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:

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Book of Moses Commentary Part III: The Mahan Principle Extended

When I taught a lesson to the youth in our church last year about the Word of Wisdom, I asked them why we don’t drink or smoke.  “Because it’s unhealthy,” they droned, parroting the expected answer by rote. 

“Nope,” I said.  “That has nothing to do with it.  Let me ask you this: is drinking alcohol, for example, a terrible thing that immediately brings misery?”  “Yes,” they replied, this time sounding pleased to be giving back the obviously righteous response. 

“Not likely,” I answered.  “I don’t know know for myself, but I imagine that getting drunk must be a lot of fun, since millions of people volunteer to do it in their spare time.  So why don’t we drink alcohol, then?”

At this point, perceptive people will chime in with something like, “Because the Lord said not to.” 

“Exactly,” I say.  “That’s the difference between whether or not something is a sin.” 

I approach subjects this way because I worry that when we demonize everything that we want people to avoid, we give those things a power that they don’t deserve; we glamorize them and set them up as the standard objects of indulgence when rebellion will rear its ugly head.  A little more honesty strips them of that power. 

I’m reminded of some people I’ve known who might fit this cautionary pattern: the high school-age boy who suddenly stopped being a role model of righteousness because he tried and suddenly realized the pleasure of popular sins (“Hey guys,” a typical discussion around that period might go, “our leaders were totally wrong about how awful sin is; it rocks!”), or the girl described as the “sweet spirit” of the singles ward who got tired of being passed over and changed her wardrobe and standards; as soon as she started sleeping with guys–surprise!–she had a serious boyfriend within a month. 

The phrase “Mahan principle” was coined by Hugh Nibley to denote the discovery made by Cain in Moses 5:31 (“I may murder and get gain.”).  Continue reading