Holly Richardson: What if ‘skin’ doesn’t mean human skin?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Gary E. Stevenson, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives the key note address during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon at Little America Hotel on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, alongside Jeanettea Williams, President of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch.

I want to carry on the conversation from last week about racist doctrine being included in LDS manuals. (And if you’re not LDS, this week’s conversation probably won’t be of much interest to you. Fair warning.)

First, I am grateful for Elder Gary Stevenson’s remarks at a NAACP luncheon on Martin Luther King Day, where he said that he was both saddened and hurt for any pain caused by the error in the printed “Come, Follow Me” manual. He also reiterated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns “all racism past of present in any form” and perhaps most importantly, “we do disavow any theory that black or dark skin is a sign of a curse.”

So how did we get the idea it was?

What if our interpretation was a cultural artifact of the mid-1800s, when slavery was still legal in the United States? What if we have misunderstood words like “skin” and “black” and “dark”? Could there be another interpretation?

I believe there is.

In 2015, Ethan Sprout, a professor of English at Utah Valley University, published an article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies that explored the idea of “skin” or “skins” referring to clothing and not to human skin.

Pointing to verses in Alma 3:5-6, he shows us why we can interpret “skin” as clothing: First, the Lamanites were naked, “save it were the skin which was girded about their loins,” and then, “the skins of the Lamanites were dark.” He asks — as we should ask — do they not refer to the same thing? Clothing, or garments? Surely that is a possibility.

Back to the Book of Mormon and its stories. In Alma 55, we read Captain Moroni searching for one of Lamanite heritage. If “skin” were a racial thing, rather than clothing that could be put on and taken off, why would it not have been immediately obvious? Further, when they do find a genetic descendent of Laman who, by the way, is a member of the Nephite Army, they send him with a small band of Nephite soldiers to go entice Lamanite guards to drink. If race was the separating factor, why did the guards not become immediately suspicious of a bunch of white soldiers coming toward them? I ask again — can “skin” actually mean animal skin and not human skin? Can “skin” be used symbolically?

Indeed it can. There are multiple scriptural references in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants that refer to skins-as-garments (clothing). Think Adam and Eve, or Aaron and his sons, among many.

There are also multiple references to garments — (skin or skins) — being made white in the blood of the Lamb. Clearly, that is symbolic of Christ’s Atonement. It is not a literal interpretation of what happens if we dip clothing into blood. Could there be a symbolic meaning to “skin”? What about “black,” “blackness, “dark” or “darkness”?

Black and blackness can mean a color and dark or darkness can refer to hue. But they can also mean emotions, countenance or state of one’s soul. Words like “gloomy,” “despondent” or “dejected” are dark. Despair — and the pit of grief — are black. I would argue that Hitler had the blackest of souls while the white light that emanates from Reverend Desmond Tutu is inspiring in all the best ways.

For Latter-day Saints who truly believe that God is no respecter of persons, doesn’t it make sense to ask ourselves if there could possibly be other interpretations from a translated record written over 2000 years ago than the one passed down through the lens of Civil War and then Civil Rights culture? That perhaps our lens of white privilege has colored our view? I believe we can and should be asking those kinds of questions, especially as members of a church that began because of a counter-cultural question asked by a teenage boy.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is grateful for the many thoughtful conversations she has been able to engage in this week.

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