Race is an incredibly sensitive topic, but it is also an incredibly important topic to discuss and understand. A number of important books have been published about the racial narratives that were adopted by early members of the Church in recent years, including Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Max Mueller to discuss the book in a 10 questions interview. What follows here is a summary of the interview, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here.
Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies. He describes himself as “a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history, with particular interest in indigenous and African-American religious experiences, epistemologies, and cosmologies.” He turned his interest to the Latter-day Saint experience because of the “insider/outsider paradox” that is a part of our culture and the fact that while “Latter-day Saints have been stand-ins for ‘American,’ … in their exceptional-ness, they remain set apart.” As he went on to say:
Race, of course, factures heavily into these historical and cultural understandings of Latter-day Saints. Non-Mormon Americans have projected their own anxieties about race, religion, and gender onto Latter-day Saints since the Church’s founding. And at the same time, Latter-day Saints have responded by projecting out claims to racial, religious, and gender purity, and sometimes superiority.
My book explores this intersectional and multi-vectoral history, while trying to foreground the experiences of non-white Mormons who were often caught in the middle.
Thus, in his book, Mueller uses Latter-day Saints as “my primary case study” in how “three original American races—‘red,’ ‘black,’ and ‘white’—were constructed as literary projects before these racial divisions were read onto bodies of Americans of Native, African, and European descent.”
In the interview, Max Mueller worked to tease out the differences between the terms “race” and “lineage.” He states that race is a “constructed distinction and hierarchy,” such as the idea of “white” and “black” in America. Lineage, on the other hand, is the “origin narrative describing how different races came to be.” Within Mormonism, the lineages or “literary narratives” were what “connected the ‘racialized’ persons that the early Latter-day Saints encountered … with those persons’ (supposed) ancient biblical (and/or Book of Mormon) progenitors.” For example, Mueller pointed out that Joseph Smith Jr. is portrayed in the Book of Mormon as being “the fruit of [the] loins” of Joseph, the son of Israel/Jacob. Meanwhile, Hyrum Smith’s patriarchal blessing to Jane Manning James, a notable African American Latter-day Saint, placed her in the lineage of Ham and Canaan. Mueller observed based on this that “Jane Manning James’s place in the American and Mormon racial hierarchy was determined by her connection to ‘Ham,’ the lowliest of the ancient biblical patriarchs,” and concluded that: “Race becomes, then, less about phenotype and more about narratology.”
The Book of Mormon takes a central place in his discussion of race among early Latter-day Saints. Mueller noted that he “worked hard to write about the Book of Mormon—especially its racialized histories and prophesies—that would allow Latter-day Saints to see the book in a new light,” even though some “resist—full stop—any reading that implicates the Book of Mormon in racialized history.” He went on to state that:
What’s powerful (and certainly not unproblematic) about early Mormon racial theology is what I call “white universalism.” The Book of Mormon teaches that race wasn’t fixed, permanent, authored by God. Non-whites could return to their original non-raced status through the adoption of the Mormon gospel (to become, once again, as the Book of Mormon infamously put it, “white and delightsome”).
It can be said that the Book of Mormon follows a narrative where being “white” is the default, original race, but that God can change people’s race based on their relationship with the gospel.
The way this view of race played out among Latter-day Saints is discussed in the interview. For example, the Book of Mormon focuses on the idea that maintaining an identity is connected to literacy, and the Lamanites “‘forgot’ their true ancestry … because of illiteracy.” As a result, in many of the early Saints’ efforts to convert “Native Americans (most of whom they called ‘Lamanites’)—missionary work and literacy-promotion work went hand-in-hand.” Thus, according to Mueller, “in Mormon history, illiteracy—or even antipathy to literacy—is particularly racialized.”
Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints with African ancestry adapted how they spoke to their white co-religionists with the “white universalism” idea in mind. For example, Jane Manning James made the painful statement that: “I am white except for the color of my skin.” Mueller interpreted this to mean that:
She understood that the Mormon gospel promised her that she could overcome the (so-called) limitations of her race by adhering to the strictures of the Mormon gospel. And, as she argues in her “life sketch,” few if any Mormons lived a more Mormon life than she did. … At the end of her life, she argued that she had overcome the accursed legacy of her ancient forefathers and rejoined the (white) universal human family.
That being said, Mueller also suggests that James made that statement, engaging “in a form of ‘code switching,’” because she “wrote for specific (white) audiences” at least partly as “an act of performance so that she’d be accepted and get access to the temple.” Thus, Max Mueller suggests that the narrative of the Book of Mormon and the idea of “white universalism” deeply impacted how Latter-day Saints approached race.
The interview is interesting, even though the topic is a heavy one. For more information about Jane Manning James, Mueller’s forthcoming biography about the Ute chief Wakara, the position of “Mormon Studies” in academia today, and a few suggestions towards dismantling racism, follow the link to read the full 10 questions with Max Perry Mueller.
 See 2 Nephi 4:5.