Interview with Max Perry Mueller, author of Race and the Making of the Mormon People

The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, a time in United States history replete with racial struggles and negotiations. In such an environment, this new “gospel of Christ” was inevitably intertwined with the racial and national debates of the era. In his book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, Max Perry Mueller explores this history through some of Mormonism’s forgotten historical figures—black and Native American Mormon converts—and shows that while creating a theology of Mormon whiteness, The Book of Mormon also, somewhat ironically, enabled avenues for challenging white dominance in both Mormon history and American, history more broadly. On November 20th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Mueller to discuss his recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: How did Mormons help shape the concept of race in America, and what role did theology play in this process?

MPM: My book looks at race in America in the early nineteenth century, specifically Mormons as a case offering a unique theology and history. The book also looks towards Mormons as representative of larger issues. One of the tasks of the book is to return to a time in the American past when race was not a secularized concept.  Race has become secularized. It’s a box to check on a census form. It’s also an experience of state-sponsored privilege—lighter sentences for cocaine instead of crack. It’s also an experience of state-sponsored racial discrimination, say, for example, African American men and women harassed, or worse, simply for driving down the street. Part of the reason why racial injustice and inequality have been so hard to overcome today is because we have forgotten their theological roots. Even though we don’t remember the theology of race, it operates in our collective consciousness. It operates at the epistemological level of faith. When certain politicians declare crime rates are going up in “inner cities,” despite evidence to the contrary, part of the reason such rhetoric resonates is that ideas of race—in particular the black male body as a site of violence and threat to the whiter wider world— are theological.

This is true today and it’s also true in America’s past. Mormonism arrives on the scene at an interesting time in American history when there were fraught national conversations about whether certain racial groups can fully be members of the American body politic. Specifically, these conversations concerned whether Native Americans and people of African descent could be included. Andrew Jackson and the Congress that supported the Indian Removal Act had a very clear view that Native Americans, by virtue of their Indianness, could never be part of the American body politic. Because race was so fixed as a theological and political concept, no matter what Native Americans did to demonstrate their Americanness, Jackson could not imagine Natives ever being fully included in the idea of the American nation. They needed to be physically removed. In 1830, the nation was also continuing to debate slavery and the degree to which free African Americans could count as full members of the American body politic.

Also in 1830, Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon. It is a grand, audacious new imagining of the American past and American future. The revelations relayed by Joseph Smith called for “the restoration of all things.” Smith’s project was to reunify the world. He wanted to get rid of racial, political, and religious divisions because he believed that political, theological, and even racial schisms were not of God’s design. Instead schisms were the product of human sin. This was particularly true for race. Because race was a result of human sin, humans could also use their God-given agency to overcome the sin that created racial categories.

The Book of Mormon presents what I describe as a gospel of “white universalism” that functions as a response and a correction to contemporaneous biblically-based readings of racial divisions. In the Bible and The Book of Mormon there are moments in which one group of the human family sinned against another, for which they, and their lineages, were set apart—“marked” or “cursed”—from the rest of the human family. According to these scriptural narratives, the descendants of the original sinful progenitors that created these racial categories continued to bear the burden of that original sin—a second “first fall.” For example, when Cain kills his brother Abel, that’s a sin against the original human family; Ham and Noah provide a similar kind of curse story, to be “servants of servants” to the more righteous branches of the postdiluvian human family. To justify the colonization of Africa and enslavement of Africans, the origin story of the African race was read into these biblical narratives. The Book of Mormon has its own set of such stories, from which the early Mormons derived their understandings of Native Americans as “Lamanites”—a long-lost family of ancient Israelites who were cursed with dark skin when they sinned against their more righteous kin.

Yet The Book of Mormon has a radically different view on understandings of racial immutability, which challenged the common notion that race was fixed by the strictures of religion, politics, and increasingly science. The Book of Mormon proclaimed that race is not real, that it is not of God’s design. Race is a creation of humans that can be overcome through the proper exercise of human agency. According to The Book of Mormon, by partaking and accepting this new Mormon gospel, non-white peoples can rejoin the rest of the universal human family. However, the universal human family is a white family: race is only created when racial others are created—blackness and darkness in comparison to whiteness. Whiteness becomes the universal category that appears race-less, but is pregnant with all kinds of meaning.

By publishing The Book of Mormon in 1830, Joseph Smith offered a new—and in some ways radical—view of racial “others,” and especially of Native Americans. According to The Book of Mormon, Native American “Lamanites” would be the first leaders of the Mormon project, the establishment of a new Jerusalem in America. This radical racial view got the Mormons in a lot of trouble. Some of the early Mormon persecution was due to the fact that Mormons were proposing to upend the racial hierarchies of the day, not only with regard to Native Americans but also with regard to attracting black converts. Anti-Mormons worried that the Mormons would attempt to convert slaves and encourage slave rebellions. They worried about slaves reading this gospel and learning that they could rejoin this universal human family in this new community. However, because Mormons got in so much trouble so quickly, they moved fairly quickly away from a radical view of inclusion to more radical views of exclusion, especially with regard to people of African descent.

Part of my argument looks at how external factors affected this movement from inclusion to exclusion. But it is important to highlight the internal factors of racial construction within Mormon theology that contributed to this declension. And yet these same internal factors not only moved Mormons toward a more exclusionary view but also, ironically, provided the theological and cultural resources that non-white Mormons used to demonstrate their Mormonness. My project looks at how non-white Mormons demonstrated this Mormonness by writing it down, and thus writing themselves into the origin story of early Mormonism.

KB: In what ways can we see the historical legacy of these racial formations now? Do you see traces of this historical process in contemporary Mormonism?

MPM: Absolutely. The Mormon people—which is not the same as the LDS church hierarchy, though to be sure, there is a connection between the two—are wrestling deeply with this legacy, perhaps more than ever before. In 1978, the LDS Church announced that the prophets of the church received a revelation to end earlier policies that excluded people of African descent from the priesthood and from the temple. The LDS Church had a policy that people of African descent could be baptized but could not participate fully in church life, notably sacred temple rituals that the Mormons believe bind couples and families together for time and eternity. In other words, temple and priesthood exclusions were not peripheral; these were central issues of exclusion. The Mormon fear of African Americans in particular goes back to theologies of accursed blackness. The fear was that black bloodlines would taint the racial purity of the Mormon people.

In 1978 the prophets received a revelation to end the racial restrictions. But they didn’t explain why the policy had existed in the first place. And the church remained silent until 2012 and 2013, which happened to be—and again, politics is important here—Mitt Romney’s second presidential bid. Mitt Romney was often called the “whitest” of presidential candidates in recent American history. His whiteness, frankly, looks quaint in 2018’s understanding of “white presidents.” Yet critics of Mormonism believed that Romney’s whiteness was derived from Mormonism’s history of racist exclusion of people of African descent from full church membership.

There are Mormon people who are pushing the church to more fully reject its past theologies. One important group of activists and scholars is called “Shoulder to the Wheel,” which is leveraging this year’s 40th anniversary of the end to the “priesthood and temple” ban to call for a more thorough reckoning with past and present racism within the church. Today, the LDS Church itself is working to produce documents and histories that contextualize its past exclusions. But this is a struggle. The church leaders have yet to fully repudiate their past positions and theologies, because doing so would undercut their own authority of “continuing revelation”—to speak in the present tense on God’s behalf. So church leaders are looking to other ways to distance the church from racism. The day before the fall 2017 General Conference (during which church apostles and other leaders speak to the world-wide church every six months), I presented my book’s findings to a group of folks who work for the LDS Church public affairs office. They asked me, “What can we as the church do better to address issues of racial contention?” I said rather flippantly, “Well, you can mention someone like Jane Manning James and talk about her story from the pulpit of General Conference.” And lo and behold, that Sunday, church apostle M. Russell Ballard spoke out against sexism, nationalism, and racism. And he mentioned Jane Manning James as a true exemplar of a faithful Mormon. I’m confident that my suggestion and Elder Ballard’s mentioning of James is a coincidence. But it does speak to how the official church is more willing to listen and more willing to embrace its own past members of African descent, whom they long excluded from official histories, as exemplary members.

So both the LDS Church and the Mormon people are working in different ways to confront racial legacies and divisions within Mormonism. This is the case for two reasons. Some efforts are theologically-based. Instead of white universalism, the story that today’s church wants to tell is of a universalism disconnected from whiteness itself. In fact, there’s a moral imperative to do so, which is taken from The Book of Mormon. 2 Nephi 26:33 states, “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he 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, both Jew and Gentile.” Here we can hear echoes of 3 Galatians 28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The real struggle for the contemporary church is not necessarily to disconnect itself from whiteness; it is to disconnect itself from Americanness. The LDS Church remains very much an American church. But today the majority of church members live outside the United States. The second largest national group of Mormons live in Mexico. There are probably more non-white Mormons than white Mormons. So there is a theological motivation as well as a practical motivation to address these issues of racial and national divisions.

This is also a matter of speaking out directly to our political age. America is debating whether we are an ethnonational state organized around a set of identities, or we are organized around a set of ideas. And for Mormons, this debate speaks to Mormonism’s past and present. In terms of the past, when President Trump calls for a ban on Muslims, many Mormons hear their own long legacy of state sponsored persecution and forced exile that they endured. And in terms of the present, When President Trump calls for a wall to stop Mexicans from entering the United States, some Mormons hear an attack against their Mexican brothers and sisters in the gospel.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to how American religions are studied?

MPM: First, we cannot study religion without studying race and the intricate connections between religious identity and racial identity. Second, as historians who look to explain or contextualize these issues of origins of racial and religious divisions, we need to be humbler about what we claim we can say about the past. It is rare that stories from non-white Christians who argued for inclusion in the communities with which they identified made their way into the that community’s written archive. Therefore, often historians must resort to studying the archive of writings produced by white church members who controlled the means of production of history—pen and paper, the printing press. My argument is that racial divisions were built on the pages of this archive, which includes sacred scriptures, church minutes, letters.

The first step is to locate the racial construction within those writings. I argue that the archive is not some neutral place, especially around questions of race, from which historians can draw to narrate their histories. To tell the story of Jane Manning James, the early black Mormon convert, to tell the story of Wakara, a famous Ute chief who got baptized in the early church and became a Mormon elder but then went to war against the Mormons as the Mormons encroached on his sacred lands, is to address the racial constructions and exclusions at work within the archive. However, we have scant resources to fully flesh out their lived experiences as they deserve. So instead, we must be humble in our claims about how much we can recover of their actual lived experiences. What one can do, though, is look at the very scant materials we have that were written by these figures and try to figure out the writing projects in which they engaged. If we can’t get to their lived experiences, at least we can get to their written lives—how they constructed themselves on paper. In doing so, we find that they present a counter-narrative to the official written narrative of the white scribes, the white record keepers, the white historians.

KB: What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?

First, the archive is a racialized space and therefore scholars must be wary about how racialized others are discussed in that archive. In other words, since race is constructed, the first construction site is on the page. And not just any page, but pages of scripture, of law, of sermons, family letters, and so on. These written construction sites then get read onto flesh and bone bodies.

Second, scholars and students of American history should take The Book of Mormon more seriously. Just practically speaking, there are close to sixteen million Mormons around the world, and The Book of Mormon helped redefine how Mormons saw the American project itself. The Book of Mormon therefore greatly impacted how the people who inhabited the Americas were conceptualized. And the Book of Mormon theology—in particular its views of Native Americans—influenced the settlement of the American West. Third, and related to the first point, often the voices that speak most powerfully and most truthfully about how a people is—or is not—living up to that people’s own values and ideologies are those on the margins. Scholars should listen to those marginalized voices because their marginalization—this is true from Amos on the wall of Samaria to William Apess, the great Pequot writer and activist; from Frederick Douglass to Colin Kaepernick; from Samuel, the Lamanite, in the Book of Mormon to Jane Manning James—provides a better vision. And yet we need look to those folks not as marginal, but as direct correctives to the narration of the history of both the Mormon people and the American people more broadly.