And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity... wherefore, as they were white, and exceeding 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)

And the Gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them... and their scale of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be white and delightsome people.

(2 Nephi 30:5-6) from the Book of Mormon

The Mormon Church, second only to the Roman Catholic Church in winning Americal Indian converts, has had success in that area despite its scriptural assertion that as members the "curse" of the Indians' dark skin is removed and they become "white and delightsome."

The Book of Mormon passages above, which also seem to equate dark skin with loathsomeness and filth, are embarrassing to some Mormons, including many of the 45,000 Indian members.

Unlike Mormons of black African descent who were denied the male priesthood of the church until last year, the American Indian members have always been eligible for positions in the church hierarchy.

Navajo elder George P. Lee, appointed three years ago to the First Quorum of the Seventy, is proof of that. At 35, he is the youngest of about 60 "general authorities" of the Salt Lake City-based church.

Lee said he has seen his won people "get upset" over the skin-shading teachings. "The Indian people who belong to the church really don't want to have their skin color changed; they like being brown," Lee said in an interview. "So we try not to teach them that."

Lee said his own interpretation of the Mormon scriptures is that while an Indian who joins the church may become "delightsome," happier and more content, it is only at one's resurrection into the "celestial kingdom" that one's skin color changes to white, a dazzling white borne by all.

However, the man who has headed the church since 1973 as prophet and president, Spencer W. Kimball, 83, long has held that there is a physical change occurring in Indian members.

Son of a missionary to Indians in Arizona, Kimball directed the church's Indian committee for a quarter century. He helped start the adoption-like Indian Student Placement Program. Today more than 2,700 Indian children (at least 8 years old and baptized Mormons) live off reservations with white Mormon families and attend public school.

Kimball told the church's fall conference in 1960 that, "The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservations."

For support, Kimball cited photographs showing skin color differences and the anecdotes of foster parents.

Kimball reaffirmed his belief during an interview last year. He suggested the alleged transformation results from the care, feeding and education given to Indian children in the home placement program.

"When you go down on the reservations," he said, "and see these hundreds of thousands of Indians living in the dirt and without culture or refinement of any kind, you can hardly believe it. Then you see these boys and girls playing the flute, the piano. All these things bring about aw normal culture."

Kimball said he did not know of any scientific studies to examine his claim. "You need scientists to prove it, I guess," the church leader said.

A faculty member at Mormon-run Brigham Young University, who would permit himself to be identified only as a "scientist at BYU," said:

"It's a problem we ignore and have very little occasion to address. My suspicions are that it would take an unusually credulous person to even bring up the subject in a science class."

The assertion that Indians become "white and delightsome" applies to all people the Mormons call Lamanites -- Mexicans, Latin Americans, Hawaiians and Polynesians as well as American Indians.

The Book of Mormon says early inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere were immigrants from Israel about 600 B.C. A rebellious leader named Laman incurred the wrath of God, and his descendants were cursed with a dark skin.

Some who believe in the Book of Mormon -- scriptures said to have been delivered on metal plates to Joseph Smith in 1827 -- interpret the "whitedark" verses figuratively -- that converts become "Nlightened."

However, the meaning of the text appears to be literal. A passage describing a time when some Lamanites repented of their sins, for instance, says: "And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white...."

Stewart A. Durrant, of Salt Lake City and director of the Mormon Church's Lamanite and minority program, said he thinks Lamanites in the church are becoming lighter but he added that he is not sure it is not simply his imagination.

"I think you can be delightsome and not white in skin color," Durrant said.

He conceded that the Book of Mormon verses do bother some American Indians. "They don't want to be light," he said. "But I've never found this to be a factor (in mission work). It's brought up by people who want to say something controversial."

American Indian membership in the Mormon Church in the United States and Canada has risen by about 1,000 annually in the last half dozen years. The latest figures from Salt Lake City showed 43,680 Indian members in 1976 and an estimated 44,900 by the end of 1977.

A recently completed survey of Christian missions among Indians placed the Catholic population at 177,000. The largest memberships, after the Mormons, were Southern Baptists (36,000), Russian Orthodox in Alaska (22,000), Episcopalians (19,674) and Methodists (14,360), according to the Native American Christian Community, published by World Vision International.