Max Perry Mueller, a historian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, argues that Mormonism is a quintessentially American religion. The Book of Mormon re-centers the story of Jesus on the Americas, and the faith, which was founded in the 19th century, also tells the story through a very American lens. Yet, while the story of race and the LDS Church is similar to other American experiences of race, it’s also distinctive, leaving Mormons to grapple with the legacy of racism and white supremacy in their own way.
I spoke with Mueller about his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, which focuses on a few important figures in Mormon history. One of them, Jane Manning James, was part of the first black community in Salt Lake Valley. Despite her close relationship with the family of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, she was denied access to important religious rites during her lifetime because of her skin color.
Janan Graham-Russell wrote about her personal struggle with the LDS Church’s legacy of racism for The Atlantic in 2016. Lilly Fowler also reported on controversies over the Church’s Indian Student Placement program, which encouraged members to foster and adopt Native American children. My conversation with Mueller, below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Emma Green: There’s been talk about an emerging Mormon alt-right, populated by Mormon white nationalists. Much of this has focused on a Utah woman who blogs under the name ‘Wife with a Purpose,’ who created a “white-baby challenge” for fellow Mormons to perpetuate their putatively white heritage. What do you make of this?
Max Perry Mueller: Within Mormonism’s history is this concept of whiteness as Godliness and purity.
Issues of Christianity are often seen as linear, marching towards a certain direction. But actually, that’s not how history, especially theological history, works. The kind of white supremacy that’s at the heart of a lot of Mormon history, and the contemporary church that rejects white supremacy, both embody the same space.
Green: In what ways does white supremacy manifest either explicitly or implicitly in Mormon culture?
Mueller: Politics of respectability is huge. Mormons engage in respectability campaigning that is not unlike a lot of black church-going communities in the early 20th century. They’re trying to present themselves to mainstream, white, partisan gatekeepers as pious, patriotic, family-oriented, hardworking, contributing to the society, and willing to fight for the American flag in war. But unlike black Americans, Mormons were more easily accepted because of their skin pigment.
Green: You describe a black woman, Jane Manning James, who leads a conflicted life of aspiring to be a full member of both the Smith family and the Mormon church. She wanted to be bound eternally with her family, which is an important part of Mormon theology, and yet she was denied this privilege during her lifetime.