Max Mueller should be commended for his analysis of race and the creation of the Latter-day Saint “archive” in Race and the Making of the Mormon People. Mueller takes the Book of Mormon seriously and considers texts that aren’t considered within broader methodological arguments about the LDS Church’s creation of race in the nineteenth century. I think that Mueller’s attention to patriarchal blessings is worth highlighting (which I do below); I also think that his use of literary methodologies opens new avenues for research in Mormon history. Mueller’s book is the first monograph to engage Mormonism’s race-making project(s) through the interdisciplinary lenses of religious studies. Race and the Making of the Mormon People will occupy a central place in the part conversation surrounding Mormonism and race for the foreseeable future.
Mueller analyzes several patriarchal blessings in Race and the Making of the Mormon People, particularly an African American woman named Jane Manning James’ two blessings.[i] He rightly tries to get into James’ mind as well as the mind of the patriarchs that bestowed those blessings on her head. While Mueller’s book is not a study of “lived religion,” he presents plausible readings of the blessing for both James and suggests how these documents helped place James squarely within the “Mormon archive.” He persuasively argues that James may have seen herself as an heir of what Mueller calls “white universalism,” meaning that everyone’s default pigmentation is white and that she had claim to the highest liturgical practices of Mormonism. Mueller’s innovative inclusion of patriarchal blessings should be taken up by others. I’m not aware of any other sources that offer as much potential for simultaneously presenting the leadership’s and the laity’s understanding of race from the same document.
It is important to note, though, that Mueller’s transcription of a document that suggested that James could overcome godly “curses” or “marks” is not correct. Race and the Making of the Mormon People suggests that James’ blessing reads “for he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead, can take it off and stamp upon you his own linage.” However, as reported by another JI author, the transcription should read “for he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead, can take it off and stamp upon you his own image.” This doesn’t necessarily change Mueller’s argument. Not at all. The blessing could suggest that because the patriarch believed that James was Black and that God was white he was declaring that James would become white at some point. In this reading, Mormonism’s white universalism was at work in patriarchal blessings, not only in the Book of Mormon.
However, there’s another reading. The patriarch could have been suggesting that the mark on her forehead wasn’t a physical marker. It could have symbolized the structural oppression that James faced as an African American woman in antebellum America. It could also serve figurative purposes, which some scholars have suggested that references to curses should be read. These possibilities could have been narrowed down by a broader reading of how Mormons used the Book of Mormon to justify their treatment of racial minorities. It could have also been addressed by incorporating further analyses of race making in antebellum America, including scientific or legal definitions of race, in order to show why a physical mark makes more sense than a symbolic “curse.” This could have nicely answered earlier critiques of this roundtable, that suggest that the Book of Mormon presents curses as the explanation for racial difference in a world of white universalism.
I applaud Mueller’s use of literary methodology to explain the “creation” of the Mormon people. Mormon Studies works best when it uses Mormonism as a case study to engage big ideas. However, it’s important to note that Mueller uses “archive” in at least two ways. He uses it to signify institutional repositories like the LDS Church History Library that hold documents related to Mormon history. He also uses “archive” symbolically, meaning the assembled bricolage of documents that form Mormonism’s historical memory. Both definitions work quite well. However, I do wish that he had explicitly stated the two uses of archive and then noted when and where he was using each definition. This could have led to less confusion on my part and made it more likely that future scholars will take up his ideas about the creation of “archives” in religious bodies that include, exclude, and wield power in ways that we don’t always notice at first reading.
My criticisms should be placed in the context of Mueller’s ambitious argument and methodology. No work of scholarship is perfect, and trailblazers take risks to change historiographical conversations. On that end, Mueller certainly succeeds and I hope that his interdisciplinary analysis will spark new arguments and fresh approaches to the study of Mormonism. Historians of religion broadly and Mormonism specifically will grapple with Mueller’s arguments and methodology for many years to come.