One of our favorite family traditions when I was young boy—one we shared with millions of other Americans—was gathering around the television every Sunday evening to watch Bonanza, an American Western set in Nevada near Carson City. The show chronicles the adventures of the Cartwright family, owners of one of the largest ranches in the state: the Ponderosa.
The family patriarch was the thrice-widowed Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), who had three sons of varying temperaments. The show, which ran a record 14 seasons on NBC, was popular because it offered both comedy and drama, and told compelling stories about the challenges the family, and those in its orbit, confronted.
Of all the episodes I watched there is only one I remember in any detail. It was called “It’s a Small World,” and it taught me a valuable lesson.
The plot revolves around a dwarf—George—who vows to keep a promise he made to his wife on her deathbed: find a job outside the circus so their newborn daughter can have a stable life. He turns to Ben Cartwright for help who recommends him to the town banker, Mr. Flynt, because George is good with numbers, having kept the books for the circus. The prospect of filling a vacant teller slot at the bank thrills Flynt, so he agrees to interview him. But when he meets George, he recoils at the prospect of hiring a little person.
Unable to find work and needing money to feed his daughter, George breaks into the bank after hours and takes what he needs. But he is soon caught and arrested.
Cartwright promptly comes to his defense, but the sheriff tells him his hands are tied—unless he can get Flynt to drop the charges. Ben then heads directly to Flynt’s office where he implores the bank owner to drop the charges, even offering to cover the cost of any unrecovered funds, but Flynt is unmoved. Whereupon the following exchange occurs:
Cartwright: “I’m just asking for a little compassion—for a man who has just lost his wife, has a brand new baby daughter…
Flynt: “He didn’t have to steal.”
Cartwright: “He tried to get a job and he couldn’t. You ought to know that.”
Flynt: “Ah … yes … I knew we’d get around to that. It was my fault because I didn’t give him a job. Well, I didn’t force him to steal; it was in him. I tried to tell you that, Ben.”
Cartwright: “Yes, you did. You did try to tell me that and I almost forgot. He’s a thief because he’s smaller than you are—if that’s possible.”
Flynt: “Ben, I told you yesterday. He should live with his own kind! If God had meant us all to live together he would have made us all the same!!”
Cartwright [pauses, inhales, and quietly says, before walking out of Flynt’s office]: “You may be right. And I may be very wrong. And maybe you know something I don’t. You see … I don’t know how tall God is.”
That simple declarative statement—“I don’t know how tall God is”—taught me that it’s a terrible mistake—and terribly arrogant—to presume we know anything about God’s physical characteristics or who is like him and who is not. So, I have always been perplexed by the unwavering position taken by the church regarding the complexion of Christ: he’s Aryan white. Most church members, however, would be surprised to learn that the origins of this dubious doctrine can be traced, in part, to an attempt by outsiders to paint early Latter-day saints as a racial minority.
In recent years, the church has been trying to distance itself from its racialized past by highlighting the following verse from its scriptural canon: “[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, …” Sadly, this verse was perceived by the church in the 19th century as a potential threat, if not to its actual survival, then, at the very least, to its ability to win new converts.
During the Missouri and Nauvoo years, detractors and former Latter-day Saints began to characterize Mormons as “non-white.” They accused the church of being too inclusive, of welcoming to God’s earthly family alien individuals of all classes and colors. In the 1830s Edward Strutt Abdy, an English legal academic and abolitionist who toured America, noted that these allegations were validated by the above passage from the Book of Mormon. Simply stated, this text espoused an open racial vision too progressive for 19th century America to stomach while in the midst of a vast internal struggle over the future of slavery.
Efforts to combat these perceptions soon began to influence the theology and politics of the Mormon Church. In 1849, Brigham Young instituted the Priesthood Ban. Then, three years later, the prophet declared himself a “firm believer in slavery” and encouraged the State legislature to pass a bill legalizing a form of involuntary servitude in Utah. Which it promptly did.
Nevertheless, outsiders continued to treat Mormons as racially suspect, as illustrated by this cartoon from the April 28,1904 edition of Life magazine, which appeared with the following caption: “Mormon Elder-Berry—Out with His Six-Year-Olds, Who Take After Their Mothers.”
It was published while the U.S. Senate was deciding whether the first Mormon ever elected to the Senate, Reed Smoot, would be allowed to take his seat. The cartoon was not only meant to attack polygamy, which was still being practiced in the church, but also to resurrect 19th century stereotypes of Mormons as a mixed, mongrel race.
To further reinforce its “whiteness,” the church responded with images of its own: artistic portrayals of Jesus as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. To justify its depiction of Christ as Caucasian, it reimagined God’s creation of man.
In 1868, George Reynolds, a member of the First Council of the Seventy taught that, “when God made man in his own image … he made him white. But he didn’t stop there. All of God’s “favored servants”—prophets, apostles, and, of course, his Son—were gloriously white. The Bible’s failure to posit a connection between skin color and God’s favor did not concern Reynolds.
Various passages in the Book of Mormon were also cited as proof of Christ’s white complexion. Further, well into the mid-twentieth century prominent church leaders spoke of “whitening converted Indians” which occurred when they were placed in Mormon homes. But such literalistic interpretations of scripture completely miss the metaphorical meaning of these passages, where the focus is on purity, not skin color. Moreover, they fail to acknowledge that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon was undoubtedly influenced by the world in which he lived, one where race was the central issue of the day.
Earlier this year, the church doubled down on its portrayal of Christ when it announced that all artwork in church foyers would be limited to 22 images featuring a white, blonde, and blue-eyed European Jesus. This decision is hard to reconcile with an ecclesiastical organization that bills itself as a “worldwide church.” And while we do not know what Christ looked like, we definitely know he wasn’t European.
So if our belief in a “Great White God”—to use a phrase employed by Elder Mark E. Petersen and in missionary tracts in the early 1970s—reflects nothing more than a desire to create God in our image, what color is he? I don’t know and I don’t believe any mortal person does. But I have a theory, one I arrived at by blending modern and ancient scripture with science.
In his First Vision account, Joseph Smith describes seeing two personages “whose brightness and glory defy all description.” Nowhere does he say they were white; rather, they simply radiated a bright and glorious light. But what color was that light? Perhaps the Israelites’ version of the ancient flood myth offers a clue.
After the waters of the deluge receded, God promised Noah and his descendants that he would never again visit such a cataclysm upon the earth and placed a rainbow in the clouds as a token of his covenant.
Although the Israelites did not understand that a rainbow—a spectrum of light in the sky—is caused by the refraction and dispersion of light in droplets of water, their ancient cosmology clearly positioned God in the heavens and frequently associated him with the Sun. Christ reinforced that belief when he declared that he is “the light of the world.”
When we apply our knowledge of physics and optics to this metaphor, it acquires additional layers of meaning. The light emanating from the Sun contains all colors of the spectrum, including some we cannot see, such as infrared light, along with radio and ultraviolet waves. The invisible portions of the spectrum, like the Lord, are on the other side of a veil, serving as a reminder that mortal eyes have limited vision and perspective. And just as the moisture in clouds was the medium employed by God to reveal himself to Noah in all his many colors, we too must pass through water—the waters of baptism—in order to regain his presence.
The prophet Jacob employed his own Technicolor metaphor when he bestowed upon his youngest son, Joseph, a “coat of many colors.” Such a robe was a sign of royal status, authority, and favor. It was given to Joseph because his father knew he was destined to be a leader of nations. He fulfilled that prophecy by rising to a position of great power in a foreign land, one where the rest of his family eventually found refuge because of Joseph’s stature in Egypt.
When people gaze at God’s rainbow, they see themselves—not alone but as part of the family of man. They are clothed, as Joseph was, in a panoply of colors and feel a connection with, and responsibility for, those around them.
God’s light, when dispersed, gives our world it’s vibrant appearance and diverse peoples. Their differences are to be celebrated, not homogenized and correlated. “All are alike unto God” just as they are. God glories in our differences. He wishes to transform us spiritually, not physically. And when that transformation occurs all colors are integrated, becoming gloriously bright while simultaneously retaining their individuality. This, I believe, is the color of God.
 2 Nephi 26:33.
 W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Struggle for Whiteness, (Oxford University Press: New York: 2015), pp. 23, 270-271.
 Joanna Brooks, Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence, (Oxford University Press: New York: 2020), p. 30.
 John G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography, (Belknap Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2016) pp. 250-251.
 Ibid, p. 253.
 Douglas Campbell, “‘White’ or ‘Pure’: Five Vignettes,” 8, No. 1, Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 4 (Winter 1996): pp. 119-135.
 Joseph Smith—History, 1:17.
 Genesis 9:13.
 John 8:12.
 Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament: Volume 1, Gen. Ed. John H. Walton (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2009) p. 121.