3 Nephi 2
For Modern readers, one of the most awkward and difficult passages in the Book of Mormon occurs in the second chapter of 3 Nephi, amid the resurgence of the Gadianton Robbers and the big to-do over the signs for Christ’s birth. It’s the passage where the righteous Lamanites have the curse removed from their skin, turning them into a lovely shade of white:
And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year. (3 Ne 2: 14-16)
This passage acts like a corrosive acid on the ways that we try to explain away the Lamanite curse narrative that frames much the Book of Mormon. It reminds us that the BOM equates dark skin color with unrighteousness, and it mocks our efforts say that it really isn’t about race.
In light of a problematic passage like this, I believe, it is important for us to remember something that I have written about a number of times in this series: that nearly every passage in the Book of Mormon has to be filtered through multiple narrative perspectives before we can make any meaning out of them in the world that we inhabit. This filtering process (if we take the BOM seriously as what it claims to be) includes multiple sites where information could be colored by social biases and perceptions.
The term “Lamanite” is especially prone to this kind of filtering throughout the Book of Mormon. Any attempt to explain what the term means in a passage set around the time of Christ has to account for at least seven cultural filters, each one of them a potential site for narrative unreliability. Let me elaborate:
Nephi’s mythic past
In reading the Book of Mormon, we very often fail to account for the effect that large time spans have on the language and culture of oral societies with limited scribal literacy. Six hundred years pass between Laman and Lemuel and the Nephi of this passage. We live in a highly literate culture and very few of us know much about what went on in Europe in 1416—the time of the anti-popes and the Wars of the Roses. Even highly specialized scholars with access to vast library resources have to do a lot of guesswork in these areas. And we know next to nothing about the culture of the Americas 50 years before Christopher Columbus was born.
In ancient cultures with limited literacy—precisely what the Book of Mormon presents us with—600 year-old history is always a mix of fact and folklore, tending towards the latter. This is roughly the amount of time that passed between Confucius and the Righteous Kings, or between Plato and the Trojan War, or between Henry VIII and King Arthur. The Lehite family in which the ancestors of the Lamanites and the ancestors of the Nephites were brothers may well have functioned 600 years later as a sort of cultural unity talking point, much as the phrase “Abrahamic Religions” does today. Things this far in the distant past are only remembered to the extent that they matter to the world of the present.
Nephi’s recent History
For Nephi, the Lamanites were also the main enemies in two recent hemispheric conflicts–much as, say, the Germans function in the recent history of the United States. There would still have been people alive who remembered these conflicts, or whose parents remembered them, causing Lamanites to be viewed with suspicion. But the recent history is more complicated, as a number of Lamanites fought for the Nephites during these wars, especially the most recent one.
And there is substantial textual evidence that the term “Lamanite” was emptied, or nearly emptied of its ethnic significance during the time of the Second War. To the extent that this is true, the assertion that Lamanites had a miraculous change in skin color during the time of Nephi becomes almost impossible to defend literally, since the category “Lamanite” had already ceased to describe a literal physiognomy.
Nephi’s current reality
Through internal textual evidence, we can date the passage above rather exactly to the year 13 AD. At this time, the Nephites are facing another major war, but it is not with the Lamanites per se. The Gadianton Robbers—whose ranks include both Nephites and Lamanites—have replaced the Lamanites as the enemy of record. This means that some Nephites and some Lamanites were (in narrative terms) “the good guys,” while other Nephites and other Lamanites were “the bad guys.” Given that the entire BOM narrative has been built around spiritual distinctions with physiological manifestations, it makes some sense that this new configuration of alliances would be invested with the same ethnic logic. This would not require any skin-lightening miracles from God, just the exercise of a fertile narrative imagination.
Mormon’s mythic past
Let us also remember that 400 more years pass between Nephi and Mormon, who is the final redactor of the story. Once again, 400 years in a primarily oral culture is enough time for history to turn into folklore. (This is about the amount of time that has passed since the Pilgrim’s landed on Plymouth Rock. Think how that plays out in our current Thanksgiving celebrations). And if we look at the paucity of record-keeping during much of this time–a single chapter of 4th Nephi covers the entire 400 years–we have little reason to doubt that most of what Mormon understood about the previous 400 years came from highly unreliable oral sources rather than labor-intensive chiseling on golden plates.
Mormon’s current reality
Mormon also spent most of his life fighting a cataclysmic war against the Lamanites of his day. He was not in a position to reflect on these racial issues philosophically. According to the terms of the narrative, he was writing at a time when the Nephites had been wiped out by the Lamanites. We have no idea what Nephites and Lamanites might have looked like in 400 AD, but Mormon knew, and he had a strong incentive to describe his Lamanites negatively. One way to do this would be to highlight elements of the historical record that emphasized the divine disfavor of the ancestors of his current enemies–including the belief that the righteous ones were all made to look more like him.
Nineteenth century views on race
The LDS Church no longer considers the curse of Laman to be an explanation for the skin color of contemporary Native Americans. But this is a fairly recent position. There is no doubt that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries held this story out as an etiological tale to explain something that, in 1830, did not have a good explanation—or at least an explanation that could map onto the larger culture’s belief in the inerrancy and totality of the biblical record. Tracing the origin of the Native Americans back to the Lost Ten Tribes was important to the narrative that Joseph was constructing–a narrative that the Church now rejects and that makes absolutely no sense in the world that we now inhabit.
Even if we consider Joseph Smith to be the translator of a legitimate ancient record, we cannot ignore the role that translators play in shaping a narratives. Translation is never a simple process of substituting one word for another. It is a creative intellectual endeavor that requires the translator to fill a lot of narrative gaps. This is especially true of translations from ancient languages that nobody has ever heard of and original texts that nobody has ever seen. We must always remember that Joseph Smith was constructing a narrative to explain things in his culture too, using a translation process that we understand almost nothing about.
Twenty-first century views on race
Finally, we have to acknowledge our own filters and biases. We live in a modern society with a lot of unresolved racial tensions, with a lot of very visible, vigorously contested questions about the meaning of various racial identities. This is true across the culture, but it is especially true of people (like me) who went to graduate school in the humanities during the 1990s. I took multiple classes on racial identity in literature, and we examined passages like this in dozens of works of literature from other cultures in order to tease out those culture’s racial assumptions and biases.
I don’t think that this is a bad thing. It makes sense that we study literature for what it can tell us about the things that we consider important. But we also have to acknowledge that, when we do this, we are spending considerably more energy unweaving baskets than the original authors spent weaving them. The fact that these issues are so important to us becomes yet another filter of the original text, causing us to create scholarly interpretations that the original authors would be unlikely to recognize or acknowledge.
So, what does all of this tell us? Not much, but also everything. It does not tell us what Nephites or Lamanites really looked like. Nor does it tell us whether or not righteous Lamanites went through a miraculous whitening process in 13 AD that signified the removal of a curse. And it tells us absolutely nothing about Native Americans today. What I would suggest, however, is that the Book of Mormon contains enough narrative complexity to make us suspicious of the most simple and obvious readings of this passage—readings that rely too much on both magic and a racist God.