In part 2 of this essay, I told of an African-American couple who came to me, as their ecclesiastical leader, for counsel about the ban that once prohibited black men and women of African descent from receiving all the blessings of the priesthood. They also had questions about the Book of Mormon. They were concerned about Book of Mormon language they considered racist—a concern others have expressed.
My friends were surprised when I told them that the Book of Mormon is, in my view, the most racially and ethnically unifying book on the earth.1 In response to their surprise, I shared the following overview of the Book of Mormon as it relates to the unity and harmony of the human family, irrespective of race and ethnicity:
1. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi declares that God, our Eternal Father, seeks to save all of His children, without regard to color or race: “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.”2 This truth is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon.3 I told my friends that I believe the Book of Mormon makes this point more explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully than any other volume of scripture.
2. The Book of Mormon teaches this truth in the context of a large family with members of different colors.4 This family—led by the prophet Lehi and his wife, Sariah—emigrated from the Holy Land to the part of the world now known as the Americas. Shortly after arriving in their new home, they separated into two groups. The Nephites, who followed Lehi and Sariah’s son Nephi, remained fair skinned. The Lamanites, who followed Lehi and Sariah’s son Laman, became dark skinned.5 Over the next several hundred years, the Nephites generally followed the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Lamanites usually rejected it. However, at times the Lamanites were faithful while the Nephites strayed from gospel teachings. Much of the Book of Mormon contains accounts of interactions, both peaceful and violent, between and within these two cultures that were really one family.
I see the Book of Mormon as a microcosm of the family of Adam and Eve, with descendants of different colors and cultures. It teaches that God invites and guides the entire human family toward unity, harmony, and peace, regardless of color or ethnicity. It provides examples of righteous people from contrasting cultures reaching across differences of color and tradition to rescue their brothers and sisters with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with its ordinances and covenants. For instance, Jacob, a Nephite prophet, implored the Nephites to “revile no more against [the Lamanites] because of the darkness of their skins.”6 Jacob’s son Enos prayed for the Lamanites and preached the gospel to them.7 The sons of Mosiah, also Nephites, served as missionaries among the Lamanites for 14 years, despite the Lamanites’ hatred of the Nephites at the time.8 A group of Lamanites became converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ, changed their name to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, and became a spiritual strength to the Nephites.9 Later the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ sons, strengthened through their faith in Christ, helped defend the Nephites in a war against unrighteous Lamanites.10 Samuel, a Lamanite prophet, obeyed the Lord’s command to preach repentance to unrighteous Nephites.11
Significantly, throughout the Book of Mormon, converted Nephites referred to Lamanites as their “brethren,” and converted Lamanites used the same term when they spoke of the Nephites.12 This practice, and the Lord’s own use of the term, reinforce the general theme that God sees people of different colors as one family.
3. The Book of Mormon provides models of people of different colors successfully applying the Savior’s unifying teachings. President Henry B. Eyring has taught, “The Lord has given us guides to know what to do to receive the blessing and joy of ever-increasing unity.”13 I believe the most impressive of these guides in the Book of Mormon is the society that developed after the resurrected Christ visited the Nephites and Lamanites:
“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
“The Book of Mormon provides models of people of different colors successfully applying the Savior’s unifying teachings. ”
“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
“There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
“And how blessed were they!”14
Latter-day prophets and apostles have spoken of this crowning cultural achievement as the Lord’s ultimate model for mortal man’s unity in Christ.15 For example, regarding the absence of “-ites,” Elder Russell M. Nelson taught, “That lesson from history suggests that we . . . delete from our personal vocabularies names that segregate.”16 This Book of Mormon model can serve as an invitation from God to ascend to this height of peace on earth—and as a “guide”17 to help us know how to seek and achieve such peace.
The Book of Mormon also provides models that can serve as warnings—accounts of tragic consequences that befell societies that rejected the Savior’s unifying gospel. The book chronicles numerous heartbreaking accounts of contention and war, mostly between people of different colors and cultures.18 In doing so, it exposes Lucifer’s age-old plan to instigate disunity by playing on demographic differences.
I believe that God is all-knowing—that He knew long ago of “calamity [that would] come upon the inhabitants of the earth,”19 including pervasive ethnic and racial strife.20 He also knew that advancements in technology would lead to unprecedented multiracial and multiethnic interaction among His children in our modern world—the so-called “global village.” I believe that with this foreknowledge, God prepared the Book of Mormon to, among other things, guide His children of different colors and cultures as we navigate these unique challenges and opportunities in search of universal unity and peace.21
4. My assertion that the Book of Mormon is the most racially unifying book on earth may sound new to many, as it did to the black couple who came to me for advice, but the underlying principle is as old as the book itself. The prophet Moroni, who anciently hid and then angelically revealed the Book of Mormon record, declared that one of the book’s purposes was to gather scattered Israel. In his words, the Book of Mormon will “show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” He said that the book was written and compiled for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”22 The reference to “Jew and Gentile” encompasses the entire world, including all races and ethnic groups. Moroni’s declaration echoes the words of other Book of Mormon prophets who repeatedly taught of the scattering and gathering of Israel among all nations and the bringing of both Jew and Gentile unto Christ.23 The Savior Himself taught these truths to Book of Mormon peoples.24
The house of Israel—Abraham’s seed—has been scattered throughout the earth, mingling over thousands of years among all nations, kindreds (or families), tongues, and peoples, to bless “all the families of the earth.”25 President George Q. Cannon taught, “God scattered the seed of Israel through all of the nations of the earth, so that in the great gathering of the last days He might be able to get representatives of all the families of men.” I believe, therefore, that another way of saying that the Book of Mormon gathers scattered Israel is to say that it invites and unifies people of all races and ethnicities as brothers and sisters.26 It unites all peoples who accept the gospel in a common covenant with God, our Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, our universal Savior. The gathering also unites all the children of Adam and Eve into the common covenant family of Abraham, another microcosm of God’s universal family.27 All these forms of unity are fully accomplished as individuals and families receive and keep all the ordinances and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ offered by the Lord’s authorized servants.28
Thus, the Book of Mormon plays a key role in the long-prophesied gathering of scattered Israel. “In fact, if there were no Book of Mormon,” Elder Nelson taught, “the promised gathering of Israel would not occur.”29 As this book brings us together, it also teaches us gospel principles that help us live together peacefully. It includes counsel to love God and all people, to be changed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and to avoid pride and contention.30 In His eternal wisdom, God is using the same instrument both to gather and to teach how to be gathered in one.
Answering Questions about Certain Phrases in the Book of Mormon
Church members and others should beware, as I warned the couple who came to talk with me, of a tactic some use to try to discredit the Book of Mormon. They cherry-pick isolated Book of Mormon references that, out of context, sound negative, even offensive, to us today. One example is the ancient description of Laman’s people as having “a skin of blackness” so “that they might not be enticing” to the Nephites.31 Admittedly, these expressions collide with current sensibilities and speech. But they should not distract readers from the grand, eternal perspectives and purposes I’m convinced the Lord intended for the Book of Mormon. Rather, they should serve as reminders of these perspectives and purposes. Readers of this scriptural record should keep in mind that these words reflect the cultural perceptions and customs of ancient people in response to an unusual color change in their family.32
Perhaps the Lamanites, who usually avoided the Nephites except to do battle against them, saw the color difference between the two peoples in completely opposite terms. Who knows? What’s important is that the early Nephite writers’ reactions to the darkness of the Lamanites’ skin is of no significance to us in our day. Obviously, Church leaders do not hold up the Book of Mormon as an authority on the science of racial origins or as a standard for human attractiveness. I believe that like Paul’s statements about women who wore braided hair or spoke in church, the significance of Nephite descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin is merely historical, not doctrinal.33
While these descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin color change are not doctrinally significant in my view, they do add important context. They highlight cultural challenges that existed for Book of Mormon peoples, foreshadowing challenges that humanity faces today. It is impressive that such references can ultimately enable the book to communicate such a timely, urgent, and global message of unity and harmony across race and ethnicity. Thus, the Lord’s overarching message of peace eclipses the cultural ethnocentricities of the book’s ancient writers and modern-day readers.34 For me, it is inspiring to read the Book of Mormon and to be reminded, by the references to skin color, that a loving Heavenly Father is using the book to guide the human family to greater unity and peace.
Evidence of the Divine Calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith
What does the Book of Mormon’s message of universal, multiracial unity in Christ say about Joseph Smith and his mission? Again, I believe the Lord foreknew advances that would transform the modern world into a global community. Consequently, He knew that we would have unprecedented opportunities for multiracial and multiethnic interrelations throughout the world.
In a display of divine irony, the Lord brought forth this racially unifying book in a land that was racially divided at the time, plagued with the slavery of Africans and the diaspora and maltreatment of Native Americans. Yet He also brought it forth in a land endowed with religious freedom and constitutional self-government. In His providence, He has, over time, raised up and inspired His children who enjoy these freedoms to facilitate ways for others to receive them, both within the United States and throughout the world, in order that His unifying gospel might be enjoyed by all.
It is miraculous that a book published in 19th-century America could include a record of a “fair”-skinned nation and a nation with a “skin of blackness” reaching pure equality and unity. That it could rise in ever-increasing relevance to become, in my view, the most racially unifying book of scripture in the world compels both mind and soul to recognize the hand of God in its emergence “out of obscurity, and out of darkness.”35
These attributes of the Book of Mormon strengthen my conviction that Joseph Smith, a young man who lacked formal education, translated this volume of scripture by the power of God. Miraculously, he did so in approximately 55 to 65 working days.36 All of this background speaks resoundingly to the reasoned and reasonable witness of millions throughout the world that Joseph Smith Jr. was a true prophet of God. Ultimately, the Book of Mormon’s unifying power confirms the words of Moroni that the book had been prepared to testify “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”37
After my friends and I discussed these ideas, our smiles were uncontrollable! They now saw the Book of Mormon in a completely different light—a brighter light—and understood our Heavenly Father’s plan in a grander way. They saw more clearly how the book could teach and guide the world. The husband exclaimed, “I get it! It’s like a blueprint!” He was right. The Book of Mormon is a blueprint from heaven, in black and white, for establishing peace on earth in the last days.
I urged this couple to read the Book of Mormon with an eye toward understanding its role and power as an instruction manual for unifying God’s earthly children of all races and ethnicities. I recommend this as a goal for anyone who is concerned about references to race or color in the book. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”38 A book whose precepts draw a loving Father’s children nearer to Him will also draw His children nearer to each other.