by Sharon Lindbloom
21 January 2020
On January 18, 2020, Peggy Fletcher Stack and the Salt Lake Tribune published an article titled, “Error in printed LDS Church manual could revive racial criticisms.” It seems that the print edition of the LDS church’s 2020 Sunday school manual, Come Follow Me, includes an outdated teaching on a racist passage found in the Book of Mormon.
The printed manual quotes Joseph Fielding Smith, who became the tenth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commenting on 2 Nephi 5:20-21. The Book of Mormon passage states,
“Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not harken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence.
“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” (2 Nephi 5:20-21)
President Smith, as quoted in the 2020 church manual, explained,
“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing [see 2 Nephi 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-10]. The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord [see 2 Nephi 5:20]. … Dark skin … is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “Answers to Gospel Questions,” comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. , 3:122-23).”
President Smith’s teaching was not controversial in the least when he gave it. His statements fit perfectly with the teachings of other LDS prophets, seers, and revelators dating all the way back to the early days of Mormonism. And his teaching continued to fit into the doctrinal framework of Mormonism for decades to come.
But in 2013 a Gospel Topics Essay appeared on the Mormon church’s website which “disavowed” the teachings of previous church leaders on race in favor of adopting a position of ignorance. Therefore, the LDS church corrected the “error” perpetrated by the print edition of the 2020 Sunday school manual in a subsequent release of a digital edition, promoting the idea that 2 Nephi’s curse of dark skin is “not fully understood.” The digital edition reads:
“In Nephi’s day the curse of the Lamanites was that they were ‘cut off from [the Lord’s] presence … because of their iniquity’ (2 Nephi 5:20–21). This meant the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from their lives. When Lamanites later embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘the curse of God did no more follow them’ (Alma 23:18).
“The Book of Mormon also states that a mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them. The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood. The mark initially distinguished the Lamanites from the Nephites. Later, as both the Nephites and Lamanites each went through periods of wickedness and righteousness, the mark became irrelevant as an indicator of the Lamanites’ standing before God.” (Digital edition of Come Follow Me)
The nature and appearance of the “mark of dark skin” noted in the Book of Mormon was not any kind of mystery to earlier Mormon leaders who taught in unity that the mark of God’s curse against the unbelieving Lamanites was “a skin of blackness” (dark skin) that would be perpetuated through intermarriage; this dark skin would be removed if these unbelievers repented and embraced Mormonism – they would become “white and delightsome” (2 Nephi 30:6).
The print edition of Come Follow Me quoted a portion of a longer teaching from Joseph Fielding Smith. Looking at the greater context of his remarks (including the words represented in the manual’s quote by ellipses) gives greater understanding of the confident assertions of previous LDS leaders. President Smith’s full answer to a Mormon’s question about the “present status of the Lamanites” was this:
“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing. The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord and the Lamanites becoming a ‘loathsome and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.’ (I Nephi 12:23.) The Lord commanded the Nephites not to intermarry with them, for if they did they would partake of the curse.
“At the time of the Savior’s visit to the Nephites all of the people became united, and the curse and the dark skin which was its sign were removed. The two peoples became one and lived in full harmony and peace for about two hundred years.
“There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. (IV Nephi, verse 17.)
“EVIL BROUGHT RETURN OF DARK SKIN
“After the people again forgot the Lord and dissensions arose, some of them took upon themselves the name Lamanites and the dark skin returned. When the Lamanites fully repent and sincerely receive the gospel, the Lord has promised to remove the dark skin. The Lord declared by revelation that, ‘before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.’ (D. & C. 49:24.)
“The dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. Many of these converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord. Perhaps there are some Lamanites today who are losing the dark pigment. Many of the members of the Church among the Catawba Indians of the South could readily pass as of the white race; also in other parts of the South.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “Answers to Gospel Questions,” comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. , 3:122-23).
At least as late as the middle of the 20th century LDS leaders believed and taught that the “mark of the curse” – dark skin – continued to be relevant “as an indicator of the Lamanites’ standing before God.”
Joseph Fielding Smith’s understanding of this Book of Mormon teaching paralleled that of other LDS prophet-presidents as well. Spencer W. Kimball’s statements in that regard, given during the October 1960 General Conference of the church, have become somewhat infamous. He said,
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos; five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl – sixteen – sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents – on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1960, 34).
Thankfully, according to the corrected digital edition of the 2020 Sunday school manual, “[LDS] Prophets affirm in our day that dark skin is not a sign of divine disfavor or cursing.” But they used to teach otherwise. Irene Caso, spokeswoman for the Mormon church, noted,
“During the publication of the ‘Come, Follow Me’ manual for 2020, there was an error that resulted in the printing of material that doesn’t reflect the church’s current views on the topic.”
The church’s current views differ radically from the church’s previous views. LDS leaders used to know what the Book of Mormon meant by its teachings on curses and marks and dark skin, but no more. Today, “The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood.”
Is this really what it means to belong to a church that boasts of continuing revelation delivered by living prophets who cannot lead the church astray?
Can Mormons maintain confidence in church leaders when they move from firm and forthright declarations of doctrine to timid excuses of ignorance?
Again and again Mormonism is revealed to be something other than what it claims. I’m reminded of the Wizard of Oz (as I often am in regards to the LDS church). Like Dorothy, in order to maintain faith, Mormons must, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
Please, LDS friends, pay attention to that man being the curtain! Mormonism promises truth and stability – an iron rod to cling to. But it doesn’t keep its promises. Its so-called truths shift and change with expediency. Its iron rod dissolves as a mist.
I invite you instead to look to the God who speaks through the Bible. James says He is the Father of lights, “with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17). His word is sure (Psalm 18:30), His promises are true (2 Corinthians 1:20), and His steadfast love leads to life everlasting (Lamentations 3:22-23; John 3:16).
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