The Book of Mormon, Dark Skin, and Racist Theology

After we reported the elimination of racist theology from chapter headings in the online edition of the Book of Mormon here at RD late last week, readers have written to point out that verses linking dark skin to accursedness remain in the Book of Mormon itself. Which is entirely true.

Look deep into the Book of Mormon, even the newly-updated on-line version, and you will still find verses like Alma 3:6 reporting that “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark that was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression.”  Pick any Mormon wardhouse, sit in the pews for a year of Sundays, and you’ll never hear that verse cited. And with good reason.

The changing of official, Church-authored chapter headings in the Book of Mormon signifies a contemporary LDS decertification (from the top of the food chain in Salt Lake City!) of the arcane folk belief that dark skin signifies accursedness. I found that significant when I wrote about it last week, and I still do.

Baby steps? Absolutely. Will the Church change the text of the Book of Mormon? Probably not. Just as progressive Jews have not expunged from the Torah verses like Leviticus 20:13 used by bigots to sanction anti-gay prejudice. Just as progressive Christians have not expunged from their New Testaments verses like 1 Corinthians 14:34, used to justify the silencing of women.

Which means that Mormons, just like other contemporary people of faith, are learning to temper a fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of scripture with more important doctrinal values and knowledge gleaned from experience and spiritual seeking.

And just like other contemporary people of faith, Mormons are coming to grips with the fact that scriptures are complex and contradictory:  that the same Bible that commands us to love our neighbors seems also to command murder of homosexuals, and that the same Book of Mormon that states in one place that “all are alike unto God,” “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33) also contains a statement by another narrator who attributes a rival people’s dark skin to their spiritual failings.

As I’ve said before, whether one calls changes to the way we interpret our own scriptures revelation, or more simply an idea whose time has come in a church where fewer than half the members are English-speaking white folks, I don’t care how anti-racism arrives in Mormonism.

I only want it to hurry.