What Does the Book of Mormon Teach About Racism?

Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi declares God’s standard regarding racism, sexism, and other types of unrighteous discrimination:

He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile (2 Nephi 26:33).

God knew that Nephi’s descendants would not live up to this standard. The descendants of Nephi’s brother, Laman, had darker-colored skin than the descendants of Nephi. God explained to Nephi that his descendants would loathe the descendants of his brother, in part because of that physical feature (2 Nephi 5:21-22).

The descendants of Nephi came to be known as “Nephites,” and the descendants of Laman were called “Lamanites.” The two nations hated each other, and both nations developed rationalizations for that hatred which were not entirely fair or accurate. As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained:

In the Book of Mormon, both the Nephites as well as the Lamanites created their own “truths” about each other. The Nephites’ “truth” about the Lamanites was that they “were a wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people,” never able to accept the gospel. The Lamanites’ “truth” about the Nephites was that Nephi had stolen his brother’s birthright and that Nephi’s descendants were liars who continued to rob the Lamanites of what was rightfully theirs. These “truths” fed their hatred for one another until it finally consumed them all.
Needless to say, there are many examples in the Book of Mormon that contradict both of these stereotypes. Nevertheless, the Nephites and Lamanites believed these “truths” that shaped the destiny of this once-mighty and beautiful people (“What Is Truth?” CES Devotional Address, 13 January 2013).

Mormon was a Nephite, and so the history in the Book of Mormon is told mostly from a Nephite perspective. But it’s striking how frequently prophets rebuke the Nephites for their inaccurate stereotypes.

Jacob

After the death of Nephi, his brother Jacob chastised the Nephites for their unfaithfulness to their families. They apparently had begun to use the term “filthy” to describe the Lamanites, a reference to their rejection of the gospel, but possibly also to the color of their skin. It must have shocked the Nephites when Jacob referred to their enemies as “the Lamanites, which are not filthy like unto you.” He pointed out something which they had completely failed to notice: unlike the Nephites, the Lamanites had strong marriages and families (Jacob 3:3, 5).

Jacob sternly delivered a commandment to his people, which he assured them came from God, “that ye revile no more against [the Lamanites] because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers” (Jacob 3:9).

The Sons of Mosiah

Several hundred years later, most of the Nephites continued to harbor inaccurate stereotypes. When the sons of King Mosiah declared their intention to preach the gospel among the Lamanites, they were met with incredulity and intense resistance. As Ammon, one of the brothers, later recalled, their friends asked them questions like the following:

Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? (Alma 26:24)

Ammon said that their friends advocated warfare, not missionary work: “Destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us,” their friends had said (Alma 26:25). But he and his brothers thought differently. They considered the Lamanites to be their brothers and sisters, not their enemies. They wanted to preach the gospel to them to bring them closer to God, and they believed that the Lamanites would accept their message and benefit from it (Mosiah 28:1-3).

In the end, the sons of Mosiah were remarkably successful. Many Lamanites were converted by their preaching, and those Lamanites became some of the most stalwart disciples of Jesus Christ in either nation.

Samuel the Lamanite

About a hundred years later, a Lamanite prophet named Samuel traveled to the Nephite city of Zarahemla with a message from God. The Nephites didn’t want to hear his message, but God enabled him to deliver it anyway. During his speech, which he delivered on the wall of the city, Samuel pointed out to the Nephites how fickle they had been in their commitment to God, and how comparatively reliable the Lamanites’ faith had been:

Ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them—
Therefore, as many as have come to this, ye know of yourselves are firm and steadfast in the faith, and in the thing wherewith they have been made free (Helaman 15:7-8).

Samuel was not just expressing an opinion. He was pointing out a fact, which his listeners had observed firsthand. The Lamanites had demonstrated a fidelity which the Nephites lacked. When they were converted to the gospel, the Lamanites were firm and steadfast. Because of this characteristic, Samuel said that the Lord would spare the Lamanites, but that the Nephites would eventually be destroyed (Helaman 15:14-17).

Jesus Christ

When the Savior visited the American continent following His death and resurrection, one of His first messages was an admonition to avoid contention:

This is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away (3 Nephi 11:30).

After the Savior’s visit, the people lived in peace for many years. “There were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another” (4 Nephi 1:2). Not only did the Nephites and the Lamanites get along with each other, they stopped referring to themselves as Nephites and Lamanites. “There were no…Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17). Mormon tells us that “there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Nephi 1:16).


I see the following principles in these stories:

  1. God loves all of His children, and He wants us to value each other as He values each of us.
  2. When we label ourselves and divide into groups, we deny ourselves the blessings that we might have enjoyed by being unified.
  3. People justify mistreatment of others by repeating “facts” about them over and over, until no one questions their veracity. These “facts” could be relatively easily refuted by fair-minded people who are simply willing to get to know the other people.
  4. Self-righteousness is not only unkind; it’s inaccurate. The Nephites were unable to recognize positive attributes among the Lamanites because they considered themselves to be the “good people.”

Today, I will strive to love others as God loves them, without labels and without prejudice. I will recognize that our Heavenly Father wants us to live in peace with one another and to see the good in each other. I will remember that many times, the characteristics that we attribute to others are not true, and that the best way to develop a clearer perception of others is to take the time to get to know them better.

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