A Year (and then some) in the Life of: Race and the Making of Mormon People

I meant to get this out on September 10.

But then, life, in this case, literally intervened in the best way possible. Our second child arrived that day–pink, red-haired, and strong-willed, just like baby sister (and her dad and mom, too).

It’s been a year (and then some) since Race and the Making of the Mormon People came out. This post serves as a highlight compilation (not exhaustive) of how the book has been received, and (very) few thoughts from me in context/and response.

I had high hopes for the book–perhaps too high. But I’m glad that it’s found a readership, especially among my colleagues who study race and religion, and one that I hope grows. Its argument is more controversial than I first realized. (The first royalty check arrived a month ago, and it did in fact cover all the extra copies of the book that I’ve bought to give away to folks who helped make the book possible!).

I’ll spend the first bit here catching up on the long backlog of stuff that I didn’t chronicle and then link to reviews/interviews etc. about which I’ve already written.

THE LATEST REVIEWS

First, I was particularly honored that Seth Perry reviewed the book for the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. 

Here is one quote from Professor Perry’s review:

Race and the Making of the Mormon People is an erudite examination of many of these complications. By looking closely at the obsession with race found in Mormonism’s founding text, at the recorded experiences of early Mormons of color, and at those moments in Mormonism’s early history especially weighted with racial questions, Mueller argues that a “project of racial purification and reunification was sui generis to the faith.” Mormonism, that is, is inseparable from a “divine mandate to solve humanity’s race problem . . . present in the minds of the founders and in the church’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon” (13).

Read the rest of Perry’s review here.

Recently, Matt Harris reviewed the book for BYU Studies Quarterly.

Here is one quote from Professor Harris’s review:

Mueller’s account is both arresting and insightful. His understanding of Mormon scripture—particularly the Book of Mormon—is thorough and comprehensive. And his contextualization of Mormon racial teachings vis-à-vis broader currents in nineteenth-century America helps readers discern what was unique about Mormon racial teachings.

Read the rest of Harris’s review here.

Farina King reviewed the book for the Journal of Mormon History.

Here is one quote from Professor King’s review:

Unlike many other works of race and Mormonism, Mueller pushes beyond only understanding white Mormon identities. He explains Mormons sought to create a “distinctly white Mormon race” (11) and then stresses nonwhite Mormon perspectives and experiences. He explores what “white” might mean to African American and Native American Mormons thereby (re) centering the focus of Mormon constructs of race on African Americans, Native Americans, and nonwhite Mormons who influenced the LDS Church and its community. He uses nonwhite examples who engaged with whiteness or “[signified] whiteness” but asserted themselves and navigated such systems. Archives are a “racialized space” (25), as Mueller demonstrates, but he considers how and when nonwhites haven written and entered these spaces.

Read the rest of King’s review here.

Both King and Harris, and before them Quincy Newell in her review of the book for Reading Religion point out that Race and the Making of the Mormon People is not a “lived religion” project. This is fair and true. But as I’ve written before, the book was not intended to be a “lived religion” project (and I don’t think “lived religion” projects are the only ones that can and/or should be written).

I’m looking forward to Quincy’s new book on Jane Manning James  to flesh out, as it were, the experiences of non-white Mormons, who often lived lives of marginalization, but whose lives, we all agree, I think, are central to the telling of Mormon history, and the history of race and religion in America writ large.

Reilly Ben Hatch reviewed the book in the Western Historical Quarterly.

Here are a few quotes from Hatch’s review.

If the scholarship surrounding the history of Mormonism were a target, the concept of race would seem to be the bulls-eye in today’s field. From books and articles published within the last two years to papers on Mormon history given at the most recent meeting of the Western History Association, the relationship between Mormonism and American racialization projects—sometimes logical and sometimes paradoxical, but always complicated—seems to be at the heart of the most exciting scholarship dealing with Mormon history. Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People strikes the center of that target with pinpoint accuracy…

Methodologically, Mueller’s book stands out for two main reasons. First, it does what very few histories of Mormonism have done by taking the text of the Book of Mormon seriously. Rather than dwelling on the controversial origins of the book, Mueller instead focuses on the stories, language, and ideas contained within it. “Race requires narration,” Mueller states, and his close reading of race within the Book of Mormon brings us closer to understanding how that narration is constructed on pages and on bodies within Mormonism (p. 8). Perhaps most commendable, though, and what sets Mueller’s book apart from other works on race and Mormonism, is that it intentionally privileges the texts and experiences of non-White “writerly” Mormons. In doing so, Mueller not only includes the voices of marginalized and racialized non-White Mormons, but he actively challenges the system that “wrote race” into the archive in the first place.

Read the rest of the review here.

Cardell K. Jackson reviewed the book for the American Historical Review. 

Here is one quote from Jackson’s review.

In Race and the Making of the Mormon People, Max Perry Mueller brings a different lens and reading of race to early Mormon history, one he describes as a “hermeneutic of restoration” reading (23)…

A second strength of the book is that Mueller tries to ascertain the perspective of the Indian groups. He points out that whites in America, in the larger world, and in the Book of Mormon have been the writers of history. He points this out about “Samuel the Lamanite” in the Book of Mormon as well. Thus, Mueller argues, the views of Wakara and other Indian figures can only be ascertained indirectly. That of Jane Manning James is more clear, since she petitioned leaders of the church often. Even that was sometimes done through a white member of the church. In the effort to determine the Indian’s perspective, however, Mueller sometimes intuits more than the record would suggest. For example, he also questions the real motives of Jane Manning James, implying that there may be more than what the written record presents. But even this hermeneutic enterprise brings additional insight to a book rich in detail.

RADIO AND PODCASTS

I’ve had the great fortune to talk about the book on both the radio and on podcasts.

The biggest highlight was talking to Doug Fabrizio at on “RadioWest” last summer during the 40th anniversary celebration of Official Dec–2.

Here is the intro to our discussion.

The historian Max Perry Mueller says that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith had a radical mission. He wanted nothing less than to end schisms in the human family. That doesn’t mean that Smith wholly embraced other races though. He envisioned Mormonism as a chance to lift the curse of blackness, to make a person who accepted the gospel, well … white. We continue our series on race and Mormonism, and Tuesday, Mueller joins us to talk about the complicated views on race held by the early church.

Listen to the rest of our conversation here.

And this is me and Doug in the KUER studios. IMG_5613

I also got to talk about the book with Blair Hodges of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.

Here is a snippet of our conversation.

MUELLER: We’ll talk a little bit more about this later in the interview, but I’m very conscious, I hope in the book but certainly in my responses around the book and promoting the book and thinking about the book, about my limitations. This is not my history. I’ll say this right from the beginning, I guess, that—I’m going to use the word—I love Jane Manning James, I admire Jane Manning James, one of the central figures of my book, this really singular, literally singular and also metaphorically singular figure in Mormon history, this convert from Connecticut who converts her whole family and moves them to Nauvoo to join up with, and lives with Joseph Smith and his household for a time, becomes a confidant to Joseph Smith and his family. Then moves to Utah as part of the 1847er pioneer wave. So she’s a member of that most revered class of pioneers and lives in Salt Lake until 1908 and her death, and has a very complex relationship with the rest of the Mormon people in the building up of Zion as she is both a storehouse of memories of the time of Joseph’s life, and clearly has demonstrated, she believes, her true Mormonism. But she’s also a black woman who at the end of her life—as we’ll perhaps talk about—belonged to a church that no longer wanted, necessarily, to have her at least as a full member of that community.

Listen to the rest of our conversation here.

I had a blast talking with my friend and colleague Gina Colvin at a Thoughtful faith.

How racist was Joseph Smith?  Can the LDS Church really claim Jane Manning James as an example of Joseph Smith’s progressive ideals?  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Joseph Smith had a theological imagination for Indigenous Americans, but what did he really think of African Americans?

Historian Max Mueller, author of ‘Race and the Making of The Mormon People’,  joins me to discuss the foundational racial ideas abroad during the early days of the Mormon Movement, and where they ended up in LDS theology.

Listen to the rest of our conversation here.

TALKS AND COURSE ADOPTION

I’ve already noted that I had the honor of giving talks at BYU and at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ headquarters.

And I’ve noted that I got to talk at my alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, too, about the book. But I’ve also gotten to talk at UVA with the Mormon Studies folks there. And just a few weeks ago, I got to visit Claremont Graduate University, home of the great Patrick Mason, and then the Miller-Eccles Study Group. I also got to participate in a panel, in celebration of Darius Gray’s Arrington lecture at Utah State University, on race and Mormonism post-1978.

I’ve been pleased to hear–and even to Skype into conversations–that the book has been taught widely, at Princeton, Harvard, UVA, Skidmore, Stanford, Whitman, and many other places.

PREVIOUSLY MENTIONED REVIEWS/INTERVIEWS

The highlight of the book’s life came in the profile and interview with the great Emma Green at the Atlantic. This led to the thrill of having THE Martin Marty mention the book at Sightings

Of course, I was also thrilled to talk to Jana Riess at RNS. 

I had a blast answering the canonical “Ten Questions” from Religion Dispatches.

And I loved talking with Andrea L. Turpin at Religion in American History.

I was grateful, too, to talk about the book for UNL’s Nebraska Today

I was honored that the JUNTO folks allowed me to do a Q&A with Christopher Jones and for Ben Park’s nice review.

Here’s a snippet of Ben’s review.

Race and the Making of the Mormon People is a mature, meditative, and mighty engagement with a complex topic. Scholars of American religion and race, not to mention those engaged in the academic analysis of Mormonism, will be struggling with his conclusions for quite some time.

And of course, I was grateful to the greater Bloggernacle, for giving the book some love. Thanks to the JI crew for conducting a roundtable and to Matthew Bowman’s nice review at JI. 

Here is a snippet Matt’s review.

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.

And I’d like to thank the folks at the Association of Mormon Letters for getting the reviews started.

Here is the conclusion of that review:

If we are paying attention, if we are looking in that mirror that Mueller is holding up to us, we can and should write a narrative that overlooks race and emphasizes the Christian values we have in common with each other: Faith, Hope, Charity, the Atonement, and a shared commitment and stewardship to look after each other. Look again, Mueller seems to be saying. What do you really see?

I learned a lot about the book and what I was trying to accomplish this last year–many things I wish I could have included, tweaked, nuanced, in the book’s pages. But that is, I’ve come to realize, a universal experience.

Onto the next book, Wakara’s America!. 

 

 

 

 

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