Modern Mormonism is known for being a predominantly white religion—at least in America. But a new book by religious studies scholar Max Mueller argues that the LDS faith has a complex and evolving story of racial imagination during the antebellum period. This is a declension narrative that is at once riveting and wrenching, and one that deserves a close reading.
Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 352 pp., 17 halftones, notes, bibliography, index. [Also, make sure to see Mueller’s interview with The Atlantic.]
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, had audacious beginnings. They claimed a new book of scripture, a modern-day prophet, and a restored ecclesiastical structure. It was a reenactment of Christianity’s origins. And according to Max Mueller, those origins included a reformulation of America’s racial imagination. Contemporaries during the mid-nineteenth century were, to use a complex and problematic term, “secularizing” racial differences. They sought to justify slavery and segregation through a strict delineation of racial compartmentalization. Race, in other words, was becoming a fixed identity. But among Joseph Smith’s radical protests was an attack on that very assumption: Smith, the book Smith translated, and the movement Smith led, posited that race was a malleable component dependent more on righteousness than descent. They believed in a moderate “racial universalism” that, though it required the subjugation of non-white races, could unite the entire human family. Or, at least, they believed this during their first two decades, before eventually succumbing to a much more mainstream structure of racial difference. Continue reading