This is the first of three posts on Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People. Today’s post comes from Jessica Nelson, who recently completed an MS in history at Utah State University. She is interested in race and Mormonism in the twentieth century and loves riding her stationary bike.
Max Perry Mueller’s book Race and the Making of the Mormon People actively and deliberately engages with the Book of Mormon. This is significant, and I hope that other scholars will follow suit and take the words of the Book of Mormon—along with its 19th century context and what it represents to Mormonism—seriously in their work. Mueller rightly demonstrates that the Book of Mormon’s stories of racial lineages are critically important to understanding racial constructs in early Mormonism.
Readers familiar with the Book of Mormon will be able to recognize that Mueller carefully read Mormonism’s foundational text. After finishing Mueller’s conclusion, however, I am left wondering how useful textual analysis and literary criticisms of the Book of Mormon are to fully understand race in nineteenth-century Mormonism. How central are Mormon scriptures to Mormon conceptions of racial otherness and whiteness? Can the Nephites as “white” people within the Book of Mormon be problematized any more than the simplistic way that Mueller references them? Did nineteenth-century white Mormons even think of the Nephites as “white” like they were? The Book of Mormon is inherently problematic as primary source material, but evaluating Mueller’s claims begs further examination of scripture and the characters in it.
One scriptural point worth engaging concerns the Nephite-Lamanite story and the supposed black descendants of Cain and Ham. Mueller argues that the curses God placed on Cain, Ham, and Laman were warranted by each man’s sins against his respective family. But Laman’s sin against his family—and his curse of blackness relative to his father—is not as simple nor as similar to the Biblical curses on Cain and Ham as Mueller claims that they are. In 2nd Nephi chapter 4, the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi calls for the children of his son Laman to be brought to him so that he can bless them before his impending death. Foreshadowing future events, Lehi says,
“Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents. Wherefore, because of my blessing the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish; wherefore, he will be merciful unto you and unto your seed forever.”[i]
Laman’s descendants were not liable for their parents’ wickedness. They were spared from any divine retribution against them for something they didn’t do and wickedness they didn’t perform. Subsequent Nephite missionary work to the Lamanites is an effort to inform the descendants of Laman about religious observances their fathers had departed from only a few generations prior. Mueller presents readers with compelling evidence that the Book of Mormon informed missionary efforts to Native Americans, and this is a point worth dwelling on. But however faulty and whitewashed the conclusion that Native Americans were direct descendants of ancient Israelites, the beginnings of Mormonism at least validated Native American ancestry and provided “Lamanites” a token seat at the table in ways that it did not for Black Mormons. This became especially true after Brigham Young extended temple rituals to more people after Joseph Smith’s death and church leaders announced the black priesthood and temple restrictions in 1852. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that LDS church leaders even saw black populations as people worth proselytizing to. (In that vein, I’m not sure that classifying Zarahemla as a “segregated city”—as Mueller does on page 50— is a fair assessment and worth employing here.)
The question really comes down to this: how much did Mormons internalize about race from their own scriptures? Or, to what degree did Mormons employ their scriptures and prophetic revelations to underscore the racial constructs around them? It’s hard to say, but it is worth exploring. Mueller does a great job of reminding us that not all nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints were of European descent and where he works to empower the voices of Mormons of color, he rightly demonstrates that we only have access to their filtered voices through white archives. But the Book of Mormon didn’t establish that archival practice—though one could argue it mirrors it in some ways. Perhaps the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day scriptures substantiate nineteenth-century cultural forces that already privileged white men’s voices and political positions. Mueller’s great work encourages us to pursue these interesting questions and to keep Mormons of color at the center of the narrative.
[i] Emphasis added.