2 Nephi 30:6. White or Pure?
How can one justify the change of the wording “white and delightsome” in 2 Nephi 30:6 to “pure and delightsome”? The change in the 1981 edition seems to be an attempt to bring the Book of Mormon up to speed with the 1978 revelation that allowed black members of the Church to hold the priesthood.
When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a new edition of the Book of Mormon in 1981, a change was made to the text of 2 Nephi 30:6. The 1830 and most earlier editions said that the descendants of Lehi would become “a white and delightsome people.” The new edition reads “pure and delightsome.” This change was first made in the 1840 Nauvoo edition of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith, but later editions did not rely on that one, so the change was not reflected for more than a century, until it was restored to the 1981 edition.
Some objected to the change, believing that the context requires the word “white” because it refers to skin color. It is true that skin color is meant in some Book of Mormon passages, but this is not true throughout the text. Nephite wrote that the Lamanites received a darker skin to make them repulsive to the Nephites so they would not mingle with the Lamanites and partake of their iniquity. “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” (2 Nephi 5:21). Later, we read that because of their repentance, “their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:15).
Two other passages may be using the term “white” to denote skin color. One is Nephi’s description of the gentiles who would come to the New world, who “were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain” (1 Nephi 13:15). The other is Nephi’s description of Christ’s mother as “exceedingly fair and white” (1 Nephi 11:13), a description that matches that of the fruit of the tree of life that Nephi and his father saw in vision, which was “white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen” (1 Nephi 8:11).
Other passages use similar or identical terminology in a context that does not denote skin color. Thus, speaking of the Jews, Nephi wrote that “as many as shall believe in Christ shall also become a delightsome people” (2 Nephi 30:7). Since Jews already have white skin, it is hard to believe that this passage refers to skin color. Note also Words of Mormon 1:8, “And my prayer to God is concerning my brethren, that they may once again come to the knowledge of God, yea, the redemption of Christ; that they may once again be a delightsome people.”
That the term “white” in most Book of Mormon passages means “pure,” as Joseph Smith reflected in his 1840 change, is suggested by Alma 32:42, where Alma admonishes,
And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
We also have evidence that the term “white” can denote purity in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, Lamentations 4:7 reads, “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire.” That white skin color was not intended is made clear by the fact that the Nazirites are also described as being “ruddy in body.” Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18), suggesting that whiteness denotes a cleansing from sins.
The Old Testament book of Daniel, who was a contemporary of Nephi, also equates whiteness with purity. He prophesied that “some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed” (Daniel 11:35). He further noted that “Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand” (Daniel 12:10). Citing Daniel 12:9-10, Hippolytus, a third-century A.D. Christian theologian, wrote, “And who are they who are chosen, but those who believe the word of truth, so as to be made white thereby, and to cast off the filth of sin, and put on the heavenly, pure, and glorious Holy Spirit, in order that, when the Bridegroom comes, they may go in straightway with Him?”
The early rabbis also realized that “pure” and “white” were synonymous terms. Zohar Exodus 211b, commenting on the purification of the souls of the dead by being “immersed in the ‘river of fire’” mentioned in Daniel 7:10, says that
fire alone has the virtue of consuming every pollution in the soul, and making it emerge pure and white . . . for that soul will have to pass through the fire in order to come out pure and white . . . When the process is completed, the chieftains [angels] take the soul out of Gehinnom and lead it to the gate of Paradise, and say to the angel messengers there: “Hinnom (lit. Here they are), behold, here is the soul that has come out pure and white. The soul is then brought into Paradise.”
Purification comes through following the principles of the gospel, beginning with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance, followed by baptism by water and the Holy Ghost’s baptism of fire. Moroni wrote, “O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day” (Mormon 9:6). Psalm 51:7 has the petitioner asking the Lord, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
A fourth-century Church Father, Ephraim of Syria, wrote that “Among the saints none is naked, for they have put on glory, nor is any clad in those leaves or standing in shame, for they have found, through our Lord, the robe that belongs to Adam and Eve. As the Church purges her ears of the serpent’s poison, those who had lost their garments, having listened to it and become diseased, have now been renewed and whitened” (Hymn on Paradise 6.9). In another of his writings, Ephraim commented as follows on Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch recorded in Acts 8:26-39:
The eunuch of Ethiopia upon his chariot saw Philip: the Lamb of Light met the dark man from out of the water. While he was reading, the Ethiopian was baptized and shone with joy, and journeyed on! He made disciples and taught, and out of black men he made men white. And the dark Ethiopic women became pearls for the Son. (The Pearl: Seven Hymns on the Faith 3:2).
Orthodox Judaism still requires circumcision and ritual immersion in water (i.e., baptism) for converts. Anciently, there was a third requirement, the offering of sacrifice. As evidence for the requirement for ritual ablution, the Talmud cites Exodus 19:10, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,” saying that “if where washing of the garments is not required ablution is required, how much more should ablution be required where washing of the garments is required” (TB Yebamoth 46b). Thus, the commandment to wash one’s clothes meant to be baptized. Some early Christians understood the garment to be cleansed to be one’s own skin. Thus Commodianus, wrote, “In baptism the coarse dress of thy birth is washed” (Instructions 46). Novatian, in his treatise Concerning the Trinity 21, wrote:
For this, moreover, He before predicted in blessings: “He shall wash His garment in wine, and His clothing in the blood of the grape” [Genesis 49:11]. If the garment in Christ be the flesh, and the clothing itself be the body, let it be asked who is He whose body is clothing, and garment flesh? For to us it is evident that the flesh is the garment, and the body the clothing of the Word; and He washed His bodily substance, and purified the material of the flesh in blood, that is, in wine, by His passion, in the human character that He had undertaken. Whence, if indeed He is washed, He is man, because the garment which is washed is the flesh; but He who washes is the Word of God, who, in order that He might wash the garment, was made the taker-up of the garment. Rightly, from that substance which is taken that it might be washed, He is revealed as a man, even as from the authority of the Word who washed it He is manifested to be God.
Washing garments in wine or blood should make them red, not white. Consequently, it is undoubtedly in the context of baptism and spiritual cleansing that we should read Book of Mormon passages about making one’s garments white in the blood of the Lamb. The first such mention came when the angel showed Nephi in vision the twelve Nephite disciples of Christ and declared, “behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood. And the angel said unto me: Look! And I looked, and beheld three generations pass away in righteousness; and their garments were white even like unto the Lamb of God. And the angel said unto me: These are made white in the blood of the Lamb, because of their faith in him” (1 Nephi 12:10-11).
In a discourse delivered in the city of Zarahemla, Alma used similar terminology: “There can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins” (Alma 5:21). “Behold, my brethren, do ye suppose that such an one can have a place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, and also all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed and are spotless, pure and white?” (Alma 5:24). “Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?” (Alma 5:27). When speaking in the city of Gideon, he said, “And may the Lord bless you, and keep your garments spotless, that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out” (Alma 7:25).
During a subsequent visit to the city of Ammonihah, he again took up this theme: “Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb. Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:11-12). Alma’s friend Amulek borrowed the idea and told the Zoramites that God “has also said that the righteous shall sit down in his kingdom, to go no more out; but their garments should be made white through the blood of the Lamb” (Alma 34:36). The same concept is found in Ether 13:10 and in Revelation 7:14 and is known from the writings of some of the early Church Fathers.
Note that Alma equated purity with whiteness in his description of the garments of the righteous. Garments such as these are described in the Bible in connection with angels. The apostle John wrote of seven angels coming out of the heavenly temple “clothed in pure and white linen” (Revelation 15:6). Matthew said of the angel who appeared at Christ’s tomb, “His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow” (Matthew 28:3). D&C 20:6 describes Moroni as “an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness.” Many passages from the Bible and from pseudepigraphic texts note the whiteness of the garments of the righteous (including the Lord and his angels), denoting their ritual purity.
In the mid-second century A.D., a devout Christian named Hermas wrote an account of some of his visions, in a book that has come to be known as The Pastor of Hermas because he described an angel who appeared to him in the form of a pastor or shepherd. His visions depicted the Church as a temple into which the righteous, represented by stones, were placed. Shown a beast with four colors on his head, he asked the meaning and was told that “the white part is the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell, since those elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure.”
Another early Christian writer who compared white clothing to purity was Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (died A.D. 397). Commenting on the third chapter of Zechariah, in which the prophet describes the high priest Joshua (the Hebrew source of the name Jesus) wearing a filthy garment that the angels replace with a clean white garment, Ambrose wrote, “But Christ, beholding His Church, for whom He Himself, as you find in the book of the prophet Zechariah, had put on filthy garments, now clothed in white raiment, seeing, that is, a soul pure and washed in the laver of regeneration” (Concerning the Mysteries 7 ).
In his fourth catechitical lecture (22:8), St. Cyril of Jerusalem cited Ecclesiastes 9:8 (“Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment”) and added, “But now, having put off thy old garments, and put on those which are spiritually white, thou must be continually robed in white: of course we mean not this, that thou art always to wear white raiment; but thou must be clad in the garments that are truly white and shining and spiritual.” From this, it is clear that the concept of white garments is symbolic.
Contrasted with the clean, white garments of the righteous are those of the wicked. Isaiah wrote, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). The Hebrew word rendered “rags” in this passage is beged, which means “garment, piece of clothing.” Zechariah wrote of his vision of the high priest Joshua, “Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment” (Zechariah 3:3-4).
With these facts in mind, it makes perfect sense that the term “white” was rightly changed to “pure” in 2 Nephi 30:6. Moreover, knowing that the words can be used interchangeably clarifies Jacob’s declaration to the Nephites:
O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love . . . But, wo, wo, unto you that are not pure in heart, that are filthy this day before God; for except ye repent the land is cursed for your sakes; and the Lamanites, which are not filthy like unto you, nevertheless they are cursed with a sore cursing, shall scourge you even unto destruction . . . Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you . . . O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers. (Jacob 3:2-3, 5, 8-9)
Here we read that some of the Nephites were “pure” and others were “filthy,” while the Lamanites, even with their darker skin, were “not filthy” and were “more righteous” than those of the Nephites who were filthy. Jacob’s brother, Nephi, wrote of the Lamanites becoming “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations” (1 Nephi 12:23). Similarly, Mormon wrote of the Nephites (whose skin color was not changed), “this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry” (Mormon 5:15). Both passages refer to the sinful state of the people, not their skin color. This is also supported by Moroni’s description of the Nephites: “And only a few years have passed away, and they were a civil and a delightsome people.” Passages like these verify Nephi’s teaching that the Lord “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 Nephi 26:33).
See the discussion in Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8-23,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 191-243.
This verse is an excellent example of Hebrew poetry, in which “purer” parallels “whiter,” “snow” parallels “milk,” “ruddy” (reddening) parallels “polishing,” and “rubies” parallels “sapphire.”
Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint: Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 5:191.
Sebastian P. Brock, Saint Ephraim: Hymns on Paradise (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), 112. Cf. note VI.9: “whitened, i.e., at baptisms,” p. 192.
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 13:295. My thanks to Mark Ellison for bringing this passage to my attention.
The apostle Paul explained Israelite baptism to the Corinthians, writing, “I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
In Hebrew, the terms for “skin” and “light” are very similar, leading some early commentators to suggest that, prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were clothed in light, which divine clothing they lost after consuming the forbidden fruit. See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “Priestly Clothing in Bible Times,” in Donald Parry (ed.), Temples of the Ancient World (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1994).
At Christ’s second coming, he will wear a robe apparently reddened by blood, but declares that he has trodden the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:2-3; cf. Revelation 14:19-20; 19:15).
For other passages on white garments, see Ecclesiastes 9:8; Daniel 7:9; Mark 16:5; Revelation 3:4-5; 1 Nephi 8:5; 14:19; 3 Nephi 11:8; 19:25; Joseph Smith History 1:31-32.
For example, 2 Chronicles 5:12; Daniel 7:9; Mark 9:3; Revelation 7:13; 15:6; 19:8, 14.
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 10:322. The “laver of regeneration” denotes the baptismal font. The word derives from French laver, “to wash.”