This fall, we received the following comment on the Shoulder to the Wheel blog: “What do we do about the Book of Mormon? The entire plot of the Book of Mormon is based on the idea that dark skin is bad and white skin is good. God gives wicked people dark skin not only to separate them from the white people, but also to make them sexually unattractive to white people. I can’t find a way around this problem. I can’t. It’s completely racist and not how skin color or human relationships work. This is a poisonous idea at the foundation of the Book of Mormon and I don’t know how we can end racism in Mormonism—and there is a lot, so thank you for wanting to fight it—unless the Book of Mormon is thrown out or completely rewritten.”
For help, we reached out to Dr. Grant Hardy, Professor of History and Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, Asheville, and author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford UP, 2012). He offers this perspective:
The scriptures regularly recount incidents and attitudes, often associated with prophets, that are reprehensible by modern standards. These include the divine commands of annihilation and the requirement that rapists marry their victims in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the silencing of women in church and the acceptance of slavery in the New Testament. Such passages can make for painful reading, though the moral principles taught in the Bible as a whole can help believers recognize contradictions and work to change unethical social practices. The tension between Nephites and Lamanites is a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon, and Nephite writers sometimes express sentiments that would be considered racist today, including stereotypes about the Lamanites being idle, filthy, and loathsome. These accusations are often connected with descriptions of the Lamanites’ dark skin, which arose from their being cursed for iniquity according to Nephi: “that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Ne. 5:21). Given our American experience with the enslavement of black Africans, these are disturbing words, even though the context concerns Middle Easterners and Native Americans rather than Africans. Some have interpreted this passage as a reference to the intermarriage of Lamanites and indigenous peoples, while others read references to color here and in similar verses as purely symbolic. (The latter interpretation is somewhat strained, and ignores the fact that even metaphorically, “white” correlates with good and desirable, while “dark” is deficient, sinful, and unattractive.) It is easy to find a dozen or more verses in the Book of Mormon where Nephites prophets say things that can, and should be, called out as racist.
At the same time, there are also places where these same prophets overcome their natural fears and suspicions of the Lamanites—who are often trying to kill them and their families—to see them as children of God, whose access to divine blessings and favor is fully equal to their own. The only other use of the term “black” to refer to skin color also comes from Nephi, who assures readers that God “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:11). Jacob notes that Lamanite men are better husbands and fathers than the Nephites, and he condemns Nephites who despise them because of the color of their skins (Jacob 3:5-10). Mormon, who warred with Lamanites throughout his life, nevertheless recounts stories from Lamanite culture where women are given more prominence and authority than among the Nephites, as queens and the mothers of the stripling warriors. He also writes of times when the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites (Hel. 6:1-5, 24-26; 3 Ne. 6:14) and when ethnic differences had no meaning with regard to spiritual matters (4 Ne. 1:2, 15-17), and how a Lamanite prophet, Samuel, was called by God to call the Nephites to repentance (Hel. 13‒15). At the end of the Book of Mormon is an electrifying moment when Moroni, in fear for his own life after the Lamanites have killed all his friends and relatives, nevertheless refers to them as “my beloved brethren” (Moro. 10:1, 18-19). Nephite relations with the Lamanites were generally characterized by terror, violence, betrayal, and inter-tribal animosity or even hatred, and yet these prophets, at their better moments, show us that such feelings can be overcome, and that religion can lead believers toward a higher, more just and compassionate perspective.
It would be possible to go through the Book of Mormon, or the Torah, or the letters of Paul, and excise those verses that today we find objectionable. Yet it is better to leave them in place, as a constant reminder that moral progress is possible. The authors of our sacred texts were writing from particular historical circumstances, and they were very much people of their time, even as they were moved upon by revelation and the Spirit (1 Ne 19:6). One of the functions of God’s word is to help us recognize and transcend our narrow cultural biases. The moral messiness of scripture bears witness that this process has been ongoing for quite some time, and offers hope that in the future, we may come closer to God’s perspective in how we see and treat others. Our own descendants may someday be shocked at attitudes and practices that we now too easily accept or take for granted.