The Lamanite curse

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The Lamanite curse

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The presence of race and skin color in the Book of Mormon

Scholars Joseph Spencer and Nicholas J. Frederick offered insight into the presence of race and skin color in the Book of Mormon:

Recent years have seen a noticeable uptick in the frequency of publications on race in the Book of Mormon. The fact of the matter is that, however one tries to make sense of individual passages that are (or at least appear to be) about race, they look deeply problematic through twenty-first-century eyes. Many discussions on the topic boil down to asking how to interpret references in 2 Nephi 5 to a “mark” and a “curse” being placed on the Lamanites. Statements by Church leaders have tended to try to soften the correlation between the imposition of a “curse” and the text’s talk of a “skin of blackness” while still leaving space for literal interpretation. And so, in the minds of most believing readers, the Book of Mormon’s references to “black” and “white” skin are generally taken to be literal, referring to pigmentation: the Nephites physically possess light, “white” skin, and the Lamanites physically possess a dark or “black” skin. Readers perhaps most commonly imagine Laman and Lemuel as being initially white but then becoming dark after the Lord enacts a demonstrative change.

Of course, the existence of differently colored peoples would not in and of itself be a problem, especially if they were to live in harmony, appreciative of any differences among them. But various passages in the Book of Mormon seem straightforwardly to tie skin color to certain cultural and spiritual values, and dark skin is associated with striking frequency with spiritually negative values—many of them tied to classically racist and racializing tropes about things like laziness and savagery. In addition, certain passages suggest that dark-skinned individuals who come to Christ lose their dark skin and acquire white skin, suggesting that whiteness is a kind of moral standard for the Book of Mormon. These passages are troubling to believers who follow modern prophets in denouncing racism, and they’re often taken by twenty-first-century readers to be clear indications that the Book of Mormon had its origins in the nineteenth century’s racially charged atmosphere but also that they’re clear indications that the book is morally dangerous and uninspired.

Various approaches to these issues have been taken by believing and unbelieving readers of the Book of Mormon. Historical or even anthropological approaches have argued that the texts can be explained in terms of Lamanite intermarriage with other ancient American peoples hailing from different parts of the world, coupled with classic Nephite distrust of an outsider group. This approach is interesting, although it has to be said that it leaves the Nephites (especially and including their prophets, who write the troubling passages) in an ethically compromised position. Rather different readers have argued that the words “white” and “black” aren’t used to refer to skin colors in any literal sense; instead, they’re used symbolically as in many ancient cultures, to refer to what’s valued as good or righteous over against what’s disvalued as evil or wicked. This seems to remove literal questions of race, but some respond to this approach that it problematically leaves “whiteness” in a normative position, still the standard by which “blackness” is measured and found wanting. Still other approaches explore the possibility that what’s “white” and “black” in the text is clothing, animal “skins” rather than human flesh.

We’re ourselves disinclined toward symbolic approaches of these last several sorts, except in certain texts where the words “white” or “dark” are clearly used metaphorically (as in Jacob 3:8–10 or 3 Nephi 19:24–25). Even in those passages, the fact that whiteness becomes a standard remains problematic from a twenty-first-century perspective. In most passages, it seems clear to us that “white” and “black” indeed refer to skin pigmentation, so there really are serious and difficult race problems within the Book of Mormon. In our view, however, this makes the Book of Mormon more rather than less relevant to the twenty-first century. The book shows us what it looks like when a people develops systemic racism, with Nephites rejecting Lamanites simply because of the color of their skin (something at least a few Nephite prophets directly point out and criticize—most especially Jacob). What we’re reading when we read the Book of Mormon is a long and deeply relevant history of wickedness that ultimately ends in destruction, while the racially out-of-favor are slowly revealed to be a chosen and preserved people. The last prophet, Mormon, asks us to hear at length a dark-skinned prophet, the remarkable Samuel—who’s strikingly underappreciated in our collective reading. Along with some other recent readers, then, we find in the Book of Mormon a richly cautionary tale regarding racism and racialism. The book invites us to recognize, with the Nephite prophets at their most clear-sighted moments, that God invites all to come to him, “black or white” (2 Nephi 26:33). This is a book that might well teach us about racism and racialization, if we’re open to asking it to show us the consequences of such things.[1]

Question: What was the Lamanite curse?

The Book of Mormon talks of a curse being placed upon the Lamanites

And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, 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 my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. 2 Nephi 5꞉21

It is claimed by some that the Church believed that Lamanites who accepted the Gospel would become light-skinned, and that "Mormon folklore" claims that Native Americans and Polynesians carry a curse based upon "misdeeds on the part of their ancestors."

One critic asks, "According to the Book of Mormon a dark skin is a curse imposed by God on the unrighteous and their descendants as a punishment for sin. Do you agree with that doctrine? (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 12:22-23, Alma 3:6, 2 Nephi 5:21-22, Jacob 3:8, 3 Nephi 2:15-16, Mormon 5:15; references to the "Lamanites" are taken to be referring to Native American "Indians".)" [2]

Although the curse of the Lamanites is often associated directly with their skin color, it may be that this was intended in a far more symbolic sense than modern American members traditionally assumed

The curse itself came upon them as a result of their rejection of the Gospel. It was possible to be subject to the curse, and to be given a mark, without it being associated with a change in skin color, as demonstrated in the case of the Amlicites. The curse is apparently a separation from the Lord. A close reading of the Book of Mormon text makes it untenable to consider that literal skin color was ever the "curse." At most, the skin color was seen as a mark, and it may well have been that these labels were far more symbolic and cultural than they were literal.

Question: What is the difference between the "curse" and the "mark" of the Lamanites?

The curse and the mark are two distinct things

The Bible does indeed use the word curse to describe a punishment to be inflicted as the result of disobedience to God’s commandments. For example, in Deuteronomy we see:

The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. Deuteronomy 28:20

John A. Tvedtnes notes the distinction between the curse and the mark that the Lord set upon the Lamanites. [3]

Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them. Alma 3꞉14 (emphasis added)

Referring to the passage above, Tvedtnes notes the distinction between the Lamanites having been cursed and having the mark set upon them. The Book of Mormon, however, sometimes does call the mark a curse, as shown in Alma 3:6-7.

And 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 and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men. And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed; and the Lord God set a mark upon them, yea, upon Laman and Lemuel, and also the sons of Ishmael, and Ishmaelitish women. Alma 3꞉6-7 (emphasis added)

Although this passage refers to the mark as the curse, it later makes a distinction between the curse and the mark. These passages also indicate that the curse was applied prior to the mark. [4]

The curse applied to the Lamanites was that they were cut off from the presence of the Lord

Tvedtnes suggests that curse applied to the Lamanites was that they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Nephi states:

Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. 2 Nephi 5꞉20

A group of Nephites who joined the Lamanites illustrates. Their skin color was not changed because of their rejection of the Gospel but the curse was applied to them. Hugh Nibley describes the situation of the Amlicites:

Thus we are told (Alma 3꞉13-14,Alma 2꞉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, and "the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves; . . . it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them" (Alma 3꞉18). Here God places his mark on people as a curse, yet it is an artificial mark which they actually place upon themselves. The mark was not a racial thing but was acquired by "whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites" (Alma 3꞉10). [5]

The mark may vary from group to group

As shown above, the mark may vary from group to group. The Amlicites marked themselves, and this was taken by the Nephites as a sign of divine "marking."

Many LDS have traditionally assumed that the "mark" was a literal change in racial skin color. There are certainly verses which can be read from this perspective. A key question, however, is whether modern members read the Book of Mormon's ideas through their own society's preoccupations and perspectives. American society was (and, to an extent, continues to be) convulsed over issues regarding race, especially black slavery and its consequences.

As a result, nineteenth- and twentieth-century members may have read as literal passages which were far less literal to the Nephites. Douglas Campbell has completed an exhaustive review of all such references in the Book of Mormon. [6] He found that there were twenty-eight usages of the word "white" or "whiteness" in the Book of Mormon. He divided them into several categories:

  1. Clothing: symbols of purity or cleanness
  2. Fruit (of tree of life): luminosity or holiness
  3. Stone (clear and white): literally white stones are not clear, they are opaque. Thus, white is again a term for holiness or luminosity
  4. Hair (black or white): a single mention (based on the KJV Sermon on the Mount) uses the term as an allegory or symbol
  5. Jesus, his mother Mary, or those made pure by him: exquisite, radiant, awe-inspiring
  6. Gentiles: all Gentiles, thus not about skin color but beautiful, pure, and righteous
  7. The saved: pure, holy, without spot
  8. As a pair of contrasts (black and white, bond and free): sets of opposites
  9. Nephites: See below

Thus, virtually all other uses of the white/black terminology reflects symbolic or spiritual states, not literal color. It is likely that Nephites would not have had the modern American "preoccupation" with skin color, and so would not be burdened with our tendency to see references about skin to automatically imply race.

Thus, concludes Campbell:

White-skinned Nephites and black-skinned Lamanites are metaphors for cultures, not for skin colour. The church teaches that the descendants of the Lamanites inhabited the Americas when Columbus arrived. But Lamanites are not black-skinned; they are not even red-skinned. As the “skin of blackness” is a metaphor, so too is the white skin of the Nephites. Perhaps 3 Nephi 2꞉15-16, in which the Lamanites have the curse taken from them, fulfills 2 Nephi 30꞉6. In these verses the Lamanite has become “white and delightsome” not “pure and delightsome.”

I do not believe the Lord changed their physical skin to white in the twinkling of an eye. These Lamanites...became cultural Nephites.

Many languages have such color labels for non-visual matters. As Steven Pinker of the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT noted:

It's convention, not color vision, that tells us that a sick Caucasian is green, a cold one blue, and a scared one yellow. [7]

There are also instances in which skin color does not play a role, when it should—if the skin color change is literal and noticeable

There are also instances in which skin color does not play a role, when it should—if the skin color change is literal and noticeable. This should suggest that the literal skin model may be inadequate, since it makes nonsense of a few textual passages.

For example, Captain Moroni wanted to portray his men as being "Lamanites." He searched among his troops for someone descended from Laman, and found someone. Moroni sent this man with a troop of Nephite soldiers, and he was able to deceive the Lamanites:

Now the Nephites were guarded in the city of Gid; therefore Moroni appointed Laman and caused that a small number of men should go with him. And when it was evening Laman went to the guards who were over the Nephites, and behold, they saw him coming and they hailed him; but he saith unto them: Fear not; behold, I am a Lamanite. Behold, we have escaped from the Nephites, and they sleep; and behold we have taken of their wine and brought with us. Now when the Lamanites heard these words they received him with joy...(Alma 55꞉7-9.)

If skin color is the issue, then a single Lamanite with a group of Nephites should be easy to spot. But, in this case, it is not. Why, then, the need for a Lamanite at all in Moroni's plan?

A "native" Lamanite was probably needed because there were differences in language or pronunciation between cultural Nephites and Lamanites (compare between Ephraim and others' shibboleth, Judges 12:6). Note that the Book of Mormon says that "when the Lamanites heard these words," they relaxed and accepted the Lamanite decoy with his Nephite troops. What they could see had not changed, and surely if a dark-skinned Lamanite shows up with a white-skinned bunch of Nephites, they would be suspicious no matter what he said. But, if Nephites and Lamanites are indistinguishable on physical grounds if dressed properly, then their sudden reassurance when a native Lamanite speaks is understandable.

This fact was probably obvious to Mormon and Captain Moroni. The text does not spell it out for us (since it was obvious to the writers), but the clues are all there for the careful reader.

This passage is nonsensical if literal skin color is the issue. It makes perfect sense, however, if Nephites and Lamanites are often physically indistinguishable, but have some differences in language which are difficult to "fake" for a non-(cultural)-Lamanite. [8]

Question: Did some Church leaders believe that the skin of the Lamanites would turn white?

Some Church leaders, most notably Spencer W. Kimball, made statements indicating that they believed that the Indians were becoming "white and delightsome"

Once such statement made by Elder Kimball in the October 1960 General Conference, 15 years before he became president of the Church:

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. [9]

President Kimball felt that the Indians were becoming a “white and delightsome” people through the power of God as a result their acceptance of the Gospel. This was not an uncommon belief at the time. At the time that this statement was made by Elder Kimball, the Book of Mormon did indeed say "white and delightsome." This passage is often quoted relative to the lifting of the curse since the phrase "white and delightsome" was changed to "pure and delightsome" in the 1840 (and again in the 1981) editions of the Book of Mormon. The edit made by Joseph Smith in 1840 in which this phrase was changed to "pure and delightsome" had been omitted from subsequent editions, which were actually based upon the 1837 edition rather than the 1840 edition. The modification was not restored again until the 1981 edition with the following explanation:

Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Is the lifting of the curse associated with a change in skin color?

The Lamanites are promised that if they return to Christ, that "the scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes:"

And the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them; wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers.

And then shall they rejoice; 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.2 Nephi 30꞉5-6

The Book of Mormon indicates that the lifting of the curse of the Lamanites was the removal of the "scales of darkness" from their eyes

It seems evident from the passage in 2 Nephi that the lifting of the curse of the Lamanites was the removal of the "scales of darkness" from their eyes. It is sometimes indicated that Lamanites who had converted to the Gospel and thus had the curse lifted also had the mark removed. If the mark was more in the eyes of the Nephites than in a physical thing like actual skin color, its removal is even more easily understood.

And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year. 3 Nephi 2꞉15-16

As with the invocation of the curse followed by the application of the mark, this passage indicates that the curse was revoked and the mark was removed when the Lamanites' skin "became white like unto the Nephites." The Book of Mormon makes no mention of any change in skin color as the result of the conversion of Helaman's 2000 warriors, yet these Lamanites and their parents had committed themselves to the Lord, and were often more righteous than the Nephites were.

Thus, although a change in skin color is sometimes mentioned in conjunction with the lifting of the curse, it does not appear to always have been the case. And, as discussed above, it may well be that Nephite ideas about skin were more symbolic or rhetorical than literal/racial. This perspective harmonizes all the textual data, and explains some things (like the native Lamanite and his band of Nephite troops deceiving the Lamanites) that a literal view of the skin color mark does not.

Leaders were probably unaware of a change made by Joseph Smith to the first edition text

Joseph Smith altered the phrase "white and delightsome" (in 2 Nephi 30꞉6) to "pure and delightsome" in the second edition of the Book of Mormon. This change was lost to LDS readers until the 1981 edition of the scriptures. It may, however, demonstrate that Joseph Smith intended the translation to refer to spiritual state, not literal skin color per se.

Question: Does the Book of Mormon scripture "he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female" (2 Nephi 26:33) refer to race?

A comparison of three examples from the Book of Mormon shows that the words "black" and "white" in this context mean "wicked" and "righteous"

Marvin Perkins notes a pattern that indicates that the words "black and white" in the Book of Mormon are synonymous with "wicked and righteous" and "out of the church or in the church".[10]

2 Nephi 26꞉33:

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.

Alma 1꞉30:

and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need

Alma 11꞉44:

Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous

Perkins concludes,

Now, in Alma 1:30 and behold “…they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young,” (there’s your pattern) “…bond and free… male and female, whether out of the church or in the church,” There’s your black or white.

How about Alma 11: 44? “Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free… male and female,” (again, there’s your pattern) “both the wicked and the righteous.”

Question: Why were the chapter headings in the Book of Mormon modified to remove "skin of blackness"?

Chapter headings modified in the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon reflect the view of the curse being a separation from the presence of the Lord, rather than a "skin of blackness."

Some recent changes in the Book of Mormon's modern chapter headings further reinforce the idea that the "skin of blackness" was actually a separation from the Lord.

These headings are not part of the translated text and were never present in the 1830 edition. The most significant expansion of chapter headings occurred in the 1981 edition of all of the Standard Works. Changes made in the chapter headings of the 2006 Doubleday edition reflect the view of the curse being a separation from the presence of the Lord, rather than a "skin of blackness." Note the following two changes to the chapter headings between the 1981 and 2006 (Doubleday) editions (emphasis added): [11]

Chapter Chapter 1981 (Official LDS Church Edition) 2006 (Doubleday Edition)
2 Nephi 5 Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness, and become a scourge unto the Nephites. Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.
Mormon 5 The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy, and loathsome people Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites will be scattered, and the Spirit will cease to strive with them

Question: Does the Book of Mormon describe the Lamanites as being "cursed" with a "red skin"?

There is no mention of "red skin" in the Book of Mormon

Main article: Lamanite curse

Fawn Brodie originated this claim, but does so without attribution or evidence. There is no mention of "red skin" in the Book of Mormon. Other authors who make this claim are clearly parroting Brodie, often without attribution. For example, Sally Denton makes this claim in a chapter which she liberally quotes Brodie's book No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, yet Denton does not attribute this particular claim to Brodie. The result is that we have one critical author citing another critical author's erroneous, unsupported assertion as fact.

This criticism does raise an interesting problem, however, for the critics—if Joseph Smith was (as they claim) writing a "history of the Indians," why did he never refer to their red skins? This was the common way in which they were described by 19th-century Americans. Yet, that characterization is completely absent from the Book of Mormon.


  1. Nicholas J. Frederick and Joseph M. Spencer, “The Book of Mormon and the Academy,” Religious Educator 21:2 (2020).
  2. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 73, 367 n.138. ( Index of claims ); Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 43. ( Index of claims );Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Revised) (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 193, 235. ( Index of claims );Richard Packham, "Questions for Mitt Romney," 2008.;Simon Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004) 40, 184. ( Index of claims )
  3. John A. Tvedtnes, "The Charge of 'Racism' in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 183–198. off-site
  4. Tvedtnes.
  5. Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthew and Stephen R. Callister, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 4. (emphasis added)
  6. Douglas Campbell, "'White' or 'Pure': Five Vignettes," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 4 (Winter 1996), 119–135. off-site
  7. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2007), 115.
  8. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 Vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:696–697.
  9. Spencer W. Kimball, General Conference Report, October, 1960
  10. Marvin Perkins, "Blacks in the Scriptures," 2013 FairMormon Conference (7 August 2014).
  11. No More “Skin of Blackness”?: Race and Recent Changes in the Book of Mormon