The “Curse”

In the post immediately below, Nate draws our attention to a letter written by the Historian at The Metaphysical Elders. The letter makes reference to the “supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin,” then states:

Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population).

In the Comments to Nate’s post, Kaimi wonders if he missed the memo. Like Kaimi, I have never seen reference to this mistaken belief in any official source, but I came to the same conclusion myself several years ago while studying the Book of Mormon. The text of the Book of Mormon shows clearly that the family of Lehi did not arrive on an uninhabited continent. And the numbers at issue in the wars clearly cannot have been generated by two modest-sized families.

Strangely, the thing that first tipped me off to the existence of other peoples was the description of the “curse” that was visited upon Laman and Lemuel and their descendants. The common belief in the Church is that this curse was a “skin of blackness.” I believe this to wholly false. The skin of blackness was a “sign of the curse.” In my view — and I have never seen this preached in General Conference, so take it for what it is worth — the curse was the removal of the priesthood from Laman and Lemuel and their descendants. Why the connection between the curse and the skin of blackness? Because Nephi and his people segregated themselves from other people to keep their religion pure. Laman and Lemuel and their descendants, on the other hand, lost the rationale for segregation when they lost the priesthood, and their people integrated with darker skinned residents of the land. (Why else would the Lamanites so outnumber the Nephites?)

Here is the more detailed story:

Shortly after Lehi departed from Jerusalem into the wilderness, leaving behind “his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things,” his faithful son Nephi prayed and received this revelation:

[I]nasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to the land of promise; yea, even the land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.

1 Nephi 2:20-21. The contrast between prosperity and being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” is repeated many times throughout the Book of Mormon. Their interconnection suggests that “prosperity” is not intended solely to convey an image of material well-being, but rather a sense of communion with God. Interestingly, Lehi abandoned all of his many material possessions in pursuit of this prosperity.

The Lord promised Nephi that he would be led to the “promised land,” which is not only an actual place but also a metaphor for heaven. Nephi’s brothers were led to the same geographical location, even though they were “cut off from the presence of the Lord.” To be “cut off from the presence of God” is a status that true believers would view as miserable and frightening. Indeed it is considered a form of death, referred to by Mormons as “spiritual death.” Both “physical death” (mortality) and “spiritual death” (separation from God) were the result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. The Atonement of Jesus Christ remedies the physical death through the resurrection of all people, who are then brought before the judgment bar of God, thus overcoming the spiritual death. At that point, those who have repented of their sins are allowed to remain in the presence of God, while “whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.”

Early in the Book of Mormon, the family of Lehi divides into two groups. Nephi separates himself, three of his brothers, his sisters, and “all those who would go with me” from Laman and Lemuel, the two eldest sons in the family. Shortly after the separation, Nephi builds a temple. Nephi explains that he built the temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon.” Under Mormon doctrine, the temple is the place where people are taught to return to the presence of God. The ordinances that are performed in modern temples are designed to teach the process by which people return.

Following his description of the temple, Nephi notes that his people want him to become their king, an honor that he declines. But he takes this opportunity to note that the Lord had fulfilled His promise to make Nephi a ruler over his brothers, which he was “until the time they sought to take away my life.” More importantly for our purposes, the Lord had fulfilled His promise with respect to Laman and Lemuel, that if they would rebel against Nephi, they would be “cut off from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, they were cut off from access to the temple.

In contrast to the people of Nephi, the people of Laman and Lemuel were “cursed.” The curse upon the Lamanites was the loss of priesthood authority. The people of Nephi prosper when they have access to the presence of the Lord; they obtain access to the presence of the Lord through the temple; and they are authorized to conduct temple ordinances only when they hold the priesthood. Those who lose the priesthood, therefore, are literally “cut off from the presence of the Lord.”

The passages in the Book of Mormon are not entirely clear in describing the curse as loss of priesthood authority. Indeed, later Book of Mormon writers appear to equate the curse with the darkened skin. I believe that the Nephites equated the lack of priesthood with those outside of their closed community. This also suggests an explanation for the “whitening” of skin: reintegration of Lamanite converts.

Finally, I should note that the Church has produced no end of fallacious statements about blacks and Native Americans that stem from a (in my view) misunderstanding of this curse. But this post is already too long for that discussion.