Q&A: Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People

Max Perry Mueller is assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Classics & Religious Studies of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the author of the recently-released Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Be sure and read Ben Park’s review of that book, posted at The Junto yesterday.

JUNTO: Race and the Making of the Mormon People is the latest in a small but growing body of scholarship on the subject of Mormonism and race. What does your book add to our collective understanding of the subject?

Mueller: It’s fascinating to see how scholars plowing through, to a certain degree, similar material and wrestling with similar historical events come to different conclusions on the complex subject of “race’s” place in the Mormon movement!

I put “race” in quotation marks here because it’s in unpacking the very concept of race that I hope Race and the Making of the Mormon People makes one of its most important contributions. The book seeks to locate and then deconstruct the very notion of race within Mormonism and within the larger context of the early American Republic. That is, in the early nineteenth century and for centuries before, race was about stories, how different races came to be. The main source material for these stories was biblical, which for many, if not most, early modernists meant that it was also historical. Of course, scholars of race and religion know well that race, in its most superficial level, was read into these texts, as the texts themselves do not contain direct indications of skin color. But the link between the biblical description of the distribution of the world’s populations (in Genesis particularly), the early modern colonialization of Africa and the Americas, and the advent of modern chattel slavery were so tightly bound that racialized readings of the Bible became “common sense,” in the Gramscian notion of the idea.

Race then was understood to be as much about narratology as it was as about phenotype and “biology.” Race and the Making of the Mormon People demonstrates how scriptural archives, as well as more quotidian written archival material—sermons, letters, laws, journals—not only narrate but create racial differences. This is what I call the “race of the archive.” Literacy, and the tools of the production of history—pen and paper, printing presses—become essential for the making of racial difference and the perpetuating of racial supremacy.

What I argue is that the making of the Mormon people—especially as it relates to white supremacy—was thus a literal project as well as a literal one. The irony is that, based on the racialized theology of its foundational text, the Book of Mormon, the Mormon movement (as I explain below) began as a radical movement to end all racial difference and dismantle racial hierarchies. But due to external and internal pressures, most Mormons quickly abandoned this radical stance toward race. In tracking this declension, previous works on Mormonism and race have focused on how “white,” as in Euro-American Mormons, were racialized as less than white (mostly due to outsiders’ anti-polygamy views). In response the Mormons reasserted their whiteness, in large measure by perpetuating anti-black theologies and exclusionary practices and doctrines.

And yet, not all members of the Mormon people were white. What my book aims to do is to center the narrative of the racial history of Mormonism on non-white Mormons, especially a handful of black and Native American Mormons about whom we have the most written records. I examine how these Mormons participated—acquiesced, fought against, theorized for themselves—this evolving history and theology, in large measure by writing themselves into the Mormon archive, claiming their place among the pioneers and prophets who mark membership in early Mormon history.

JUNTO: One of the signal contributions of your book (and one of the things that makes it stand out from previous scholarship on the subject) is your close reading of the Book of Mormon. Can you briefly explain to readers the relevance of that book to early Mormonism and race?

Mueller: What’s fascinating about Mormonism is that the Book of Mormon enters into the world in 1830, at a moment when “race” was increasingly becoming secularized and biologized. In my close reading of the Book of Mormon—what I believe is the most sustained effort outside of studies focused on the scripture itself—I show that the Book of Mormon writes explicit phenotypical differences into an origin story of racial difference. But unlike “common sense” understandings of the Bible or racialized “biology”—that racial differences were fixed, permanent, the will of God or the result of evolution—the Book of Mormon tells the story of how racial differences were overcome in the American past and how they will be overcome in the American future. And in what early Mormons believed were the latter-days before Christ’s return, the earliest adopters of the Book of Mormon believed themselves called to end all schisms within the human family—schisms that were political and religious, but also racial—and build up a New Jerusalem in America fit for a returned Christ. The idea was that when Christ returned, he’d find his millennial city filled with a people who would be so faithful and unified—so “pure and delightsome” (the original phrase was “white and delightsome” (2 Nephi 30: 6))—that no racial distinctions would exist.

But that’s probably not the most interesting thing about the Book of Mormon and race. At least not for those interested in drawing attention to how non-white peoples participate in racial histories. For all its problematic passages that advance ideas of white supremacy, the Book of Mormon seems, at least in part, self-aware about its own narrative limitations, its biases to “white” history. I write about the case of Samuel, the Lamanite, a dark-skinned prophet in the pre-Columbian history that the Book of Mormon narrates. In the Book of Mormon, Christ himself rebukes the white-skinned scribes and historians who keep the records that would become the Book of Mormon for failing to include Samuel’s prophecies, saying that better than any white-skinned prophet, Samuel most accurately foretold the importance of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection (Here, I must credit Jared Hickman’s amazing work on the Book of Mormon).

The point here is (to borrow from Reading Rainbow’s catchphrase), “don’t take my word for it.” Christ himself (and by extension, Mormonism’s foundational text) demands that historians pay attention to marginalized voices. And not just for “diversity’s sake,” but for the sake of accurate historical narration. For, as American prophetic voices from Frederick Douglass, Jarena Lee, and William Apess to Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ceasar Chavez, and Colin Kaeapernick (yes, I went there!) show us, those on the margins often see America’s promise and how far America is missing that mark.

JUNTO: Continuing on the subject of sources, you note in the introduction that “the written archive has a race problem” (25). How did you work around the limitations of that problem in your efforts to amplify non-white voices?

Mueller: This is THE critical problem. In my book, I try to “read” the most fascinating source that I use, which is a “letter” written by Wakara in 1852. Wakara was the great Ute chief who was baptized and ordained a Mormon elder who then warred with his would-be brethren when they took his people’s land and began to take over his trade in Indian slaving. (Again thanks to Ardis Parshall for bringing this document to my attention). But the “letter” is actually just scribbles on a page, and not legible in the traditional sense. So I turn to other sources to figure out what Wakara might have been trying to communicate. The biggest message, I argue, was that Wakara did not want to be turned into what I call “paper Indian”—the unrepentant savage that the Mormons described in their own archival documents about Indian-Mormon encounters in Utah. By adding to the archive, he wanted to establish his own historical agency.

Likewise, the most important source we have from the black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, a portrait of whom is on my book’s cover, was actually not written by “herself,” as was so important for people like Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to highlight in their own narratives. We have to work very hard to parse out how much we can trust the source as an accurate account of how James wanted her life story to be remembered (and then figure out also how accurate the account is as a historical document). This is made both easier and harder in this case, because James’s scribe attached an appendix to the life sketch to answer questions about the paternity of James’s first son, Sylvester. Residents of Salt Lake City in the turn of the century described him as a “half breed,” who was born in James’s native Connecticut before she joined up with the Mormons. James refused to answer questions about Sylvester, so her scribe got the answers she sought from James’s brother.

I describe this more fully in the book, but James losing control over her writerly self here hints at how her sexual self was likely a victim during her young days in Connecticut. The father, we learn from the appendix, was a white preacher, perhaps the one James mentions in the life sketch who tried to stop her from joining up with the Mormons.

James’s history is very much alive today, in the form of contemporary Mormons—especially, but not exclusively black Mormon women—for whom James is a spiritual ancestor. These folks remember James’s encounter with this white preacher as a “rape.” In the book I write about this perspective. I also point out that no true consent could have passed between a teenaged black servant girl and a powerful minister in 1830s Connecticut and that there were no “rape” laws to protect her. Yet these friends have voiced criticism (for some important reasons) for not not more explicitly calling the encounter a rape, without a historian’s hedging and hawing. As a historian—and a white, non-Mormon one at that—in my insistence that the written archive is the source where we must turn to find “truth” (lower case), ironically I myself am making the main point of the book: that “race” is made in the archive when the archive fails to record the “Truth” (capital T) that my black Mormon friends are speaking to.

JUNTO: Your book is explicitly interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on the specific tools and speaking to both historians and Religious Studies scholars. What advice do you have for other scholars (including graduate students) working at the intersection of different disciplines?

Mueller: The most important advice I got—and a generation of scholars got—from David Hall was to “read widely.” (He also told us, “never waste a half hour,” though I’ve had a harder time following that pearl of wisdom!) This means not only to read out of your own field, but also outside of your own discipline, even outside the humanities. The academy, as we all know, is so siloed and so focused on our own specific guilds that we don’t fully take advantage of the great work being done often on similar issues from different vantage points on our own campuses. Seek colleagues across the university and at other universities in other fields (my favorite people right now are ichthyologists… more on why in a second!).

JUNTO: Thanks, Max. What’s next for you?

Mueller: Wakara is a central figure in Race and the Making of the Mormon People. He is the “Indian” foil against which the Mormons drew themselves as Christian, civilized pioneers and drew their Book of Mormon-inspired mythical “Lamanite.”

But Wakara was also a very real, flesh and bone historical figure–both a villain and a champion of his own people. As a slave trader, a settler colonialist in his own right, and an infamous horse thief, Wakara was the most influential man–white, black or “red”–in the American Southwest that you’ve never heard of.

Wakara’s World endeavors to recover his life, and the lives of his ancestors through an exploration of the worlds–natural, political, spiritual–that he lived in. Yet, through a material/cultural approach, with a fair amount of first-person accounts from the author– for example, learning to fish, study fish management (hence the focus on ichthyology)  and ride horses like the Utes–I’m attempting to do this “world recovering” outside of–or even against–the “settler colonial archive” in which the histories of Wakara and other American Indians have long been bound, corralled, and sequestered.

Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches in the mid-nineteenth century, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century anthropologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

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