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Understanding the Book of Mormon’s teachings on race

Recently, individuals curious about Mormonism and eager to ensure that members of minority races are protected have tried to learn what the Book of Mormon has to say about race. They have found passages relating to a group that “was cursed” with a “skin of blackness” and are concerned that this means Mormons see non-whites as defective, lesser people. This is not true.

The Book of Mormon’s most direct teaching on the status of different races in God’s sight is in 2 Nephi 26:33:

“[The Lord] 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.”

Clearly, the Book of Mormon teaches that race, gender, and belief have nothing to do with one’s worth to God.

But some other passages do sound problematic to modern ears. It’s important to keep in mind a few key points:

  1. The Book of Mormon passages which reference a “mark” or “curse” are limited to a certain group of people in a certain time and place—namely, a group known as “Lamanites” who were culturally and religiously antagonistic to the “Nephites,” which included the Book of Mormon’s narrators. The passages about a “mark” or “curse” were never considered relevant to the racial Priesthood policy in the 1800s and 1900s.
  2. Though the phrase “skin of blackness” does, to the modern reader, evoke modern categories of race, it is an illogical interpretation to say that the “mark” was an immediate and complete change of skin color. Because we can only read about the event as ancient observers described it according to their understanding, one can’t say for certain by what means the Lamanites were “marked,” or how localized the mark was. The Book of Mormon even notes one instance in which a group of Nephites marked themselves in order to visibly identify themselves as being associated with the Lamanites: “And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites.” (Alma 3:4)
  3. Moreover, distinction based on the “mark” was for a specific utilitarian purpose, not an indicator of innate worth. As in the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon faithful were commanded to marry others who upheld a covenant of righteousness with the Lord. The “mark” indicated to believers that a person rejected that covenant, or had been raised in a family and a culture that rejected that covenant, and so was not an appropriate marriage prospect. The “mark” was not a reference to a judgment based on skin color in the way that we today think of as racism, especially given that Lamanite converts were earnestly sought and welcomed by Nephites. Other passages indicate it was hard to tell just by looking who was Lamanite and who was not, and that all categories of “-ites” were eventually forgotten. Therefore, equating Book of Mormon categories with modern racial categories doesn’t make sense.

The LDS church is unequivocal that racism is sinful and unchristiana tool of evil, and that individuals from all races are accepted and valued members. The LDS church in Africa was pioneered by extraordinary individuals who had remarkable experiences. The church has also made progress in African-American communities. Individuals of all races are eagerly welcomed and treated just as any other LDS member. It is incorrect to generalize that Mormons or the LDS church are racist.

The church recently formally clarified its position on racism:

The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church. In 2006, then Church president Gordon B. Hinckley declared that “no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.”

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