While meeting with our bishop at tithing settlement on Sunday, my family received a copy of the new Book of Mormon 2020 Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families manual. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be studying the Book of Mormon in our home-centered, church-supported studies next year. While thumbing through the book, I was surprised to discover on page 24 that the question “What is the ‘curse’ that came upon the Lamanites?” was answered by a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith (yes, that Joseph Fielding Smith).
“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).Book of Mormon 2020 Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families, p. 24
The church has become more nuanced in dealing with issues of race and Lamanite identity in the last decade, so it seemed curious to pull from 1960 teachings on the matter. Apparently someone else found it curious as well because if you check out the 2020 manual in your Gospel Library app or on the Church’s website, you won’t find that quote anymore. Instead, you’ll find this:
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 This meant the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from their lives.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.
Prophets affirm in our day that dark skin is not a sign of divine disfavor or cursing. The Church embraces Nephi’s teaching that the Lord “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). President Russell M. Nelson declared: “The Lord has stressed His essential doctrine of equal opportunity for His children. … Differences in culture, language, gender, race, and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer” (“President Nelson Remarks at Worldwide Priesthood Celebration” [June 1, 2018], newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
See also “Till We All Come in the Unity of the Faith” (video, ChurchofJesusChrist.org).Electronic version of Book of Mormon 2020 Come Follow Me — For Individuals and Families on ChurchofJesusChrist.org
The new section has a short video by Ahmad Corbitt, a director in the Public Affairs department of the Church, called “Till We All Come in the Unity of the Faith.” (For those who may not be aware, a 4-part personal essay by Brother Corbitt used to be regularly advertised with the “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topics Essay on the Church’s website. He wrote the 2014 essay while serving as mission president of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission. It is still available on the Church’s website.)
In the new description, the church qualifies its position on the mark of dark skin, noting that the “nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood.” This allows for a more metaphorical understanding of the mark, an interpretation favored by some apologists. (See, for example, “What Does the Book of Mormon Mean by ‘Skin of Blackness’?”.)
A statement made by the current President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson, has also been added. It’s noteworthy that this statement was made at the 2018 “Be One” celebration, commemorating the 1978 lifting of the temple and priesthood ban on members of African descent.
There is one other interesting chang. In my printed version, the initial question is in the present tense (what IS the curse?). The new electronic version creates distance by using the past tense (what WAS the curse?). To me, it seems to quietly discourage the application of the scriptural curse to anyone today.
My takeaways from this:
- People in the Curriculum department need to communicate better with those in the Church History and Public Affairs divisions. Race issues are particularly touchy, as seen in recent flare-ups (see here, here, here, here, etc.). The Church History department has also worked hard to bring out indigenous and other minority voices in the new Saints volumes and Church History Topics. In a related vein, I highly recommend a collection of essays published in 2018 called Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion. Among those voices are several of indigenous descent who reflect on the concept of of Lamanite identity.
- The discrepancy between hard and electronic copies of the 2020 Come, Follow Me manual is a problem. In our ward, we have a lot of older folks who rely solely on the printed manual. They are people who really need to see the Church’s updated positions on race.
- It’s refreshing to see the Church recognizing the obvious tie between the Lamanite curse in the Book of Mormon with other now-disavowed teachings on race. The Race and the Priesthood Gospel Topics essay states, “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse…” Which then begs the question, what do we do with 2 Nephi 5?
Finally, whoever noticed the problem and got this section of the manual updated, THANK-YOU!
Question: What are your thoughts and takeaways from the recent edits to the Book of Mormon 2020 Come, Follow Me home study manual?
 For anyone wondering about the ellipses in Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote, here’s the full section from Answers to Gospel Questions:
The Present Status of the Lamanites
Question: “The question I have is concerning the present status of the Lamanites. I know that Laman and Lemuel and their families were cursed, but to what extent is this curse carried today? Was the darker skin all or just part of the curse? Will this curse be completely forgotten and taken away by the Lord on the basis of repentance and complete acceptance of the gospel?”
Answer: 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, Volume 3 (Kindle version)
And yes, you can still download ebook publications of Answers to Gospel Questions. Members of Deseret Book’s Bookshelf PLUS program can even read the volumes for free!
 The church has even backed off mentioning the “skin of blackness” in the chapter heading of 2 Nephi 5 in the Book of Mormon. The heading used to have the phrase, “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.” Beginning with the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon and continuing in the new 2013 edition of our scriptures, that portion of the chapter heading now states: “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.”
 Fun fact: the “Be One” celebration would not have happened without the women of the Black LDS Legacy Committee. For more information, see Mormon Matters podcast episodes 516 & 517 with Dr. LaShawn Williams.