It bothered Jan Van de Merwe, a longtime toy designer and believing Mormon, that LDS kids played with "Star Wars" action figures at church. Why not create figures from their own faith that would be more appropriate for Mormon youngsters?
So, in 1995, Van De Merwe founded Latter-Day Designs to do just that, and it's been a small, niche business ever since, selling steadily at LDS Church-owned Deseret Book.
He created 33 Book of Mormon vinyl figures, including Captain Moroni with his "Title of Liberty," bare-chested Ammon, and Helaman on a horse.
LDS scriptures describe struggles in the family of Lehi and Sariah between two righteous brothers, Nephi and Sam, and two unbelieving, rebellious brothers, Laman and Lemuel. The book says that when the latter turned away from heaven, God cursed them with a "skin of blackness."
Thus, Latter-Day Designs offers before-and-after Laman and Lemuel figures – one light skinned and the other darker.
In the product description it says, Lemuel "did not believe in the righteous teachings of his father, Lehi. Lemuel's example in The Book of Mormon teaches us what happens when we do not choose the right."
The designer is quick to point out that all the Lamanites have darker skin tones, even the ones who became good like Samuel the Lamanite. The company also markets other figures out of vinyl and pewter such as international Mormon missionaries with varied coloring and features.
With the Book of Mormon figures, the dark skin seems to follow the scripture's story line.
"We don't really call it dark skin," Van De Merwe said in a phone interview from his home in Cincinnati. "But it's still kind of tricky."