The Book of Mormon is an ancient book of scripture, but it was written for our day. Its Title Page declares that it was “Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation.”
“The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times. It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us” (Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon — Keystone of Our Religion,” October 1986 General Conference).
Should it surprise us that the Book of Mormon has a lot to say on the subject of race relations? When the book was first published in 1830 there were over 2 million people of African descent living as slaves in the “land of the free.” The subsequent two centuries have witnessed an epic struggle for the black community in America to obtain equal treatment under the law, to secure the same inalienable rights that white Americans have largely enjoyed as a matter of course.
And racism is not just an American problem; a major genocide event occurs somewhere on the globe about every decade. Clearly the whole world needs a lesson in ethnic harmony. We need to hear what this book has to teach.
This subject has occupied much of my writing this year.
As I explained in a previous post, skin color is used symbolically in the Book of Mormon to represent righteousness or rebellion. At the beginning of the book Nephi and his people followed the Lord and retained their fair skin, but the Lamanites apostatized and were given dark skin. As we interpret the passages which refer to the Lamanite curse we must remember that this symbol is not universally applicable; you cannot judge the content of a person’s character by the color of their skin.
In fact, even in the Book of Mormon the symbolism breaks down halfway through the story as the two nations mix and mingle. The first large-scale conversion of Lamanites brought thousands of melanated people to live among the Nephites. These people were “distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end” (Alma 27:27). There were also many groups of Nephite dissenters who joined the Lamanites, so that by the middle of the first century BC both nations contained a mixture of skin hues.
Things were shaken up even more when the Nephites turned to wickedness and the Lamanites accepted the gospel in about 30 BC (Helaman 6:1-2). The cultural roles of the two nations were swapped for the next 45 years as the Nephites delved deeper into corruption and willful rebellion, while the righteous Lamanites sent missionaries to try to reclaim them. Finally, in response to a common existential threat, the righteous portions of the Nephite and Lamanite nations merged in the year 15 AD:
“And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;
“And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
“And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:14-16).
After this passage there is not a single mention of dark skin or of the Lamanites’ curse in the remaining 400 years of the Book of Mormon narrative. Perhaps the symbol had outlasted its usefulness, so it was simply retired.
Peace in Christ
The gospel of Jesus Christ was the single most powerful force to produce racial harmony in the first half of the Book of Mormon. The only thing that proved more potent than the gospel was the personal appearance of its author.
The ministry of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon is not a cameo appearance. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland observed in the October 2019 General Conference, “Jesus is the omnipresent central figure in this marvelous chronicle, standing like a colossus over virtually every page of it and providing the link to all of the other faith-promoting figures in it.”
There is something animating about witnessing an event or meeting an influential person for yourself. For the Book of Mormon peoples in the land of Bountiful who “went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet” (3 Nephi 11:15), this was not merely some prophet prophesying of the Messiah — this was the Man Himself. And his teachings had a singular impact on the destiny of their nations.
“And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; […]
“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Nephi 11:28-30).
So declared the Savior, ushering in 200 years of peace between the Nephites and Lamanites. This peace was so profound that it erased their ethnic boundaries:
“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” (4 Nephi 1:17).
How did this happen? The formula is simple (although not easy), and it is the same formula that had worked for them on smaller scales before:
“And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.
“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. […]
“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people” (4 Nephi 1:2-3,15)
Like the earlier Lamanite converts these Christian disciples were unified through their faith, and the love of God in their hearts erased all desire for arguing about which nation had wronged the other one. They also immersed themselves in productive labor, building roads and cities and families.
And it worked. It can be done.
What if there were no such categories as “black Americans” or “white Americans?” What if we thought of each other as simply “Americans?” Or even just as “people?”
The human brain is capable of categorizing objects in the environment with sometimes shocking speed and accuracy. In a small town like the one I live in, with relatively little racial diversity, someone with dark skin really stands out from the crowd. When I find myself making snap categorizations in my mind, like, “That’s a black man,” or “That’s a Native American,” I have tried to consciously change my perception. “No, that is a man, period,” or “That is a person, a child of God.” I find that this makes a difference for me.
I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe, one of the most impactful pieces of anti-racist literature ever written, and was struck by a paragraph in its preface:
“It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” (Author’s Preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852)
Regarding slavery, which ended as a legal institution in the United States just 13 years later, these words proved to be prophetic. But could we do better? Could we reach a future day when even racism has “long ceased to be?” When everyone feels that their human rights are respected, and when there is no more genocide or ethnic “cleansing” anywhere on earth?
Yes, we can. And we will.
If the brief visitation of Jesus had such a dramatic effect on the Nephites and Lamanites, then imagine what will happen when Jesus comes to claim his kingdom on earth! And imagine what unity we can accomplish as we prepare for that day. In the April 2019 General Conference Elder D. Todd Christofferson described this work of preparation:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely empowered and commissioned to accomplish the necessary preparations for the Lord’s Second Coming; indeed, it was restored for that purpose. […]
“First, and crucial for the Lord’s return, is the presence on the earth of a people prepared to receive Him at His coming. […]
“In ancient times, God took the righteous city of Zion to Himself. By contrast, in the last days a new Zion will receive the Lord at His return. Zion is the pure in heart, a people of one heart and one mind, dwelling in righteousness with no poor among them.”
Building racial harmony is part of the essential work we must do to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. He will come again, and he will find that his people have prepared for his return. We will be “in one, the children of Christ,” united by a love for one another and for the gospel. We will not think of ourselves as belonging to different races, but as all belonging to the family of God, and to the fellowship of the believers.
And the Book of Mormon is both the sign that this will happen and the primary tool that will make it reality. Its teachings about race relations will show us the way forward.
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist. Illustration by Marisa Sanderson.