephi 26:33)
According to President Joseph Fielding Smith,
"The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord and the Lamanites becoming a "loathsome and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.'' The Lord commanded the Nephites not to intermarry with them, for if they did they would partake of the curse." (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 3, p.122)
The dark skin given to the Lamanites was simply a physical characteristic to distinguish the Lamanites and Nephites and to keep them from intermarrying. Skin color has no moral significance one way or the other. Why were the Nephites commanded not to intermarry with the Lamanites? For the same reason that Latter-day Saints today are counseled not to date or marry nonmembers of the Church. Latter-day Saints who are married to nonmembers do not enjoy full Church participation, especially temple marriage. Furthermore, their children are far less likely to be faithful members of the Church. (See Dating Nonmembers)
Now let's discuss the concept of racism as it applies to the Lamanites and Nephites through generations of time. Were the descendants of Nephi always good, righteous, and blessed of God? Were the descendants of Laman always evil, wicked, and cursed by God?
No, actually there were times when specific Lamanite individuals and entire groups of Lamanite people were pronounced just as righteous and favored of God as most Nephites. In addition, at the end of the Book of Mormon, the entire Lamanite people were more righteous than the Nephites. Let's give a few examples.
The Nephite prophet Ammon gave this praise to a Lamanite queen:
"And Ammon said unto her: Blessed art thou because of thy exceeding faith; I say unto thee, woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites." (Alma 19:10)
One of the greatest prophets in the Book of Mormon was a Lamanite who was sent by God to preach to the Nephites who had fallen away from the paths of righteousness:
"And it came to pass that in this year there was one Samuel, a Lamanite, came into the land of Zarahemla [a Nephite land], and began to preach unto the people. And it came to pass that he did preach, many days, repentance unto the people..." (Helaman 13:2)
One of the most righteous people in the Book of Mormon were a group of Lamanites called the People of Ammon:
"And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace." (Alma 24:19)
"And they were also distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end." (Alma 27:27)
"And thus they were a zealous and beloved people, a highly favored people of the Lord." (Alma 27:30)
On the other hand, the most wicked people in the Book of Mormon were always Nephites who had entered into apostasy. After reciting some terrible deeds committed by apostate Nephites, the commentator states:
"And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things." (Alma 24:30)
In the final battles between the Nephites and Lamanites, the prophet Mormon makes this comparison between the Nephites and Lamanites:
"And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of [the Nephites] in Moriantum." (Moroni 9:9)
Also, at one point the following comparison is made between the Nephites and Lamites:
"AND it came to pass that when the sixty and second year of the reign of the judges had ended, all these things had happened and the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites, because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith.
For behold, there were many of the Nephites who had become hardened and impenitent and grossly wicked, insomuch that they did reject the word of God and all the preaching and prophesying which did come among them." (Helaman 6:1-2)
In summary, the Book of Mormon flatly condemns racism by stating that all are alike unto God and are invited to partake of salvation, specifically including blacks. Nephi and Laman, the leaders of the Nephites and Lamanites respectively, were brothers in the same Jewish family. Therefore the verses in question have nothing to do with inherent differences between races. The "skin of blackness" was simply a distinguishing characteristic to keep the Church-going Nephites from marrying the worldly Lamanites. It has no moral significance.
The actual curse was withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord due to their own iniquity. This curse applied to both the Nephites and the Lamanites equally, depending upon their behavior at the time. When the Lamanites repented of their sins, they were loved and blessed by God. On the other hand, when the Nephites apostatized from the truth they were cursed and rejected by God. In fact, at the end of the Book of Mormon, the Lord allowed the Lamanites to utterly destroy the Nephite civilization because the Nephites were so wicked and perverse. Therefore, one of the great messages of the Book of Mormon is that your skin color has nothing to do with your status with God. "Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God." (1 Nephi 17:35)
(See Are Mormons Prejudiced?; Blacks home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)
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