Race and the Making of the Mormon People, with Max Mueller [MIPodcast #85]
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This year marks forty years since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began, once again, to ordain black members of African descent to its priesthood. Forty years since the church began administering it sacred temple ordinances to black women and men. Over the past forty years the body of scholarship on race and the Church has expanded, with the biggest advances happening over the past ten years.
Max Perry Mueller’s book is one of the latest offerings. It’s called Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press).
Max Perry Mueller is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska. He is author of Race and the Making of the Mormon People.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. This year, 2018, marks forty years since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began once again to ordain black members of African descent to its priesthood. Forty years since the church began administrating its sacred temple ordinances to black women and men. Over the past forty years the body of scholarship on race and the church has expanded, with the biggest advances happening over the past ten years.
Max Perry Mueller’s book is one of the latest offerings. It’s called Race and the Making of the Mormon People from the University of North Carolina Press. Mueller joins us to talk about it in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. He’s assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska. We recorded this interview last year when he visited the Institute to talk about the book.
Questions and comments can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you value this program please take a moment to rate and review it on iTunes, or share it with a friend.
BLAIR HODGES: Max Perry Mueller joins us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thanks for being with us, Max.
MAX PERRY MUELLER: Thanks for this opportunity. Glad to be here.
HODGES: You’re joining us from the University of Nebraska. You’re out here in Provo kind of on a little book tour talking about the new book that just came out.
MUELLER: That’s correct.
HODGES: The book is called Race and the Making of the Mormon People. I wanted to start out by talking to you about why this book came about. The first line in your book makes your goal clear. You say, “This is a study of race and how Americans write about it.” Of course, you’ve become one of the Americans writing about race yourself. So what’s your background?
MUELLER: Let me answer in two ways. So this book allows me to examine two parts of my personal history, as is the case with many historians and scholars, influences my personal history. I was born in Wyoming, Casper Wyoming, in fact along the Mormon trail, so to speak. Actually that was really important time in my life. I spent the first six years of my life in Wyoming in Casper and my parents, this is a little bit confessional, but my parents split acrimoniously when I was quite young. My parents were kind of post hippie hippies living on Casper Mountain and built their own house. I have kind of fond memories of this house with a big greenhouse where they would grow their own food, just really kind of off the grid living before it became kind of more popularized in a modern day back-to-the-land movement.
Anyway, my parents split and my mom and I moved to town. Across the street was a large Mormon family. It was still a very tense time for me. My parents were still working their relationship out; in fact there was certainly a lot of acrimony in the home. Nothing violent, but it was not a pleasant time for me, so I often would go across the street and find in that home playmates and a loving atmosphere that really contrasted with my home life, which was pretty tumultuous. That Mormon family treated me as one of their own. They recognized, I think, looking back, that I was a kid in need of a place to go that was safe and welcoming and loving. They even always had a place set out for me at dinner time, this when I was four or five, I got a sense of Mormon home life.
That experience really endeared me to the Mormon people, not a great sense of necessarily the theology, though certainly the theology informs the Mormon home life. So Mormons have a place in my heart because of that experience. At the same time, I was also interested, I wasn’t a Mormon, and I was interested in and I recognized that the Mormons too were a people, even in a place like Casper in the West, set apart. They were a group that was both very fully American but also different than Americans. Words that I would use today is like a white ethnic group, a group that has a particular sense of self, sometimes described as insular, a shared history. So I was always fascinated by these people that were both so familiar even for me as I said before, kind of family, but who were different from me and different than other Americans. So that was really an important aspect.
I’ll note one other thing. Once I left Wyoming, without meaning to, I continued to be fascinated with Mormons and it took this shape and I continued to learn about Mormons, even as a young kid. That took the shape of the great The Great Brain books; do you know the Great Brain books? In a lot of ways that was to me, I think, that actually sparked my interest in history, especially nineteenth century and early twentieth century history. So if you don’t know the Great Brain books, it’s a series of books, early chapter books, elementary school age—
HODGES: Like your basic Nancy Drew. He’s solving stuff.
MUELLER: The “Nancy Drew” books. Exactly. So the narrator is the younger brother of the Great Brain, a precocious young man who is always getting himself into scrapes. But it takes place in Southern Utah in a made-up city, but I think it’s Cedar City in real life. I think that’s where the author was from. But this family were the only Catholic family in town, living in a very predominant Mormon community. So kind of on the edges of this narration are key parts of Mormon culture, particular religious beliefs and practices, relationships with Native Americans, the ZCMI, all of these things. So I was always fascinated with that kind of insider and outsider dynamic in terms of Mormonism.
Also, just again kind of confessionally a little bit, my mom’s second family, my mom has been married and this one’s going to stick, she’s on her third marriage, but my mom’s second marriage was to a man who had older children and this man had adopted children who were of mixed race. One of the children was a guy named Jason Rothenberg, now known as Jason Raize, and he was really my only, I am an only child, so for a very short period of time, I was in sixth and seventh grade, and he was a junior and senior in high school, we lived together. Incredibly talented guy. In fact, he was the first adult Simba in The Lion King on the first Broadway performance. That helped in some ways, his racial ambiguity helped him get that role, besides of course his immense talent. I hear he was also Pontius Pilot and Judas on the national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. We would follow him around for tours while he was on the East Coast where we lived.
While he was living at home, I watched Jason struggle with his racial identity in a very small, upstate New York town, where he was way too talented and way too different in a lot of ways for a small community, a light-skinned guy but had very stereotypical black hair and obviously all the politics around hair is really important. So I watched him try to relax his hair to make it kind of “whiter,” straighter. His last name also was Rothenberg, so a Jewish last name, though at that point in the time we were at that point UU’s, which is where a lot of—
HODGES: Unitarian Universalist—
MUELLER: Yes, I saw him struggling with his own identity in a world that really didn’t know how to understand him and the complex nature of his identity. He went on to great success with The Lion King and had some roles on Disney movies, but he ended up taking his own life in 2004. So the book is actually dedicated to him.
I say “all this” because with both the Mormons and watching Jason, these are people that were at once family to me but also I was very different from, so they were both other to me. I think that really informs why I’m interested in putting these conversations about initially, why I put these conversations about race and Mormonism together, though once you start diving into the history of Mormonism race emerges as a real central aspect of Mormon history.
HODGES: Is there any drawback to that kind of personal connection?
MUELLER: Perhaps. But I think fundamentally that’s what we do as religious studies scholars and hopefully as historians. We try at our best to understand people who are different than us. This is what I tell my students, is that my goal is to teach them to understand people who are different from you, who have different views, beliefs, and practices on their own terms. So I hope that my personal history informs those goals.
HODGES: One thing that’s interesting is you don’t mention that in your prefatory material. Was that a conscious choice not to mention your own situatedness? Or even your race, for example?
MUELLER: Yeah. I even debated whether or not to out myself as a non-Mormon. I’m white, I’m heterosexual, I was born in the west. Those are signifiers of Mormonism in some ways, stereotypical Mormonism. I kind of hint at my non-Mormon status in my acknowledgements of the book. That’s my way, but I actually debated how do I situate myself explicitly. As we all are, we are easily searchable online, so I didn’t think that that was necessary to include in the text. One can find me and my writings. I’ve written about Jason, my stepbrother, in actually my review of The Book of Mormon.
HODGES: The musical?
MUELLER: The musical, which is a play off of The Lion King. It’s a very specific play off of The Lion King trope.
HODGES: Using racial tropes.
MUELLER: Especially the racial tropes, and also the styles of it. The “Hakuna Matata” song, which they have a particular scatological version of the “Hakuna Matata” song in The Book of Mormon. My experience with Jason growing up as both studying Mormons, or being fascinated by Mormons and musicals, certainly informed my views on The Book of Mormon Musical. So yeah, I mean of course, I think there’s more benefit to my personal experiences than drawbacks I would say.
HODGES: Do you see any limitations, though? For example, one of the things I’m thinking about is when you’re talking about African Americans and African American history or Native American Indian history, what you do in this book quite a bit, you are coming at it from that sort of white American background as well and people of color, for example, see another white person talking about people of color.
MUELLER: We’ll talk a little bit more about this later in the interview, but I’m very conscious, I hope in the book but certainly in my responses around the book and promoting the book and thinking about the book, about my limitations. This is not my history. I’ll say this right from the beginning, I guess, that—I’m going to use the word—I love Jane Manning James, I admire Jane Manning James, one of the central figures of my book, this really singular, literally singular and also metaphorically singular figure in Mormon history, this convert from Connecticut who converts her whole family and moves them to Nauvoo to join up with, and lives with Joseph Smith and his household for a time, becomes a confidant to Joseph Smith and his family. Then moves to Utah as part of the 1847er pioneer wave. So she’s a member of that most revered class of pioneers and lives in Salt Lake until 1908 and her death, and has a very complex relationship with the rest of the Mormon people in the building up of Zion as she is both a storehouse of memories of the time of Joseph’s life, and clearly has demonstrated, she believes, her true Mormonism. But she’s also a black woman who at the end of her life—as we’ll perhaps talk about—belonged to a church that no longer wanted, necessarily, to have her at least as a full member of that community.
HODGES: Which we’ll talk about, the unusual changes that Mormonism went through that were unexpected to Jane. That’s Max Perry Mueller. We’re talking with him today about his book Race and the Making of the Mormon People. Let’s set the stage, Max. Mormonism was born in the nineteenth century. The church was officially established in 1830. Before we dig into Mormon ideas about race, let’s give us a bird’s eye view quickly about race in America, Mormonism’s broader context.
MUELLER: Sure. I’ll talk a little bit about 1830, but before I do I want to kind of set the stage briefly about race and America and the American Project in two concrete ways. I’ll start with the story of Native Americans first. So during the age of exploration, so starting in the 1400s, early 1500s, and into the 1600s—
HODGES: Wait, am I to understand that America existed at that time?
MUELLER: It existed. So infamously, Columbus sails—
HODGES: The ocean blue.
MUELLER: Sails the ocean blue. Sails west trying to get to India, recognized that the earth is round so if you circumnavigate you’ll eventually end up on the other side of what was understood as the land mass of the world, which was Europe, Africa, and Asia. He wanted to get to the other side of Asia so he could establish trade routes with the Indians.
HODGES: In India.
MUELLER: In India. Indian Indians. But on his way west he runs into some islands, not actually the continent, he runs into some islands that weren’t supposed to be there. Soon he figures out that there’s a huge landmass, a whole continent that isn’t supposed to be here. The reason it’s not supposed to be here in some ways is biblical. Christopher Columbus is in some ways an early modernist; he’s using scientific topography about understanding’s that the planet is round. He’s using the stars to navigate the oceans, etc.
But at the same time Christopher Columbus, like many early modernist explorers, believed that the Bible is history, especially in terms of distribution of humanity. Basic story of humanity according to the Bible is that we have our first family, Adam and Eve, and they fall rather quickly, and they have generations, a few generations, a few generations, and that soon fall further and further away from God’s will until God says, “Hey, I want to start over with humanity. This humanity project isn’t going so well.” So he says, “Noah, since you are faithful, wise in your generation, Noah, I’m telling you I’m going to send a flood. So get your family.”
HODGES: Build the ark-y, ark-y.
MUELLER: Build the ark-y, ark-y, get all your family on board. Everybody laughs at him, laughs at him, “This is poppycock.” Anyway, the flood does come, destroys according to the Bible. Destroys all of humanity, except those who have survived on the ark, and after the floodwater’s recede, we have Noah starting the second first family of humanity. His progeny and the progeny of his sons. We have in particular, we have three sons: Ham, Japheth, and Shem. An event happens described in the Book of Genesis after the flood, in which—
HODGES: Noah gets drunk.
MUELLER: Noah gets drunk. It’s kind of—
HODGES: It’s ambiguous.
MUELLER: It’s very ambiguous exactly what happens. There’s a lot of midrash from the early rabbinical sources that have very colorful explanations of exactly what transpired. Anyway, Noah gets drunk, goes into his tent, apparently disrobes, and Ham goes in and laughs at Noah. Japheth and Shem cover up their father.
HODGES: And they like walk in backwards.
MUELLER: They walk in backwards so they don’t see his nakedness. Noah wakes up and he’s upset with his son Ham for laughing at him. And he says—
HODGES: He levies a curse upon him.
MUELLER: And then there’s a curse not upon him, upon his descendants, generations. Curse not upon Ham, but upon Canaan in particular, his son. They will have to be servants of servants of the other two more faithful sons, and the descendants of Japheth and Shem. Okay. The drama moves forward and the understanding is Ham’s progeny, Philip, populate Africa, Japheth populates Europe, and Shem populates the Near East and Asia. That is a biblical understanding of—
HODGES: The world’s people.
MUELLER: The world’s people. That is taken not as mythos, but history. Part of the age of explorations is actually racializing the text, that actually isn’t clear that the curse is actually de-markate related to a racial curse, actually we historically have read the race into those sources that aren’t necessarily clear. We’ve read them to justify eventually slavery. Anyway, Christopher Columbus discovers there are people, there are land, who are these people? They’re not supposed to be here. How do they fit into the biblical distribution of humanity? I call this the crisis of discovery.
HODGES: Got to fit it into the story somehow.
MUELLER: Got to fit it in the story. So from popes to Puritans to other early colonialists have always tried to figure out who are these people that are misnamed Indians, Native Americans? And how do they fit into the biblical distribution of humanity? Eventually the consensus comes, and this actually took a while to get to it, that these are actually humans. They’re not animals. Therefore they deserve the opportunity to be Christianized. That’s key. That’s actually what the pope, I forget which pope it is, in a papal degree in 1537 the pope says, “Hey, you can’t enslave these people. These are not animals. They have souls, and therefore they are eligible to be saved and human agency.” Anyway, so that sets in motion the idea of long process of religious people, Catholics, Protestants, and eventually Mormons to other religious groups attempting to Christianize, civilize, Native Americans.
Fast forward to 1830 when Mormonism begins. That process, at least according to the missionaries and then the early colonialists, and then the very young United States, and less-so New France and other colonial powers in America, have given up on that project. The fact that Native Americans have rejected by and large—
HODGES: These civilizing attempts.
MUELLER: The civilizing attempts is a sign of their innate savagery. So it’s not an idea that they could be made with proper paternalistic Christian care into believing Christians by the fact that they’ve rejected the gospel through indifference and often through violent resistance points to the understanding of innate savagery. These are unredeemable. So Andrew Jackson establishes the Indian Removal Act, believing that the Indian cannot be in America.
HODGES: And he’s on the twenty-dollar bill.
MUELLER: The twenty-dollar bill.
HODGES: He’s the guy who—
MUELLER: Hopefully not for too much longer.
HODGES: Let’s hope. But this is what he does. They’re removing the Indians from the country. Like, “We’re not going to help you. We’re separating.” But Mormons—
MUELLER: But Mormons actually, so enter the Mormons at this time. The Mormons, a few things are really interesting, especially with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon fills out, and this is true with a lot of Mormon scripture, fill out gaps in the biblical history. Fill out lacunas in biblical history. So the Book of Mormon is an answer, a very clear answer, a very long answer, a six hundred-page answer, to the question, “Who are Native Americans?”
The Book of Mormon isn’t unique in this speculation, which the Book of Mormon doesn’t say it’s speculation but actually historical fact, but the Book of Mormon says actually these are actually lost tribes of Israel. They are of the most favored branch of the Abrahamic covenant. They are part of the Abrahamic covenant. They’re descendants of Shem and by descent Abraham. A group of a family, again, a family who have been told by God to flee Israel before the conquering of Israel by the Babylonians, to leave and head into the wilderness and to establish there a godly kingdom.
This is the story of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon unfolds, therefore, this almost millennial long history of what happens to this family. In it, what’s very important to our conversation today, in it we have very early on in this history a split. A split that becomes racialized. What happens is one part of this family, Lehi’s family, Laman and Lemuel, sin against, this is how race begins too in biblical text though it’s less explicit, this is how the human family separates, one branch of the human family rises up against, sins against another family.
HODGES: You had Cain killing Abel, then you have Laman and Lemuel trying to kill Nephi.
MUELLER: Murmuring against, trying to kill Nephi. Exactly. For which they are cursed and set apart, marked off, saying they are an inferior branch of that particular human family. The Book of Mormon’s history is a very complex story about the relationship between the Nephite people, the people who say more or less faithful to the traditions, the faith of their forefathers, and the Lamanites who are this branch who have risen up and sins against Nephi and his family.
HODGES: We’ll talk more about how that plays out and how Mormons interpreted the Book of Mormon, but before we do that it’s your whole first chapter, really, an in-depth analysis of the Book of Mormon, both what the book itself says, and also what its first readers drew out of the Book of Mormon.
So what’s interesting is you begin with a plea with readers and scholars to take the Book of Mormon more seriously, even by Latter-day Saints. A lot of scholars have said early Mormons saw the Book of Mormon as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophet hood, they didn’t really take an in-depth look at its theology, it didn’t impact too much of Latter-day Saint theology, it served more as a sign. You’re pushing back on that idea. You’re directly challenging that idea in this book.
MUELLER: Yes, absolutely. A couple of points to make on why I think clearly the Book of Mormon had an impact on theology and history, which are intertwined. So the Book of Mormon records a history, but also it records a past and then it prophesies about a future. So the Book of Mormon for its earliest adopters, these white Americans who believe themselves at least initially to be Gentiles, mandates these people to whom the Book of Mormon would be first, the Book of Mormon says it explicitly will be first restored to bring the history back to this history’s actual real owners, which are the descendants of the Lamanites, now the people Americans called Indians or we call more often Native Americans.
So the first official mission, and if there’s nothing more Mormon than a mission, the first official mission in Mormon history was Joseph Smith sent some of his most important lieutenants, and this is at the end of 1830, so within not even a year into the history, he’s willing to use some of his most precious assets and collaborators to send them west, to go and bring this gospel eventually to actually the people who had just been forced west because of the Indian Removal Act. He sends them west, a group of people including Parley P. Pratt and others, Oliver Cowdery and other really important senior figures.
Oliver Cowdery was the scribe of much of the Book of Mormon. I say in the book, arguably Oliver Cowdery knows the Book of Mormon better than Joseph Smith himself. So really important figures. He says, “Alright, I’m going to use you all. You’re going to go west, and you’re going to bring this book to the Lamanites and restore it to them.” And eventually they end up targeting a community of Delaware just on the other side of the Kansas river, which was then Indian country, but now is in Kansas.
So just on that fact alone, that they’re reading closely, clearly the church leaders are reading closely and taking that mandate direct, which is very clear from the Book of Mormon seriously. They’re willing to expend energy and resources to bring about that mandate. So that I think is very important.
HODGES: It’s almost like those scholars, by the way, are sort of looking at how early Mormons weren’t using the Book of Mormon in the same way that Mormons today use it and sort of translated it into the idea that they weren’t using the Book of Mormon, where you’re saying that these missions and the Lamanites and the way that Mormons thought about American Indians signaled that they thought deeply about it. I mean, Parley P. Pratt, his autobiography makes clear that this was first and foremost in his mind, how the Book of Mormon would operate.
MUELLER: Yes, I mean he was concerned even before his conversion about the fate of native peoples. So is Eliza R. Snow. These are the reasons, in some ways, they cite their… Interestingly enough, some of the most important early converts, most famous early converts are drawn to Mormonism because of Mormonism’s interest in redeeming, we’ll use Mormon language, restoring Native Americans to their knowledge of their truth.
HODGES: I was fascinated to see Eliza Snow had written poetry about this, as you said, before she had even encountered the Book of Mormon. This was on her mind.
MUELLER: Exactly. This gets back to questions of racial fixity. We’re still talking mostly about Native Americans. So again, we move from early American colonist explorer’s views that their divine mandate is to bring these sons of the forest to civilize them, because of the failures of that project in of which the colonists blamed the Native Americans, not on their own work. So racial fixity helped create national policy on Native Americans. Native Americans cannot be, because of their—
HODGES: They’re diametrically opposed to our way of life and they cannot be converted to it, therefore—
MUELLER: Exactly. So we’re going to move them west and get rid of them. Well the Book of Mormon certainly tells of the descent into savagery of these same peoples.
HODGES: So it shares some assumptions there.
MUELLER: Very similar assumptions. But what I argue is the main racial theology of the Book of Mormon is not one of racial fixity, but of racial redemption, and I’ll use the word again, racial redemption, or the possibility of it, that race is not fixed, race is not of divine design, but of the result of human failing. It’s the idea that humans, and this gets into Mormon ideas of agency, which are very very important, humans sinned against their family which created these racial lines, lineages, and certain lineages are saddled by the sins of their forefathers. But because of human agency, even those who are saddled with those curses which manifest on a skin, but other cultural signifiers can be redeemed, can be restored if they accept the gospel.
That’s the fundamental message of the Book of Mormon’s racial theology. Even those who are cursed and set apart from the rest of the human family, the white human family, and “white” more or less means “race-less,” because race enters only into history—
HODGES: Yeah, you call it a white universalism because you also note white wasn’t a thing. It was the baseline good.
MUELLER: Yes. It’s the “race-less” race. You only get white when you get non-white. It’s that contrast. The contrast creates the two there.
HODGES: By the way, just to interject, you also point out how this plays out in the narrative of the Book of Mormon. One of your biggest points in this book is that the archives themselves are racialized and in some cases very racist in excluding certain voices and privileging other voices, primarily white voices, who are more often literate or have control over archives, or the ability to make records. You see this playing out in the Book of Mormon.
MUELLER: Absolutely. So one of the main arguments of the book is that an archive is not simply a storehouse of documents, accumulation of documents.
HODGES: An objective collection of objective facts.
MUELLER: Objective facts. Records of the past. But they are a storehouse, they are a place where race is actually made. Where racial differences are actually written first, right? Racial differences are narrated first there, and then get read unto bodies. So exactly like understandings of, take for example the Book of Mormon, early Mormons viewing Native Americans as descendants of a cursed branch of Israel. Where do they learn that lesson first? They didn’t observe it on the bodies. They learned it from the text that they were reading. But also from that same text, again this goes back to our point that the Book of Mormon was actually being used, was that they believed that those cursed peoples could be redeemed if they were restored to the knowledge of their forefathers.
There are a couple of others, kind of more historiographic points to make about how the Book of Mormon clearly was important. Scholars who say that the Book of Mormon wasn’t used much point to the fact that the Book of Mormon wasn’t quoted in scriptures or sermons as much. That’s fair. But I think one of the reasons is this new Mormon people were getting used to reading the Book of Mormon. These are biblical people first and foremost. They’re figuring out ways to incorporate the answers that the Book of Mormon provides to the biblical text into their theology.
So the Book of Mormon did not sell well, much to the chagrin of its financial backers, the printer, Joseph Smith himself, though Joseph didn’t seem to be I think too worried.
HODGES: He didn’t seem too sales-minded actually.
MUELLER: He was kind of done with the Book of Mormon in some ways. He moves on quickly to different translation processes. But anyway, other people are concerned. How much was it? I forget the early cost. It was expensive.
HODGES: Wasn’t it like thirteen dollars or something like that?
MUELLER: It was a couple of dollars, but—
HODGES: I thought it was the equivalent of like fifty dollars or something like that.
MUELLER: Yes. It was a very, very expensive text. It was an audacious printing production. Anyway, so it doesn’t sell well, but there are other ways that the church—
HODGES: Broadcasts the Book of Mormon. They would do excerpts in newspapers. A lot of them had to do with this redemption of the Lamanites.
MUELLER: Exactly. So the Evening and Morning Star, the church’s first quasi-official, maybe it is official, church newspaper prints excerpts of the Book of Mormon. I read those as reading guides teaching how a people that is still being developed of their own sense of self and their relationship to this scripture, should read the Book of Mormon. A lot of it has to do with their mandate and their responsibility to create a New Jerusalem that will include Gentile populations and, very importantly, a Lamanite or Native American populations that will be unified and create a covenantal community and then a covenantal city fit for Christ’s return.
That to me is pretty clear evidence that the Book of Mormon had very clear, or a very powerful impact on the early church’s activities, its theologies, its printing operations. And again, this at a time, so the Mormons are very much pushing back against the growing consensus that Native Americans and certainly African Americans, and by extension also in comparison, white Euro-Americans. These racial categories are fixed by biblical mandate, by political mandate, and increasingly by scientific mandate. At the same time that the Book of Mormon is—
MUELLER: Thank you. Big quotation marks, “scientific mandate.” So the same year that the Book of Mormon comes out it’s just kind of an amazing coincidence, Charles Caldwell, who is the founder of the University Louisville Medical School produces his own lineage of a racial hierarchy, racial descriptions, where he says actually the archive we should be looking to is not the biblical archive, but—and he’s is not the first—crania, the study, the different sizes of skulls, to determine who is on the hierarchy to solidify the racial hierarchy.
So the Mormons are pushing against this idea of racial fixity coming from biblical or theological sources, political sources, and big quotation marks, “scientific sources.” So ironically this church that is infamous, this community, it is in non-Mormon circles, infamous for its problematic relationship to race, both specifically in terms of race in terms of relationships with African Americans—
HODGES: Having excluded black people from the priesthood or temple until 1978 and so on.
MUELLER: Though, and it’s important to point out, there was a time when that was more in flex under Joseph Smith. Even their complex relationships with Native Americans. In the early days these were in some ways moderately, this is going to be an oxymoron maybe, but moderately radical in their views that race was something, a schism within the human family, that humans themselves could overcome through an acceptance of the new gospel. The new gospel provided tools and actually examples, precedence of how racial schisms could be overcome in the past.
HODGES: That’s Max Mueller. We’re talking to him today about his book Race and the Making of the Mormon People.
Max, people are going to go crazy because there is so much that we could talk about. But I want to keep moving so they’ll have to pick up a copy of the book if they want to dig more into that. Just to let people know, for example, you talk about how the early mission to the Lamanites wasn’t very successful so Mormons had to look elsewhere for the fulfillment of these Lamanite blessings, how their identities as Gentiles originally began to shift as Latter-day Saints began to see themselves more as literally the descendants of the house of Israel, and having this believing blood that inclined them to accept the gospel. You talk about that. You also talk about how Ham’s descendants aren’t actually mentioned in the Book of Mormon, so there’s this absence there and as Mormons were trying to figure out the place of black people.
That’s kind of what I wanted to shift to right now. So in 1949 the LDS Church’s First Presidency put out a statement to explain or defend that church’s position on African Americans. So men were not allowed to hold the LDS priesthood and women were not allowed to participate in LDS temple ceremonies. The First Presidency in 1949 said that this was the result of a direct commandment from the Lord and that this had been the case “from the days of the church’s organization.” That’s what the First Presidency said. But more recently the church has acknowledged an official approved scholarship that those things were inaccurate. Those claims weren’t true.
So how did the historical records then contradict that First Presidency statement? Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel are two historical figures that directly challenged that line of thinking.
MUELLER: Yes. That 1949 statement and then thinking about what has come more recently, especially in the last few years is really quite interesting. Let me jump ahead to the present a little bit. Especially around the change that brought about the revelation in 1978 that changed the policy, I would argue doctrine, around people of African descent and their ability to fully participate in some of the most essential parts of the gospel, including men holding the priesthood and men and women accessing the temple.
Historians were a huge part, let’s celebrate historians, historians were a huge part in showing that actually this exclusion was not always present in the church’s history. So we can credit folks like Lester Bush in particular, Newell Bringhurst, those two figures in particular, or later folks like Armand Moss, but especially Lester Bush and Newell Bringhurst going to the sources, even in the church’s own archives to find examples—and the two most famous examples are Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel—of the church’s, not just anybody, but the church’s founder, the founding prophet Joseph Smith accepting Jane Manning James as a member of his household and perhaps even a member of his offering to accept her as a member of his eternal family and allowing Elijah Abel’s ordination to be sustained and not objecting to Elijah Abel’s ordination based on an idea that people of African descent were for various reasons excluded from access to the priesthood.
So those two examples are really, those two people are really key to understanding that the early church was more, in terms of relationships with African Americans, more inclusive. Now how does that fit into the Book of Mormon theology itself? This is a little bit tough, because as we were talking about, the Book of Mormon actually makes no mention of people of African descent.
HODGES: Ham’s family is not in the story.
MUELLER: Ham’s family is not in the story. So we have Gentiles, kind of Japheth’s family, and we have Shem, the Lamanites, who will gather together and covenant together and create a New Jerusalem in the new world, according to the Book of Mormon. Ham’s family is not present. I think that hints at a larger American understanding of this nation or ambivalence about the place of African Americans in this nation going forward. Related to issues of slavery. What if we free the slaves? Not dissimilar to questions around Native Americans, can African Americans be full members of this national community?
So I think this Book of Mormon, whenever it was written, fits very much into the very intricate and complex conversations around race, and even by exclusion of African Americans hint at a position, a Mormon position on that question of whether or not African Americans can be a part of New Jerusalem, can be a part of this American project.
HODGES: You said whenever it was written one of the things you do in your treatment of the Book of Mormon is you don’t affirm either way specifically when the Book of Mormon was written. Obviously there are people, members of the LDS church and people that believe in the Book of Mormon as an ancient text or historicity is so important, and then on the other hand you have people who believe that it was a product of the nineteenth century completely, that Joseph Smith or someone else wrote it. You kind of have split that divide by not casting a judgment, but by looking at the Book of Mormon and saying if it was a historical text these Mormons were reading it that way in the nineteenth century, so you sort of try to see it through their eyes.
Do you anticipate any criticism from people who thought you should have maybe identified the Book of Mormon as just a nineteenth century text? People who aren’t Mormon who aren’t looking at it through that lens. Do you anticipate criticism from that side of things? Like, “Hey, you’re not hard on the Book of Mormon here. What’s going on?”
MUELLER: Well my response is two-fold. It enters into an early nineteenth century moment and speaks directly to issues, other scholars have looked at how, including its earliest critics and readers, look at how well it answers all the major questions around baptism, about priesthood, so a lot of people read into the Book of Mormon very, very carefully. Not just the Mormons themselves, but especially Mormon detractors. Anyway, how well suited it was to those discussions around proper religious practices, ritual practices, ordination, baptism, etc. etc. It also speaks to very much the major debates around race in the time period.
Yet the earliest readers, and this is my answer to that question, why not say it’s produced in the early nineteenth century? The earliest readers believed it to be an ancient text. So we need to understand how they used it, read it, and then applied it, interpreted it, and how they use those interpretations to enact history. We need to take that perspective seriously, that it is an ancient text, that is both ancient but is speaking to the present, that is demanding of Mormons to do certain things. I think that’s the more important aspect of the text. It’s requiring them, if they believe it to be true, it’s requiring them to take on certain actions.
So that’s my response. This is a basic tenant of religious studies and I would hope other fields too, that we need to, when we’re studying people, study them and appreciate their perspectives from their own terms first and foremost. See the world through their eyes so we understand how they’re interpreting the world and how they’re acting in it. So I think it would be unfair to the history because clearly they’re reading it as an ancient text, but also an ancient text that’s speaking to them at that particular moment. I also don’t think it would be fitting our best practices of our discipline to render my own judgment on it. So that’s kind of the way I understand it.
HODGES: That’s Max Mueller. We’re talking about his book Race and the Making of the Mormon People.
Max, I wanted to talk to you more about assessing Jane’s records. She wrote this autobiography that’s a fantastic document, but it was also filtered through a scribe. By the time she recorded this she had lost her eyesight and relied on a white scribe. That scribe inserted things into the narrative that Jane didn’t want to be part of her story. Talk about the difficulty of grappling with Jane’s autobiography, given the fact that it was not given to a straight across. It came through someone else.
MUELLER: Sure. Yeah. So the language here is interesting because she writes her autobiography. In fact, she doesn’t put pen to paper to narrate her life story. She turns to a white scribe, Elizabeth J. D. Roundy to actually do the transcription of her autobiography. I’ll make two points. In some ways, and I do think actually, so I’ll make three points.
One, I do think Jane Manning James was literate in that she at one point could put pen to paper, I think at this point there is ample evidence and I discuss this at some length in my book, though other people have assumed, and I think that’s a problem to assume that she was illiterate. There’s plenty of evidence to point out she was actually literate. So this is at the end of her life, so she’s physically incapable of writing. This is not an absence of aptitude, but a loss of ability. I think this is really important in terms of kind of the way we understand race and literacy and the relationship between whiteness and literacy. The assumption that whiteness and literacy go hand in hand. This relates to other points.
So Elizabeth J. D. Roundy sits down with Jane Manning James, probably starting in 1893, about fifteen years before Jane Manning James’s death. The purpose for Jane Manning James writing this autobiography, which its title A Life Sketch, it’s not quite an autobiography because Jane Manning James did not write it herself, and that’s really an important aspect, so as I talk about in the book, Jane Manning James’s life in some ways is a liminal life in that it crosses the boundaries between freedom and slavery.
So Elizabeth J. D. Roundy actually seems like a pretty faithful scribe. She records in the first person James’s life story. Her conversion to Mormonism in Connecticut, her amazing trek to Nauvoo with her family members whom she converted, her time in the Nauvoo Mansion House, which is very important to her.
HODGES: She gets to see the Urim and Thummim.
HODGES: She sees Joseph Smith’s temple robe. She handles all these sacred artifacts.
MUELLER: Sacred artifacts that are symbols of the foundation of Mormonism. She was an early—
HODGES: And she’s telling this while she’s been excluded from the temple, which is now the sacred location of Mormonism.
MUELLER: Exactly. She even hints at, in the autobiography, she hints at she knows for example new names are given at the temple. So she knows something about this.
HODGES: Yeah, she knows about the temple. She can’t go there, but she’s saying, “I know about this.”
MUELLER: Exactly. And therefore the implicit argument therefore is, “I should be able to go. I’ve proven my Mormon-ness.” That’s kind of the main argument behind, I would argue, the polemic behind the autobiography.
HODGES: And you can say that because she had also been writing to church leaders and petitioning them directly.
HODGES: “I would like to do this.” And they would say no.
MUELLER: Exactly. So the autobiography is one document that we have, and again, not directly written by James, and that’s so important that it was actually, as I mentioned before, her life crosses boundaries between not freedom and freedom, I’m not going to quite call it slavery, but not freedom and freedom. Her life sketches parallel other slave narratives, very famous slave narratives of the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass in particular, for whom it was so important that they were, as Douglass says himself, written by myself. Written by himself. To point out this is my person testimony, me directly adding with my pen to paper, telling my story.
HODGES: And sadly there’d be white people in between those. They would need either a scribe or a person writing the introduction or—
MUELLER: Exactly. To validate those claims. So in some ways James also needs this validation from Elizabeth J. D. Roundy. So anyway, so—
HODGES: Not that there were very many other black—
MUELLER: Exactly. In Utah—
HODGES: Who could have—
MUELLER: Provided that service. Anyway, interestingly, so Elizabeth Roundy records in the first person about these kind of fantastic things. Like, Jane Manning James held the Urim and Thummim, she touched the temple robes, she was an early witness to the secret days of polygamy. She said she was living with the Lawrence and Partridge sisters in the Nauvoo Mansion House when Joseph Smith was marrying them secretly, and Jane Manning James says she condones this behavior, or this activity.
Elizabeth J. D. Roundy doesn’t question perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the life sketch, which was James claimed that she was offered to be spiritually adopted by the Smiths, which James says she refused which she regrets for the rest of her life because she didn’t understand that that would have meant that a lowly black washer girl could have been elevated to the highest levels of heaven with the prophet and the prophet’s family himself, which this whole letter writing campaign she engages in, and the autobiography itself is an attempt to get into the temple so she can be sealed.
HODGES: She wants that rectified.
MUELLER: She wants that rectified. Anyway, so at the end of the life sketch, about twenty-three hundred words, so very detail rich but quite short, Elizabeth J. D. Roundy had some questions she wanted answered, especially about the paternity of Jane Manning James’s eldest son, Sylvester James. Sylvester James is a well-known figure in turn of the century Utah. He’s a wealthy landowner and is well respected, though he had actually been excommunicated from the church. Elizabeth J. D. Roundy steps back from her role as faithful scribe and writes in her first person that she wanted to ask Jane Manning James about the paternity of Sylvester.
HODGES: Because Sylvester wasn’t mentioned by Jane.
MUELLER: Sylvester’s not mentioned by Jane. One can imagine in the conversations between scribe and author here, tell me about Sylvester, no, no, no, I don’t want to tell you about Sylvester. In fact, Elizabeth J. D. Roundy says James evades questions about Sylvester’s paternity. So Elizabeth J. D. Roundy goes and asks Jane Manning James’s Isaac about the true paternity of Sylvester. Isaac provides family gossip. He says that the father, the biological father, was a white man, a preacher back in Connecticut, and James had this child when she was young, as a teenager. The young Jane Manning and this preacher had some kind of encounter, and I choose my words carefully here, because they’re really important to think about what kind of encounter this was, the encounter eventually produced Sylvester.
This is one of the most challenging parts for me to write about in here because contemporary Mormons, especially contemporary black Mormon women, for whom Jane Manning James has become truly a spiritual ancestor, and I’ll say that, I’ll editorialize, as a non-Mormon I hope Jane Manning James’s story becomes canonical and for all Mormons, because it’s such a powerful story. It speaks to the complicated history of Mormonism. Beautiful, rich, powerful, faithful, and really heartbreaking too. Anyway, for these particular women, black Mormon women, looked to Jane Manning James’s story, and in fact reenact her life story. So they know her life story intimately, they reenact it for civic events and church events. They use her words, for them her words have become canonical.
How they interpret this encounter between this white preacher and young Jane Manning is as a rape. In my book I’m very careful, as a historian is required to do, to parcel what we can know and what we cannot know about this encounter. I make the point in my book that as we know from scholarship from, for example, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and other relationships between very powerful white men and culturally less-powerful black women, that no true consent could pass between someone of such high power and someone with such low power. No true consent could pass.
HODGES: Therefore, rape.
MUELLER: Therefore, in our contemporary understanding of consent, that would be a rape. I have historical and ethical qualms. I do point out that, again, in our contemporary understandings of power and sex that this would be considered a rape, but I hedge and haw in some ways as a historian in some ways we’re required to do, though this is not un-problematic, this hedging and hawing, for two reasons.
One is historical. The archive is silent in some ways. We don’t have evidence of what happened. What kind of encounter this was. The second issue is an ethical one. Jane Manning James worked so hard to exclude this story, this part of her history from her life sketch, from the way she’d be remembered, and only do we have it because of Elizabeth J. D. Roundy’s intervention, and I would call it a painful intervention that went against Jane Manning James’s self-creation which occurs in narrating a life story.
But really let me go back to the historical issue because one of the main points, if not the main takeaway I hope folks get from my book, is that race is created in the archive. Those who have access to the archive get to tell the stories about who is Christian and who is heathen, who is slave and who is free, who is black and who is white, who is cursed and who is favored by God. Here I am, ironically, unfortunately making my own point in saying, pushing back slightly though with great respect and taking seriously these women’s critique, that we can’t know. I can’t know. I’m making my own point. Because the archive is silent, therefore we don’t know. Therefore we don’t know her true experience.
These women are teaching me that actually they do know. We can know. Through sources that are perhaps not written. Through perhaps personal experiences of their own of living in America, though it’s different from 1830s, it’s still America in 2017 where black women, the black body is a site of violence often and exclusion. They also perhaps can know. Perhaps they’re drawing from two kinds of sources that are complementary. In some ways it’s a very black way of stating emphatically as they have towards me in critiquing my hedging and hawing, stating emphatically that it’s a rape. I think that’s a very black way of knowing things. This is what I mean. The history of being black in America, especially passing through slavery, is a history of a racier, names families, country of origin, culture, religion. That’s a racier of the archive itself.
HODGES: The archive in that sense is racist.
MUELLER: The archive in that sense is racist, exactly. It’s erased their true history. So it’s an incredible power. There’s a great sense of power to state emphatically the archive is wrong and we are going to, in Jane Manning James’s voicelessness, we are going to speak for her and use our own voices. That’s a very black way of knowing.
HODGES: The story’s incomplete without that.
MUELLER: The story’s incomplete. That’s one of the most powerful lessons I’ve had in this brief time since the book has come out.
HODGES: Do you regret a little bit about how you handled that? Is this how you would change how you handled it? Sort of incorporate this kind of idea into the text?
MUELLER: Yes. In looking back I would have, I think I needed to spend more time on directly tackling, I mean I give I think a very fair account. I spent a lot of time thinking about it so I don’t know, I’m going to use the word well thought out, though I don’t know how good it is.
HODGES: Yeah, it doesn’t make it good, but it does mean you spent a lot of time thinking about it.
MUELLER: I did. I thought carefully about how I would treat this issue. I would have moved the word, just looking at the paragraphs itself, I would have moved the word “rape” closer to this encounter. I don’t use the word “encounter,” I use the word “relationship.”
HODGES: Yeah, sexual relationship that they had. And to clarify, later you talk about it in terms of rape.
MUELLER: I meant to describe sexual relationship as a descriptor, not as making any judgment about consent, though I understand how that reads now very much, and that’s a lesson I take from it. I would have liked to, looking back, I would have spent more time thinking through the kind of lessons that we can learn outside the archive from voices for whom Jane Manning James’s history is alive. Actually this text is alive for them. This is canonical text for them. This story is called canon. At the very same time, I’m hoping still I’m doing that now. I’m filling in, like any text, I’m filling in the gaps—
HODGES: What’s interesting is you do it later, we won’t have time to get to this chapter, but the chapter about American Indians you talk about when the Latter-day Saints got to Utah, they didn’t get to this empty place that they made blossom as the rose, they came to a great basin where there were between twelve and thirty-five thousand Native Americans living here, and they were interacting with people like Walkara, Chief Walkara, and there’s not a lot of records from him because he was illiterate and his voice is largely lost to history.
So you use ethnohistory to sort of imagine what was going on. Having talked to you before the interview I now learn that you did that after you had already done all your work on Jane Manning James, so that same kind of approach, which works really well with Walkara, I encourage people to read the book and see, you didn’t have that tool at your disposal back when you were doing the Jane Manning James stuff.
MUELLER: And I don’t know even if I would have used it, those tools, because it’s partly the siloing, and this is a regret I guess of the book, or a reflection of it, a siloing of how we treat different kinds of histories. We treat African American history because we actually do, because I have a text here. It’s a problematic text, but I have a text here. So I’m going to treat it as I do other kind of archival work interpretation, wherein with Walkara I don’t have texts, well I sort of do, read the book and you’ll see, and that allows me in some ways frees me, I’m going to use the word imagine, but—
HODGES: And you do in the book too.
MUELLER: Yep. That’s taken from Daniel Richter’s understanding that we need to imagine, Daniel Richter the great theorist and historian of Indian and settler encounters, his great book Facing East from Indian Country, we have to imagine events because we don’t have records for them.
Anyway, so I do that work in the Walkara chapter, and yet the book is written, hopefully there will be a new edition and I can add in some footnotes to these conversations in a new edition, but I’m hoping to in speaking about it here, and speaking about it tonight, and hopefully writing more formally about this in a journal article that I can begin to fill in the gaps in my own work here. So I’m learning so much from the reaction to it, especially the critiques of the book. As I’ve said to these women and to others, and I’ve written about it, my first audience for this book, because I’m a non-Mormon white guy, I’m very, very sensitive to the issues of cultural appropriation here. These are not my stories. These are not my stories because I don’t share the faith. There are not my stories because I don’t share the cultural experience of being black in America. I love Jane Manning James, I’ll say that. I think she has an amazing story and can teach not only Mormons, but all Americans about the very complicated history of race and religion. She belongs to her spiritual descendants, especially black Mormon women.
So I take very much to heart, and as I shared during the brown bag lunch, even to the heart even to the point of tears when I talk about it, that my first audience is them, the people who are direct descendants of Jane Manning James, like Louis Duffy, Jane Manning James’s great-great-great grandson. I think maybe I added a great there; maybe it’s just great-great grandson, who helped me secure Jane Manning James’s patriarchal blessing so I could analyze it, and her spiritual descendants like the Sisters of Zion, Tamu and Zandra, Jerri Harwell, and folks in the Genesis Group. And also, non-white Mormons around the world who can look to Jane Manning James’s story in a church that it is today majority non-American and likely majority non-white. They can look to her story and see that actually non-white people have always been part of this church. So they can look to this history and find continuity and that the aberration is this period in time between 1849, 1850, and 1978 when people of African descent in particular were excluded. They can look and find continuity instead of, which is so very important for this church.
HODGES: That’s Max Perry Mueller. He’s assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska. Today we talked about his new book Race and the Making of the Mormon People. There’s so much more that we could talk about. Unfortunately we’re out of time, but Max I want to thank you for being on the show today.
MUELLER: Thank you, Blair. It’s been an absolute pleasure. You all are doing wonderful work with this podcast. I’m a big fan.
HODGES: Hey, I appreciate that. I really do encourage people to pick up a copy of this book. You’ll be able to find more stuff from Max out there, he’s doing interviews with different outlets as well.
MUELLER: If you’re interested more in learning about the book itself, I’d encourage you to buy the book at the University of North Carolina Press and not that everything store on the Internet, if at all possible. I know it’s more convenient, but the Press gets more money that way and it’s a nonprofit organization so they very much appreciate the direct kind of contribution. Also, I have a blog, or a website now, maxperrymueller.com where I’m doing my best to update the goings on of the kind of mini book tour and the reception of the book. I’m also chronicling the new projects, which are actually related very much to this new project. I’m looking at doing a material cultural history of Walkara, one of the main figures in the book.
HODGES: Thanks, Max.
MUELLER: Thank you, sir.
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