What Was the Mark of the Curse in the Book of Mormon?

A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse.  I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed.  However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was.  I felt like I was missing something.  I went back to the text.

I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom.  Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.

The Controversial Verses

First, look at the relevant text.  There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2).  Here are the most controversial verses:

2 Nephi 5:21: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

Jacob 3:8-9: “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 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.”

Alma 3:6: “And 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, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.”

3 Nephi  2:14-16: “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.”

Why Are They Probably Not Literal?

There are at least six major problems with taking these descriptions literally:

  1. If converted people changed skin color, as the last quoted verse would suggest, why is it absent from the rest of the Book of Mormon?  There is no mention of it, for example, when the people of Ammon join the Nephites (Alma 23, esp. v. 18) or in any of the times when other Lamanites are righteous (e.g. Helaman 6:1-14).  Also, consider Abish, a Lamanite who had “been converted unto the Lord for many years” (Alma 19:16) but whose skin color apparently didn’t change, and who continued to live among the Lamanites undetected.
  2. If the Nephites were supposed to abstain from relationships with those outside their tribe, then why do they assimilate the Mulekites (Omni 1:14-19)?  Certainly comingling with Lamanites is implied in Helaman 6:1-14.  The righteousness of others seems to be the decisive factor, not their ethnicity.
  3. If the dark skin was meant to physically repel the Nephites, as implied in 2 Nephi 5:21 (“that they might not be enticing unto my people”), then why do the priests of Noah kidnap the daughters of the Lamanites in Mosiah 20:3-5?
  4. Nephites and Lamanites are often indistinguishable physically.  Each group sent spies among the other, which would have been impossible if they had had distinctly different skin tones.  Zeniff in particular lives among the Lamanites and grows to respect them (Mosiah 9:1).
  5. It’s unrealistic to think that one tribe was all so dark-skinned and the other tribe was all so light-skinned that there could be no confusion about who was who.  Variations along the color continuum would have ultimately made the color distinction futile.
  6. If dark skin as a literal mark of faithlessness is so well attested in the Book of Mormon, then where is this understanding in the life and teachings of Joseph Smith?  On the contrary, Smith was an abolitionist who ordained black men to the priesthood.  He never said or did anything to back up this distinction.

If These Verses Aren’t Literal, Then What Are They?

It’s quite common for the Book of Mormon (and many other texts) to use “light” and “dark” as metaphors for good and evil, without being linked to race (see, e.g., a section on this in the “Imagery” chapter of Richard Dilworth Rust’s Feasting on the Word).

References in the Bible and Book of Mormon to the Atonement for our sins being like having our garments washed white in the blood of Christ (see Alma 5:21, Revelation  1:5), for example, make terrific metaphors involving color, but would be very confusing literally.  Washing clothes in blood rarely makes them whiter!

The mention of “skin” in the Book of Mormon seems to suggest race, though.  But this is not the first time that we have misunderstood the Book of Mormon by imposing our own concerns upon it instead of letting it speak for itself.

Consider these other phrases in the Book of Mormon:

2 Nephi 30:6: “And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and 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.”  [emphasis added]

Alma 19:6: “Now, this was what Ammon desired, for he knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul, yea, he knew that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God.”  [emphasis added]

The “scales” and “veil” in these verses are clearly figures of speech—why should the skin be literal?

Are we warranted in associating these three terms?  Absolutely.  Note that, in English, “scales,” “veil,” and “skin” all mean virtually the same thing—thin materials which cover something.  All three are combined with an adjective meaning “dark” in the Book of Mormon.  The images using all three are consistent—people who don’t know the gospel are separated from the Spirit by a dark veil (or scales, or skin), which is removed or changed when they become converted and experience the Spirit.

So:

Skin of blackness = dark veil of unbelief = scales of darkness

Try substituting them for each other in the verses above; they’re completely interchangeable–the meaning is always clearly the same.  Perhaps all three of these phrases are translated from a single Nephite idiom, or slight variations on one?

Interestingly, while other Restoration scriptures combine “skin,” “scales,” and “veil” with “dark” to create this image of separation from God, the Bible never does.  The Bible’s literal veil in the temple could symbolically be interpreted this way, but the closest figure of speech to this in the Bible is Paul’s famous mention in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

Notice that this shares the same basic template: a thin, dark material keeps us from a full knowledge of God, but that limitation can and will be taken away.

If It Wasn’t Skin Color, Then What Was The Mark?

Just as many Book of Mormon readers have listed geographical details in the text to help find real world locations, we can list descriptions of the mark of the curse and then figure out its nature.  According to the text, the mark of the curse:

  • Makes cursed people unattractive to believers (2 Nephi 5:21)
  • Makes cursed people “loathsome” to believers (2 Nephi 5:22)
  • Will lead to children being likewise cursed, if believers have children with those bearing the mark (2 Nephi 5:23, compare Alma 3:8-9—“that thereby the Lord might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions”)
  • Leads to being “idle” and “full of mischief” (2 Nephi 5:24)
  • Was voluntarily applied by the cursed people themselves (Alma 3:4, 18-19; Nibley notes that the few mentions of the mark of the curse being applied or removed in the Book of Mormon are always natural, never miraculous)
  • Is applied to or removed from unbelievers in general, regardless of ethnic origin (Alma 3:11–truly, the Lord’s concern in the text is always to preserve the faith of His people, not to maintain some kind of racial purity)

These six features lead me to believe that the mark of the curse was not a literal, dark skin color, but something far more mundane yet pervasive.

Also consider a story similar to that of the ones we’re studying: that of Cain.  In the Book of Moses, another LDS scripture, we read that as Cain began to listen more to Satan, “Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” (Moses 5:21).  After God admonishes Cain with a warning that he’ll be blessed for obedience, but punished with the curse of being in Satan’s power if he rebels (Moses 5:23-25), Cain “was wroth, and listened not any more to the voice of the Lord” (Moses 5:22).

That led to the actions which brought the curse—and its mark—upon Cain (Moses 5:40-41).  His rejection of God was linked to anger towards the gospel and a fallen countenance.

Take these descriptions of the mark along with these well-known words of President Gordon B. Hinckley: “The lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.”

Might the reverse of this also be true?  That “the most meaningful expression” of unbelief, and the symbol of that unbelief, is the lives of the unbelievers?

With all of this in mind, I wonder if the mark of the curse was simply the way of life of the unbelievers.

Such lives are easily recognized by believers, as they are often marked by the fallen countenance of Cain (as opposed to the bright countenance that we often associate with conversion).  Indeed, believers often find the lives of unbelievers to be spiritually unattractive and, in extreme circumstances, loathsome, idle, and full of mischief.

Such lives are the natural consequence of living without the light of the gospel, and are certainly voluntary.

And, just as the Lord warns in the scriptures, believers who have families with unbelievers are generally going to find that their children have a harder time building and maintaining faith than those who are ideally born and raised in the covenant.

There’s one more dimension of this interpretation that’s instructive: if the mark of the curse is an unenlightened life, not merely dark skin color, then Jacob’s warning against “reviling’ against the unbelievers in Jacob 3:8-9 is not a condemnation of racism, but a warning against pride.  Jacob tells the Nephites not to exalt themselves with arrogance because of their blessings, and not to look down on the Lamanites for their lack of gospel knowledge.

Basically, Jacob is cautioning them against the self-aggrandizing religion that later infected the Zoramites (Alma 31:14-18, see also Luke 18:10-14).

After all, Jacob explains, the Lamanites could always repent, have the curse removed, and end up with spiritual skins “whiter” than those of the Nephites!  Indeed, precisely this happens more than once later in the Book of Mormon.

So, thematically as well as linguistically, this interpretation fits.

The lesson of all this is ultimately the same as the rest of the Book of Mormon: our goal in life is to apply the atoning blood of Christ (Mosiah 4:2), to become saved from “darkness” by being “illuminated by the light of his word” (Alma 5:7), that we might gain those blessings which are “sweet…white…and pure” (Alma 32:42).

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12 comments on “What Was the Mark of the Curse in the Book of Mormon?

  1. If the answer was as simple as that, I feel it would have been written as such in the text of the Book of Mormon. Remember, Nephi and other Book of Mormon authors delighted in plainness, and the idea that they would use a complex metaphor such as skin color to describe something as simple as the people’s way of life seems out of character.

    Of course, there are plenty of other explanations. As you pointed out, dissenters from the Nephites to the Lamanites would put the mark of the curse upon themselves–in one instance by painting their foreheads. It’s possible that the Lamanites also put a “mark” upon themselves, involving a certain kind of skin.

    We know from Nephi that the Lamanites were primarily hunters, and thrived mostly on meat. We learn from Alma that Lamanite warriors garbed themselves in the skins of animals. Is it not possible that the dark skin mentioned is actually clothing made of dark animal skins? The meat-eating Lamanites would surely have made use of the skins of their prey, and the more pastoral Nephites would use wool or plant fibers for their clothing, making them white (or at least lighter-colored). When the Lamanites’ skins turn white later in the Book of Mormon, that could simply describe them taking upon themselves white clothing (i.e. receiving certain special white clothing in connection with Temple ordinances).

    Sorry for the ramble, but I just think there might be a more literal way to interpret the scripture.

  2. Alan, thanks for the thoughtful comment, but I think your theory is more “complex” than mine! Certainly you’re well within the mainstream, though–Nibley came to much the same conclusion: http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQRace.shtml#bom

    However, a simple metaphor that better fits in with Book of Mormon imagery and themes still seems to be the best explanation to me. Speaking of Nephi and Isaiah, consider that Nephi records Jacob’s quotation of Isaiah that when the Lord withdraws the Spirit due to apostasy, he will “clothe the heavens with blackness” (2 Nephi 7:3). Why wouldn’t Nephi have adapted that figure of speech to describe the spiritually fallen Lamanites?

    I mentioned spies in my post, and another example is especially strong: in Alma 55:4-9, Moroni searches for and finds an ethnic Lamanite to lead a group of Nephites as spies among the enemy. If skin color were consistently different, why would he have to search for someone who would have stuck out like a sore thumb among his men? And how did the Nephites with this spy pass for Lamanites among the other army? (http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Lamanites/Curse)

    Subtle but discernible cultural differences explain this very well, but a stark skin color dichotomy just doesn’t seem to fit.

  3. Your comment confuses me. I thought I made plain in my comment that the people’s skin color had nothing to do with it. I spoke of animal skin as clothing, not of the innate pigments of human skin.

    As you quoted in the article, 2 Nephi 5:21 says that God caused “a skin of blackness to come upon them.” Notice that it does not say “God changed their skin.” It says God put a skin on them. That sounds to me like He put clothing upon them.

    Granted, there are plenty of faith-leaps in my argument. But I feel that this hypothesis can—not necessarily does—coexist with the scriptures as they are written, whereas your theory requires the reader to ascribe subtext to the literal wording (which is often the correct way to read the scriptures, I must admit, but a reliance on subtext can also allow all kinds of open-ended interpretations).

    In any case, I was not suggesting that the Lamanites were ethnically different from the Nephites.

  4. Fair enough, Alan–you make an interesting and valid point, and it should stand as it is. Thanks for explaining it.

  5. The more I learn of the language Joseph used, the more I think that we often go astray trying to argue about BofM or D&C text based on the words as their meaning stands today. Joseph’s language was even much older than early-19th century English. Esp. his revelations and the BofM text are more like the King James text he was most used to reading. IOW, two hundred years older. Perhaps that is not the prime case here, though.

    I am amazed time and again at how fast a word can become its opposite in meaning among speakers of the language. It is only books that hold the words in their original context and meaning, and we sometimes lose sight of it. I’m thinking of Chaucer and Shakespeare here as well as King James Bible. Original texts are pretty difficult to read; OED is practically a must. I’m sure that most of what our youth get from KJV and BofM is somehow distorted unless the expressions and words are explained to them.

    Anyhow, I’m impressed that we tend to read the scriptures literally, not figuratively, and I think there we most often go astray in trying to find a meaning. Most of sacred text makes much more sense as figurative, when we can often discern layers so that it’s like peeling an onion layer at a time. Each of the layers are tasty, but they can taste a bit different.

  6. Pingback: Easter: Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon « Gospel Doctrine Class Notes

  7. The BOM is totally racist in every sence!. The curse of darkness stems from Cain and Abel! Cain being the first inflicted for the murder of his brother, thus all Cain’s descendants are of African blood. The BOM followed Cain’s scriptures barring all black races from priesthood untill 1978 as specified in the bible, the curse would be lifted when Abel’s descendants dominate/have enslaved every black nation (Cain’s descendants) on earth, and when the cursed are brought back before the presence of God.

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