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Skin Color and Body Painting

A visible tan line on a woman whose skin has been darkened by ultraviolet exposure, except where covered. (Wikipedia) The numbers are from the chart inserted below.


Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: February 12-18; 2 Nephi 3-5

We read in 2 Nephi 5:21-24, “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.”


These verses appear largely as they were dictated by Joseph Smith and written down by Oliver Cowdery. The only editorial change to those verses was removal of the word “therefore” between the words “people” and “the,” so that the phrase originally said, “…wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people [therefore] the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”1 


We do not know, and probably never will know, what Nephi actually wrote in reformed Egyptian. We know next to nothing about the actual conditions that existed at the time Nephi was writing and nothing about what the Lamanites actually looked like at the time — except for what Nephi wrote — and what Joseph translated.


I would like to begin this discussion with the word “delightsome,” which is a very unusual term, and I doubt very much that such a term existed in reformed Egyptian. When I was writing blogs on the Old and New Testament the past two years, I often turned to Bible Hub to see what the original Hebrew or Greek terms were for odd terms in the King James Bible. However, there is no such reference for the reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon.

Therefore, I will take another approach: where does the rather strange word “delightsome” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared around 1484. It appears only once in the King James Old Testament (1611) in Malachi 3:12, “And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts.” The word does not appear in the New Testament. According to Bible Hub, the original Hebrew word in Malachi 3:12 was חֵ֔פֶץ (ḥê·p̄eṣ), which means “pleasure, desire, a valuable thing, or a matter.”2 The 1611 translators apparently liked the word “delightsome,” which was perhaps just coming into vogue, was somewhat common between 1710 and 1768, and then was used less frequently in literature until about 1948, when it dropped out of use.3


There are a couple of examples of the word “delightsome” in the early literature: In his work, A New Orchard and Garden, in 1597, William Lawson stated, “What more delightsome than an infinite variety of sweet smelling flowers?” and “A brood of nightingales, who with their seuerall notes and tunes, with a strong delightsome voice…”4 Then here is an example from the very end of the 17th century: “Situated along ‘the single greatest thorough-fair in Virginia’ where the roads ‘are so good and Level that Coaches and wagons of the greatest burden have an easy and delightsome passage’ anyone journeying up or down Virginia’s middle peninsula had to pass through Williamsburg.”5 And here is an example from the early 18th century, from the journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, a student at Princeton College, 1770-72: “After dinner we had a Grand & agreeable Walk in & through the Garden—There is great plenty of Strawberries, some Cherries, Gooseberries &c—Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea—Soon after we set out for Home—The young Ladies chose to walk and Cross the water with us—I am much more pleas'd with the Face of the Country since my return than I have ever been before—It is indeed delightsome!” The last example comes from the early 19th century. Zilpha Elaw (1790–18??) a black woman born into a free, devoutly Christian family near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said that, “She enjoyed what she called ‘delightsome heavenly communion’ with the Lord, and viewed it as vital to the Christian walk.”6


I also conducted a Google search for the phrase “white and delightsome.” The vast majority of the references were to the statements in the Book of Mormon, which are discussed below. I did find one disparaging reference, which shows no obvious, or stated connection to the Book of Mormon. In an essay, called The Sewer of New England, where Austin Meredith stated, “The intrusive culture had reached critical mass and the native culture of the Wampanoag and Narragansett, with their ‘Welcome, Englishman, Welcome, Englishman,’ and with their ‘What cheer, nehtop, was at this point doomed to be virtually extinguished. Previously, they had been the white man’s valued allies against the Pequots, but the fact was, the English were white and delightsome and these people were red and unenlightened. Uncounted thousands of the red previous allies would be offed outright and then the remnants would become available to be sold into the international slave trade for foreign life slavery for approximately £3 per head…”7 


It appears to me that the phrase “white and delightsome,” which was the couplet used in 2 Nephi 30:6 in the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, but which was changed, presumably by Joseph Smith, to “pure and delightsome” in one of the 1840 editions, was a racist New England colloquialism, which Joseph Smith used there and in 2 Nephi 5:21-24, where he stated “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” as his translation of whatever the reformed Egyptian may have said. The “curse of darkness” is mentioned three other times in the Book of Mormon: Jacob 3:8; 3 Nephi 2:15; and 3 Nephi 2:16. All of these statements are indeed racist and have given fodder to numerous anti-Mormon and anti-Book of Mormon statements.  


It appears to me that the racism expressed in 2 Nephi 5:21-24 and 2 Nephi 30:6 was perpetuated by many, if not most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — against Native Americans — down through the years and even to the present time, for at least four reasons: the mistaken beliefs that all Native Americans are descended from the Lamanites, that every single word in the Book of Mormon comes directly from God, that there can be no errors in scripture, and that all translation perfectly represents the original language with no anachronistic or prejudicial terminology. I have addressed the first issue in my January 1-7 blog, which dealt with the Introductory Pages of the Book of Mormon, and I would refer the reader to that discussion, as well as to my February 5-11, 2 Nephi 1-2 discussion “How Many People Were in Lehi’s Colony?” Suffice it to say that the Introduction to the Book of Mormon now states that the descendants of the Lamanites “…are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” I also have addressed the issue of every word in the Book of Mormon coming directly from God in my February 5-11 blog under the heading “Cows and Horses.”

According to the Transatlantic Translation Group, “Idioms are phrases or expressions with a figurative or sometimes literal meaning that differs from the sum of the words used. They are deeply embedded in a culture’s history and language, making them difficult to translate into another language. Idioms can rarely be translated word for word as the context does not transfer; understanding them requires knowledge of the original language. Idioms typically do not have an equivalent expression in the target language. This lack of equivalence can lead to loss of the intended meaning or nuance in the translation process.” All of these problems are exacerbated when translating from an ancient language — especially when that language is enigmatic in the first place.9 Furthermore, “…it may seem like a literal translation would be the most appropriate method, but this is often not the case…a literal translation can feel clunky or unnatural. It could even be completely incorrect.”10 It is also my opinion that idioms, such as “white and delightsome” can be unwittingly introduced into a text by the translator.

The belief that any sacred scripture comes directly from the mouth of God has become a huge problem in our modern society. For example, the belief that the “six-day creation” in the book of Genesis means literally six twenty-hour-hour days has helped drive a deep wedge between science and ultra-conservative religion, and has helped fuel the anti-science movement in our society. Such belief in the infallibility of the Bible apparently motivated a large number of otherwise Christian people to participate in the violent insurrection of 6 January 2021. It seems as though some English-speaking people are of the opinion that English is God’s first language — rather than being an imperfect conglomeration of a bunch of different languages.

In an 1842 letter to John Wentworth, a Chicago newspaper editor who wanted information concerning the history and beliefs of the Church, and which is now our 8th Article of Faith, Joseph Smith stated, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” Why didn’t he say “the Book of Mormon to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly”? We will probably never know.

Mormon stated in the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” Mormon also stated in Mormon 8:12, “And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these.” It is my opinion that Mormon was not just referring to his own writings, but to those of the other Book of Mormon prophets, as well as to the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was the translator. After all, we are taught that there was only one perfect man who ever lived on Earth and that was Jesus Christ.

Joseph Smith, famously, made the statement, “I told the brethren 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,”11 He didn’t say the book was perfect. If we take the eight verses cited above where the idea of Nephites being “white and delightsome” are referenced, they represent just over 0.1% of the 6,607 total verses in the Book of Mormon. If the book is only 99% correct, that still gives space for 66 verses where there are prejudices and anachronisms that occurred during the translation. I am not willing to discount the 99% of the book that is correct and vital to my belief in the atonement of Jesua Christ because of the 1% imperfections in the book — especially when those imperfections reflect probably un-recognized Victorian prejudices. As scientists, our data are accepted for publication within a 95% confidence interval. A 99% confidence interval is considered to be very high. If I have 95% or 99% confidence in the scriptures, I am very happy, especially if those scriptures teach me about how to love the Savior, live a Christian life, and look forward to eternal happiness. Why become disaffected from a Church because of the 1%? 


Was Joseph Smith prejudice? I believe he was. Was Joseph Smith racist? I believe he was. Did that racism and prejudice get into the Book of Mormon? I believe it did. I believe Joseph Smith, just like every other human being, was prejudice and racist without even realizing it. We often overlook our own prejudices. We may think, “I am not prejudice and I hate anyone who is.”


Where did the idea that Europeans were “white” come from in the first place? James Dee, of the University of Texas, Austin said it didn’t come from the Greeks. He said that, “To encourage his troops to despise their Persian opponents, Agesilaus had some prisoners displayed naked. [So that]… his soldiers saw how white…and unfit they were (because they did not strip down and exercise in the open air, as Greek men regularly did)…in the eyes of the Greeks, ‘white’ skin was an accepted and expected characteristic: women, barbarians living north of the Alps, the perilously ill, pasty-faced philosophers, and cowards.”12


“So…when did ‘white people’ become ‘white’? The first examples of ‘white race/people’ in the Oxford English Dictionary are no earlier than the 1600s, when Europeans were deeply involved in African slave-trading; the same seems to be true of the corresponding terms in the major European languages. At that point, the use of what was by then a powerfully stigmatizing form of polarized terminology must have seemed comfortingly appropriate. But that loaded valuation of the colors black and white…had already begun in the late classical period, and we can see by the height of the medieval period the clear and explicit emergence of a prejudicial assignment of whole groups of humans to the diametrically opposed categories of ‘white’/Christian/ good and ‘black/Moslem/ evil…For example, in the Middle English epic The King of Tars, the narrator says that when the Moslem Sultan converted from Islam to Christianity, a miraculous change took place: ‘his hide, that blac and lothely was, al white bicom, thurth Godes gras, and clere withouten blame.’”13

Lee also stated, “Other highly charged color terms also have an origin that is comparatively recent in cultural history. Thompson notes that the development of the phrase ‘yellow men’ occurs only in the 19th century, and there is a long article by Alden T. Vaughan in the American Historical Review for 1982 which traces the history of the phrase ‘red man,’ a disparaging expression for the Native American Indians which was almost completely absent from the Colonial Period, when they were often considered one of the ‘Lost Tribes’ of Israel.”14

The idea, therefore, that Nephi used the phrase “white and delightsome” is highly unlikely. So, what did Nephi write in reformed Egyptian that ended up as highly racist phrases in the Book of Mormon? There is, what I have always thought of as curious statement in Alma 3:4, 14-15, 18-19 that might shed some light on the issue: “And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites…Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them. And again: I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also…Now the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their foreheads; nevertheless they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them. Now I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation.”

God did not directly mark the Amlicites, they marked themselves. We were told in 2 Nephi 5:23, “And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing.” The fact that the Amlicites marked themselves “with the same cursing,” suggests that the Lamanites marked themselves with a black mark. Perhaps that was what Nephi had in mind in his original text. I don’t know if Native Americans were painting their faces in 600 BC, but they certainly were when Europeans encountered them — and the practice continues today.  

George Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844–45, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Wikimedia Commons


When the Romans encountered the Celts of Northern England, they called them Picts, because they painted their bodies blue with woad. Australian aborigines paint their bodies as well.


Australian Aboriginal Culture 001; photo by Steve Evans, 2011, from Citizen of the World; Wikimedia Commons


Perhaps the most “white and delightsome” people to ever live were those of the late 18th century, Neoclassical period, who painted their faces a pasty white, with a mercury or lead base, and wore powdered white wigs. Through time, even more white paste was probably needed to cover the burn marks from the harsh chemicals in the whitewash. Many of the “white and delightsome” French aristocrats lost their heads during the French Revolution.

Gainsborough, ‘Portrait of a Lady In Blue’ (1777-79)


After the French Revolution, “white and delightsome” faces sort of went out of style.

Victorian women sought after a pure, natural face, free from blemishes, freckles, or marks of any kind, and they used cosmetics containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and/or ammonia (urine) to achieve that natural look. Although their faces were no longer pasty white, many Victorian women secretly used cosmetic products aimed at achieving as translucent and pale a complexion as possible, because such delicate facial features would indicate that the woman didn’t have to work outside where her face may be ravaged by the sun, and thus was recognized as being of high status.15


An illustration from French fashion magazine Le Mode Illustree, 1885 Getty Images


Humans probably have been painting their skin for as long as there have been modern humans. Evidence for the use of body paint has been discovered in a 100,000-year-old site in Blombos Cave, South Africa.16 Apparently, Egyptians were using cosmetics as early as 4000 BC. “Both men and women used red ochre to produce rouge or lip color; the copper ore malachite [was used] to produce green eye shadow; and Kohl, a ground sulfide mineral [was] used to draw thick, dark, almond-shaped lines around the eyes.”17 


Sometimes, the presence of “white Lamanites” among Native Americans has been presented as evidence for the Book of Mormon.18 Such “evidence” suggests that the Nephites were “white” people who came from Northern Europe (skin color 8 on the map and chart below). In reality, Lehi and his family came from Jerusalem, which is in the Middle East. A check of a map of indigenous skin colors in various regions of the world indicates that the skin colors of Native Americans at least in what is now the United States is the same skin color as indigenous people of the Middle East (skin color 27 on the map and chart below). Why would the Nephites identify themselves as “white” when they were essentially the same color as the indigenous peoples that they encountered in the New World? 


Global Map of Indigenous Skin Colors (Race is a construct); Numbers are added as per Luschan's chromatic scale.

Skin colors according to von Luschan's chromatic scale 1927.

Today, we have a very different concept of “delightsome” skin color than that of the Neoclassical and Victorian Europeans and Colonial Americans. Today, “tan” (skin color 29) is often considered to be “delightsome” (see the photo at the top of this essay). As a teen-ager, I hauled hay all summer in the hot Southern Idaho sun. I wore a straw “cowboy” hat; a pair of leather gloves; “Levis” and leather haying chaps; and heavy, leather boots; but I usually went without a shirt. As a result, I had a “farmer’s tan” to the extreme: the top of my head, my hands, and from the waist down, were “Lilly white” (about an 8-10 on the color scale), whereas the rest of me was in the high 20s or 30s. Therefore, when I went to the swimming pool, only the top of my head and my pearly-white legs were “white and delightsome.”

Skin color is determined by the amount of the pigment melanin in the skin. Markiewicz and Idowu have stated that, “The differences in skin color are not determined by the quantity of melanocytes, which remains constant, but by the activity of melanocytes including the relative levels of eumelanin and pheomelanin…The color and tone of the skin are determined by the quantities and qualities of the synthesized melanin, which is one of the most variable phenotypes in humans. The geographic patterns of skin pigmentation demonstrate a strong correlation with latitude and UVR intensity; skin tends to be darker in tropical and equatorial regions with higher levels of UVR compared to the regions more distant from the equator.”19

It is almost certain that Nephi and Mormon did not use the terms “delightsome” or “white” in their writing on the gold plates. What symbols they did inscribe onto the gold, which Joseph Smith then translated as “white and delightsome,” or some other variation on the theme, we will probably never know — at least not on this side of the veil. However, the purpose of the Book of Mormon is not to describe what the Nephites and Lamanites looked like, where they lived, what types of structures they built, or whether they had horses and wheeled chariots; the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to be a witness of Jesus Christ, his literal resurrection, and our relationship to Him. That testimony in the Book of Mormon is the most correct and complete of any testimony given in any book. As a scientist, I am not going to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” because of errors, anachronisms, or even the racism in the translation of the Nephite records. If a 95% confidence interval is the standard for highly sophisticated scientific papers, then 95-99% confidence intervals should be the standard for sacred, religious books authored by and translated by imperfect, mortal prophets. I don’t think God has ever expected perfection from His mortal prophets — not even in their speeches and writings.    




Trent Dee Stephens, PhD





2.; retrieved 7 February 2024

3.; retrieved 7 February 2024

4.     Felton, Samuel, On the Portraits of English Authors on Gardening with Biographical Notices of Them, 2nd edition, 2008, pp. 205, 208,; retrieved 6 February 2024

5.     Anonymous, Speeches of Students of the College of William and Mary Delivered May 1, 1699. William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series 10(4):323-337.; retrieved 8 February 2024

6.     Fithian, Philip Vickers, journal and letters, 1767-1774; student at Princeton College, 1770-72, tutor at Nomini Hall in Virginia, 1773-74; Library of Congress;; retrieved 8 February 2024

7.     Andrews, William M., ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 55–56. The Malachi Project;; retrieved 8 February 2024

8.     Meredith, Austin, The Sewer of New England, p. 354, Rhode Island, 2013; retrieved 8 February 2024

11.  Smith, Joseph, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1957, 4:461

12.  Dee, James H., Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did 'White People' Become 'White'? The Classical Journal, 99, (December 2003 – January 2004): 157-167

13.  Ibid

14.  Ibid

15.  Beerbohm, Max, A Defence of Cosmetics, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1922

16.  Henshilwood, Christopher et al., A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa, Science, 334:219-222, 2011

18.; retrieved 10 February 2024

19.  Markiewicz, E, and Idowu, OC, Melanogenic Difference Consideration in Ethnic Skin Type: A Balance Approach Between Skin Brightening Applications and Beneficial Sun Exposure, Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol, 9:215-232, 2020; see also Naik, Piyu Parth and Syed Nadir Farrukh, Influence of Ethnicities and Skin Color Variations in Different Populations: A Review, Skin Pharmacol Physiol, 35: 65–76, 2022


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