The Second Post on Etiology and Race in the Book of Mormon #BOM2016


In an earlier post, I argued that, early Mormon traditions to the contrary, we should not view the story of Laman and Lemuel’s curse as an etiological tale about the origins of Native Americans. In this second post, I will argue that, after a certain point in the text, it is not even correct to see the this story as an etiological tale about the origins of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. At this point, the definition of the term “Lamanite” shifts to include things that cannot be accounted for by the curse narrative in 2 Nephi 4.

I cannot locate this point exactly in the text, but I am pretty sure that it occurs some time between two crucial passages set during the two continental wars that frame the book of Alma.

In the first passage, which occurs during the Amlicite War, Mormon describes how the Amlicites marked themselves to appear less like Nephites and more like Lamanites:

And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites. (Alma 3:4)

We can reasonably infer that, at this point in the text, the terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” still function as some kind of ethnic description. Given the etiological narrative that Joseph Smith and other early Mormons accepted, it is at least possible that we are meant to read “marked themselves with red in their foreheads” as an attempt to mimic an ethnic trait (skin color) rather than simply a cultural marking. But even if it is the latter, there is no ssuggestion that joining with the Lamanites and adopting their grooming habits constitutes “becoming Lamanites.” It would make no sense to talking about members of one ethnic group becoming members of another. Ethnicity doesn’t work that way.

Something similar happens with the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who convert to the Nephite religion and join their society but are not yet called “Nephites.”  They always maintain their own ethnic identity as Anti-Nephi-Lehies, or as Ammonites, or as “Sons of Helaman,” or something other than just plain-old “Nephites.” The ethnic boundaries go both ways. But look what happens just a few years later during the Amalekite War, which is in many ways a remake of the war with the Amlicites:

For behold, it came to pass that the Zoramites became Lamanites; therefore, in the commencement of the eighteenth year the people of the Nephites saw that the Lamanites were coming upon them; therefore they made preparations for war; yea, they gathered together their armies in the land of Jershon. (Alma 43:4)

The Zoramites do not simply join with the Lamanites, or mark their skin to look more Lamanity; they become Lamanites. This would not be possible if “Nephite” and “Lamanite” still functioned as ethnic designations. One might argue, I suppose, that the wicked Zoramites were cursed too and became Lamanites the same way that Laman and Lemuel did. But certainly Mormon would have found that worth mentioning. The stronger inference is that, a generation after the Amlicite War, the terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” began to lose their ethnic connotations and became terms for political alignments.

We see evidence of continuing evolution of these terms as the BOM narrative continues. In 3 Neph, the converted Lamanites “became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:16). And in 4 Nephi, of course, two hundred years after the coming of Christ, terms like “Nephite” and “Lamanite” become simply the names of different religious beliefs with no more ethnic connotation than “Lion’s Club Member” or “Bears Fan”:

And it came to pass that in this year there arose a people who were called the Nephites, and they were true believers in Christ; and among them there were those who were called by the Lamanites—Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites; Therefore the true believers in Christ, and the true worshipers of Christ, (among whom were the three disciples of Jesus who should tarry) were called Nephites, and Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites. And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites; and they did not dwindle in unbelief, but they did wilfully rebel against the gospel of Christ; and they did teach their children that they should not believe, even as their fathers, from the beginning, did dwindle. (4 Nephi 1:36-38)

The Book of Mormon consistently uses the terms “Nephites” and “Lamanites” as designations for its principal tribes. But the kinds of tribes designagted change significantly over the narrative. Initially, these terms refer to family clans (or coalitions of clans) with some component of physiological difference. Later, they describe political alignments during times of protracted conflict. And finally, they become terms for elective religious affiliations. This evolution of tribal identity–from family to state to religion–corresponds nicely to the ways that collective identity has evolved in other parts of the world, from “Luceres” and “Benjamites,” to “Romans” and “Israelites,” to “Christians” and “Jews.” And even “Mormons.” Humans have always been tribal, but we have displayed great variety in the governing logic of our tribes.

And this all has implications for the way that we read the  Book of Mormon. One such implication is that we cannot take the text on its own terms and attach any etiological significance to the original curse narrative, since the “Lamanites” who survive the great war at the end of the Book of Mormon represent a self-selected political and religious faction and not a tribe of lineal descendants. It also means that the text will not support many of the common conceptions (and most of the paintings) about who was fighting who in the later part of the Book of Mormon.


  1. I think this is also supported by the fact that Mormon points out explicitly that he is a descendant of Nephi (Mormon 1:5). Perhaps he felt a need to point this out since saying he was a “Nephite” would not have implied that in his time.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Good stuff.

  3. I also find it interesting that the divisions were not started by the Nephites – “called by the Lamanites”. It wasn’t the Nephites creating a “them”, but the Lamanites looking for ways to cause separations. It’s unfortunate that the names and divisions became matter of fact by the time we get to Mormon.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    “We can reasonably infer that, at this point in the text, the terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” still function as some kind of ethnic description.”

    I’m not even convinced of that. I think from early on they are primarily cultural. 2 Nephi 5:14 to my eyes points that direction. Ditto with verse 9 for the Nephites.

    “And all those who were with me did take upon them to call themselves the people of Nephi.” Note that he doesn’t say these are just the Lehites. Likewise others he calls “the people who were now called Lamanites.”

    Now clearly it’s possible to read Nephite here as just those referred to in verse 6. But the deeper issue is that it’s not ethnic but a political description of those who follow him. That I think sets the semantics for the terms.

    Again I think it makes complete sense for that chapter to be the Lamanites mix in with indigenous olmec/maya people who paint their bodies for war (which is when the Nephites meet them). At that point there’s no way for the Nephites to even know lineage. They know there are those trying to kill them and they are called Lamanites. So from the time of Nephi we have an “us versus them” division which is essential political and not racial.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    To add, by Alma the idea of Nephite as racial is already gone even ignoring these semantics from 2 Nephi 5. Recall that in Mosiah 25 the Nephites as a quasi-ethnic group are already a minority among the Nephites. “…there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla.”

    I say quasi-ethnic since they are talking about the group as descendants of Nephi simply because they are connected to the Nephite group of 2 Nephi 5. But of course they already include anyone associated with the Nephites. There’s around 450 years between 2 Nephi 5 and Mosiah 25. A lot could have happened in that period. And of course we have to distinguish between ethnic and racial since the former is primarily about culture although it can include elements of race and language. The only reason I’m not quite willing to go full bore and call the Nephites an ethnicity is due to the big cultural divisions we keep reading among them in Mosiah and Alma. That suggests more diversity than the label might imply.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

    It seems as though to some extent this later political usage was presaged by Jacob in chapter 1 in which he explicitly tells us he will use the expressions Nephite and Lamanite in more of a generic than a strictly tribal sense:

    13 Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.

    14 But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings.

  7. Good article and comments. Clark, I tend to agree with you that from early on, Nephite and Lamanite were cultural designations. Also I agree with what you may have implied? that at the time of the split between Nephi and his brothers, Nephi could have taken with him some indigenous people. And the Lamanites always seem to outnumber the Nephites, indicating they probably integrated with more indigenous people that did the Nephites. As early on as Jacob chapter 7 we have evidence of indigenous peoples living among the small group of Lehites (where did Sherem come from? Why did he act like a stranger if he was a Lehite, which was then a pretty small group. Why does he mention becoming expert the in the language of the people, etc.). So we do have all these hints of an indigenous people, but I have to scratch my head at counter points, ie. the land was kept from the knowledge of all other lands so it wouldn’t be overrun [I suppose that could still be true if indigenous people had smaller populations than what Europeans, etc. could have brought in]. If that’s the case, why is there no explicit mention of indigenous people? The language barrier would be a huge obstacle in Nephi persuading these people to go with him, but it isn’t even mentioned. Yet the text goes into length about the language differences with the Mulekites, and the need to bring the brass plates to preserve their language, etc.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Bro B, we’re missing the large plates of Nephi so I’m a bit loath to say there isn’t mention. Later on of course with the muelikites and jaredites we start getting mention of other groups. Of course you might argue, well if they mentioned them in Mosiah why not in 2 Nephi? To which I can but note that the small plates aren’t a history but are primarily about preaching and exhortation.

    However even if the mixing doesn’t happen with Nephi, it most likely does happen with the Lamanites. The swift change in behavior and appearance (that tends to parallel mayan or olmec warriors) strongly suggests that. Plus, since the Nephites aren’t engaging with the Lamanites except in war, how would they know what the Lamanites were doing? They just note the change and then, as Kevin noted, start calling everyone trying to kill them Lamanites.

    While I suspect the Nephites mixed with others fairly early for reasons similar to Kevin, we can’t know for sure when this happens. Like Kevin I find Jacob 7:4 quite odd suggesting Sherem’s native language wasn’t Hebrew and that he came from outside the Nephite community (verse 1). While it’s possible he was a Nephite who just stopped believing he really isn’t presented that way. (On the other hand, verse 7 is sometimes read as implying Sherem followed the Law of Moses and simply didn’t like the innovations of Nephi and Jacob regarding Christ)

    I’d add beyond that Jacob 5 where Zenos’ allegory is used by Jacob entails taking young branches and grafting them onto other trees to preserve the fruit. The Nephites are one of those branches grafted onto an other tree. That strongly suggests them connecting to others already in the land. (See Jacob 5:14) Interestingly when the master examines it only part of the fruit is natural with the rest being wild like the tree it was grafted onto. (Verse 25) I’ve always taken that to imply a small group merging with a large group. Compare to his earlier sermon in Jacob 2:25 or 2 Nephi 10:1 although it’s also worth comparing to Jeremiah 23 where the righteous branch is compared to Moses bringing Israel out of Egypt. And 1 Nephi 15:12-13 definitely makes the branch allusion to both Isaiah and Zenos.

    An other, albeit far more speculative notion, is that when Jacob expounds on Isaiah starting in 2 Nephi 6, the gentiles are not us but are the “others” in the land the Nephites have already encountered. So the blessings of gentiles are a way of Jacob speaking of the other people not part of the covenant. 1 Nephi 15:12-14 can be read that way as well even if most people read the gentiles there as the the post-Columbian Europeans. Yet if we read Nephi in light of Zenos then they are the branch taken the the nether regions of the vineyard and grafted onto an other tree. So what we have is Nephi referring to the last part of Zenos’ allegory and the move of the branch from the wild trees back to the natural trees. (Compare 1 Nephi 15:16 to Jacob 5:68)

    If this reading is accurate then both Nephi and Jacob are pretty explicit about merging with others.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Whoops. I accidentally attributed some of Bro B’s comments to Kevin. My bad. Sorry about that.

  10. Clark, Makes sense that we don’t have mention of indigenous group because we don’t have the large plates of Nephi. I just don’t know how to make sense of what IS mentioned: Yes, Jacob 7 is odd if you don’t take into account other groups besides the Lehites. Sherem would have to be the son or grandson of just 6 or 7 Lehite men, yet they don’t know each other. If Sherem were Lamanite, surely Jacob would have said that, and if came from an indigenous group, why wouldn’t he mention it somewhere? I suppose your point is that wasn’t the purpose of the small plates so they didn’t go into those things. That is an interesting take on Jacob 5 that I hadn’t considered.

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