Trying to make our children’s Book of Mormon illustrations not quite so politically incorrect

By September 20, 2011

While visiting a friend’s home in Utah this past summer, I noticed on the bookshelf a complete set of the Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon, a 16-volume production, geared toward families with kids, published by Promised Land Publications in 1967. I pulled a volume off the shelf and began flipping through. It was great! If I didn’t know any better, though, I might have been a bit confused by the array of colorful pictures that confronted me. Was this a history of the ancient americas or a modern U.S. History textbook? It seemed a strange hybrid of both. Pictures of Nephites and Lamanites and Mesoamerican temples were interspersed with pictures of the Statue of Liberty, Columbus, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the transcontinental railroad, and the American West!

One page, consisting of two illustrations, grabbed my particular attention.  The caption attending the images–what they are supposed to illustrate–is taken from 2 Nephi 26:19, which reads: “Then those who have dwindled in unbelief [the descendants of the Lamanites] shall be smitten by the hand of the Gentiles.” The caption is sandwiched between two images. On top is a depiction of mounted Spanish conquistadors with drawn swords charging toward two unarmed, darker-skinnned cowering figures in headdresses and (what the illustrator imagines to be) some sort of Aztecian garb. Below that is an image that carries us forward a few hundred years and a bit north in our story of conquest. The setting looks like something from the American West–Arizona or southern Utah. A cowboy is foregrounded, presumably a sheriff (though we can’t see his star, since he is facing away from the viewer). His hand is on his gun at his hip and his gaze is off toward the horizon where, receding from view, a Pueblo Indian family fades into the distance. In the foreground, just to the right of the cowboy’s gun sling, is a wooden sign posted to a barbed wire fence, which reads: “U.S. GOVERNMENT  INDIAN RESERVATION  KEEP OUT

Since I have sort of been working on a paper on how the Book of Mormon has been imagined and displayed in Mormon visual culture, I was excited to get back to the BYU library (spent most of the past summer in Utah) and get a scan of the image. Rather then look it up on the catalogue, I went right to the section of the HBLL where the Book of Mormon editions are. Rather than the 1967 edition I expected to find, however, I found a much newer and flashier edition published in 2002 by Heritage Media. I began flipping through and found the image I was looking for–but I would hesitate to call it the same image. The colors were a bit muted, the dimesions of the image shrunk, and the caption had been moved to the bottom of the page. But what really stuck out at me–or didn’t stick out at me–was the sign. The wording on the sign was gone, as though it had been air-brused or sand-blasted (or photo-shopped) away!

But if the words are gone, the image is still there, and the message, if not clear, is stark. If, as some have suggested, the Book of Mormon can indeed be read as a postcolonial narrative, these Book of Mormon illustrators–and these publishers of Book of Mormon illustrations–haven’t gotten the message….

So to end with a few questions that might, hopefully, generate some discussion: Do we have a postcolonial Mormon visual culture? Is it possible? And, if so, what would it look like?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Awesome. (And by awesome, I obviously mean nauseating.)

    I imagine a major contributor to the continuance of these types of depictions is the fact that they are mostly done by amateurs who have no idea what postcolonial means, let alone what it would look like.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 20, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  2. I agree with Ben.

    Comment by Dan — September 20, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  3. Wait – here’s where I got stuck… this is STILL IN PRINT?? It’s fascinating that the sign was rubbed but it’s irrelevant since those Lamanites are clearly about to be smitten by that shiny six-shooter.

    How completely bizarre.

    Comment by Tona H — September 20, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  4. Tona: but at least it’s muted colors! 🙂

    Comment by Ben Park — September 20, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  5. I assumed by the post’s title that this would be about the Living Scripture cartoons, but what you’ve discussed here is even more striking (shocking?), Stan. Wow.

    I’m not at all sure what postcolonial Mormon visual culture would look like, but I feel fairly certain that it doesn’t exist now.

    Comment by Christopher — September 20, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

  6. Actually I really like how they redid the visitor’s center at Temple Square and have the Nephites looking much more like native Americans. They also have macuahuitl that sons of Helaman carry. This is a huge progress. The only downside is that there are roman looking swords as well. But the mere fact they are moving to a mesoAmerican sword and taking the skin marking more as war paint rather than Cowboy vs. Indian is a pretty significant change. (Plus the displays actually look pretty great)

    So I think change is coming, albeit slowly. If the Church ever commissioned some new paintings perhaps more informed by what FARMS and folks like Brant Gardner hypothesize was going on I think it would resolve a lot of these issues.

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  7. Postcolonial Mormonism? Who would usher such a movement? The Church? It can’t even get members to go along with its support of HB 116 for goodness sakes.

    Comment by Jeremy — September 20, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  8. BTW – I was hoping for a third image that dealt with 3 Nephi 20:16.

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  9. I think my comment that mentioned macuahuitl ended up in spam.

    [admin: fixed]

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  10. Clark: I haven’t seen the new temple square visitor center exhibits, but I am glad you brought that up. I noticed that a picture of Moroni used to publicize a new exhibit at the Church History Museum–“A Book of Mormon Fiesta–A Latin-American Celebration”–depicts a Moroni that is much more indigenous looking (relatively speaking) than Friberg’s Wagnerian Scandanavian Nephites. I don’t know if I’d quite call it postcolonial, but (I’d say) an improvement. Here’s a link to the image (you have to scroll down to see it, at the bottom of the page):,16116,4089-1,00.html

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

  11. To expand on Clark’s #8, I think a more balanced reading of the Book of Mormon could also help bring about this postcolonial visual culture that you’re hoping for, Stan. As Mark Ashurst-McGee discusses in his dissertation, the Book of Mormon’s narrative of the fate of the Lamanites is fairly complex, much more so than the images you so helpfully reproduce portray. Yes, the Book of Mormon mentions repeatedly that the Gentiles would have power to smite the unbelieving Lamanites (Mormons in the 1830s would have seen Gentiles as white Europeans and unbelieving Lamanites as Indians), but that’s not the end of the story. Rather, the surviving Lamanites, along with a few converted Gentiles, would build the New Jerusalem–a new sovereign–on the American continent. The surviving Lamanites would then “tread down and tear in pieces” the unrepentant Gentiles. Mark A-M reads these statements as portraying a highly ambivalent relationship between Joseph Smith’s Zion and the United States, suggesting that JS saw the former as claiming the future of the continent at the expense of the latter. Twentieth century readings of the text usually downplayed these elements of the narrative, although the 19th century Saints were more open to it. My guess is that this illustrated book likewise neglects to portray 3 Nephi 20:15-16 or any of the other passages that Mark A-M highlights. In this roundabout way, the Book of Mormon can actually be read as an anti-colonial text, even though it’s fairly complicated.

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

  12. It is also interesting to note the setting of this slightly darker-skinned (Nephite) Moroni image, at an exhibit celebrating contemporary growth of the Church in Latin America–“A Latin-American Celebration.” Viewed in that context, is this more akin to depictions of a black Jesus in Bibles targetted for African American children than, well, something else…

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

  13. Thanks, David. That’s just the sort of issue I want to get at with Mormon visual culture. Through close and careful exegesis and historical work, some scholars have shown the complexity of Lamanite identity as something carrying both a sense of “curse” and a “choseness.” Thus, the argument goes (if I can simplify it–correct me if I’m wrong): if certain passages seems to cast American colonialism in a prophtic past (i.e. Nephi seeing it in a dream before it happened)and, thus, seem to justify it (almost make it seem divinely ordained), by the end of the narrative things are much more complex and foretell a very anticolonial future (like you mention–Lamanites building Zion and overthrowing white market-economy Gentiles). But since history since doesn’t seem to have played out that way (not yet, anyway), can such a reading translate into visual culture? What would it look like? Paintings of scenes not depicted but pointed to in the Book of Mormon?: of contemporary or future Lamanites (however one might picture them) gathering to build the New Jerusalem? Would (many) contemporary Mormons be comfortable with an illustration like that?

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  14. And as for 3 Nephi 20:15-16 (I had to go look it up to see what it says–it wasn’t a scripture mastery when I was in seminary; but, then again, I skipped a lot, so maybe I just missed that day): I didn’t get that far in my flipping through of the 16 volumes of illustrations. Guess it will have to wait for next time I am in Provo. Unless anyone at BYU now (or somewhere with access to the volumes) wants to go look it up and scan an image and post it….

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

  15. Yeah, like I say, those verses aren’t really emphasized in the contemporary church. I doubt though that there will be an illustration in the book.

    As for your other questions, for believing Mormons, how different is it to portray something that Nephi saw in vision (the European conquest of Native America) than to portray something that Jesus prophesied would happen (Lamanites building the New Jerusalem/Lamanite counter-conquest)? To a believer, both things are prophecies, whereas to a more skeptical reader, JS is just describing what had already happened in 1 Nephi 13 and predicting something that didn’t end up happening in 3 Nephi 20. While I agree that portraying a prophecy of Indians slaughtering Gentiles is highly problematic, given the still regnant stereotypes of “savage” Indians killing “innocent” whites, why couldn’t an artist depict Lamanites building the New Jerusalem (aside from McConkie’s misinformed interpretation that the BoM doesn’t prophesy that)?

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  16. So… why hasn’t anyone done it?
    There are pictures depicting what Nephi saw in his vision, of Gentiles smiting Lamanites. But none (that I am aware of) depicting the reverse.
    (Which actually raises a very good question: are those scenes depicted in the Illustrated Stories of the Book of Mormon? Man, I wish we had a copy in the library here!)

    But to get back to your question of why couldn’t an artist depict Lamanites building the New Jerusalem–I think the fact that we don’t see images like that tells us something about how Latter-day Saints typically read the Book of Mormon. (The text must be interpretted, after all.)

    I would suggest that visual culture (as opposed to written) can often give us a better barometer for guaging how Latter-day Saints are “reading” the “text” (which most of us learn as kids before ever reading it, through stories and pictures).

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  17. There are a few reasons I can think of for why we don’t interpret the text in this way or portray it in art now. This is a complex subject that is hard to summarize in a blog comment, but I think the roots of this can be traced to the 19th century as a response to non-Mormons acusing the Saints of “tampering” with the Indians. Early on, JS began denying–at least publicly–that the Mormons had any intentions for Indians beyond conversion. Other interpreters such as Parley P. Pratt continued to talk about a Lamanite counter-conquest, but this interpretation had to compete with the public denials. And there’s also been confusion regarding whether whites would build the New Jerusalem or Native converts since the 19th century, but as I mentioned, McConkie and others have preferred to interpret those verses as referring to white “Ephraimites” building the city, so we also have to take into account how white Mormons see themselves as Israelites (and how this has changed over time). In addition, I think the failure of these BoM prophesies to be fulfilled as the Saints have expected has also contributed to the shift toward downplaying the counter-conquest and the idea of Lamanites building the city.

    To your point regarding visual culture being a better barometer for how ordinary Saints read the text, I think you’re exactly right. We can look at commentaries, manuals, and sermons to see how a high culture interprets the text, but to get at how ordinary Saints think about these things, the visual is a better guage.

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

  18. good points, well taken.

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  19. I just checked my copy of the Illustrated Stories. Volume 14 includes the 3 Ne 20:15-16 information, but the accompanying illustration is that of the Risen Christ speaking – rather than one of righteous Lamanites (or, for that matter, Ephriamites) smiting evil Gentiles.

    Comment by Paul — September 20, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  20. To add with what David says (10) riffing on my comments about the prophecies in 3 Ne it’s interesting that apparently some groups in southern Mexico and Guatamala do see their activities as tied to those prophecies. I don’t know the details on this, but I’ve heard that it is tied to some of the more anti-colonial rhetoric as well as liberation theology. So it’s interesting, whether one agrees with the political take or not, how open the book is to such readings. (And of course Orson Scott Card played with this in his Folk of the Fringe series back in the 80’s)

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

  21. Thanks for checking that, Paul. What about 3 Nephi 21:23 on the “Remnant of Jacob” building the New Jerusalem with the assistance of Gentile converts?

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

  22. Clark, I’ve also heard contemporary white liberal Mormons wonder whether the 3 Nephi prophecies could refer to the massive growth of Latino immigration in recent decades. This reflects 1) our current shift away from what Mauss calls “Old Lamanites” (North American Indians) toward “New Lamanites” (Latinos) 2) a very real sense that this migration is rapidly changing the ethnic make-up of the West and other parts of the country and 3) a desire to interpret these verses in a non-violent way.

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  23. Paul: Thanks!

    Clark: Very interesting! That is something I would like to hear more about. And I like the idea of different and creative reading–of the text’s openness to different interpretations. I find it useful to think in terms of different, competing readings, each with different levels of persuasiveness, appeal, and meanings for different individuals and groups at different times. I think there is much room and much need for more extensive reception histories of the Book of Mormon–along lines like those you have mentioned here. And I still need to read Folk of the Fringe!

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  24. David that (slowly) changing view of the Book of Mormon applying primarily to American Indians (primarily those in areas where Mormons were located) to those of central America is pretty interesting. (Although obviously there were ties between central America and many tribes in the continental US in the 19th century) I especially find it interesting hearing Mormons with backgrounds among more assimilated Indian groups (especially those from the southern US who remained and weren’t hauled away in the 19th century) There’s a real big difference in my experience between those assimilated people (honestly if they didn’t tell you they had native American heritage you probably couldn’t tell), those among groups who’ve kept their identity better, and those from from central America and so forth. It’s also interesting comparing those from Latin American countries with more indigenous background from those with more European background. (In some countries there is a lot of prejudice against those with more native blood)

    I don’t know enough to draw any broad categories. But with the people I’ve personally spoken to it’s really interesting hearing the differences in self-perception relative to their personal identity and the Nephites/Lamanites. Those prophecies in 3 Nephi I really can’t help but bring up as I’m pretty curious about how they see them. (And to be fair I’ve only met a handful of people who were more than half native background)

    I sometimes wonder it myself since I’m part laplander (sort of the northern indigenous race in northern Europe who were pretty persecuted by the Caucasian Swedes and Norwegians) Even though there may be some ties between groups in Greenland and northern Canada with the laplanders (although genetically not a strong tie) I sometimes self-identify a bit with them. But is an “eskimo” a Lamanite? (For the record I don’t think so)

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

  25. Stan, my understanding is that at least one of the southern Mexico groups is associated loosely with one of the fundamentalist Mormon groups. But for the life of me I can’t recall which. But apparently the fundamentalists play up some of those scriptures in a way that’s conducive to the revolutionary rhetoric. No idea what they really believe or how many are even broadly Mormon. (i.e. not necessarily LDS)

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  26. It’s up to you, Stan, to write the children’s book you’d like to see in the world.

    Comment by Liz — September 21, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  27. @Stan:
    The second scene looks Monument Valley-ish, so I’m guessing it intends to depict not Pueblo Indians, but the pastoral Dine’/Navajo–who are the largest surviving tribe in the US, with the largest reservation, and well known in the intermountain west.

    I don’t think the Indians are about to be smitten by the shiny six-shooter, but that their people already have been, many no doubt slain, and the survivors are now defeated. This white lawman has just used his gun to drive them into the reservation. The Book of Mormon says that the Lord will not allow the Gentiles to “utterly destroy” the remnant of Israel. Some will survive.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 21, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  28. Which sets the stage for the apocalyptic reversal.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 21, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  29. 21: The illustration for that text (3 Nephi 21:23-29) is a construction scene with the lower floors of buildings, cranes, a table with blueprints, that sort of thing. Two figures in the foreground reading blueprints and wearing hard hats could be intended to be Lamanites — the skin area is small but is definitely redder/bronzer than the skin tones of the risen Christ on the preceding page.

    (The illustration on the next page is the New Jerusalem — a sort of glowy “alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears” sort of place — without human figures.)

    Stan, I don’t have your email address handy — if you’ll send it to me, I’ll email you a scan of the building scene. This particular set of books is the 1972 edition.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 21, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  30. P.S. Both workmen also have heavy shading to indicate cheekbones, in a way that often is meant to suggest Lamanites.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 21, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

  31. Mark: Thanks for the correction.

    Ardis: Thanks for looking that up and thanks for the description! I will email you forthwith!

    Comment by stan — September 21, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

  32. Liz (26): if you write it, I’ll draw the pictures!

    Comment by stan — September 21, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  33. […] "the seemingly simple issuematt b: "the seemingly simple issueKent (MC): Call for Papers: Thestan: Trying to make ourstan: Trying to make ourDavid G.: Lecture Announcement: David […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Picturing Lamanites building the New Jerusalem: an addendum to “Trying to make our children’s…” — September 23, 2011 @ 4:33 am

  34. Wow.

    I wonder… is the message meant to imply that the “lamanites” brought this on themselves, and thus we are right to do what we’ve done to the American Indians?

    **I have a good friend who is native Aleutian. She hates being called a Lamanite. Or even a Nephite. Just an aside.

    Comment by Sarah Dunster — September 28, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  35. Sarah, that is because she is correct in that neither of those groups (or family clans, if you would) are in her ancestry. Since her ancestors likely came over the land bridge from Siberia, her people would be among those who were already inhabiting the continent when the Nephites, Lamanites and even Jaredites arrived on this continent. Hers is a heritage separate and apart, but grafted in to the House of Israel according to the faith and obedience of each individual. Although never coming out and stating it, (and I don’t believe that he ever addressed the issue in a paper or an article), Hugh Nibley always seemed to believe that the Hopi Indians were the closest to the ancient Nephites in the Rocky Mountain West. The rest of the Native American Tribes were pretty much a crap shoot, vis a vis their Lehite/Nephite/Lamanite/Jaredite ancestry.

    Comment by Mike R — September 29, 2011 @ 5:09 am

  36. Sarah: i think you have hit on several of the very sticky issues these pictures raise for us: What are the political and ethical problems that any attempt to represent or speculate just to whom in the contemporary (or historical) world the term “Lamanites” might apply to? Who are “we”? What is “our” relationship to a violent colonial past? How does Mormon scripture suggest Latter-day Saints should interpret those relationships? How do we assess where culpability lies (if it indeed lies somewhere)? Are there possible alternative readings to those that seem to justify (shift blame for) historical atrocities?

    I think the images, in this context, make quite obvious the fact that representation is never a wholly innocent act. There is a lot going on in an image an artist might not be aware of (or, even more troubling–that they might be fully aware of but not bothered by!).

    Comment by stan — October 13, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  37. This is a very interesting discussion and I hope I might offer some thoughts as an illustrator. My experience has been that artists, as they interpret a story to draw (including scripture), often follow the advice of Nephi and “liken the scriptures unto themselves.” We like to see ourselves in the scriptures (in my case scripture people look like me but with bigger muscles and more hair). If the artist is of northern European descent that often colors how he/she depicts the subjects of the story. Even though white Europeans are late comers to Christianity, we are the ones dominating the artwork celebrating these stories since at least the middle ages.

    I was embarrassed when I realized that my work (small though it may be) in visually describing Book of Mormon peoples was having an impact on members and know that I hadn’t really thought it through when I did my paintings – I was just trying to meet deadlines. I recently finished a new project and spent a lot more time trying to be more accurate in the way I depicted Book of Mormon peoples. I was delighted to realized that the book has a place for blacks, Asiatic and Latino (I threw in only a couple Europeans to round it out) peoples. The openings had been there the whole time I had just never looked for them.

    This of course is not unique to Mormons. I have looked through the libraries of various Protestant churches in my area and found their illustrated Bible stories filled with white Europeans. Especially striking is a Golden Bible Stories book I have from the 70s. Ebed Melech the Ethiopian (or Cushite) from Jeremiah 38, is depicted as a white old man with a white beard.

    We’ve all got a long way to go but I think we are moving in the right direction.

    By the way, a trailer for my book mentioned earlier can be found here if you are interested:

    Some of my reasoning and research for my racial choices in the Book of Mormon can be found on my art blog here:

    Comment by Jay F — November 1, 2011 @ 9:57 am


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