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:
In Matthew 28:3 we see this:
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:
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.