Book of Mormon

Did Samuel the Lamanite Experience Prejudice?

There’s more to the story than his prophecies.

Stories about Samuel the Lamanite in the Book of Mormon typically focus on what he taught. However, there are many clues suggesting that Samuel was attacked on the wall not only with rocks and arrows, but also with prejudice. There may even be insights in the Savior’s choice to refer to him as “Samuel, the Lamanite.” In this interview, Jan J. Martin reveals how prejudice might be present in Samuel’s story—and explains why it matters today.

Read more about Samuel the Lamanite in “Samuel the Lamanite: Confronting the Wall of Nephite Prejudice”

Table of Contents

What’s the typical Samuel the Lamanite story?

I’m not sure there is a typical story told about Samuel the Lamanite. However, I do think that when people talk about Samuel—or when they teach about Samuel—they tend to focus on what he said, emphasizing his many prophecies and calls to repentance.

Samuel said many important things about what the Nephites needed to repent of, and he gave some wonderful and informative prophecies, so focusing on both of those subjects is understandable.

But there is more to his story and message than that.  

What’s your thesis in this article?

My thesis is that Samuel’s story is a story about prejudice before it is a story about prophecy. I argue that Samuel’s narrative is unique because it portrays his purposeful, instructive, and insightful response to the prejudiced treatment he received at the hands of the Nephites.

What’s the genesis of your book chapter?

I wrote this chapter because prejudice and all kinds of discrimination remain fundamental and serious problems around the world—and because I believe that the Book of Mormon candidly and helpfully speaks to those issues.

I felt that Samuel the Lamanite’s experience being discriminated against provides us with much more guidance in overcoming modern-day prejudice than a simple acknowledgement that prejudice happened anciently. I wanted to show how Samuel provides important inspiration, motivation, and guidance about how to respond to, and overcome, the discrimination that we see around us today. 

In what ways would the Nephites have looked down upon Lamanites?

If you read the Book of Mormon carefully, you can see Lamanites and Nephites looking down upon each other for many different reasons. Because of the phenotypic descriptions of Lamanites in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 5:21; Alma 3:6) and the pejorative terminology describing the Lamanites as filthy, cursed, loathsome, idle, bloodthirsty, and so on (2 Nephi 5:21-24; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 7:21; 10:12), there is a tendency to conclude, and even to focus solely on, the idea that the Nephites looked down on the Lamanites racially.

Samuel’s identity as a Lamanite was the primary reason why the Nephites cast him out.

There are, however, many contextual and textual reasons why racial prejudice may not be one of the ways that the Nephites looked down on the Lamanites.

There are many strong contextual and textual reasons to conclude that the term Lamanite may have had more to do with lifestyle than with appearance, and that the Nephites may have discriminated against the Lamanites for sociopolitical and religious reasons—not racial ones.

Because we have no idea what Samuel looked like (the Book of Mormon text is silent on that subject), I argue that Samuel was discriminated against by the Nephites in Zarahemla because he was a member of a non-Nephite group.

How is Samuel’s story one about prejudice—before it’s one about prophecy?

I believe Samuel’s story is one of prejudice before it is one of prophecy because Samuel experiences, and deals with prejudice, first. 

Listen to President Dallin H. Oaks call for Latter-day Saints to oppose prejudice, such as that directed by the Nephites toward Samuel the Lamanite.

How often does Samuel refer to himself as a Lamanite? 

Samuel identifies himself as a Lamanite twice. Once at the beginning of his sermon and again at the end when he says that the Lamanites are “his brethren.” 

Samuel’s second visit to Zarahemla may have cost him a great deal.

Is there any reason to suggest he may have purposefully emphasized his heritage?

Yes. I argue that Samuel’s identity as a Lamanite was the primary reason why the Nephites cast him out on his first attempt to preach in Zarahemla and that Samuel deliberately drew attention to this identity on his second attempt to preach in Zarahemla when he climbed upon the wall.

It is likely that Samuel referred to himself as a Lamanite on the second visit because he wanted to confront the Nephites for their obvious discrimination against him on his first visit.

Are there any theories as to why Samuel was sent to the Nephites when Nephi was already an effective prophet?

Yes. A common theory for why Samuel is sent to Zarahemla when Nephi is already there is that the Lord establishes his words with more than one witness (see 2 Corinthians 13:1)—and Samuel provides the second witness.

However, I argue that since Samuel was a member of another socio-political group, he was sent to Zarahemla, not only to be a second witness, but to help the Nephites confront and overcome their prejudice against the Lamanites.

Since Nephi was a Nephite, he wouldn’t have been able to help with prejudice in the same way that Samuel could. Samuel has an advantage because he is not a Nephite.

Are there any other clear examples of Nephite prejudice against Lamanites in the Book of Mormon?

Yes. The prejudice that the Nephites had against the Lamanites and that the Lamanites had against the Nephites in return originates in the disagreements between Lehi’s sons, Nephi and Laman, in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon. Those who aligned themselves with either Nephi or Laman developed and harbored unfavorable perceptions of the other group that were perpetuated in both civilizations as time passed.

Prejudice is not a new phenomenon.

The Nephites thought the Lamanites were filthy, cursed, loathsome, idle, mischievous, subtle, idolatrous, cunning, crafty, wild, ferocious, and blood-thirsty (2 Nephi 5:21–24; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 10:12; Alma 26:24–25) because they cherished and acted upon a set of values and beliefs that were different from those that the Nephites esteemed to be good.

The Nephites also felt that the Lamanites were infused with an eternal hatred so potent that it inspired a continual desire to enslave and/or destroy Nephites (Jacob 7:24, 26; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 10:17; 21:2–3; 24:8–11; Alma 43:29; 48:2–4).

On the other hand, the Lamanites thought the Nephites were political usurpers (see 1 Nephi 16:31; 2 Nephi 5:3; Mosiah 10:15; Alma 54:17-18, 24), liars (see 1 Nephi 16:38; 17:18; Alma 20:10, 13), deceivers (see 1 Nephi 16:38; 17:20, 22; Alma 20:13; 25:1-2, and thieves (see Mosiah 10:16; Alma 20:13).  

What tactics did Samuel the Lamanite use?

I argue that Samuel utilized three effective strategies for combating the discrimination he faced:

  • First, he directly confronted the Nephites about their prejudice.
  • Second, he provided the Nephites with an opportunity to associate with a representative from a different group, what we would call intergroup contact.
  • Third, Samuel asked the Nephites to participate in a mental-imagery exercise as he described the righteous Lamanites to them. As he did this, Samuel constructed a specific mental script that was designed to help the Nephites acquire a different perspective about the Lamanites and hopefully influence a change in their attitudes towards the Lamanites.

What did Samuel the Lamanite’s second visit to Zarahemla cost him?

I postulate that Samuel’s second visit to Zarahemla may have cost him a great deal personally. He had stones thrown at him, arrows shot at him, and people trying to capture him. He also experienced aggressive verbal attacks on his reputation, negative insinuations about his motives, and a significant amount of social dislike.

Though Samuel was divinely protected from physical harm, that does not mean he escaped the second visit unscathed. Perhaps the emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma that was present in his second visit was so extensive that Samuel lost any desire for further interaction with the Nephites in the future—and this may have been one reason why he never returned. 

A close-up view of a painting showing Nephites demonstrate prejduce by attacking Samuel the Lamanite with rocks and arrows.
Nephite attempts to kill Samuel the Lamanite on the wall may have been sparked in part by prejudice.

Jesus will later refer to Samuel as “Samuel, the Lamanite.” What can we learn from His choice to use those words?

There could be many reasons why Jesus identified Samuel as “Samuel, the Lamanite.” As far as we know from the Book of Mormon itself, Samuel was the only Lamanite prophet to ever preach to the Nephites, so that in itself would make him unique and could easily explain why Jesus identified Samuel as a Lamanite.

However, another reason could be that Jesus wanted to remind the Nephites that he was no respecter of persons and that He utilizes individuals from all walks of life and from all sociopolitical groups to do His work. Jesus may have been teaching the Nephites to value and respect Samuel’s words and to stop overlooking them as they compiled their records.

Why does it matter if there was prejudice anciently?

Scholars who research prejudice can tell you that prejudice exists everywhere and that wherever you find people, you find prejudice of one sort or another. Prejudice is not a new phenomenon and people in every age and location have had to deal with it.

I think it is helpful to see prejudice in people of the past, like the Nephites and Lamanites, so we can learn from their experiences and hopefully find ways to improve our behavior today.

We don’t need to keep making the same mistakes as people who lived in the past. We can and should do better.

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About the interview participant

Jan J. Martin is a visiting assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU. Her research interests include early English translations of the Bible; early English reformers such as William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and John Frith; King James translation of the Bible; development of the language of English theology.

Further Reading

Samuel the Lamanite on the wall resources

  • Samuel the Lamanite: Confronting the Wall of Nephite Prejudice (BYU RSC)
  • “Life and Death, Blessing and Cursing”: New Context for “Skin of Blackness” in the Book of Mormon (BYU Studies Quarterly)
  • “Was It Not So?” Remembering the Contributions of Samuel the Lamanite (BYU RSC)
  • Prophets and Prophecy in the Book of Mormon: The Case of Samuel the Lamanite (BYU RSC)
  • Samuel the Lamanite’s Prophecies of Jesus Christ (Y Religion)
  • Similarities Between Samuel in the Book of Mormon and Old Testament (Book of Mormon Central)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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