A Theory of Nephite-Lamanite Skin Color

I want to put pen to paper (so to speak) on a hypothesis that I’ve developed regarding Lamanite skin color. I welcome feedback!
First, I want to make clear a few presuppositions I have:
  • Lehi and co. arrived somewhere in Mesoamerica. This isn’t necessarily vital to my theory, but it is helpful.
  • At their time of arrival the Americas, including Mesoamerica, was populated with natives of varying levels of civilization, culture, and skin shades.
  • The Nephites AND the Lamanites both intermixed with the native population.
  • Racism, in some form, was present in the ancient world. It need not look exactly like racism in modern American history, but skin color did play a role in societal identities.
I do not believe that there was a significant or notable difference in literal skin color between the Nephites and Lamanites, at least not after the first generation or so after Lehi. I think that Nephi and Jacob saw the children of the Lamanites getting darker skins as they intermarried with the native population, which possibly had a darker skin shade, and developed a theology of light skin/dark skin based on righteousness/wickedness. Ancient cultures often saw a strong metaphorical connection between white/black and light/dark with righteousness and wickedness. This metaphor permeates the Book of Mormon.
The first generation references to skin color are as follows:
  • 1 Nephi 12:23 — Nephi sees that the future Lamanites are “dark” compared his seed. Due to the visionary nature of this, great caution must be taken in extrapolating real world implications.
  • 1 Nephi 13:15 — Nephi sees that the future Gentiles are “white” like his descendants. The same caution as above must be heeded.
  • 2 Nephi 5:21 —  Nephi unambiguously says that the Lamanites have a “skin of blackness” “because of their iniquity”.
  • 2 Nephi 30:6 — Nephi, prophesying of distant future events, predicts that his seed who are converted by the Gentiles will become a “white and delightsome people” (1830 wording).
  • Jacob 3: 5, 8-9 — Jacob unambiguously refers to the “darkness of [Lamanite] skins” which came about because of the wickedness of their fathers.
So, of these first generation references to skin color theology three of them are visionary and/or prophetic in nature, while two of them are fairly unambiguous references to things Nephi and Jacob had seen in the real world. It is clear that Nephi and Jacob believed that Lamanite skin colors had become darker and they attributed it to God’s curse on them for iniquity. They enshrined that belief in their written record and it influenced how they interpreted visions and prophecies. After the first generation of Nephites died, the skin colors of the Nephites began to look just like the Lamanites as they too began to intermix with the natives. They held out on intermixing with the natives longer than the Lamanites, but likely not much longer. As a result the Nephite theology of skin color was quickly lost, except perhaps by those elite record keepers who probably didn’t know what to do with it most of the time.
After these first generation skin color references it isn’t until Mormon, writing 1000 years later, is retelling events in Nephite history that we see it again.
  • Alma 3:4-16 (Author: Mormon) — Amlicites mark their foreheads red “after the manner of the Lamanites” to distinguish themselves from the Nephites. An aside is then given regarding the Lamanites supposedly darker skin color. Lamanite skin color is not an important plot point when this passage is read carefully.
  • 3 Nephi 2:14-15 (Author: Mormon) — The skins of Lamanites who join the Nephites “became white”. This is an aside, not an important narrative point.
Mormon, as an elite record keeper, knew about Nephi’s and Jacob’s theology of skin color and so he added that as in interpretive layer on two separate occasions. In neither case was it a fundamental part of the narrative, but more of an aside. He left it out time and time again in so many other highly applicable stories.
In one particular narrative, a difference in skin color between Nephites and Lamanites would completely ruin the story. This has been nicely explained by Brant Gardner:

Captain Moroni, working to free Nephite prisoners, sends wine to their Lamanite guards, hoping to intoxicate them (Alma 55). Because they would not accept such a gift from a Nephite, Moroni finds a Lamanite in his own troops, a former guard of the Lamanite king. Accompanied by other Nephites, this soldier takes the wine to the guards, and Moroni’s plan is successful. Of significance is the fact that Moroni had to “search” for a Lamanite soldier. Had he been “black” in contrast to the “white” of the Nephites, his identity should have been readily apparent. Furthermore, on his mission to the guards, Nephites accompany him. A color difference should have immediately been apparent to the guards, but they do not notice the discrepancy. The best explanation for needing an authentic Lamanite is that Moroni needed his language skills, not his skin color, for the ruse.


The second half of the Book of Alma has many more instance in which skin color could have been easily brought into the narrative, or at least might have played a role in Nephite-Lamanite relations, but it isn’t mentioned at all. Mormon was inconsistent in his use Nephi’s and Jacob’s ancient theology of skin color, in most cases abandoning it. It wasn’t a reality in Mormon’s world, and he probably wasn’t quite sure what to do with it as he worked on his book.

 Making a long story short, I find the most likely scenario to be that references to skin color were based on early perceived or real changes in Lamanite skin color in the first generation, but that a light/dark skin dichotomy did not actually exist throughout the vast, vast majority of the history of Book of Mormon peoples.
Yes, I am suggesting that Nephi and Jacob were racist. They should have been. It would be in keeping with their historical and cultural milieu. It would be a strange thing if they held enlightened 21st century notions of race. This isn’t to say that Nephi and Jacob were racist in an identical sense to historic American racism. Racism can be manifested in varying kinds and degrees. I am not, however, accusing God of being a racist. Nephi’s and Jacob’s theology of skin color was clearly false, but it was a useful theological idea for their situation.
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12 comments on “A Theory of Nephite-Lamanite Skin Color

  1. JoBlow says:

    Interesting notion Mr. James… but i venture to say it is likely incorrect. First, are the as yet to be born Blacks, and Mexicans in the year 2017 at this moment Black or Lamanite in appearance? Was not Zelph a white Lamanite? How could Zelph both be a Nephite, fight against Lamanites and be either a dark Nephite or a white Lamanite?

    At the tower of Babel, did language change gradually, or as other events – in the twinkling of an eye? In your line of thought, at best I would grant that the immediate generation of Lamanites acting as confined nomads, and even fighting battles in their near birthday suits – would as a consequence of the sun, tan quickly!

    Try working some summers in the fields of Meza Az. and get all your family to walk around inviting skin cancer, and i promise you’ll look darker than mexicans soon enough. But I think your argument relegates the Lamanites to having been cursed by and because of intermingling with the already cursed inhabitants before Lehi arrived, right?

    I think if 3 Nephites can be transformed in a physiological instant, while an entire society can also develop instant transformation of speech and comprehension per the relevant areas of the brain and vocal cords, God can certainly manipulate pigmentation of the epidermal layers, etc. Thnx for considering this. Joe Blow

    • oneclimbs says:

      I didn’t notice your comment when I posted mine below. I think the tanning theory makes a lot of sense. Intermingling with other racial groups could also be a possibility but I think it is interesting to note that the Lamanites are described as “naked” compared to the Nephites, I think this is significant as it appears to be something that continues to be a part of their culture.

  2. Peter Eriksson says:

    Interesting theory. Have you heard about neal maxwell isntitute who has an article which is called “skin as garments in the book of Mormon? There is the theory that skin is referred to animals skin and not human skin at all. It is about the temple and clothings….the lamanites tried to cover themselves with temple clothings like the nephites did but their garments were somehow ck and not white or something like that:….it might be a good idéa to look it up..an interesting theory…Sincere Peter Eriksson Sweden

  3. Kelly says:

    Something I think you’ll find intriguing. Look up these Old Testament verses and look at the footnotes on the word “Black” or “Blackness”. The word on the original text is a Hebrew idiom meaning “gloomy”.

    Nahum 2:10 She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness. (Old Testament, Nahum, Nahum 2)

    Jeremiah 8:21 For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me. (Old Testament, Jeremiah, Jeremiah 8)

    Joel 2:6 Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness. (Old Testament, Joel, Joel 2)

    Something else to consider, the English word melancholy has an interesting origin. Its origin comes from “black bile”. People used to think an excess of black bike caused depression. When we are sad, sometime people say we are blue.

    This is an interesting theory you point out. I believe these descriptions can also be driven by a spiritual description by someone who can see things as they really are. The wicked are in a filthy state. These BOM are also Hebrews and would know of the Hebrew idiom I mentioned above. This could be a spiritual description.

    Some people have spiritual gifts that are more known in eastern cultures, but are catching on here. If you are familiar with chakras, then you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. On a few rare occasions, I’ve actually had this gift manifest. As a young child, we stumbled across a spiritually filthy man who subsequently molested a boy. We escaped but one boy didn’t. I saw him as if he was was so grey and dirty, like he was cleaning out a wood burning stove and had all that ash dumped on him. The other instance was when I saw a good friends arm appear green real briefly. A healthy green like grass. I have perfect vision too…20/12. I think there is much we don’t full comprehend about this teaching but will understand it better.

  4. Kelly says:

    Where did Lehi land in America according to Joseph Smith?

    TPJS Pg. 67

    “…and that Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien…”


    The Isthmus of Darien is currently known as the Isthmus of Panama. Book of Mormon describe a narrow neck of land…

  5. erichard111 says:

    You all should consider the overwhelming evidence for the Book of Mormon setting in the Andes with the Amazon basin underwater before Christ. At first, you may think it absurd, but if you really study this model you will find it by far the most consistent with what the Book of Mormon actually says. The present best source for this model is this blog: http://nephicode.blogspot.com/

  6. oneclimbs says:

    I’ve been working on a theory to explain the skin of blackness talk in the Book of Mormon. My theory may sound a little too simple to be true but I’ve been building a case for it and I don’t have space to include all of my research here so I’ll sum up.

    Lamanites are almost always described as naked with shorn heads which is a point many authors make when describing them. This appears to be in contrast to the Nephites who were more clothed and did not have shorn heads. An obvious byproduct of having one’s bare head and body exposed to the sun would be tanning, and these are middle-eastern people mind you, not scandinavians.

    Being of mixed race decent, I am slightly more olive than a caucasian and I can be pretty light when I spend a lot of time indoors. I can tan really well though and I was once actually confused for an African-American when I was working construction as a teenager. I worked marine construction so was often wearing only shorts leaving most of my body exposed to the sun and was indeed very dark at the time.

    The Nephites and Lamanites began a new civilization with a tiny group of very religious people who were younger with less knowledge about how the world worked. My theory is that when the Lamanites separated themselves and began to expose their bodies to the sun, that this was looked down upon by the Nephites. Their tan skin caused by the sun, could have been seen as a curse from God because of their wickedness and nakedness. The sun was a symbol of God, and exposing one’s skin to the sun and tanning could have been superstitiously seen as becoming a Lamanite by adopting their ways.

    Jacob, Nephi’s brother could potentially mocking this superstition in this verse: “Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you;” (Jacob 3:5)

    As Lamanites became Nephites they probably adopted Nephite customs and covered their bodies and let their hair grow again. It wouldn’t but a few months for the tanned skin to shed and a physical change be noted. This metaphor of skin color therefore could have been a physical distinguishing characteristic that could very well change based on the people’s customs and behaviors.

    Ancient people looked for meaning in everything and the Nephites attributed all things to God, so it would make sense that they would see darker tanned skin as a kind of mark of a curse. It would also explain why it doesn’t appear that the Amlicites skin changed color, the mark of the curse for them was when they marked their heads red like the Lamanites. In this case we can see that adopting the customs of the Lamanites was seen as receiving the mark. If the Amlicites adopted the shorn heads and naked bodies, they would appear even more like the Lamanites. There is a lot of white/black contrast in many ancient cultures and it’s in the Bible as well. Wouldn’t be hard for a young, new culture to create prejudices based on their cultural metaphors and observations.

    Anyway, just a theory but doesn’t require any magic or miracles.

  7. James says:

    The “tanning” theory was offered by John Sorenson way back in the 1980’s, I believe. He may not have even been the first to offer it, I don’t know.

    I personally find that theory less likely than inter-marriage with darker natives. To be very clear, I’m not saying the Nephites or Lamanites didn’t tan. Of course they did. Nephi and Jacob knew what tanning was. They lived for years in the Arabian desert, after all. What I am saying is that tanning was not the basis for the Nephite/Jacobite theology of skin color. Nephi and Jacob would have tanned right along with their less-righteous brethren while living in the Arabian desert, but we don’t see them talking about skin color differences in that context. It is always in the context of descendants, as in their children being born with darker shades of skin than their parents. The first explicit and unambiguous reference to darker skin shade comes in the explicit context of intermarriage among Nephites and Lamanites, so it has everything to do with offspring, and nothing to do with tanning.

  8. Lloyd says:

    It’s a simple Hebrew Idiom that has been misconstrued due to our ethnocentric glasses.

    We are predisposed to see race, because we were raised that the lamanites were the Indians.

    We have zero problem interpreting hard heart, eyes blinded, mouths shut, scales lifted, broken heart etc. However we have somehow forgotten this when it comes to skin of blackness and exceedingly white.

    Both are ridiculous if taken literally. No one is exceedingly white, they would literally glow if that were true. Likewise no one is black. Brown yes, but not black. That is impossible. Skin is never black.

    They are simple opposites. Nothing more. White is purity, black is sinfulness/despair/gloom.

    If you just substitute one of this words anytime you see black or white it makes more sense, and it gets you to the true meaning.

    There was no color changing. There was plenty of bad guys who didn’t change color. Eg Nehor, sherem, korihor, and Alma the younger.

    • James says:

      Hi Lloyd, thanks for the comment. I’m sure you don’t mind if I respond.

      I do not agree that my reading is due to “ethnocentric glasses”. Rather, my reading is due to reading the words on the page as they are presented to us. My reading has nothing to do with a presdisposition toward Lamanites as “Indians”. In fact, I used to be in your camp on this question. I used to interpret all of the skin color references in the Book of Mormon as purely symbolic.

      You proposed a number of symbolic statements from the scriptures as analogous to how we should read skin color statements. I agree that some descriptors are obviously symbolic, not literal. But that’s the thing about these examples you gave: they are obviously symbolic. I don’t think I’m saying that just because I’m predisposed by culture, etc. The context and meanings of those passages require it.

      On the other hand, early Book of Mormon statements are clearly meant literally. Actually, it is seen as a literal manifestation of a spiritual state. At least, that’s how I read it.

      The reality is that we should expect Nephi and co. to see significance in skin color. They were ancients, and ancients thought that way. Racism was the norm, not there exception.

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