Racism and the scriptures


Do the scriptures promote racism?

First Gabon Baptisms, photo by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

No, the scriptures contain explicit condemnation of disparaging those who are foreign.

The scriptures contain specific language affirming the equality of all people before God. Just a small sampling:

The Challenging Texts

Interracial Marriage

The majority of the texts of the Bible for which racism is claimed have to do with interracial marriage. These passages are concerned not about different races but rather the worship of different gods. All idolatry and worshipping of other gods was strictly forbidden to all Israelites on the penalty of death (Exodus 20꞉5 22꞉20). This is the focus of every passage dealing with intermarriage.

Here we see the Lord’s preliminary commands to Israel for the conquest of Canaan. Verse 3 states:

Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away they son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly ((emphasis added)).

Numbers 5 is another example of the discouragement of intermarriage based upon fears of apostasy. The chapter begins by indicating that Israel began to commit whoredoms with the daughters of Moab and that the Moabites seduced Israelite men into orgiastic adultery and worship of Baal, leading to the death of the Moabites and some of the Israelite heads. Because the wrath of God is not turned away by following God’s command to execute a few, a plague follows (see 25꞉8-9; cf. 25꞉18; 31꞉8-16).

The second story follows the beginning of this plague. Zimri, an Israelite man, marries Cozbi, a "Midianitish woman" ('Midianitish' is translated simply as 'Midianite' in the NIV, NET, and NRSV). Phinehas, an Israelite man, slays Zimri and Cozbi with a spear (translated as "javelin" in the KJV). The plague is turned away but it is recorded that roughly 24,000 had died. The Lord declares he (Phinehas) "hath turned my wrath away from the Children of Israel…" He then rewards him with a "covenant of peace" interpreted as a covenant of "everlasting priesthood." By turning away the idolatry and harlotry away from Israel, God was pleased.

Nehemiah contains prohibitions against Moabites and Ammonites entering the congregation of the Lord. Both Deuteronomy and Nehemiah state that this prohibition is "forever." Deuteronomy is the first to mention the prohibition against Moabites and Ammonites. Genesis 12꞉3 implies judgement on those who do wrong against Israel. Deuteronomy gives the actual rationale for the prohibition in 23꞉4

Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, and because they hired against thee Mesopotamia, to curse thee. Nevertheless the Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD they God loved thee.

The prohibition was not because Israel was racist. Rather, it was that Israel had to have the Moabites and/or Ammonites accept Yahweh and be genuine worshippers of him.[1]

For instance, "[s]ome scholars believe that the book of Ruth was written (or, at least, finalized) during or just after [the fifth-fourth centuries before Christ." Ruth the Moabitess was allowed into the congregation and her story entered the canon with its "protest or caution against overemphasis on racial purity. Ruth, a Moabite woman — the Moabites were despised neighbors of Israel — converts to the religion of the Israelites, marries into Israel, and becomes the ancestor of the royal house of David and, thereby, of the Messiah himself."[2]

The Jews as a "Chosen People"

Some have seen the Jews being a "chosen people" as a type of ethnocentrism and racism. Yet, the Jews were to preserve the covenant that intended to eventually bless "all the families of the earth." (Genesis 12꞉3; 28꞉14). This flawed view also disregards passages that provide explicit injunctions for the inclusion of foreigners among the Israelites such as has been listed above.

The Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman

Some have criticized the Savior for being a "racist" for the encounters with the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman of Matthew 5 and Mark 7. This has been addressed thoroughly by Evangelical apologist Tim Barnett.


Some have criticized certain passages of scripture that are claimed to promote anti-semitism. These passages include Matthew 23꞉31-35; 1 Thessalonians 2꞉14-16; Acts 2꞉22-36; 3:15; 10:39; John 8꞉44; Titus 1꞉10-11; Titus 5꞉16; and 2 Nephi 10꞉3.

These passages have been used by Christians in the past to justify prejudiced sentiments, overt mistreatment, and reprehensible violence towards Jews. That cannot be disputed.

What can be disputed is that there is the only way to understand these passages. One way to interpret them is to remember that they all relate specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Readers have and should always keep mentally separate the larger group of people from the specific people who act in evil ways. All races, nations, religions, and cultural groups contain contain some individuals who act in terrible, evil ways.

The Book of Mormon is actually one of the best guides in this regard as has been demonstrated by author Bradley J. Kramer.[3]

Regarding 2 Nephi 10꞉3-5 specifically, Kramer observes:

[D]uring the rare times when the prophets in the Book of Mormon do attempt to identify Jesus' killers, they do so sing vague terms such as "the world" or "wicked men" (1 Nephi 19꞉7-10), or they employ phrases that while they may appear at first to indict all Jews everywhere actually absolve the vast majority of Jews of any involvement in Jesus's [sic] death. Jacob's "they at Jerusalem" (2 Nephi 10꞉5), for example, may seem to some readers unfamiliar with Jewish history to prophesy that the Jews in general will crucify Jesus. These readers link this phrase with "the Jews" in verse 3 and see it as both affirming and intensifying Jewish culpability. To them, the statement that "there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God" seems to damn all Jews everywhere.

However, only a relatively small percentage of the world's Jews in the first century lived in Jerusalem and the area around it. During the time of Jesus, most Jews were still residing in Babylon or were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean, in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus. These "diaspora" Jews were the descendants of the vast number of Jews who did not return to their ancient homeland after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and instead took advantage of the new opportunities afforded them by their conquerors to spread themselves throughout the region.

Indeed, David Klinghoffer, a Jewish historian and essayist, estimates that during Jesus's time there were about a million Jews living in "Jewish Palestine" while five million Jews were dispersed around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. Other scholars, such as Samuel Sandmel, think that this 5:1 ratio could have been even higher, possibly even 10 to 1. And Jerusalem was only one city in this "Jewish Palestine." As a result, "they at Jerusalem" instead of prophetically spreading the responsibility of Jesus's death to all Jews everywhere actually limits it to a small segment of the overall Jewish population...

But were all Jews living in the 1st century Jerusalem responsible for Jesus's death? Not according to the Book of Mormon. Just as the subject of 2 Nephi 10꞉5 prophetically reduces the number of Jews who will be involved in Jesus's death to a small fraction of the Jews living during the first third of the first century CE, its predicate softens what that involvement will be. Here, "they shall crucify him" of verse 3 becomes "they ... will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified." In other words, not only will a small number of Jews contribute to Jesus's death sometime in the future but their contribution will also be small—possibly consisting only of an unwillingness to speak up against it or a reluctance to challenge publicly those pushing it. Furthermore, as the introductory phrase of 2 Nephi 10꞉5 points out, whatever these people will (or will not) do will occur not because of an informed, deep-seated, conscious conviction but "because of priestcrafts and iniquities." In other words, many of these first-century Jerusalemites will be manipulated, psychologically or physically, by corrupt priests and leaders. Consequently, it is these Jewish priests and leaders who bear most of the non-Roman responsibility for Jesus's death, not the general Jewish populace.

[. . .]

In this way, by analogy, the Book of Mormon renders a verdict as to who was responsible for Jesus's death. Ruling decision-makers, mostly Roman, are clearly guilty, as are to some degree their advisors, those who pressed for his death. However, the general population of Jerusalem was not. And neither were the vast majority of Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem. Some Jewish leaders at that time were most likely involved in Jesus's death in some way or other and therefore bear some guilt, but given the methods used to execute him, even they cannot, strictly speaking, be called Christ-killers. Since only Romans crucified people, that term can only be applied to Romans—not to Jews then and certainly not now.[4]

One may be able to hedge on Kramer's interpretation of Jacob 1꞉3-5. For example:

  • "Priestcrafts" could refer to Jewish leaders but it could also be referred to generally as those that set themselves up as a "'light unto the world,' in order to 'get gain and praise' without concern for the welfare of [God's people] (2 Nephi 26꞉29; cf. Alma 1꞉16; 3 Nephi 18꞉24)."[5]
  • "Iniquities" is ambiguous since it could refer to the priests, Roman leaders, the general populace, a small subsection of the general populace, or some other combination of them. Whose iniquities are we referring to? The question remains unanswerable.
  • The references to "nation" and "they at Jerusalem" could refer to 1st century AD Jerusalem but could also refer to 7th century BC Jerusalem with no diaspora Jews—thus the entire race of Jews could be condemned. Under this line of logic, the Lehites would have felt prejudice towards those at Jerusalem who chased them out of their land and thus Jacob here would be issuing a polemic against them. The Jews are those most guilty for being complicit, orchestrating, and/or facilitating in any other way the death of Jesus. If one adopts this interpretation, then the only response would be to suggest that this is a hyperbolic yet mistaken indictment. This wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for Latter-day Saints since the faults of men may affect the Book of Mormon record without affecting its over-all value and authenticity.

All this said, Kramer's argument still works within the syntactical structure of the verses as a fully-viable interpretive possibility—demonstrating that some measured skepticism should be had towards those that seek togive these verses only one possible interpretation: the most negative possible.

The Book of Mormon condemns persecution of the Jews specifically

Even if we argue that Jacob is here mistakenly indicting many/all Jews for Jesus' death, the Book of Mormon still will not let us use that as an argument for any type of antisemitism.

Following the Savior's visit to the Americas, the reader is warned:

Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn. Therefore ye need not suppose that ye can turn the right hand of the Lord unto the left, that he may not execute judgment unto the fulfilling of the covenant which he hath made unto the house of Israel ({[s|3|Nephi|29|8-9}}).

If one is not to "hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews," one can hardly be justified in persecuting them, disparaging them, or accusing them of being "Christ-killers," much less in inflicting violence upon them.

Nephi was even more explicit, quoting the Lord himself toward Christians:

But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?

O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people (2 Nephi 29꞉4-5).

Here the Lord condemns those who have "cursed," "hated," and "not sought to recover" the Jews. He calls the Christians "fools," for their lack of gratitude to the Jews, and the Lord praises the Jews' "travails ... labors ... pains ... "diligence unto [God]", in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentile" Christians.

Clearly, any antisemitism is forbidden any believer in the Book of Mormon. This may, in fact, be the most explicit prohibition on antisemitism in any scriptural text in the world's religions.

"Skin of blackness" on Lamanites and the racist perception of the Nephites?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #57: What Does it Mean to be a White and Delightsome People? (Video)

Some have claimed that the "skin of blackness" on the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5꞉21) is the result of a type of racism that the Nephites practiced against blacks.

According to this reading of the Book of Mormon, Nephi says that the Lamanites were cursed by God with a literal skin of blackness and that their skins literally changed in their melanin content from lighter to darker. Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles specifically disavowed this interpretation of 2 Nephi 5 on behalf of the Church in January 2020.[6]

Additionally, this is not the only possible interpretation of the verses. It does not even hold the distinction of being even the most likely interpretation of these verses:

  • Brant Gardner has marshalled evidence to suggest that these verses and others that refer to skin in the Book of Mormon refer to moral/spiritual purity that led to a change in countenance.[7]
  • Ethan Sproat argues that references to skin color are in fact references to "a kind of authoritative garment. The relevant texts further lend themselves to associating such garment-skins with both the Nephite temple and competing Lamanite claims to kingship."[8]
  • Community of Christ author Adam Stokes has provided Semitic background as a potentially helpful interpretive aid to the Book of Mormon's passages on darkness/blackness.[9]
  • Gerrit M. Steenblik argues that references to skin in the Book of Mormon refer to "an ancient Maya body paint tradition, chiefly for warfare, hunting, and nocturnal raiding. This discovery shifts possible explanations from the Old World to the New and suggests that any ‘mark’ upon Book of Mormon people may have been self-applied."[10] Steenblik’s explanation enjoys a lot of popularity among scholars of the Book of Mormon.
  • David M. Belnap has outlined other possibilities for interpreting and understanding these passages from the Book of Mormon in a long, beautiful paper in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship on the inclusive, anti-discriminatory message of the Book of Mormon.[11]
  • Jan J. Martin argues "that all four of the Lamanite descriptors in 2 Nephi 5cut off, cursed, skin of blackness, and loathsome—are best understood from within a covenant perspective, specifically from within the ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal covenant relationship that God made with Lehi's family."[12]
  • Clifford P. Jones argues that the dark mark was "a sacrilegious, permanent mark made by incision (an ancient tattoo) which, under the law of Moses, represented rebellion against God and his laws."[13]
  • Another way to look at this might be to look at how Egyptians labeled their enemies. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt notes that, in their murals and other iconography, Egyptians used to colorize foreigners and their enemies as black even when they were not black since "[w]ithin the scheme of Egyptian/non-Egyptian skin color, black was not desirable for ordinary humans[.]" The color black "marked out figures as foreign, as enemies of Egypt, and ultimately as representatives of chaos; black thereby contrasted with its positive meaning elsewhere."[14] Something similar may very well be going on in the Book of Mormon.

No racial superiority

Even if we are speaking about a literal skin change, the Book of Mormon does not argue that the Nephites are inherently superior because of their white skin as racism entails. 2 Nephi 26꞉33 immediately refutes such a reading. The skin was applied to the Lamanites because the Lord did not want the Lamanites to be sexually appealing to the Nephites, thus preventing the Nephites' children from being drawn into Lamanite beliefs and cultural practices. If any Lamanites repent, the curse was removed from them. The "curse" is thus about moral responsibility, not stratifying people as different races and assigning them less or more inherent moral worth. (In fact, the Lamanites are at times described as more righteous than the Nephites, not withstanding their apostasy and wicked ways—Jacob 3꞉5-9.

Not the 19th century view

A related criticism argues that the supposed racism stems from Joseph Smith's racist 19th century worldview, and that he was injecting it into the Book of Mormon. Unsurprisingly, there are problems with this reading.

The first is that the Book of Mormon does not exhibit 19th century attitudes toward Native Americans. Author Jeremy Talmage has astutely observed that if the Book of Mormon were to assign any racial categorization to Native Americans, they would have been described as "red" and not "black".[15]

No fixed, immutable "races"

The second problem is that, as non Latter-day Saint historian Max Perry Mueller observes, the Book of Mormon overturns many then-popular conceptions regarding race. Chief among these is the fact that the Book of Mormon does not see race as immutable.

In Mueller's view, "the Book of Mormon taught its earliest believers that race was not real, that is, race was not a permanent part of God's vision for humanity."[16] The Book of Mormon says that if the Lamanites repented, they would be changed (under the literal interpretation) from their darker skin to their lighter skin (2 Nephi 5꞉22). This was a mark placed on the Lamanites due to their own actions (compare Alma 3꞉13-19) and not a permanent race (and especially not race as conceived in antebellum America).

Darkness on the Canaanites (Moses 7)

Moses 7 is part of a vision of the prophet Enoch. Verses 8 and 22 have caused some concern for some. The texts state:

8 For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.

22 And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

Author Stephen O. Smoot explains clearly why these verses should not be interpreted as referring to a literal change in skin color.

The text describes a curse of barrenness upon the land of the people of Canaan as well as a "blackness" covering the people. The curse applies only to the land, however, with no mention of a curse upon the pre-Flood Canaanites themselves. The "blackness" of the people of Canaan is never explicitly depicted in a racialized manner (that is, as speaking of skin color). Elsewhere in the text, "blackness" is used to describe the presence of Satan in contrast to the brilliant glory of God, suggesting that a spiritual or metaphorical reading of the "blackness" of the Canaanites and the descendants of Cain (Moses 7꞉22) is to be preferred. (See the commentary at 1:15.) Modern leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have officially rejected any racist interpretations of these and related passages of scripture that attempt to link personal worthiness and value in the eyes of God with skin color.[17]

Author Adam Stokes has also proposed alternative, informed, non-racist readings of the Book of Moses' passages at length.[18]

That race that was cursed according to the Priesthood (Abraham 1꞉24-27)

Some have held that the Book of Abraham preserves doctrines of the African race being cursed by God relevant to the priesthood. Stephen O. Smoot has pointed out the main problems with this interpretation.

These verses have in the past been (mis)read to justify a ban on men of African descent from holding the priesthood, even though the text says nothing about the curse and priesthood restriction being associated with skin color. From the immediate context it is apparent that the issue is more along the lines of rightful priesthood succession rather than skin color (compare Abraham 1꞉3-4, 25-27, 31). The racist reading of these verses that links worthiness to hold the priesthood with skin color has been officially rejected by modern leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[19]

Following along Smoot's line of thought, Latter-day Saint egyptologist John S. Thompson has demonstrated at considerable length and detail why the racist interpretation of the Book of Abraham is incorrect.[20]

As can be seen, claims of the scriptures being racist generally lack context and depth.


  1. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense Of The Old Testament God (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2011) Ebook loc 313. Copan cites Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary 2 (Nashville: B & H Publishing Company, 2008) 478; John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 618.
  2. Daniel C. Peterson, "A note on race and ethnicity in the scriptures," Sic Et Non, June 8, 2020, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2020/06/a-note-on-race-and-ethnicity-in-the-scriptures.html.
  3. Bradley J. Kramer, Gathered in One: How the Book of Mormon Counters Anti-Semitism in the New Testament (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2019).
  4. Kramer, Gathered in One, 54–55, 57. Kramer cites the following in order: (6) David Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 44. (7) Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005), 19–20.
  5. Terry B. Ball, "Priestcraft," Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 656.
  6. Gary E. Stevenson, "At NAACP Luncheon, Elder Stevenson Reiterates ‘All Are Alike Unto God’; Addresses Printing Error in ‘Come, Follow Me’ Regarding Race," LDS Living, 21 January 2020.
  7. Brant Gardner, "What Does the Book of Mormon Mean by ‘Skin of Blackness’?" FAIR Publications, accessed 20 March 2022.
  8. Ethan Sproat, "Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 138–165.
  9. Adam Oliver Stokes, "’Skin’ or ‘Scales’ of Blackness? Semitic Context as Interpretive Aid for [https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/4?lang=eng&id=p35#p35 2 Nephi 4꞉35 (LDS 5:21)]," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 27 (2018): 278–89.
  10. Gerrit M. Steenblik, "Demythicizing the Lamanites' 'Skin of Blackness'," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 49/7 (10 December 2021). [167–258] link
  11. {{Interpreter:Belnap:The Inclusive Anti-discrimination Message Of The Book Of:2021}
  12. Jan J. Martin, "The Prophet Nephi and the Covenantal Nature of Cut Off, Cursed, Skin of Blackness, and Loathsome," in They Shall Grow Together: The Bible in the Book of Mormon, ed. Charles Swift and Nicholas J. Frederick (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2022), 108 (107–41).
  13. Clifford P. Jones, "Understanding the Lamanite Mark," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 56/5 (5 May 2023). [173–258] link
  14. Gay Robins, "Color Symbolism," in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, ed. Donald B. Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:293.
  15. Jeremy Talmage, "Black, White, and Red All Over: Skin Color in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 28, no. 1 (2019): 49–50, 52–54, 67.
  16. Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 33; cited in Talmage, "Skin Color," 49.
  17. Stephen O. Smoot, The Pearl of Great Price: A Study Edition for Latter-day Saints (Springville, UT: Book of Mormon Central, 2022), 38.
  18. Adam Stokes, "The People of Canaan: A New Reading of Moses 7," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 47/6 (17 September 2021). [159–180] link.
  19. Ibid., 61.
  20. John S. Thompson, "'Being of that Lineage': Generational Curses and Inheritance in the Book of Abraham," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 54 (2022): 97–146.