Adjusting the Narrative: Part 2b – On Disavowed Theories

A (much delayed) continuation of the the series “Adjusting the Narrative”, initially begun as a proposed response to the new header to Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. See Introduction, Part 1a – The Scriptural Curse and Seed of Cain, Part 1b – The Blood of the Canaanites, Part 1c – The Priesthoods of Abraham and Pharaoh. The segments of Part 2, which began with Part 2a – Nephi and the Skin of Blackness – will explore a proposed reading of the narrative of the Book of Mormon.


At the beginning of this 2013-2014 school year, the youth Seminary program of the Church rolled out a brand new Book of Mormon curriculum. It is a wonderful new guide, and there are some substantial adjustments presented that serve to change for the better the way LDS youth approach and learn from the Book of Mormon.

However, one interesting observation and explanation remained and is of particular noteclip_image002 today.

In the teacher’s manual, describing the events King Nephi described in 2 Nephi 5 concerning his understanding of the nature of the Lamanite curse, we find the following:

Make sure students understand that the curse mentioned in this chapter was separation from God. The changing of their skin was only a mark or sign of the curse. To clarify this point, have a student read the following statement by President Joseph Fielding Smith:

President Joseph Fielding Smith

“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 dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord. …

The dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. Many of these converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 3:122–23).

Note two key things about this:

1. The explanatory text describes that an actual skin color change occured which was “a sign of the curse.”

2. The authoritative text by Joseph Fielding Smith is used to elaborate notes that the dark skin signaled “the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord”, and that, “the dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign” of the specific Book of Mormon curse.

The teaching found in the new manual is that the Lamanites did in fact have a change to a darker skin, and that did indeed signal the disapproval of the Lord, but that, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, it had stopped being a modern indicator of general present righteousness, as it previously did with the Lamanites.

Compare this with the clear statements in the brand spanking new December 2013 Gospel Topics entry on Race and the Priesthood :

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse . . . Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

The complete statement on Race is groundbreaking in many, many ways. It has been discussed elsewhere, and likely will be revisited here as well. It is a goldmine for analysis, review, application, and study.

My focus right now is on how the statement should not only be seen as a rejection of previous modern statements by Church leaders on the topic of race, but also as a rejection of face-value acceptance of theological affirmations presented by ancient scriptural figures as well.

The statement has not only shifted the paradigm on the words of our modern leaders, but substantially – especially in the case of the Book of Mormon – in how Mormons approach, learn from, and seek to be inspired by the prophets of old. It not only invites us to read the scriptures in a new way, it demands it.

Such narrative exercises such as those with which I began with this series are now not something that may be merely beneficial, or just a good idea to think about, but now I believe are absolutely necessary.

It is fascinating to see a specific traditional teaching disavowed in the very year it was re-emphasized in a brand new major revision or edition of a standard doctrinal didactic text. [1]

In my series, (especially beginning with Part 2a) I have begun proposing a way in which we can read the Book of Mormon as illustrating ancient prophetic misunderstanding concerning race and skin color, and discover how through the course of the Book the misunderstanding was repeatedly corrected by prophetic statements, even though not everyone – even the final editors, redactors, and compilers of the texts (Mormon/Moroni/Joseph Smith) seemed to pick up the significance of them. While this is explicitly applicable to race, my proposal has been that there is a strong opportunity to use our sacred text to powerfully reflect and parallel the modern equivalent of prophetic fallibility, and the potentially long path to authoritative correction and disavowal, and the process of its eventual acceptance – and associated understanding – by the general membership of the Church. It is a call for a serious applicable theological reading of the Book of Mormon.

While some will see the new statement on Race disavowing past teachings as invalidating the Book of Mormon as a trustworthy source of devotion, I see such a direction as giving the Book’s actual narrative additional strength and power to do, as Joseph Smith claimed the book’s title meant, “More Good.”

[1] Will the online edition of the Seminary curriculum be adjusted soon in response? While the lesson has already been given, and likely will not be repeated again Churchwide until 2017, the manual will still be used as reference in other settings, and this is the exact sort of scenario I considered in my previous post New Youth Curriculum and the Digital Facilitation of New Revelation. : “[If] the majority of Church curriculum (and definitive versions of the Scriptures!) begin to move to purely and substantially online content, this facilitates the ability for hypothetical New Revelation and/or readjusted emphases or corrections to quickly be implemented and distributed, and abrogated understandings to be institutionally removed in an incredibly efficient manner. If I was a worldwide Church leader, and I was discussing the practicalities of advancing a major potential policy or doctrinal revelation if it were to come, such a move to more reliance on dynamic digital curriculum – and deference to it over existing print editions – would be one of the very first things I would look to implement.” – this was prior to the 2013 edition of the scriptures being published.


Adjusting the Narrative: Part 2b – On Disavowed Theories — 4 Comments

  1. “It is fascinating to see a specific traditional teaching disavowed in the very year it was re-emphasized in a brand new major revision or edition of a standard doctrinal didactic text.”

    So I guess we need to start keeping hard copies of manuals, statements, and scriptures. The fluidity of digital media puts some responsibility on the Church to identify changes when they are made and to give some context and explanation for changes. But so far just the opposite occurs. It is eerily like the Mormon theory of how the Bible was supposedly corrupted: some things quietly excised, other things rewritten or added, all to bring the text into conformity with newer views.

  2. What makes this church any different from others? It claims to have authority from God and speak for God … except when it doesn’t … because what it said came from God was blatantly wrong.

    It claims that a prophet is a prophet only when acting as such … what does that actually mean given the disclosures on racism?

  3. agnostic: It means that accountability for ascertaining the creds of a prophet reside in the work of those who accept the prophet as such and not merely with the claims of the prophet. That has always been standard Mormon teaching. Moreover, there is no way around it — all prophets were human and spoke as such and thus it is just an unrealistic expectation to demand that prophets not reflect their cultures or time in many respects. Some day our own culture and time will be seen as limited an wrong-headed as we now see past generations.

  4. Pingback: Jacob’s Priestly Examination of the Lamanite Curse