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Signs of the Times: Racism, Tribalism, and Disinformation before the Comings of Christ

TitleSigns of the Times: Racism, Tribalism, and Disinformation before the Comings of Christ
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsDrake, Luke
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsDisinformation; Editorial Technique; Exodus Motif; Racism; Samuel the Lamanite; Sign; Tribalism

Each of the major narrators/compilers of the Book of Mormon evince varying degrees of understanding that their work is destined for modern readers who would face a set of modern concerns. This essay suggests that Mormon’s editorial hand—on display both in the redaction of the words of Samuel the Lamanite and in the narration of the events surrounding Samuel’s ministry—can be understood to address pressing issues faced by latter-day readers: specifically, the perils posed by racism, “tribalism,” and disinformation.

At the heart of this study are “signs” and their significations in the Book of Mormon narrative, particularly those signs preceding the birth and death of Jesus (Hel. 13–3 Ne. 8). While in many ways these signs resemble what we find broadly in ancient Israelite literature (that is, they portend and accompany the workings of God in human history, fostering belief among the faithful), it is precisely in the differences between the ancient biblical record and the Book of Mormon narrative that a unique set of warnings are brought into relief. God’s people, according to the Nephite record, are at risk of spurning inspired messengers on account of racist or hyperpolarized worldviews and thereby risk thwarting signs of salvation by suppressing the truth. Furthermore, Mormon’s account depicts a people whose capacity to appreciate and act on divine signs is diminished by their propensity to propagate falsehoods, many of which have been circulated by bad actors.

To demonstrate all of this, I’ll begin by describing the nature and function of signs in biblical literature, with an emphasis on ancient discourse surrounding the “signs and wonders” of the Exodus, which were anciently understood as unmistakable, persuasive expressions of the divine hand in Israelite liberation. I’ll turn then to the prophetic ministry of Samuel the Lamanite and its aftermath. There, too, divine signs gesture toward human redemption, but their communicative power is threatened, and at times even thwarted, by this interrelated set of social ills.