Q&A: Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People

At the Junto blog, I had the chance to “sit down” with the great Christopher Jones (for whom we will all work one day)  about Race and the Making of the Mormon People.

Below I cite “Reading Rainbows” and the Book of Mormon! Fun times!

JUNTO: One of the signal contributions of your book (and one of the things that makes it stand out from previous scholarship on the subject) is your close reading of the Book of Mormon. Can you briefly explain to readers the relevance of that book to early Mormonism and race?

Mueller: What’s fascinating about Mormonism is that the Book of Mormon enters into the world in 1830, at a moment when “race” was increasingly becoming secularized and biologized. In my close reading of the Book of Mormon—what I believe is the most sustained effort outside of studies focused on the scripture itself—I show that the Book of Mormon writes explicit phenotypical differences into an origin story of racial difference. But unlike “common sense” understandings of the Bible or racialized “biology”—that racial differences were fixed, permanent, the will of God or the result of evolution—the Book of Mormon tells the story of how racial differences were overcome in the American past and how they will be overcome in the American future. And in what early Mormons believed were the latter-days before Christ’s return, the earliest adopters of the Book of Mormon believed themselves called to end all schisms within the human family—schisms that were political and religious, but also racial—and build up a New Jerusalem in America fit for a returned Christ. The idea was that when Christ returned, he’d find his millennial city filled with a people who would be so faithful and unified—so “pure and delightsome” (the original phrase was “white and delightsome” (2 Nephi 30: 6))—that no racial distinctions would exist.

But that’s probably not the most interesting thing about the Book of Mormon and race. At least not for those interested in drawing attention to how non-white peoples participate in racial histories. For all its problematic passages that advance ideas of white supremacy, the Book of Mormon seems, at least in part, self-aware about its own narrative limitations, its biases to “white” history. I write about the case of Samuel, the Lamanite, a dark-skinned prophet in the pre-Columbian history that the Book of Mormon narrates. In the Book of Mormon, Christ himself rebukes the white-skinned scribes and historians who keep the records that would become the Book of Mormon for failing to include Samuel’s prophecies, saying that better than any white-skinned prophet, Samuel most accurately foretold the importance of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection (Here, I must credit Jared Hickman’s amazing work on the Book of Mormon).

The point here is (to borrow from Reading Rainbow’s catchphrase), “don’t take my word for it.” Christ himself (and by extension, Mormonism’s foundational text) demands that historians pay attention to marginalized voices. And not just for “diversity’s sake,” but for the sake of accurate historical narration. For, as American prophetic voices from Frederick Douglass, Jarena Lee, and William Apess to Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ceasar Chavez, and Colin Kaeapernick (yes, I went there!) show us, those on the margins often see America’s promise and how far America is missing that mark.

Read the rest here.


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