Laman’s Curse: Etiology and Race in the Book of Mormon #BOM2016

2 Nephi 5

For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; where fore, as they were white, and exceeding fair and delightsome,  that they might not be enticing unto my people, therefore 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.–2 Nephi 4 (1830 Edition)

Etiology is the study of how things got to be the way they are. Religion and mythology are full of etiological tales. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is an etiological story to account for the development of languages. “How the Bear Lost Its Tail” is an etiological story about why bears don’t have tails. We humans are naturally curious; we like to know where things come from. And our emotional desire for explanations far exceeds our rational capacity to discover true answers. In the absence of good science, we are always willing to buy stories that just seem like they ought to be true.

I say this as a preface to my discussion of an extremely problematic passage in the Book of Mormon–the story of Laman and Lemuel’s curse in the fourth (now the fifth) chapter of 2 Nephi. This is a problematic passage for many reasons, but mainly because it tends to produce really racist readings of the entire Book of Mormon–readings rooted in a long and incorrect tradition of seeing Laman’s curse as an etiological tale to explain the origin of Native American racial characteristics.

I want to make two points about etiology and race in this passage that I hope will not be controversial, but that I suspect will be because their combined effect requires us to acknowledge both personal and institutional failures. The two statements go like this:

  1. When the Book of Mormon was first published in the 19th century, it was seen by nearly everybody in and out of the Church as an etiological tale—the story of how the American Indians developed their specific racial characteristics.
  2. Today, it is the official position of the Church that the Book of Mormon is NOT an etiological story—or at least that it need not be read as an etiological story—because the Book of Mormon should no longer be seen as describing the only or even the principal ancestors of Native peoples.

The first of these assertions is beyond serious doubt. Just about everybody in the early Church from Joseph Smith on down saw the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon as the principle ancestors of the American Indians. Early Mormons considered Native Americans to be the fulfillment of Book of Mormon prophecy—a remnant of the House of Israel that was destined to accept the Gospel and hasten the return of the Lord. And in the process they were going to become white.

In 1830, there was hardly any other way to read this narrative. In the first place, the notion of dark skin as a divine curse was deeply embedded in the culture, both by a long history of racism and by the biblical precedent of the Curse of Cain–which most white Protestants in the 19th century accepted as the origin of black skin. In this sense, we see biblical typology again playing a key role in the reception the Book of Mormon: for more than a century, the Curse of Laman was read (incorrectly) an antitype of the Curse of Cain (which was also read incorrectly), and these two etiological fables supported each other in the Church for far too many generations.

This also had a lot to do with the state of scientific knowledge in 19th century America. The first generation of Mormons lived in a pre-Darwinian, pre-Mendelian universe that knew nothing of genetics, DNA, natural selection, or even the ages of rocks. In this world view, everything that people saw around them had to have come about in 6,000 years in a universe that had no mechanism for the gradual development of phenotypes. “God did it” was a pretty standard etiology for all kinds of stuff, including racial traits and socioeconomic conditions.

In 1830, there were very few plausible explanations for racial divergence that did not involve divine intervention. The imputation of etiological significance to Laman’s curse, while in no way required by the text, was an unavoidable result of the cultural and scientific assumptions of the day. In 2016, however, we have access to much better explanations for variations in skin pigmentation. We no longer have to appeal to curse narratives that are morally reprehensible and scientifically unsound.

This bit about scientific soundness is important. God cannot speak to people in ways that go beyond their culture’s understanding of the universe. Or, perhaps more accurately, when the scriptures speak to people about things that involve natural principles, we cannot understand what they are saying in terms that go beyond our culture’s scientific understanding. When we have access to better narratives, we need to take advantage of them. And we usually do, though it can take us a while.

Let’s look at an easy example of this phenomenon. In Joshua 10:13, we are told that the Lord, at Joshua’s request, made the sun stand still to give a military advantage to the people of Israel. We know, of course, that no such thing could have happened, since the sun does not actually revolve around the Earth. If the sun, appeared still in the sky, the Lord would have to have made the EARTH stand still. But if the writer of Joshua had said that, nobody would have had the foggiest idea what he meant, since, for most of human history, thinking that the Earth moved around the Sun has been a sure sign of insanity.

Fortunately, a Church lead by living prophets has the ability to refine its understanding of ancient scriptures when cultural and scientific progress make new narratives available. This is exactly how the Church as an institution has responded to scientific evidence challenging the view that the Book of Mormon peoples were the principal ancestors of the American Indians. When presented with compelling evidence, the Church did exactly what we all must do when the things we think we know for sure no longer work for the world we live in.

In 2006, the official introduction to the Book of Mormon was changed from describing the Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” to listing them “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” And the new Gospel Topics essay “The Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” makes it clear that the Book of Mormon need not, and should not be read as an attempted etiology of the Native American people:

The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby. Consequently, most early Latter-day Saints assumed that Near Easterners or West Asians like Jared, Lehi, Mulek, and their companions were the first or the largest or even the only groups to settle the Americas. Building upon this assumption, critics insist that the Book of Mormon does not allow for the presence of other large populations in the Americas and that, therefore, Near Eastern DNA should be easily identifiable among modern native groups.

The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups. At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”

The “Race and the Priesthood” essay is even blunter about the “Curse of Cain” etiological tale, grouping it with other discredited racial theories and acknowledging that, “over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”

This is a huge shift in something that once looked a lot like immutable doctrine. Most Latter-day Saints of my generation—who grew up with Tom Trails, the Polynesian Culture Center, and the Lamanite Generation—have a hard time re-orienting ourselves to this new understanding of race and etiology. We never questioned the “Native-Americans-as-Lamanites” narrative when we were younger, but we need to now. Not only has the institutional Church has cast serious doubt on that narrative; science has given us much better ways to understand the evolution of different skin coloring–ways that do not require us to be racist jerks.

So it is up to us to find ways to find ethical readings for these stories that have been read unethically for so long. When the “curse narratives” of Laman and Cain are emptied etiological significance—when they are no longer attached to racist and unscientific theories about skin color and moral worth—we are simply left with stories about individuals whose moral degeneracy took on physical dimensions. We can derive all of the meaning we need from the story by seeing it as an allegory of hypocrisy and the consequences of sin. It does not have to explain the concept of race in America to have spiritual meaning and value.

And we might profitably use this recent shift in what was once an important part of LDS theology as an invitation to show more humility about other things that seem unequivocally true today, but which may not seem quite so true tomorrow.


  1. What a smart, sensible, and much needed post! Thank you!

  2. What john f. said. Excellent.
    I would caution, however, that “stories about individuals whose moral degeneracy took on physical dimensions” are deeply troubling even without any reference to race. Physiognomy as a way to measure righteousness has a painful history.

  3. Christian, I agree. But _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ is still one of my 10 or so favorite novels.

  4. I happen to be teaching Gospel Doctrine this Sunday, and I was planning on bringing up this passage by way of launching a discussion about how to deal with hard passages of scripture. Your post is most helpful in preparing me for that, so thank you!

  5. This was an important post. Excellent and timely. However, I wanted to be clear about a point you state and am wondering if you really meant what you said. Are you saying the Sun (or Earth) did not stand still? If so, how was the day lengthened? And do you think sailors were surprised when the tides shifted due to the stoppage? As a scientist I would like to know.

  6. I have been forever taught by the LDS Church that the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the Pacific Islands, were Lehi’s descendants.Or a mixture of Lehites and Mulekites. (Jaredites being all destroyed.) Nothing whatsoever about other pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas. And I note that the references in the Book of Mormon and DNA Studies essay do not include any prophetic statements to the contrary. Only one General Authority is quoted. Are we to accept John Sorensen’s speculations as more authoritative than all the restoration prophets who came before him?

  7. Tim Jones says:

    Read the updated introduction to the Book of Mormon. “Principal ancestors of the American Indians” was changed to “among the ancestors of the American Indians” several years ago.

  8. Thank you. I was needing some help re-imagining 2 Nephi 5 and Alma 3. Following a different tack, has anyone read a recent Neal A. Maxwell publication by Ethan Sproat: “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis”? The article is kind of FARMSy, but I think it’s amazing to contemplate that ‘skin’ might refer to a type of authoritative garment, and not to skin pigmentation. Because people have been predisposed to think of ‘skin’ as the fleshy organ instead of the clothing, we were blinded to a productive interpretation all along. Sorry if this is too much of a tangent.

  9. SteveP, sorry man, I thought you knew. God had the turtles stop swimming for a time, and everything stopped–all the way down.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Regarding Joshua (and ignoring the issue that the OT as now had was compiled by uninspired scribes after the exile and that the Book of Mormon tells us much was corrupted). I’ve long liked Nibley’s perspective that people wrote according to their understanding. If it seemed light for a long time then it’s easy to see how that could become the sun not moving even though that’s an interpretation of the phenomena behind the experience. I think we should read scripture with that in mind. Often they are making interpretations which aren’t the same as the report of their experiences. Throw in transmission issues and things can get a bit distorted.

    phbrown, can’t speak to what you’ve been taught. The scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming though. There are pretty strong indications in the text even if no one in the 19th century read it that way too. Too bad we don’t have the lost 116 pages as it might have shed more light on this.

    To my eyes, the fact the brethren have assigned people to write articles like Book of Mormon and DNA Studies for is a pretty overwhelming indicator of their views too. As for prophetic statements, the problem is always figuring out what is revelation from what is only interpretation. To my eyes there has never been a revelation outside of the Book of Mormon & D&C on the origin of native Americans.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    To add, to me the problem is that we don’t want to imagine righteous people can have sinful views like racism. That seems a problem. We want our heroes to be perfect and when they aren’t it throws us, even though it shouldn’t. I have no trouble with Nephi and others being racists (nearly everyone in the ancient world was along some dimension). Heavens, it took Jesus Christ forcing the Nephites to even get them to mention Samuel the Lamanite. Nephite culture isn’t necessarily something presented by the Book of Mormon as typically a good thing.

    It’s quite easy to imagine the Nephites (then still a very small group) seeing Laman, Lemuel and other others mix with the indigenous peoples. To the early Nephite Jewish eyes would be a very bad thing – Jews were very xenophobic especially about intermarriage that didn’t come with conversion. The native peoples appeared different and the Nephites interpreted this as a kind of curse. What makes it more problematic to teach is that of course in one sense it was a curse since they lost their jewishness in terms of religion. However the etiology is simply more problematic (and mostly wrong) despite the fact it’s what Nephi presents.

    To me it’s worth considering reading the Book of Mormon in light of this and how often it condemns the false traditions of the fathers. But what traditions were false? The text is actually much more complex on this than it first appears. While it’s easy to read superficially as white good guys and dark skinned bad guys, the reality is that the Nephites often are the bad guys (even the Alma chapters it’s often Nephite dissenters leading the Laminates to attack the Nephites). The Lamanites typically come off best in the text (IMO))

  12. I’ve thought one explanation for any skin color change could be from intermarriage. That would also explain a more robust population.

  13. Martin James says:

    The easy part is changing the interpretation of the Book of Mormon. The hard part is how to make any sense of authority and the institutional church with that reinterpretation. I don’t think it just makes those of us raised on Tom Trails dizzy, it makes the whole thing problematic because the language of the church is intertemporal universalistic in so many ways that changes like this make it all seem like make believe. I think this is just as true of american legal traditions also. IT is very hard to sustain a respect for the rule of law once when reinterpretation gets faster and faster and larger and larger in scope. Once we all know that words mean just what we want them to mean, then the words come to seem pretty pointless. This is not to argue for once side or other of the literalist versus pragmatist side of the argument as much as it is to say that neither side works anymore. We have no moral language that binds more than a minority of people together and that applies within communities of small scale like the church and large scale like nations. I think we are living through a strong tower of babel phase for moral language in general. It is not that moral language hasn’t always been contested, it is just the number of contacts we have with competing moral communities has increased in both speed and scope. It is an open question how much reason and revelation will play in resolving this versus force, evolution and public relations.

  14. Tim Jones says:

    Mark S–I think that’s the best and simplest explanation.

  15. Martin James says:

    Exhibit A is LaVoy and the Bundys. It is a very thorny problem to figure out how much they are a moral community of one each and when they are a living branch of Mormonism. Those of us more at peace with the corporate church and the federal government want to disown them quickly, but they are clearly influenced by historical branches of mormonism. Can the center hold? Maybe, but what that center will look like is pretty unpredictable. I don’t know that we teach it, for example.

  16. b00tstrap says:

    Clark (10:05 pm), I’ve heard people occasionally and vaguely say that the BoM text has clues that there was an existing population in the Americas, independent of the Lehites/Jaredites/Mulekites, but I have yet to see specifics that support this notion. I’ve never seen these clues in my reading and would be glad to have them pointed out to me. It seems to me though that those most familiar with the BoM in the beginning genuinely and fervently believed that outside the people mentioned in the BoM, there was no one else on the continent.

    For my part, while trying to gain a belief in the BoM many years ago, the witness I received was that it was true, but not factual. Its message was true in broad strokes, but it also contained many false details, and it had no objective factuality to it. But the book was a miracle in many other senses. I suppose I take comfort in the fact that just like many of the parables Jesus told, which were basically just stories, when the BoM has spiritual power, it is not predicated on the existence of the characters in our objective reality.

    In the years since, that witness has made subsequent discoveries about the process surrounding the creation of the BoM make a lot more sense to me. The premise of the OP makes sense to me as a 19th century explanation for the Indians. I admit that it’s a lonely place as an active Mormon with a very different belief regarding the BoM. I still find myself sometimes wondering where my place in the church is, but ironically, very little if any activity in the church requires a belief that the BoM represents a factual, historical record.

  17. “When the “curse narratives” of Laman and Cain are emptied etiological significance—when they are no longer attached to racist and unscientific theories about skin color and moral worth—we are simply left with stories about individuals whose moral degeneracy took on physical dimensions.”

    Michael, unless I am missing something (and I may be), your own formulation preserves the element of race by assuming that there actually was a physical dimension to the moral degeneracy in question. You make no allowance for the very real possibility that there was no “physical dimension” associated with the sinful conduct, that it was something simply added after the fact by the author of the story to further stigmatize a perceived enemy. Heaven knows, there is ample precedent in human history to support such an interpretation.

  18. FarSide, I think that this is a very real possibility (that the physical dimension of the punishment was added later by hostile authors or redactors), but we are still “left with stories about individuals whose moral degeneracy took on physical dimensions.” How we choose to interpret those stories–do they represent what really happened, are they after-the-fact additions, is the whole thing supposed to be allegorical?–is a separate question from whether or not they were ever intended to give us an etiology for a set of racial characteristics.

    So all I am saying here is that, on its own terms, the story is about a physical manifestation of a moral condition. I am taking no position whatsoever on whether or not it is a true or valid or historically accurate story. (Remember, I am approaching this whole thing as a literary critic, not as a historian or a theologian).

  19. Fair point, Michael. Thanks for the response.

  20. Martin James says:

    But your literary criticism does involve historically contingent concepts like “race” so it is hard not to see your criticism as historical.

  21. Martin James says:

    1. “This is a huge shift in something that once looked a lot like immutable doctrine.”
    2. “Not only has the institutional Church has cast serious doubt on that narrative; science has given us much better ways to understand the evolution of different skin coloring–ways that do not require us to be racist jerks.”
    3. “So it is up to us to find ways to find ethical readings for these stories that have been read unethically for so long.”

    All three of these examples seem to be historical judgments in addition toliterary criticism. I’m curious what ethics you presume in your criticism.

  22. MartinJames,

    I know very few literary critics who do not deal with historically contingent concepts like race. It is kind of a big deal in the field. What I am saying, though, is that my approach to the text–in this case the Book of Mormon–is to evaluate it as literature, not as history. So, when I say that “we are left with stories about individuals whose moral degeneracy took on a physical dimension,” imagine that I am talking about Moby Dick or The Picture of Dorian Gray (both of which involve physical manifestations of moral conditions to a rather large extent).

    Yes, there is a historical dimension to that criticism, and yes, understanding the role that historically contingent concepts like race played and continued to play in the reception of these works (especially Moby Dick) is an important part of the argument. Literature exists in history, after all, and is affected by and affects historical forces. But it still makes sense to bracket certain historical arguments when discussing something as literature. “Where was Queequeg REALLY from?” for example, is not a question that I would pay much attention to in a literary analysis of Moby Dick. “What color did Laman REALLY turn (if he turned any color at all)”? Is another such question.

    Also note (for those who wonder) that this is not an approach that denies the historicity of the Book of Mormon, just one that does not consider certain historical arguments as relevant to the specific kind of arguments that I am trying to make.

  23. Martin James says:

    I think I understand that but it seems to me that it leads immediately to the question of why we read the Book of Mormon (and other literature). Are we reading the book of mormon to conform our ethics to its ethics or are we trying to save a reading of it and keep our existing ethics? It strikes me as apologistic literary criticism. I see its value for those of us that have a pre-existing reason to read the book of mormon, but it seems to leave the issue of “if reading the book of mormon didn’t help people not be racist jerks, then why should we read it at all?”
    It seems part of the whole “canon” issue of whether there are uses of historical literature beyond evidence of dead ethics.
    I think this is a very live and important issue. How do we tell when we are keeping the good and getting rid of the old and when we are missing the message about pride, for example, and congratulating ourselves on our own non-racist righteousness?
    I would like to have hope but it seems somewhat hopeless to me to reconcile old scripture and religion and literature with a shifting moral landscape. I recognize that we do it all the time including say, Plato and Aristotle, but I am sympathetic to both those that say they are obsolete and good riddance and those that say, our culture is dying because we are missing their lessons in trying to adapt them to our own circumstances. What happens when we distrust those that brought us the morals that we have?
    I distrust the mob (like those that argue for authority) but also realize that the mob is all we have (in that there is no way to escape the present and its moral fads).

  24. Ah, the question of why we should read the BOM, or read it from a literary perspective, is a very good one, which I can answer only for myself.

    I am a Latter-day Saint. This is the faith tradition that I was born into and that I have chosen to continue in for a whole lot of reasons, some of them emotional, some of them spiritual, and some of them social. How all of that mixes together would be a long post indeed. But this is my tradition, and I have chosen to stick with it, which means that reading the Book of Mormon is part of the spiritual path that I have chosen.

    I am also a professional literary critic. It was, for a very long time, my day job (now I am a useless administrator, but that, too, is another story). I have spent my professional life reading literature, writing about literature, and teaching literature to students. I am under no illusions that this is an incredibly important profession to the future of humanity–like, say, curing AIDS or building affordable housing. But it’s what I do.

    So, in order for me to be a person with integrity–a person who manages to integrate the various aspects of my life into something like a coherent package–it is important to me to use the tools of my profession to study the objects of my religious devotion. This is why I wrote a book on Job, why I have produced several books and articles on Mormon literature, and why I resolved, at the beginning of the year, to read the Book of Mormon and blog about it from a literary perspective.

    If this part of my faith journey can be useful to other people, I am happy to share it. If it gets people thinking and coming to conclusions that are not the same as mine, I am happy to be part of their faith journey, if only as a foil. But part of my peculiar academic psyche is that I don’t feel that I have really thought something until I have published it in some format on the off chance that somebody somewhere will want to read it.

    So I will keep going, trying to loosely tie the my blog posts to the Gospel Doctrine manual in case anything I say can be useful to teachers, because doing this is an important part of my own spiritual journey. But that is an answer to your question that only works for me. Your mileage may vary.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    Martin (10:09) I’m not sure we should be reading it simply to confirm our ethics or keep our ethics or challenge our ethics. It seems to me we should ideally be reading in the spirit and trying to figure out what God wants us to learn right then. The catalyst theory of scripture reading always seemed the most correct to me. That said, I think it fair to question the texts and not assume things are as straightforward as a simple reading suggest. I’m not sure that’s apologetic literary criticism. Just taking seriously the questions raised and recognizing people understand in terms of their culture but aren’t limited by their culture.

    Of course while I enjoy literary criticism at times, I think limiting ourselves to literary criticism can miss a lot of the important points of the book. (Depending upon how one views literary theory I suppose)

    Martin (9:29) I confess the line between historical judgments, literary criticism, just plain philosophical inquiry and pragmatic utility all seem like rather blurry distinctions. I’m not sure these taxonomies help us much truth be told. Ultimately what counts is the arguments, the aims of the arguments, and what counts as evidence.

    Michael (8:49) some of the problematic passages take place in Nephi’s writings which don’t seem to have been edited/redacted – although I suppose that’s up for dispute. In the rest of the text I think you’re completely right. (Again the fact that Jesus commands the Nephites to even include Samuel – and it appears little is really said about him – is extremely important to me)

    That said I fully agree that as presented this is viewed as a physical manifestation of a moral condition. I’m not sure the division between literature and history is that helpful. After all making that kind of judgment is pretty typical human behavior until quite recently.

    b00tstrap (8:32) I’d check out the various books on Book of Mormon limited geography. They go through the many textual evidences. The strongest reasons to think it are of course the extensive archaeological evidence that there were huge civilizations going on before and after the Nephites arrived. Further the problem of numbers (how did a few dozen people end up so populous in a very short time) indicates the population wasn’t pure Nephite.

    I’ll disagree on the historicity question although of course one can believe in real Nephites without thinking the book is without error. I think the writers of the book wrote from limited perspectives and reading the text as if it’s inerrant in any sense is just plain wrong. I think we should read the text as if it were written by very primitive people with very limited knowledge. That to me explains most of the odd elements in the text such as the etiology of race.

  26. Lew Scannon says:

    I’ve seen arguments by those who try to explain that “skin” in the Book of Mormon really means a “spiritual skin,” something metaphorical. But that is what we might call wresting the scriptures. It’s an attempt to take the inherent racist attitudes that are plain in the book and twist them to something more politically correct. It’s very obvious that “skin” in the Book of Mormon means “skin.” Just as “north” means “north,” not some other direction.

    And what about Joseph’s report that Moroni told him the book was an “account of the former inhabitants of this continent”? This continent. North America. Which was full of Indians at that time. What about D&C 28, which called Oliver Cowdery to go on a mission to the Lamanites? Not the distant descendants of many other races and peoples, mixed together with a little bit of DNA from Lehi’s descendants. No, the Lamanites were Lamanites. Still. In 1830. And Oliver went where? To the Indians who had been relocated to lands west of Independence, Missouri. D&C 33 calls Parley Pratt and Ziba Peterson to join Oliver to go “into the wilderness among the Lamanites.” D&C 54:8 refers again to the “borders of the Lamanites” in Missouri. These are American Indians. The revelations can’t be read any other way.Section 57 is a response to Joseph’s concern about “the state of the Lamanites and the lack of civilization, refinement, and religion among the people generally.” The early Saints believed the American Indians were Lamanites, not because they had misread the Book of Mormon, but because Joseph’s revelations and his account of Moroni’s visit identified them as such. But because of DNA studies and other factors, Lamanites can’t be Lamanites anymore. So we’re in a bit of a quandary here.

    The Book of Mormon only allows for other groups in the promised land when read creatively. When the Nephites met the so-called Mulekites, the account was up front about it. The only other group identified was the Jaredites. All other imagined groups that inhabited the promised land and may have mixed with the Lehites were just that—imagined, by readers who need the text to say something it doesn’t say.

  27. Clark Goble says:

    Lew, the text of course doesn’t give the history of what the Lamanites were doing. So just because the Nephite record their meeting with the Mulekites that means nothing about who the Lamanites were meeting. Likewise since we are missing the 116 pages dealing with the early history of the Nephites and only have the more religious writings of Nephi, Jacob and company, it’s hard to say they didn’t record other meetings.

    Regarding north and so forth, that’s a bit afield. I’d just say that all these terms have meaning in terms of the culture in question. To assume there’s a 1:1 mapping between the extension of terms in our culture/language and the terms underlying our English translation of the Book of Mormon seems rather dubious. Especially when we look at how directional terms are actually used in many languages/cultures of inhabitants here in the Americas.

    As for Moroni’s comment, I confess I don’t see how that purports to be a comprehensive account of all the inhabitants of America. That reading it as the Indians is natural seems clear. That such a reading is complete or fully correct seems an other matter.

  28. Martin James says:

    Thanks for the detailed explanation and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  29. Everything I was taught growing up LDS was that Native Americans were Lamanites — and there were NO OTHER peoples here. We had two Lamanite students stay with us for a couple years to go to school under the church’s educational program at the time. So, up until about 25 years ago, that WAS the narrative of the church. It WAS what the early church believed with little question about it. The record is pretty clear.

    Now, with DNA, archaeological, anthropological, and other evidence, the church is — as the author says — changing its narrative. That’s a good thing, in a sense. Yes, we are becoming more sensitive to the racism that existed (and to some extent still exists) in the BoM.

    But it also means that the church is trying to double-speak by saying, “oh, that’s not really what we meant, that’s not really how the early church understood it” in an effort to comport, at least some, to the new evidence. It’s trying to have it both ways, culpable deniability. There were no other peoples before, but
    now we’re saying there were. It makes for sloppy history and even messier apologetics.

  30. b00tstrap says:

    Clark, what I was looking for was some *within*-BoM evidence or suggestion that there were other pre-existing civilizations, which is what I hear tossed around periodically (you spoke of “strong indications in the text” in your comment, for instance). But you seem to confirm my point that such references don’t exist by directing me instead to external apologetic narratives and of course the massive weight of objective scientific evidence that the Americas were peopled not by Lehites et al. but by migrations across Beringia.

    It just seems like a stretch (to me) that in all the detailed descriptions the BoM gives of the new world, the authors just forgot to mention the millions of people already living there with a wholly different culture from their own Jewish heritage. That the BoM text allows for the existence of massive civilizations existing alongside the Lehites et al. while the whole thing plays out, with no mention of trade, wars, or other interactions. Seems like burying the lede. I mean look at the OT — sure the main story is about Israel but when you read it there’s no escaping the fact that all of that played out in a complex milieu of lots of other civilizations. One would think the BoM would follow suit in that regard if it was aware of other civilizations in the Americas.

  31. Martin James says:

    “Ultimately what counts is the arguments, the aims of the arguments, and what counts as evidence.”
    In respect to morals and religious belief, I’m interested in some consistency between how we explain our own and how we explain other people’s. If we wouldn’t believe an argument in the context of another religion then we shouldn’t use that kind of an argument for our own religion.

  32. J. Stapley says:

    As a side note, it is pretty easy to project our own experiences onto the entirety of Church history. Just because we grew up with correlation, doesn’t mean that every Saint in history did. On the issue of BoM geography, I posted about pre-correlation diversity last month, with some fun correspondence.

  33. Clark Goble says:

    b00tstrap (3:14) as I said it depends upon how you read it. The classic paper on Others in the land is Sorenson’s from ’92. But lots of people have looked at it since. The main arguments from the text are (1) distances reported by the text (2) numbers in the text. The main explicit textual argument comes from Jacob 1:14 where he explains the meaning of his terms as political and less racial. That is everyone not Nephite was designated Laminate. There are a few other hints regarding the term “brethren” in Alma 31:25 and in other places. (i.e. phrase to Lamanites “many of them are our brethren” but all Lamanites were their brethren suggesting non-Lamanites, non-nephrites) That’s more circumstantial though and I don’t see it as strong evidence.

    There’s certainly no explicit encountering of others described beyond the people designated as the Mulekites. Although that’s an argument from silence. (Especially given such encounters would have happened early and have been covered in the lost 116 pages)

    The problem of course is who has the burden of proof here. If all the scientific evidence argues against the interpretation that everyone in the Americas are purely from the Lehites and the Book of Mormon doesn’t require a reading like that, then why read it like that? The fact that was the traditional reading seems kind of beside the point unless one adopts an inerrancy position regarding Book of Mormon interpretation.

    Really the issue, as with many things, is over whether one thinks Joseph Smith wrote it or whether one thinks he translated it. With the later then Joseph’s understanding doesn’t determine the meaning of the text. With the former then these issues of Joseph’s understanding (and early 19th century reader response in general) are more significant.

  34. Clark Goble says:

    Mormon Farmer (2:44) “But it also means that the church is trying to double-speak by saying, “oh, that’s not really what we meant, that’s not really how the early church understood it” in an effort to comport, at least some, to the new evidence.”

    I confess I don’t see that. I don’t see the Church denying earlier beliefs were wrong. Why do you see them trying to have it both ways? We’re a church who believes in continuing revelation which pretty much means our views will inexorably change with time. There may be a few members trying to have it both ways but I’ve certainly not seen apologists saying that. Apologists will note that early beliefs were more diverse than many assume. But that’s far from the same as denying the early beliefs were held.

    Martin (3:15) I get what you’re getting at. If something is wrong it shouldn’t be indexed to a time or culture. At the same time it seems undeniable that culpability is tied to comprehension. So perhaps you’re conflating the two? I rather suspect there are things we do today that are wrong but that we don’t recognize as wrong. However unless I know what those are and have a reason to believe them wrong, what can I do?

    Now this gets trickier since of course the people in the Book of Mormon were explicitly told that God wasn’t a respecter of people and that he “deniether none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remebereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Ne 26:33) However again I’d simply note that the Nephites and their culture is not held up for praise but typically as a warning to us. So I’ve no problem saying Nephi didn’t live up to what he should have. At the same time I almost certainly don’t always live up to what I should – although I certainly am trying. So while we have to state what is just we also have to remember mercy.

  35. Martin James says:

    Not exactly where I was going. I was mainly addressing the question of how we acquire moral positions not how we live according to our morals. You mentioned arguments and evidence. One school would have it that you can only argue if you have an agreement on the morals first or what counts as moral evidence. I am suggesting that the big action is what determines the moral presumptions or how we recognize moral evidence. To me, there is an obvious gap where argument does nothing because people disagree on the moral premises. Sometimes out of good faith and other times out of wanting to get to a particular conclusion and then inventing moral premises to support it.
    My perspective is that the non-religious don’t accept personal testimony of supernatural evidence as evidence while religious people want authority or tradition to constrain supernatural evidence in a way that substitutes authority and/or tradition for the supernatural in ways that prevent reasoning because the history is contradictory or fails to analogize to new cases. It is unprincipled.
    This leaves me interested in how people “engineer” their morals or moral reasoning and in rationalization, storytelling and accommodation. It is my experience that few people, including myself, understand what caused their moral positions. This is not a big deal when morals are fairly static but it is a big problem when they are changing because we don’t know how or why they are changing or at least overestimate how much we understand why.

  36. Respectfully, this comes across like pseudo-sophisticated academic psychobabble. Sophistry at its finest. I appreciate the desire to not be racists, but at the same time, lies do not become us. Those verses WERE and ARE racist. They were inspired by the racist culture of the 19th century, period. It deserves to be called out for what it was, not swept under the rug. Stop making excuses for the mistakes of these men like a bunch of ninnies that don’t have the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what’s right.

  37. Martin James says:

    Exhibit B : Andrew

  38. We’re learning to read the Book of Mormon more closely, and that’s a good thing. We’re learning to distinguish between what Book of Mormon characters knew by revelation or otherwise and what they assumed (note, for example, in the verses quoted at the head of this post, the Lord says the Nephites will find the Lamanites loathesome, but it’s Nephi who assumes that loathesomeness grows out of, or at least includes, a dark skin — the Lord does not say that here). We’re earning to distinguish between what the text says, and what we’ve assumed it meant.

    When readers become disillusioned by the Book of Mormon, it’s often because they don’t understand that these are legitimate distinctions to make: when a false traditional reading is identified and corrected, the disillusioned only see that “the Church has changed its teaching,” not that we’re all still learning, and that it’s a good thing that we’ve learned something since the days when shaky assumptions became the standard readings.

    What seldom if ever seems to change is the central message of the Book of Mormon: Jesus is the Christ, he is the Savior and Redeemer, and his atonement is the central feature of this world and this book. Whether Nephi misunderstood the origin of a dark skin, or whether Bruce R. McConkie wrongly assumed that the Nephites used coins, or whether Moroni read Christian doctrine into the Jaredite writings that may not have been there originally, doesn’t affect what matters in the end.

    Forgive me for interjecting a Sunday School comment. It’s just that this year I’m challenging my class every week to distinguish between what the Book of Mormon says and what we assume it says because somebody sometime interpreted it to the best of his knowledge in 1830 or 1930 or whenever — the “mistakes of men” apart from the doctrine of Christ. These verses are what I will challenge my class with this Sunday.

  39. That’s an excellent comment, Ardis! I gained a lot from it. Thanks.

  40. Clark Goble says:

    Martin (5:05) Actually I pretty well agree with you there. Ethics are just epistemologically problematic in my view. At least Mormons can say we learn through the spirit. Other than that what is usually done is try to abstract from the semantics of “the good” (or worse, the historical genealogy of philosophical conceptions of the good) and then come up with a meta-ethics from which all ethics can be derived. I’m extremely skeptical of such approaches as well as approaches that simply latch on to our intuitions.

    As you note, when we are in periods of rapid change in morals (such as in contemporary society) figuring out how to ground ideas seems even more important and often very problematic.

  41. Rob Osborn says:

    I think its important that we view the change of skin color as a sign that the Nephites dont mingle their seed with the Lamanites. It wasnt ever saying dark skin was a curse of evil hut rather a distinguishing feature.

  42. Ardis–I will shamelessly poach your ideas (and Mike’s) for my class on Sunday as well. Thanks!

  43. I would like to blame the racism on Nephi, sincerely. But the verse you quoted says, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” I dont see any easy way to get out of the problems that brings up. Does Nephi speak for the Lord here? Does Joseph Smith? Who is really at the helm of this racist verse? God? That would be horrifying. The words themselves are going to be pretty difficult to talk around. I am glad I’m not the Sunday school teacher.

  44. Annie, maybe it’s worth noting that the “thus saith the Lord” piece only includes that the Lamanites would be loathsome to the Nephites, not that their skin becoming dark was the specific way they would become loathsome (also interesting that the prophecy was that they would become loathsome to the Nephites, not to the Lord).

    Maybe that’s splitting hairs. If Nephi did take the Lord’s name in vain to support his racist belief, he wouldn’t be the only one.

  45. Thanks JKC, sometimes the work of trying to make the messy parts fit gets to be too much. It just seems crazy making. I believe God allows us agency and we will make mistakes, but my small brain cant work out all the kinks anymore. There seems to be a point where faith and logic diverge completely. I wonder was it really meant to be this way?

  46. Actually, Ann, Ardis has a good post that goes into detail on that very issue over at Keepapitchinin.

    It is sometimes hard to keep track of what is the Lord speaking and what is the prophet. I think that reveals something about the process of revelation: it is not something where the Lord just takes over the prophet and dictates his words; it is something where the prophet has to work hard to discern God’s voice, and might not always get it right. Our culture always blinds us to certain aspects of God’s message. Nephi’s faults might seem so obvious to us, but they were a lot harder for him. The things that we are so easily blinded to were so obvious to Moroni. I think if we assume that we can really, truly always separate what is God’s voice and what is our own, we are deluding ourselves. But we have to do our best to try, anyway.