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:
- 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.
- 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.