A lot of early missionary work in Mexico was driven by an understanding that the missionaries were preaching to Lamanites. But being considered a Lamanite can be both a blessing and a curse.
Today, many of their descendants are reading about this in their own copies of the Book of Mormon and are choosing to follow Christ. I love meeting the children of Lehi in spotless white in the numerous temples in the Mexico South Area.
~Clate W. Mask Jr.
This is part 10 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.
We’re going to take a bit of a detour for the next few posts in the series to talk a bit about the Lamanite label and identity. It’s a discussion that plays a big role in the Church’s history in Mexico. By claiming that indigenous people in Mexico were descended from the people of the Book of Mormon, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt an obligation to reach out to and support them. At the same time, the term carried a lot of racist baggage with it that was connected to how Euro-Americans in the late nineteenth century viewed Native Americans.
The term Lamanite comes, of course, from the Book of Mormon, as one of the main groups discussed in the book. For the most part, Lamanites are portrayed as being a people who are not as civilized as the Nephites, but who have great promises made to them about their future.
Within the text, Nephi expresses some strong opinions on the nature of the Lamanite people from whom his group separated. While he touted that he “did cause my people [the Nephites] to be industrious, and to labor with their hands,” he states that the Lamanites, “did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.” Nephi also states: “as they [the Lamanites] 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.” The Lamanites were seen as uncivilized and not hard-working, with darker skin that was tied to unrighteousness.
(Note that for modern Latter-day Saints the position of the Church on the issue of skin color is clearly stated in the 2024 “Come, Follow Me Manual:
The Book of Mormon also states that a mark of dark skin came upon the Lamanites after the Nephites separated from them. The nature and appearance of this mark are not fully understood….
Prophets affirm in our day that dark skin is not a sign of divine disfavor or cursing. President Russell M. Nelson declared: “I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments and not the color of your skin”
During the early days of the Church in Mexico, however, that was not how the issue was seen.)
I’m any case, these continue to be presented as the general stereotypes associated with the Lamanites. For example, the text attributed to Enos (Nephi’s nephew) states that:
Their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us. (Enos 1:20.)
Enos, Nephi and other authors presented in the Book of Mormon portray Lamanites as a vicious, unsanitary, and lazy people.
Yet, there are also moments where Lamanites are prophesied to have a glorious future and where they are shown to be capable of righteousness. Nephi wrote that during a vision in which he saw that the Lamanites would become wicked and eventually destroy the Nephites that “the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren,” and that when Gentiles (generally interpreted as European colonizers) arrive on the scene “they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.” Later, however, the Bible “came forth from the Gentiles unto the remnant of the seed of my brethren” (1 Nephi 13:11, 14, 38). Through the ministry of those Gentiles, the Lamanites “shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved” (1 Nephi 15:14). Nephi’s prophecy indicated that the Lamanites would repent when taught the gospel by the Gentile converts, gaining their salvation.
Likewise, when the resurrected Jesus visited the Nephites, he taught that:
When these works and the works which shall be wrought among you hereafter shall come forth from the Gentiles, unto your seed which shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity. … if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance; and they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem. (3 Nephi 21:5, 22-24.)
This indicates that the remnant of Jacob/Israel (which included the Lamanites) were to be restored and were also promised the Americas as their land of inheritance and that they were destined to build a New Jerusalem. The interpretations of these teachings in the Book of Mormon both were shaped by and shaped how Latter-day Saints viewed Native Americans.
Hokulani Aikau, in writing about the native people of Hawai’i’s interactions with the Church, provided enlightening comments about what Lamanite identity meant. Since around 1851, Polynesian peoples have been considered by some members of the Church to be a people who are descendants of Lehi. In describing the practical results of that association, Aikau noted that: “Although The Book of Mormon explains the whiteness of Lehi and his descendants and the curse of blackness of Native Americans, what we also learn is that although they were cursed due to their depraved, barbarous, and treacherous actions, they could be saved. Moreover, it was the duty of the Anglo missionaries to return to gospel to these lost people.” She added that: “The invention of the Polynesian-Israelite connection not only served as a rationale for the shift in nineteenth-century Mormon missionary work from haole [white colonists in Hawai’i] to Hawaiian but also allowed the missionaries who remained in Hawai’i to embrace the universalistic principles of their faith.” Similar observations could be made about the effect of viewing the majority of the people in Mexico as Lamanites as well.
The people of Mexico with indigenous ancestry were seen as Lamanites in need of the gospel. In fact, many early missionary efforts to Mexico focused primarily on preaching to indigenous peoples. After receiving a report of a mission from Ammon Tenny where he reported that he had success in baptizing among the Sonora, Pima, and Papago peoples in 1888 CE, President Woodruff wrote a letter that displays some of the attitudes of Euro-American Latter-day Saints at that time:
The subject of your mission among the Lamanites … We are desirous to do all in our power to redeem these degraded descendants of the House of Israel from their present low estate, and to impart unto them a correct knowledge of the principles of the Gospel, and those arts of true civilization, which will restore them to the favor of the Lord and fulfill the covenants which has made concerning them. It seems as though the time is fast approaching when the Gospel shall be taken from the Gentiles and given to the House of Israel. Your recent success in baptizing those people gives us great delight, and we rejoice in the prospects that are opening up. But as has been said to you in former communications, this work must be followed up by systematic efforts and by thorough organization and continued labors of experienced men among them. We cannot in justice to them and to the responsibilities which rest upon ourselves, leave them in the condition in which you have found them. Baptism is well enough, and is of the utmost importance, but there is more than this required in their case to relieve us from the responsibility that we are under to our God in connection with these people.
Woodruff saw an added responsibility of establishing the Church rather than just baptized and went on to suggest creating a gathering place for that purpose.
In President Woodruff’s letter we do see some of the prevailing ideas about Lamanites at that period. He describes the indigenous Americans as a “degraded people” to whom the Anglo-American members of the Church had a paternalistic obligation to go preach, baptize and civilize. This aligns with the role of righteous Gentiles prophesied in the Book of Mormon and the observations of how the Latter-day Saints approached native peoples in Hawai’i made by Hokulani Aikau. In practical terms, this meant that Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century felt a strong obligation to preach to Native Americans (in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere) but would rarely view Native Americans as their equals in a racial hierarchy because of an ongoing view that the converts needed to be “civilized” into an Anglo-American lifestyle. These attitudes would negatively impact an effort to form a gathering place for native Mexicans.
 Clate W. Mask Jr., “Standing Spotless before the Lord,” CR April 2004, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2004/04/standing-spotless-before-the-lord.p23?lang=eng
 2 Nephi 5:17, 21, 24.
 H?k?lani Aikau, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 38.
 Aikau, Chosen People, 52.
 Wilford Woodruff Letter to Ammon Tenney, 10 April 1888, cited in F. Lamond Tullis, Mormons in Mexico: The Dynamics of Faith and Culture (Mexico City and Provo: El Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en México), 67-68.
 “Come, Follow Me”, 2024: Home and Church (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2023), February 12–18: “We Lived after the Manner of Happiness.” 2 Nephi 3–5, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-home-and-church-book-of-mormon-2024/07?lang=eng.