In Review | Books Race and the Making of the Mormon People, by Max Perry Mueller. UNC Press, 352 pages, $90 hardcover; $32.50 paperback.
I recently taught the book of mormon in a course I call “American Scriptures” and, inevitably, the text’s treatment of race came up. Students in the course always end up with different editions of the text, and I make a point of having them compare their versions of 2 Nephi 30:6. This passage concerns the prophesied redemption of Book of Mormon characters—the Lamanites, ancestors of Native Americans by the text’s logic—who have been cursed with dark skin because of their disobedience to God. In some nineteenth-century editions and in all editions since 1981, that verse predicts that they will one day be “a pure and delightsome people.” In 1830 though, when the Book of Mormon was first published, and in the overwhelming number of editions published up to 1981, they were set to become “a white and delightsome people.” Their redemption from sin would be marked, that is, by a literal change in their phenotypic racial classification.
For most of its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held people of African descent at arm’s length, barring them from the faith’s priesthood and highest ordinances.
For most of its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held people of African descent at arm’s length, barring them from the faith’s priesthood and highest ordinances. This changed officially in 1978, a few years before the change from “white” to “pure” in the text. In class, as we discussed the stakes of the textual change in this context, a self-identified
LDS student in the course suggested that, though the text had long been misread and misapplied by church officials who succumbed to the racial prejudices of their times, the Book of Mormon itself had a notion of race not reducible to those prejudices. It should have been, and should now be, he suggested, read differently.
That student was completely correct, but the relationship among texts, circumstances, and ideological constructions as fraught and consequential as race is complicated. This complexity is at the heart of Max Perry Mueller’s highly anticipated book on race as a constitutive factor in the formation of Mormonism. Mueller takes on a wide range of questions about early Mormonism and race, but the answers to all of those questions resolve to an argument constituted by the same move my student made in his comment: the goal is to make clear a distinction between the ideologies and practices of race that defined the church for most of its history and the set of possibilities available in its founding texts. If early Mormons ignored those possibilities in favor of others more in keeping with the racist assumptions of their historical periods, the text nevertheless still bears them: they are, that is, as available for believers today as they were when the church was founded in 1830. As with my student’s comment, this clearing of space between the text and its reception is a legitimate move, but it is very, very complicated.
Race and the Making of the Mormon People is an erudite examination of many of these complications. By looking closely at the obsession with race found in Mormonism’s founding text, at the recorded experiences of early Mormons of color, and at those moments in Mormonism’s early history especially weighted with racial questions, Mueller argues that a “project of racial purification and reunification was sui generis to the faith.” Mormonism, that is, is inseparable from a “divine mandate to solve humanity’s race problem . . . present in the minds of the founders and in the church’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon” (13).
For Mueller, the ideology of race present in the Book of Mormon and in the minds of early church leaders was distinctive for its day—“proto-postmodern,” even—in imagining race to be mutable, not innate. The Book of Mormon, he writes, “taught its earliest believers that race was not real . . . not a permanent part of God’s vision for humanity” (18–19). Mueller’s first chapter is an energetic close reading of the Book of Mormon that perceptively draws this ideology of race out of its complex narrative. The rest of the book is an account of the historical conditions and personalities beyond the text that contributed to or suffered from the failure of this vision to be realized in the world in which the Book of Mormon moved.
Mueller refers to the Book of Mormon’s racial vision as “white universalism.” That is the relevance of the “white and delightsome” verse with which my students grappled: cursed with dark skin for their sins, the Lamanites have the chance to achieve “whiteness” in a metaphorical as well as a phenotypical sense by converting to Mormonism in the latter days (19). Mueller argues that this conception of race reached the Book of Mormon’s first readers and had a formative effect on the earliest days of the church. This itself is a provocative claim: it is a commonplace that early Mormons didn’t read the Book of Mormon as much as they read the Bible and Joseph Smith’s immediate revelations. One of Mueller’s fantastic contributions here is to attend to all of the ways that the book was “marketed” to various populations—the already converted, Native Americans, African Americans, potential white converts, and potential political and religious enemies. Mueller documents the book’s presentation to and reception by each of these populations through careful excavation of his sources, and he succeeds in making his case for the book’s reach by looking closely at the way specific passages were carefully and intentionally excerpted in early Mormon periodicals. This is one of the signature accomplishments of this book.
Mueller’s attention to the way that the racialized narrative of the Book of Mormon affected early Mormon assumptions about race is an important intervention.
Mueller’s attention to the way that the racialized narrative of the Book of Mormon affected early Mormon assumptions about race is an important intervention. In arguing against a historiographical tendency to assume things work the other way—i.e., that historical circumstance affects the interpretation of scriptures—Mueller may occasionally lose sight of the essential co-constitution of these factors: circumstance will always affect readers’ approach to the text. Nevertheless, his account of “white universalism” as constructed in the Book of Mormon and that ideology’s importance to early Mormonism is completely convincing.
Mueller goes on to argue that Mormons abandoned the Book of Mormon’s way of constituting race over the course of the church’s first few decades: “how the Mormons read their own scriptures changed. They began reading more into the racially exclusionary passages of their expanding canon and less into the inclusive message that the earliest leaders emphasized” (20). This much makes sense, mostly, and Mueller chronicles this shift in reading with subtlety and frankness with respect to the realities of racial ideologies in the early-national period. Mueller’s interest in plotting Mormon views of race on a trajectory of decline, though, necessitates a certain idealization of the Book of Mormon itself and of those early days. When he suggests that “the Book of Mormon’s ‘white universalism’ proved too ambitious to be tolerated in antebellum America” (20) and occasionally slips into referring to that same “white universalism” as “racially inclusive,” Mueller gilds this idealization with an anachronistic enthusiasm. Still, Mueller is convincing when he argues that the church’s early days bore an energy and a theological orientation toward a different view of race than the one the LDS Church ended up embracing for most of its history.
What Mueller means is that specifically religious writing was the primary means of the creation of race and racial hierarchies in early America.
Mueller’s focus on the excerpting and re-mediation of the Book of Mormon is part of his overarching interest in literacy, writing, and the constitution of the archive. He avers that his “most important thesis” is that “if the first construction site of the races in American history was on paper, this paper was religious in nature” (13). What Mueller means is that specifically religious writing was the primary means of the creation of race and racial hierarchies in early America. His corollary argument is that people of color—having relatively little access to the means of reading and writing and subject to racialized assumptions about those means as fundamentally white enterprises—were subjects of this creation but not participants in its discourses. “[I]lliterate nonwhites could not respond in writing to the writers who labeled them as less than human—ahistorical savages or unredeemable slaves” (25).
This concern infuses Mueller’s text with an admirable care regarding most of his sources—it is a true achievement to express such a self-reflexive concern in a work of historiography and actually maintain it while producing a piece of scholarship that is still readable and coherent. He extends this observation, though, into a critique of the archive that, while important in its general thrust, goes places that I’m not sure Mueller intends. A tense-confused sentence in the introduction sets the stage: Mueller asks, “how did racial identities affect who gets to write history?” (21). Who gets to, or who got to? Is this about historiography or the archive of available sources? Throughout the last three chapters of the book, Mueller carefully illustrates the ways that African Americans and Native Americans were written out of the Mormon archive by racial ideologies that coded literacy and writing as white endeavors. This is an important, obsessively self-critical consciousness that all historians should work with.
At the same time, I do think that Mueller confuses ideologies of literacy and the writing of history with the actual absence of voices of color in the archive. Those voices exist; Mueller himself spends a lot of time recovering them. To some extent he undercuts this recovery work, though, by insisting that writers of color in the nineteenth century “cannot escape the racialization of their own writings” (25). This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-defeating attitude toward the archive that seems very much outmoded. Mueller’s attempt to highlight the prerogatives of racial exclusion in the formation of the archive sounds at times like a grudging acceptance of that exclusion.
[Jane Manning James] wanted this account of her closeness to the founding prophet to sway late-century church leaders toward allowing African Americans like her fuller access to the church’s spiritual offerings.
This problem comes to a head in Mueller’s treatment of one of the most important African American Mormons of the nineteenth century, Jane Manning James. In 1843, James traveled with her family from Connecticut to join the Mormons in Illinois, where she came to know Joseph Smith in the year before his death. Manning went west in 1847, among the first Mormon pioneers, and became a well-known and beloved member of Utah society, passing away in 1908. Mueller engages at length with the primary source for James’s life, a brief autobiography that she dictated in 1893. Mueller reads this text like a text—that is, he reflects on it not as a life but as a story about a life, a rhetorical construction existing at a necessary remove from its subject. Mueller argues that James narrated her life—to a white scribe, whose effect on the text Mueller demonstrates—with a goal in mind. As a confidante of Smith and a member of the pioneer generation, James resented being barred from the church’s highest rituals because of her race. “Is there no blessing for me[?]” she asked the church’s president in an 1884 letter. She wanted this account of her closeness to the founding prophet to sway late-century church leaders toward allowing African Americans like her fuller access to the church’s spiritual offerings. In placing herself in the founding era and in a close relationship with Smith himself, Mueller argues, James “composed a revisionist history about Smith’s attitudes about and actions toward Mormons of African descent” (121).
Mueller analyzes James’s autobiography with this rhetorical goal in mind, arguing that, “because her history is a polemic, the question of the narrator’s reliability must be raised” (137). Mueller’s reading of James is, by all appearances, well reasoned. Treating the text in this way, moreover, has the effect of taking James seriously as an author of her own life and an actor in her own story, with her own self-interest and her own voice. Despite his willingness to treat James as an author, though, Mueller persists in conflating his subjects’ association of literate culture and whiteness with the assumption that people of color in the nineteenth century could not be authors. What is most bothersome about Mueller’s treatment of James’s authorship is that other, equally crucial, sources in the book are exempted from rhetorical analysis altogether. Race opens with standard bits of Smith’s autobiographical statements, which are repeated without any of the same attention to the author’s rhetorical interests or narratologically suspect position. The fact that this suspicion is applied most extensively to a text produced by a woman of color is painfully conspicuous.
The most important of the texts which Mueller exempts from rhetorical analysis is the Book of Mormon itself. On a first read, Mueller’s way of referring to the Book of Mormon will be jarring to most readers. Mueller refers to the text in the way that it wants to be thought of: as a pre-Columbian American artifact. He wonders about the motivations of the Nephite editors who composed it from various sets of ancient plates, speculates about what may lie hidden in the text’s various lacunae, and refers repeatedly to the “pre-Columbian American Christianity” that it describes. Most readers will be confused by sentences such as: “What else have the Nephite archivists and historians omitted in the Plates of Nephi? A careful reading suggests that there is no easy answer to this question” (53). With this reading strategy, Mueller is drawing on the methodology suggested by Grant Hardy in Understanding the Book of Mormon (Oxford, 2010) for considering the Book of Mormon as a literary text.1
Hardy’s work is essential, and Mueller’s boldness in applying it in a work of history pays dividends by showcasing the ways that themes of race play out at the level of the text. Assigning all rhetorical agency in the text to Nephites, however, obviates the possibility of treating it as a rhetorical product of the nineteenth century. By presenting his reading of the Book of Mormon this way in this work of historiography, Mueller is not, I think, staking a claim for the prerogatives of faithful reading in scholarship. He executes this text-level reading in the perpetual present tense of the text—always “Christ examines the Nephites’ sacred texts,” as one might write in recounting a novel, never “examined,” as in a history. Further, he pegs his endnotes referencing the Book of Mormon to the 1830 page numbers first, with contemporary chapter and verse citations in brackets: this reminds the reader that Mueller’s intention is to read the Book of Mormon as the first readers might have (contemporary ways of referencing the text came later), and, by this reading, to see what those first readers might have seen by way of an ideology of race.
Still, Mueller’s text-level questions about the predilections of the Nephite authors and editors of the Book of Mormon—questions that can be illuminating from a text-critical perspective—eventually become perplexing as they regard nineteenth-century Mormonism. When Mueller avers that, “It is unfruitful, and perhaps unfair, to hold the Book of Mormon narrators to standards of inclusive and balanced history writing to which they do not claim to aspire,” it is hard not to notice that these are very much the standards to which he holds James (54). The result is that the reminiscences of a historically known African American woman of the late nineteenth century are arraigned for significant interrogation, while the Book of Mormon’s account of “pre-Columbian American Christianity”—which exists as a matter of faith for Mormons and as a rhetorical figure for everyone else—is read flatly, on its own terms.2 Ultimately, the type of rhetorical analysis to which the Book of Mormon is or is not subject becomes most relevant where Mueller distinguishes between oral and written records (54–55). At the level of its nineteenth-century history, the Book of Mormon is a product of Smith’s dictation—it is an oral text. And to the extent that Smith—who clearly read widely but wrote little in his own hand—is the source of that text, what might that say about the capacity of those on the margins of literate culture to leave their mark on the archive, to make an intervention regarding nineteenth-century conceptions of race?
Treating the text as the editorial work of Nephites in service of pre-Columbian American Christianity makes it difficult to treat it as the work of nineteenth-century thinkers in service of a nineteenth-century American Christianity.
Treating the text as the editorial work of Nephites in service of pre-Columbian American Christianity makes it difficult to treat it as the work of nineteenth-century thinkers in service of a nineteenth-century American Christianity. Taken as it’s given, though, Mueller’s literary reading of literacy in the Book of Mormon is wonderfully revealing. The figure of Christ reprimanding the Nephite scribes for not having written Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecies, ostensibly out of prejudice, underscores the crucial emphasis placed on writing in early Mormonism and of writing’s significance for the constitution of race in the same period, whether or not one assumes its relevance for a pre-Columbian American Christianity (49; 3 Nephi 23:6–13).
Mueller closes the book with an epilogue touching on 2 Nephi 30:6, the “white and delightsome” phrase. The textual change to “pure and delightsome” is a particularly salient reminder that, as a text, the Book of Mormon both reaches across time and is continually reproduced in specific historical moments. Smith himself first made the change for the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon; it was abandoned in subsequent editions before being brought to bear again in a more rhetorically inclusive era. Mueller’s investigation of race as a constitutive factor in the formation of Mormonism, likewise, is a text that will strike different readers in different ways in different times. All of them, though, will find something of value in it, and future readers invested in early Mormonism will be obliged to take stock of it.
- Mueller is rightfully self-conscious about the importance of reading the Book of Mormon, though unfairly dismissive of most historians’ attempts to do so, explicitly owning an insider’s condescension: “For the uninitiated—those who have not grown up Mormon—the Book of Mormon is difficult to comprehend, let alone appreciate” (22). Many non-Mormon scholars have read the Book of Mormon to considerable effect since Mark Twain and Harold Bloom, the two he calls out for not getting it.
- According to Mueller, the Book of Mormon is an “American gospel, which Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and Joseph Smith, Jr. created together” and which is “filled with lessons.” James’s reflections, meanwhile, “appear to be suspect” (144) and are subject to the rhetorical “sleight of memory” (145).
Seth Perry is Assistant Professor of Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. His first book, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, will be published in June by Princeton University Press.