Thursday, March 26, 2015

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Lamanite Curse (But Were Afraid to Ask)

       “And he 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
       The Book of Mormon is full of great topics to explore. Its many facets make it a fun and fulfilling read. But there is one Book of Mormon topic that has caused much confusion and even hurt among its readers: the Lamanite curse. Many assume the scriptures say the Lamanites' curse was a dark skin and that they were punished to become a different race than the Nephites. A few verses, written by Nephi, are at the root of this confusing curse conundrum:
"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.
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.
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.
And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey." (2 Nephi 5:20-24.)  

       These verses have caused a lot of discomfort for modern readers. Race is a loaded topic nowadays and it can be difficult to ask questions about such a sensitive issue. But it's important for us to understand the scriptures and the idea that God could ever give someone dark skin as a curse is pretty serious. Hopefully most of us realize dark skin is not a punishment. (Personally I think the Lamanites would have been more afflicted if God had caused a "skin of pastiness" to come upon them and forced them to wander the wilderness without sunscreen). Because God is "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34) and "all are alike unto God," it should be obvious that God does not use race to curse people. What, then, do we make of the Lamanite curse? A careful analysis of the text and culture of the Book of Mormon help shed light on that question and allow us to see the Lamanites and the Nephites in more realistic terms.

Mark vs Curse
       The first thing we have to understand is that the "curse" and the "mark" of the Lamanites are two different things. Let's start with the mark. The mark is presumed to be a darkening of Lamanite skin and seems to have come after the curse itself. The Lord told 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" (Alma 3:14, emphasis added). From this we can deduce that the curse was given first, and the mark of the curse, which would help the cursed Lamanites to be distinguished from the un-cursed Nephites, followed some time afterward.



       So what was the curse itself? Nephi starts out talking about how the Lamanites were cut off from the presence of the Lord, and he ends that way, too. The skin of blackness is mentioned almost in passing, with the main focus of the verses being the Lamanite way of life. Professor John A. Tvedtnes notes "A change in skin color would obviously not make the Lamanites 'idle' or 'full of mischief.' These were cultural, not racial traits. To the Nephites, who followed the law of Moses, the Lamanite practice of 'drinking blood' and 'feeding upon beasts of prey' would have been abhorrent, being forbidden in the mosaic code."1 

       These hints about the unfaithfulness of the Lamanites help us zone in on what the curse itself was. The curse was being cut off from the Lord's presence. Lehi knew about this curse and knew Laman and Lemuel would probably receive it. To Laman's children, Lehi declared: "the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence...Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents" (2 Nephi 4:4-6). 

       Lehi didn't mention any curse of skin, nor did he indicate that Laman's descendants would be evil or filthy. He says the family of Laman would be cursed to be cut off from the Lord's presence if Laman didn't repent. This curse leaves the Lamanites in a state of spiritual, rather than physical darkness. This spiritual curse was foretold when Lehi first came to the promised land and it is given to all who rebel against the Lord and his gospel.

A Skin of Blackness?
       When approaching the whole "skin of blackness" thing it's important to understand Nephite writing style. The Book of Mormon authors love opposites. They divide everything into one category or the other without much middle ground. There's heaven and there's hell (1 Nephi 15:33-35). There's clean and there's filthy (Mormon 9:14). There's the influence of God and the influence of Satan (Moroni 7:15). The Book of Mormon uses opposites to illustrate principles and doesn't offer any space between two extremes. The authors also admit to simplifying the tribal structure of Book of Mormon peoples to make them work as polar opposites. Jacob tells us there were not only Nephites and Lamanites in the land, but also Lemuelites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, etc. But he said he would "not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi" (Jacob 1:14). It's within this framework that the Lamanite curse is explained. 

       The difference between Nephites and Lamanites was probably not as black and white (pun intended) as Nephi makes it seem. Lamanite "blackness" doesn't indicate actual black skin any more than Nephite "whiteness" indicates that Zarahemla was populated exclusively by albinos. Professor Brant Gardner notes that "Saying that any Amerindian has a black skin is incorrect even in modern skin color nomenclature. They are called 'red.' "So the difference in Nephite and Lamanite skin pigmentation, if it did exist literally, must have been more inconspicuous than black vs. white. 

No Difference After All?

       Surprisingly, there is actually considerable evidence that there may have been no color difference between the Nephites and Lamanites at all. BYU Professor Douglas Campbell reviewed all the instances in which the Book of Mormon uses "white" to describe something or someone. He found the overwhelming majority of uses were made symbolically rather than literally. Because of this he concluded "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."3

       There's also an episode in the Book of Mormon which suggests the Lamanites and Nephites were physically indistinguishable. It's the story of Laman, the Nephite spy, as told in Alma 55. Professor Gardner explains the story's significance: "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."4
  
       Then there's Mormon, who prophesied about the future of the Nephite/Lamanite people. In Mormon 5 he says "this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people" (Mormon 5:15). If the Lamanites had already become dark, why would Mormon prophesy that they would become dark at a future date? Again, it seems the words "dark," "filthy," and "loathsome" are all symbolic terms not meant to be taken literally. If there was a physical difference between Lamanites and Nephites, it must have been much more subtle than we usually think.


Intermarriage 

       While there is substantial evidence that the Nephites and Lamanites were practically identical, there is one very good reason the Nephites would want to be able to distinguish a Lamanite from a Nephite. Lehi and his family were Jewish, and Jewish law prohibited God's chosen people to intermarry with apostate groups. Speaking to the Israelites about their Canaanite neighbors, the Lord said "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 thy 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" (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). 

       This practice of keeping marriage within the tribe is called exogamy, and is strongly encouraged in 2 Nephi 5. Scholars agree that the New World had other inhabitants when Lehi arrived, and in the midst of strange people it would have been tempting for the Nephites to take wives of the Lamanites, since the Lamanites shared their Jewish heritage and culture. But like the Samaritans of Jesus' day, the Lamanites were an apostate tribe and the Lord forbid the Nephites to be led away into their corrupt traditions. It's possible that any change in Lamanite skin pigmentation came from the Lamanites' own intermarriage with local natives, since the Lamanites would not have been as concerned about keeping the Lord's laws as the Nephites. (I seriously doubt Laman woke up one morning, looked down at himself, and said "What the --?! I was white yesterday but brown today!")

Nephite Prejudice
       When the Book of Mormon touches on the Lamanite condition, the line between mark and curse is often blurred. The Nephites spoke of a cursing coming upon the Lamanites' skins (Jacob 3:5) and they were proud when Nephite-Lamanite intermingling produced fair-skinned Lamanite children (3 Nephi 2:14-16). These unnerving customs can be chalked up to one unpleasant reality: the Nephites were not immune to racism. We may not like to believe there was racism among the Nephites, but the evidence for it abounds in the Book of Mormon. Enos said the Lamanites were "filthy" and had an "evil nature" (Enos 1:20). When the sons of Mosiah told their friends they were going to preach to the Lamanites, their friends laughed at them and said it was better to kill the Lamanites than preach to them (Alma 26:23-25). And Samuel the Lamanite told his audience "because I am a Lamanite...ye are angry with me and seek to destroy me" (Helaman 14:10). 

       Besides these specific references there is the general way the Nephites saw the Lamanite civilization. Supposedly the Lamanites were all lazy tent-dwellers who ate raw meat and lived like scavengers, yet when the sons of Mosiah show up the Lamanites somehow have a sophisticated system of government and their own feasting customs and religious tradition (Alma 17-21). There were times when the Lamanites were educated by Nephite defectors (Mosiah 24:17), but still, you'd think such a savage and "evil-natured" people wouldn't be capable of such sophistication.

       These prejudiced views were not uncommon with ancient people. Professor Tvedtnes observes that the Aztecs viewed their Otomi neighbors as "untrained, stupid" and "very covetous." The Amorites of the Near East were described as "a ravaging people, with canine instincts, like wolves."In Christ's day the Jews saw the Samaritans as devilish (John 8:48) and had no dealings with Samaritan people (John 4:9).  It was because of this prevailing racism that Jacob implored the Nephites to "revile no more against [the Lamanites] because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers" (Jacob 3:9).



       So don't be too hard on the Nephites. Every generation and people has had to struggle with prejudice in some form.The silver lining to all this is that it actually helps prove the truth of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon shows the Nephites were real people with real prejudices rather than a picture-perfect society conjured from Joseph Smith's imagination. 

 Affiliation
       The last thing we have to keep in mind about the Lamanite identity is that it was often voluntary rather than hereditary. Nephites who rejected the truth often scurried over to join the Lamanites. The scriptures say "whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites was called under that head, and there was a mark set upon him" (Alma 3:10). Ammaron was born a Nephite but he chose to fight against Captain Moroni and declared himself "a bold Lamanite" (Alma 54:24). This is why the Lamanites converted by Ammon and his friends didn't want to be called Lamanites once they joined the church. Instead, they called themselves "Anti-Nephi-Lehies," having been freed from the curse of spiritual darkness (Alma 23:17-18). After Christ's coming, there were no longer "any manner of -ites" (4 Nephi 1:17) and the population had all mixed together (4 Nephi 1:11). When the titles of Nephite and Lamanite re-emerged, they were used to distinguish people who believed in Christ from those who did not (4 Nephi 1:37-38), and so being a Lamanite had nothing to do with your heritage but rather whether you chose to be faithful. 

The Message
       Were the Lamanites cursed with dark skin? Of course not. Their curse was being cut off from the presence of the Lord. This curse was brought on by wickedness and removed upon conversion. While patterns of intermarriage may have resulted in varying skin tones (3 Nephi 2:14-16), we should be careful not to take the Lamanite racial statements too literally. God doesn't change people's race from black to white based on their righteousness. There were times when the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites (Helman 6:1-6), but they didn't magically change race. This is true in history, as well. The Nazis prided themselves on their fair complexion, while heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Frederick Douglass had dark skin. 


       God loves everyone, and he doesn't use color to curse. He uses it to create variety and keep life interesting. He made every race and color and He loves each one completely and unconditionally, whether they be Lamanite, Jew, or Gentile. He doesn't desire to curse anyone, and as soon as we are all ready to be free from the curse of spiritual darkness, he is right there ready to remove it. That's what the Book of Mormon is all about. 





Notes:
1. Tvedtnes, John A. "The Charge of 'Racism' in the Book of Mormon." Blacklds.org. Accessed March 26, 2015. http://www.blacklds.org/tvedtnes.

2. Gardner, Brant A. "What Does the Book of Mormon Mean by "Skin of Blackness"?" FairMormon. Accessed March 26, 2015. http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/what-does-the-book-of-mormon-mean-by-skin-of-blackness.

3. "What Was the Lamanite Curse?" FairMormon. Accessed March 26, 2015. http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Lamanites/Curse/What_was_it#cite_note-5.

4. Gardner, "Skin of Blackness."

5. Tvedtnes, "Charge of Racism."

11 comments:

  1. yeah I always figured it was more talking about the light in one's eyes, or lack therof, like having a dark or dull aura...so that's cool

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    1. why did the prophet say indians were getting lighter?
      At the October 1960 LDS Church Conference, Spencer Kimball utilized 2 Nephi 30:6 when he stated how the Indians "are fast becoming a white and delightsome people." He said, "The [Indian] children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation" (Improvement Era, December 1960, pp. 922-3).

      During the same message Kimball referred to a 16-year-old Indian girl who was both LDS and "several shades lighter than her parents..." He went on to say, "These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated."

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    2. Alvin Dyer
      Why Some are Born White
      “For What Purpose?”, Missionary Conference Oslo, Norway, March 18, 1961, The Negro in Mormon Theology, pgs 48-58; Why is it that you are white and not colored? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Who had anything to do with your being born into the Church and not born a Chinese or a Hindu, or a Negro? Is God such an unjust person that He would make you white and free and make a Negro CURSED under the CURSING OF CAIN that he should not hold the Priesthood of God?…

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    3. The prophet will never lead you astray?
      Cain slew his brother.... and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and tehn another curse is pronounced upon the same race – that they should be the 'servant of servants,' and they will be, until that curse is removed;
      Prophet Brigham Young, Brigham Young Addresses, Feb. 5, 1852,

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    4. For instance, the descendants of Cain cannot cast off their skin of blackness, at once, and immediately, although every should of them should repent.... Cain and his posterity must wear the mark which God put upon them; and his white friends may wash the race of Cain with fuller's soap every day, they cannot wash away God's mark.

      Prophet John Taylor, Millennial Star, v. 14, p. 418;

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  2. Your explanation as to what constitutes the Lamanite curse is absurd.
    You must be reading a different version of The Book Of Mormon that is currently available.

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    Replies
    1. First of all, Mr. Covington, thanks for stopping by my blog. Your comment is pretty vague, and so without a specific complaint to address, all I can say is that I've cited my sources, including scripture references, and I think my arguments stand up to scrutiny.

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  3. Very well written. I've always believed this but you put my feelings and beliefs in very nice words

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  4. Thank you for this article! My Great Great Grandparents are Native American. As you mentioned and clarified their skin was not black. The different hues of skin are all God's creation. The person above mentioning that the curse of Cain was black skin is abhorrent. This type of racial prejudice is what our country is dealing with right now. We are all God's children created in his image.

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