Max Perry Mueller uses a clever title, “History Lessons,” in his essay on “Race and the LDS Church” in the fiftieth anniversary edition of the Journal of Mormon History. “History Lessons” implicate some form of historical appropriations. Institutions use history to formulate lessons, which support certain values and ways of knowing. Mueller traces how the LDS Church alters historical narratives of a “black Mormon past” through three main time periods to argue “the LDS Church has worked to tell a story of historical continuity in its relationship with people of African descent” (143).
According to one of his examples, the LDS Church conveys this continuity by emphasizing “a restoration and continuation of what the Saints believe are the eternal values embedded in the first Mormon scripture. The Book of Mormon declares: ‘All are alike unto God’ (2 Ne. 26:33)” (154). To its membership, the LDS Church rests upon universal truths and “eternal values” that scripture such as The Book of Mormon relay. Mueller offers a history of the institutional LDS discourse on race, specifically pertaining to a “black Mormon past” and black-white relations. He shows how the “history lessons” change in content. The LDS Church continues, however, to relate certain values that would allow members to reconcile their participation in the LDS Church today with the racist policies and theories that its leaders and general membership sustained in the past.
In the last time period that Mueller examines, the LDS Church admits “that Church leaders have, on occasion, made history themselves… and not the kind of history that today’s Church believes is in continuity with God’s wishes” (143). He refers to the “Official Declaration 2” and the essay of 2013, “Race and the Priesthood,” on the official LDS Church website (152). In the essay, “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form” (cited in Mueller, 154). Such a statement indicates that the historical context affected past Mormon leaders, although they may have served as prophets and instruments of divine power. Mueller contextualizes the LDS Church dialogue of “race” and a black Mormon past beginning with the death of Jane Manning James in 1908. Once James died, the LDS Church purposely “forgets” a black Mormon past to support the mainstream theories of race. Although the LDS Church revoked the ban on blacks holding the priesthood in 1978, Mueller stresses the continuities in the ways that general Mormon members forget a black Mormon past and perpetuate past racial theories. The essay distinguishes the statements made in 2013 as serious signs of change in the “future of teaching a black Mormon past,” or arguably the future of a holistic Mormon past.
Mueller concludes his essay with a critique that also opens his piece. The Missionary Training Center, a branch of the LDS Church, did not prepare Elder Grant (a missionary heading to South Africa that he met in transit) to address the “history lessons” on race and the LDS Church (142, 155). Mueller uses Elder Grant as an example of the general LDS membership. This comparison implies that most Latter-day Saints do not receive history lessons through church that would reconcile the LDS stance against racism today with the racist teachings and theories of Mormon leaders in the past.
Mueller raises several important issues on the topic of LDS race relations. He also reveals how religious institutions appropriate and construct their own histories. Such historical narratives involve the forgetting and remembering of certain memories (143). However, institutional histories often overlook the voices and real-lived experiences of historical figures and their descendants. Mueller identifies 1908, the year of James’s death, as a point of forgetting a black Mormon past. What happened to living black Mormons and African Mormons, for examples, through the twentieth century? What happened to James’s family and descendants? How did they remember her and their pioneer ancestry? How did members of the Genesis Group, for example, live and think of Mormon history and race issues? The area focus, which is mostly based in Utah, to represent the general membership of the LDS Church may also limit this study. When I lived in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, several members in my LDS congregation came from African immigrant families. My best friends in the congregation were from Cameroon. They inspired me to study African history and languages. By encountering and knowing people of diverse backgrounds, Latter-day Saints can come to see how “all are alike” and treat one another as family.
Living in the present can bring reconciliation, and reconciliation is change. I have often considered Frantz Fanon’s words in Black Skin, White Masks: “There are in every part of the world men who search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny…. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. I am part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it” (229). As a historian, I have become weary of “history lessons” but not of seeking to understand history. How do I reflect on my past as a Latter-day Saint Anglo-American Navajo of mixed ancestry? How do I balance looking to the past, living in the present, and moving towards the future? I wonder if people of other backgrounds ask these questions. It seems that Fanon did, but will we find similar answers? So far, I find that I cannot escape history, but I seek to face it and reconcile with it. Yet, Fanon’s words still perplex me.