Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Lesson #7: 2 Nephi 3-5

This approximates the lesson I taught in my ward today, adding a few things I wanted to get to if we’d had more time.

In 1999 I was a missionary in Helsingør, Denmark (familiar to Shakespeare buffs as the setting for Hamlet). In the good ol’ Danish Mission getting let in to teach was a pretty rare occurrence, but we met this woman, taught her a first discussion, and even came back for a second. When we showed up for the third, though, we found the Book of Mormon hanging in a bag on her doorknob, with a note saying, “God is not a racist. 2 Nephi 5:21.”

Obviously I’m still around, almost 17 years later, so this episode (and that verse) didn’t destroy my testimony, but it does raise questions about what to do with passages, like that one, that grate against our modern sensibilities. (Mike’s recent post has some good ideas!) Conveniently, today’s chapters talk a good deal about scripture, giving us occasion to think about such questions.

Chapter 3 verse 12 records words spoken by God to Joseph of Egypt about the purposes of the scriptures that his descendants (and those of his brother Judah) would write:

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

A major purpose of scripture—mentioned twice in this one verse—is bringing about peace, and the prophecy suggests that this cause will be served by reading the Book of Mormon together with the Bible. Augustine’s analogy of faith (see his De Doctrina Christiana, book 3) suggests that difficult places in scripture might be resolved by recourse to the teaching of the Church and the plain places of scripture. Obviously the issue arises of who gets to decide which places are plain, but for my part I believe that the term best applies to major scriptural themes that recur in many places. The verse above suggests that knowledge of covenants is one such theme, and I agree: that God covenants with us and is unflaggingly faithful to us, notwithstanding our weakness, is indeed a centrally important theme in scripture.

Chapter 4 is justly famous for the passage that’s come to be known as “Nephi’s psalm,” but it’s worth remembering that the first half of the chapter talks about the contentions with his brothers after their father’s death. Amidst this discussion, Nephi interjects an aside about his record-keeping practice. After mentioning that the more historical record can be found in his other plates, he writes:

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. (2 Ne. 4:15-19)

It’s interesting that Nephi transitions directly from talking about writing scripture (probably in the sense of copying out Isaiah) to exclaiming his own wretchedness. Juxtaposing frankly fallible humanity with the writing of scripture can be jarring if we expect that either scriptures or the people who write them are perfect, and yet Nephi is quite clear about his own failings:

And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy? (2 Ne. 4:27)

One of Nephi’s apparent struggles has to do with getting angry at his brothers—an understandable failing, but still a failing. Is it possible that Nephi’s anger colored the way that he wrote about his brothers? I think he’d hardly be human if it didn’t.

Coming, then, to the difficult passage in chapter 5, it’s worth noting first that it seems to interrupt a discussion about the building of the Nephite temple. Recall, though, that the chapter began with Nephi taking his people and leaving for a new land to escape the murderous wrath of his brothers, so this temple-building comes on the heels of some serious family trauma. These verses might therefore be trauma recurring, as trauma does:

And behold, the words of the Lord had been fulfilled unto my brethren, which he spake concerning them, that I should be their ruler and their teacher. Wherefore, I had been their ruler and their teacher, according to the commandments of the Lord, until the time they sought to take away my life. Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. 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. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction. (2 Ne. 5:19-25)

Perhaps the place to start with these verses is to note that, whatever they may have meant to Nephi, they played very easily into early 19th-century American racist ideas about the superiority of white people over lazy “colored” people. A complication of 19th-century American racism that may be relevant to Nephi’s situation, though, is that race often has more to do with perception than with any empirical data about skin pigmentation (see David Roediger’s classic The Wages of Whiteness for a history of how, say, the Irish weren’t considered white, or Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, which shows that 19th-century Mormons sometimes weren’t considered white, either). [1] Phrases like “fair and delightsome,” contrasted with “loathsome,” suggest that matters of perception and taste are at play here: it’s not that Irish skin magically got lighter as anti-Irish prejudice waned in the 20th century.

What’s most troubling about the passage, though, is that Nephi gives the agency in this change to God. Troubling, but not necessarily surprising, nor indeed unfamiliar, because Mormonism did much the same thing with the priesthood and temple ban. These are Brigham Young’s words before the Territorial Legislature on 16 January 1852:

… any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it … [2]

By this means Young gave the patina of revelation to the racist and scripturally insupportable notion that the “curse of Cain” explains African skin pigmentation—a teaching that the Church has now repudiated.

My point here is not to beat up on either Nephi or Brigham Young, but rather to observe the dangers that can come from privileging relatively narrow swathes of scripture over major themes of covenantal promises [3], the faithfulness of God, injunctions to love God and neighbor, and universalist messages (beginning with Abraham in Genesis, or arguably even in Gen. 1 [4]) holding out the prospect of salvation to all of humanity. Certainly, there’s plenty in the scriptures to complicate each of these larger messages, but compared with the speculation and frankly biased reading between the lines that it takes to make “doctrine” out of a few verses that may or may not even be about skin pigmentation or access to priesthood or whatever, the picture comes through with considerably greater clarity.

Of course the greater risk isn’t that interpreters end up with egg on their faces, but that we end up denying saving ordinances to people for ca. 125 years for apparently no good reason whatsoever, in the process pushing people away from the Church and creating cultural norms that even today can make being black and Mormon more than a little difficult. Similarly, Nephi’s perceptions, in addition to deriving from the troubles with his brothers, could have exacerbated them further.

But the good news is that, even though the scriptures do contain passages where humans simply got it wrong (as humans are known to do), and even imputed their wrong ideas to God, they also repeat, on a large scale, the ultimately hopeful message that God can and does work with imperfect people to accomplish good things. As Nephi concludes his psalm:

O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen. (2 Ne. 4:34-35)

We can and should follow Nephi’s example in calling to and trusting in God amidst our weakness. Honestly, that’s why I’m glad that 2 Ne. 5 has its moment of racism, because seeing that it can happen to someone like Nephi calls me to reckon with my own racism (which, having grown up white in America, I can hardly avoid). The strong scriptural witness that God is faithful gives me hope that, in my imperfection, I can still play my own small part in bringing about the covenantal promises to all of God’s children. I stand with Paul: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of those things can separate God’s children from God’s love, our puny efforts to do so seem foolhardy. How much better to undertake the work of welcoming people—especially those we’re inclined by culture or experience to distrust—into the arms of Jesus, where we can finally learn to love them as we ought! In doing so lies our best hope of fulfilling that purpose of scripture mentioned in chapter 3: to end contention and bring about peace.

Such at least is my testimony.


[1] I’m aware that some people (Brant Gardner, Ethan Sproat, and others) have argued that the “skin of blackness” doesn’t have anything to do with skin pigmentation per se. I basically agree, but instead of finding an alternative reading of “skin,” like Sproat does, I think that what we’re dealing with here is a matter of perception, not physiological change.

[2] Quoted in Lester Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue 8, no. 1 (1973), 26.

[3] Yes, I’ve read Deuteronomy 28. I get that cursings are part of Ancient Near Eastern contracts/covenants.

[4] Read alongside the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, it becomes clear that a major purpose of the creation story in Gen. 1 is to make Elohim God over everywhere, everything, and everyone.


  1. Thomas Parkin says:

    It’s interesting to me that while the skin of blackness isn’t to be taken literally, the heart of flint is a real thing. Few people know this, but the skeletons of Mayan Indios that they have dug up in Book of Mormon lands often surround a heart made of flint, or obsidian. Probably some magical quality allowed these hearts to beat while the Lamanite was alive, but yet as stone they are preserved unto our day giving us a marvelous evidence for the veracity of the Book of Mormon.

  2. What an incredible coincidence that Nephi’s racism just happened to coincide with protestant racism in the early 19th century. And at the height of acceptance of the curse of Cain/Ham as being about dark skin no less, itself a unique interpretation of the bible mostly isolated to that period of history. It’s like playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

  3. > Probably some magical quality allowed these hearts to beat while the Lamanite was alive

    Ok I can’t resist. What in the world are you talking about? Lamanites had magical stone hearts you say?

  4. Andrew: to me, arguing about BoM historicity takes a back seat to repenting of racism in the present. It’s like the way that Milton has the devils in hell talk theology to distract themselves from where they are. (By this I don’t mean to put down my friends who care more about historicity than I do; all I’m saying is that if arguing about historicity distracts you from the Christian message, you’re missing the point. Genesis is a disaster in terms of historicity, but it’s still an immensely valuable work of scripture. Ditto Job and Jonah, which are works of fiction.)

  5. Jason K: to me, repenting of racism in the present demands being honest about the history. Bottom line, you’re just making stuff up. Frankly it makes me wonder. How much of what’s in the scriptures is there because someone like you thought the ends justified the means?

    If I may be blunt, however noble your intentions, this is an act of sheer sissery. Besides the dishonesty, you’re engaged in a cover up of the real culprit. Instead of having the guts to challenge the tyrant ruling with an iron fist, you submit, and then not only submit, but go around defending the tyrant saying it’s not really his fault? And then even express gratitude for the thing of tyranny? Because knowing a tyrant to be a true tyrant gives you confidence in yourself because even though you haven’t been bestowed with trueness you aren’t a tyrant. Or something. You’re literally creating a scriptural straw man as a vehicle of self enslavement.

  6. Although Brigham Young’s speech to the territorial legislature is shocking, we now have pretty good proof that he did not say what is quoted above. There is a lot of good new scholarship on race in the church, including the work of LaJean Purcell Carruth, Russell Stevenson, Paul Reeve, and others, and if you’re interested in the topic of race, it would be worth looking at what they’ve done instead of relying on older work.

  7. Andrew, I hate to let your frankly incomprehensible comments derail Jason’s wonderfully careful and thoughtful reading, so I’m just going to say: did you even read his post?

    Jason, thanks for this. I’ve found scripture to be as challenging to read as anything, especially with versification that lets us focus in on an individual sentence (or fragment of a sentence!) at the expense of the larger narrative and underlying themes. This is a striking example of the dangers attendant, dangers that can plague both lay members and church leadership.

    Pres. Benson underlined the importance of reading the Book of Mormon; my impression is that the church has gotten relatively good at reading. Thanks for pointing us toward the next step: careful interrogation.

  8. Thanks, Amy. Paul Reeve’s book has been high on my to-read list for a while, but hasn’t quite made it to the top yet. Would you mind sharing what the latest evidence suggests Brigham did say?

    Andrew: I’m not interested in adjudicating which of us is the braver: pissing contests aren’t my thing. Good luck in that fight against tyranny, though.

  9. “if arguing about historicity distracts you from the Christian message, you’re missing the point”

    I strongly agree with this, Jason.

    Andrew, Jason can speak for himself, but for my part, if you take the Book of Mormon as endorsing Nephi’s racism, and you subscribe to some form of inerrency, then I guess I could see your point that repudiating the Book of Mormon is necessary to repent of racism (I’m not convinced, but I could see your argument). But I don’t think the Book of Mormon endorses Nephi’s racism (in fact, I think it does the opposite–the whole destruction of the Nephites is due to pride, and while we like to think that this pride was only about material prosperity, the text itself give some pretty strong indications that the Nephites’ pride also took the form of racial pride) and the text itself disclaims inerrency. So I don’t see how denying historicity is necessary to repent from racism.

    It is possible to table the historicity issue and to conclude that Nephi’s racism is not held up as exemplary by Mormon, and to repent of the belief that the Book of Mormon endorses racism. The Book of Mormon is multi-vocal on this issue, and for every Nephi saying that God cursed the lamanites with dark skin, you have to take into account a Jacob saying that God commands the Nephites to not revile the lamanites for their skin color, and a Jesus rebuking his Nephite prophets for not listening to his lamanite prophet, and a Zeniff resisting by force the Nephites’ genocidal impulse toward the lamanites, and for that matter, Nephi himself saying in his more revelatory moments that “all are alike unto God.” Even Nephi himself is at best conflicted over race.

    Or, if that’s too much for you, and you are convinced that Nephi’s racism is help up as the standard of good behavior, it is also possible to conclude that Mormon was wrong on that point, and to repent of the belief that the Book of Mormon should be used today the prop up racist ideas, and to table the historicity question.

    It is also possible to conclude that the whole thing is a fraud, and condemn it, but that’s hardly the only option consistent with sincere repentance for racism.

  10. Thanks, JKC. My whole point is just as you say: that passage is racist, but just because it’s in the scriptures doesn’t mean it has God’s stamp of approval, and, conveniently, the evidence for that is in the scriptures, whose general tenor pushes against the racism.

  11. FYI, in addition to Mike’s post, Ardis also addresses the issue in a post yesterday.

  12. Ardis is the best.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Rather than chiming it I’ll just second most of what JKC said at (8:31). I think a close reading suggests that what God says and what Nephi says aren’t the same thing. Further that Nephi is reading in a lot. Finally that the Book of Mormon simply doesn’t hold up the Nephites as worthy of emulation. Rather they are held up as a warning to our time. That is, they are the bad example we aren’t supposed to emulate.

  14. Just so, Clark.

  15. Not to take any position on historicity, it seems to me a non-sequitur or irrelevancy in the current discussion. Suppose I were to posit that the Book of Mormon is entirely the product of Joseph Smith’s mind? That would add the option of dismissing the book completely. But in any attempt to take the book seriously we would have virtually identical thoughts and questions and discussion about the text. Who’s saying what? How does that fit into the broad themes? How does what happens before, and what happens after, inform the meaning or intent of this phrase or sentence? Who is the intended audience and how might they be expected to receive it?
    It’s not simple or obvious. It’s a matter for thoughtful discussion out of which there’s unlikely to be a single universally agreed answer. But ancient history or 19th century artifact seems to me irrelevant for this discussion.
    Oh, good post. I appreciate the close textual readings and tend that way myself, but I find the big theme approach more persuasive and ultimately more satisfying when I look to the Book of Mormon for spiritual guide and sustenance.

  16. it's a series of tubes says:

    to observe the dangers that can come from privileging relatively narrow swathes of scripture over major themes of covenantal promises [3], the faithfulness of God, injunctions to love God and neighbor, and universalist messages (beginning with Abraham in Genesis, or arguably even in Gen. 1 [4]) holding out the prospect of salvation to all of humanity.

    Yes, exactly. Thanks for a great post.

  17. Perhaps I’ve just gone too far down the rabbit hole, but I watch this back and forth and it appears to me like nerds debating Star Trek. Nephi this, Mormon that. Hello, the dudes weren’t real! Racism exists in the BOM because Joseph Smith put it there. You have ancient american caricatures acting out 19th century protestant revivalism culture.

    Jason K said, “if arguing about historicity distracts you from the Christian message, you’re missing the point. Genesis is a disaster in terms of historicity, but it’s still an immensely valuable work of scripture.” I agree. 100% this. But this is why, in my opinion, you’re missing the mark. You aren’t promoting the Christian message. You are focused on the end result, love thy neighbor, while completely skipping the whole process that gets to that point. The atonement, like making diamonds, is an intense discipline involving time, heat, and pressure, but you reduce it to mere platitudes.

    There are deep and very valuable lessons to be learned from all this history, the good and the bad. Lessons on what not to do are important, understanding the struggle that is Christianity in the context of the real world and our own biases. One doesn’t get into the mind of Shakespeare by changing Hamlet to mean something different. You go back to the author and try to understand the original intent and see the emperor without his clothes on. If brother Joseph was any kind of a true prophet that’s worth listening to, that is the only way you’re going to have a “garden experience” and truly see things as Joseph saw them.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Weird. Deleted some words accidentally making my comment incomprehensible. That should read, “Further saying that Nephi attributes this all to revelation is reading in a lot.”

    Along with what others have said, I think we have to beware of reading the Book of Mormon the way we might read most of the D&C. It’s not just revelation penning by prophets but also includes a lot of filling in by the writers as well as an awful lot of narrative. Often in the narrative what the narrator (some unknown compiler plus Mormon most likely plus any expansion by Joseph/God) talks about illustrates he doesn’t know all that’s going on. In literature this is called an untrustworthy narrator. This doesn’t mean anything unethical. Far from it. Rather it means that the narrator isn’t omniscient and misses what often is going on in front of them. I think the narrations in Alma about the Gadianton Warriors are the best example of this. However applying the principle to Nephi means we might want to be careful about taking his treatment of his brothers at face value.

  19. This reminds me of when I was a teenager and looked up all of the verses of scripture under “woman” in the Bible topical guide. It was so disheartening, and even more so when the boys thought it funny to use the “women should keep silent in the church” scripture when it was their turn to give the scripture in seminary.

    From Lynn Matthews Anderson’s “Toward a Feminist Interpretation of Latter-Day Saint Scripture:”

    “We cannot ignore the foundational texts of our religion; nor can we afford to dismiss those things in them we find unsettling or distasteful. But unless we are willing to worship a God who is sexist, partial, and misogynist, we cannot ascribe all that is found in our scriptures to deity. Rather, we need to develop an interpretive framework that permits us to distinguish between timeless truths and human influences.”

  20. Clark Goble says:

    Andrew (9:39) Everyone’s free to have their own interpretation of course. I just think the text is too complex to be read purely in terms of 19th century views. There’s just too much going on and too many places where the text undermines such superficial readings with deeper complexity. Of course fiction can be complex in that way. I’d just note that most reading it in terms of big 19th century debates tend to discount the complexity. (I’ve no idea if you are)

    That said, I fully agree that the atonement is much more than “love your neighbor” although clearly that’s the fruits of it. To me what’s so interesting is how the Book of Mormon teaches that. To me the most interesting part of the Book of Mormon is that through most of the narrative the Lamanites are the heroes. Further the Nephites are so angered with the Lamanites that it takes Jesus forcing them to even include in their history a reference to Samuel the Lamanite, who is the great prophet calling them to repentance. Likewise the key aspect of the atonement in the Book of Mormon is Alma 36 where a wicked Nephite changes and then spends his time converting the Lamanites (so that they become the religious supermen of the story). There’s a very distinct xenophobic aspect to the book by the Nephites towards the Lamanites but what’s so interesting is how the narrative undercuts this. Further this starts very early with Jacob saying the Nephites are worse than the Lamanites. This is still 1st – 3rd generation Nephites!

  21. Andrew, even if we accepted your (unsupported) assertion of Joseph Smith’s sole authorship of the Book of Mormon, that doesn’t require us to try to get inside his mind. In fact (reaching back to my half-remembered undergraduate), at least since the middle of the 20th century, New Criticism has tried to exclude authorial intent in addressing texts. While I’m not a New Critic, I can certainly appreciate approaching texts on their own merit, without regard to what the author would have wanted. (And, fwiw, having seen some amazing stagings of Shakespeare, people certainly can and do provide significant value by taking Hamlet on the text’s value, without worrying about what Shakespeare wanted; else you could never stage a Shakespearean play in a modern, or a Victorian, or any other post-Shakespearean, setting.)

  22. Clark Goble says:

    Megan, struggling how to figure out how to deal with the clear sexism in scripture is hard. On the one hand these are righteous people trying to do the best they can. On the other they come from deeply sexist (and racist) cultures. It’s of course quite easy to read the narratives and contrast them with the religious ideals they espouse – much as we might do with the ideals of the founding of America as contrasting with America as implemented. But that’s not enough. Young women need role models as well, the way some young boys might hold up Captain Moroni, Nephi, or others. While there are some amazing role models in Church history (Zina Huntington remains one of my greatest heroes) the context of the experiences make it difficult to present on a simple level.

  23. You are focused on the end result, love thy neighbor, while completely skipping the whole process that gets to that point. The atonement, like making diamonds, is an intense discipline involving time, heat, and pressure, but you reduce it to mere platitudes.

    I simply cannot see how Jason is doing this in this post or anything else he has written at BCC or elsewhere. If anything, Jason exemplifies and models a refreshing type of “mere Christian” Mormonism that brushes aside virtually all cultural distractions from the central message of The Living Christ and, in particular, the Atonement.

  24. Amen, John.

  25. Megan: In class, I did slip in a comment about how it would be better if scripture helped us know our foremothers. Your quote from Anderson is on the money.

    Andrew: I actually agree with you about the importance of “understanding the struggle that is Christianity in the context of the real world and our own biases.” Honestly, that’s my goal in everything I write, and I’m sorry if this particular post didn’t do that for you. I’m only human, and I’m not going to get it right every time.

  26. Clark Goble – I agree 100%. I have two young daughters and I find myself over-emphasizing the rare stories of women in the scriptures, and am likely guilty of reading too much into some of those stories to give them more to grasp onto. One of these days they’ll catch on, but hopefully it will come at a time when they are mature enough to discuss the complexities of culture, fallibility, and human prejudice of the people writing the texts and the societies in which they belonged. Of course, my wish is that by that time, members and leaders in our church will be have been so thirsty for further light and knowledge regarding the true nature of women and Heavenly Mother that questions will have been asked and we’ll have more revelation on the subject! It would certainly make my job as a parent easier. Until then I’m filling in the gaps with more secular female role models, and even purchased a book about goddesses recently so they can see that female deities have historically been a part of worship in different cultures.

  27. That sounds like a truly excellent approach, Megan!

  28. Re Amy T’s comment, Here’s one source about the heavy rewriting that was done to Brigham Young’s speeches, in BYU Studies 54:4 and currently free online.
    The point is that BY’s speeches were rewritten for publication, but not made up. I think it’s likely that BY said something about blacks not holding the priesthood but not in those exact words.

  29. Here’s a question I have for y’all. In practical terms what is the point of all this, meaning, people go to church, have this lesson, and what does it do for them? It seems that at best you’re telling people who aren’t racist to not be persuaded by racism in the BOM, i.e. “give Nephi a break,” or at worst your promoting the idea that this racism actually does have an arguable basis in inspiration albeit tacitly. You’ve got Thomas over there thinking Lamanites literally had magical stone hearts in their bodies for goodness sake.

    In that context, where these people and their experiences with God are understood in very literal nonfictional terms, it’s quite difficult to reconcile the racism and blame shift it away from God to Nephi. It simply isn’t persuasive at all, except perhaps in the bubble of liberal progressive mormons that approach scripture like an NPR debate. I don’t mean that to be snarky or demeaning but just make a point. High Society kind of arguments like this don’t impress the average chapel mormon in places like rural Texas where you grow up hearing smack about all the wetbacks. Understand what I mean?

    These things aren’t just historical curiosities, there are real problems to be dealt with right now today. The recent business in Oregon should serve as emphasis for how truly big some of those problems are too. In light of those real-world problems, this all feels like apologetic spin. Instead of dealing with the fact that Joseph was a racist, that Brigham was a racist, that so so many of our leaders were and frankly probably still are racist, we shift the blame over to Nephi and that abstracts the issue, making it nice and cozy for affluent white mormons in Utah to discuss passively in Sunday School.

  30. Unfortunately, nothing in this post would be comfortable to Mormons in suburban Utah as a Sunday School discussion. It posits that racism in the nineteenth century, which influenced Church leaders at that time, was in fact reinforced and buttressed by the long-standing misreadings of The Book of Mormon that then became culturally ingrained and adopted by twentieth-century Church leaders, both out of deference to those nineteenth-century Church leaders’ interpretations and the conflation of certain contextually situated twentieth-century political preferences (such as opposition to the Soviet Union) with Gospel principles.

    This perspective was then further refreshed for new generations in the Skousen period of the twentieth century. Then you get the Bundys, whose views are not invented out of thin air but rather who see themselves as orthodox and merely following (1) dictates of mid-to-late twentieth century Church leaders and (2) the knowledge they’ve gleaned through their own layman’s readings of Skousen’s interpretations/mythologies masquerading as either history or doctrine (or both).

    The fact that brushing all that aside and taking a fresh, penetrating look at what the text actually requires, including through readings informed by the best practices of modern scholarship and literary interpretation, is virtually guaranteed to make the average Sunday School in Mormon suburbia very uncomfortable itself demonstrates the dire state of our discourse in the Church. It’s very sad, indeed.

  31. Andrew: In practical terms, what is the point of your commenting here? You seem more interested in skewing “liberal progressive Mormons” with your caricature of my post than in engaging with its substance, which, from my perspective, does all the things you’re saying it should, but railing against it for failing to do. Would you prefer that my Sunday School class simply skip over those verses (as the manual does) and avoid talking about race and racism altogether? Which of these options is the cozier? (Your image of a bunch of Utahns sitting around casually talking about racism in Sunday School is hilarious.) And how exactly are your comments exempt from participating in an NPR-style debate? Yeah, I get that I’m an outlier in Mormon culture, but so what? It’s my Church, too. Perhaps you favor abandoning the Church to the Skousenites and fighting their ignorance as an “enlightened” outsider, but that’s not my path.

    Seriously, though, I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish here, besides repeating the tired line that BCC is either a shill for the Church or a den of apostates who really should just leave (take your pick: we’re used to hearing both). If our sort of thing isn’t your bag, why are you here? I mean, it’s just a blog.

  32. There is some irony in Andrew imploring us to better understand the author’s original intent and at the same time completely misreading Thomas’ ‘hearts of stone’ comment, right?

  33. Jack of Hearts says:

    ^ YES. Yes, there is. Those last three comments by john f., Jason K., and James are gold. Thank you for your thinking on this matter, gentlemen.

  34. Don’t take me too seriously, because I sure don’t :) As you say, it’s just a blog, and with that in mind I’m just a random dude in the comment area stirring the pot a little. Shill or apostate, no, that’s not what I’m going for. I see very intelligent and genuinely kindhearted guys trying to realize Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership however trapped by an emasculating culture that promotes obedience and ego. Really, I suppose what I’m mostly doing is just venting my own frustration of the same. While I recognize it’s an exercise in futility and tears, I’m at a point where I say, enough, it’s time to spit upon our hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Andrew, like John, I’m not quite sure what your point is. Yes Joseph and Brigham had racist views. So did Abraham Lincoln and most of the 19th century abolitionists. I’m fine saying that although I think we should keep in mind the age they lived in. That great people had shared in the flaws of their era shouldn’t be shocking to us. By the same token it’s not hard to see in the Bible the culture of its times – many aspects of which would be shockingly immoral to us. However great people make a transcendent call to us. They don’t even understand the ideals they are preaching fully. They know they are striving at something they can’t quite reach themselves. As Paul puts it, we see through a glass darkly.

    Would Paul, wherever he is now, have the same view as when he wrote about women in primitive 1st century Asia Minor? Almost certainly not. Would Brigham Young looking on us now say those things? Of course not. I’m sure he sees the hurt he caused and wishes he could repair it. But we’re all finite beings. The good news of the gospel is that it calls us to beyond our culture even if we’re always as finite being trapped in the here and now. I can’t fully say what Zion is, but I can say that I want it and I will strive to make it. I know I will screw up along the way. What keeps me going is the knowledge that I will pick myself up, dust myself off, try to help those I’ve hurt, and continue to build zion.

    If you read the Book of Mormon and can’t see that is what people like Nephi, Moroni or others were trying to do as well then I think you missed the forest for the trees.

  36. Fair enough, Andrew. Even though you won’t find any black flags here, we’re still about spitting on our hands and getting to work, and so long as you’re working toward Christian community, I’ll own you as a fellow-laborer.

  37. Sorry to drop that into the mix and then not explain further; I’m going to have to refer you to Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color and Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness. Also, here’s a blog post at Mormon Heretic that briefly mentions the problems with the Woodruff account of Brigham Young’s speech:

  38. Thanks, Amy; I genuinely appreciate the correction and the pointers to better sources.

  39. Here’s the thing. The stuff Clark said, I don’t have a problem with any of that. I’m not one of these BernieBro socialists arguing we should toss out the constitution because of slavery. I quite like Brigham Young actually, that was one salty dude. Gun slinging across the American frontier with 55 wives in toe, what’s not to love? As far as the church’s history with race is concerned, I really don’t have any problem with Young at all and have zero interest in demonizing him. In the context of his time it actually makes quite a lot of sense to me, politically speaking.

    What I do have a problem with though are the numerous men bearing the title “prophet” who continued to sustain this institutional racism until two decades after the civil rights movement. What your lesson decidedly lacks is the explicit statement that these men were both wrong and uninspired as far as this issue is concerned. They led the church astray, at least in part. I have a problem with the way we gloss all this over, bask in the awesomeness of our modern revelation, and pretend that our leadership is unimpeachable. Basically, I’m just really sick of all the lies. Enough lies, seriously. And spinning yarn about Nephi being a racist falls in that category. If the book is historical, it amounts to nothing more than eisegetical conjecture. Nephi isn’t a poet, dark skin isn’t some metaphor for his trauma. Nephi is one of Joseph Smith’s alter egos.

    BTW, have you seen this?

    In all seriousness, if we treat the book as accurate history, then should we not interpret it literally? Accepting this to be a legitimate interpretation is unavoidable.

  40. Andrew: again, you’re caricaturing the post. It doesn’t exactly “bask in the awesomeness of our modern revelation, and pretend that our leadership is unimpeachable.” You don’t get to lambaste people for making stuff up and then make stuff up yourself. You like rigid standards of reading and historical responsibility? Fine, but prepare to be measured with the same measure you use.

    And I think you’ve made your point, such as it is, at least six times by now. Maybe it’s time to move on.

  41. That “basking” description is not about you or this post, it’s about the church at large. You aren’t guilty of repeating the old lie, you’re guilty of creating a new lie.

    Moving on now…

  42. Clark Goble says:

    “I disagree with you” = “you’re guilty of creating a new lie”

    “revelation not coming as fast as you’d like” = “person not being prophet”

    Right. Think I’ve heard this all before.

  43. Actually, Andrew’s question, (if we treat it as accurate history, why not take it literally?) raises an important point. Lots of people see it exactly that way, but that imposes a kind of inerrancy on the book of Mormon that it doesn’t claim itself. If the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text, then of course it’s not going to be an accurate history by today’s standards of historiography. Put differently, believing that the Book of Mormon is historical does not mean believing that it is a historically reliable narrative in every particular. That’s frankly kind of lazy thinking. And conceding that it isn’t a historically reliable narrative doesn’t mean that it isn’t historical, and doesn’t mean that it isn’t scripture.

  44. Right, JKC. The question is what it means, in practice, to have something that’s a flawed human product (as the BoM explicitly says it is, in several places) and nevertheless scripture. Saying it’s all bunk doesn’t account for the fact of a religious community that claims as scripture a text proclaiming its own fallibility.

  45. “why not take it literally/” has another level, which is that we should understand or interpret the words in the Book of Mormon by speaker. The good guys, including Nephi, are accorded prophet status so that questioning the literal truth of anything they say drops us immediately into the infallibility discussion. The bad guys (to the extent they say anything) not so much, so that carefully parsing their words and actions proceeds without quibble. In analogous Gospel Doctrine lessons I have found that this had to be addressed directly, or else it would block discussion.

  46. “The question is what it means, in practice, to have something that’s a flawed human product (as the BoM explicitly says it is, in several places) and nevertheless scripture.”

    I agree with this. And I think that it means, at least in part, that we need to think carefully through our notions of what it means to call something scripture, which forces us not only to read more carefully and engage more fully with the text, but also, somewhat paradoxically, to rely less on the text and more on the holy spirit to discern what is truth. I think it teaches us something important about the fallibility not only of the Book of Mormon, but of all scripture. I think it also teaches us something important about the nature of revelation itself, that while the holy ghost may give us “sudden strokes of pure intelligence,” God leaves it to us, his children, to figure out what those strokes of intelligence mean and how they fit into the framework of what we think we know, and because we, his children (including his prophets), are fallible, we might not always get it right. So we have to always open to further light and knowledge that might cause us to have to rethink what we thought previous revelations meant.

  47. Good point, Christian. Reminds me a little of the joke I once heard:

    Question: Do you take the scriptures literally?
    Answer: Do you take the library literally?

  48. Clark Goble says:

    “Take it literally” is an other of those things which get thrown around but which doesn’t really seem to mean much. I think what people typically mean in practice by how they use the phrase is that a sentence means what it’d mean if the person beside you said it in regular life. i.e. literal just means acontextual with a simple reading.

  49. LaJean Purcell Carruth says:

    Brigham Young’s speech to the Utah Territorial Legislature on 5 January 1852 was reported by George D. Watt, but his transcript (extant) was not published. Wilford Woodruff wrote extensive, undated notes in his journal from this speech, including the statement that a man with “one drop” of Negro blood cannot hold the priesthood. In 2013 I transcribe Watt’s original shorthand from this speech: the “one drip” statement is not in Watt’s shorthand record, taken at the time of the speech, nor is it in any Brigham Young sermon that I have transcribed (a vast amount) or in any other record that we can find. The evidence is very strong that Brigham Young did not say it . Paul Reeve, Christopher Rich and I reported on this speech and other speeches at the 1852 Utah territorial legislature at MHA in 2014; audio files were released recently and could be found on the MHA website. We are working on a book which will include full transcripts of the extant shorthand for this legislature, including debates on slavery and Orson Pratt’s vehement, anti-slavery speech.
    My transcript of this speech can be found here: .

  50. I’m deeply grateful for better information on this subject. Thank you for your work, which will inform my statements on the subject going forward.

  51. There is another approach to this scripture, one I am actually partial to.

    I do not believe the Book of Mormon is a literal translation of the plates. Joseph never consulted the plates during his interpretive process and, even if had, he wouldn’t have been able to translate them because he didn’t know how.

    Like Brant Gardner, I believe that it was a conceptual translation, one that was written through the prism of Joseph’s Protestant, racist world. Hence the numerous anachronisms and an end product that is very difficult to defend as a translation of an ancient text. (For those interested in exploring this more deeply, see RT’s review of Gardner’s latest book at:

    So, I don’t lay this passage at the feet of Nephi or God; rather, I think it has its genesis, to a significant degree, in the mind of Joseph Smith. To be clear: this is not a historicity argument; rather, it’s a position based on the proposition that the Book of Mormon is not a literal translation of anything. It may still describe actual historical events, but that account, I believe, was heavily influenced by Joseph’s culture and predispositions. That doesn’t mean the book does not contain important gospel truths. It does mean, however, that given the unique, unprecedented process by which it came to be (head and stone in hat), I am reluctant to attribute the literal language of this passage to someone named Nephi.

  52. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, while I’m quite partial to Brant’s loose translation model, I’m curious as to why you think racism would be an example of this added in Joseph’s world? As bad as 19th century America was it seems orders of magnitude better than the ancient world. I think some purported anachronisms likely are artifacts of the translation process but I worry about being able to tell which is which. What I fear happens is once you allow for these loose aspects to the text or expansions ala Blake’s model that it’s easy to simply discount things we don’t like for whatever reason.

    I’d add that I really don’t like the word “literal” in these discussions since I think it misleads too much. But that’s probably me being pedantic. If, for instance, there was some animal the Nephites used the word horse for and yet wasn’t a horse I’m not sure what a literal translation would be. (This isn’t apologetic on horses, just noting the ambiguities of the term literal)

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