The Atlantic magazine and Mormon attitudes on race

The Atlantic Magazine wrote a pretty bad article about the Church.  It is called “When Mormons Aspired to be a White and Delightsome People.”  

To be clear, this is not even close to some of the worst stuff you can read in the media these days about the Church.  Some articles have false statements in nearly every paragraph, and this article does not.  But I would like, nevertheless, to make a few important points.

The first and most important is that the article makes this claim:

Until a few decades ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that they “shall be a white and a delightsome people,” a phrase taken from the Book of Mormon.

I looked at on-line sources and actually consulted with several respected LDS scholars.  I could find no evidence that the Church taught this.  Ever.

To be fair, there are multiple quotations from Church leaders on race that are unfortunate.  Don’t bother coming back to me with these quotations because I am aware of virtually all of them.  I am not going to defend such things.  I also am aware that there were cultural legends about Cain and many, many other problematic statements by individual latter-day Saints over the years.  It is of course possible that some individual teacher told you or someone you know something very unfortunate about race just this Sunday.  That is not relevant to my point.

My point is very narrow:  the Church never taught that members “shall be a white and a delightsome people.”  Unless you have a Church manual from 1934 showing that this phrase was taught as official doctrine, then my point remains valid.  (And I am willing to be corrected if you have such a manual).

The other point I would like to make is that the scriptures you have right now do not include the phrase “white and delightsome people.”  The reason for this is that the phrase was never meant to be translated that way.  That phrase was included in some versions of the scriptures until 1981.  To sum up a complicated issue:  in 1840 Joseph Smith is assumed to have corrected an earlier translation that included the phrase “white and delightsome people.”  He changed it to “pure and delightsome people.”   That change was lost in some versions of the scriptures until it was restored in 1981.  You can read more about the history here.

My point is that it is misleading to use such a phrase as being accepted by latter-day Saints today, because the majority of latter-day Saints are not familiar with that phrase because it doesn’t exist in the Book of Mormon.  So an article implying that latter-day Saints aspire to be white and delightsome is not accurate.

In fact, the Book of Mormon does include a very different kind of phrase which is the opposite of racist.

2 Nephi 26:33:  “And 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.”

It is worth discussing the usage of the word “white” in the scriptures in general.  This is especially relevant because the Book of Mormon is translated into language similar to the King James version of the Bible.

When we read Revelation 1:14 we see this description of Jesus:

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his aeyeswere as a flame of bfire;

In Matthew 28:3 we see this:

Hisbcountenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:

In Mark 9 we read this:

2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.

3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.

In Daniel 12 we can find this:

9 And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.

10 Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.

In Isaiah 1:18 we read:

Come now, and let us areason together, saith the Lord: though your bsins be as scarlet, they shall be as cwhite as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Any fair reading of the scriptures as a whole shows that “white” was often used to describe something other than skin color.  The word was meant to imply “pure” or “exalted” or “clean”– and, I repeat — had nothing at all to do with race. 

Again, to be fair, the story of the Lamanites — whose skin is described to be black in the Book of Mormon — and the Nephites is confusing and problematic from the perspective of modern readers obsessed with race.  It is true that many, many latter-day Saints over the years have read these phrases and associated black skin with bad behavior.  But this shows a very shallow reading of the Book of Mormon.   As most readers of this blog will know, in the Book of Mormon the Lamanites later become good and the Nephites become bad.  One of the greatest heroes in the Book of Mormon is Samuel the Lamanite, who is presumably darker skinned.  I think it is fair to mention this strange and difficult to fully comprehend aspect of latter-day Saint scripture, just as it is fair to mention the priesthood ban for people with African blood until 1978.

The Church has been doing some very valuable work lately trying to help latter-day Saints and others understand our history.  I would recommend that all people read this section of the Church web site on the history of race and the priesthood.

Speaking of Church statements, the Atlantic article makes a major — and I would say unfair — omission.  After the Charlottesville events, the Church issued two statements making it clear that the Church does not support white supremacy or anything like it.  This statement could not be more clear, and it is very unfortunate it somehow never made its way into the Atlantic article:

“It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament, Jesus said: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:37–39). The Book of Mormon teaches ‘all are alike unto God’” (2 Nephi 26:33).

“White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

So, overall, the Atlantic article is incomplete and misleading when it comes to the Book of Mormon and the Church’s attitudes on race.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “The Atlantic magazine and Mormon attitudes on race

  1. Yes, 2 Nephi 26:33 is the ultimate denial of a racist ideology for the LDS Church. Unfortunately it was ignored for over 100 years.

    Shortly after the priesthood and temple ordinances were extended to the blacks Bruce R. McConkie gave what has become a famous speech on the concept of “All are alike unto God”. After quoting 2 Nephi 26:33 he said:
    “These words have now taken on a new meaning. We have caught a new vision of their true significance. This also applies to a great number of other passages in the revelations. Since the Lord gave this revelation on the priesthood, our understanding of many passages has expanded. Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.”
    (See: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_alike-unto-god-2/)

    You state: “I looked at on-line sources and actually consulted with several respected LDS scholars. I could find no evidence that the Church taught this. Ever.

    To be fair, there are multiple quotations from Church leaders on race that are unfortunate. Don’t bother coming back to me with these quotations because I am aware of virtually all of them. I am not going to defend such things. I also am aware that there were cultural legends about Cain and many, many other problematic statements by individual latter-day Saints over the years. It is of course possible that some individual teacher told you or someone you know something very unfortunate about race just this Sunday. That is not relevant to my point.

    My point is very narrow: the Church never taught that members “shall be a white and a delightsome people.” Unless you have a Church manual from 1934 showing that this phrase was taught as official doctrine, then my point remains valid. (And I am willing to be corrected if you have such a manual).”

    I think you miss the point, the LDS Church has little “official doctrine”, what it has is whatever the current church authorities talk about in General Conference. And most of those unfortunate quotes come directly from General Conference talks.

    I’m thrilled that the Church now attempts to fully embrace the implications 2 Nephi 26:33, but to deny that we (as a church) did not act in problematic ways in the past is just fighting a losing battle. The whole priesthood ban comes about because Church Leaders ignored the implications of 2 Nephi 26;33 (and many many other scriptures). Also, since the official version of the Book of Mormon did (as you point out above) contain that phrase isn’t that more authoritative than a “lesson manual”?

  2. JSH, mostly a good comment, but I am going to pick a few nits with you.

    If you are going to write an article saying the Church “taught” something, then there must be some history backing up that this was actually being taught. This would include Church manuals. I guess I would also take a Conference talk from 1950 in which one of the apostles taught that latter-day Saints should strive to become “a white and delightsome people.” That might also count as the Church “teaching” something. If you want to say there were problematic perspectives on race in the Church in its history, that is definitely accurate, but it is different from the Church official “teaching” something.

    In addition, you write: “The whole priesthood ban comes about because Church Leaders ignored the implications of 2 Nephi 26;33 (and many many other scriptures).” I think this is false. We don’t know the reasons for the whole priesthood ban. It certainly did not happen *because* the Church leaders ignored 2 Nephi 26:33. It would be more accurate to write: “the priesthood ban came about *despite* 2 Nephi 26:33.”

    As I say, I am being a bit nitpicky, but I am in a nitpicky mood, so there you have it.

  3. I looked up all of those scriptures you quoted this morning. White means pure in the scriptures. We’re counseled and taught to repent so that we may become pure. I have always loved this “imagery of opposites” we have in many passages of scriptures that teach us we can be washed clean from our sins (made pure, white) thru the blood of Christ. A true miracle, blood washing us clean. But yes, the Lord wants us to be pure and delightsome.

  4. I am shaking my head at this correction at the bottom of the article:

    “This article originally stated that Mormon leaders encouraged members to purchase African American slaves. We regret the error.”

    That’s kind of a big error for a supposedly respected expert in LDS history.

  5. While I absolutely agree there is an element of purity to the word skin, I don’t think we can let ourselves (or the hurtful truth perhaps?) off the hook so easily.

    https://www.lds.org/scriptures/search?lang=eng&start=1&end=10&query=skin&testament=bofm

    That link has every instance of skin in the BoM. You can see it’s pretty much all literal. Yes, you can take some of it figuratively. But did God cause their skin to change from white to blackness to make them unenticing? How can the skin be interpreted that way? They were unrighteous, so God made them unpure so the Nephites wouldn’t associate with them? That’s just circular. How can it mean anything but skin?

    Now, I’m not saying we have to be racist or that dark skin is worse than white skin in the eyes of God or me. But I really think there was some kind of racial element to the thinking. Maybe it was motivated by their own racial stereotypes. It’s difficult because we want everything and everyone who is in leadership to be perfect. Acknowledging imperfections and God working through those imperfections, doesn’t mean He ultimately doesn’t want us to be somewhere else.

    That teaching is also in the BoM. But it’s also clear the BoM doesn’t try to solve every question or problem of life. There is clearly some element of timing to it. And at least one verse (blackness skin to not be enticing to the racially prone Nephites…and for that matter the vast majority of white Americans in history) seemed to be part of the plan.

    Philosophically, I live in the uncomfortable middle ground where I agree with everything said here, but I also think there’s more to the story.

    At the very least, even if I agree that we are speaking metaphorically, the language plays into racial stereotypes because that’s how so many then would have viewed it. Black skin being metaphorical for unrighteous, still has a connotation.

    Now all that said, I completely agree that this is never taught, focused on, or even discussed outside of situations like this. Even Elder McConkie, etc. didn’t counsel white people to be more white and not become impure like those blacks, or something crazy like that.

    The people writing in the Atlantic have no charity.

  6. This post reminded me of Orson Hyde’s (or Pratt, not sure on the last name) experience during his mission in England. When he went to teach in a more intellectual part of the country (near a university) he found a people who were polite but unintrested to engage in a religious discussion with him. He wrote to his fellow apostles something along the lines “I wish I could get some opposition as that would get the work moving!”

    Sure enough, a little while later a couple articles negative about the church showed up in that town, creating the environment that allowed him to preach and testify of the truth, leading to more than 200 baptisms.

    So yeah, I dislike news that is intended to inflame rather than inform, but who knows what fruits will come from such opposition?

  7. I mostly objected to the idea that Jane Manning’s son Sylvester was the result of some sort of consensual relationship. As I understand it, she was raped by a local Christian minister.

    As far as being sealed to Joseph and Emma, it was Jane herself who initially rejected this, presumably because she didn’t understand why she would displace her own honored father and mother.

    Mueller is a shoddy historian, if this Atlantic article is any indication.

    The Book of Mormon absolutely is NOT a typical 19th century religious text, for anyone who is willing to look beyond the silliness of those who suppose it was just made up by a fellow steeped in his milieu.

    The Book of Mormon talks of a family who loves each other across a millennium, praying actively for one another despite warfare. The Book of Mormon bridges the gap of the Mosaic law and Christianity. The Book of Mormon unites Adam and Christ in a coherent narrative, refuting the separation between the two that was imposed after St. Augustine’s day. The Book of Mormon tells of royalty who lived the ancient biblical marriage laws, laws which the Popes started dismantling in 1050 and which were effectively unknown to Joseph Smith.

    Oy.

  8. The Atlantic is actually doing quite well in terms of readership. Its online edition is extremely popular. Personally, I dislike many articles written there, but there are a few I like. It is better than the New Yorker, the New Republic and Slate and Salon, all of which I find unreadable.

  9. Re Lucas’ comment:

    Brigham Young said: “Every time you kick ‘Mormonism’ you kick it upstairs; you never kick it downstairs. The Lord Almighty so orders it.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, p. 351. Or Journal of Discourses 7:145.)

    Brigham’s next line in the sermon was pretty good too: “And let me tell you that what our Christian friends are now doing for us makes more for the kingdom of heaven than the Elders could in many years preaching.”

    Also Quoted by Carlos E. Asay, Ensign Nov 1981, in a conference talk “Opposition to the Work of God.”

  10. Thanks for the heads up again Geoff! I agree that the Atlantic article is misleading and unfortunate. One erroneous item I noticed, because I was a child when my parents had a foster Lamanite child in our home, was their statement about members ‘adopting’ Lamanite children through the Indian Placement Program. It wasn’t an adoption program, but a foster care program where the children stayed with LDS foster families during the school year and returned to their birth parents’ home during the summers. The children had to already be LDS members before they could participate. The intent was to help the children get a better education and to provide a more stable social and church environment than was generally found on the reservations.

    I think people have different understanding on what constitutes “church teaching.” I think most people think that anything over the general conference pulpit is “a” church teaching—that is an official general leader of the Church taught it, but they also probably recognize that it may not necessarily be an official or formal church teaching. Spencer W. Kimball said over the pulpit in general conference in October 1960 (report p. 32-37. http://scriptures.byu.edu/gettalk.php?ID=1091&era=yes) that the Lamanites “are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised” and then goes into describing how he saw some children that were “several shades lighter than her parents” concluding that: “These young members of the church are changing to whiteness and delightsomeness.” There is no question from these statements and others what Elder Kimball was meaning. This idea did not find its way into official manuals that I know of, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work its way into the beliefs of members at large. Other statements could be used to further confirm that general authorities taught that it was expected that at some point the Lamanite’s skin would turn white. Also, there are other scriptures besides 2 Ne 30:6 that indicate a bias toward white skin–and thus the continuing attitude in the Church toward whiteness. See 1 Ne. 13:15, 2 Ne. 5:21 and 3 Ne 2:14-15.

    The choice of words, “I could find no evidence that the Church taught this. Ever.” I think could more appropriately have been: “There is no evidence that the Church formally and generally taught as doctrine that Lamanites’ skin would eventually be turned white, though it may have been a somewhat common belief or understanding among some members for a time.”

  11. I think the article (or interview) does make the point that we reject racism and white supremacy now. (Though I am glad you included the church’s statement in your post. We can’t publicize that enough.) Here is the last two paragraphs that I think make that point:

    Mueller: I’ve been predicting that Mormons will occupy spaces abandoned by white evangelicals: spaces of patriotism, family values, and morality that, unfortunately, some white evangelicals [have abandoned] because they have thrown in their lot and reputation with Trump and his white-Christian-nationalist project in such large numbers.

    There are more Mormons outside the U.S. than inside. It’s likely that there are more non-white Mormons than there are white Mormons in the global church. So the church has its own future. It’s no longer an American project. It’s a global and international project. In the face of a U.S. political regime that puts white people and America first, a church that has a global identity has to reject that.

  12. KarlS, yes, I have seen that comment by President Kimball. It needs to be seen in context as something coming from a prophet who grew up in small-town Arizona near Indian reservations. His way of talking seems extremely inappropriate to us now, but in his time that was simply the way people talked. My grandparents used very similar language. Does it constitute an “official Church teaching?” I would say no, it was more of a cultural teaching, but I can understand the other point of view as well. Overall, that talk is a very important one for us to understand the viewpoints of latter-day Saints from that time period, so thank you for posting it.

    Kate, yes, as I said the Atlantic article was not all bad and was considerably better than a lot of the garbage you see out there, so your comment is welcome and valid.

  13. President Kimball’s comments were spoken IN GENERAL CONFERENCE. They are the word and will of the Lord. I don’t know how Geoff can pooh-pooh the importance of WHERE they were spoken and by WHOM. Oh my gosh, so much shallow justification of our history, teachings and culture going on here, guys.

    If things spoken in General Conference do not constitute the teachings of the Church then why the heck do we publish it every six months and base lessons off of the talks each Sunday for sacrament meeting?

  14. Michael, Pres Kimball also said “Plant your gardens.”

    How’s your garden doing this year?

  15. I have wrestled with the personal comments of many leaders and text of the BoM regarding dark and white/light for most of my life. It is still somewhat uncomfortable. But, since a calling gave me the opportunity to really learn Spanish some years ago, and to work with Latinos/hispanics in their homes and neighborhoods, I have come to see first hand, an interesting cultural phenomenon. Many, many times I’ve heard mothers say that they wish their beautiful, olive-skinned daughter had “white skin”. Even after telling a mother that so many “whites” would love to have the skin of her daughter, she would have negative comments (and be loud and clear enough that her child could hear). I found similar comments working with Italians in Italy, Indians (from the sub-continent), and others. I’ve come to believe that many societies put the light-skinned ahead of the dark. So, since the BoM was written by Nephites, and they were usually the “good guys”, perhaps some of the same bias came through. maybe they really saw it, maybe it was a means of emphasizing evil even if it wasn’t “real”.

  16. Case in point to Bookslinger’s comment: Though not a play I would ever see, according to a friend of mine in NY, The Book of Mormon musical has increased Church visibility from nil to most of the NYC population, missionaries are recognized and therefore accepted all over the five boroughs, they place 3 times as many Book of Mormons, and baptisms are way up. But I digress….

  17. That particular part of the Atlantic article was poorly written, yes. Yet, the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Lamanites had dark skin and that that dark skin was a curse from God. In one case (3 Nephi 2:15) the curse was lifted from select Lamanites and their skin became white.

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