One of the most controversial verses in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 5:21, which states:

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.

The focus of this verse has been the phrase “skin of blackness,” which is read rather literally as a change in pigmentation. It is much easier to compile a list of writers who take the phrase literally than of those who suggest an alternate reading. As a single representation of this reading, see Milton R. Hunter of the Council of the Seventy:

As is well-known, two peoples—a white race and those of a darker color—inhabited ancient America for approximately one thousand years’ time. The white race was called Nephites and the darker race Lamanites…. The reader may say: “Yes, we understand that there were a white race and a dark race in ancient America from approximately 600 B.C., until approximately 400 A.D., but we have understood also that by the latter date all the white people (Nephites), except Moroni, had been killed in a war with the darker people or Lamanites.”

It is true that the Nephite nation ended toward the close of the fifth century A.D., but probably many of the white Nephites were saved from death by joining the Lamanites. These then would not be followers of Christ and would be unfaithful ones. The last great war was not fought entirely on the lines of race, but probably the determining factor was that one group allied itself with the Lamanite traditions, and the other group followed the Nephite traditions, including a belief in Jesus Christ. Thus there probably were dark and white people in each army.[1]

The modern cultural assumption that a skin of blackness must equal black skin is probably informed by racial issues in the United States. The 1981 change in verse 2 Nephi 30:6 from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome” is therefore similarly interpreted in the context of political correctness, and an accommodation to issues of race in the United States. Of course, the fact that the change was made in 1981 obscures the fact that it was a change that Joseph Smith made for the 1840 Nauvoo edition of the Book of Mormon.[2] While issues of race were certainly important in 1840, it is much less likely that the change was due to pressure to be politically correct in 1840 than it would have been had the change been unique to 1981.

I have elsewhere argued that this skin of blackness was a metaphor for a spiritual state rather than a change in pigmentation.[3] While there are arguments to be made for or against that proposition, the decision as to whether a “skin of blackness” is a description of a physical or spiritual change should be decided upon something stronger than personal preference for one reading or the other. The text is the final arbiter of such questions. What might the text tell us to help us decide?

What would be ideal is to find a place in the text where some Nephite said something like “Oh, I see by your black skin that you are a Lamanite.” That doesn’t happen. What we do get are some situations in which a difference in pigmentation should make a difference in an event. We do have a couple of those, but what we find is that what should make a difference, doesn’t.

One that I have noted before is found in Alma 55:4–8:

4 And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words, he caused that a search should be made among his men, that perhaps he might find a man who was a descendant of Laman among them.

5 And it came to pass that they found one, whose name was Laman; and he was one of the servants of the king who was murdered by Amalickiah.

6 Now Moroni caused that Laman and a small number of his men should go forth unto the guards who were over the Nephites.

7 Now the Nephites were guarded in the city of Gid; therefore Moroni appointed Laman and caused that a small number of men should go with him.

8 And when it was evening Laman went to the guards who were over the Nephites, and behold, they saw him coming and they hailed him; but he saith unto them: Fear not; behold, I am a Lamanite. Behold, we have escaped from the Nephites, and they sleep; and behold we have taken of their wine and brought with us.

Moroni’s plan requires a Lamanite. He finds one. What could a Lamanite do that a non-Lamanite could not? For most readers, conditioned by years of assumptions, the expectation is that he is darker skinned, while Nephites were “white.” However, this reason is unlikely, given the actual working-out of the plan (v. 8):

First, Laman is not alone. Moroni has selected other men to go with him. Moroni had searched for a Lamanite and found one. His companions were, therefore, not Lamanites. However, they approach with the one “true” Lamanite. If skin color identified the one Lamanite, then his companions would obviously be recognized on sight as Nephites. Furthermore, the Lamanite armies are being led by a Nephite dissenter, and many of those in the city of Nephi who had ejected the people of Ammon were also Nephite dissenters. According to the record, Laman does all of the talking, and the guards immediately accept his announcement that he is a Lamanite. Thus, there is a language difference between the two groups. Clearly, this difference is not great, because Nephite dissenters easily assimilate into the Lamanite ranks. However, there must be some differences, either in dialect or accent, so that the target Lamanites identified Laman’s voice as soon as they heard it as truly “Lamanite.” As long as his companions remained silent, this ruse would be sufficient. That reading fits the evidence, and the evidence does not allow for a pigmentation difference that is sufficient that it would be noticed.

A second event occurs in an earlier war. This particular experience is important because it specifically references the curse, mark, and dark skin of the 2 Nephi quotation that is the foundation of all of the racist assumptions. The following is Alma 3:6–16, with comments as we read:

6 And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.

This verse gives us the three important elements and some relationship among the three. The “skins of the Lamanites were dark.” (This corresponds to the “skin of blackness” from 2 Nephi 5:21.) Of course, we have the substitution of dark for black, suggesting that the specific color is not required. Next, this skin of darkness/blackness was set upon them “according to the mark” and it is the mark which is the curse.

7 And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed; and the Lord God set a mark upon them, yea, upon Laman and Lemuel, and also the sons of Ishmael, and Ishmaelitish women.

8 And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.

9 And it came to pass that whosoever did mingle his seed with that of the Lamanites did bring the same curse upon his seed.

Part of the definition of becoming Lamanite was that they inherited the curse. Of course, because the definition of Lamanite was one who was an enemy to a Nephite, that seems pretty clear. The possible issue here is genetic, in that it comes from “mingling” with Lamanites. However, the opposite change to “white and delightsome” appears to happen upon conversion, so that puts this interpretation in doubt. We see in 3 Nephi 2:13–16:

13 And it came to pass that before this thirteenth year had passed away the Nephites were threatened with utter destruction because of this war, which had become exceedingly sore.

14 And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;

15 And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;

16 And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year.

Before the thirteenth year passes away (v. 13) there are Lamanites who unite with the Nephites and become Nephites (v. 14). As part of their conversion “their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites” (v. 15). Then we have the reiteration that all of this takes place before the end of the thirteenth year (v. 16). The speed of this change precludes any naturally occurring process that changes pigmentation. Nevertheless, simply by becoming Nephites the curse is gone and their skins are no long black but are now white.

Knowing that this change is virtually immediate becomes important as we read the rest of the story from Alma 3:

10 Therefore, whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites was called under that head, and there was a mark set upon him.

Verse 10 reiterates that conversion from Nephite to Lamanite sets the mark, just as simple conversion from Lamanite to Nephite removes it.

13 Now we will return again to the Amlicites, for they also had a mark set upon them; yea, they set the mark upon themselves, yea, even a mark of red upon their foreheads.

14 Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them.

15 And again: I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also.

16 And again: I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed.

These verses are consistent. They speak of the same mingling and the same curse. Interestingly, however, the Amlicite mark was red on the forehead, which the Nephites linked to the scriptural mark. Thus the Amlicites are marked, but it is not only a voluntary marking, but one that required red on the forehead. If the Amlicites were to be marked, why wasn’t it with the skin of blackness? Of course, if we read “skin of blackness” as a metaphor, then they do change their hearts (we idiomatically speak of a black heart which is not intended literally).

More importantly, if they really did have an immediate pigmentation change, the mark was unnecessary. Why was the mark necessary from the Amlicite perspective? The Amlicite battle plan required that they flee from the Nephites towards a Lamanite army. That Lamanite army needed to know that the fully armed warriors running full speed at them were friends. They had to know the difference between the Amlicite friends who were springing a trap and the Nephites who were falling into it. If there were a pigmentation difference, it would have been obvious. It wasn’t visually obvious, so a red mark was required to mark the ones that the Lamanites should allow to pass.

Nevertheless, Mormon sees this marking in the context of the curse. If Mormon were familiar with the changeable skin pigmentation, he had no reason to case the Amlicite actions in the connection with that curse and mark. This even further clarifies that there was no available obvious difference that would allow someone to see that someone was Lamanite or Nephite. The “skin of darkness” is only textually consistent if read as a metaphor. It cannot be supported as a pigmentation change.

[1] Milton R. Hunter, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956), 191.

[2] Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), Volume 4, Part 2, 895.

[3] Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 Volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:117–22.

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