Slavery (not) in the Book of Mormon

A few years ago I reviewed Reid Litchfield’s book Enslaved to Saved. The key insight was how the initial translators of the Bible text into English obfuscated the prevalence of slavery in biblical times by using the term “servant” for the Greek term δοῦλος, widely known to scholars as referring to slaves.

This struck me recently when I read of Nephi’s interaction with Laban’s “servant,” Zoram. Given how we now know the Book of Mormon text was transmitted into English, it appears the Stuart-era Bible translators were somehow involved. So I wondered whether Zoram was not merely a servant, but instead the kind of enslaved steward that was common in the ancient Western world.

if Zoram was slave rather than servant, Nephi’s offer to Zoram is stunning.

I posited this reading to family, and one relative pointed out that when the converted Lamanites offer to become slaves to the Nephites in Alma 27:8, Ammon said it was against Nephite law to own slaves.

I hypothesize that in the schism following Lehi’s death that Nephite society rejected the practice of slavery while Lamanite society saw no reason to abandon this familiar and “useful” practice. This would explain the cultural differences that are exposed by the passage in Alma 27:8. It could also explain why Zoram and his descendants chose to align themselves with Nephi.

I now return you to your own efforts to study the Book of Mormon in this bicentennial year of Joseph’s initial vision.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

16 thoughts on “Slavery (not) in the Book of Mormon

  1. No disagreement here. The narrative in 1 Nephi 4:33 where Nephi promised Zoram “that he should be a free man like unto us” makes most sense if Zoram wasn’t free in the first place. Nephi was offering instant emancipation, something that any slave accept without hesitation. Zoram’s willingness to leave everything behind and join Nephi is more easy to understand in this context: a slave has no family except his master. A slave also obeys without questioning (hence his willingness to carry the plates outside the city). Viewing Zoram as Nephi’s freedman would also explain his undying devotion to Nephi for the rest of his life.

  2. That’s why I love being a privileged user here at M* – when I realize I said something inelegant or downright wrong, I can edit myself.

    I’m sure Reid meant “viewing Zoram as a former slave who had been freed by Nephi…”

  3. The implied inferiority of black and brown people is still inextricably woven into the doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price so not sure how much this matters… Mormon doctrine is racist unless the general authorities have disavowed 2 Nephi 5 and the Book of Abraham.

  4. Good thing I’m a yellow person…

    There is doctrine and then there are cultural folkways.

    The doctrine is clear – all are children of God and the purpose of the restored gospel is to facilitate the return of all men, women, and children to the God who is their father, should they so choose.

    I would echo scripture that anything that adds to or takes away from this fundamental doctrine is wrongful. Asserting that folkways should be used to deny this doctrine strikes me as wrong. Challenging the persistence of folkways that obscure the beauty of the doctrine can be fair if properly done. I believe Gerald Smith acted in a more appropriate manner, flagging that folkways persisted in the print version of the 2020 manual, which have been rectified in the online manual.

  5. Re 2 Nephi 5 and racism, which is a bit of the thread jack. If the blackness reflects tattooing, it is self-imposed and cultural, not race-based. It also is immediate and does not require generations for its creation or transmission. Tattooing is forbidden in the Torah and hence likely to be viewed very negatively by the Nephites. Cf. the mark the Amlicites placed upon themselves, perhaps imitating the Lamanite markings. Tattooing is increasingly common today. Some people find it fashionable, others find it very off putting.

  6. Ethan Sproat’s essay in JBMS has not been discussed nearly enough in discussions of what actually is in the Book of Mormon and compared to culturally conditioned misreadings.

    “Alma 3:5–6 is comprised of two sentences, in each of which the word skin(s) appears. Commentaries handle the two sentences in one of three ways: (1) by treating both of them independently, as if two very different things were at issue; (2) by commenting on only the second of the two sentences, remaining silent about the first; or (3) by failing to comment on either sentence.3 All three of these approaches miss the fact that, when read in context, the use of skins in the second sentence appears to form part of a historical explanation of the use of skin in the first sentence. Here is the text:

    “Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth. And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.” (Alma 3:5–6)4”

    “According to a reading I will defend in the course of this article, this passage suggests the possibility that “the skins of the Lamanites” are to be understood as articles of clothing, the notable girdle of skin that these particular Lamanites wear to cover their nakedness. Significantly, these are the only two references to skins in Alma 3, which contains the Book of Mormon’s most thorough explanation of the Lamanite curse and the curse’s relationship to skins. Thus situated, Alma 3:5–6 might serve as an interpretive Rosetta stone. If both instances of skins in Alma 3:5–6 refer to clothing, then the other five references to various-colored or cursed skins in the Book of Mormon could also refer to clothing and not—as traditionally assumed—to human flesh pigmentation.”

    An important essay that could have been strengthened by noting that various passages in the Book of Mormon also refer to garments and exactly the same ways as skins.
    2 Nephi 8:14 “clothed with purity, even with the robe of righteousness” Jacob speaking as a consecrated High Priest on the Day of Atonement

    Jacob 1:19 “laboring…their blood might come upon our garments… and we would not be found spotless”

    Jacob 3:5, “cursing which has come upon their skins…”

    Jacob3:8-9 “their skins shall be whiter than yours

    Try Mosiah 3:28, rid my garments of your blood (temple and high priest on day of atonement context)

    Alma 5:21-24, garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness contrasted with prophets whose garments are cleansed, and are spotless, pure and white

    Alma 7:25, garments spotless… in the kingdom of heaven

    Alma 13:11-12, garments washed white through the blood of the Lamb… garments made white, being pure and spotless”

    Alma 34:36

    Helaman 9:31-34 (where the symbolic use and the literal use combine, as the blood on garments testify to the sins committed)

    3 Nephi 19:25 (literal in a different way, transfiguration) compare with Moroni 7: the sons of God,…we shall be like him… purified even as he is pure”

    3 Nephi 27:19 “washed their garments in my blood”

    4 Nephi 24 (pride and costly apparel)

    Mormon 9:34, garments and the priestly obligation to testify to “rid our garments of the blood of our brethren”)

    Ether 12:37 “thy garments shall be made clean…sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father”

    Ether 12:38, “my garments are not spotted with your blood”

    Moroni 10:31, “put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion”

  7. Any discussion of 2 Ne 5: 20-25 is incomplete without reference to Jacob 3:5-7, in which Nephi’s own brother claims that the dark skin by itself is not a reliable indication of standing before God. In some respects, the Lamanites stood better than the Nephites, and it is his word that God forbade reviling against the Lamanites because of their skin color. Surely that must apply to any other people as well. In any case, the curse on the Lamanites was not confined to a dark skin, but came with several cultural makers. It was perpetuated primarily by the false traditions that had their origins with Laman and Lemuel, and had less and less to do with genetics with every succeeding generation. When a generation of Lamanites arose beginning in the reign of Mosia that was willing to abandon these traditions and accepted the prophetic tradition of the Nephites, it is recorded that “the curse of God no more followed them”. Since there are multiple accounts of individuals and groups of people in the book of Mormon who were blessed, or cursed, for their own actions regardless of their race or ancestry, it is a gross error to seize on one passage as “proof” that the Book of Mormon teaches racism.

    IF (as the traditional but never well proven interpretation of the Book of Abraham has it) there was a curse on the descendants of Cain, or Canaan (of Enoch’s era, before the flood) or Ham, or Canaan (the grandson of Noah) which consisted of them being denied the Priesthood, and the black skin of Africans a marker of that descent, that curse has been rescinded and its purpose (whatever it was) fulfilled.

    Following Jacob’s lead, rather than dwelling on ancient curses which have been fulfilled or rescinded, we would do well do to examine our own selves and consider whether modern curses which apply to us. For instance D&C 1:14 (for not giving heed to the words of the prophets and apostles) D&C 84:55-58, (for neglecting the Book of Mormon and failing to practice its teachings) and D&C 121:16. (For accusing prophets of sin when they have been doing what the Lord commanded.). I don’t know that reviling of deceased modern prophets falls under this last category, but I’d rather not risk it.

    God has not revealed the specifics of why people are born into any lineage, blessed or cursed. As far as our treatment of one another goes, it is not relevant. It seems to me that we have been sufficiently reproved for unwisely speculating on the matter.

  8. 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.

    God equates black skin with cursing here. Racist theology. The tortured explanations of this are really interesting. Why not Occam’s Razor? Joseph Smith was racist and put that racism in the BoM. As long as this is still in the BoM without apology, the leaders of the church are cosigning on the teaching that black skin is the sign of a curse. Or has been at one time. This is wrong.

  9. I’ve been intrigued reading Don Bradley’s book about the lost manuscript. So many amazing insights.

    Jeff Jeff is pleased time impose a 2020-era interpretation and damn the restored gospel. But it isn’t as if the Lamanites became genetically “black” in a single generation. Therefore it becomes necessary to perceive the change as metaphorical or lifestyle-induced (tattoos, tans), as the people discussed were siblings and cousins to the so-called white and delightsome individuals. [As for me and my house, even the “fish-belly white” folks are not really white.]

    Given the cultural archetypes the people of Lehi were re-enacting, the Lamanites became as it were “Canaanites” to the self-perceived “Israelite” identity of the Nephites. So there are surely many other ways to interpret this verse than the one you keep insisting we decide must be excised.

    Would it be nice if the problematic verses were 2020-era PC? Sure. But once one starts changing things, where does one stop? And then we get to a future where we know as we are known and we feel silly because we changed things for paranoid reasons that were impossible and misunderstood what was being depicted.

  10. Jeff Jeff:
    Cherry-picking verses is not Occam’s Razor. First one has to the do hard work of determining the facts.

    I take it that you believe that Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon and the book is absolutely a reflection of his views. So who wrote Jacob 3? If Joseph wrote that portion, note that it is from a different perspective regarding race. And what of 2 Nephi 26? So I guess that Joseph now has three viewpoints regarding race, correct? Or we can take note that in the multiplicity of places in the book where views differ, perspectives change, and even voice changes, they all cannot reflect the views and attributes of Joseph Smith.

    So why should we claim Joseph Smith was a racist when his public and private life demonstrated that he leaned towards abolition and tolerance, far in advance of most 19th century figures?

    Perhaps we should spend more time collecting the facts before leaping to conclusions. And as you know, Occam’s theory encourages us to adopt positions which meet all of the facts. Your assessment does not.

  11. “God equates black skin with cursing here. Racist theology. The tortured explanations of this are really interesting.”

    Tattooing really fits Occam’s Razor better than assuming Joseph was a racist. The argument that Joseph was a racist is circular (he was racist because you assume this passage must be based on race) and presented without support from his personal life. (Cf. Old Man’s comment above.) Tattooing or other such markings are self-imposed, are immediate, are contrary to the Law of Moses, don’t require a genetic or racial basis, are echoed in other markings referenced in the Book of Mormon, and can be very off-putting to those without tattoos. Tattooing or similar markings are know in many cultures around the world, including ancient ones.

    Why not deal with this simple and plausible explanation (which you find “really interesting”) rather than repeat your charge?

  12. Occam’s Razor: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity” does not mean “dismiss evidence that does not support your thesis”.

  13. Hi Confutus,

    I’m not sure what you meant to convey.

    I think Leo meant to say that there are vanishingly few things that can make an entire group of people actually have “black” skin where another group of people who are close relatives and in the same environment do not have “black” skin.

    When we are talking about statements made by people (e.g., Mormon) who are a millennium in time distant, we can posit these distanced parties might misunderstand, and therefore weigh their opinions less heavily.

    I think you are pointing out that Jacob is not distant and his account is represented as being first hand. Leo would probably suggest that the words of Jacob do not preclude tattooing. But it is clear you don’t like to suppose Jacob is referring to tattoos, being inclined to read the account the way Mormon did (as darkened skin not caused by intentional self-adornment).

    That said, I can imagine a contemporary situation where a leader asked his untattooed congregation to realize that their tattooed friends are not unilaterally more evil just because their skins are marked.

    I have a more difficult time imagining two groups who share the same four ancestors being asked to overlook a physical attribute that somehow only affects one ideologically affiliated part of the set of relatives.

  14. Meg, This is speculation, but it has always occurred to me that it is possible that the 2nd generation from Lehi, who didn’t pack-up and leave with Nephi, ie, the childen of Laman, Lemuel, sons-of-Ishmael, in order to not marry cousins, or to create dynastic and political links, all married into a pre-existing dark-skinned population, one that the Nephites did not marry into for whatever reason.

    The BoM is strangely silent on any pre-existing populations except for the Mulekites. But there are hints here and there, Sherem being one, I’ve wondered if Mormon and the other writers were instructed to not mention them, or maybe they were explained in the lost 116 pages.

    Especially intriguing is the part explaining (my paraphrase) “All those who were not Nephites, were [designated by us] as Lamanites. That could tie-in either way to the reason for the silence: a) instructed to not give any details or b) the writers assumed we would have the Book of Lehi and know the contents, and it was explained there.

    THe Lord often discusses in terms of generations, not individuals. So the “them” receiving the dark skin could have meant L&L’s grandchildren, not specifically L&L, their wives from the old world , and their immediate children.

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