Race and the Making of the Mormon People

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Max Perry Mueller
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , September
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



In Race and the Making of the Mormon People, Max Mueller argues that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS, or Mormon, Church), race, religious identity, literacy, and the creation of the archive are all connected. In his most concise encapsulation of his project, Mueller writes: “This book traces how the early Mormons attempted to enact their vision of restorative racial universalism. This book also traces the external and internal forces that led to the failure of these efforts to create a (relatively) racially inclusive people and instead resulted in creating a Mormon people whose racial particularism… became a hallmark feature of their identity” (17). As such, this book joins W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015), Angela Pulley Hudson’s Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), and other recent works in directing our attention to how Mormons constructed race and participated in broader American and European race-making projects.

Mueller starts with the Book of Mormon, a text he calls the “first installment of the ‘Mormon archive’” (27). “The Book of Mormon understands whiteness to be the original and universal racial category” to which all racial groups must eventually be restored (41), Mueller writes, continuing: “Whiteness signifies humanity in a state of accord with both the commandments of God and the cultural norms of man. As such whiteness is the racial category that is, ironically, empty of race” (42). Although Mueller notes that “the Book of Mormon itself seems to be aware” of “the limitations of whiteness as a universal racial category” that result in the failure of this theological system (35), he asserts that the text’s understanding of the fluidity of race and its positioning of whiteness as the original and ultimate racial identity, profoundly affected “the evolution of Mormon conceptions of race during the movement’s first century” (33). Mueller next discusses how these ideas about race shaped Mormons’ “marketing campaigns” (61)—that is, missions—targeting primarily Native Americans and white Europeans and Euro-Americans and how Mormons’ conceptions of their own racial identities evolved to privilege white converts’ “believing blood” (110).

Having established how “Mormons shaped… the… white American” race (12), Mueller turns his attention to the formation of the other two “original American races: ‘black,’… and ‘red’” (8). Mueller states at the outset that his book “foregrounds the experiences of nonwhite Mormons, especially early church members of African and Native American descent” (11), but his account includes strikingly few real people of color. Instead, he focuses on the intellectual and theological project of racial construction in the LDS Church as it proceeded in scripture, legislation, and church policy. Mueller centers his discussion of African American Mormons on African American convert Jane James, who dictated an autobiography as an elderly woman; and he organizes his discussion of Native American Mormons around Ute Indian leader Wakara, who accepted LDS baptism but also forcefully resisted LDS encroachment. Mueller asks: how did these Mormons attempt to write themselves into “the Mormon archive that was being generated in order to exclude” people like them (123)? And how did white Mormons construct “Indians and Africans…. on whom the Mormons could act” (182)? The latter question occupies the majority of Mueller’s attention, to the detriment of a careful analysis of the lived experiences of Jane James, Wakara, and other people of color who accepted LDS baptism. Readers seeking a deep understanding of these and other nonwhite Mormons’ experiences should look elsewhere.

Although Mueller’s innovation is to connect ideas about race and religion to the themes of literacy and the archive in Mormon history, neither of these ideas is as fully developed as it might be. Mueller relies on a general equivalency between whiteness and literacy that leaves him little room to maneuver when it comes to illiterate white people and literate people of color. Likewise, Mueller’s “archive” is not clearly defined. The LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City is an actual “Mormon archive”; sometimes, Mueller seems to have this archive in mind. At other times, he seems to refer to something more like collective memory, or what Danièle Hervieu-Léger calls “authorized memory” (Rutgers University Press, 2000, 126). A clearer concept of the archive might have enabled Mueller to build on other scholars’ work analyzing how race and power shape the archive from which history is written (see, for example, Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016; Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12:2 [June 2008]:1-14; Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, Duke University Press, 2006; Shawn Michelle Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture, Princeton University Press, 1999; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon, 1995).

Throughout the book, I wondered about Mueller’s methodological and interpretive choices. What does it mean to insert a word into Jane James’s autobiography, thereby controlling the interpretation of the passage (130), when one of the topics under discussion is James’s loss of “control over her writerly self” (140)? Similarly, what does it mean to decipher the marks Wakara made on a piece of paper and sent to Brigham Young (206-207), or to describe Wakara as “wag[ing] a war of terror” (173) against white Mormon colonists? And, perhaps most crucially, what role does this book play in the ongoing construction of the Mormon archive that Mueller wishes to interrogate?

Jan Shipps pointed out in 1985 that because of its recent origins and well-documented development, Mormonism is a useful case study for understanding religion more broadly. The construction and lived experience of race is one of the most promising lines of inquiry to emerge in recent studies of Mormonism. Race and the Making of the Mormon People highlights the potential of this direction as well as the wealth of work that remains.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Quincy D. Newell is associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Max Perry Mueller is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska.


Max Perry Mueller

Thank you to Quincy Newell for this review of Race and the Making of the Mormon People, and to Reading Religion for the opportunity to respond.

In reading Quincy Newell’s review of Race and the Making of the Mormon People, I was reminded of René Margritte’s Treachery of Images  (also known as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). Margritte, the great Belgian surrealist, famously quipped that he did not paint a literal pipe with his paintbrushes, paint, and canvas. He painted a “representation” of one. “If I had written on my picture, ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying.” Newell is right that Race and the Making of the Mormon People does not, fundamentally, describe nonwhite Mormons’ “lived experiences” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the book was never intended to be a lived religion project. (I understand that Newell is working on a book about Jane Manning James that attempts a “lived religion” approach. I look forward to reading this book). Race and the Making of the Mormon People is interested in how the Mormons—both white and non-white—did not create literal lives with their pens, paper, and printing presses. They created written representations of lives: in particular, racialized ones.

This distinction between “lived” and “representation” is important because most of the sources that historical figures like Jane Manning James left behind are retrospective in nature. These narratives were intentionally constructed to fashion histories of (Mormon) selves and of (Mormon) people. From her written accounts of her encounters with the Book of Mormon translation aides, her intimate relationship with the Smith family, and her encounters with the early, secretive days of polygamy, to her experience as a pioneer of 1847 and a matriarch to a large Mormon family in Utah, James narrated a representation of her own life to show just how quintessentially Mormon it was. She did so to refute the representations of black life penned and preached by church leaders who claimed that no black life, no matter how faithful it proved to be, could be a Mormon one.

At least in the written archive, the lived experiences of most of the Native Americans who were baptized into the Mormon faith, who were “bought into freedom” from Indian slave traders, who were killed or driven from their ancestral lands, are even more distant than those of black Mormons. I’d point to my book’s discussion of the cases of “Sally” (Kahpeputz) and “Mary,” two wives of the Mormons’ chief Native American ally, Kanosh. The individual lived experiences of these two women (and the lived experiences of their deaths, too) become so lost in historical representations that they collapse into each other, out of which emerges hagiography and/or caricature (195-201). Yet even when written down contemporaneously to the events which they claim to archive, the written sources (almost) always create on the page “Indian,” “Lamanite,” “African,” and “Gentile” literary tropes (See, for example Oliver Cowdery’s 1831 letters regarding the failed first mission to the Lamanites (68-70); and Brigham Young’s 1852 speech to the Utah territorial legislature on “African” chattel slavery (180-81, 189-94)). This is why I find it so valuable to “read,” as much as it is possible, the intent of “Walker’s writing” (Chapter 6). It is a way into understanding how Native peoples also participated in the self-fashioning that occurs in the written historical archive.

To be sure, the lived experiences of the Native and African American peoples who encountered early Mormonism need not be lost to the historian. Three generations of scholars of Native American history have demonstrated how to contend with archival materials inflected with the “settler-colonial gaze.” And the archive (especially the official church archive stored at the Church History Library) is not the only source upon which historians can or should rely to construct our own narratives. My next project, Wakara’s World, makes this turn. It employs ethnohistory, archeology, climatology, resource management, ethnozoology, and archival materials to attempt to reconstruct the cultural, environmental, and political worlds of Wakara, the great Ute chief and onetime Mormon elder turned combatant against the Mormon settler colonialists. Yet my focus in Race and the Making of the Mormon People is to show how, against the Indian, Lamanite, Gentile, and African foils, Mormons fashioned their “peculiar” white Mormon selves. To be sure, this unique shade of Mormon whiteness was not only bound up in the performance of literacy, but also in a whole set of signifying rituals. These included sacred signifying performances (e.g. patriarchal blessings, temple ceremonies, priesthood ordinations) as well as the everyday (e.g., rearing children, razing trees, canning vegetables, missionizing and/or killing Indians). My intended contribution is to highlight the mechanism by which this field of performed (signified) Mormon whiteness was recorded and archived for posterity.

Newell ends her review by calling us to do more on the history of race and Mormonism. I could not agree more! For one, let us expand our geographical and chronological focus. Doing so opens up new sources and new notions of race as we follow Mormonism’s growth throughout the globe. This is exciting and daunting. Fortunately, we have many capable colleagues who are putting their diverse talents and diverse points of view to this vital work. (One is Newell herself. Another is Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, whose forthcoming book on polygamy, missionaries, and domesticity in Anglo-American imperial spaces will be field shaping. And there are promising scholars, like Janan Graham-Russell, who are working their way through PhD programs around the country). As I imply in my own review of W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color in the Journal of Religion (January 2018), here’s hoping that we can see this scholarship on race and Mormonism (and race and religion more broadly) as a collective. Together we can aim to articulate a set of truths, though different ones, moving towards, but never arriving, at the whole.



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