This post is a summary of the article “Understanding the Lamanite Mark” by Clifford P. Jones in Volume 56 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Jones argues that descriptions of the Lamanites’ dark skin may be best explained as sacrilegious tattoos prohibited by the Law of Moses, potentially aligning with a common Mesoamerican practice and with how the wording used in the Book of Mormon would have been understood anciently.
In this article, Clifford P. Jones adds to a lengthening list of arguments, which explain the “skin of blackness” associated with the Lamanites in something other than racial terms. Outlining four key features of this “mark” (i.e., a (1) dark mark that (2) visibly distinguished the Lamanites, with (3) a clear connection to a curse due to rebellion against God, that (4) eventually ceased upon repentance), he proposes that it could represent ancient tattoos, similar to the kind used in ancient Mesoamerica, which would have darkened and scarred the skin. (Note that the article linked above includes the story of a Spanish conquistador that adopted Mesoamerican facial tattoos, with notable social consequences.) This would explain how the mark appears almost immediately after Laman and Lemuel’s rebellion, and how it’s often removed from repentant Lamanites after a single generation. The Nephites, following the Law of Moses, would likely have avoided these tattoos, and the language used to describe this mark appears consistent with an ancient understanding of terms like “white”, “fair”, “black”, “dark”, and “mark”, as recorded in the Old Testament and elsewhere.
Given the growing evidence that the Book of Mormon does not reflect Joseph Smith’s own understanding and word usage, Jones instead turns to the Old Testament for how to understand these racially-laden terms. He begins with the word “mark”, and provides examples of the Hebrew terms underlying it, including oth (referencing the mark of Cain, which, incidentally, never actually references skin in the Hebrew), taw (referencing the mark set in the foreheads of the righteous in Ezekiel’s vision), and qaaqa (referencing prohibitions against a specific imprinted pagan mark in the Holiness Code in Leviticus). Whereas the first two are protective marks, Jones argues that the last is the best fit for the “mark” of the Book of Mormon, denoting “a cursed thing cut into the skin in violation of God’s law”.
Jones finds that “skin” is never used as a metaphor, and curses are consistently governed by agency, being placed when covenants are broken and removed on conditions of repentance. In the case of the mark in the Book of Mormon, he references two types of rebellion and their associated curses: (1) Laman and Lemuel’s rebellion against Nephi, for which they were cut off from the Lord’s presence, and (2) their rebellion against God himself. The mark appears to be an indicator of the latter, first appearing after Nephi and his followers fled to the land of Nephi. Jones concludes that these marks may have been self-imposed based in part on a later implication from Mormon regarding similar marks used by the Amlicites, where he equates their setting the mark “upon themselves” with the fulfillment of a prophecy that those marks would be “set upon them” by God. The general failure to describe such practices clearly may represent an attempt on the part of Nephi and others to avoid their propagation.
Jones argues that the mark of the Lamanites was not hereditary, but was self-imposed in disobedience to God. It is applied to all those who are led away by the Lamanites, and its removal is a “lagging indicator” of repentance, with no reference to it being applied to the children of those who were righteous, and changes for those whose skin “became” white and fair potentially taking place over an extended period of time. This would help explain why the move to “no manner of ites” in 4th Nephi is only applied after several generations, by which time no one with marked skin would remain.
In order to explain how ancient skin-color-related terms differ from our modern understanding, Jones presents four general principles: (1) the few Hebrew color names correspond to a range of colors (e.g., black or dark encompassing all colors that are colder or darker), (2) English translations sometimes add color names not present in the Hebrew, (3) colors have specific ancient symbolism (e.g., black suggesting mourning or affliction), and (4) some non-color words related to dimness or brightness are translated as “white” or “black”. After providing examples of these principles in the Old Testament, he applies them to the Book of Mormon, concluding that its use of skin-color terms aligns with the same ancient pattern. He notes that the closest biblical phrase we have to “skin of blackness” comes from a reference to Job’s diseased skin, symbolizing affliction and mourning in a way similar to Jeremiah’s lamentations for those mired in sin. Similarly, Nephi’s use of the terms “white” and “fair” could have symbolic meaning, implying joy and freedom from moral blemishment. As skin permanently darkened by a forbidden self-imposed mark would exemplify this symbolism, Jones suggests that we should resist interpreting these terms through the lens of natural skin color, which would allow for consistency with the Book of Mormon’s strong message of anti-discrimination.
Doing so has a number of implications for how we interpret various passages in the Book of Mormon, including:
- The Lord’s invitation for “all to come to him”, which could identify both the joyful (due to repentance) and those in mourning (due to sin) rather than those with dark or light skin.
- Jacob’s condemnation of the Nephites, where Jacob could be framing their indifference to the law of chastity and hatred for their brethren as morally worse than the adoption of ritual skin markings.
- Nephi’s vision, where equating the whiteness (or brightness) of the tree and its fruit with that of the virgin could have little to do with the latter’s skin color.
- Nephi’s prophecy about his descendants in the latter-days, where becoming “white and delightsome” likely references their joy and righteousness rather than their skin color.
Lastly, Jones presents his assessment of alternative views of the Lamanite mark, including Gerrit Steenblik’s view of the mark as temporary body paint (which Jones sees as not permanent enough to fit textual requirements), Sorenson and Gardner’s framing of skin color as mere metaphor (which Jones sees as contrary to the literal nature of biblical references to skin), Sproat’s proposal for the skins being garments of animal skin (which is contradicted by apparently universal English usage, where passive references to skin are always to native human skin), and Perkin’s view of the mark as an idiom for unrighteousness (which, though accurately identifying ancient color symbolism, misses the literal use of the word “skin”). Though it would be difficult to conclusively prove any one interpretation of the Lamanite mark, Jones concludes that:
“The view presented herein is more plausible than other proffered interpretations. It’s a comprehensive interpretation that can be soundly applied to all Book of Mormon passages. It reflects the archaeological record, the ancient roots of the language of the gold plates, and the primarily Early Modern English vocabulary and syntax of the Book of Mormon’s revealed text…The self-imposed Lamanite mark was a curse upon the Lamanites and helped establish a clear division between unrighteous Lamanites, with their improper traditions, and righteous Nephites who kept the law of Moses.”
Though we would never expect any proposal to be perfect, I definitely see a lot to like about the ideas Jones presents here. It takes a known ancient practice and connects it plausibly to what we find in the text itself, taking into account the all-too-human propensity to read things in the light of our own culture. Though in the past I’ve used a perceived change in skin color as evidence of Lehites mixing with an [already present population], a noted shift in cultural practices (such as adopting tattoos) serves much the same purpose, and helps to explain why the Nephites don’t experience the same shift despite also mixing with that same population. It avoids the tendency to adopt somewhat strained interpretations of the word “skin”, and, in my view, makes much more sense with the term “mark” itself. There may be weaknesses in that proposal, most notably the lack of a concrete description of tattooing practices and the indication that they were set upon them by God, but Jones takes pains to shore up those weaknesses where he can.
Regardless of which proposal one might prefer, Jones helps highlight for me the problems with a modern interpretation. If the mark really does refer to skin color, and the Book of Mormon came from the mind of Joseph, it would imply that Joseph himself believed that God could and would change skin color quickly based on individual rebellion and repentance. But I don’t see any evidence that Joseph believed that. If so, we might have expected him to try convince Indigenous tribes that their skin color would literally change once joining the church. In fact, Joseph’s changing of the term “white” to “pure” in the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon suggests strongly that he didn’t believe that skin color would change on condition of repentance, and that he saw references to skin color at least in part as symbolic. That alone should lead us to look skeptically on attempts to apply a 19th century perspective of race to the Book of Mormon, and open us up to the idea that the book is best viewed through an appropriately ancient lens.