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How We Misinterpret "Black" and "Curse" in the Scriptures: Insights from an African American Convert

This story was originally published by LDS Living in May 2018. 

Shortly after African American Sandra Bland was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, and 10-year police veteran Darren Goforth was ambushed and murdered at a gas station in Cypress, Texas, Marvin Perkins stood in front of a stake in Houston, Texas, speaking on the topic of race and division.

Perkins was not a stranger to speaking on sensitive or divisive topics. In fact, Perkins was one among six presenters—including Sharon Eubank, now first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency—sent to Kungsbacka, Sweden, to strengthen Latter-day Saints in that region as they grappled with difficult gospel questions after former Area Authority Seventy, Elder Hans Mattsson, publicly left the Church.

Standing in front of this community torn apart by racial violence and conflict in 2015, Perkins delivered his message about race and the priesthood, finding unity in the gospel, and loving each other as literal brothers and sisters.

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Marvin Perkins presenting in Kungsbacka, Sweden. Image courtesy of Marvin Perkins.

After his presentation, a couple approached Perkins. “They were both sobbing, almost uncontrollably. When they were able to compose themselves, [the wife] admitted that she and her family are racists and have been racist all their lives. She mentioned that they use the N-word every day. She cried, ‘No one ever told us this!’” Perkins says. “She was ashamed of how she had lived her life up to that point, in how she had thought about, spoke about, and treated other children of God. I remember the penetrating words of her husband. He stated, ‘I value my word. And good people taught me those things, and I believed them and taught them boldly to others. I can’t believe I hurt so many people with things that were just not true.’”

That day, Perkins witnessed what he had seen on countless occasions—the way incorrect teachings or misinterpreted scripture can warp people’s understanding of the gospel and each other. But he also witnessed how the truth and our Savior’s grace can transform our understanding and our hearts—a transformation he knows from experience.

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Converting to the Latter-Day Saint Faith

“I had a definite advantage when I investigated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in that I knew who God was,” Perkin says. “I knew that Jesus Christ died for all in the human family and that God was no respecter of persons.” When Perkins began investigating the Church in 1988, he says members “were lovingly telling me that I was cursed, was less valiant in the pre-existence, and could not inherit the celestial kingdom but should join anyway because there were some blessings for me.”

Perkins had no doubt these teachings didn’t resonate with what he already knew about God and what he learned about the gospel. “It really started to dampen the desire I had to join the Church, but God reminded me of the powerful spiritual witness He had given me in answer to my prayer asking Him if this was truly His restored gospel,” Perkins says. “No sin, fault, or unkind word, no matter how long perpetuated, could change that from being true, because God had told me. . . . With that reminder, I joined in faith that He would help me to find the answers that I could then share in helping to build His kingdom.”

Since that time, Perkins has been able to reach Latter-day Saints throughout the world with uplifting truths from the scriptures and break down misconceptions concerning race and the priesthood through presentations, firesides, Church-sponsored events, the African American Outreach Program, raceandthepriesthood.org, and blacksinthescriptures.org.

Misunderstanding the Scriptures

Much of the misunderstanding Perkins finds among Latter-day Saints stems from reading the scriptures using modern definitions of words and idioms instead of understanding them in their ancient context.

“Like most, I grew up using the term black in reference to people of African descent, because it was widely accepted by all cultures,” Perkins says. “So it’s understandable that many would read the scriptures and associate the word ‘black’ in all of its forms, relating to man, in the same way they believe it to be fact in our society. The Saints, and those of other faiths as well, instinctually assume that this word is in reference to race, nationality, or color of skin. . . . The LDS version of the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon help us to understand that the word black is actually a Hebrew idiom, meaning gloomy, dejected, or spiritual darkness, and has nothing to do with skin tone. Though we have this clarity in the scriptures that we carry with us daily, few members are aware that this insight is there.”

He continues, “We see in Jeremiah 8:21, the LDS version of the King James Bible footnotes the word ‘black’ where it is defined as a Hebrew idiom, dealing with the mental, emotional, or spiritual state of the individual.” He further notes that the scripture reference guide can accelerate our learning on this topic and that other passages of scripture connect to or contain similar footnotes as the one found in Jeremiah 8:21, placing the use of the word “black” in the context of its common meaning in Hebrew as indicating a spiritual not a physical state. “If the word black is not dealing with race or actual skin color, then the feasting mind is opened to many possibilities to explore, such as maybe the same is the case in the Book of Mormon passages that describe a skin of blackness or whiteness (See 2 Nephi 5:21 and 3 Nephi 2:15),” Perkin says.

Considering that Lehi and his family were Jewish descendants, it makes sense that they would be familiar with and even utilize Hebrew idioms similar to those in the Bible. “Upon examining [2 Nephi 5:21 and 3 Nephi 2:15], readers are directed to 2 Nephi 30. There they find skin being tied to ‘scales of darkness’ over the eyes,” Perkins says. “This too is an indication of something mental, emotional, or spiritual and not physical. When you follow the footnote added in the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, one finds clarity in the understanding. The footnote reads ‘darkness spiritual; spiritual blindness.’”

Because of these clarifications—as well as other spiritual clues such as the Nephites being able to infiltrate Lamanite camps without being detected (see Alma 55:1-9)—Perkins says we can understand “the Lamanites did not have their skin color changed; the passages are referring to spiritual darkness” and “the idioms in the Book of Mormon are consistent with the idioms in the Bible. This means that the Book of Mormon is translated from an ancient text and could not possibly have been written by Joseph Smith, who would have written after the manner of his language (see D&C 1:24).”

Another commonly misunderstood word used within the scriptures and our Church culture is the term “curse.” About this word, Perkins clarifies, “The use of the word curse is very common in the Church today and has been since I joined some 30 years ago. It’s common to hear statements like ‘dark skin is a curse,’ ‘blacks are cursed,’ ‘the Lamanites were cursed,’ ‘it’s because of the curse of Cain or the curse of Ham,’ etc. The uses of these terms, unfortunately, have been taught in the Church for so long that all seem certain that they’re using the expression correctly. That is until I ask them a simple question—'What is a curse?’ The only thing that is common at that point is the silence or long delay before each will utter a certainly uncertain response. It’s amazing that a word that they believe is so damning can be used so freely and frequently without even understanding its meaning.

“We have a section in the scripture reference guide that we created, dedicated to the study of scriptural curses relating to the human family. As one studies these passages, they’ll gain an understanding of exactly what a curse is: a separation from God, His path, and His ways, due to our choice to sin. By understanding what a curse is, they also become clear on what it is not. For example, distance from God, due to our transgressions, cannot impact skin color. Therefore, skin color cannot be a curse. And based upon 1 Samuel 16:7, neither can it be the sign of the curse, as was so widely taught.”

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Truths from the Scriptures

“We live in a world of conflicting messages, which I’m convinced is a part of our test as well as an opportunity to demonstrate to the Lord that we can truly look beyond all that is clamoring for our attention and devotion, and yet maintain a dedicated focus on Him,” Perkins says. “From the earliest days of the restored gospel, one key message delivered from the Lord in January 1831 to Joseph Smith to pen as scriptural commandment was to ‘be one.’ The critical importance of being one was emphasized in the very next line ‘and if ye are not one ye are not mine’ (D&C 38:27). Yet at that time in our nation, there was a great inequality of man, wherein the division and atrocities levied by brother against brother, and sister against sister, were an acceptable and even expected facets of our society.”

The inability for the Saints of the Church to fully embrace or comprehend the Savior’s messages and commandments was not only a struggle for members in the 1800s but for members in our time and in Christ’s time as well.Image title

Perkins explains that ancient Jewish society identified in scripture (see Acts 10:28) focused on separating and distinguishing the Jews from other peoples. “Yet Jesus had taught them that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of their hearts, and the second was to love every other individual as they would love their own selves. The Savior went even further to emphasize the importance of the commandment by telling them that they could know if any law or prophetic teaching was of Him by matching it against the first and second great commandment (Matthew 22:36-40),” Perkins says. “In this scriptural and historical example, we see the conflicting messages at work. The Lord is commanding to be one. And in conflict, Jewish society demanded separation. This is eerily similar to the restriction on priesthood in the restoration. The Lord commanded the same oneness in the midst of great inequality.”

Just as it took time, correction, and revelation from the Lord for His apostles to embrace His command to teach and accept God’s children of all nations, it took the modern Church and apostles time to fully embrace the revelation given in D&C 36:4-5: “And now this calling and commandment give I unto you concerning all men—That as many as shall come before my servants Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith, Jun., embracing this calling and commandment, shall be ordained and sent forth to preach the everlasting gospel among the nations.”

“Our history is a blessing, one that we can learn so much more from if we’d simply first seek to truly understand it,” Perkins says. “Once understanding the truths, it’s essential to embrace the bad along with the good, without defense. When the Spirit of the Lord confirmed the truthfulness of the restored gospel to me in 1988, nothing could change that from being true. Unfortunately, so many believe that if they find unflattering things within our history, then this means that the Church can’t be true. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These are those with cultural testimonies. In order to effectively move beyond our history and be a united church, those cultural testimonies would need to be converted to spiritual testimonies. This can only come by following Christ alone.”

He continues, “This is a church of continuing revelation. The Lord told all in the first book of commandments for establishing the restored gospel that there would be errors, sins, etc. in building and leading His church (see D&C 1:24-28).  “I had the privilege of speaking in the Darmstadt, Germany, stake a few years ago. As I prepared for the trip and studied the German culture, people, and history, I came upon an inspiring example that could benefit all. I read that when German boys reach the age of 12 years old, they are taken to a concentration camp and told the stories of the past. This effort is to ensure what happened there can never happen again. Herein we see a heartfelt desire, manifested by unmistakable, targeted, and continuous actions.”

Truths About Race

“It’s amazing the see the immediacy of the impact that changing one’s perspective has on breaking down barriers of hatred and misunderstanding. These barriers are typically based upon errant teachings from trusted sources, media, continually branded images, and deficiencies in self-esteem,” Perkins says.

One powerful example of this came when Perkins, along with Fred Bethel, who was currently serving as a bishop, taught two sets of missionaries in Fort Lauderdale about the scriptural teachings contained in the book Blacks in the Scriptures. “[We] asked them to go and study the passages on their own, then pray and ask God to confirm to them what is true. They came back, all having received a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the work. Now with spiritually born testimonies of the work, we sent these four young men back into areas that had slammed doors on them, telling them never to come back. Armed with simply their testimonies of the work and two questions we had provided them, they returned after four days with 14 new families added to their teaching pool,” Perkins says. Fred Bethel’s ward went from having 11 baptisms in one year to having 56 baptisms the following year, and the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission became the top baptizing mission in North American for consecutive years, according to Perkins.

There is no doubt that power comes from learning spiritually-manifested truths rather than relying on worldly knowledge. In fact, in teaching about race and the priesthood, Perkins regularly finds most people he speaks with do not understand where the concept of race or the terms “black” and “white” stem from.

“Through years of petitioning the Lord on how to unite the human family, He has provided clear and simple guidance through the scriptures as well as social, scientific, and historical sources. For example, there is much strife based upon race, which is commonly described by the term racism. This term and concept is so deeply ingrained into the human psyche that many discussions are supported by the [idea] that God created the ‘races’,” Perkins says. “In our firesides, community events, and lectures, we identify the German gentleman, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, as the creator of the concept of race and the accompanying color scheme, black, white, yellow, red, and brown, to segment the human family. Blumenbach created the race concept building off of the earlier works of Carl Von Linnaeus and wrote it as his doctoral dissertation for graduation from medical school in 1775. The scientific community, so fascinated by Johann’s ‘concept,’ published his work and began scientific study to determine the differences in these newly introduced segments of the human family, or to disprove Blumenbach’s theory. Johann was able to disprove his own theory and responsibly documented his findings. However, this version of his work was not embraced, and the false concept of race grew to permeate our society. I have experienced first-hand that when one is taught the truth, that race is a man-made and not a God-made concept . . . [others] immediately see the oneness of the human family. We simply need to be courageous and faithful enough to find loving ways to teach truth continually.”

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Marvin Perkins presenting at a Los Angeles Temple Visitors Center fireside. Image courtesy of Marvin Perkins.

Rather than understand race as a means of division, Perkins sees differing skin color as a sign of God’s inherent love for all His children. “Each have different shades of brown hue to their skin. Each had ancestors that migrated and settled in different parts of the world. Each were given many gifts by a loving Heavenly Father for the sojourn here on earth. One of the exact same gifts given to each of them, was placing all the organs on the inside of the body, except for one. The largest organ, the skin, would be placed on the outside of the body, allowing it to adapt to its environmental conditions as their ancestors moved about the earth,” Perkins says. “Each time I see anyone with a different hue than my own, I think about an incredibly loving God, preparing to send His children out into the world, giving each the exact same gift. This says to me that He loves us all the same, and that is such a wonderful thought and feeling that it brings a smile to my face.”

Once that understanding is in place, the questions of crossing divisions or differences become easier for Latter-day Saints because we are able to see each other truly as part of the same human and heavenly family. “We are truly one,” Perkins says. “Those having a lighter shade brown are merely our sisters and brothers whose ancestors migrated out of the hotter climates. Those having the darker hues are simply family of ancestors that remained in or closer to our original homelands of Africa and the Middle East. So gaining a better understanding of our sisters and brothers of African descent is simply gaining a better understanding of oneself. Reaching out then becomes easy because it’s genuine.”

Becoming One

“Jesus Christ is the central meeting place for all who have a desire to be one. The closer we each get to Christ, the closer we get to each other,” Perkins says. “One of the primary attributes of Jesus Christ is love. Jesus is love. So, as we become like Jesus, we’ll naturally have the desire to be one.”

But Perkins also recognizes that becoming one does not rid us of our diversity. Diversity and variety are similarly divine. “Our Father brought us all here and allowed us to move about as we pleased. As we did so, we encountered different places, climates, diets, environments, and experiences. We established different practices, arts, languages, customs, gifts, and talents. Yet we never ceased being daughters and sons of God. . . . I personally have been able to grow to be a more useful servant of our Father in Heaven by learning from every culture that I’ve come in contact with. Take away any culture, and my learning, talents, and capacity to love are diminished. Just as in a bouquet of flowers, a dozen of one type of any flower can be beautiful. However, in order to greatly enhance that beauty, an assortment is added. Simply put, individually we are great, but together we are our greatest. The beauty of God’s love for all can be seen in the brilliant light of the sun. The sun is made up of all the colors of the rainbow but appear to our human eyes as one color, a brilliant white, as it shines through the sky which acts as a prism. Just as with the sun, the human family can only achieve our brilliance when all cultures or shades of brown are united.”

All images courtesy of Marvin Perkins
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