“Dark” Skin No Longer a Curse in Online Book of Mormon

Chapter headings in the online version of the Book of Mormon have been changed by LDS Church officials, eliminating vestiges of racist theology that linked dark skin to spiritual accursedness.

One changed chapter heading appears in 2 Nephi, chapter 5:

* Old version: “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness, and become a scourge to the Nephites.”

* New online version: “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.”

A second changed chapter heading appears in Mormon, chapter 5:

* Old version: “The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy, and loathsome people. . .”

* New online version: “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites will be scattered, and the Spirit will cease to strive with them . . .”

The Book of Mormon follows groups of migrants from ancient Israel to the Americas, focusing especially on the experiences of rival peoples descended from the same family: the Nephites and the Lamanites. LDS people of my generation were raised to understand that the indigenous peoples of North and South America are the descendents of the Lamanites, a belief that has been challenged by anthropologists. The Book of Mormon taught that the phenotypical features of Lamanites—their dark skin—came about as a consequence of unrighteousness. Unsurprisingly, the outlines of this story resembled general American Christian folk theology which attributed racial variation to Biblical curses, specifically identifying African-descended peoples as heirs to curses imposed on Cain or Ham.

The Book of Mormon, however, also showed that all civilizations—Nephites as well as Lamanites—were vulnerable to pride, apostasy, and collapse and capable of spiritual rededication and regeneration, regardless of skin color. The LDS Church never withheld priesthood from members of indigenous American descent; in fact, outreach programs were specifically designed to recruit and support American Indian and Latino Mormons, and the Church has enjoyed tremendous missionary growth in Mexico, Central, and South America.

Over the years, some American Indian and Latin American indigenous Mormons have actively claimed a “Lamanite” identity and positioned themselves as the direct heirs of the Book of Mormon. (I have heard Navajo LDS friends tell me that what they read in the Book of Mormon resembles stories they’ve heard from their grandparents.) Today, the Church’s greatest convert growth in the US is among Latino communities.

The earliest editions of the Book of Mormon did not feature summary chapter headings. Headings were added in the 1920s and revised in the 1980s by Bruce R. McConkie, author of Mormon Doctrine (now out of print), a compendium of Mormon theology controversial both for its explicit anti-Catholicism and its promulgation of adoctrinal racist folklore, as we covered here at RD. In 1981, the Church changed the language of 2 Nephi 30: 6 to remove the statement that Lamanites who repented would become a “white and delightsome” people, substituting instead the phrase “pure and delightsome.” The above-referenced changes to the McConkie chapter headings were quietly implemented in some print editions of the Book of Mormon beginning in 2004, though they remained in the online text.

The present change is very much in keeping with a strong LDS institutional preference for quietly leaving historical missteps behind as it matures from an American faith with ties to a complex of Anglo-American folk beliefs into a global religion.