Seven Ways of Looking at a Lamanite #BOM2016

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.


  1. Well said. Multiple viewpoints I had not before considered.

  2. This is insightful. Thank you.

    In reading through and applying these various filters, two thoughts occur. One, we are clannish, prejudicial little creatures. Two, not only do we easily mistake our own biases as the will of God, but we are often willing to take things a step further and ascribe real or imagined events (often rather ugly ones) to Him.

    It’s a little disheartening. One wonders how this plays out in the microcosm of one’s own life.

  3. Very useful. One of those lists that seems obvious after it’s stated, but I’ve never seen all in one place before.
    I would add (whether a new category or a subcategory) that most or all of the “official” interpretation that gets quoted or remembered, from talks and lesson manuals and out of correlation, comes out of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. This is a particularly volatile time with respect to race and race relations, and probably a different lens than Joseph Smith’s 19th century or our present views.

  4. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Coming a mere six pages after Samuel the Lamanites epic address, we absolutely cannot still be diagnosing epithelial righteousness anymore. Period.

    Of all the skin color changes in the Book of Mormon, this passage is perhaps the easiest to ascribe to simple genetics. In the previous few verses, the Lamanites join with the Nephites for protection, and *poof* all of a sudden, their kids’ skin becomes lighter colored.

  5. Really great work addressing a complicated and painful issue. Thanks, Mike.

  6. Deborah Christensen says:

    “the Book of Mormon contains enough narrative complexity to make us suspicious of the most simple and obvious readings of this passage” Ditto. And not just to this passage but the entire BOM. It’s not about cowboys and Indians.

  7. This post really doors a good job of laying out the different narrative layers. It’s easy to forget them as we read, but if we treat the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document, instead of as a simple fable, it’s inescapable.

  8. Great layout of the interpretative complexities here.

  9. Thank you for this interesting post. I was wondering what your source was for this statement: “The LDS Church no longer considers the curse of Laman to be an explanation for the skin color of contemporary Native Americans.” I’m not aware of any official pronouncement on this issue, unless we infer it from silence on the subject.

  10. “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.”

    Have church members and leaders in general, and those in Latin America in particular, rejected this view?

  11. Does this same whitening also happen to other groups of Laminates who convert? I’m not recalling any off of the top of my head.
    Could Nephi have been projecting here? Could he have seen one or two statistical flukes, but because it fit his narrative really well, saw them as evidence of a divine trend instead of being the normal representation of the Lamanite population?

  12. Joel and Brian,

    My statement that the Church has abandoned the “curse” theory of Native American origins is based on the recent Gospel Topics Essay, “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.”

    In this essay, the Church officially rejects *requiring* the belief that the Nephites and the Lamanites were the only, or even the principal inhabitants of the New World:

    “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.”

    Once we no longer accept the notion that the BOM people were the sole inhabitants of the New World, then we are free to accept modern research and DNA evidence about the origins of the Native Americans. We are no longer trapped into accepting the curse narrative as an etiology of any current group of people.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Joel, I think apologists rejected that view decades ago and more or less adopted a view of symbolic racism or changing skin due to interracial mixing in mesoAmerica. That is they’ve largely accepted a hermeneutic where things are explainable by science unless presented as a dramatic miracle. Even things around the time of Christ gets explained by volcanoes and the like.

    While the Church hasn’t yet adopted all the views of the apologists, they’ve certainly infused the standard view over the years. You now even see a weird mixture of old school Book of Mormon art (Nephites looking like Scandinavians pretending to be Romans complete with a gladius for a sword) and newer apologetic infused art with darker skin (both Nephites and Lamanites would have fairly dark skin in this model) and mesoAmerican weapons like a macuahuitl for a sword.

  14. Michael H says:

    First off, Mike, this post was excellent food for thought. What follows I hope can be interpreted as less a prod than the earnest desire of a shaky believer to get a less muddy answer on things. I get a lot out of BCC, but you and others should tell me if the occasional less-faithful comments don’t quite fit within the blog’s scope.

    “We are no longer trapped into accepting the curse narrative as an etiology of any current group of people.”

    My first thought: Would we not still be “trapped” into accepting the curse narrative as an etiology for a past group of people?

    But I read on: “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.”

    Fair enough. My second thought: This is an satisfactory response to me, mostly because I have seen more than just the race issue explained by an opaque translation process. Under this model, it seems that while we know almost nothing about the translation process, one thing that those who share your perspective seem do know is that the process of translation, not other, perhaps more unsettling factors, are responsible for the apparent inaccuracies in the BOM. By “more unsettling,” I’m not thinking about Joseph Smith’s racial biases, but his potential deceit.

    It seems the imperfect-vessel-as-translator explanation only suffices for those who already have a testimony for the book. I accept the Holy Ghost’s role as a witness in the whole process, though I still worry that the imperfect-vessel-as-translator (or -as-prophet) explanation may eventually (or already has) serve as a simplistic, catch-all explanation for any faith-trying inconsistencies in Church history. I accept that such is sufficient for some, but my attempts to apply that explanation wholesale have left me needing yet more incentive to exercise faith. I’ve tried hard to apply said approach in conjunction with faith, but I’m left with the sinking feeling that in the process dilutes the meaning of scripture or revelator.

  15. Michael H says:

    Whoops, my paragraph four should read: “this is not* a satisfactory response to me.”

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Michael, I’m not sure we need ascribe this to Joseph Smith. Rather Mormon editing texts centuries later may simply be reading the characteristics of the people as he sees them back into the narrative around the time of Christ. i.e. we’re really just seeing mixing of peoples in a standard fashion.

  17. I honestly don’t see any repudiation of the notion that indigenous American peoples are descendants of Lamanites. There has long been a notion that not all of the ancestors of these peoples were Book of Mormon peoples and that some indigenous groups must have more Lamanite ancestry than others. Here’s an except from the 2011 dedicatory prayer of the Xela temple in Guatemala in an area known for having a high concentration of indigenous peoples – “Thou kind and gracious Father, our hearts are filled with gratitude for Thy remembrance of the sons and daughters of Lehi. Thou hast heard their cries and seen their tears. Thou hast accepted their righteous sacrifices.”

  18. I have really loved your approach through this series – a solid “what does the text say about itself”, combined with insightful context from our own lived experience.

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