Mueller, “Race and the Making of the Mormon People” (reviewed by Kevin Folkman)


Title: Race and the Making of the Mormon People
Author: Max Perry Mueller
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Genre: History
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 352
Binding: Cloth
ISBN 978-1-4696-3616-0
Price: $32.50

Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters

When I need to work ideas out in my head, I usually sit down and write, sometimes on a legal pad with a roller ball pen, other times at a computer keyboard. Either way, there is something about putting those thoughts into writing that helps me to make sense, to organize the ideas, and to understand them better. Likewise, taking notes, or marking up the margins of a book imprint those thoughts and ideas more firmly in my mind. They become the narrative that I tell myself, and help me to know what I have read or heard, and what it means to me.

This is part of the idea behind Max Perry Mueller’s first book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People. Race is more than a social construct, from Mueller’s view as an outsider (Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, and not an LDS church member). “Race requires narration,” he says, “the writing of origin narratives describing how different races came to be.” Mueller writes that “for the early Mormons, the construction and deconstruction of what it means to be, to act, to look black, white, or red were as much literary projects as they were literal ones.” [p8]

Mueller follows somewhat in the footsteps of Paul Reeve’s excellent Religion of a Different Color. However, Reeve writes as an insider, but uses the written perceptions of outsiders, mostly newspapers and other publications, to examine how the Mormon people were racially categorized, and how that affected internal Mormon perceptions of race. Mueller, an outsider, turns this around, and primarily uses the internal written narratives, including our landmark scripture, the Book of Mormon, to show how the stories we tell ourselves affect our views of race, particularly how we view other LDS members of different races. Reeve opens windows to let us view how the world outside looks, and how it looks back at us. Mueller instead forces a mirror through the open window and demands that we look at our narratives about race more critically. “Red and black subjects do not directly add their own voices to the written archive,” Mueller writes. Instead, “their voices are mediated by their white scribes and archivists.” [p59]

For all of that forced reflection, Mueller’s work is not accusatory. Instead, it becomes something of a journey of self discovery. Look here, he says, and see what you started with. Look again, and see how your internal narratives clashed with those of the outside world. See how that changed the stories you write about yourselves. Mueller becomes somewhat like one of the angels in Revelation, forcing us to compare our ideals, history, and hopes against what the outside world’s paradigm would allow us to become.

Using the Book of Mormon as a starting point, Mueller examines what our uniquely LDS scripture has to say about race. The message of 2nd Nephi 26:33 is that “He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female…the heathen,” including both Jew and Gentile. This all-inclusive message of the Book of Mormon stood in stark contrast to the standard view of race in Antebellum America.

As our foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon does contain elements of racial narratives. Nephi writes how, after his family splits into Nephites and Lamanites, the Lamanites become a dark-skinned, idle, and violent enemy of the chosen Nephites. The Lamanites are made functionally illiterate, as Mueller points out, by the Nephites, who retain the Brass Plates and the means of preserving their version of their history. Nephi’s story survives, and defines how we view the Lamanites, both as cursed savages, and potentially saviors of the gentiles. The Book of Mormon records that the descendants of Laman and Lemuel, long cursed for their disobedience, could be redeemed and help to build the new American Zion and claim the promises made to them as children of Abraham, our common father. Mueller then describes how the Book of Mormon was “marketed” to Native Americans and white Americans differently.

This view of the “red race’ motivated the new church in late 1830 to send Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, and two other missionaries to the “Lamanites” on our Western borders with copies of the Book of Mormon, and a message to the Native Americans that we knew their story. It was hoped that these people of the book would immediately recognize their story, join the church en masse, and redeem themselves to become pure and delightsome heirs to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Reality intervened when the missionaries, fresh off their success in Kirtland, Ohio, and the followers of Sidney Rigdon were confronted with the fact that they couldn’t speak the language of the Delaware Indians, and the Delawares could not read the Book of Mormon. With only federal Indian agents to translate, whose self interests did not include a mass conversion to Mormonism, little to nothing was accomplished. Hopes were reignited years later with missionary efforts to the native Utes, Paiutes, and other tribes in Utah.

Notables such as Chief Walkara, war chief of the Utes, and his brother Arapeen, initially joined the church. Arapeen dictated an account of his conversion, his visions, and how he felt that the Mormons in Utah were not as welcoming as they seemed. Competition for scarce natural resources, and the extra advantages of technology and literacy held by the Mormon settlers, produced tension that broke into violent conflict. These clashes were instigated by the Mormon settlers as much as by the native peoples of Utah. We ultimately created a narrative of a division in the “red race.” There were those few who were repentant and were willing to join the church, and renounce their savage and sinful culture, who could become like the “white” Mormons, but there were also the recalcitrant and unrepentant wild savages who were still like the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon. Even those who joined the church found themselves at odds. It was one thing for a white Mormon male to take an Indian wife, but the reverse was not tolerated. [p195]

The Book of Mormon says nothing of the black race, apart from the verse in 2nd Nephi that declares that “all are alike unto God…black and white, bond and free, male and female.” The issue of slavery in the early church found Joseph Smith pronouncing different views at different times, but nothing about withholding priesthood from men of African lineage. The church ordained men to the priesthood of African descent such as Walker Lewis and Elijah Abels. Tolerant views on race, however, created problems as the Saints began to settle in Missouri and build the New Zion. Mueller notes that an article by W.W. Phelps in “The Evening and Morning Star,” published in Missouri in 1833 under the title “Free People of Color,” helped to trigger the expulsion from Jackson County. Whatever the Mormon settlers said about their intentions for Missouri was ignored by their neighbors, mostly from the Southern states, in light of what they read as an invitation to free blacks to settle with the Mormons in Jackson County

Jane Manning James, Mueller explains, had her own visions that led her to Nauvoo and Joseph Smith’s household, where she and her family found employment and a home. James’ full acceptance into the Smith family as both an employee and an adopted spiritual daughter led her to handling and laundering Smith’s temple robes, and a chance to see and hold the Urim and Thummim at the invitation of Mother Smith. [p135] The reality of the American culture that followed the Saints west led to concerns about miscegenation and ambivalence about slavery’s legal status in the Utah territory, and Janes’ promise of being adopted as a spiritual daughter of Joseph Smith met delay after delay. Her constant pleas for the promise of that adoption were never acted upon, and the dictation of her life story in written form finally led Joseph F. Smith to declare as church policy that she could be adopted only as a “servant” in Joseph Smith’s eternal family, due to her African heritage, and a written formalization of a policy of exclusion of black members from both priesthood ordination and temple ordinances, along with the supposed justifications for the ban.

James’ lifelong question “is there no blessing for me?” was answered with a denial of her full temple blessings, and Joseph F. Smith and Bathsheba W. Smith served as proxies for the sealing of James as a “servitor” to Joseph Smith. [p151] Her lifelong faithful service in the church could not overcome the narrative built on 19th century cultural norms that superseded the all-inclusive message of the Book of Mormon. Instead, we built a narrative that combined the cursed lineage of Cain and Ham familiar to most antebellum American churches with a narrow reading of Joseph Smith’s new translations and revelations of the writings of Moses and Abraham.

My only point of exception with Mueller has to do with his description of the mutability of race in the Book of Mormon, yet he continues to emphasize the literal descendants of Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel. After the visit of Jesus Christ to the New World, there were no Nephites, Lamanites, nor “any manner of –ites” for two hundred years. In Mueller’s outsider view, the eventual departure from this Zion-like harmony divided again on racial and ancestral lines. He is quick to point out that Mormon and Moroni were true descendants of Nephi. Likewise, the modern day Native Americans were believed to be the direct descendants of Laman and Lemuel.

Repeated readings of the Book of Mormon would indicate that by the time of Alma the Younger, Lamanite and Nephite were becoming just as much political and cultural divisions as racial, with many Nephites defecting over to the Lamanite camp, Nephites mixing with the Mulekites, and repentant Lamanites bonding themselves to the Nephites upon their conversion. By doing so, these Lamanites rejected their ancestral oral histories in favor of the written accounts and genealogy of the Nephites. The Book of Mormon ought to amplify our understanding of the inclusiveness of our scriptures and of the plan that God has given all of us as his children.

In the midst of all this, there is this concept of “whiteness,” so well described here and in Paul Reeve’s book. We still see our Mormon selves as primarily “white,” often not thinking about what that really means. Evidence all around us tells a different story. In my Redmond, WA ward congregation, we have our own fair share of Anglo-Scandinavians, but nearly a third of the ward are of Asian, African, or Hispanic descent. Mueller’s excellent book tells us that race is a story we collectively write about ourselves.

If we are paying attention, if we are looking in that mirror that Mueller is holding up to us, we can and should write a narrative that overlooks race and emphasizes the Christian values we have in common with each other: Faith, Hope, Charity, the Atonement, and a shared commitment and stewardship to look after each other. Look again, Mueller seems to be saying. What do you really see?

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