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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part III

By February 25, 2016

This is the third and final post in a series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. Part one and part two can be read here and here.


Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Another purpose of the Friends meetings is to provide instruction. Most black members in the Durham Stake tend to be converts to the Church, many of them having converted fairly recently. Every month a theme is chosen and one person appointed to direct the conversation or to provide a lesson. Themes include “outreach,” “fellowship,” “true v. false doctrine,” or “being a black Mormon today.”[1] In September 2011 Brother Isaiah Cummings taught a lesson titled “Blacks in the Bible.” Brother Cummings has apparently written a book on this subject but has been unable to find a publisher. I was not present at this meeting but Christina shared with me a copy of his lesson outline and it is also posted at the group’s Facebook page. In that lesson he taught that “When you begin to look at ‘Biblical History,” it is important to realize that the world had two (2) beginnings: The World ‘before’ the Flood and the World “after” the Flood. Hence, the Black Race had two sets of Parents: 1) Cain and his wife and 2) Ham and his wife Egyptus.” The lineage Brother Cummings constructs to illustrate the history of Blacks in the Bible is supported by scriptural references to the Bible and the Book of Abraham in the Mormon book of scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part II

By February 24, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. For part one, see here. Part three will be posted tomorrow morning. 


Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on "Blacks in the Bible," Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on “Blacks in the Bible,” Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

The Friends Group arose out of the African American cultural celebration as the brainchild of Brother Lee Cook, a white member of the Durham 1st Ward. Lee grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as a Southern Baptist. He described his younger self as a hippie and college dropout who joined the Air Force, which is where he met missionaries and joined the LDS Church. After moving around with the Air Force and then living for a while in New York, he returned to the South. It was exciting to see all of the changes that had occurred since the Civil Rights movement occurred, he explained. Yet, he noticed that, in many places, there was still that separatio: a “wall of partition,” he called it. So he started visiting black churches as part of his own quest to overcome that partition and he became very spiritually impressed (a common Mormon term for inspiration from the Holy Spirit) “that the Lord has a great work for us to do together.” Then he met Christina and after one of the African American cultural celebrations she confided in Lee that, as he remembered her statement (which he shared with her permission), “this is the only day I feel good as a black Latter-day Saint.” So, to remedy that sense of loneliness that she and presumably other black Latter-day Saints in the stake feel throughout the rest of the year, he proposed the organization of a support group, “so instead of once a year, once a month.”[1]

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina: A History of the African American Night of Celebration and the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent Support Group, Part I

By February 23, 2016

We’re pleased to present the following series of posts from Stan Thayne, PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founding editor of the Juvenile Instructor. The posts, which trace the little-known history and significance of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is longer than our usual offerings, but is well worth the time. It will be published serially over the next three days. –admin


Meeting of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, June 2011.

Meeting of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, June 2011.

When Christina Stitt moved into the Chapel Hill 1st Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2005, she and her grand-daughter Dushana doubled the number of African Americans in the congregation. There were only two other black members at the time, as Christina remembers it: Brother and Sister John and Mary Moore. They didn’t get to know each other right off, Christina and the Moores. Perhaps both overly conscious of the blackness that should supposedly connect them in this sea of whiteness, they were both a little stand-offish toward each other at first, as Stitt recalls. But after Christina sang a gospel piece during sacrament services, Sister Mary Moore approached her and expressed her desire for a program in the church celebrating African American culture. “She planted a seed in me,” Christina told me during one of my interviews with her. “But me, when you say something that really hits my heart, I try to get it done. And that’s what I did. I went to the bishop and I asked him, and he thought it was a good idea too. So that’s where it started.” In February 2006 the Durham Stake hosted the first African American Night of Celebration at the LDS stake center on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Chapel Hill. It has since become an annual event held every February during black history month.

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Book of Mormon Stories that my youtube tells to me

By December 12, 2013

Check this out: Epic Book of Mormon Movie Trailer

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Wandering Significance: Hagoth and the many migrations of latter-day Lamanite/Nephite Identity

By December 5, 2013

This post is adapted from a paper given at the Mormon History Association’s annual meeting held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in July 2012.


Mormon missionaries have been very good at finding the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples–“Lamanites” and “Nephites”–wherever they have been sent in the western hemisphere, and sometimes beyond: throughout the Americas and the Pacific Islands, even as far as Taiwan and Japan. Hagoth has typically been the figure linking these latter-day Lamanites in far-flung areas with their mainland kin. After mysteriously departing from the narrative near the end of the book of Alma, never to be heard of again–or so the writer thought–Hagoth has covered a lot of mileage since then, linking up a considerable amount of geography as a figure of remarkable, if wandering, significance. Using the figure of Hagoth as a narrative motif, this paper will explore how Mormons have constructed racialized readings of various Indigenous peoples in the Americas and the Pacific Islands based on their reading of Mormon scripture, and, conversely, how they have read their missionary successes back onto the “text,” greatly expanding the Mormon conception of to whom (and to how many) the signifier “Lamanite” applies. Further, the LDS church has not been able to contain the wanderings of this signifier. Members of a recently organized religious group–who profess no connection to Mormonism–have published a nine-volume text that purports to be a record of Hagoth’s (or Hagohtl’s) departure from the Land Southward and his migration up the Colorado River to form a heretofore unknown Indigenous group known as the Nemenhah. As a narrative figure, Hagoth has been complicit in multiple revisions of the histories (and sometimes the identities) of Indigenous peoples throughout the western hemisphere–and his migrations show no sign of flagging.

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Indian Removal, Zion, and the westward orientation of early Mormonism

By November 23, 2013

This post is adapted from a presentation given at the 2012 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium at Brigham Young University.*

Ideologies can turn heads. In United States of America, ideological head turning has often been westward. In this post I argue that it was the ideology and force of Indian Removal that turned the heads of early Mormons and oriented them to the West.

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MHA recap at Religion in American West blog

By July 10, 2012

I posted a very brief recap of MHA, focused primarily on David Marshall’s Tanner lecture, over at the Religion in the American West blog. Please feel free to go read it and leave some feedback (there and here). For those who were there, what were some highlights from the conference that I missed in my (very, very brief) recap’ What did you think about Marshall’s Tanner lecture? Agree? Disagree? with his overall thesis or finer points in his presentation? (Did I represent his argument okay?) Please, chime in!

O Canada!

By July 10, 2012

In keeping with a family tradition that we began last year in St. George, Utah, we turned MHA (the Mormon History Association annual meeting), which was held in Calgary this year, into an excuse for a very big (9,000+-mile) family road trip this year. In preparation for our border-crossing, I read a short story by author and English professor Thomas King titled “Borders” (if you haven’t read it, check it out). It is a story about a Blackfoot woman and her son (told from the perspective of the adolescent son) who get stranded at the U.S.-Canadian border–in Blackfoot Territory–when the mother insists that her nationality is Blackfoot and refuses to specify whether she is from the Canadian or American side: she is from the Blackfoot side. The two are on their way to Salt Lake City to visit the woman’s daughter who had previously moved there, convinced by a friend that it is the greatest place on earth, which the daughter reiterates in her postcards and travel brochures sent home (though, upon their arrival, she admits that she is thinking of returning home). Though never directly or explicitly so, the story is an excellent study in the complex mingling of Canadian-American-Blackfoot-Mormon identities that combine and comingle for several individuals in the area often referred to, among others things, as southern Alberta.

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Gathering the Scattered Children of Lehi: Constructions of Whiteness and Israelite Lineage in the Pacific Islands Missions

By June 9, 2012

What follows is a paper I presented at the Mormon History Associations annual conference in 2009, with a few revisions made since then. I was in the History MA program at BYU at the time. I am a little shaky on some of the conclusions I drew and suggestions I made then; it would probably sound a bit different if I wrote it now. And some of it may be rendered a bit obsolete by Hokulani K. Aikau’s recent work. But I still wanted to post it here because it is something I would like to develop further in future work (so feedback is more than welcome), and also because, like many of us, I hate to see work I put effort into drop off into nothingness. So here it is:

While teaching a high-school-aged youth Sunday school class in Provo recently, we came across one of the several Book of Mormon passages that referred to the prophesied change that would occur among the Lamanite descendants when they eventually embraced the Gospel; that is, as 3 Ne 2: 15 puts it, that “their curse [would] be taken from them, and their skin [become] white like unto the Nephites.” After reading this verse, or one like it, a student asked me if this meant that Lamanites would turn white after they were baptized. “What do you think?” I asked him. He said that he thought it did. I assumed he was joking, but I wasn’t quite sure (he has the same smirk on his face when joking and when bearing his testimony, so it’s hard to tell). Another student then chimed in with a joke that brought the implications of these passages (as often interpreted) starkly to the fore: “So if Barak Obama got baptized Mormon,” he quipped, “then he would no longer be the first African American president?”

I was amazed how quick the link was made from Lamanites to this vestigial remnant of the old mark of Ham/Cain myth. Both had become conflated in the minds of these students so that the curse was associated purely with color. Any color, that is, other than white. White was simply the primal original’the state from which some had strayed and toward which all must eventually return through a process of repentance and submission to the ordinance of the Gospel. Regardless of whether they were serious or joking–and I’m quite sure they were joking–their statements have serious implications.  And these statements were made in a mixed race classroom, with students from interracial families–black, white, Hispanic, Latino/Latina–including the two who made these comments. When two students in particular did not show up the next week, these implications became all the more troubling.

As this opening narration suggests, in this paper I am primarily concerned with problems of race and whiteness in the Book of Mormon, at least as it often is and has been interpreted. It has become a truism that history is written for the present, not the past. Accordingly, my research in this topic is done with an eye to how we can better temper some troubling current attitudes and challenges I and others have encountered in our experience as Latter-day Saints. My selection of Hawai’i is perhaps somewhat random; I simply was engaged in a project involving these sources. I could just as easily address this topic with sources from South America, North America, the Philippines, or somewhere else. But the Hawaiian sources serve well to make my point, which is this: conceptions of race and Israelite lineage have changed over time and they will continue to change. And more importantly, there are probably changes we can make in our attitudes, our interpretations, our pedagogy, and even to our sacred texts.

So, the Hawaiian, erstwhile Sandwich Islands,Mission:

George Q. Cannon, who was among the first missionaries to land in the Sandwich Islands in 1851, when the mission was opened, later recalled his first encounter with Native Hawaiians upon landing at the dock:

“No sooner was the anchor dropped than the decks were crowded with natives; some trying to sell bananas, oranges, cocoanuts, melons and other fruits,” and others anxious to take us ashore. The monotonous character of their language, their rapid utterance, their numerous gestures, caused us to watch them with interest. We thought them a strange people. I little thought at that time that I would ever learn their language, or become as familiar with their customs as I afterwards did; for, though we had been sent on missions to the Islands, we supposed our time would be occupied in preaching to the whites.[1]

It sounds preposterous now, in retrospect. Why go all the way to Hawaii 1851 in order to proselyte only the white immigrants? It is mind boggling. But, obviously, with their mindset as young missionaries sent from Utah who did not speak the Native language it must have seemed only logical to seek out the white (presumably English-speaking) inhabitants of the Islands. But in addition to linguistic challenges, their racial worldview must have played a role as well; for missionaries going to Italy or Scandinavia probably were not intending to only seek out English speakers in those missions.

The “whites” on the Islands were composed mainly of whalers and sailors who were, the missionaries concluded, more interested in brothels than catechism, and Protestant and Catholic missionaries who would have seen these young upstart Mormons as competition. Accordingly, the whites of the Islands proved, for the most part, rather uninterested and the missionaries’ efforts were unsuccessful. ‘the question arose directly,” Elder Cannon wrote, “Shall we confine our labors to the white people?” There was apparently uncertainty among them because they had not been specifically instructed to teach the Native Hawaiians. A disputation arose. “For my part,” recalled Cannon, “I felt it to be clearly my duty to warn all men, white and red.” Cannon’s resolve came only after some hesitation, however, and much reasoning upon the subject. His decision to stay and teach the Natives was something he arrived at only after a thorough consideration of their situation and a weighing of their options.  “We were in their midst, had full authority to declare unto them the message of salvation, and if we did not declare it unto them, some other Elders would have to come and do so, in order to fulfill the command of God to his servants,” he reasoned. In other words, it was his duty; “for I felt that I could not do otherwise and be free from condemnation.”

Two of the other elders concurred, but others disagreed. ‘some of the Elders [were] of the opinion,” Cannon recalled, “that our mission was to the whites, and that when we had warned them, we were at liberty to return.”

Both Cannon, who felt duty-bound to stay and teach the natives, and the missionaries who felt no obligation to stay, seemed preoccupied with their own obligation. That is, they were there not only to spread the good news but to clear themselves of a responsibility, and they seemed to keenly feel that a failure to do so on their part would bring them under condemnation. They were called upon to raise the warning voice. Once they did so, if no one listened, then that was all they could do. They had no more obligation. They could dust their feet of the place and be done with it. This view was probably shaped not only by verses in the New Testament to this effect but also passages from the Book of Mormon, such as Jacob 1:19, which speaks of ridding ones garments of the blood or guilt of others by “teach[ing] them the word of god with all diligence; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments and we would not be found spotless at the last day.” This commission, like that Christ gave to his disciples in the New Testament, applied presumably to all nations, tongues, and peoples. And yet, it was not readily apparent to these young missionaries that it applied to native Hawaiians–not until they had been rejected by the whites on the Islands and not even then for some of the elders. Did they, at least at a subconscious level, consider the Hawaiians subhuman?

At least one of the missionaries could not stomach the idea of living among and teaching the native Hawaiians and decided to return home. “He would go home, he said, and gladly take a mission to Europe,” as Cannon recalled, “but to labor there [in Hawai’i] he could not do with any pleasure. Besides, he was an old bachelor–and he ought to be married.” Unfortunately, Cannon instructs us, he was never married and was killed by Indians some time after returning home (read [sardonically, and according to usage and attitudes of the time]: the “Lamanites” got him after all!).

Among those who remained there eventually developed the idea that the native Hawaiians were among the House of Israel’the children of Abraham. This connection/revelation is generally attributed to George Q. Cannon. In 1852, according to reports, he addressed Native Hawaiian Saints present at a mission conference and declared to them that if they would follow the guidance of the spirit ‘they would progress-and even outstrip their white brethren, for they were of the House of Israel.”[2] A half-century later he reiterated this idea to a group of Hawaiian Saints, reportedly saying that “he knew it because the Lord told him so at Lahaina [during his mission there].”[3]

It is not clear, however, as some have suggested, that Cannon made the connection between House of Israel and Nephite or Lamanite lineage. That is, while Cannon apparently thought of Hawaiians as Children of Israel, he may not have at this (or even at any) point thought of them as Children of Lehi. Even twenty years later, when he published a reminiscence of his first mission for juvenile Latter-day Saint readers, he does not explicitly identify Hawaiians as Lamanites, though he does associate the two. “Many Elders desire, when they are called as missionaries,” Cannon writes, ‘to go to enlightened and cultivated nations. They think their experience among such people would be profitable to them, and that they would become polished and learn many things which they would not obtain among a people, for instance, like Sandwich Islanders or the Lamanites.”[4]  At first glance this may be taken as an identification of Hawaiians as Lamanites, but it is not clear how the or in the sentence is functioning. Is it restrictive, so that Lamanites is functioning as an appositive to Sandwich Islanders, equating the two? Or is it non-restrictive, simply making an association between two mutually exclusive yet related groups, in this case, Hawaiians (“red men” of theIslands) and Lamanites (“red men” on the mainland)? If the latter is the case, they could be related without being conflated–children of Abraham, yes, but not necessarily children of Lehi.

However precisely Cannon identified Hawaiians, he clearly came to believe that the promises made in the Book of Mormon applied to them as well as (if not as a part of) the Lamanites. Regarding his translation of the Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian language, Cannon stated: ‘thus was the Book of Mormon first translated and published in the language of a race of red men “a part of the race for whom its promises are most abundant.” [5] Again, this may be an equation of Hawaiians as Lamanites, or it may simply be an association, lumping them in among the children of Abraham, which included not only red Lamanites, but “white” Jews and, eventually, white Ephraimites.[6] But the association to Lamanites is much closer in Cannon’s mind “for they are both ‘red men.”

The second wave of Mormon missionaries arrived in the Islandsfive years later in 1856[7]; among them was young fifteen-year-old Joseph F. Smith. A perusal of Smith’s journals and his letters exchanged with other missionaries from this periods show that the missionaries typically referred to Hawaiians as “natives” rather than as Lamanites or Israelites. They tended to refer to them as “poor,” “ignorant,” “benighted,” “degraded” beings. While such descriptions are similar to how Protestant missionaries tended to view Hawaiians, the missionary’s racial worldview was shaped at least in part by their understanding of the Book of Mormon.  On a Sunday morning service in Wailuku, Hawaii, in March of 1856, young Joseph F. rose and delivered a sermon to the gathered Hawaiian Latter-day Saints. As he noted in his journal entry for that day, he “prophysied that they would live (some of them) to see their children a white and delitesome people, if they would only obey the laws of God, and gather up to zion, on the other hand, they should be rejected; cast off, and despised by all the good and bad of the Earth who knew them[.]” (As a side note, he also noted that when services reconvened in the afternoon “there were not many at meeting.”)[8] Smith had clearly imbibed the language of 2 Ne 30:6, referring to a future day in which the Lehite descendants would embrace the Gospel their ancestors rejected “and not many generations shall pass away among them, save they shall become a white and a delightsome people.”

Around this same time, speculation on the Hawaiian people’s origin became a topic of discussion in missionary letters. “From whence this people originated is a question not yet solved by the ‘learned'” wrote missionary John R. Young to his father in 1856.

Many have tried to trace them back to the Malay tribe. It is evident that the inhabitants of the Polynesian Islands have all sprang from the same race; the resemblance of features and the sameness of dialects go to prove this, and I think if a person was well versed in the productions of Moses, the historian, or acquainted with the history of the Aborigines of America, as translated by Joseph Smith, that he would be able to solve the question from whence originated the Hawaiians.

Once again, Young does not quite make the equation of Hawaiians with Lamanites–as Lamanites–but he hints at it, or something analogous  to it, suggesting that the Book of Mormon, as a new old world record, may contain hints to their origin.

Young’s comments on comparative linguistics, attention to physical features, and, later in his letter, on comparative mythology and religion, reveals a young man very much in tune with the racialist thinking of his day. He was living as a white man among “natives,” after all, only three years after Gobineau had published the first volume of his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, which put forward the hugely influential Aryan master race theory, and three years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I am not suggesting the Young had read Gobineau or that he would have had any idea whoDarwin was at this point, but these ideas were very much a preoccupation of Western society at this time, young Mormon missionaries not excepted.

Many of these popular ideas and methodologies for determining racial distinctions and possible origins (etiological and teleological legends, really)’two concepts that were quite interrelated were being inculcated into youth through periodical literature. Mormon literature was no exception. A series of such articles by LDS author George Reynolds, coming a decade after these missionaries returned from Hawaii but still quite telling as a picture of their racial worldview, was published in the Juvenile Instructor under the heading “Man and His Varieties” between August and December 1868.

After explaining and refuting the several current views on the origins and development of the races of humanity: polygenesis, evolution (which he termed the “development theory”), influence of climate. Reynolds gave what LDS should see, he felt, as “the greatest cause of all in bringing about this [racial] difference”: “the effect the blessing or cursing of the lord has upon any people.” According to this view, Mormon youth could account for the differences they saw between human beings not by assuming that different groups came from different ancestors, or that some have evolved farther from monkeys than others had (which is basically how evolution was caricatured in the article), or that climate had caused the changes; rather, those of the so-called “inferior” and “degraded” races had descended to that position by rejecting God. “All who believe the sacred records given to us in these days, know how easy it is for men when they depart from the service of God to descend from the highest and purest forms of life to the lowest and most degraded.”[9]

Reynolds did not entirely dismiss all others ideas in regard to racial formation, however. He did believe that climate, food, and religion each had an effect on racial characteristics and features. But these factors were not the original cause of the races, they simply heighten or augment distinctions that God put in place (or refrained from putting into place in the case of whiteness’the absence of color/curse) to indicate his pleasure or displeasure with said peoples.

After outlining the standard 5-race classification according the feature delineations of the day “the shape of the skull, the color of the skin, the texture of the hair, the general makeup of the body and the nature of the language spoken.” Reynolds unequivocally placed the Caucasian race at the top of the scale. The Caucasian is described as “those who have ruled and now rule the world.” They are “foremost in arts, sciences and civilization” and “all the other families of men are, as a rule, unequal to them in strength, size, beauty, learning, and intelligence.” Belonging to this race are Europeans (“except Laplanders and Finlanders”) and those of European descent in America and Australia; “Also the Jews, Arabs, Hindoos, Affgans, Syrians and Turks as well as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Parthians and Egyptians of older times.” At the bottom of the scale is “the Negro” and in between are the other three races in no exact order. The Malayan race is described as a brown or copper colored race whose members are located in parts of southern Asia and ‘the greater portion of the Islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

In delineating the “Malayan race,” however, the “learned,” or “uninspired men,” had erred in grouping all Pacific Islanders under this classification. “the revelations of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith have dispelled the darkness with regard to the origin of many of the varieties of man now on the earth,” writes Reynolds. Accordingly, “it is well understood by us that [Sandwich Islanders] are of the same stock as the Lamanites.” As evidence of this Reynolds points out “how soon they adopted the religion of Europeans and imitated their habits and mode of dress. ‘their laws were changed to a European pattern, schools and colleges were established.”[10] Further evidence that they belong to the House of Israel is “the great success the Elders have had in preaching the gospel in their midst.” Thus it was a response to whiteness: European religious, legal, and educational patterns, coupled with Mormonism (which some would call the whitest of American religions) that proved their lineal origin in Lehite stock.

This was not the first time the Hawaiian people were clearly alluded to as descendents of Lehi. When Brigham Young wrote to King Kamehameha V in 1858, explaining the missionaries’ purpose there and requesting his sanction, he explained that “we have not a doubt in our minds but that’the people of your majesty’s nation” are a Branch of this same great family [the Lehites]. You are of the House of Israel,’the Book of Mormon “is your Book; for the promises” which it contains, are as applicable to your majesty’s nation as to the nations of this Continent. This, being our belief, accounts for the interest we feel as a people in your majesty’s nation.” The “man and his Varieties’ articles, however, may have been the first to make that connection via the story of Hagoth, who was not identified by name but as ‘some adventurous Nephite sailor” and is alluded to with a reference to the Book of Mormon.

By the mid twentieth century the Hagoth connection had become quite entrenched. In 1942, a booklet titled Hawaiian Mission in Review paralleled the Hagoth story with local legends, particularly the etiological legend of Hawaii-loa, the distant ancestor of the Hawaiian people who, according to the legend, sailed here long ago from a far off land. Several other biblical and Book of Mormon events and characters were identified in local myths, including Nephi and the “early division between the white Nephites and the dark-skinned Lamanites,” though of course in different terms.

Since Hagoth would have been a white Nephite, according to a typical racialized reading of the Book of Mormon, the authors of the review realized they needed to somehow account for the brown skin of the Hawaiian people. Rather than suggesting that the curse gradually descended upon them through apostasy and degradation, the narrative suggests that it was through intermarriage with other Islanders to the south “who, in turn had intermarried with the dark-skinned residents of the islands near the Orient. In this manner–and by constant exposure to the sun’the Hawaiians gradually became a bronzed race. (“The skin of a pure Hawaiian is a rich golden-brown,” the narrative parenthetically states, ‘scarcely darker than that of the suntanned Caucasians that now dwell amongst them.)” No mention is made of their becoming white after conversion.

This does not mean that this belief had died out by this time. When Mette Ramstad did field research in the Pacific Islands during the late 1980s and 1990s, as part of his PhD diss., he found that among the older generation many Hawaiians had accepted the belief that their darker skin was a reflection of the Lamanite curse which had gradually come upon their ancestors after they arrived in the Islands and dwindled in unbelief, and that the mark would eventually fade among their descendants. Eugene England found that this belief in Tonga led some Natives to feel unqualified for leadership positions. Ramstad also found, however, that among the younger generation of Hawaiians, though Lamanite or Nephite identity was still strong, they had not absorbed the idea that their dark skin was the result of divine curse, nor, accordingly, that they or their children would even become white as a result of conversion.

Ramstad accounts for this change in perceptions between generations to the fact that “the notion of a racial curse is not emphasized anymore in the teachings and preachings of LDS missionaries and teachers in Polynesia” and also to the change in the Book of Mormon text in 1981, changing the phrase “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome.”[11] As Norman Douglas pointed out, this was actually a change Joseph Smith made in the 1840 edition, which, by historical accident, was not included in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon until 1981. This restoration may have been influenced, Douglas suggests, by a BYU master’s thesis and subsequent Sunstone article by Stan Larson that brought the white-pure discrepancy into public notice.


“Man and His Varieties,” the series of Juvenile Instructor articles by George Reynolds cited earlier, presents race as a contingent human condition initiated by divine imposition, then augmented by natural conditions, but finally subject to change based upon personal and national righteousness. Reynolds states rather unequivocally that Adam was white, all the prophets and apostles of any age have been white, Jesus was white, and, by implication, even God is white; for “we understand that when God made man in his own image and pronounced him very good, that he made him white.” In Reynolds’s concluding statement all colored races are conflated and the racialist interpretation of 2 Nephi 30:6.” The “white and delightsome” passage is applied as a blanket statement: “For the day will come,” Reynolds states, “when all men capable of receiving the priesthood, enlightened by the spirit of God and guided by its whisperings, will lose their extravagances of character and appearance, and become “a white and delightsome people” physically as well as morally. When they will be as God first made Adam ‘in His own image’ and ‘very good.”

The worldviews of most Latter-day Saints are of course quite different from this today. A number of factors of course have come into play in bringing about this change: the civil rights movement, the 1978 revelation, a decline in the old biblical linage worldview that viewed all people as descendents of Ham, Shem, and Japheth, separated into discrete races respectively, and so forth.  But the opening little anecdote I opened with, from my Sunday school class, leads me to wonder if these ideas have really been overcome. There are still lingering vestigial remnants of past worldviews that we could do without remnants that are not only superfluous but hurtful.

Attempts have been made at a more globally conscious and racially sensitive reading of the Book of Mormon. These include Hugh Nibley’s suggestion that Nephites and Lamanites need not be interpreted as racial categories and Eugene England’s and Normon Douglas’s suggestion that the skin referred to in such passages might better be interpreted figuratively.[12] Such readings are aided by a textual change in the Book of Mormon, mentioned earlier, which changed the term white in “white and delightsome” in 2 Ne 30:6 to pure. In essence the passage suggests that when the Nephite or Lehite descendants in a future day embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the Book of Mormon, they will become “a pure and delightsome people.” The change in question was most likely made by Joseph Smith in the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon. By historical accident it was left out of subsequent LDS editions until 1981.[13] Latter-day Saints of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries interpreted the verse according to the racialist worldview of their day–for the view that white was the primal original from which the colored races had degraded did not begin with nor was it unique to Mormons. Nor was the view that whiteness could literally be gained through “civilization.” (As historian Graham Stott points out, natural philosopher George-Louis Comte de Buffon suggested, “more than a half century before the [Book of Mormon’s] publication, [that] a white skin is a consequence of civilization, not its cause.”) As worldviews have changed, so have interpretations of race in the scripture. If the textual change made to this verse in 1981 not only reflects a return to an earlier and, in a sense, more correct reading, it may also reflect a more racially sensitive awareness–a more moral reading.[14]

Yet, even with a more racially sensitive outlook aided by a more charitable reading of such passages, as suggested by Nibley and England, it is still hard to read a passage like 2 Ne 5: 21 without cringing: “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.” Even if, taken as a whole, the book may be read as presenting a more universal, racially inclusive view, as Armand Mauss and others have suggested, when isolated, it is hard not to interpret this passage as racialized anti-miscegenation.

So, if Joseph Smith made such a change, as that noted above, in 1840, followed by a much more recent change in 1981, why not continue the project he began 3 Ne 2:15 still reads: “And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.” If we can agree that a figurative non-racialized reading is better here (and I realize that that is a big if and might only be an ought), then why not emend the verse in accordance with Joseph Smith’s change in 1840 and take the next logical step: “And their curse was taken from them, and their countenance [or demeanor] became pure.” And why not carry such emendation to the next analogous step as well, so that 2 Ne 5:21 might read: “wherefore, as they were pure, and exceedingly delightsome, that they might not be enticing to my people the Lord God did cause [or perhaps, allow] a pall [or demeanor, or spirit] of darkness [or perhaps some other, less racially charged word”] to come upon them.” Changes of this nature would not be without precedent: LDS scriptural texts have undergone numerous emendations over the years as has the temple endowment and initiatory ceremonies’many of which, presumably, were due to developing cultural sensitivities in a globally expanding church.

Now, I am not under the illusion that changing a few words here and there will solve deeper, more complex problems. Even when interpreted figuratively, the idea of a curse, often applied to indigenous peoples, has troubling implications and often leads to cultural insensitivity and racism. But, deeper problems notwithstanding, I cannot help but feel that it would still be a positive step.



Britsch, R. Lanier. Moramona: The Mormons in Hawaii.Laie,HI: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1989.

Campbell, Douglas. “White’ or ‘Pure’: Five Vignettes.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 119-135.

Cannon, George Q. My First Mission.Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882.

Douglas, Norman. ‘the Sons of Lehi and the Seed of Cain: Racial Myths in Mormon Scripture and their Relevance to the Pacific Islands.” Journal of Religious History 8.1 (June 1974): 90-104.

England, Eugene. “Lamanites’ and the Spirit of the Lord.” Dialogue 18.4 (1985): 25-32.

Larson, Stan. “Early Book of Mormon Texts: Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon in 1837 and 1840.” Sunstone 4 (Fall 1976): 45-55.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. “Assembling Bodies and Souls: Missionary Practices on the Pacific Frontier” in Practicing Protestants.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2006, 51-76.

Mauss, Armand L. All Abraham’s Children: Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage.Urbana:  University ofIllinois Press, 2003.

Nibley, Hugh W. Since Cumorah.Salt Lake City:Deseret Book, 1967.

Ramstad, Mette. Conversion in the Pacific: Eastern Polynesian Latter-day Saints’ conversion accounts and their development of an LDS identity.HoyskoleForlaget,Norway: Norwegian                Academic Press, 2003.

Reynolds, George. “man and his Varieties [series].” Juvenile Instructor, August-September 1868.

Skousen, Royal. Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon.Provo,UT: FARMS, ongoing.

Stott, Graham St. John. “Amerindian Identity, the Book of Mormon, and the American Dream.” Journal of American Studies of Turkey 19 (2004): 21-33.



[1] Cannon, My First Mission (1882), 17.

[2] Douglas, “sons of Lehi,” 97.

[3] Wooley journal, 1900, qtd. In Britsch, Moramona, 116.

[4] My First Mission, 65.

[5] My First Mission, 73.

[6] While Jews in America only gained the social status associated with whiteness gradually through complex historical processes (see Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, N.J and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998), in the typical Mormon imagination at this time–as represented by articles written by George Reynolds below–the chosen lineage of Israel was presumed to be white. On Ephraimites and whiteness see Mauss, All Abraham’s Children.

[7] As a letter from Hiram Clark to Brigham Young indicates, these missionaries were also quite surprised to find so few whites on the Islands, and even those being of a “fluctuating population, composed of California gold diggers and sailors (Deseret News, July 26, 1856).”

[8] JFS diary, March 30, 1856; MS 1325,box 1, fd 3. JFS’s understanding of what constituted the native’s non-whiteness, or lack of “civilization,” as expressed in his journal, extended beyond skin color but also included cultural attitudes, manner of living, and bodily comportment: cooking and eating while sitting on the ground; living in close quarters with dogs, pigs, and cats; lack of hygiene, particularly in regard to contact between pets and cooking ware and food; dress, or the lack thereof; “whoredoms”; unwillingness to attend meetings; unreliability; etc. For a very telling (but not comprehensive) entry on this theme see JFS diary, July 4, 1856 , MS 1325,box 1, fd 3.

[9] “theories on the Origin of Man,” JI, 3.6 (August 15, 1868): 124-25.

[10] G. R. also points out that “unfortunately the crimes and vices so prevalent in modern Christendom became general amongst the natives: which evils are now destroying them much more rapidly than they increase by births, so that it is feared that in a few generations the race will become extinct.” Thus, ironically, in Reynold’s view, the very whiteness that was civilizing the Sandwich Islanders was concurrently driving them to extinction. For Mormons, however, this paradox might have been explainable: for “modern Christendom,” according to Mormon teachings, was in a state of apostasy, having a form of godliness (whiteness?) but denying the power thereof (purity?).

[11] Mette Ramstad, Conversion in the Pacific, 127.

[12] Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children, 127-28.

[13] See Douglas.

[14] As Royal Skousen’s Critical Text of the Book of Mormon project suggests, if your purpose is to restore the original text and the original manuscript for this verse is non-extant’then white might be a better reading. Accordingly, when I speak of pure as being a better reading, I am speaking largely in a moral sense.


Picturing Lamanites building the New Jerusalem: an addendum to “Trying to make our children’s…”

By September 23, 2011

Ardis Parshall has graciously provided this scan of an image, the possibility of which was discussed in my post of a few days ago.

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