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He Denieth None That Come unto Him

A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood, Part 3

Ahmad Corbitt

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In part 2 of this essay, I told of an African-American couple who came to me, as their ecclesiastical leader, for counsel about the ban that once prohibited black men and women of African descent from receiving all the blessings of the priesthood. They also had questions about the Book of Mormon. They were concerned about Book of Mormon language they considered racist—a concern others have expressed.

My friends were surprised when I told them that the Book of Mormon is, in my view, the most racially and ethnically unifying book on the earth.1 In response to their surprise, I shared the following overview of the Book of Mormon as it relates to the unity and harmony of the human family, irrespective of race and ethnicity:

I.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi declares that God, our Eternal Father, seeks to save all of His children, without regard to color or race: “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”2 This truth is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon.3 I told my friends that I believe the Book of Mormon makes this point more explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully than any other volume of scripture.

II.

The Book of Mormon teaches this truth in the context of a large family with members of different colors.4 This family—led by the prophet Lehi and his wife, Sariah—emigrated from the Holy Land to the part of the world now known as the Americas. Shortly after arriving in their new home, they separated into two groups. The Nephites, who followed Lehi and Sariah’s son Nephi, remained fair skinned. The Lamanites, who followed Lehi and Sariah’s son Laman, became dark skinned.5 Over the next several hundred years, the Nephites generally followed the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Lamanites usually rejected it. However, at times the Lamanites were faithful while the Nephites strayed from gospel teachings. Much of the Book of Mormon contains accounts of interactions, both peaceful and violent, between and within these two cultures that were really one family.

I see the Book of Mormon as a microcosm of the family of Adam and Eve, with descendants of different colors and cultures. It teaches that God invites and guides the entire human family toward unity, harmony, and peace, regardless of color or ethnicity. It provides examples of righteous people from contrasting cultures reaching across differences of color and tradition to rescue their brothers and sisters with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with its ordinances and covenants. For instance, Jacob, a Nephite prophet, implored the Nephites to “revile no more against [the Lamanites] because of the darkness of their skins.”6 Jacob’s son Enos prayed for the Lamanites and preached the gospel to them.7 The sons of Mosiah, also Nephites, served as missionaries among the Lamanites for 14 years, despite the Lamanites’ hatred of the Nephites at the time.8 A group of Lamanites became converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ, changed their name to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, and became a spiritual strength to the Nephites.9 Later the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ sons, strengthened through their faith in Christ, helped defend the Nephites in a war against unrighteous Lamanites.10 Samuel, a Lamanite prophet, obeyed the Lord’s command to preach repentance to unrighteous Nephites.11

Significantly, throughout the Book of Mormon, converted Nephites referred to Lamanites as their “brethren,” and converted Lamanites used the same term when they spoke of the Nephites.12 This practice, and the Lord’s own use of the term, reinforce the general theme that God sees people of different colors as one family.

III.

The Book of Mormon provides models of people of different colors successfully applying the Savior’s unifying teachings. President Henry B. Eyring has taught, “The Lord has given us guides to know what to do to receive the blessing and joy of ever-increasing unity.”13 I believe the most impressive of these guides in the Book of Mormon is the society that developed after the resurrected Christ visited the Nephites and Lamanites:

“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.

The Book of Mormon provides models of people of different colors successfully applying the Savior’s unifying teachings.

“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.

“There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.

“And how blessed were they!”14

Latter-day prophets and apostles have spoken of this crowning cultural achievement as the Lord’s ultimate model for mortal man’s unity in Christ.15 For example, regarding the absence of “-ites,” Elder Russell M. Nelson taught, “That lesson from history suggests that we . . . delete from our personal vocabularies names that segregate.”16 This Book of Mormon model can serve as an invitation from God to ascend to this height of peace on earth—and as a “guide”17 to help us know how to seek and achieve such peace.

The Book of Mormon also provides models that can serve as warnings—accounts of tragic consequences that befell societies that rejected the Savior’s unifying gospel. The book chronicles numerous heartbreaking accounts of contention and war, mostly between people of different colors and cultures.18 In doing so, it exposes Lucifer’s age-old plan to instigate disunity by playing on demographic differences.

I believe that God is all-knowing—that He knew long ago of “calamity [that would] come upon the inhabitants of the earth,”19 including pervasive ethnic and racial strife.20 He also knew that advancements in technology would lead to unprecedented multiracial and multiethnic interaction among His children in our modern world—the so-called “global village.” I believe that with this foreknowledge, God prepared the Book of Mormon to, among other things, guide His children of different colors and cultures as we navigate these unique challenges and opportunities in search of universal unity and peace.21

IV.

My assertion that the Book of Mormon is the most racially unifying book on earth may sound new to many, as it did to the black couple who came to me for advice, but the underlying principle is as old as the book itself. The prophet Moroni, who anciently hid and then angelically revealed the Book of Mormon record, declared that one of the book’s purposes was to gather scattered Israel. In his words, the Book of Mormon will “show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” He said that the book was written and compiled for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”22 The reference to “Jew and Gentile” encompasses the entire world, including all races and ethnic groups. Moroni’s declaration echoes the words of other Book of Mormon prophets who repeatedly taught of the scattering and gathering of Israel among all nations and the bringing of both Jew and Gentile unto Christ.23 The Savior Himself taught these truths to Book of Mormon peoples.24

The house of Israel—Abraham’s seed—has been scattered throughout the earth, mingling over thousands of years among all nations, kindreds (or families), tongues, and peoples, to bless “all the families of the earth.”25 President George Q. Cannon taught, “God scattered the seed of Israel through all of the nations of the earth, so that in the great gathering of the last days He might be able to get representatives of all the families of men.” I believe, therefore, that another way of saying that the Book of Mormon gathers scattered Israel is to say that it invites and unifies people of all races and ethnicities as brothers and sisters.26 It unites all peoples who accept the gospel in a common covenant with God, our Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, our universal Savior. The gathering also unites all the children of Adam and Eve into the common covenant family of Abraham, another microcosm of God’s universal family.27 All these forms of unity are fully accomplished as individuals and families receive and keep all the ordinances and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ offered by the Lord’s authorized servants.28

Thus, the Book of Mormon plays a key role in the long-prophesied gathering of scattered Israel. “In fact, if there were no Book of Mormon,” Elder Nelson taught, “the promised gathering of Israel would not occur.”29 As this book brings us together, it also teaches us gospel principles that help us live together peacefully. It includes counsel to love God and all people, to be changed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and to avoid pride and contention.30 In His eternal wisdom, God is using the same instrument both to gather and to teach how to be gathered in one.

Answering Questions about Certain Phrases in the Book of Mormon

Church members and others should beware, as I warned the couple who came to talk with me, of a tactic some use to try to discredit the Book of Mormon. They cherry-pick isolated Book of Mormon references that, out of context, sound negative, even offensive, to us today. One example is the ancient description of Laman’s people as having “a skin of blackness” so “that they might not be enticing” to the Nephites.31 Admittedly, these expressions collide with current sensibilities and speech. But they should not distract readers from the grand, eternal perspectives and purposes I’m convinced the Lord intended for the Book of Mormon. Rather, they should serve as reminders of these perspectives and purposes. Readers of this scriptural record should keep in mind that these words reflect the cultural perceptions and customs of ancient people in response to an unusual color change in their family.32

Perhaps the Lamanites, who usually avoided the Nephites except to do battle against them, saw the color difference between the two peoples in completely opposite terms. Who knows? What’s important is that the early Nephite writers’ reactions to the darkness of the Lamanites’ skin is of no significance to us in our day. Obviously, Church leaders do not hold up the Book of Mormon as an authority on the science of racial origins or as a standard for human attractiveness. I believe that like Paul’s statements about women who wore braided hair or spoke in church, the significance of Nephite descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin is merely historical, not doctrinal.33

While these descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin color change are not doctrinally significant in my view, they do add important context. They highlight cultural challenges that existed for Book of Mormon peoples, foreshadowing challenges that humanity faces today. It is impressive that such references can ultimately enable the book to communicate such a timely, urgent, and global message of unity and harmony across race and ethnicity. Thus, the Lord’s overarching message of peace eclipses the cultural ethnocentricities of the book’s ancient writers and modern-day readers.34 For me, it is inspiring to read the Book of Mormon and to be reminded, by the references to skin color, that a loving Heavenly Father is using the book to guide the human family to greater unity and peace.

Evidence of the Divine Calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith

What does the Book of Mormon’s message of universal, multiracial unity in Christ say about Joseph Smith and his mission? Again, I believe the Lord foreknew advances that would transform the modern world into a global community. Consequently, He knew that we would have unprecedented opportunities for multiracial and multiethnic interrelations throughout the world.

In a display of divine irony, the Lord brought forth this racially unifying book in a land that was racially divided at the time, plagued with the slavery of Africans and the diaspora and maltreatment of Native Americans. Yet He also brought it forth in a land endowed with religious freedom and constitutional self-government. In His providence, He has, over time, raised up and inspired His children who enjoy these freedoms to facilitate ways for others to receive them, both within the United States and throughout the world, in order that His unifying gospel might be enjoyed by all.

It is miraculous that a book published in 19th-century America could include a record of a “fair”-skinned nation and a nation with a “skin of blackness” reaching pure equality and unity. That it could rise in ever-increasing relevance to become, in my view, the most racially unifying book of scripture in the world compels both mind and soul to recognize the hand of God in its emergence “out of obscurity, and out of darkness.”35

These attributes of the Book of Mormon strengthen my conviction that Joseph Smith, a young man who lacked formal education, translated this volume of scripture by the power of God. Miraculously, he did so in approximately 55 to 65 working days.36 All of this background speaks resoundingly to the reasoned and reasonable witness of millions throughout the world that Joseph Smith Jr. was a true prophet of God. Ultimately, the Book of Mormon’s unifying power confirms the words of Moroni that the book had been prepared to testify “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”37

Conclusion

After my friends and I discussed these ideas, our smiles were uncontrollable! They now saw the Book of Mormon in a completely different light—a brighter light—and understood our Heavenly Father’s plan in a grander way. They saw more clearly how the book could teach and guide the world. The husband exclaimed, “I get it! It’s like a blueprint!” He was right. The Book of Mormon is a blueprint from heaven, in black and white, for establishing peace on earth in the last days.

I urged this couple to read the Book of Mormon with an eye toward understanding its role and power as an instruction manual for unifying God’s earthly children of all races and ethnicities. I recommend this as a goal for anyone who is concerned about references to race or color in the book. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”38 A book whose precepts draw a loving Father’s children nearer to Him will also draw His children nearer to each other.

Footnotes

[1] This is not to say the Holy Bible is not a unifying book. It surely is. Nor is this intended to diminish in any way the Quran, Bhagavad Gita, or any other holy book in the world’s religions. This commentary simply highlights powerful ways in which the Book of Mormon uniquely addresses the divine mandate to be unified as God’s children, irrespective of color and ethnicity.

[2] 2 Nephi 26:33. Note Elder Dallin H. Oaks’s teaching that in this verse, “black and white” “means all races” (“All Men Everywhere,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2006, 77). See also the statement by Elder Oaks in note 21.

[3] See, for example, 1 Nephi 17:33–38; Mosiah 3:20; 27:25; Alma 5:33; 19:36; 3 Nephi 18:25.

[4] The civilization actually began with three families that merged into one: Lehi and Sariah’s family, Ishmael’s family, and the single adult family of Zoram (see 1 Nephi 16:7). These families intermarried and, under Lehi’s prophetic leadership, emigrated to the area now known as the Americas.

[5] For further discussion on this subject, see “Answering Questions about Certain Phrases in the Book of Mormon” further along in this segment.

[6] See Jacob 3:9.

[7] See Enos 1:11–20.

[8] See Alma 17:2–16.

[9] See Alma 23–24; 27.

[10] See Alma 53:10–22; 56–57.

[11] See Helaman 13–15.

[12] See, for example, Jacob 2:35; Jarom 1:2; Mosiah 22:3; Helaman 15:1, 3–4. The Lord Himself has validated this fraternal practice and expression in ancient and latter-day revelation, as shown in Alma 17:11 and Doctrine and Covenants 10:44–52.

[13] Henry B. Eyring, “Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69. President Eyring said: “The Lord has given us guides to know what to do to receive the blessing and joy of ever-increasing unity. The Book of Mormon recounts a time of success. It was in the days of Alma at the Waters of Mormon” (“Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69; italics added). Although this particular model was of Nephites only, the same guiding principles apply to efforts to achieve unity among people of different colors: “And [Alma] commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another” (Mosiah 18:21).

[14] 4 Nephi 1:15–18.

[15] Russell M. Nelson, “Children of the Covenant,” Ensign, May 1995, 34; see also Latter-day Commentary on the Book of Mormon, comp. K. Douglas Bassett (1999), 468–69; Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon (1997); Henry B. Eyring, “The Enduring Legacy of Relief Society,” Ensign, Oct. 2009, 121–25; Russell M. Nelson, “The Canker of Contention,” Ensign, May 1989, 68–71; Dallin H. Oaks, “Brother’s Keeper,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 20–23; James E. Faust, in “There Were No Manner of -Ites,” lds.org/media-library.

[16] Russell M. Nelson, “Children of the Covenant,” Ensign, May 1995, 34; see also Latter-day Commentary on the Book of Mormon, comp. K. Douglas Bassett, 468–69.

[17] See Henry B. Eyring, “Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69.

[18] See, for example, Mormon 6:16–20.

[19] Doctrine and Covenants 1:17; see also verses 18–29; Abraham 2:8.

[20] See Doctrine and Covenants 45:68–71. President Henry B. Eyring taught: “We see increased conflict between peoples in the world around us. Those divisions and differences could infect us. … The need for that gift (of unity) to be granted to us and the challenge to maintain it will grow greater in the days ahead” (“Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69).

[21] See Doctrine and Covenants 1:17–18, 29–30. Note that one of the commandments the Lord gave the Prophet Joseph Smith to address “the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth” was “to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.” Thus, the Book of Mormon would become a key resource to guide humanity to universal peace. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught: “Gospel peace is the opposite of any conflict, armed or unarmed. It is the opposite of national or ethnic hostilities, of civil or family strife. … If only we could heed the call of the Lord God of Israel, ‘Come unto me all ye ends of the earth.’ (2 Ne. 26:25.) As the Book of Mormon teaches, he has created all flesh, ‘And the one being is as precious in his sight as the other.’ (Jacob 2:21.) He has given salvation ‘free for all men’ (2 Ne. 26:27) and ‘all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.’ (2 Ne. 26:28.) And he inviteth [all men] to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God.’ (2 Ne. 26:33.) The blessings of the gospel are universal, and so is the formula for peace: keep the commandments of God. War and conflict are the result of wickedness; peace is the product of righteousness” (“World Peace,” Ensign, May 1990, 71–72; italics added). President Henry B. Eyring shared the following counsel: “Where people have that Spirit with them, we may expect harmony. The Spirit puts the testimony of truth in our hearts, which unifies those who share that testimony. The Spirit of God never generates contention (see 3 Ne. 11:29). It never generates the feelings of distinctions between people which lead to strife (see Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 13th ed. [1963], 131). It leads to personal peace and a feeling of union with others. It unifies souls. A unified family, a unified Church, and a world at peace depend on unified souls” (“That We May Be One,” Ensign, May 1998, 67).

[22] Title page of the Book of Mormon. The Lord’s work to gather the Nephites and Lamanites (black and white) into one people in Christ throughout their history shows what He is endeavoring to do with the entire human family by gathering all of scattered Israel in our day. Often the Lord’s pattern is to use multiple ways and means in the work of salvation to inspire faith, assurance of His care, and consolation in our struggle. See also Doctrine and Covenants 84:38–40; Hebrews 6:10–20.

[23] See, for example, 1 Nephi 10:14; 2 Nephi 10:7–8; 29:7–14; Jacob 5; Mormon 7:7–10.

[24] See 3 Nephi 20–21.

[25] Abraham 2:11; see also verses 8–10.

[26] President George Q. Cannon taught: “God has chosen us from the various nations for this purpose. There are men in this Church from almost every race of men, and if representatives from all the races are not now, they will be in. God scattered the seed of Israel through all of the nations of the earth, so that in the great gathering of the last days He might be able to get representatives of all the families of men. And we are chosen for this purpose. The seed has been scattered among the nations; and when the descendants of Israel here, heard the sound of the Gospel, it was indeed the glad tidings of salvation to them. They knew the voice of the shepherd, it was like telling them something they had forgotten but always knew; they felt that it was something they had been waiting for, the sound thereof was most delightful to the soul. … It is true we have been scattered among Gentile nations, and are called Gentiles, but nevertheless we are of the pure seed, having come through Gentile lineage that we may be the means of saving them, and through our faithfulness we shall stand at their head. This is the blessing which rests upon us as descendants of Abraham” (in Journal of Discourses, 22:129–30). President James E. Faust said: “We believe that the house of Israel today constitutes a large measure of the human family. Because the tribes have intermixed one with another, one child may be declared to be from the tribe of Ephraim and another of the same family from Manasseh or one of the other tribes. The blessing of one tribe, therefore, may be dominant in one child, and the blessing of another tribe dominant in yet another child. So, children from the same parents could receive the blessings of different tribes” (“Priesthood Blessings,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 64). In Gospel Principles, we read: “The Lord promised that His covenant people would someday be gathered: ‘I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them’ (Jeremiah 23:3). God gathers His children through missionary work. As people come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, receiving the ordinances of salvation and keeping the associated covenants, they become ‘the children of the covenant’ (3 Nephi 20:26)” (Gospel Principles [2009], 247).

[27] These microcosms seem to be layered. The Book of Mormon family seems to be a microcosm of both the family of Abraham and Sarah and the family of Adam and Eve. And these families seem to be microcosms of the universal family of God. Each of these family models points to the others. Through them all, our Heavenly Father teaches and reinforces the doctrine and eternal significance of the family.

[28] President Henry B. Eyring taught: “Those who would believe the truth He [Jesus Christ] taught could accept the ordinances and the covenants offered by His authorized servants. Then, through obedience to those ordinances and covenants, their natures would be changed. The Savior’s Atonement in that way makes it possible for us to be sanctified. We can then live in unity, as we must to have peace in this life and to dwell with the Father and His Son in eternity” (“That We May Be One,” Ensign, May 1998, 66).

[29] Russell M. Nelson, “The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2006, 80. In this same address, Elder Nelson said: “The Book of Mormon is central to this work. It declares the doctrine of the gathering. It causes people to learn about Jesus Christ, to believe His gospel, and to join His Church” (page 80). President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “The responsibility of the seed of Abraham, which we are, is to be missionaries to ‘bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations’ (Abraham 2:9). Moses bestowed upon Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple the keys to gather Israel (see D&C 110:11). Now, what is the instrument that God has designed for this gathering? It is the same instrument that is designed to convince the world that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith is His prophet, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. It is that scripture which is the keystone of our religion” (“The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, May 1987, 85).

[30] See 2 Nephi 31:20; Alma 5:28; 3 Nephi 11:29–30.

[31] 2 Nephi 5:21; see also verses 20, 22–24; Alma 3:6–10, 14.

[32] This was certainly the case for Nephi, Jacob, and others in their generation. Book of Mormon writers in subsequent generations clearly subscribed to the same perceptions and descriptions originally recorded by Nephi and Jacob.

[33] See 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; 1 Timothy 2:9–12.

[34] I find it especially interesting that the Lord allowed the use of the phrase “skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5:21) and the adjective dark (Alma 3:6) to describe the Lamanites, who were not of African origin, and the use of the word white (1 Nephi 13:15) to describe the Semitic Nephites. It seems these words—as opposed to brown, red, or even colored on the one hand and olive or light on the other hand—more effectively capture the full spectrum of the races of humanity. Therefore, it appears that the Lord can more fully include all of His children, including His children of African descent, in His Book of Mormon message of unity. Note again the teaching of Elder Dallin H. Oaks that “black and white” in 2 Nephi 26:33 “means all races” (“All Men Everywhere,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2006, 77).

[35] Isaiah 29:18.

[36] See Dallin H. Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign, May 1996, 71–73; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–65; Russell M. Nelson, “A Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 69–72.

[37] Title page of the Book of Mormon.

[38] Joseph Smith, in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 64.