Race plays an important role in the Book of Mormon. After arriving in the America’s, Lehi and Saraiah’s family split into two factions: the descendants of Nephi and all those who believe in the narratives true religion, and the rest who follow the example of Laman and “dwindle in unbelief”. The Nephites are “white” and “fair” while the Lamanites were dark and marked as cursed by “a skin of blackness”. (2 Nephi 5:21) So dark skin in the Book of Mormon view is a sign of God’s curse.
So is the Book of Mormon racist?
The answer is not clearcut. On numerous occasions, the Book of Mormon makes it clear that skin color does not equate to righteousness (e.g. Jacob 3:7–8). The Nephite-Lamanite racial divide is quite fungible. A person could go from one race to the other based on their faith in the true religion. This mitigates some of the charge of racism because the emphasis is on behavior and belief rather than race.
This didn’t prevent some Mormons from believing that race had consequences in the afterlife. Mark Peterson, an LDS Apostle, believed that a person’s race was a consequence of their behavior in the pre-existence (an LDS view of a spiritual life prior to birth) and that God would prevent people of African descent from gaining all the rewards of the afterlife:
Think of the Negro, cursed as to the Priesthood. Are we prejudiced, against him? Unjustly, sometimes we’re accused of having such a prejudice. But what does the mercy of God have for him? This Negro, who in the pre-existence life lived the type of life which justified the Lord in sending him to the earth in the lineage of Cain with a black skin, and possibly being born in darkest Africa—if that Negro is willing when he hears the gospel to accept it, he may have many of the blessings of the gospel. In spite of all he did in the pre-existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the Celestial Kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get a Celestial resurrection. He will get a place in the celestial glory. (speech given at BYU, August 27, 1954, emphasis added)
Later in his speech which was later distributed as a pamphlet, he explains why the view in the Book of Mormon that the Lamanites could remove their curse doesn’t apply in his view to people of African descent (ironically, aren’t we all of African descent?):
Well, what about the removal of the curse? We know what the Lord has said in the Book of Mormon in regard to the Lamanites—they shall become a white and delightsome people. I know of no scripture having to do with the removal of the curse from the Negro. I think that we should not speculate too much about that. As long as the scriptures are silent on the subject, we should not speculate too much about that. (ibid.)
So Peterson had to explain away parts of the Book of Mormon in order to preserve his racist doctrines. In this way, the Book of Mormon actually worked against racism.
However, it introduced a more subtle form of racism. Many Mormons believed that a person who became a faithful Mormon would become lighter in complexion, ultimately having a white skin in the afterlife. LDS Apostle Spencer Kimball believed that he had observed this happening:
I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today […] The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter we represent, the little member girl—sixteen—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. […] 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. (General Conference Report, October 1960, Improvement Era, December 1960, pp. 922–923)
This subtle form of racism sees skin color as a measure of righteousness, at least over the course of generations.
Freethinker's Book of Mormon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at www.blakeclan.org.