Blacks in Mormonism: Tough Questions & Responses with Paul Reeve (Part 3)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

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This next question came up a lot. This is probably the third most frequently asked question. So Allison from Salt Lake, Erin from Boise. Emily from Murray. Jeff from Herriman. Joseph from Nottingham, England. Rob, I don’t know where you’re from, Rob, but—they’ve all asked this question in one way or another. Let me see who’s the most succinct here. OK. Maybe Jeff. Jeff from Herriman. He said, “How might the scriptural basis of the Lamanites being cursed with ‘a skin of blackness’ have influenced early church leaders’ thoughts on justifying the initial priesthood and temple restrictions?” Let me read another one: Erin from Boise. “You’ve talked about how people erroneously use the Bible to justify their racism,” talking about the Cain and the Ham stuff, ”but what about the Book of Mormon, specifically the Lamanite skin color curse, 2 Nephi 5? I don’t know how to explain that to my kids or anyone else when it comes up,” Erin says, so I guess there’s a few questions in there: first of all, do you see any evidence, historically speaking, that any of the brethren used this as reasoning for the justification of the Mormon priesthood ban?

The short answer is no. They are not drawing on the Book of Mormon. They understand the Book of Mormon to be a book that, in their understanding, right, is giving a history of native peoples, not of people of black African descent. They are not drawing upon it as a justification for the racial priesthood and temple restrictions. I found no evidence of that, and it’s important to make that distinction just right up front. 

That doesn’t solve the racial questions about the Book of Mormon. There’s another question there.

 So question number one is no evidence that they drew upon this to justify the ban against black Africans. So now what about the racial implications of those verses?

We can talk through those racialized verses in a variety of ways. There are several that exist, and I think there are possibilities out there, but I think it’s important to kind of think through them and think deeply, sort of get below the surface. So some have suggested that the language of black and white is metaphorical. And I think there’s an internally consistent way of reading them that way. That’s one possibility, in other words.

That wickedness is equated with darkness and righteousness with whiteness or lightness. And Joseph Smith actually gives us a potential key for that, because in 1840, as he’s going through the Book of Mormon, he is making some word changes, and one of the word changes he makes is changing “white” to “pure.” So from “white and delightsome,” he changes it to “pure and delightsome.” So that is possibly a key.

Can we read the language about white in the Book of Mormon as a metaphor for purity? And there are other verses, right? That even uses “white” and “pure” coinciding with each other, as if they, you know, they are synonymous with each other. Is that a key to how we can approach those racialized verses, especially in regards to blacks in Mormonism?  It’s an intriguing possibility that I’m not sure I’m fully convinced by yet, but I’m open to it. Because I read verses, like, you know, Alma 3 is probably the most explicit.  “The skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren. And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, the Nephites, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix.” Like, that kind of sounds very literal, or at least more than a metaphor.  So, yeah, there are a few theories about what this could mean.

 One you’ve mentioned is that it’s metaphorical, like dark equals wickedness. Light equals righteousness. Another is that the Lamanites somehow tribally mark themselves with dark pigment in a similar way to how the Amlicites in Alma 1 marked themselves with a red mark on their foreheads to distinguish themselves from the Nephites. There’s an intriguing article in the Interpreter about this that we’ll link in our show notes. Another theory is that this language mostly reflects the racial bias of Nephite authors. So, like, maybe the Lamanites intermarried with some of the indigenous locals, and so their children were darker-skinned or something, and then the Nephites began to tell themselves the story that God was the one who actually changed their skin color as a mark of a curse or something. 

 And another theory is that God just actually changed their skin color. Who knows? The jury’s still out for me. I don’t know. I’m not sure. There are those explanations that exist out there. I’m also intrigued by a possibility that occurred to me in reading, you know, 2 Nephi 5. 

So we focus on, I think, verse 21. That’s the racialized language. In verse 14, Nephi is telling us sort of the context for how he starts to think about his brothers, right? Remember, we’re talking about his actual, biological brothers, right? In verse 14 he is telling us that they’re starting to make weapons of war because you might actually have to kill your brother. As a historian, anytime nations go to war against nations, people against people, rhetoric from one side looking across the divide to the other side, you start to dehumanize the enemy in preparation for the potential of having to kill them.

I do an exercise in my Utah history class around the Utah War, and there are Latter-day Saint hymns that result from that period that are looking across at these federal soldiers who are marching on Utah, and “if we have to kill them, well, what we’re killing are godless heathens,” right? You define the people you might have to kill in terms that dehumanize them. And the federal troops marching on Utah, they are, some of them, anxious to get to Utah and kill some Mormons, right? And they’re using dehumanizing language in that context as well. I see one potential is Nephi is dehumanizing his brother. They’re filthy. They’re degraded. God’s cursed them. We are very much justified in making weapons of war and potentially having to kill people who are, in fact, a relative.That’s a way of thinking through the kind of language that Nephi is deploying.

So that would kind of lend itself toward that theory of racial bias of the authors of the Book of Mormon. More than God himself doing the thing. But regardless of how we think through this, I think the important point to make is that curses in the Book of Mormon are not racial. Even if we’re talking about skin color—if you want to take it literal, right, that God zapped them with a different skin color, I don’t believe that’s true. That’s just not how we function. Right? Like he did it in this time and then never does it again? Skin color is not related to righteousness. It’s simply not.

And President Nelson is on record telling us that our relationship to God is based upon our devotion to him, not upon the color of our skin between Mormons and blacks. That’s a universal truth, in my estimation. So read the Book of Mormon holistically. So if you are racially cursed, then if you understand how racism works, you are racially incapable of overcoming your racial condition. That’s how people of black African ancestry were treated, right? “You are racially inferior, and there’s nothing you can do, no behavior you can engage in that gets you beyond that.” But in the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites sometimes are more righteous than the Nephites.

It’s not a racial curse, in other words. Repentance erases it, and if you want to take the skin color literally, then who wins the Book of Mormon? The dark-skinned people win and annihilate those who believe that white superiority means that you’re better than other people because of the color of their skin. It’s a profound rejection as a book—the overarching message, I should say, is a profound rejection of white supremacy.

So in other words, if you want to take those skin colors literally, then the overarching message is a rejection of white supremacy. I don’t think you have to take them literally, but it’s important, I think, to recognize that the curses that are operating in the Book of Mormon are not racial. They are parallel, in my estimation, to the way that curses are being deployed in the Old Testament. Curses simply mean separation from God because of sin. And how do you restore the promised blessings? You simply repent, and it erases the curse. And that’s what I see taking place across the Book of Mormon, even as it deploys this racialized language that I think we rightfully find disturbing.

When you think of the mission of the sons of Mosiah down to the land of Nephi to try to convert their brethren, the Lamanites, like the first grand mission of the Book of Mormon is a redemptive mission for that group of people, our long-lost cousins. And there’s a profound conversion, right? The whole story of the anti-Nephi-Lehites is amazing. And fast forward to the pinnacle of the Book of Mormon. In 4 Nephi, when Mormon summarizes this age, he says there were no longer any -ites. There was no Nephites, no Jacobites, no Josephites. They were all just one. One name that unified them was they were the children of God. So I like what you’re saying, that the arc of the Book of Mormon, like the scriptural arc is anti-racist. It ultimately culminates in a—at least at its best, at its peak of purity, there is no distinctions made, no racial, no any type of -ites. They were unified. They were known as the children of God not Mormons and blacks. Their only distinguishing characteristic. I love that. That’s the ideal. And I think that’s the ideal of Zion. And it’s the culmination. I think you’re exactly right. After Christ’s visit, we’ve erased all of those ways that we invented to create barriers between each other. The way that we looked across the cultural divide and assumed the worst of our brethren, right, and denigrated them as racially other. Inferior. Filthy. Loathsome. 

I think that’s a central message, right? I think that’s the Zion message. Inclusion. And I think it’s embedded in the Book of Mormon, even at the same time that we have these ways in which those in the Book of Mormon are attempting to figure out, “Hey, who is different from us, and how do we sort of negotiate that?” And sometimes we’re going to use language that is denigrating to define someone who is different from us. But the Book of Mormon’s message, Jacob says, right, remember your filthiness before you engage in that. Consider the beam in your own eye before you start picking at someone else’s mote. 

So to summarize a response to this question, neither of us know for sure what exactly the curse of darkness on the Lamanites was. There are some intriguing possibilities.  But we can still say a few things about it, right? First, that early church leaders never drew upon this Book of Mormon point to justify the priesthood-temple ban on black Africans, that was the short answer to the first part of the question, and second that no matter where you come down on how literal or metaphorical the curse of darkness on the Lamanites was, this isn’t analogous to the ban on black Africans because the Lamanite curse could be overcome by repentance, and they could thereby be restored to full covenant privileges, as we see happen frequently in the Book of Mormon text, but not so with the ban on black Africans, right?

The language of the 1907 policy, again, was “no matter how otherwise worthy they may be,” they cannot participate in priesthood or temple. They were black, and there was nothing they could do about it. So you’re saying something intriguing about this. You’re saying the Lamanite curse wasn’t actually a racial ban in any sense. The text is clear that there was something that distinguished them, but it was a something they could overcome through repentance.

 And then I guess our third point is that you and I both are thoroughly convinced that the narrative arc of the Book of Mormon is toward anti-racism, right? Toward unifying people in Christ in ways that overcome petty distinctions or tribal differences between Mormons and blacks. As we come into Christ, those things fall away and we are left with a unified people calling themselves the children of God, and that’s the only distinction that matters. OK, next question. Since we’re on the topic of scripture, not the Book of Mormon, but the Book of Abraham, here’s Lance from San Tan Valley, Arizona. He said, “It seems clear that the Book of Abraham solidifies the so-called Cain-Ham theory, supporting with scripture the church’s old understanding regarding race and the priesthood. Please explain how this is either wrong or mistaken.” Then I got Jay, who said, “Brigham Young and all church leaders after that would’ve read and contemplated Moses 7:6-8, and Abraham 1:21-27. From these scriptures, it would be understandable as to why they might have some of their beliefs. In your podcast, you never once addressed these scriptures.” There’s actually not a question mark at the end of Jay’s statement there. That’s not a question. That is an indictment, Jay. You’re right. We only quickly referenced Abraham 1 in passing. We said that Parley P. Pratt seems to be drawing on that language in his 1847 excoriation of William McCary in Winter Quarters. But, yeah, we should probably address those verses, if you have a quick way of doing so. 

I think that they did provide justification for the racial restrictions, especially as they grow in accumulating precedent. So the language in the Book of Abraham, “cursed as pertaining to the priesthood,” starts to be used publicly by the 1850s to justify the racial restrictions.

There are five publications after the 1852 legislative session, and I deal with that directly in a new book that LeJean Ruth and Christopher Rich and I co-authored on the 1852 legislative session and then the aftermath. There are five publications, and some Latter-day Saint leaders are using that shorthand. So they are drawing upon the Book of Abraham and never suggested otherwise. We just don’t have indication that Joseph Smith draws upon it to justify a racial restriction, but it does provide a justification later. It’s important to remember that the Book of Abraham is not canonized until 1880. After Brigham Young’s death. Exactly.

And I think the same thing is true about those verses in the Book of Abraham as is true with our discussion with the Book of Mormon, right? So some suggested that it’s a racial restriction being implemented in the Book of Abraham, but remember, Abraham is coming from a father who is engaged in idol worship. So if it’s a racial restriction, Abraham and his lineage would not be allowed to be the father of, you know, the Abrahamic Covenant.

So it’s not a lineage issue, it’s a repentance issue. Abraham abandoned the idol worship of his father and therefore became the father of the covenant. He sought for the blessings of the fathers and the right whereunto he should be ordained to administer the same. He wanted to become a rightful heir, high priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers, and so, yeah, he’s seeking as one who’s not an heir to that. He wants to become an heir, and he successfully does it through his righteousness. That’s a good point. So once again, I don’t see a racial component there. I think it was misread to justify a racial restriction.

And remember, we have Orson Pratt in 1856, fabulous news speech that has been transcribed from Pitman shorthand where Orson Pratt says, “We have no proof that Africans are descendants of Cain.” That’s the only justification Brigham Young ever gives, and Orson Pratt rejects it. There is no proof that Africans are descendants of Cain or suffer from the Curse of Cain. And Orson Pratt is on record making that point. So if you set up sort of a racial lineage justification, you’re going to bump headlong into the second Article of Faith, that we are held accountable for our own sins, not for someone else’s transgression.

And yet Brigham Young’s justification holds the supposed descendants of Cain accountable for a murder in which they take no part. So any kind of lineage-based explanation that you’re going to offer is going to violate the second Article of Faith. And violate the principle that President Nelson has articulated, right? Our relations to God is based upon our devotion to God. Not upon skin color or somehow lineage.

 So let me read a few verses in Abraham. How would you just explain this real quick? So it talks about how the King of Egypt descended from Ham. I’m starting in verse 21, and he was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth. There’s a—kind of this backstory about how the land of Egypt was discovered by a woman, daughter of Ham and daughter of Egyptus, and then it goes on to talk about how—that the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was set up in a patriarchal government. But then it says, verse 27, “Now Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah through Ham, therefore, my father was led away by their idolatry.” So how would you just help someone see that that’s not actually a justification for a priesthood ban on black Africans?

Some have suggested really the violation there is matriarchal descent, coming through a woman, but I see really what’s taking place is the idolatry is the problem. I think what’s taking place in those verses, even though it was used by some Latter-day Saint leaders to justify the racial restrictions, it’s telling us that Pharaoh, in the verses preceding the notion of a cursed lineage, that Pharaoh is engaged in idol worship. It also describes him as a righteous man in terms of the way that he’s presiding over his people, but he’s cursed as pertaining to the priesthood, and if we take those verses in connection with Abraham, right? He’s abandoning the idol worship of his father, and then he is the person who the covenant relationship is established through. The real issue is idol worship, and repentance overcomes it. It’s not lineage based.And again, Abraham is showing that he transcended that through his righteousness and his seeking.  I think that’s a good reading of that. I remember Russell Stevenson, he said, “I’ll give somebody a 20-ounce steak if you can show me that verse 27 is talking about those of sub-Sahara Africa. I’ll give you a 20-ounce steak.” Again, the assumptions that early church leaders had to read into this text to connect that to black Africans in America, they’re taking some serious leaps there.  But all that’s in the air when the church is first established, right, that blacks are descendants of Cain and Ham and there’s a possible Curse of Cain, and all of that’s part and parcel of the nature and structure of reality, but that’s all assumptive and certainly not scriptural and I think that’s been disavowed.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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