A recent blunder with a Sunday school manual for use by all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could set back progress the Utah-based faith has made on the issue of racism in the past few years — and alienate people of color.
Last year, the church produced a new manual for its 2020 curriculum, which will be a study of the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints believe tells the religious history of peoples in the ancient Americas.
Several passages describe a “dark skin” descending on one of the clans, and for much of the faith’s history that has been seen as a racial “curse.” These days, though, that interpretation is no longer part of church teaching.
That is why several early readers of the 2020 “Come, Follow Me” manual were troubled to see a note in one lesson that is a throwback to previous thinking.
“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith. “The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord. ... Dark skin ... is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse.”
By the time this passage came to the church’s attention, the manuals had been printed.
Church spokeswoman Irene Caso explained the problem this week.
“During the publication of the ‘Come, Follow Me’ manual for 2020, there was an error that resulted in the printing of material that doesn’t reflect the church’s current views on the topic,” she said in a statement. “To correct this, a decision was made to modify the content in the digital version of the lesson."
These days, Caso added, the church “disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."
The online manual says that “the curse of the Lamanites [one of the groups] was that they were ‘cut off from [the Lord’s] presence … because of their iniquity.’ ... When Lamanites later embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘the curse of God did no more follow them.’”
The Book of Mormon states that “a mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them,” reads the online explanation. “The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood. … Later, as both the Nephites and Lamanites each went through periods of wickedness and righteousness, the mark became irrelevant as an indicator of the Lamanites’ standing before God.”
Caso declined to comment on whether the church considered either printing an extra page, acknowledging the error, or scrapping the entire print run and reprinting it with the revised version.
But others are wondering why not.
The manuals “should have been shredded when this egregious error was found prior to international distribution,” said Jerri Harwell, associate professor in Salt Lake Community College’s English, linguistics and writing studies department. “The money that would have been lost on this is nothing compared to one day’s interest on $100 billion in [the church’s] reserves.”
The ramifications of this printing “will have far reaching and perhaps eternal consequences to the souls of many,” the African American teacher said. “It saddens me that although the brethren [top church leaders] may denounce racism, racist acts, and racist thoughts in their speeches, a manual that espouses racist gospel teachings has gone out to all 16 million members and teaches in black and white (no pun intended) the opposite.”
In 2013, the church published a strongly worded essay, “Race and the Priesthood,” denouncing all justifications for the faith’s priesthood/temple ban on those of African descent that existed from the 1850s to 1978.
“When or how often has that essay appeared in print in a manual,” Harwell asked, “when teaching gospel topics?”
She noted that Darius Gray, former leader of the Genesis support group for black Latter-day Saints, has worked tirelessly “to get such teachings removed from the bookshelves, and now it has been sent out under the church’s name."
“It does not matter that a corrected or revised version appears online," Harwell said. "The church cannot produce enough videos to undo this. It will essentially reset the clock and allow another generation to perpetuate such racist beliefs.”
Marvin Perkins, who with Gray produced a DVD called “Blacks in the Scriptures,” said the print manual “plays to the old pioneer stock that wants to still believe these things, while they change it online.”
If the church were “truly interested in fixing it, it would go through books, magazines and statements — clean it up everywhere,” he said, “I am convinced that the church does not want to clear up this problem.”
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University, also sees inconsistency in how members and church departments handle questions of race.
“It’s a big church and not everybody is on the same page on these issues,” Mason said. “The people writing curriculum for the church were socialized at a different time in a different church, when [conservatives] Joseph Fielding Smith and [apostle] Bruce R. McConkie were authoritative voices.”
The inclusion of an old quote from Smith “disappoints but doesn’t surprise me,” the scholar said, “given what we know about entrenched conservatism of curriculum writers within the church.”
For Mason, the “silver lining” is that church leaders “did change it,” he said, “and did it quickly."
Print version of ‘Come, Follow Me’
“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing [see 2 Nephi 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-10]. The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord [see 2 Nephi 5:20]. ... Dark skin ... is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “Answers to Gospel Questions,” comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. , 3:122-23).
Online version of ‘Come, Follow Me'
"In Nephi’s day the curse of the Lamanites was that they were ‘cut off from [the Lord’s] presence … because of their iniquity’ (2 Nephi 5:20–21). This meant the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from their lives. When Lamanites later embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘the curse of God did no more follow them’ (Alma 23:18).
"The Book of Mormon also states that a mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them. The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood. The mark initially distinguished the Lamanites from the Nephites. Later, as both the Nephites and Lamanites each went through periods of wickedness and righteousness, the mark became irrelevant as an indicator of the Lamanites’ standing before God.
“Prophets affirm in our day that dark skin is not a sign of divine disfavor or cursing. The church embraces Nephi’s teaching that the Lord ‘denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). President Russell M. Nelson declared: ‘The Lord has stressed his essential doctrine of equal opportunity for his children. … Differences in culture, language, gender, race, and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer’ (“President Nelson Remarks at Worldwide Priesthood Celebration” [June 1, 2018], newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).”