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

Andrea L. Turpin

As I have written elsewhere on this blog, I love Mormon history. That's why I was delighted to interview Max Perry Mueller on his new book Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). I actually happened to be teaching the Mormon unit in my American women's history course concurrently with reading this book, and it helped me answer several student questions! So without further ado, here is Mueller (lightly edited for length and clarity) on everything from the relationship between history, theology, and race to how he hopes we'll teach Mormon history differently:

AT: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People

MPM: I’ve shared a bit of my professional and confessional history elsewhere. Let me just add that I’m an outsider—at least superficially—to experiences of Mormonism and “race.” (To be sure, to say that I haven’t experienced “race” is a sign of my privilege. As I hope my book shows, the power and privilege of “whiteness” is the assumption of its ubiquity and universality.) But the experiences of growing up among Mormons in Wyoming and North Carolina, and later coming of age with family members for whom race and religious marginalization were ever-present realities, informed the way I see the world as a person and as a scholar. 

As for Mormonism, other scholars have observed that, like the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians, Latter-day Saints were once racial and religious others who succeeded in becoming “white”—in fact exemplary “white” Americans. In Race and the Making of the Mormon People, I wanted to tell a story about non-white Mormons—in particular, to examine how they set down their own “sacred pasts,” to borrow from Laurie Maffly-Kipp. These sacred pasts have long been excluded in both the official Mormon narrative as well as the narrative that outsiders have imposed upon the Mormon people. And when we examine these narratives, we find a handful of African-American and Native-American Mormons who wrote themselves into the “Mormon archive”—which I conceptualize as the written and oral texts that compose the Mormon people’s collective memory. They did so in order to claim their place among the prophets and pioneers that mark membership in early Mormon history.

AT: You state in your introduction: “History makes theology. But theology makes history, too.” What do you mean by this?

MPM: What I mean directly relates to the question of race in American history. What are the origins of America’s racial (racist) views that seem so impossible to unseat from our collective consciousness and, perhaps more importantly, from our institutions? We know that antebellum Americans often justified divisions between white and black Americans by pointing to their Bibles. Proslavery advocates declared that people of African descent were cursed to be the “servants of servants.” At the same time, enslaved and free African Americans saw themselves as a chosen people, akin to the enslaved Israelites awaiting liberation out of the American Egypt.

Historians often claim that such interpretations on both sides of what Du Bois famously called “the color line,” are historical, not scriptural. That is, Americans wrote race into scripture when scripture actually has little to say on the subject. The book of Genesis, for example, makes no explicit mention that the curse to be “servants of servants” that Noah pronounced upon the supposed African descendants of Ham is a curse of dark skin. In my book, I invert the usual focus on how America’s racial history influenced scriptural interpretation. I pose the question: What would a history of race look like if we examined how scriptures created theological lenses through which Americans viewed the nation’s various racial populations?

The Book of Mormon provides us with a unique opportunity to answer this question. It presents itself as a new—or more precisely newly restored—scripture that claims to contain all the “plain and precious” parts (1 Nephi 13) of the gospel that had been lost in the “Old World” gospel due to inept or unfaithful translators and scribes. As such, it’s a better “archive”—a key concept in my book— of Christ’s true teachings than the Old World gospel. And the main thrust of Christ’s true teaching is one that calls believers to end schisms—religious, political, and racial—within the human family. As such, I argue that drawing from the Book of Mormon, the earliest Mormons challenged the view that racial identities were fixed, written into law books, into scripture, and increasingly into scientific fact.
AT: How can better formulating this give-and-take help us better grasp how Mormons understood race, particularly the division between whites, Native Americans, and African Americans?

MPM: Let me give two data points to answer this question: one related to “scientific” epistemologies and the other related to political epistemologies of what we might call the three original American races, “black,” “white,” and “red.” In 1830, the same year that the Book of Mormon was published, the founder of the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine Charles Caldwell published a racial origins treatise in which he claimed that the book of Genesis account was limited to the origins of the “Caucasian” race. Caldwell, one of the pioneers of “craniology”—which claimed that human races could be classified into hierarchies based on the size and shape of skulls—argued that the roots of racial differences were found in the biological archive, not the biblical one. And not surprisingly, Caldwell found that Caucasian crania were the grandest, while the “African” crania were the smallest and least developed. The “American Indian” was somewhere in between. According to Caldwell, the Indian however was most noted for “his radical unfitness for civilization.” Caldwell’s views supported those of Andrew Jackson and the U.S. Congress, who also in 1830 passed the Indian Removal Act. Jackson asserted that no matter what they did to demonstrate assimilation and acculturation to the signifiers that defined American (Protestant) whiteness—literacy, Christianity, private land ownership, legal codes—by dint of their Indianness, there was no place for Native Americans in the American republic.    

When it was published in 1830, the Book of Mormon exploded these ideas of racial fixity. Race is not real, not an eternal truth authored by God, the Book of Mormon taught. “Race” (as in dark skin) enters into history as the result of sin. The Book of Mormon’s first adopter believed that it mandated believers to restore the human family to its original racial unity. However, the Mormons were not racial egalitarians. Instead, “whiteness” (the race that is raceless) became an aspirational identity non-whites could achieve through conversion to Mormonism.

AT: Does your book also change how we should understand non-Mormon ideas about race in the nineteenth-century U.S.?

MPM: I hope so! Two related points: First, what I hope to show is that race is about storytelling. Explicit in the nineteenth-century U.S., and more implicit today, racial origins were narrated, often based on interpretations of religious scriptures. The early Mormons foregrounded these narrations about both the history and destinies of the different races. This is particularly true for the people most “white” antebellum Americans called “Indians,” and the Mormons called “Lamanites”—descendants of the lost Tribes of Israel who were oblivious to their true origins, but who would one day be restored to their true knowledge and their true place as central figures in the “New Jerusalem,” to be built in the latter days before Christ’s return.

A second point is the “secularization of race”—a topic that I allude to in the book, but hope to tackle in future books! The narratives of racial origins have moved from common text to subtext, or even into common subconscious. Today, when certain politicians announce the renewed war on drugs, when they describe “inner cities” as sites of unchecked violence and depravity, when police officers who shoot and kill unarmed black American men and boys justify their use of force by describing them as “beasts,” we can understand this rhetoric as cynical attempts to stoke racial anxieties. But it’s more pernicious than that. The ideology that the black body is a threat to the white order of things still exists on the epistemological plane of faith, the sources of which were religious, and in particular the religious origins stories that Americans narrated in the nineteenth century. There is a direct line between the rhetoric of “convicted felon” and “cursed slave,” between the rhetoric of innate black criminality and inherited “African” accursedness.  It’s critical that we re-present these religious origins stories—move them from subtext to text in order to begin to dismantle the epistemological and institutional structures of racism. 

AT: The book prominently features black Mormon Jane Manning James. What role does gender analysis play in your narrative?

MPM: Jane Manning James’s story is the thru-line of the book. That’s because her story is so captivating. It’s also because we have the most documentation of her singular life.

James is truly an intersectional figure: black, Mormon, and a woman in the nineteenth century, when all three of those identities placed her on the margin within and outside her community. As I detail in the book, James’s gender cuts both ways for her as she tried to gain acceptance among the Mormon people to whom she dedicated her life. For example, because she was a woman, James could not—on her own authority—enter the temple and perform sacred ordinances that Mormons believe essential for eternal exaltation. She needed to be connected to a priesthood holding man (only men are ordained to the priesthood in the LDS Church, and from around 1850 to 1978, black men were barred from holding the priesthood). Thus, in the last decades of her life (she died in 1908), James petitioned the church leaders to grant her temple access based on an offer of spiritual adoption that she claims Joseph Smith Jr. and his wife Emma Hale Smith made to her when she lived with them in Nauvoo, Illinois in the 1840s. Her petitions were denied until 1894 when she was allowed to be spiritually adopted by Joseph Smith—with the exception that she be “adopted to the Prophet” not as his child, but “as a servitor for eternity.” This is the first and last such “servitor adoption” in Mormon history. James was not permitted to enter the temple to participate in her own circumscribed adoption; a “proxy” stood in for her during the ceremony—another unusual occurrence, since proxies were exclusively employed for dead participants. 

And yet today, James has become the unofficial face of black Mormonism—the spiritual matriarch to a growing number of African-American Mormons in the U.S., in the African diaspora, and in Africa, where the church has seen significant growth. This past General Conference—the semi-annual worldwide gathering of the church—for the first time since then church president Joseph F. Smith’s eulogy of her in 1908, a church general authority mentioned James by name. Displaying her carte-de-visite, Elder M. Russell Ballard singled out James as an exemplar of faith. James can be remembered—and celebrated today—because of her gender, while black priesthood holding men from her era, like Elijah Abel, could not be. Celebrating them would raise the issue of why black men were banned from holding the priesthood for more than a century.

Many applaud the fact that the church is finally celebrating James, myself included. And yet others worry that moving her form the margins of the Mormon historical narrative to its center is not without peril. The power of James’s story comes from its marginality. That is, James’s marginalization meant that she actually could not see the world through the same lens as her fellow white Mormons. Her lenses were corrective, so to speak. They provided what Du Bois called a “second-sight,” which forced her to see herself reflected in her church’s history of decline from its original promises of what I call “white universalism” to “white” and “black” as fixed identities. 

AT: How would you like religious historians to teach Mormon history differently as a result of reading this book?

MPM: First, I hope we, as historians of American religion, take the Book of Mormon more seriously. I hope we read it and understand it on its own terms, without getting (too) bogged down in the debates about its origins. After all, the Book of Mormon is third only to the Quran and the Bible as the world’s most reproduced religious text. The publication of the Book of Mormon spawned a global religious movement with today 16 million members spread across six continents. For Mormons, the text creates a communal mode of reading human experience. For non-Mormons hoping to understand this Mormon mode of reading, the actual text of the Book of Mormon cannot go unread.

Second, and relatedly I hope scholars can approach Mormonism’s foundational text as the earliest Mormons did: as creating a radical new lens to view antebellum America’s predominant racialized populations, namely Americans of European, African and Native American descent. By studying the Book of Mormon as a text that theologizes not only the “white” and “black” races, but also—and in fact especially—the “red” race too, I hope my book moves the scholarship of the color line beyond the black/white binary.

Finally, I hope we study—and critique—the Mormon archive, a place where religion and race histories aren’t just preserved. Race and religion histories are made in the archive. We must ask whose voices and stories are written down and whose are not; what gets included and what gets excluded. Relatedly, writing always involves self-fashioning, editing, embellishing, conflating, excluding. I think we need to be humble and cautious when it comes to claiming that we can describe the “lived experiences” of all historical peoples, but especially those whose experiences were so circumscribed by racial, religious, and gendered boundaries. Such humility, I believe is important intellectually but also ethically: we must respect the literary selves that the people we study create for themselves, especially since often these people's literal selves were excluded, controlled, abused, and violated. Their agency thus exists on the page, even or especially when this agency could not always be enacted in their flesh and bone bodies.  

AT: Thanks, Max!


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