10 questions with Max Perry Mueller

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Sponsored by BYU Studies—How does race help shape a religion? Join Max Perry Mueller for a discussion of ‘Race and the Making of the Mormon People.’

Who is Max Perry Mueller?

Max Perry Mueller: First, thanks for the opportunity to introduce the book to your readership! It’s an honor.

I’m a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history, with particular interest in indigenous and African-American religious experiences, epistemologies, and cosmologies. I am currently an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies. I earned my PhD from Harvard and am a proud HDS alum as well as Carleton College alum (Go Knights!)

My first book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), examines how the 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. The Latter-day Saints serve as my primary case study. But, the Latter-day Saints’ own particular racialized theologies make them a case unto themselves, too.

My next book, Wakara’s America, will be the first full-length biography of the complex and often paradoxical warrior Ute chief, horse thief, slave trader, settler colonist, one-time Mormon, and Indian resistance leader.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Wakara was arguably the most influential and feared man in the American Southwest. Yet the history books barely mention him.

Wakara’s America will, I hope, illuminate why history has purposefully forgotten him, and explain why it’s time that history give Wakara his due.

To what extent does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints belong in the conversation of religious studies?

Max Perry Mueller: I first began graduate school in the mid-2000s. Even in that late date, “Mormon Studies” (of which the history and culture of the church in Salt Lake is the dominate part) still straddled the line in religious studies between an “acceptable” faith tradition to take seriously in and of itself and one that still received implicit derision, or worse, within the academy.

Much has changed in the last decade or so. The Book of Mormon musical. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. The Church’s own concerted efforts to open itself up to the world (which reflects, of course the increased global membership and history of the Church). In the mid-2000s, there were no endowed chairs or programs outside of Utah dedicated to Mormon Studies. Now there are several on both coasts and more to come in the next decade, I’m sure.

And yet, let me not oversell this. The study of Mormonism remains fairly niche, and sometimes insular. Especially when it comes to taboo subjects like race, the long history of Mormon apologetics can creep into surprising places.

What draws you to the history of the Church as someone who belongs to another religion?

Max Perry Mueller: I have a lot of “I’m not a Mormon, but…” stories (many of which I’ve told elsewhere). But let me say here that, as the only child of a single mother growing up among big, often rambunctious, but for the most part, happy families of Latter-day Saints in Wyoming and later in North Carolina especially (yes, there are Latter-day Saints in Chapel Hill!) left a deep impression on me.

For those for whom it is designed (and the Church itself acknowledges that that it’s not designed for everybody), Mormon family life, at least from the outside, seems pretty great. Still, even among the Latter-day Saint families that made me feel at home, I was never quite or am at home.

And I think that insider/outsider paradox is true for Latter-day Saints in America (and increasingly the rest of the world). Latter-day Saints have been stand-ins for “American,” and yet in their exceptional-ness, they remain set apart.

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.

What is your proudest research accomplishment for this book

Max Perry Mueller: The biggest challenge for me was to make the Book of Mormon’s truth claims intelligible to non-Mormon audiences.

That isn’t to say that the Book of Mormon is unintelligible. But it presents such a distinct view on the past, present, and future that for those non-Mormons who are not used to it, the book is intimidating. This goes in the other direction, too. I worked hard to write about the Book of Mormon—especially its racialized histories and prophecies—that would allow Latter-day Saints to see the book in a new light.

The latter goal has, to be honest, proven harder than expected to accomplish.

To be sure, the Book of Mormon is having a moment outside of Mormon Studies. Even outside of Religious Studies, as more and more Mormon and non-Mormon academics are taking the text’s complexity and richness more seriously (I credit Jared Hickman, Elizabeth Fenton, Grant Hardy, and Seth Perry among others, for this).

Many Latter-day Saints have been open to new kinds of readings of the Book of Mormon, to be sure. Yet others resist—full stop—any reading that implicates the Book of Mormon in racialized history.

The Book of Mormon is about much more than race. But to say that the Book of Mormon doesn’t speak to race at all or to say that the movement(s) that the Book of Mormon spawned are without racial concerns—both universalistic and particularistic—is not accurate.

Define and provide an example of race, ethnicity, and lineage.

Max Perry Mueller: These are the million dollar questions! I’m going to ignore that category of ethnicity for now and focus on teasing out the difference between “race” and “lineage.”

In America, “race” has long meant “white” and “black.” America’s foundation (and its original sin) is built upon that constructed distinction and hierarchy. But “race” is much more complicated than the typical black/white binary. My book looks at how the early Latter-day Saints viewed “race” as a holistic category—one of the schisms that Joseph Smith and his followers were mandated to end within the human family.

But “race” isn’t really the right word in the Mormon context (nor is it, when one steps back, the right term in the American context, either). As I write in the introduction to Race and the Making of the Mormon People, race and the “narration” of racial origins are intertwined. That is, “race requires narration—the writing of origin narratives describing how different races came to be” (8).

These “origin narratives” are what Latter-day Saints call “lineages.” Lineages are literary narratives (the most famous of these “genealogies” are those of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew). These literary narratives connect the “racialized” persons that the early Latter-day Saints encountered (and accepted, excluded, tried to convert, tried to marry, tried to kill) with those persons’ (supposed) ancient biblical (and/or Book of Mormon) progenitors.

So, according to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith Jr. and Sr. were of the “loins of “Joseph,” the son of Jacob, and the great-grandson of Abraham (See 102 in the book). But according to the patriarchal blessing that Hyrum Smith gave her just a few weeks before Hyrum’s martyrdom, Jane Manning James was “the lineage of Cainaan [sic] the son of Ham” (146).

So, at least at her birth, 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. (Let me note again my thanks to James’s great-great grandson, Louis Duffy, who helped me secure James’s first patriarchal blessing and allowed me to be the first scholar to analyze this vital document).

Race becomes, then, less about phenotype and more about narratology.

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”).

How did race and literacy combine to affect the spread of the Book of Mormon in the 19th century?

Max Perry Mueller: The Book of Mormon asserts that the Lamanites “forgot” their true ancestry (as long-lost Israelites) because of their illiteracy.

Take a look at King Benjamin’s lessons to his sons (Mosiah 1). Benjamin believes that were it not for their ability read and write and “understand” the “mysteries” of God, then the Nephites too “would have been like unto our brethren the Lamanites, who nothing concerning these things.”

It’s the record-keepers and recorders’ proximity to the sacred archive—including the written record of their true ancestry (once again, we have lineage/race and literacy intertwining here)—that keeps the (faithful) Nephites from falling into unbelief.

Everywhere the Latter-day Saints went—but especially in their (most often failed) efforts to convert Native Americans (most of who they called “Lamanites”)—missionary work and literacy-promotion work went hand-in-hand.

This is the case with the first official mission in Mormon history (to the Delaware in “Indian Country” in 1831) and throughout the missionary efforts in early Utah. Becoming literate, perhaps even more than being dunked in the baptismal waters, was a key step for non-white Mormons towards becoming “white and delightsome.”

Of course, this connection between Biblicism and race isn’t unique to Mormonism. Most early-nineteenth century Protestant missionaries viewed the promotion of literacy as essential to the spread of the gospel. But in Mormon history, illiteracy—or even antipathy to literacy—is particularly racialized.

Who was Jane Manning James and why is she such an essential figure in ‘Race and the Making of the Mormon People’?

Jane Manning James was literally and figuratively a singular figure in the history of Mormonism. She converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her home state of Connecticut, then moved to Nauvoo in the fall of 1843 with several members of her family.

Jane Manning James. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.

In Nauvoo, she became a friend and confidante to the Smith family and lived in the Nauvoo Mansion House. After the Smith brothers’ assassinations, she became a member of the first wave of pioneers to participate in the Mormon trek in 1847.

In Salt Lake City she raised 8 children and buried 6 before her own death in 1908. In 1908, then Church President Joseph F. Smith eulogized her at her funeral. And he also heard the first public recitation of James’s “life sketch,” which James and Elizabeth J. D. Roundy composed together in the 1890s and 1900s. This “life sketch” has become the transcript for contemporary black Mormon women who reenact James’s life, in part as a means of asserting their own belonging in a church that was for a long time wary, at best, at having black people as members.

What did Jane Manning James mean when she said, “I am white except for the color of my skin”?

Max Perry Mueller: This is a painful and powerful statement. But it reflects how deeply James understood the Mormon gospel of “white universalism”—or at least the universalism that was taught during her lifetime.

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.

  • She was a confidante to the Smith family, and their would-be adopted spiritual daughter.
  • She handled the urim and thummim.
  • She was a witness to the early, secret days of polygamy.
  • She was an 1847er.
  • She was a pioneer of Salt Lake.
  • She was a matriarch to a large Mormon family.

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.

One can—and should—ask if she actually believed that her race was cursed. Was she more “woke”—as the kids say—than her fellow Mormons (including the prophets of the Church) about race (the answer is n resounding “yes”)?

Did she publicly denigrate her race as an act of performance so that she’d be accepted and get access to the temple, which she so desired?

When I think of James uttering these heartbreaking words, I also think of the great poet Phyllis Wheatley’s On Being Brought from Africa to America. When I teach this poem, my students are often surprised (and sometimes horrified) that Wheatley would argue that her enslavement was a “mercy” because it brought her Christianity.

But we must remember that both Wheatley and James wrote for specific (white) audiences. Were James and Wheatley engaged in a form of “code switching?” I think the answer is yes.

How would ‘Race and the Making of the Mormon People’ be different if it was written with the research accessibility of the 1980s?

Max Perry Mueller: Of course, it’s impossible to know how more (or less) access would have changed Race and the Making of the Mormon People (again, I couldn’t have written it without access to the patriarchal blessing, so there’s that).

Let me say this, today the Church’s archives are more open to the public than ever before. Many sources are digitized online (For example, I can do much of my research on Wakara’s America from the comfort of my office (or local bar )).

But Church insiders do have access to key documents that outsiders don’t. This is the Church’s prerogative, of course. But this does affect how stories get told and who gets to tell these stories.

One of my ancestors, Sarah Elizabeth Holmes, grew up as a little girl in the Mansion House in Nauvoo. What might have been the attitude of a pre-teen towards Jane Manning James and other African-Americans?

Max Perry Mueller: How fascinating! Again, it’s impossible to know. But if a young Sarah took her queues from the Smith family, then I think she’d have viewed James as a black woman, but one that was also a key member of the Smiths’ efforts to create a (more) universal human family.

The gravesite of Sarah Elizabeth Holmes Weaver, who grew up in the home of Joseph Smith and knew Jane Manning James. Credit: Kurt Manwaring.

And this attitude isn’t that different from how most of us today experience race.

When political pundits, politicians, our friends, and family members claim that they “don’t see race,” they are lying to themselves and to everyone else. (Take a look at the famous “Clark and Clark” doll studies, which was the key piece of evidence in Brown v. Board, to see how young children are when they become indoctrinated in the racist world which we construct for them).

We all see race, but not everybody sees race in ourselves.

I’d argue that a major step toward dismantling white supremacy is that we demand that white people see that they too belong to a race, one that was/is also constructed, one that was/is pregnant with meaning and symbols.

One of the cornerstones of white supremacy is the assumption that whiteness is the default, the universal, the original race.

If Church members from today went back in time to the period covered in your book, what do you think they would find most surprising about racial relations? Similarly, if those from that time period were transported to today, what would they be most jolted by?

Max Perry Mueller: The key change between 1830 to (roughly) 1900, which is the period covered in Race and the Making of the Mormon People is that the narrative stories of racial origins—those that people believed came from the Bible; those that people believed could be found in “science” (think crania studies from the mid-nineteenth century)—have been forgotten. Or these “texts” of racial origins, which were used to justify slavery, segregation, and lynching as well as Indian removal and sequestration, and America’s colonial projects oversees, have become subtexts. Or perhaps even subconscious.

The cop who killed Mike Brown described him as a superhuman “demon” and used the pronoun “it” to describe his body. Mike Brown’s killer likely doesn’t know the origins of the ideologies about the black male body as an existential threat to white bodies and white spaces (or the origins of America’s police as, in part, “slave patrols”). But his rhetoric reflects—almost word-for-word—rhetoric used to describe black male bodies and to justify legal and extralegal violence against them in the antebellum period and up through the early 1900s.

We’ve (purposefully) forgotten the narratives of racial origins. And all that we’ve remembered is the effects of these stories on psyches. Another element of combating racism today is remembering these stories of (biblical, “scientific”) racial origins and seeing them for what they are—lies meant to divide us.

Recommended resources

Learn more about the time period covered in Race and the Making of the Mormon People:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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