Wednesday, January 13, 2010


      Mormon doctrine teaches that all humans are the spirit children of God (Rom. 8:16), and that all races are equal in the sight of God (2 Nephi 26:33). But critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often claim that its teachings are racist—if not today, at least historically. This criticism is not true but deserves a closer look.

      There are two primary reasons to claim that Mormon doctrine teaches (or used to teach) racist ideas. The first is that certain passages in the Book of Mormon seem to indicate that black skin is a curse from God. The second is the fact that from the 1850s until 1978, black members of the Church were not allowed to hold the priesthood or enter the temples.

What Does The Book of Mormon Teach About Race?

      Let us first examine the controversial scriptural passages. 2 Nephi 5:21-22 says that the Lord separated the wicked Lamanites from the more obedient Nephites by causing their skin to be dark: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.” See also 1 Nephi 12:23.

I want to make four points about the interpretation of these passages:

      1) Many LDS commentators interpret 2 Nephi 5 to mean that the curse was separation from the true church and communion with God, and interpret the “skin of blackness” as merely the sign or mark of the curse. This somewhat softens the implication that being dark-skinned is itself a curse. As for the statement that the Lamanites would become “loathsome” to the Nephites’ sensibilities, it might not be the Lamanites’ skin color that was loathsome, but their way of life, which is described as “idle…full of mischief and subtlety…[they] did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.”
      2) At any rate, the Lamanites who were set apart for their skin color can’t be identified with any modern-day race. The two peoples freely intermixed after the time of the Savior’s visit to the Americas, and when they again divided into two nations, the designations “Lamanite” and “Nephite” separated them by their beliefs, not by their skin color. Even if we feel secure in equating modern-day indigenous peoples of the Americas with the Lamanites, the Book of Mormon does not provide any basis for connecting their skin color after the time of Christ with the “skin of blackness” associated with the curse.
      3) But what I find the most interesting suggestion is much more human: Perhaps the Nephite writers interpreted what happened through their own cultural lenses, incorrectly assuming that the change in skin color was a curse from God. Alternatively, the change in both skin color and lifestyle (both of which happened at the same time) could be attributed to intermarriage with other indigenous peoples in the area. This would also help explain why the Lamanite population was twice that of the Nephites upon their next encounter, despite the fact that the Nephites had absorbed another, larger civilization (the people of Mulek). It would also go a long way toward explaining why Middle Eastern DNA does not seem to be a significant part of the DNA of indigenous American peoples. We know from Jacob 3 that the Nephites had a tendency toward racism during that time period. It would have been natural for the Nephites to see that the Lamanites had become darker-skinned and think it was a curse from God. The biggest problem with this interpretation is that it would mean that the Book of Mormon contains at least one instance in which the prophet authors incorrectly ascribed an action to God. This should not undermine the book’s central message and claim to historicity—after all, every other historical document of any length contains human errors, and the title page itself acknowledges that the human role in the book's creation may have resulted in “mistakes of men.”
      4) Most importantly, any attempt to label the Book of Mormon a racist document because of these passages must consider the entire context. It is not clear that the controversial passages are actually racist, but there are other passages that are absolutely unequivocal in condemning racism. In the book of Jacob, Chapter 3, the prophet Jacob sharply rebukes his people for holding racist attitudes against the Lamanites. Some Nephites had assumed that their skin color was indicative that they were purer and more pleasing to God than the Lamanites, but Jacob declares that the Lamanites are the more righteous of the two groups and that God will ultimately preserve and bless them, but allow the Nephites to be destroyed. “[W]herefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?” He then issues a specific commandment against racism—the only such commandment in the scriptures of which I am aware: “Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.” This passage is also significant because it makes it clear that the Lamanites’ “filthiness” was a separate consideration from their race, and must have referred to their diet and lifestyle, not skin color.

      Other passages in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:35; 2 Nephi 26:33; 2 Nephi 29:12; Alma 19:36; Alma 26:37) teach the universality of the Gospel, that God loves people of all nations, and that a person’s righteousness determines his access to God, not his race. Even the title page of the Book of Mormon says that one of the core messages of the book is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (emphasis added).

The Priesthood Ban From 1852 to 1978

      The Prophet Joseph Smith held very liberal views on race by the standards of his day. Even abolitionists usually believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites, if not subhuman. By contrast, Joseph Smith taught that black people were not inherently inferior to whites; that their inferiority was due to their oppressive circumstances. “Change their situation with the white, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 259)(link to specific paragraph here). The Prophet ordained several free blacks to the priesthood.
      Brigham Young’s views on race more closely mirrored the mainstream American thoughts of the day about people of African descent. He subscribed to the view that blacks are descendants of Cain and cannot hold the priesthood because of their lineage. This racial restriction became a church policy sometime around 1852, and although it was not given by revelation, with the passage of time it became entrenched. Most Mormons assumed that it was doctrinal and had come by revelation, and defended it as a tenet of faith. Apologists tried to explain the ban with theories about a curse on the descendants of Cain, or Ham, or Canaan. The church never prevented blacks from becoming baptized members of the church and always taught that they were children of God, but strictly prohibited them from receiving the priesthood or participating in the temple ceremonies.
      Perhaps church leaders of the time saw their situation as analogous to the racial restriction that Jesus Christ imposed on the early Christian church, only allowing the gospel to be preached to the Israelites (Matthew 10:5-6). It was a while after Christ’s death and resurrection before Peter received the revelation allowing the gospel to be preached to other races (Acts 10). Just as the early Christian racial restriction had eventually been revoked, church leaders believed and made statements to the effect that the priesthood ban would someday be done away with. In the 1950s, church president David O. McKay began to be concerned about the race question and pray for revelation on the matter, but the church leaders continued to be too divided on the issue until 1978, when the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles finally sought and received a revelation rescinding the ban. The Church immediately began ordaining black members to the priesthood, issuing recommends so that they could enter the temples, and extending callings for full-time missionary service. Today, the Church is completely racially integrated, and no privilege or position is restricted to anyone based on race.
      Why did it take so long? I can only speculate. It seems that the general church membership was more than ready to accept the change when it came. I wonder whether there was some reticence among church leaders to actively seek for such a revelation during the Civil Rights Era, for fear that it would be seen as motivated by popular trends. No doubt church leaders were also hesitant to take an action they feared might cause deep rifts in the Church. They were aware, for example, of the factions and apostate groups that formed as a result of the 1890 revelation banning polygamy.
      The precise reasons for the ban, particularly the facts concerning its implementation, are not known. But it appears to have had more to do with human attitudes and assumptions than with revelation. Church leaders who had previously defended the ban recanted their old positions, saying that they had spoken from opinions, not doctrine or revelation. For example, Bruce R. McConkie said, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past” ("All Are Alike Unto God," speech given August 18, 1978).
      Addressing the men of the church, the late President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I remind you 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 of Christ… Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such” ("The Need for Greater Kindness," Priesthood Session, April 2006 General Conference).

In summary

Question: Does Mormonism include racist teachings in the Book of Mormon or elsewhere? Why weren’t blacks allowed to receive the priesthood until 1978?
Answer: Although some passages from the Book of Mormon have been read as having racist implications, the book actually condemns racism in no uncertain terms and teaches that all races are equal before God. The reasons for the race-based ban on the priesthood are debated, but it originated with racist opinions, not revealed doctrine. The policy was revoked in 1978, and Mormonism today rejects all forms of race-based discrimination

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 269.
Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” address in the Second Annual CES Symposium, Salt Lake City, August 1978.
Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign, May 2006.


Travis Brinton said...

I rejected a comment by a person calling himself "AngryAtheist" (really). It consisted of 1) some quotations meant to illustrate the fact that certain past LDS church leaders held racist views, and 2) a general rant about what this person felt was ridiculous about Joseph Smith's story.

I reiterate that this blog is not intended as a forum to debate Mormon doctrine or history, but as a place to answer questions from those sincerely seeking to understand our position. Comments from people honestly seeking understanding are welcome. Comments seeking to attack and insult Mormonism are not. There are plenty of anti-Mormon websites for that.

Vance Mitchell said...

Hey Travis, I appreciate you doing this blog. You know I am a long-time Mormon but I read some good points that I had never considered before. I appreciate you doing research to answer these questions honestly.

James Elfers said...

So if the ban was instituted by Brigham Young. Why is still held up as an example to be followed by members of the church? If he was wrong why did it take the church so long to correct his error?

Also the church teaches that Native Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Isn't that belief itself a form of racism? Its assigning cultural and
spiritual attributes to a people with no real evidence outside of the writings of Joseph Smith. Evidence NOT backed up by archeology, geography, genetics or any historical record aside from the Book Of Mormon. Isn't it like assuming that all black men can slam dunk a basketball based on the say so of one white guy?

Travis Brinton said...

To James Eifers:
1) I'm not sure what you mean as "an example to be followed by members of the church." It's not to be followed--all race-based policies were abandoned in 1978, and racism in any form is condemned today.
Perhaps you mean that it is still held up as the result of inspiration. That is actually not true. The official church position is, "We don't know why there was a race-based ban." That takes no position on the "why," does not assert that it was or was not the result of revelation, and leaves all possibilities open, including the possibility which happens to be my personal opinion--namely, that it was the result of human fault and cultural circumstances of the time.
2) The belief is that the descendants of the Lehites and Mulekites were "among the ancestors of the American Indians." And no, that belief is not a form of racism, any more than it is a form of racism to believe that Asian migrants were among the ancestors of Native Americans.
I would also point out that any argument that relies on assuming that the Book of Mormon's claims are false in order to prove that the beliefs are racist in order to prove that the Book of Mormon must therefore be false, is circular and self-supporting.