On the surface, Max Perry Mueller’s book is, like several other recent works, a study of the shifting racialist ideas in nineteenth century Mormonism. Like those books, Mueller argues that early Mormonism is a particularly useful illustration of the fluidity of race, particularly in the early decades of the United States. When, as Mueller argues, white Americans began in the nineteenth century to understand “race as (secular) biology,” (12) they began arguing that those characteristics they used to classify and label “races” were organic, functions of one’s biological makeup, and though these characteristics extended from the merely physical (like skin color) to issues of intellect and temperament, most people determined them to be inborn and hence immutable.
The Mormons, Mueller argues, were different, in two ways. First, they stubbornly clung to the belief that race was not a matter of biology narrowly construed but of religion. One’s racial characteristics were not a product of one’s evolutionary inheritance (though of course Darwin remained a few decades away), but rather, of the relationship with God one’s family possessed. This was not necessarily uncommon in the early modern world, but the Mormons did more than hold to the idea: in their notion of Nephites and Lamanites, two peoples described in Mormon scripture as “white” and “dark” based on their faithfulness to God’s commands, they double downed on it. Mueller engages deeply with the text of the Book of Mormon, joining such other recent works as John G. Turner’s The Mormon Jesus in taking the foundational text of the tradition seriously, and emerges convinced that the book laid the foundation of early Mormon racialism: what he calls Mormonism’s “white universalism.”
The notion of white universalism is the second way early Mormonism dissented from emerging notions of biological race. Mueller posits that early Mormons believed that race was malleable. The Book of Mormon prophesied that its race of dark-skinned Lamanites would be redeemed. To white Mormons this meant that they would be eventually made white as they adopted the righteousness the Book of Mormon exhorted of its readers. White Mormons were initially unsure what to do with people of African descent, but Mueller makes much of the evidence he uses, particularly Elizabeth Roundy’s record of the African American Mormon Jane Manning James’s claim that Joseph and Emma Smith offered to ritually adopt her into their heavenly family. In short, as Mueller frames it, white universalist ideology shared with biological race theory the assumptions that non-white people were uncivilized and backward, but rejected the notion that these peoples were hopeless or permanently inferior. Rather it taught that in the end the whole human race would be redeemed: in whiteness, of course.
Mueller is somewhat swept away by the romantic expansiveness of these goals. Indeed, he perhaps makes the ideology of white universalism more coherent than it probably was, and hence is more generous to early Mormonism than is warranted. However, as the very notion of white universalism indicates, Mueller is well attuned to paradox. The overarching narrative of the book requires it. Mueller insists twice in his opening pages that he has not written a declension story, and yet, even more than other works that have explored Mormonism’s unique early racialism, this is one. Mueller is a fluent and expressive writer, and it’s hard not to feel his disappointment when, eventually, white Mormons began backing away from these goals. Their failure to convert many Native Americans in Missouri and the bloody conflicts between Mormon settlers and Natives Americans in Utah led leaders like Brigham Young to become much more skeptical of the promise of those populations; their struggles with the white supremacist mobs of early 1830s Missouri and their ambivalence about African American chattel slavery led white Mormons to become increasingly skeptical that white universalism extended to African Americans.
In the mid-1830s, as they backed from notions of white universalism, Mueller argues white Mormons began embracing a sort of Mormon Israelism, coming to believe that (in another paradox), they themselves were in fact members of the lost tribes of Israel, their heritage identified and secured through priestly ordination and patriarchal blessings. Mueller’s linking of these notions to white Mormons’ declining affinity for Native or African Americans is provocative. He does not, though, do much with how this process began shaping what these Mormons thought of their own whiteness, or what whiteness came to mean to them as their sense of separation from non-Mormon “Gentiles” intensified, an issue I think he could have wrestled fruitfully with.
Mueller’s eye, though, is on other questions. The early portions of the book foreground how white Mormons thought about race, as many books on the topic to date have. But in the latter sections Mueller focuses on the Native Americans “Sally” and Wakara, and the African American James, spending a great deal of time with the narratives these figures produced, trying to determine what they thought about the histories white Mormons wrote and showing how they sought to subvert them. This is welcome, and makes the book among the most important of recent works on race in Mormon history. Mueller’s largest contribution is his exploration of the ways in which not merely race, but even “Mormonism” itself is a construction of the stories we remember, the stories we have access to, and the stories we repeat. Mueller calls this “the archive,” a word that for him mean variously actual historical documents, collective memory, and the narratives we construct from these things.
Mueller’s focus on these abstract acts of story-making and narration is sometimes an awkward fit with the grittier stories of tangible events and encounters on the muddy frontiers of Ohio and Missouri that take up much of the earlier portions of the book. He provides, overall, a chronological narrative, and his shifts among different modes of analysis within that chronology can make his chapters rather unwieldy. Often it feels as though Mueller is trying to make multiple points at once, and indeed he is. But those points are important. Mormons leaders’ white universalism was itself, after all, a narrative about the human past and its future. It stood in uneasy balance with other narratives about history – other religious stories particularly, but also stories conceived among those Mormons whose voices remain less frequently heard. These tensions are still with us.