I read with interest recent opinion pieces (here, here, and here) regarding Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the Book of Mormon, and a curse of blackness—or whiteness, as the case may be. I fully support a vigorous vetting process of any candidate who seeks the highest political office in the land. However, recent characterizations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (Mormon or LDS) position on race, especially in regards to the Book of Mormon, might benefit from refinement. To that end, I offer both textual and historical context regarding Mormonism and race. To be clear, I do so out of a desire to correct misrepresentations, not out of a desire to promote Mr. Romney, a person’s whose faith, not politics, I share.
The underlying assumption in the recent articles suggest that a belief in the Book of Mormon equals a belief in divinely inspired racism. It is a false premise supported by faulty evidence. As noted Mormons regard the Book of Mormon as the word of God and accept it as sacred scripture. As with all scripture, however, interpretations vary across time and space and from person to person. But on this point Mormon interpretations of the verses recently cited have been consistent and unambiguous. None of the Book of Mormon verses quoted have ever been interpreted by Mormon leaders, past or present, to apply to African Americans, or black people of any heritage. None. From the earliest introduction of the book to the present, Mormons have viewed it as a history of indigenous Americans, not blacks (cold comfort, I realize, to Native Americans, but please bear with me).
The book purports to be a narrative of decedents of the biblical Joseph, a branch of Israel, led from Jerusalem to the Americas around 600 BCE. After their arrival in the America’s the group split into two rival kinship camps, the generally more righteous Nephites and their spiritually fallen brethren the Lamanites. It is the Lamanites, the narrative declares, that are cursed or separated from God because of sin. While it is true, the recent critics note, the verses under question lend themselves to a particularly racialized reading of who the Lamanites were, a reading that certainly informed nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormon ideas about and interactions with Native Americans, the narrative itself makes it clear that the curse was wholly cultural and not racial. There are significant portions of the narrative, in fact, wherein the Lamanites convert to the Christian path and become more righteous than the Nephites. The culmination of the story around 400 CE is the annihilation of the spiritually decayed Nephites at the hands of the Lamanites. The surviving Lamanites then, in the minds of early Mormons, were the ancestors of the Native Americans.
To be sure, Mormons did not always treat or view Native peoples as fallen descendants of ancient Israel in need of redemption, and even when they did it created a paternalistic vision that failed to see the Indians as equal. Especially as Mormon pioneers settled the Great Basin, the practicalities of colonizing and living among Native peoples sometimes outweighed idealized religious views of their redemption. Sometimes it became more convenient to view Great Basin Indians as savages, and urge and aid in their removal to government reservations. On occasion Mormons were remarkably restrained and magnanimous toward indigenous peoples; other times, as historian Jared Farmer puts it, they were “bleakly conventional.”
Rather than providing an excuse for denigration (unless the discourse slipped into viewing Native peoples as descendants of Gadianton Robbers, a more corrupt Book of Mormon people) the Book of Mormon demanded outreach and prompted compassion. In fact, as the historian Richard Lyman Bushman sees it, the Book of Mormon is more than merely “sympathetic to Indians; it grants them dominance—in history, in God’s esteem, and in future ownership of the American continent.”
Mormon leaders sometimes encouraged intermarriage with Indians as one method of lifting them toward a “white and delightsome” destiny and Mormons did read the verses cited in highly racialized ways. Even still there are internally consistent ways of reading the “white and delightsome” verses that are not nearly as racialized, readings that better characterize a twenty-first century engagement with the text than that of the past. There is evidence that even Joseph Smith, Jr., saw “white” as a synonym for “pure” in some instances, a view that points to a spiritual redemption from sin rather than an actual change in skin color. The verses in 1 Nephi 12 perhaps best illustrate this point. While they ultimately describe the Lamanite descent into “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people,” they simultaneously speak of redemption through the blood of Christ: “because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood” (v. 10). Similar to Isaiah, these verses speak of garments being washed white in the blood of Jesus, a metaphor designed to highlight the miracle of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice. Like “garments,” “skin” and “scales,” are also used metaphorically to indicate spiritual darkness and potential redemption. The gift of the garden and of the cross is the opportunity to wash sinned-stained souls in the blood of Jesus. In doing so they “are made white,” a blessing clearly open to all who are spiritually “darkened.” It is an internally consistent way of reading the Book of Mormon, a reading that brings solace and hope in Jesus to Mormons of all colors.
If the recent critics of Mormonism are searching for a presidential candidate whose faith tradition is somehow free from racial prejudice, I wish them well. The critics’ positions, however, imply that Mormons today are somehow implicated in a distorted reading of Book of Mormon verses and past statements by Mormon leaders. It is a leap of logic that unfairly paints all Mormons with a broad brush.
In searching for a racial vision articulated in the Book of Mormon, all of the racialized verses recently quoted are now cross-referenced in the most recent electronic version of the Book of Mormon to verses that demonstrate redemption, most of them to 2 Nephi 26:33, a verse that perhaps the critics—and some early Mormon leaders—too quickly overlooked: the Lord “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” It is a message of universal redemption in Christ that best characterizes Mormonism’s current stand on race, and a message central to the Book or Mormon all along.
While hopefully this discussion helps clarify the Book of Mormon narrative, it does nothing to address Mormonism’s troubled racial past in regard to blacks. On this count, historical context offers explanation but certainly not justification. Part II tackles that topic in more detail.
W. Paul Reeve, PhD, is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press. He is the author of Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes, and co-editor with Ardis E. Parshall of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. With Michael Van Wagenen he co-edited Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore. He is a practicing Mormon.
Part II will be posted Thursday morning.
Commenters: The topic is the intersection of Mormonism, the Book of Mormon, race, politics, and the media. General political commentary, whether pro- or anti-Romney, is off-topic and will be deleted.