I’m happy to confirm reports that readers of Max Mueller’s recent book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, which we are discussing this week, will find a rich, multilayered, and searching account of theologies and important narratives of race in early Mormonism. This is a serious book, and a critical contribution to a growing body of scholarship on the functions of race in the Mormon tradition. As Mueller claims, it is one of the first to consider questions of race and Mormonism from the inside out. This means that it nicely complements recent scholarship like that of Paul Reeve and others, which has generally taken the opposite tack. Perhaps the most innovative element of the book, in my view, is how it brings consideration of both “red” (Native American) and “black” (African-American) constructions of race together. In some ways, the early Mormon logic of race in relation to these two groups seems incongruous, but Mueller works hard to show there are important aspects of continuity, as well. He has categorically synthesized early Mormon conceptions of race as well as anyone might expect to do.
Jessica Nelson’s reflections yesterday have already broached the point that one of the book’s most important virtues is its robust engagement with the Book of Mormon, which Mueller rightly affirms as Mormonism’s foundational text and, in his terminology, the “first installment of the Mormon archive” (27). This view is, in fact, still surprisingly atypical in the scholarship of both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars in the academy, and Mueller underscores this problem by lamenting the depth of “Book of Mormon illiteracy” (22). He takes scholars to task for not reading the Book with sufficient care and curiosity, and he both endorses and adopts Grant Hardy’s phenomenological approach to the text in order to better understand its internal logic. In doing this he helps to overturn what has become the axiomatic view, most fully articulated by Terryl Givens in his By the Hand of Mormon, that the Book of Mormon was symbolically—not substantively—important among early Mormons. This is an important point, which has its merits. Yet over the years it has seen far too little scrutiny, a fact that even Givens, in his most recent work, appears to recognize. Mueller does work to open and to center the Book of Mormon that is long overdue, and it is all the more remarkable that he is helping to lead this reassessment from outside the LDS tradition.
As Jessica pointed out, and as I want to reiterate, however, this revised assessment of the Book of Mormon invokes a wider range of questions about the Book of Mormon’s early influence and reception history, things about which we know astonishingly little. Mueller argues that the “white universalism” of the Book of Mormon deeply influenced early Mormon thought on lineage and color, driving its early conceptions about the fluidity of race. He sustains this view by offering suggestive “intertextual readings” which show the penetration of the Book of Mormon into early LDS discourse. I am fully persuaded that the Book of Mormon exercises something like the scale of influence that Mueller describes. (For one thing, I have found that the Book of Mormon played an important role in the church’s early ritual practice.) Yet secondary literature that might have helped Mueller bolster and sharpen this assertion is virtually nonexistent. We desperately need a fuller understanding of how the Book of Mormon was received and how it functioned in early Mormonism. Fortunately, Janiece Johnson and other scholars are working to meet that need.
Mueller is attentive not only to the Book of Mormon, but also to the broader thought-world of early Mormonism, something that in itself is still relatively rare in mainstream academic scholarship. By and large, Mormonism has been studied as a sociological, not an ideological, phenomenon, and Mueller’s book is perhaps a sign that chronic disinterest in Mormon thought is finally abating. Race and the Making of the Mormon People demonstrates how Mormon thought can be put into a rich and productive conversation with other contemporary religious understandings, and indeed how religious thought (including that of Mormonism) can provide fresh insights into key issues in early American history. Mueller is certainly right to stress that while history makes theology, “theology makes history, too” (18). Mormonism, as Mueller demonstrates, offers one of the more stunning examples of how this can be.