Book Review: Max Mueller, “Race and the Making of the Mormon People”

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.

MuellerMax 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

Review: Coll Thrush, Indigenous London

Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Thrush CoverWander through the Museum of London’s rich galleries, glowing with relics and rites of Roman Londinium, and you’ll spot scraps of the city’s wall half-strewn along the route. Burned in bits or eaten by age, the red-and-white brick arches splay out like the broken teeth of empire, grinding a crooked grin in today’s cityscape. Amid the tidy exhibits and visitors’ whirl, it’s a graphic reminder of what London was and how it has weathered so many centuries’ toll. But, as Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London asks us, “The audience of a museum is always / another sort of collection…Indigenous objects, Indigenous eyes—/ Who sees and what is being seen?” (p. 135). For the scholar rescuing clues from the built environment, the wall raises a complex set of research queries: Who passed through the city limits, and why? How did diverse travelers experience urban life at a sensory level? What did it mean for indigenous visitors to sample London? And how can we expand the historical canon of voices who tell that story in the early modern era?  Continue reading

Book Review: Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica

Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017).

Pestana Review

It is an exciting time to be a scholar of Caribbean history. From conferences to publications, the past decade has seen historians of early America, Latin America, and the Atlantic world turn to the Caribbean for insights into the development of empire, slavery, race, and commerce.[1] In this resurgence of Caribbean historiography, the seventeenth century has emerged as a pivotal period. That said, by taking a relatively well-known event like the Western Design, UCLA Professor and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America and the World, Carla Gardina Pestana, demonstrates the value of exploring the early Caribbean in her new book The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire. Pestana’s work aptly shows the profound intellectual pay-off for historians willing to explore the seventeenth-century Caribbean with bigger questions about imperialism, race, religion, and gender. Continue reading

Review: Adam Jortner, Blood From the Sky

Adam Jortner, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JortnerThe role of religion in the early republic has received a fair amount of attention in the recent decades. And though there are competing narratives concerning how ministers and denominations took advantage of the post-revolutionary era—the “Hatchites” arguing that they embraced the democratization and empowered the common man, while the “Butlerites” and “Porterfieldites” emphasizing how leaders capitalized on the fear of  a chaotic society—there has been a general point of agreement: religion and politics now took place within a secularized sphere. Expectations of democratic governance led religionists to frame their arguments in a way to match the new republican age. Politics drove religious belief and practice, and not the other way around. Continue reading

The Reintegration of South Carolina Loyalists after the Revolutionary War

Rebecca Brannon, From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

51rsxcybgfl-_sx312_bo1204203200_In her award-winning Liberty’s Exiles, Harvard University’s Maya Jasanoff offered a lively account of the Loyalist diaspora, those individuals who left the newly formed United States as a consequence of their Loyalism. In her highly anticipated appendix, Jasanoff stated that over 60,000 Loyalists left in search of a new home—but what of those who stayed? Until recently, the reintegration of some 400,000 Loyalists into American society has been an overlooked topic. As James Madison University’s Rebecca Brannon notes, “Historians of American Loyalism have long favored those who left . . . over those who stayed” (p. 5), and with her well-researched From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (University of South Carolina Press, 2016), Brannon takes a major step to address this obvious historiographical oversight. Continue reading

Review: William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake

William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017).

It’s fair to say that military history isn’t known for its commitment to social and political critique—at least not the kind of military history you might find at the airport. Autumn of the Black Snake offers much of what readers might want from that kind of book. It is unashamedly narrative-driven; carefully constructed for maximum tension and dramatic payoff; and there’s a fair amount of blood on the page too. But it is also designed to pose a challenge. Just what kind of entity was the newborn United States? From William Hogeland’s perspective, it was less an asylum of liberty than a super-powered successor to colonial land companies like the one that shaped the young George Washington. Continue reading

Q&A: Ernesto Bassi, author of An Aqueous Territory

Following up on James Hill’s review of Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), we’re pleased to post this Q&A with Ernesto about his book and future research. Bassi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. He is a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolutions, whose work transgresses conventionally defined geographic units of analysis. Ernesto can be reached at eb577@cornell.edu. Continue reading