On the airplane home from my mission, I sat next to a young journalist. If you've seen the old Church video A Labor of Love, you can imagine exactly what our conversation was like. He asked me a bunch of questions about my experience as a missionary, I cried as I relived the previous 18 months, and then like any missionary hoping to cap off their mission's end, I gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon. A few weeks later, I got a Facebook message from this man who said he had been reading the book I gave him but was confused by 2 Nephi 5. I was embarrassed that even after having spent 18 months as a missionary, I had to do some research before I replied. But what if we actually prepared for conversations like this? What if we tackled questions like these in our homes and talked them out as a family?
This week’s Come, Follow Me reading includes a frequently misunderstood passage in the Book of Mormon. Part of that misunderstanding emerges from previous teachings of the Church. The physical copy of the manual mistakingly included an outdated quote from Joseph Fielding Smith about the curse that came upon the Lamanites that no longer reflects the position of the Church. Elder Gary E. Stevenson addressed the misprint at the 2020 NAACP Luncheon when he said, “We’re asking our members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual. Now I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others. I would just like to reiterate our position as a Church is clear. We do condemn all racism, past and present, in any form, and we disavow any theory advanced that black or dark skin is a sign of a curse.”
Here are some resources to help you as you study this week's Come, Follow Me curriculum, including the passage that my airplane friend had questions about.
1. Digital version of Come, Follow Me
The updated Come, Follow Me manual on the churchofJesusChrist.org clarifies that the curse was not the color of Lamanites' skin but the withdrawal of the Spirit:
"In Nephi’s day the curse of the Lamanites was that they were 'cut off from [the Lord’s] presence … because of their iniquity' (2 Nephi 5:20–21). This meant the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from their lives. When Lamanites later embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, “the curse of God did no more follow them' (Alma 23:18).
"The Book of Mormon also states that a mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them. The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood. The mark initially distinguished the Lamanites from the Nephites. Later, as both the Nephites and Lamanites each went through periods of wickedness and righteousness, the mark became irrelevant as an indicator of the Lamanites’ standing before God.
"Prophets affirm in our day that dark skin is not a sign of divine disfavor or cursing. The Church embraces Nephi’s teaching that the Lord 'denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female' (2 Nephi 26:33). President Russell M. Nelson declared: 'The Lord has stressed His essential doctrine of equal opportunity for His children. . . . Differences in culture, language, gender, race, and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer'" (“President Nelson Remarks at Worldwide Priesthood Celebration” [June 1, 2018], newsroom.churchofJesusChrist.org).
2. Don't Miss This
While it may seem easiest to parents to simply gloss over these verses, on this week’s Don’t Miss This, Emily Belle Freeman and David Butler make a case for discussing it with your children. After addressing the misprint and Elder Stevenson’s comments at the NAACP Luncheon, they tell their audience that they received a lot of questions by email asking if they would teach this. While emphasizing that each family would be able to decide for themselves, they shared what they would teach if they were discussing it with their own families and emphasized why choosing to approach the topic head-on might be best.
A transcript of their comments is found below:
David Butler: You might not do this with your family or it might be really helpful to arm them and let them know, “Hey, when you come across stuff like this in the Book of Mormon, this is what it means.” Y’all, we need to be probably a little bit more anxious about making sure that love prevails and if there’s any reason that somebody is going to feel inferior, we might want to be the ones who can speak up and say, “No, I don’t think it means that and this is why I believe.” So the first verse we’re going to go to is 2 Nephi 5:20.
Emily Belle Freeman: And you’re going to want to be watching when you read 2 Nephi 5, you’re watching for a curse and a mark. Now, this is what we know, we know what the curse is. We just know what it is. It is so simple and it’s easy to understand.
DB: It comes up like five, six times in these chapters and again and again throughout the book.
EBF: So that’s what you want to focus on, what was the curse? Then it’s going to talk about the mark and we’re going to give you some scripture references and places to go as you’re studying what the mark is and what it’s not and a couple of really great quotes so let’s just read first, what even is the curse? Do you want me to read it?
DB: Yeah. This is 2 Nephi 5:20-21.
EBF: "Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity.” So the curse is cut off from the presence of God, that’s what happened.
DB: And as you read, it might be helpful to know that as you read about if you keep the commandments in the land you are blessed with prosperity, prosperity generally is a closeness with God. The curse is being cut off from God and prosperity is an added measure of God’s Spirit in your life, which might lead to other benefits as well but that’s always the blessing—a closeness with God and the cursing is always being cut off from Him. In the next verse toward the end is where some people run into trouble where it says, “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 (2 Nephi 5:21).” This is the spot in scripture where we don’t actually know what the mark of the curse was. It doesn’t seem, if you read through all of scripture that it has anything to do with skin color. Let’s show you a verse that kind of shows some of these words in another spot.
EBF: Yep, so we’re going to take you, let’s go to Luke first.
DB: Luke 11:34. So I’m going to go there. You’re going to notice all throughout scripture when it uses “skins” oftentimes it’s talking about clothes so when it’s talking about . . . do you remember people’s garments are washed white and they become pure and delightsome? It’s using the clothes imagery to talk about what’s really go on inside their heart.
EBF: Or in their countenance. So you a little bit want to be thinking countenance or just a look. When I teach my seminary kids all the time, I tell them, if I were to walk along a dark alleyway and I saw a man coming to me and he was happy and he waved his hand at me and he was smiling, asked how my night was going, I would describe him as someone probably with light. “I met the nicest man, he was so happy, he was filled with light.” If I was walking along that same alley and there was someone sitting in the corner and as I walked by, he mumbled something to me that wasn’t very nice and I could tell that I didn’t feel safe when I was walking by, I might describe that person as it felt dark when I was in there. It doesn’t matter what color either of those people’s skin was. What I’m describing to you is the feeling that came from their countenance and you a little bit wonder if that is the word that Nephi is using to try and describe for us, “This is what it felt like when you were with people who had been cut off from the presence of the Lord.”
DB: And over and over and over again, it just doesn’t seem like it applies to the color of their skin.
EBF: We love this in Luke though, you’re going to want to teach these together. It’s such a good explanation.
DB: This is from another teaching you might recognize from the Sermon on the Mount. “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness (Luke 11:34).” So once again, kind of the example that you were telling that light and darkness has more to do with a heart and a countenance than anything.
EBF: And even someone’s eyes. It will tell you later in scripture, “And the darkness fell from their eyes.” The scales fell from their eyes. It’s so interesting if you start pulling all these together, you realize this is more of a figurative description than literal and that’s how you want to read it as you’re reading into this.
DB: And really the third verse that you want to go to is in Alma 17 and it’s verse 15. This is what it says, “Thus they were a very indolent people, many of whom did worship idols, and the curse of God had fallen upon them because of the traditions of their fathers; notwithstanding the promises of the Lord were extended unto them on the conditions of repentance.” What you see all throughout scripture is despite somebody’s background, despite someone’s race, despite anything in their life. . . .
EBF: Despite the choices of their parents or someone else who had been with them . . .
DB: Or even the choices of their own past. That on conditions of repentance and change, the curse can be lifted from them and they can enjoy the presence of the Lord. This is a much better story to focus on in this discussion. The good news here is people can change, that people who once were cursed because of their decisions or culture they inherited can change and receive a closeness with God and the blessings of God again. That’s not to dismiss though some of the hurt that’s been caused by a misinterpretation of some of these scriptures.
EBF: And it’s important—really, really important—to remember that, that a lot of times we look at things and because it has not been our past, because it has not been our story, we come at it from a very logical point of view. I will tell you that if you are close to someone who has grown up and lived in the lines of that battle and that struggle their whole life—my daughter-in-law is black, and when I hear her talk about this, it comes from a very emotional place and a place of hurt and sorrow and sadness for years before. And I think it’s so important when we enter into discussions like this to remember that this may feel like a logical discussion to you, but for some people this is a very emotional place for them. And sometimes we learn the most when we just sit back and we listen to that emotion that is being expressed there, it will teach us a lot about how to be more compassionate.
DB: Yeah. And we don’t have to solve that for somebody. We just want to listen to where that hurt is coming from and show compassion where other people have shown disdain. And sometimes a really logical approach is so cold. . . . I think this is worth reading, no matter what the intention of some of the verses were or how people have interpreted them because they have interpreted them . . .
EBF: Or how they’ve been taught over time.
DB: This is a very important statement from the Church. “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form” (Race and the Priesthood essay, churchofJesusChrist.org).
EBF: That just makes my heart feel so good to know that because there’s been a lot of hurt in the past. I just think it is so good that we have Church leaders who are not setting that aside but are coming straight out and saying, We disavow . . . we know this happened. We disavow what happened. I think that’s a powerful statement.
DB: And we’re sorry for the hurt, you know? We genuinely are, in any condition or situation. If anybody grew up in a condition where they were looked down upon, I want my first words to be, “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” And not explain, “Well it’s because of this or this or this.”
EBF: Because going to a logical place does not heal wounds but meeting that person where they are, listening to the hurt, apologizing for that hurt I think is a powerful thing to do. I just think this is a good lesson to teach your kids. I was so careful in seminary, and I think you probably were too, to make sure we would spend a lot of time on this so that my kids knew if they were ever in a Sunday School class or another Seminary class that they had a firm understanding and knowledge of what the curse was and what the curse wasn’t and I think that’s important.
3. Sunday on Monday
Tamu Smith also addresses this topic on this week’s Sunday on Monday podcast. Read the transcript of the conversation between Tamu and host Tammy Uzelac Hall below:
Tamu Smith: This is off-topic a little bit, but I also feel like if we can address it, then it helps with a lot of the issues that will come up and have come up in Sunday School classes. If we go to verse 21, "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." As a black woman who is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this has been problematic for me. But I think that you know, when you know better, you do better, right? If you have electronic scriptures like I do, and you start to click on the curse, you go to Topical Guide and it talks about what the curse is, but then you skip down to blackness. And 2 Nephi 26:33, "For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men." When you click on skin, it takes you to 2 Nephi 30:6 [*note: The episode misquotes and says 2 Nephi 3:26]: "And then they shall rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes." It's not your skin coloring, it is your skin countenance. It is your spiritual countenance that you carry. When we're talking about the darkness, and I just want to, if I can, get in front of that, and correct it before we're sitting in a Sunday School class and someone who doesn't have an electronic version, and someone who doesn't have an updated version of the scriptures, they start to elaborate on what that means, what they think it means, or what they may have been taught it meant. It does not. So it would be wise for them to go to ChurchofJesusChrist.org and start to look those things up on their own.
Tammy Uzelac Hall: You know, Tamu, thank you so much for bringing that up. And you know, I feel like it's very important for us to know and everyone needs to hear that dark skin is not the curse. So maybe you might be aware that there was a misprint in the Come, Follow Me manual where it did identify the dark skin as a curse. But the Church has addressed that misprint as false, and they updated the manual on the ChurchofJesusChrist.org website and they corrected it. In fact, here's what Elder Stevenson said about the misprint at the NAACP luncheon. Quote, "We’re asking our members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual. Now I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others. I would just like to reiterate our position as a Church is clear. We do condemn all racism, past and present, in any form, and we disavow any theory advanced that black or dark skin is a sign of a curse." You know, one of the things I think everyone needs to do is just take in their scriptures and in my scriptures, I've written this right next to that verse, a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith and he said, "The curse is the withdrawal of the Spirit." That is the only thing it is, end of sentence, end of discussion, and so when we talk about it on those terms, it just beautifully defends what you said, it is a withdrawal of the Spirit. And it is, how did you say it again . . .
TS: It's this darkness that falls, I mean, I've seen people who have, who have lost their light, and we know immediately what it looks like, and more than that, we know what it feels like. And I've seen people who have gained light, and you immediately know, and I just think that we have to correct the dogma of old and right the wrong that was put out there.
TUH: You know, Tamu, going back to that idea of the countenance of light or countenance of darkness. I can't help but be drawn to the scripture in Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 5:5, it says, "Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness." And when you talk about who the light is, John teaches us that light is Jesus Christ, we are children of Christ. And then you cross reference that to Mosiah and Mosiah says we become His children through our covenants. It beautifully defends what you've just said, you can have the light or lose the light, depending on choosing the good part like Lehi did, or it's a living after the manner of happiness. Right? I don't know. Now, I'm really thinking even more deeply about 2 Nephi 5. I think there is purpose in citing this verse that you read to us in 21, about the skin of darkness, and then living after the manner of happiness. There is purpose in them being in the same chapter.
TS: I wholeheartedly agree. Where was it, somewhere in here, it talks about how misery loves company. And I think about the lives that Laman and Lemuel went on to live as we read through scriptures. And I think about having joy. “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy (2 Nephi 2:25).” And that joy is eternal and that joy is internal. And it doesn't mean that we always are happy. It doesn't mean that we don't have sadness. But it means that we have the joy because we know ultimately, that we are followers of Christ. We are followers of light. And I do think that when people are miserable, it is a very dark place for them internally, and they bring other people, they will drag you down with them, if allowed, if they're allowed to. I don't think that it is by happenstance that we have this here today.