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 This meant the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from their lives.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.
Once again, great catch Mary Ann.
This may be a bit tangential and not the exact question you asked at the end, but it just strikes me how much “stuff” (in this case edits and changes even over a few months period) is changing and how some really look at it and think of the ramifications while the vast majority of members never even know there is any change on most anything. And then there are some that see it and still just think it is no big deal.
It’s wonderful to see this section edited. While the church has moved away from officially teaching that Polynesians are descendants of the Lamanites, the doctrine is passed on through local members. I’ve heard of some whose family joked that the darker-skinned people in the family were more cursed than others. It wasn’t just a joke for them though.
When I was a leader in young mens, most of the young men were Maori, Samoan, or Tongan. I read them this quote from the essay on Race and the Priesthood “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” I did not want to perpetuate the harmful teaching that skin colour is a curse from God.
While I am glad this section had been edited, it’s still not good enough. The Book of Mormon does not say that the “mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them”. Connecting the word ‘mark’ with skin colour falls back on the same racist narrative that Cain and Lamanites, and others, were cursed with a mark of black skin, which is not biblical and not accurate. The Book of Mormon does not use the word “mark” when talking about the skin of blackness in Nephi5:20-21, and Genesis does not talk about Cain having black skin.
That’s really great. I am happy about these positive changes. Another good thing to note in the Sunday school manual for next year is this section in reference to Moroni 9:9.
“Can my chastity and virtue be taken from me?
Mormon’s description of the horrible sins of the Nephites have led some to mistakenly conclude that victims of sexual assault or abuse have violated the law of chastity. However, Elder Richard G. Scott clarified that this is not the case. He taught, “I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty” (“Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse,” Ensign, May 1992, 32).”
I really wish they would have made a public statement like this when they removed this scripture from the Personal Progress booklet. Instead they removed it from the online version, and all the girls using the hard copy kept reading this verse in the Virtue section. At least it’s not a concern now with the new youth program.
Mary, thank-you for pointing out the Moroni 9:9 section. I hadn’t seen that yet. Huge improvement!
Sometimes I think the Keystone Kops run the LDS curriculum division. Yes it’s nice to see the corrections in the online version. But the print version was put together very recently, by current LDS curriculum writers. It went through several levels of drafting, editing, and approval, by leadership as well as writers, before being printed.
There was the 13th amendment in 1865, Pres. Truman integrating the armed forces in 1948, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and lots of anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970s. But here we are in 2019 for crying out loud and a good chunk of LDS bureaucrats and leaders with considerable power within the organization (they write and approve the manuals used all over the Church) still think God’s a racist, as if it were 1845. This is appalling.
So Joseph Fielding Smith models a straightforward reading of the Lamanite curse in the Book of Mormon; in the process, he demonstrates an unenlightened view of race. Current Church leadership model a wishy-washy reading of the Lamanite curse; in the process, they achieve an enlightened view of race. Interesting.
There are plenty of hard-to-understand passages in 2 Nephi. Chapter 5 is not one of them. What should Mormons do with 2 Nephi 5 (especially versus 21-24)? Well, we could admit that it’s racist. Or, as the Church leadership seems to have decided to do, we can pretend 2 Nephi 5 is as mysterious as the Isaiah chapters. “The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood.” By whom? The Book of Mormon depicts God using dark skin as a punitive tool and, at least initially, as a means to segregate. On this point, Joseph Fielding Smith is merely guilty of reading the book the way it was written.
Jake, I would have said the BoM depicts Nephi claiming God used dark sking as a punitive tool or a means to segregate. Is there some reason to suppose Nephi couldn’t have been as wrong as other prophets who have done that? There is more than one way to read the BoM. Maybe it should be read as a demonstration of the destructive results of racism and an example of otherwise good people attributing their racism to God.
Although I endorse the home-centered direction, and believe the Pharisees at the CES will come around to a less dogmatic, more holistic approach to the Gospel, I worry that in a few generations, the early racism among the saints and the institution will be white-washed like it never happened. I hope not. It serves as a reminder—helps us reconcile collective prejudice, helps us realize that men and women (mostly men) can become dangerous to society when they believe they are “elevated” or “exalted” above others…
And I wonder sometimes if the attitude that priesthood “is the power and authority to act in the name of God,” may lead some men to believe they are “elevated” and “exalted” above others—like at attitude of racism…
Mary (not Mary Ann), that talk you referenced by Scott is really bad and you skipped over the really disgusting part where he blames the victim. It is NEVER the fault of the victim. If there receiving party was an active participant, then they are NOT a victim!
The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed.
JR, the question of Nephi’s fallibility is a fascinating one. Especially since it can be argued textually that no one testifies to Nephi’s shortcomings more fervently than Nephi (see 2 Nephi 4). But I think your proposed interpretation is highly problematic. If I understand correctly, you propose pinning the obvious racism in 2 Nephi 5 on Nephi instead of God. This begs a question. What was Nephi supposed to think when he observed that everyone in the extended family who refused to be loyal to him developed dark skin?
Also, what are we to make of Nephi quoting the Lord God as taking credit for the Lamanites becoming “loathsome”? (5:22). Is this Nephi fabricating a divine communication to justify his personal assessment of Lamanites as “idle” and untrustworthy?
This gets back to the core problem I have with the revisions discussed in the original post: the Church is moving to a deliberately vague, conveniently inconclusive, reading of the Book of Mormon. Granted, I regard the book as fiction. Still, it’s a significant work of Christian thought. Irksome to see it willfully misread by its chief promoters.
Does the Church do anything to encourage a fallibility reading like the one you’ve mentioned above? I think it would be harder for the Church to admit one of its favorite prophets was seriously wrong on race. Although I suppose it’s happened with Brigham Young, but the idea of Young as a crazy old uncle type whose teachings you take with a grain of salt has become pretty normalized, at least among my Millennial generation.
Jake, I don’t think JR’s take is unreasonable. Joseph Fielding Smith’s reading of the Book of Mormon is comparable to those who have a very literal take on the bible. Not everyone who sees the bible as inspired necessarily takes it at face value. The bible is a human interpretation of God’s dealings with people. I don’t accept that God ordered genocide. I don’t accept that the flood was worldwide. I don’t accept the cosmological views of biblical people. I get how someone might argue that’s a willful misreading, but I see it as trying to take into account the writer’s point of view.
Even if you take the Book of Mormon as absolute fiction, the racist statements would still reflect on the author’s (Joseph Smith’s) opinion that God would curse people with “blackness” to make them undesirable, same as in Moses 7:8. The author matters.
Brigham Young’s 1852 declaration justifying the priesthood ban was full of ideas about God’s curses on those of African descent – I do not accept those arguments. So when I look at Nephi’s statement about God cursing Lamanites with a skin of blackness, I wonder how much could reflect a personal bias. Later the Book of Mormon states that Lamanites become indistinguishable from the Nephites within one generation. That, to me, throws into question how significant the differences really were between the two groups.
The Church needs to get out of the curse or mark business , , , period. God is not cursing people, He’s not drowning humans and animals, He’s not confounding languages. The spin doctors in the COB ought to be able to figure a way out of this mess. The OT stuff should be easy. The BofM stuff will be a little more difficult.
“What was Nephi supposed to think when he observed that everyone in the extended family who refused to be loyal to him developed dark skin?”
I’m not convinced the BoM says he observed any such thing. 2 Nephi 5 has Nephi separating himself and family from Laman & Lemuel and their families before he recounts any dark skin issue with Lamanites. It could be as much as 40 years later (see last part of the chapter) that he writes that account describing his impression of what had happened in those 40 years that distinguished his people from the “Lamanites.” The common reading depends in part on the assumption that Nephi’s perception of fact and of God’s will and his memory are entirely and literally consistent and correct and presented in flawless translation. That would be unlike any human I know or have read of — prophet or not — and unlike any significant translation I’ve encountered where I can read both languages.
Nor have I committed to that alternative reading beyond “maybe.” It strikes me as a bit unseemly to accuse others of wilful misreading because they are not committed to the simple and simplistic traditional reading..
Please read my comment again. I didn’t skip over anything. I merely quoted what was is in the new manual. No need to shoot the messenger. It seems the curriculum writers should have chosen a different talk to make their point. Sadly, there probably aren’t a lot of talks from apostles that plainly address the innocence of survivors of abuse or assault. I am still glad they made a statement about that scripture rather than ignoring it. Maybe they can update the manual again with a reference to a talk that unambiguously blames perpetrators of abuse and not the victim at all.
To expand on JR’s comment, I think a few things quite possible:
1. Laman and Lemuel found allies who were already present in the Promised Land,
2. These allies had darker skin, and
3. The children of Laman and Lemuel married into this group.
So, decades later, Nephi sees people with darker skin, and starts making assumptions.
…or even people who dispensed with unnecessary clothing whilst hunting and took some sun, thus marking them out as undesirable hunter-gatherers rather than settled pastorals?
To extend Tim’s extension of JR’s comment:
4. The “skin of blackness” is metaphorical.
For example, see Marvin Perkins’ (7 Feb 2011) excellent essay on this topic:
“We also understand that the skin being spoken of in reference to ‘black’ or ‘white’ is referring to the state of the spirit and not a literal or physical skin color change.”
Dylan, “Does the Church do anything to encourage a fallibility reading like the one you’ve mentioned above?” In newer publications by Church History folks like the Gospel Topics Essays, yes. In traditional curriculum manuals and general conference, no. That’s why I see this particular change as significant. The Church has previously stated that manuals are important when discerning current positions on doctrine.
Is anyone else bothered that LDS Curriculum writers think it’s ok to use ellipses to leave out large sections of a quote. While the quotes are not generally similar, much of what is left out adds nuance that doesn’t necessarily paint JFS in a good light. Changing “The dark skin of those who have come into the church” to “Dark skin” is a big change. The original allowed members to maintain negative thoughts toward dark skinned people outside the church, a viewpoint I imagine JFS held.
Glad they dropped the quote entirely.
Although the Church believes the BOM was written by real people, it can’t bring itself to say about Nephi or Mormon what it would say about Brigham Young, i.e., “His retrograde views on race stem from the time period in which he lived.” That is how we interpret and contextualize bigotry (among other lunacies) in the bible, but we don’t give the BOM the same privilege. The BOM is actually diminished by being held up on a pedestal as the ultimate “privileged” text, rather than a messy history of ancient peoples trying, and often failing, to understand God.
Another example that comes to mind is Alma 30, which reads like a post hoc justification for executing a religious dissident who was saying unpopular things but otherwise following the law.
Reading the BOM as an actual history requires embracing the flaws and contradictions of the characters within its pages.
“For anyone wondering about the ellipses in Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote, here’s the full section from Answers to Gospel Questions:”
Thank you! Ellipsis drive me crazy in historical contexts.
It is just “1984” all over again.The Church continues to rewrite that which it can not hide or obfuscate. Then it wonders why people have lost confidence in it and its leaders
Interesting discussion. Thanks for doing additional research on the JFS reference from Come Follow Me (I was doing the same – leading me to this page.) I have long pushed back against racial biases I have heard at church based on the information described in not only the BofM, but in the PofGP ‘s reference in Moses 7:22. We are not provided much info in the scriptures on the nature of the skin curse. For example, is there any evidence that the curse wasn’t some result of a plague or disease affecting skin color, or perhaps they were tattooed all over, or maybe it was black and white zebra stripes or black poka dots? (yes, I’m trying to make you grin a little here.) My point is this – we don’t know. Are there options we haven’t considered?
A related issue that greatly concerns me from these BofM passages is that, once again, the church education system has downplayed one of the important and certainly key elements of the narrative, and that is what actually caused the separation of this family, this community, and what actually constitutes the curse. yes, 2 Ne 5:20 is noted in Come Follow Me (…they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.) What is utterly ignored is verse 21 – wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing to my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. Here is crystal clarity that the Lord knows that altering the outward appearance (however it actually happened) visual attractiveness and visual sexual stimulation (‘enticing’) would be preserved strictly among the followers of Nephi. This sore curse ebbs and flows as future groups either draw closer to or distance themselves from the Lord, finally concluding when there are ‘no more ites’ but only righteous, happy Christians who we read in 4 Ne 10, 11 …became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people. And they were married and given in marriage, ….
How any Latter Day Saint can read the BofM and still be convinced that ‘looks don’t matter’ is well beyond my ignorant brain. How any LDS author of a book discussing marital relationships can ignore or purposefully downplay what husbands and wives communicate visually to their partner is puzzling to me. Does the church education system generally ignore the multitude of scripture stories like these, that simply could not be factual if visual attraction and stimulation were of no effect, of no consequence, when we could be using these to show that there is a divine purpose for visual attractiveness, and warning of consequences of ‘letting ourselves go’ (something we all need to work on)?
Could we cite years of previous examples of this sort of turning a blind (or blurred) eye to this issue in Gospel Doctrine class manuals? I believe I could cite several if you wish. In the study of the BofM do we have the perfect opportunity to correct rampant misconceptions on this issue as we teach marriage relationship bonding mechanisms? Perhaps the most recognizable of these distortions is the misunderstanding of ‘the Lord looketh not on the outward appearance’ reference which every member hears to no end, starting with it’s designation as a ‘scripture mastery’ verse for our impressionable young seminary students. Are there not plenty of scriptures to suggest that not only does the Lord see and care about what we look like on the outside, He has the ability to recognize visual attractiveness, and knows how greatly it can affect people for both good or evil? One example of this can be found in Abraham 2:22 when He visits the prophet to warn him about what they are going to do to him when he gets to Egypt. The Lord himself says “Behold Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon… ‘ Will the our next study manual on the PofGP point out this verse?
So, how could this represent bias or prejudice? Look at differences in how men and women find fulfillment in marriage relationships. While empirical as well as scriptural research (like the verses in this email thread) suggest that both men and women on a whole experience visual attraction and stimulation, it appears to be of significantly greater effect on most males. Of the many attributes that attract and bond most males to females; sexual fulfillment, wife as an active participant alongside hubby in recreation activities, visual attractiveness, etc, and many key elements that attract and bond most females to males like affection, verbal communication, being a good father to her offspring, providing security including income to sustain the family, and so forth, which of these are most likely to be actively promoted by the church? Thankfully, the church has come a long way in teaching equality in all demographics including welcomed changes addressing not only racial but gender differences in the temple service. Are we there yet in treating men and women as ‘equal partners’ in the marriage? I’ve asked many questions here, interested to hear your views.