The Nephite Racism Towards the Lamanites

Last week we had a reader write in asking for an explanation regarding the meaning of the wording in the chapter heading of 3 Nephi chapter 2:

Converted Lamanites become white and are called Nephites.” 

Following is my response to the reader’s inquiry that Paul and I thought might be “blog worthy” Let me know what you guys and gals think.   For those interested, click here to listen to a  lively podcast discussion with Dan Wotherspoon PhD in Religion, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity), and Dr. Charley Harrell (author of  ‘This is my Doctrine:  The Development of Mormon Theology) regarding this very issue:

When looking at the Book of Mormon, it is important to understand that the headings before each chapter are not part of the original revelation but were added much later as an editor’s summary, not Joseph Smith’s. That however doesn’t answer the issue.  If one holds to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, there are a few ways in which the racially charged passages of the Book of Mormon can be interpreted.


When the descriptor “Lamanite” is used in the Book of Mormon, it is used in two different ways:

  1. A certain belief or orthodoxy. That is, to be a Lamanite, one has to believe that Nephi mistreated Laman and Lemuel and that the leadership of the family, following Lehi’s death, should have been passed on to the elder brothers, Laman and Lemuel.
  2. Skin color

Let’s explore the first descriptor, that of belief.

Mosiah 10:12-13 reads:

” …Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren…that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance…”

Alma 3:11 reads:

“And it came to pass that whosoever would not believe in the tradition of the Lamanites, but believed those records which were brought out of the land of Jerusalem, and also in the tradition of their fathers, which were correct…were called Nephites. “

In 3 Nephi 3:10-11 we find Nephite dissenters, who had joined forces with the Lamanites, claiming the same foundational story as the “Lamanites”. Yet, there is no mention of the Nephite dissenters’ color changing:

“…that this my people may recover their rights and government…”

Now, let’s explore the second Lamanite descriptor, that of skin color. The issue of skin color first raises its head in 2 Nephi 5:21:

“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them…wherefore as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome…the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

We also read in Jacob 3:8 the prophet, Jacob, saying:

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.”

There are several ways to approach the skin color as it appears in the Book of Mormon. I will provide you with a few possibilities and then let you know what I believe is the most plausible. First, the skin color is seen as metaphorical. There is Biblical precedence for this view:

Job 30: 30
“My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.”
Jeremiah 8:21
For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment has taken hold on me.”
Lamentations 4:8
Speaking of the estate of Zion as being pitiful because of sin and iniquity “Their visage is blacker than a coal….”
Lamentations 5:10
“Our skin was black like an oven ….”
Joel 2:6
“…all faces shall gather blackness.”
Nahum 2:10
”…and the faces of them all gather blackness.”

Here we see the blackness as either a metaphor or an idiom for sin or for sorrow/gloom. Nephi could have been using the same idioms. The problem with this view is that while the Biblical text reads as metaphor, the verses in the Book of Mormon that speak of skin color do not.

The second approach is a literal approach. To hold this view one would have to believe that God actually does change people’s skin color when he curses them. To believe this, one has to believe that God himself is racist. I, being a descendant of Mayan ancestry, would also have to hold to the idea that I am cursed as I have dark skin. I do not hold to this view.

The third possibility to explain skin color in the Book of Mormon is that the Nephites were racist. This appears to be the most plausible view, and a close reading of the Book of Mormon appears to uphold this view. We get a hint of Nephites being racist toward the Lamanites in descriptions made of the Lamanites by the Nephites:

Jarom 1:6 “and they [the Lamanites] were exceedingly more numerous than were the Nephites; and they loved murder and would drink the blood of beasts.”

Enos 1:20 “…and they [the Lamanites] became wild, and ferocious, and a blood thirsty people, full of idolatry….wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle…..and many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat….”

There are problems with these two scriptures, for they contradict what we know of societies anthropologically. For a society to grow rapidly (as the Lamanites do according to the Nephite record), it must be stable. For it to be stable, it cannot be a hunter-gatherer society as the Lamanites are described in the Nephite record.

“From what we know about still existent societies with a similar way of life [hunter-gatherer], such as the Australian aborigines, concentrations of populations larger than the small band were quite impossible. [It has been] estimated that on this level of development, corresponding roughly to the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, 25 square miles of territory are required for the support of one person.” (Dr. Michael Coe, Mexico; Second Edition, pg 28)

“[It has been] demonstrated that the density of population of peoples on the Neolithic (or Formative) level of food-getting is 25 times greater than the figure for primitive hunters and gatherers – the domestication of plants and animals obviously resulted in a quantum increase in the world’s population, no matter how long the process.” (Dr. Michael Coe, Mexico; Second Edition, pg 52)

So how do the social sciences inform our interpretation of the Lamanite people found in the Book of Mormon? What we are dealing with here is a racial caricature of the Lamanites by the Nephites. To be as large of a group as the record describes them, two things need to occur. First, it is quite possible that the Lamanites assimilated into the greater, already existent, society of Meso-America; it is estimated that there were about 1,000 people living along the coastal area where Lehi probably landed in Guatemala (Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: An Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, six volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:8). Thus the “Lamanite” became a description of what is sometimes called by anthropologists as “the other.”  It did not necessarily mean just the descendants of Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael. That would account for the Lamanites being “exceedingly more numerous” than the Nephites. Second, to be such a large group, the Lamanites had to be a society that relied on agriculture, not wandering around “eating nothing but raw meat.”  The Nephite description of the Lamanites is that of a hunter-gatherer society.

During WWII, the following was printed in Life Magazine. It was a description on how to tell the difference between a Japanese and Chinese person. Here we find very racially charged terms to describe the difference between the two. I see the Nephites doing the same in their description of the Lamanites.

“U.S. citizens have been demonstrating a distressing ignorance on the delicate question of how to tell a Chinese from a Jap. Innocent victims in cities all over the country are many of the 75,000 U.S. Chinese, whose homeland is our stanch ally. So serious were the consequences threatened, that the Chinese consulates last week prepared to tag their nationals with identification buttons.”

To dispel some of this confusion, LIFE here adduces a rule-of-thumb from the anthropometric conformations that distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japs.

“To physical anthropologists, devoted debunkers of race myths, the difference between Chinese and Japs is measurable in millimeters. Both are related to the Eskimo and North American Indian. The modern Jap is the descendant of Mongoloids who invaded the Japanese archipelago back in the mists of prehistory, and of the native aborigines who possessed the islands before them. Physical anthropology, in consequence, finds Japs and Chinese as closely related as Germans and English. It can, however, set apart the special types of each national group.

“The typical Northern Chinese, represented by Ong Wen-hao, Chungking’s Minister of Economic Affairs (left, above), is relatively tall and slenderly built. His complexion is parchment yellow, his face long and delicately boned, his nose more finely bridged. Representative of the Japanese people as a whole is Premier and General Hideki Tojo (left, below), who betrays aboriginal antecedents in a squat, long-torsoed build, a broader, more massively boned head and face, flat, often pug, nose, yellow-ocher skin and heavier beard. From this average type, aristocratic Japs, who claim kinship to the Imperial Household, diverge sharply. They are proud to approximate the patrician lines of the Northern Chinese.”

In Helaman: 13-15, we read of the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite. When Jesus Christ visits the Nephites, he points out that the Nephites had not recorded the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite and chastises them for it (3 Nephi 23:8-13). Why would the Nephites have not added to their record the words of a Lamanite prophet? Racism.

One of the Book of Mormon record keepers, Moroni, says the following about the Book of Mormon and the fallibility of its record keepers:

“Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”
(Mormon 9:31)

In summary, the most plausible interpretation of the issue of skin color (as you read in 3 Nephi 2:15) is that it was more an issue of the racism that the Nephites held against the Lamanites; there was no actual change in skin color. One should not be surprised that someone from the 7th century BC through the 5th century AD would hold such horrible racist views. In fact, one of the reasons that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is so powerful is because of the racist views that Jews held toward the Samaritans.


Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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