Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Mitt Romney, Blackness, and the Book of Mormon, Part I
 


Guest Post: Mitt Romney, Blackness, and the Book of Mormon, Part I

By: W. Paul Reeve - February 14, 2012

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.

-oOo-

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.

-oOo-

Part II will be posted Thursday morning.

-oOo-

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.



32 Comments »

  1. Not to mention the Romney family involvement in pro-civil rights activities and movements. If you are going to attack someone on faith and commitment, perhaps there is a better family to focus on.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — February 14, 2012 @ 7:05 am

  2. I have to roll my eyes at the repeated claim that the Book of Mormon ascribes a curse on Black Africans. People who write this are devout believers in the Church of Making Stuff Up. Or they just copy what someone else wrote. Whatever you do, don’t actually open the book and see what it actually says.

    An irony I’ve pointed out before is that the vast majority of racially problematic passages in the Mormon canon are in the Bible, not in the Book of Mormon. On race (or any other topic) the Bible is several orders of magnitude more discordant with modern sensibilities than is anything the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Left Field — February 14, 2012 @ 7:29 am

  3. On oversimplification of Book of Mormon white hat/black hat typology, Todd Compton’s old FARMS piece is good.
    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=2&num=1&id=24

    Comment by Ben S — February 14, 2012 @ 8:02 am

  4. Another dead giveaway that the Lamanites turning dark skinned was more metaphorical (even if still physically true if the Book of Mormon is considered historical as I do) is the Anti-Lehi-Nephis. Critics have laughed that the Africans and Indians who join the church didn’t have their skins turn white as they say the Book of Mormon promises. Apparently there is no mention of the Anti-Lehi-Nephis turning whited skinned, so there is no proof either racial comments were intended as more than spiritual allegory to the Nephite writer. Oh well, those who make such stupid comments about Mormon racists wouldn’t vote for a Mormon or a Republican anyway.

    Comment by Jettboy — February 14, 2012 @ 8:12 am

  5. I think this piece is very helpful and, of course, agree with the analysis. I have wondered if, as we grapple with who the descendants of Lehi really are, a more narrow interpretation may evolve. Under that interpretation, the Lamanite darkness might have been a means of separating believing and non-believing people in a very particular circumstance. It would not, by any means, indicate that dark skin is always a mark or symbol of unrighteousness or spiritual inferiority.

    Comment by @UtahMormonDemoGuy — February 14, 2012 @ 9:04 am

  6. Nice post, Paul. I hope this gets the attention it deserves.

    Comment by Christopher — February 14, 2012 @ 9:13 am

  7. 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

    Even the Southern Baptist denomination, which many civil rights leaders belonged to as pastors, had it’s beginnings as a pro-slavery church.

    If we believe current revelation is more important that historical practice, why does Mormon history tend to play such a prominent role compared to the history of other sects?

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 14, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  8. I’ve always wondered if the dark skin was because of intermarrying with people they found in the promised land. Marrying outside of the covenant had long been against the commandments.

    If there were already people living where they landed, and the children of Laman and Lemuel married them outside the covenant, that would explain the physical differences, and the reason for the commandment not to marry them. The easy way for the prophets to say who was okay to marry would be to go by skin color. At least at first.

    Comment by Carol — February 14, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  9. Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. Clark, it is a good question, one that I’ve wondered about myself. I think it speaks to the lack of information about the Church and that we clung to our priesthood ban until 1978, well past the Civil Rights era.
    Even then, context is helpful. Some fundamentalist Christian groups cling to ideas against race mixing. In 1998 Bob Jones University refused to allow a white student to attend when officials learned he was married to a black woman. He was informed in a letter that “God has separated people for His own purpose.” That was 1998. In contrast, the LDS Church has several interracial couples as the face of Mormonism today, in the I’m a Mormon PR campaign.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  10. Carol, you offer a plausible explanation. I’m not completely sold on a literal skin curse, but I realize it is open for interpretation. I like the footnote link between 2 Ne 5:21 for “skin of blackness” to 2 Ne 30:6 “their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people.” Recall that it was JS, Jr.,who changed the word “white” there to “pure,” a clue to the spiritual, not necessarily physical nature of the redemption.

    Why “blackness” if we are talking about skin? Why not “redness” a color more in line with what Native Americans were called, “red brothers.” Black just seems the wrong color if we were talking about a skin color. Could “blackness” be a descent into spiritual darkness and skin a metaphor for scales or garments? Certainly the current footnotes suggest such a possibility.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  11. My take is that this conflation of the Book of Mormon with racism towards black is intellectual laziness and/or a disingenuous way of being bigoted against the Mormon Church without sounding like it. More often than not, when some evangelical leader spouts off about us being a cult, they get called out in the media. But if they accuse us of being racist, that’s political fair game, and an easy charge to make, recent history and the Book of Mormon itself notwithstanding.

    The problem is that the mainstream is not going to read the Book of Mormon with any sort of critical eye as to what it really says (or doesn’t, in this case) about African-Americans. It is also too much to expect the news media, for the larger part, to really take the time to analyze and report on the reality of these charges. We are too accustomed to sound bites. A perfect example is Romney’s statement that he wasn’t worried about the poor. Taken out of context, it sounds awful, and is easily repeatable when you then slam the guy for being rich. I will admit that even in context, it was a poor statement, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.

    I’ve grown more cynical about the political process of late. These charges are just more examples of how the truth can be skewed and shaped beyond the reality, and become a different sort of “reality”, one that is not based in fact, but becomes “common knowledge” in a folklore kind of way.

    I wish Romney well and hope he gets a fair hearing. I myself am not inclined towards his politics, but a smear against Romney about his religion becomes a smear against all of us of that religious tradition.

    Looking forward to part II, Paul.

    Comment by kevinf — February 14, 2012 @ 11:50 am

  12. Thanks for the write-up Paul.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 14, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  13. Paul: Re: Bob Jones U. Unfortunately, as late as 2008, I think the Aaronic Priesthood manuals contained Pres. Kimball’s regrettably outdated advice that we marry those of our same race, generally. This advice was couched in terms of marrying someone as like you as possible to avoid marital strife, and also mentioned socio-economic status. I think it has now been removed from the manual, but its earlier inclusion shows that we in the Church (like just about everyone else) have tended to use race as a shortcut indicator for other things for a long time. Of course, if using race as a shortcut for other things isn’t racism, it looks a lot like it.

    Comment by @UtahMormonDemoGuy — February 14, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  14. UtahMormonDemoGuy,
    Yes, good point. I know those teachings persisted past 1978, but were downgraded to the level of advice, not policy. The change over time is quite dramatic. Brigham Young advocated capital punishment for interracial marriage, something I’ll touch on in part II. A majority of states adopted some form of anti-miscegenation law at some point in their history. In 1965 Virginia Circuit Court Judge Leon Bazile, in Loving v. Virginia, wrote that “Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” The Supreme Court in 1967 overturned the ruling and struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. Utah had already abandoned its law in 1963. Someone likely knows better than I do, but it is my impression that the ban on black-white sealings disappeared with the ’78 revelation. So while the advice lingered, the practice changed. Meanwhile, Bob Jones University enforced a ban in 1998.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  15. Thanks, Paul!

    Paul:
    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

    I might qualify this by saying BoM belief does not-of necessity-entail racism, though thew text itself can be interpreted in racist ways. This makes the same point that you proceed to make in the rest of this post, noting various interpretations of this verse, but avoids appearing to make a more sweeping claim than I think you intend.

    Also, I’m doing a project on Darwinism and Mormonism and recently bumped into some stuff from old Deseret News issues that may be directly pertinent to this project. I’ll track down my references and pass them along later.

    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.

    This brought to mind the Southern Baptist Convention, a 16-million some-odd strong movement of Christians in the American south. Of course, their origin is directly traceable to their support of slavery and opposition to desegregation. (More recently they issued a formal apology for the previous stances. It made me wonder how many SBC folks are black, and how they view their organizations history on questions of race, what the impact of the apology was, exactly what brought it about, and how it might serve as an example for how the Church might handle the our past priesthood restriction.

    Left Field:
    People who write this are devout believers in the Church of Making Stuff Up. Or they just copy what someone else wrote.

    I think the verses in the BoM seem pretty straight-forward to outsiders unfamiliar with the text, and qualifying the verses by distinguishing between American Indians and African Americans isn’t likely to garner a huge deal of mental reconfiguration on the part of people who already view the LDS Church as racist. Mormons like Marvin Perkins and Brant Gardner have been offering contextual readings of the “dark skin” verses in the BoM, and they are often met with incredulous responses, even by some current and former Mormons (I’m thinking particularly of a recent podcast with John Dehlin where Gardner discusses his views on this element of the text.) So I think we don’t do ourselves much good when we respond caustically to people who view the BoM as teaching racism. I appreciate Paul’s measured approach, but I fear it will be largely ignored by people less interested in nuance and more interested in culture wars and political jockeying.

    The Other Clark:
    If we believe current revelation is more important that historical practice, why does Mormon history tend to play such a prominent role compared to the history of other sects?

    For one thing, the church hasn’t made it a priority to expressly overturn past folklore and racist practices. Even the most-frequently cited statement (Bruce R. McConkie’s famous “forget everything we said about it”) didn’t occur in an official Church announcement or General Conference, it occurred in a talk delivered to the CES Religious Educators Symposium.

    The recent PBS “Mormons” documentary had a few comments from Elder Holland (or Oaks?) distancing from the folklore on valiance, worthiness and the priesthood restriction, but the Church hasn’t had a big from-the-pulpit or from-the-church-press statement repudiating the old teachings (however unofficial we’d like to assume they were).

    Further, do any Church manuals on the BoM offer a particularly nuanced interpretation of the skin curse? Paul points out the cross-reference which points to the “all are alike” verse (incidentally the title of that famous McConkie sermon). But this is where the Church might successfully utilize something uncomfortable from our past two teach a lesson about our present, namely: that the old folklore was wrong, and that we currently see through a glass darkly (no connection intended), including our church leaders. My sense is that a combination of 1) honest to goodness respect for past leaders and 2) a reluctance to undermine the credibility of present leaders and counsel and 3) an officially unofficial position on whether the ban was inspired by God or not combine to result in overlooking this issue, hoping that over time it will continue to recede.

    Of course, the Church leaders probably know that apologies or explanations can be interpreted as being politically motivated, and will certainly result in a good deal of mocking (like it already does, e.g. BoM Musical’s line about God “changing his mind about black people” in 1879). But to me, getting it officially straightened out is the right thing to do regardless of the extra consequences.

    Another problem is that our church manuals are a bit outdated. (Understatement.) The current Aaronic Priesthood manual still discusses Pres. Kimball’s discouraging of inter-racial marriages. I emailed the curriculum department about this being online and didn’t get a response. (Speaking of which, who was the guy online who was saying it was easy to provide feedback to the church, and that he would personally pass on messages?)

    We seem to have punted on it again in the more recent Teachings manual about President Kimball, although the lifting of the PH restriction is mentioned there the manual does not discuss specifics, etc.) We’re already going to take a cultural beating for it, might as well make amends as best we can anyway, is my unsolicited thought on it. Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote a pretty highly-charged article on this a few years back and a church spokesperson said the church has no policy against interracial marriage, which is evidently true, but the fact that it is still in our out-dated manuals ought to be taken care of.

    Carol, I’ve thought about the inter-marriage thing, too, but I’m not convinced that the actual text hints there was any particularly strict division between whom the Nephi’s and whom the Laman’s procreated with, even from the get-go. I may be more inclined to take a metaphorical reading of the black skin.

    As for our other canonized works, looking at blackness in relation to other scriptures is interesting. The Old Testament has examples where skin becomes black. In most cases this is due to famine, trouble, war, etc.:

    Jeremiah 8:21

    A few in Lamentations, here and here.

    Joel says in the end times faces will gather blackness.

    And when Job is mourning he says his skin is black upon him.

    Of course, the more obvious connection (especially in regards to the Moses account) is the “mark of Cain,” which wasn’t a curse at all, but a mark placed on Cain to protect him as he had murdered his brother and feared he would be hunted down. But the BoM doesn’t seem connected to the PoGP accounts at all.

    Paul, do you account for these black skin instances in the PoGP, like in Moses?

    Or the instances of “dark-skinned” in the study helps?

    Based on these verses, and the two manuals mentioned above, I’m curious if race specifically comes up in a positive way in any of the manuals, aside from the 2 Nephi verse about all coming unto Christ, black and white, etc. (And I think Paul has a similar sentiment someplace in the NT.)

    Kevin f: A perfect example is Romney’s statement that he wasn’t worried about the poor. Taken out of context, it sounds awful

    FWIW, and I’m sorry to go on a tangent, I think in context Romney’s statement is still problematic in terms of being satisfied with current poverty in the US. But we’d have to discuss that elsewhere. I only add this comment to offset yours. :)

    Comment by BHodges — February 14, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  16. Such good work, Paul. I am so glad to see the wonderful young scholars approach their research so rigorously and express their conclusions so persuasively. Superb.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 14, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  17. Having been rather deeply immersed in the history of slavery in Utah Territory for the past month, I can’t say that I have ever, in all my reading, read a single appeal to the Book of Mormon to explain slavery or racism.

    I would be surprised if any statement of that sort existed, because it would be diametrically opposed to the message of the Book of Mormon. Patrick Mason says something similar in his paper on Interracial Marriage in Utah, in regards to inter-marriage with Native Americans. (“Mormon theology thereby encouraged — in an ideal sense — a relatively high degree of racial tolerance…”)

    Additionally, it has been curious to read what the descendants of the early slaveholders wrote about their slave-holding ancestors. They tend to propagate the myth of the benevolent, kindly slaveholder. It is not a myth specific to Mormonism — I recall having to read an entire book about the subject for one of Thomas Alexander’s classes — but what these descendants write is strikingly different from anything written by the actual slaveholders.

    Comment by Researcher — February 14, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  18. Bhodges, the Romney statement, I agree, is problematic in any context. It is just an example of how the nuances of the BoM text can be spun to sound much different than what we believe it says. However, all the context and deconstruction of the text won’t make any difference for someone that wants to use racism as an easy smear against Romney, and the Church.

    What we can hope for is for us as members to be better informed to respond to these things when they happen within our hearing, and with the opportunity for us to respond and be listened to. If someone has already made up their minds, and won’t listen, well at least we are still better informed.

    Comment by kevinf — February 14, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  19. Perhaps the following quotes may be more helpful than convoluted explanations of the meaning and import of the curse on the Lamanites:

    “The Lamanites your brethren whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins are more righteous than you…” Jacob 3:5

    “O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.
    Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more agaist them because of the darkness of their skins…” Jacob 3:8-9

    Comment by Confutus — February 14, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

  20. BHodges, I’m sure I didn’t respond caustically to those who say that the Book of Mormon teaches racism. It’s easy enough to find passages that can be read as racist, though my point was that such passages are more frequent and more problematic in the Bible. However, I don’t have much patience for journalists who claim that the Book of Mormon specifically teaches a curse against Africans, given that Africans (aside from Egyptians) are entirely unmentioned in the text.

    We’re not talking about drive-by SL Tribune commenters here. We’re talking about journalists for Pete’s sake. It’s their job to get their sources right. If you want to make the case that Mormon scriptures including specifically the Book of Mormon, teach racism, then there are certainly passages you can cite. If you want to make the case that the church taught racism against Africans in particular, then you can cite endless passages from Brigham and others, right through the 1960s. But it’s sloppy, sloppy journalism to cite the Book of Mormon as teaching a curse on Africans. It’s probably the same people who cite the Book of Mormon as teaching polygamy and abstinence from coffee.

    Journalists ought to do better than “I understand that Mormons teach X, therefore X must be in the Book of Mormon somewhere.” They ought to do better than “I heard somewhere that the Book of Mormon says X.” Whenever I write a scientific paper, I check every one of my citations to make sure they say what I claim they say. Is it really asking too much for journalists to verify their sources?

    Comment by Left Field — February 14, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

  21. BH,
    Wow. That is a lot to digest. I accept your refinement of my statement. As you note, it was that exact sentiment I attempted to communicate. As for the SBC, I read an article recently that its members are poised to elect their first black leader. I think they have made significant strides to overcome their divisive past on the issue of race. I am not familiar enough with the SBC to make an assessment beyond that sort of vague generalization.
    I agree with many of your points as to why the LDS Church continues to get singled out on race. We have done a poor job of cleaning up the manuals and other literature on the one hand, and of addressing the issue in a forthright manner on the other. I’m thrilled about the recent footnote changes and modifications to chapter headings in the BofM, but most people hold on to their hardcopy scriptures for a very long time. And, if no one bothers to point out the changes, suggest the rationale behind them, and make a case for a different interpretation of the verses under question, the changes will go unnoticed by the vast majority of Mormons.
    I think the New Testament verse you were recalling was Acts 17:26, God “hath made of one blood all nations.” It is a verse JS quotes in his presidential platform and BY quotes to William McCary in 1847 at Winter Quarters. It was a verse commonly cited at the time by monogenesis believers to counter the polygenesis advocates who suggested blacks and whites were actually from different species and the result of independent creations.
    As for the Moses reference: “for the seed of Cain were ablack, and had not place among them.” It says nothing about skin in this instance and the new footnote refers back to “all are alike unto God.” I haven’t thought much about the study helps other than they are a commentary on the time and person of their creation more than a source for understanding ancient peoples.
    Bottom line for me in doing my current research is how clearly race is a social construct not a biological fact. Mormons were thoroughly and persistently constructed as a different race, “not white,” red, black, yellow, foreign/alien. I think most Mormons would be shocked to see the blatant ways in which Mormons were racialized, deliberately imagined as not white. If it is easy to see the ways in which outsiders constructed Mormons, then I really hope it is equally easy to look inside and see the ways in which Mormons constructed blacks and Indians. If we are aware of it as a social construct, hopefully we can take a few steps back, deconstruct our “racial” assumptions and make corrections.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  22. Left Field:

    As for journalists, they usually work on a relatively quick schedule, and they are often at the mercy of their initial sources, flawed people with limited perspectives themselves. One of the problems with journalism on religious topics today is you have separate classes of practitioners. You have the regular beat reporters who don’t often cover religious topics but have to confront such issues when political candidates rise to the fore, and you also have more pundit-like religious columnists (like some of the Religious Dispatch stuff, etc.) who often take an advocacy approach, sometimes feeling alienated from their own traditions and sometimes feeling overlooked by the wider journalism community. You don’t see many reporters trained in the fields of journalism and religious studies more broadly, and those who do religious studies as a specialty are probably less likely to enter the field of journalism as their primary pulpit. Occasionally you’ll see a report when a book or study has been published, and an academic gets to enter the spotlight. (We’re seeing this right now with Matt Bowman) but even then he can be dismissed or doubted as a too-partisan observer.

    All this is to say I’m sympathetic to your concerns about the quality of reporting on religion in the media, but I don’t see it as sheer laziness or any sort of recognized liberal bias on the part of various reporters, I see it more as a constraint on the ways journalism is currently structured (and this leaves out all the extra concerns about economics- how the news models are adjusting to market demands. Why are these dreadful comment sections allowed on news sites? They are almost always idiotic, but hey, they drive traffic.)

    Comment by BHodges — February 15, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  23. The effect of such inaccurate reporting tends to be the same, whatever the original cause. I am grateful to the Paul Reeves of the Church who can identify and correct the errors, and who are willing to put their names and ideas out there — as much because Church members need their understanding, as that “the world” does.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 15, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  24. Amen to #23, Ardis.

    Paul’s post is needs to get out where people other than LDS can see it. Are you planning to do a broader dissemination of it, Paul, than what is here on the blog?

    Comment by Maurine Ward — February 16, 2012 @ 12:50 am

  25. I am hopeful that the newer work on deconstructing the BoM text and more nuanced readings which problematize the racial dynamics/beliefs is starting to work its way through lessons by good GD teachers. I have been particularly influenced by Jared Hickman’s work in this area. However, embracing these types of interpretation will take Mormons as a whole becoming more comfortable with liberation theology/social justice types of interpretations of scripture. That is a long leap for many Mormons to make.

    However, I don’t think the BoM is our problem. As direction of the thread indicates, it is the very problematic history of the priesthood ban, the doctrines/teachings used to bolster it, and the beliefs and actions of Mormons, from its lay members to our highest leaders. The central, difficult question for Mormons is whether the priesthood ban was divinely inspired, an edict from God. That’s the whole game. The leadership has been reluctant to approach that question in any form. The roll-out of the change, the language around it at best still imply that the ban was God’s will at some point. I don’t think we live this down in the media or put this to rest within our own community until that question is answered – either through an official statement or through coming organically to a communal consensus.

    Comment by rah — February 16, 2012 @ 9:03 am

  26. Thanks Maurine. I have no plans. I wrote the two posts initially in response to the Huffington Post editorial (to which Ardis provides a link) but I could not even get the HuffPost to respond to my e-mails. By that time Ardis knew that I had written the responses and asked to share them on Keepa. I of course said yes. I’m not terribly ambitious with this type of thing, so I don’t have other plans.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 16, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  27. Hmm, Matt Bowman was recently featured at HuffPo, I wonder if he can put you in touch with an editor or something.

    Comment by BHodges — February 16, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

  28. 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.

    Our understanding of Joseph Smith’s view of these passages seems to be murky to me (he may have interpreted some of these passages racially). Royal Skousen on pages 895 to 899 of his Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon provides an alternative way to understand the change in the 1840 edition from “white” to “pure” in 2 Nephi 30:6 being made “probably because of a perceived difficulty in allowing a change in skin color to apply to the descendants of the Nephites”.

    Skousen reasons that Joseph Smith may have seen “the remnant of our seed” in 2 Nephi 30:3-4 as referring to descendants of Nephi for whom a skin color change to white may not have made sense to Joseph Smith given that he may have seen descendants of Nephi as racially white already. Skousen seems to feel that Joseph Smith, if viewing these passages racially, overreacted in this case because for the time period which this passage is describing (after the Book of Mormon has come forth) significant interaction between descendants of Laman and Nephi would have made the two groups racially indistinguishable; thus making it possible for descendants of Nephi to experience a skin color change to a lighter color.

    Skousen says, “In other words, the editing change to pure may represent a conscious attempt at avoiding what was perceived as a difficult reading (the Nephites are supposed to be light skinned), which therefore explains why the change from white to pure was made here – and only here – in 2 Nephi 30:6.”

    Notice Skousen uses many qualifiers in making this argument leading me to believe that it is not clear if Joseph made this change to fix a reading that he may have seen as difficult in a racial framework or if he wanted to make it clear that skin color change was not the intended meaning of these passages throughout the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Tyson E — February 18, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

  29. Tyson, Thanks for the information from Skousen. The difficulty is in knowing why JS did what he did. He so rarely lets us into his head. My sentence could likely use refinement, but I’m still reluctant to see race in “white” and “blackness”. Why “scales” in v. 6, not skin? Why darkness and not “blackness”? Even if Smith had left it “white” in v. 6 I think one could read it as meaning pure.
    The unrecoverable aspect here is what did “white” and “blackness” and “skin” and “scales” and “garments” mean to Nephi and how does one translate those ideas into 19th century English and what do they mean to JS? Mormonism is born during a second wave of national concern over race and race mixing. They are charged words in that context and I think early Mormons read them racially. I’m just not convinced that they need to be read racially. Whatever JS’s reason(s) for changing “white” to “pure” in v. 6, the very fact of the change suggests that language is not precise and he was attempting to refine it.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 20, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  30. The BOM verses about skin color changing to show sin or repentance were meant and taken literally. Just read how LDS leaders interpreted them:

    “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 delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”

    LDS Prophet Spencer W. Kimball (before he became president), General Conference, Oct. 1960

    Comment by BHonest — February 24, 2012 @ 1:05 am

  31. BHonest,
    It is not clear to me who you are accusing of dishonesty, me, Ardis, or the LDS Church? If me, I will merely point to two sentences from the post that incorporate the ideas from the Kimball quote:

    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.

    The structure of the two sentences above are designed to indicate change over time. In the 19th and 20th centuries the post acknowledges that Mormons read the “white and delightsome” verses in highly racialized ways, and then points to a potential alternative way of reading the same verses that attempts to capture more recent engagements with the text.

    If your intent is to embarrass or shock people with quotes from past Mormon leaders, I think you have picked the wrong blog. My experience with Keepa readers is that they are a highly educated group who value Keepa for its honesty and forthright engagement with the past. I dare say many are familiar with Kimball’s statement. It is a favorite among those who don’t like the LDS Church. Using it here to suggest that the post is somehow dishonest, however, comes across as disingenuous. There are web sites a plenty with strings of quotes from past LDS leaders. Quote mining is easy. Situating those quotes within broader textual and historical contexts, paying attention to change and continuity over time, attempting to understand historical figures on their own terms, not mine, takes a bit more time and effort than passing around quotes. It ultimately reaches for a higher standard of honesty as well.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 24, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  32. I’m glad Confutus submitted those verses from Jacob. The Book of Mormon‘s purpose, as stated several times throughout the book, is not political so much as spiritual/religious. While we don’t know the details of the “curse” of darkness the Lamanites brought on themselves, we know it was the result of disobeying the commandments; as seen with Moses’ Israelites, God will not be mocked. But He is also merciful, and those verses in Jacob prove that He loves all people equally, and His blessings are extended to all who turn to Him and let Him guide them. Color does not matter in the big-picture scheme, regardless of historic/political squabbles on the subject.

    Comment by Jo — May 4, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

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