You are here

3 Simple Explanations for the Skin of Blackness in the Book of Mormon

Episode Transcript

3 Simple Explanations for the Skin of Blackness in the Book of Mormon

For a lot of people, the Book of Mormon can become uncomfortable when we read about a group of people called the Lamanites being cursed and a skin of blackness coming upon them.

To a modern audience this sounds…not great. Many have gone so far as to call the Book of Mormon racist. But here’s the thing. Based on the best scholarship we have, the Lamanite Skin of Blackness is probably not at all what it sounds like. And we went through hundreds of pages of scholarship to make this video, and we found that there are several things that the Skin of Blackness could be that AREN’T skin, and you’ve probably never heard of the 3 we’ll be talking about today.

So in this video we’re going to be breaking down exactly what the Book of Mormon says on this topic, we’ll then go over the different possibilities for the Skin of Blackness from an ancient perspective, and we’re going to show how the Book of Mormon is not racist, but carries an incredibly inclusive message.

Before we get into these different theories, we need to learn a little bit of the history behind the Lamanite curse. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi had to flee with his followers from Laman and Lemuel, who once again sought to kill him.

“Let us slay him”

Nephi and his people established a prosperous colony, complete with a temple, where they followed the law of Moses and were blessed according to the covenants the Lord made with them. This is where we get the two groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites.

Laman, Lemuel, and their people on the other hand, were “cut off from the presence of the Lord” and received a curse “because of their iniquity.” As a consequence of this cursing, the text says that whereas once “they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome … the Lord did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them”. Later on in the Book of Mormon, it says the Lord “cursed, and … set a mark on” the Lamanites, and thus “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them”.

For a long time, people have read this and unquestioningly assumed that this was about race, and so assumed that God himself imposed a racial marker as some kind of divine punishment. However, in a 2013 an essay authorized by the First Presidency (or the main leadership of the Church) was published on the Church’s website, declaring unequivocally, “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”

So if black skin is not a sign of a curse, how do we make sense of the Lamanite curse being accompanied by a “skin of blackness”? If we look at the book with a 21st century lens, we may end up misreading important passages like this one. Since the Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient text, it’s helpful to look to the ancient world for clues as to what this phrase would have meant to them. There are several possibilities for what a physical mark for this “skin of blackness” could have been, but all of them are wrapped up in the symbolic significance of people being designated as “black” or “white” in the ancient world. And it’s not about race.

Scholars have discovered examples of symbolically describing people as black or white in the writings of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Arabs, Christians, and even the Bible itself. Perhaps the most direct ancient Near Eastern parallel is found in the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon.  This treaty was sent out to Assyrian vassals, including Judah, around the 7th century BC, to establish a new king, Assurbanipal. As was customary in ancient Near Eastern treaties and covenants, curses were pronounced upon those who would violate its terms. One of the curses of this treaty states: “May they [the gods] make your skin and the skin of your women, your sons and your daughters—dark. May they be as black as pitch and crude oil.”

In the Bible, Lamentations used similar imagery to describe the Nazarites: “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk … [but now] their visage is blacker than a coal,” later adding “our skin was black like an oven”.

Because skin color naturally does not change this quickly, it’s pretty clear that these examples aren’t referring to literal skin color or race. In its Assyrian context, “skin black as pitch” appears to be a motif for death and destruction. And then its reappropriation in Lamentations might not be referring to literal death, but rather to be more like “dead men walking.”

Likewise, the “skin of blackness” Nephi describes was not necessarily physical, but rather symbolizes experiencing a “spiritual death” by being cut off from the Lord. Their souls were in spiritual darkness. For example, the Book of Mormon uses white and dark imagery to describe people in Nephi’s vision of the tree of life. Instead of referring to skin color, these are labels figuratively linking people to symbols of white or dark just like the white and dark elements of Lehi’s dream. Dark is frequently paired with terms such as filthy and loathsome that are clearly intended to describe the spiritual state of the Lamanites, not their lack of hygiene or physical attractiveness.

Throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon the colors white and black are consistently used symbolically to refer to people, objects, and clothing that are pure and holy versus unholy or stained with sin respectively. Toward the end of his record, Nephi prophesied that one day the Lamanites would be “restored unto the knowledge of … Jesus Christ” causing “their scales of darkness … to fall from their eyes;  and … they shall be a white and a delightsome people”. This imagery alludes to removing the curse from 2 Nephi 5, and Joseph Smith clarified this passage in the 1842 edition of the Book of Mormon to read “a pure and a delightsome people,” making it crystal clear that this is referring to spiritual purity, rather than skin color.

But apart from symbolic interpretations, scholars have looked into this skin of blackness as being some kind of physical mark that the Lamanites placed on themselves. After all, the Book of Mormon also talks of how the Amlicites put a mark upon themselves “after the manner of the Lamanites,” and the Nephites saw this as a fulfillment of the Lord’s declaration, “I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed”. So these next three possibilities are the leading proposals around the skin of blackness being an artificial mark, and they may surprise you.

This first theory requires us to look closely at what the Book of Mormon actually says about skins. Take a look at this passage and see if you can notice how skins are being used: “the Lamanites … were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins …. And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers.” Based on this and other passages like it, Ethan Sproat, suggested that the dark “skins” could have actually been animal skins worn as symbolic clothing. In both the Book of Mormon and the Bible, “skin” can refer to animal skin garments, and in fact this does appear to be the context in which the Lamanites’ skins are described as dark: So by this theory, the Lamanites and Amlicites were consciously putting this mark on themselves and it even has connections to the Adam, Eve, and the temple.

You see, each major statement about Lamanite skin color comes in close connection to the temple. For example, the first reference to the “skin of blackness” comes in 2 Nephi 5, right after Nephi built the temple and was expounding on those special covenants, and when Jacob discusses the darkness of the Lamanite skins, he is preaching at the temple itself.

The temple in ancient Israel centered around reversing the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve and reconciling man back to God. When Adam and Eve were cast from the garden of Eden, they wore coats of animal skins to cover their nakedness and early Christians writers even saw the skins as symbolizing their mortal, sinful state, contrasting with the “garment of light” which was symbolic of both the purified state after baptism, and the glorified state of the resurrection. So from a temple perspective, wearing distinctive animal skins as a cultural marker could have been seen by the Nephites as rejecting the symbolic garments of the temple covenant.

This next theory leads us to analyze art from the Classic Maya, which illustrates that many elites “darkened their skins with paints, stains, and pigments for ceremonial purposes and as camouflage for warfare, hunting, and plunder.” This fits with the Book of Mormon pretty well, since the first time the Nephites would have come in contact with the Lamanites again, would almost certainly have been during a time of war and Nephi even noted that the Lamanites were known as hunters “in the wilderness for beasts of prey”. And this is what led Gerrit M. Steenblik to propose that the Lamanites marked themselves by painting their skins dark.

This body painting may have been done as part of pre-war rituals where the warriors would whisper curses on the enemy while applying the paint. Charcoal and soot were often-times used in these skin-darkening paints, which could have linked them to “filthiness” in the Nephites’ point of view. On some ceremonial occasions, ritual participants would fast for several days and “cover themselves with black paint or soot, only to be cleansed of the black soot—both physically and symbolically purified—at the end of the fast.”  So, perhaps something similar took place—through the purifying ritual of baptism—when some Lamanites had “their curses … taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites”.

Others have suggested that this “mark” could have been an ancient tattoo. Tattooing was known in the ancient Near East, and in the Americas among various Indigenous tribes in both North and South America. In Mesoamerica, it can be documented from as early as 1400 BC among the Olmec and then later with the Maya, as the practice was continued all the way up through the Spanish conquest. Most tattooing in ancient America is black, but there is also some evidence for red tattoos at Chichen Itza, thus accounting for both the black or dark skins of the Lamanites, and the red mark of the Amlicites.

Linguistically, scholar Kerry Hull noted that, “The language of ‘mark’ in the Book of Mormon could … relate to the word tattoo,” since it originally meant “to write, paint, or mark.” Words with a similar range of meaning are attested in Mayan languages. And in Hebrew, qaʿaqaʿ means “incision, imprintment, tattoo,” and gets translated as “mark” in Leviticus 19: “ye shall not … print any marks upon you.”  So as a violation of the law of Moses, this kind of “mark” would literally be a “cursed thing” upon the Lamanites’ skin, a visible sign of their rebellion against the Lord’s covenants. After Lamanite conversion, they would discontinue this practice, and thus the future generations lacked the mark, just like it describes in 3 Nephi, that “their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair”.

So, with all of these different theories in mind, the big question is: Is the Book of Mormon racist? For most people, it can be easy, even natural, to intuitively read race and skin color into Book of Mormon passages about a “skin of blackness,” but those interpretations simply don’t fit an ancient reading of the text. When we lay aside our modern assumptions, and understand the cultural and historical context of this ancient text, it reveals an expansive and beautiful cultural metaphor about the virtues of keeping God’s commandments.

While it may be true that some Nephites and Lamanites were almost certainly prejudiced against the other group and may have played into stereotypes in their writing, these were not based on race, however, but rather on religious, cultural, and tribal differences which were fueled by violent conflicts over the years.

Most importantly though, Nephite and Lamanite prejudices do not constitute the message of the Book of Mormon—which overwhelmingly extends an inclusive invitation to all people to repent and come unto Jesus Christ.

At no point in the Book of Mormon is any individual or group excluded from the blessings of the gospel on the basis of their race or skin color. Nephi taught that “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one,” and “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; …  [and] all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile”.  Alma taught that “the Lord will be merciful unto all who call on his name,” Ammon said, “God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in”. According to Mormon, “the gate of heaven is open unto all … who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ”.

At the pinnacle of the Book of Mormon, the Savior Himself states that He was sent “that I might draw all men unto me”. And the sacred volume ends with an invitation from its final prophet, Moroni, for “all the ends of the earth” to “come unto Christ, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ … that ye become holy, without spot”.

The Book of Mormon illustrates the power of the gospel to break down cultural and ethnic barriers and unite people in Christ. In fact, at times the Book of Mormon even tells how the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites! The record of the sons of Mosiah preaching to the Lamanites provides powerful examples of both Nephites and Lamanites looking past generations of ethnic strife to serve each other and follow Christ. And one of the most powerful prophetic witnesses of Christ is a Lamanite prophet, Samuel, sent by God to the Nephites. At its climax, the record demonstrates that the key to overcoming all forms of prejudice is letting go of identities and tribalism which divide us into “any manner of -ites”  and becoming “one, the children of Christ, heirs to the kingdom of God”.

Elder Ahmed Corbitt, of the Seventy powerfully testified that:

The Book of Mormon is, in my view, the most racially and ethnically unifying book on the earth. … It teaches that God invites and guides the entire human family toward unity, harmony, and peace, regardless of color or ethnicity. It provides examples of righteous people from contrasting cultures reaching across differences of color and tradition to rescue their brothers and sisters with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with its ordinances and covenants. … The Book of Mormon is a blueprint from heaven, in black and white, for establishing peace on earth in the last days.

And there is a lot more scholarship and detail that went into making this video, so if you want to learn all about that, I’d recommend going to check out KnoWhy #718.