It’s been more and more common to hear assertions in public commentary of late that racism is somehow intrinsic to Latter-day Saint doctrine—even “in the DNA” of our faith and its teachings. After the recent BYU report on racial equity, it was taken for granted among certain critics that any steps to root out racism would be “insufficient” until the Church “confronted” what they claimed was racism “embedded in the core doctrine.” As one person wrote in the comments after a Salt Lake Tribune review of that report, “Racism is baked into Mormon culture and scripture.”
It’s remarkable how rarely these kinds of accusing assertions are questioned. Such declarations are taken by many as something of a newfound gospel truth—presented as if every thoughtful observer should nod their head at its self-evident clarity.
Of course, if something is legitimately true, scrutiny will only establish it further and prove its validity. Yet compared to the intensive scrutiny applied to every element of Church doctrine and teaching by critics, very little scrutiny goes in the reverse direction, considering assumptions behind these common accusations. In what follows, we do some of that – responding to this racist doctrine claim, and detailing why it’s not only untrue—but how it sadly hides the plainer truth: that the doctrine and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ are among the least racist of any on earth.
The rock-solid core of Church teaching. Summarized simply, this Church proclaims that “God loves all his children” and “that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed.” It emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous – regardless of race – is “favored of Him.” Anciently, Nephi affirmed in the Book of Mormon, “all are alike unto God,” with Peter later teaching that God is “no respecter of persons.” Today, primary children of different races and ethnicities the world over testify, “I am a child of God.” The doctrine and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ are among the least racist of any on earth.
The doctrine and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ are among the least racist of any on earth.
That is the under-arching, overriding, dominant theme of teaching not only today – but all the way back to the Church’s early restoration. Where deviation from this teaching has arisen, as one might anticipate in a world beleaguered by racial animus for millenia, these digressions often rely on the misuse and misinterpretation of a very small subset of scriptures, some of which are addressed below.
None of what follows denies the reality of prejudice among a portion of individual members—both past and present—nor actions (or inactions) from previous leaders that modern Saints can rightfully look back on with some sorrow. Beyond individual attitudes or decisions alone, the extent to which racial bias has historically permeated most institutions in subtle and overt ways also means a serious conversation about systematic racism should not be dismissed. We touched on history in another essay previous to this one. Our focus here is the actual doctrine – teachings that we agree simply haven’t always been fully appreciated, embraced and lived out.
Book of Mormon teachings out of context. Critics cite a handful of references in this sacred text that describe distinctions between a dark skin or “skin of blackness” among the Lamanite people, and a “white” skin among the Nephites. Since the text ties these distinctions to relative levels of faithfulness to God (with skin being made black on one occasion, and made white on another, based on choices people made), it’s not hard to see why some have felt confusion, and even outrage. “What message is this sending to people?”
Well, do keep reading! To read those four specific verses in isolation, ignoring all 6600 remaining verses, one perhaps should not be surprised to arrive at feelings of confusion or frustration. Yet if the aim is something more – an understanding of the whole truth – something more is needed. After all, no literary critic, linguist, or scholar of any credibility at all would pass judgment on a text based on an isolated reading of .06% of its contents. Can you?
More than simply challenging the popular interpretation of those four verses among our secular critics, the rest of the book, we argue, provides the critical, even indispensable context out of which to grok those references correctly. In the absence of that broader context, it becomes almost impossible to avoid coming away with a narrow, over-simplified perception along the lines of “the Book of Mormon says having dark skin comes from disobedience, and that if we follow God, our skin will be whiter. What more need be said?”
A whole lot! First of all, this is not a general message of the Book of Mormon, and one must stretch its contents mightily to be able to say that. Rather than general declarations of truth for all the world, the two instances where changes to skin color occurred (children of Laman becoming darker, and converted Lamanites prior to Christ’s coming becoming lighter) are a passing subtext for the much larger, deeper, and more pervasive message: that every one of us, “male and female, old and young, black and white” have the same, critical choice facing us: namely, how we respond to Jesus and his teachings. Everything depends on that. The book declares that those who trust the Lamb of God enough to follow Him – turning away from other kinds of attractive pathways – will move on a different trajectory of development than those who do not.
The importance of that distinction, between followers and skeptics, believers and non-believers, has always been at the core Christian message to the world, as it is to the Book of Mormon itself. If there’s a message about inferiority this sacred canon proclaims, it’s about the inferior trajectory of those who choose a life betraying God, which “never was happiness.”
None of this is to deny that those differences in skin tone mattered to these ancient peoples, as they’ve mattered throughout human history to most cultures. With a few beautiful exceptions, heated ethnic differences have always been real and raw throughout even sacred history – with these distinctions held as important for a variety of reasons. (In one instance, dissenters from the people of God chose to mark themselves outwardly in a new way to distinguish themselves, since their skin color would not).
Nor does this suggest people should have no curiosity or concern about these references in question. As Russell Stevenson has pointed out, just the fact a text we hold to be inspired references a “skin of blackness” can be difficult to come across for those with more pigment in the skin.
Yet, as those few verses that get so much attention make clear, whatever differences in skin color came to exist were, at the time, only a superficial marker of these deeper, more consequential differences – arguably changing and evolving precisely because they were far more transient compared with the deeper reality beneath them, and the enduring question they point to: Will you follow Christ, trust Him, and will you “let God prevail in your life?” as President Russell Nelson has recently declared?
That’s the core question around which everything else in the Book of Mormon hinges, and not in a way that linearly, cleanly correlates to black and white skin.
A skin color/righteousness correlation? Although light-skin Nephites were described as more obedient earlier on, later in the book, it was the dark-skinned Anti-Nephi-Lehies who set the example for the light-skinned Nephites by burying their weapons of war. And later, it was the Lamanites who reached out to the wicked Nephites to urge them to repent and follow God.
And, of course, in the end the only survivors in the Book of Mormon – across two separated civilizations – were the dark skinned people, and not by chance. As the Prophet Jacob had warned (and predicted), this took place, at least in part, because the Lamanite people had followed God more in how they cared for and loved their precious family members. Although all people at the end of the record were wicked, the text suggests the earlier fidelity that Lamanites showed to core Christian principles contributed to their preservation – and that the destruction of the lighter skinned people came because they ultimately turned against God and each other in hatred and animosity.
Does that make the book an indictment against whiteness? No more than it can be read as an indictment against blackness. As in our day, it’s not racial animosities alone that set people against each other; it’s a conflict between good and evil (with “racism/ethno-centrism” as one of the constitutive members of “evil”).
In the same way, it’s not racial reconciliation alone that united these ancient people; it was a reconciliation with God himself – especially when Christ Himself came to visit the people. In all of history there are few instances of a more profound transformation in overcoming racism as that experienced by these two nations during that event. It’s great reading for everyone (see 3 Nephi 11-27). It’s not racial reconciliation alone that united these ancient people; it was a reconciliation with God himself.
It’s not racial reconciliation alone that united these ancient people; it was a reconciliation with God himself.
Yet prior to this defining moment – and afterwards – the people continued to live separated throughout their history, often across ethnic lines. In the single instance where the book shines a light on animosity specific to skin color, the Prophet Jacob condemns it directly and vigorously:
Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.
So, was there racism in the Book of Mormon? Absolutely, yes. But as the text of the book itself makes plain, this is a racism the book ultimately condemns. To suggest otherwise, and insinuate the Book of Mormon text and core doctrine of the Church are fostering racial animus is short-sighted at best, and outright dishonest at worst.
It was Jacob’s older brother Nephi who went beyond “don’t be racist,” to lay out the more central, positive message the book shares about Jesus, as someone who “loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him.” Nephi continues:
Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation. Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
Humans catching up with divine doctrine. None of this, once again, is the same as minimizing ways the Saints of former or latter days have failed to live up to these stunning doctrinal ideals. In many ways, the restoration is a story of a fallen people chasing an exalted doctrine.
That’s how we see the century-long restriction on African-descendents holding the priesthood. Whereas some continue to insist that prior maintenance of the restriction is further confirmation that Latter-day Saint doctrine is inherently racist, we believe it’s the removal of the restriction 43 years ago that reflects the “fullness” of our true doctrine.
Even so, progress in living out that doctrine has often been disappointingly slow.
The hardest work in the world? The struggle of so many members of the Church in previous eras (and even today) to appreciate that “all are alike unto God” should perhaps not be all that surprising, even laying aside the momentum of centuries of human history plagued by racial animus.
Charity is arguably not only the greatest of all, it’s the hardest of all! Most of us spend our whole lives learning to love our spouse the way God asks, our children the way God asks, and our neighbors the way God asks. For hundreds of reasons, across innumerable differences, we may come to see someone else through eyes of suspicion.
In that sense, racial animosity and inequality is one of many ways we may become estranged and separated with enmity. And like all the other ways we might become estranged, this resentment is a sin of which we need to repent, as our prophet has reminded us strongly.
More than an individual reformation alone, however, repenting of racism helps us participate in the universal gathering of all who will allow “God to prevail in their lives” – which President Nelson has called “the most important thing taking place on earth today.”
A gathering across all races, creeds, and backgrounds. Over time, the gospel of Christ, as taught in the Church of Jesus Christ, is designed to break down barriers, not to build them up. Rather than aggregated in one locality, nation or tongue, Latter-day Saints explicitly believe that God’s chosen people are scattered through every nation, kindred, tongue, race, gender, culture throughout the world. The rock-solid doctrinal foundation of this gathering is that all human beings are equally loved by God, and all people are of equal worth in the eyes of God.
And that means none are ultimately excluded, by default. As Nephi himself asks, “hath [God] commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.” He then reiterates:
Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; the Lord denies none who 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’s true that Jesus Himself originally restricted his teachings to the Jews, excluding Gentiles during His lifetime. Yet later, Peter was finally instructed that it was time to take the gospel to the Gentiles, who needed some extra divine prodding.
The ancient Church, then, like the modern Church, eventually moved towards a work to unify people across racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. Like previous eras, these divisions take time to overcome. Yet as President Nelson has emphasized, the highest priority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to gather people together in love and unity from across every race, culture, and nationality in the entire world.
In sum, the substance of the underlying message of the Book of Mormon, and the Church which proclaims its validity, runs inherently contrary to racial hostility. And to conclude otherwise would require a fundamental and profound misunderstanding of its expressed teachings across both ancient and modern prophets.
Special thanks to Russell Stevenson for his invaluable review and feedback.