Race and the Making of the Mormon People

Race and the Making of the Mormon People

Race and the Making of the Mormon People

Race and the Making of the Mormon People


The nineteenth-century history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Max Perry Mueller argues, illuminates the role that religion played in forming the notion of three "original" American races--red, black, and white--for Mormons and others in the early American Republic. Recovering the voices of a handful of black and Native American Mormons who resolutely wrote themselves into the Mormon archive, Mueller threads together historical experience and Mormon scriptural interpretations. He finds that the Book of Mormon is key to understanding how early followers reflected but also departed from antebellum conceptions of race as biblically and biologically predetermined. Mormon theology and policy both challenged and reaffirmed the essentialist nature of the racialized American experience.

The Book of Mormon presented its believers with a radical worldview, proclaiming that all schisms within the human family were anathematic to God's design. That said, church founders were not racial egalitarians. They promoted whiteness as an aspirational racial identity that nonwhites could achieve through conversion to Mormonism. Mueller also shows how, on a broader level, scripture and history may become mutually constituted. For the Mormons, that process shaped a religious movement in perpetual tension between its racialist and universalist impulses during an era before the concept of race was secularized.


Joseph Smith Jr. was seventeen years old in 1823 when the Angel Moroni first appeared to him in the bedroom that he shared with his five brothers in their western New York log home. the tall, flaxen-haired, blueeyed, semiliterate farm boy had just finished his nightly prayers. Suddenly a personage “glorious beyond description” appeared before him, Smith recalled years later. Moroni, the historian-prophet and last member of a whiteskinned race of pre-Columbian Native Americans resurrected as an angel, hovered above the floorboards. Moroni’s gleaming white robes emitted such bright light that the dark room seemed to be filled with noonday sun.

In 1830, at the age of twenty-four, Joseph Smith established a religious movement that, by the time an anti-Mormon mob assassinated him in 1844, had become an international community with tens of thousands of members (fig. P.1). By the end of the twentieth century that number would surpass ten million. But on the evening before his first vision of Moroni, Smith felt completely alone, unsettled, and unworthy. As he recalled in his “History of Joseph Smith,” throughout his teenage years, Smith had made a study of his life. and he found that his life was divided between seeking spiritual and earthly fulfillment. He strove to do good. He helped provide for his family—a set of downwardly mobile Yankee New Englanders turned perpetual debtors—by working their rented farmland in western New York. Desperate for income, for a time Joseph Jr. even joined his father and namesake in money digging. the two Josephs used divining rods and seer stones in hopes of locating buried treasure. Upstate folklore held that centuries before, Spanish conquistadors had hidden gold and silver in caches throughout the American countryside.

Smith strove to follow the dictates of God. But he was prone to the “weaknesses of youth.” As Smith saw it, a major part of the problem was that the world was divided over the question of religion. in particular, Smith was in a state of “darkness and confusion” over the question of which church could best help him live righteously. Around the age of fourteen, Smith made his first direct appeal to God for wisdom. and God, along with his Son, directly appeared to him. During this first vision, the Son told Smith that the extant “sects”—the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists that proliferated in his . . .

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