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.