One of the most controversial verses in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 5:21, which states:
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.
The focus of this verse has been the phrase “skin of blackness,” which is read rather literally as a change in pigmentation. It is much easier to compile a list of writers who take the phrase literally than of those who suggest an alternate reading. As a single representation of this reading, see Milton R. Hunter of the Council of the Seventy:
As is well-known, two peoples—a white race and those of a darker color—inhabited ancient America for approximately one thousand years’ time. The white race was called Nephites and the darker race Lamanites…. The reader may say: “Yes, we understand that there were a white race and a dark race in ancient America from approximately 600 B.C., until approximately 400 A.D., but we have understood also that by the latter date all the white people (Nephites), except Moroni, had been killed in a war with the darker people or Lamanites.”
It is true that the Nephite nation ended toward the close of the fifth century A.D., but probably many of the white Nephites were saved from death by joining the Lamanites. These then would not be followers of Christ and would be unfaithful ones. The last great war was not fought entirely on the lines of race, but probably the determining factor was that one group allied itself with the Lamanite traditions, and the other group followed the Nephite traditions, including a belief in Jesus Christ. Thus there probably were dark and white people in each army.
The modern cultural assumption that a skin of blackness must equal black skin is probably informed by racial issues in the United States. The 1981 change in verse 2 Nephi 30:6 from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome” is therefore similarly interpreted in the context of political correctness, and an accommodation to issues of race in the United States. Of course, the fact that the change was made in 1981 obscures the fact that it was a change that Joseph Smith made for the 1840 Nauvoo edition of the Book of Mormon. While issues of race were certainly important in 1840, it is much less likely that the change was due to pressure to be politically correct in 1840 than it would have been had the change been unique to 1981.
I have elsewhere argued that this skin of blackness was a metaphor for a spiritual state rather than a change in pigmentation. While there are arguments to be made for or against that proposition, the decision as to whether a “skin of blackness” is a description of a physical or spiritual change should be decided upon something stronger than personal preference for one reading or the other. The text is the final arbiter of such questions. What might the text tell us to help us decide? [Read more…] about If Lamanites were black, why didn’t anyone notice?