So many recent events in American life have been a call for the country to grapple with its legacy of racism and white supremacy, including the violence in Charlottesville and even the 2016 election. These events have created turmoil among some conservative Christian groups, who have tried—in fits and starts—to confront their own racial divisions.
One group, however, has taken a slightly different path: Mormons. While a majority of Mormons voted for Trump in the 2016 election, he fared far worse than previous Republican presidential candidates among the minority religious group. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, many in Mormon-heavy Utah doubted the president’s moral character and strength as a role model.
Like other religious groups, Mormons have a complicated history around race. Until a few decades ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that they “shall be a white and a delightsome people,” a phrase taken from the Book of Mormon. Until the 1970s, the LDS Church also restricted black members’ participation in important rituals and prohibited black men from becoming priests, despite evidence that they had participated more fully in the earliest years of the Church.*
Max Perry Mueller, a historian at the University of Nebraska at 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 toward 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.
She seems to have a complicated relationship with her race. There’s a line you included where she says, “I’m white with the exception of the color of my skin.”
Why would somebody say that, or want to be a part of a culture that makes them aspire toward a different skin color?
Mueller: The question you just raised is one that I still think about and will probably think about for the rest of my life. Why would this woman—who is clearly full of incredible intelligence, skills, and perseverance—throw her lot in with a community that would not have her as a member? I really do believe, at the end of the day, she had faith in the gospel that she dedicated her life to.
She was from Connecticut. Her mother was a slave, and she kind of had a liminal existence—the line between slave and free was not so clearly demarcated in the North. She was a servant girl in a rich household. Apparently, she had some kind of relationship, and a mixed-race child came about. And so maybe she saw a way out of this situation or was looking for a community that would not care about this relationship. She converts, she moves to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she lives with Joseph Smith. She was promised, not just by the Church but by Joseph Smith’s brother, that she could be a full member of the community. He told her, “You can actually overcome your lineage and join a pure lineage.”
Obviously, today, hearing that kind of message makes us squirm because we don’t understand race that way. But more importantly, James really took to this promise. She isn’t looking to save her people. She’s looking to save her family. And to her that means finding community with people that I think she believed would last into the hereafter into the kingdoms to come. I think she heard this message of redemption, of racial redemption, and she held onto that story for the rest of her life—even as the Church, once she gets to Utah, begins to reject people of African descent.
Mueller: Whatever you want to say about the origins of the Book of Mormon, it fits its time period really well. It’s very American. It tells a story of racial schism and how it came to be, dividing the world into a hierarchy of races, and that’s a standard American story—especially the idea that people born to a so-called darker-skinned race could not be redeemed.
The story of the Book of Mormon is not a black-white story, as Americans know it, where white is European and black is African. It’s an interfamily story. According to the Book of Mormon, an Israelite family came to New York in the 6th century B.C. The two main populations there are the light-skinned population called the Nephites and the dark-skinned population called the Lamanites, and the book traces this elaborate story of the rise and fall of their civilizations. The Lamanites, according to the book, become Native Americans. They’re the native peoples who early European colonizers of America encounter.
For a long, long time, Americans have wondered: To whom do these Native Americans actually belong, in terms of lineage? So the book really fits the 1830s notion that Indian-ness is irreconcilable with whiteness.
Green: Conflicts over race in the Mormon Church have lasted well into the 20th and 21st centuries. Black men were allowed to become priests only starting in the 1970s, and black men and women could not participate in sacred Mormon temple rites until that point. The Mormon Church didn’t repudiate its past teachings on race until 2013.
Why did it take so long for these reforms to emerge?
Mueller: When Mormons disavow their past, it’s not simply disavowing institutional history. It’s pointing out what’s wrong with past leaders. Because of continuing revelation—the Mormon belief that their leaders are speaking messages directly from God—it’s really hard to disavow the prophets. If you start disavowing the prophets of the past, that undercuts the whole premise that God provides revelations to his people in the present day.
Green: The LDS Church historically encouraged its members to buy Native American slaves or to adopt native children and raise them in their homes.** The latter practice extended into the 1990s with a program called the Indian Student Placement Program.
What do you make of these practices, exactly? Were they racist?
Mueller: The first official Mormon mission in history was at the end of 1830, when Joseph Smith sent his most important lieutenants to the Delaware Indians who had been pushed west to what is contemporary Kansas. In other words, the first Mormon mission was to convert Native Americans. That urge to “redeem” the native people of America remains a key feature.
The Indian Student Placement Program was an institutional project, and I do think it was a racially tinged project to “civilize” large numbers of Native American children. That said, at an individual level and at the family level, it’s hard to overestimate how much love and devotion these families felt for their children, and the love and care they provided—not only to the native children but to the native children’s families.
Mueller: Their version of racial reconciliation is what I call “multicultural Mormonism.” There was an ad campaign called “I’m a Mormon” from 2011 to 2012. This was explicitly presenting a multicultural face of Mormonism to the world: multicultural, multinational, multilingual. The Church acknowledged that it did have a problem as a white Church.
But not a lot of kids are raised to save up for years and years to fund a mission to go to places that are often very difficult to live in, where they’re going to get doors slammed in their faces, where they might not speak the language. Kids from Utah are sent to Africa and South America. That’s a huge investment of their lives, and it’s supported by their families and institutional communities. I’m going to sound like a missionary here, but it is very much a message of unifying the world.
Unity is very important for Mormons. Religious unity used to be mapped onto racial unity. Today, it’s celebrating racial difference and racial history as a key part of the Church.
Green: In recent months, people have called on conservative white Christians to grapple with issues of race, in part in response to a perceived resurgence of white nationalists and alt-right groups. What role do you think Mormons should play in this grappling?
Mueller: I’ve been predicting that Mormons will occupy spaces abandoned by white evangelicals: spaces of patriotism, family values, and morality that, unfortunately, some white evangelicals [have abandoned] because they have thrown in their lot and reputation with Trump and his white-Christian-nationalist project in such large numbers.
There are more Mormons outside the U.S. than inside. It’s likely that there are more non-white Mormons than there are white Mormons in the global Church. So the Church has its own future. It’s no longer an American project. It’s a global and international project. In the face of a U.S. political regime that puts white people and America first, a Church that has a global identity has to reject that.
* This article has been updated to clarify the historical role of black Mormons in the LDS Church.
** This article originally stated that Mormon leaders encouraged members to purchase African American slaves. We regret the error.