Race and Lineage among early Latter-day Saints

Race is an incredibly sensitive topic, but it is also an incredibly important topic to discuss and understand.  A number of important books have been published about the racial narratives that were adopted by early members of the Church in recent years, including Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Max Mueller to discuss the book in a 10 questions interview.  What follows here is a summary of the interview, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here.

Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies.  He describes himself as “a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history, with particular interest in indigenous and African-American religious experiences, epistemologies, and cosmologies.”  He turned his interest to the Latter-day Saint experience because of the “insider/outsider paradox” that is a part of our culture and the fact that while “Latter-day Saints have been stand-ins for ‘American,’ … in their exceptional-ness, they remain set apart.”  As he went on to say:

Race, of course, factures heavily into these historical and cultural understandings of Latter-day Saints. Non-Mormon Americans have projected their own anxieties about race, religion, and gender onto Latter-day Saints since the Church’s founding. And at the same time, Latter-day Saints have responded by projecting out claims to racial, religious, and gender purity, and sometimes superiority.

My book explores this intersectional and multi-vectoral history, while trying to foreground the experiences of non-white Mormons who were often caught in the middle.

Thus, in his book, Mueller uses Latter-day Saints as “my primary case study” in how “three original American races—‘red,’ ‘black,’ and ‘white’—were constructed as literary projects before these racial divisions were read onto bodies of Americans of Native, African, and European descent.”

In the interview, Max Mueller worked to tease out the differences between the terms “race” and “lineage.”  He states that race is a “constructed distinction and hierarchy,” such as the idea of “white” and “black” in America.  Lineage, on the other hand, is the “origin narrative describing how different races came to be.”  Within Mormonism, the lineages or “literary narratives” were what “connected the ‘racialized’ persons that the early Latter-day Saints encountered … with those persons’ (supposed) ancient biblical (and/or Book of Mormon) progenitors.”  For example, Mueller pointed out that Joseph Smith Jr. is portrayed in the Book of Mormon as being “the fruit of [the] loins” of Joseph, the son of Israel/Jacob.[1]  Meanwhile, Hyrum Smith’s patriarchal blessing to Jane Manning James, a notable African American Latter-day Saint, placed her in the lineage of Ham and Canaan.  Mueller observed based on this that “Jane Manning James’s place in the American and Mormon racial hierarchy was determined by her connection to ‘Ham,’ the lowliest of the ancient biblical patriarchs,” and concluded that: “Race becomes, then, less about phenotype and more about narratology.”

The Book of Mormon takes a central place in his discussion of race among early Latter-day Saints.  Mueller noted that he “worked hard to write about the Book of Mormon—especially its racialized histories and prophesies—that would allow Latter-day Saints to see the book in a new light,” even though some “resist—full stop—any reading that implicates the Book of Mormon in racialized history.”  He went on to state that:

What’s powerful (and certainly not unproblematic) about early Mormon racial theology is what I call “white universalism.” The Book of Mormon teaches that race wasn’t fixed, permanent, authored by God. Non-whites could return to their original non-raced status through the adoption of the Mormon gospel (to become, once again, as the Book of Mormon infamously put it, “white and delightsome”).

It can be said that the Book of Mormon follows a narrative where being “white” is the default, original race, but that God can change people’s race based on their relationship with the gospel.

The way this view of race played out among Latter-day Saints is discussed in the interview.  For example, the Book of Mormon focuses on the idea that maintaining an identity is connected to literacy, and the Lamanites “‘forgot’ their true ancestry … because of illiteracy.”  As a result, in many of the early Saints’ efforts to convert “Native Americans (most of whom they called ‘Lamanites’)—missionary work and literacy-promotion work went hand-in-hand.”  Thus, according to Mueller, “in Mormon history, illiteracy—or even antipathy to literacy—is particularly racialized.”

Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints with African ancestry adapted how they spoke to their white co-religionists with the “white universalism” idea in mind.  For example, Jane Manning James made the painful statement that: “I am white except for the color of my skin.”  Mueller interpreted this to mean that:

She understood that the Mormon gospel promised her that she could overcome the (so-called) limitations of her race by adhering to the strictures of the Mormon gospel. And, as she argues in her “life sketch,” few if any Mormons lived a more Mormon life than she did. … At the end of her life, she argued that she had overcome the accursed legacy of her ancient forefathers and rejoined the (white) universal human family.

That being said, Mueller also suggests that James made that statement, engaging “in a form of ‘code switching,’” because she “wrote for specific (white) audiences” at least partly as “an act of performance so that she’d be accepted and get access to the temple.”  Thus, Max Mueller suggests that the narrative of the Book of Mormon and the idea of “white universalism” deeply impacted how Latter-day Saints approached race.

The interview is interesting, even though the topic is a heavy one.  For more information about Jane Manning James, Mueller’s forthcoming biography about the Ute chief Wakara, the position of “Mormon Studies” in academia today, and a few suggestions towards dismantling racism, follow the link to read the full 10 questions with Max Perry Mueller.



[1] See 2 Nephi 4:5.

27 comments for “Race and Lineage among early Latter-day Saints

  1. The more I hear about the history of Mormon racism and lineage, the worse it gets. Unfortunately in 1978, the leaders didn’t solve the problem. It was just a start. Racism continued to fester. The next step was taken when Prof. Bott gave an untimely interview. The Church leaders almost immediately issued a statement disavowing the Cain/Ham theory. The next step came with Gospel Topics. But some members are still throwing God under the bus. Historians have made a compelling case for the priesthood/temple ban being a product of Brigham Young’s cultural environment. It’s time for Church leaders to apologize to the black community, come clean. There will be a bunch of questions. Like why did presidents after Young wait until 1978 to correct things? But let’s finally correct this black mark on our history.

  2. I can relate to your feelings on the subject, rogerdhansen and agree.

    The tricky part is that there is a bit of wiggle room in pinning down culpability, which leaves the potential that God may have been behind it. President Dallin H. Oaks (while he also should get credit as the most vocal general authority between 1978 and 2013 to speak out against the rationales used for the ban) has been the most vocal about talking about his belief that God is behind the ban, even though he doesn’t know why (stated as recently as 2 years ago). Elder Holland has also made some similar comments (at least as of 14 years ago). Because of that, I don’t think that we will see an apology unless the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency feel that the case historians have made that the ban was of human origins is strong enough they are all convinced. To be honest, though, I would rather the apology come when it is sincere and expresses the feelings of the Church and its leaders than as a forced (and therefore insincere) apology, even though I agree that more needs to be actively done to address the racism of our past (and present).

    I suspect that facing the idea that Church leaders got it so wrong for so long is such an intense challenge to testimony (at least to the idea that our prophets, seers, and revelators have special insight into God’s will) that it is a little too difficult and painful to embrace the case historians have made that the ban is of human origin for a lot of Church members (and leaders), so they obfuscate instead.

  3. Oh, no, the apology argument again. The malefactors or sinners or oppressors or racists or whatever you want to call them are all dead and buried. I see no value in having an innocent man apologize for the alleged misdeeds of the dead.

    My uncle’s Navy ship was sunk by a u-boat during WW2. Having Angela Merkel (or Dieter Uchtdorf) apologize to me for the sins of Nazi forbearers wouldn’t do anything for me. But then, I don’t hold a grudge against the Germans — it is all in the past.

    It may be that God has already forgiven both the u-boat captain and Brigham Young for their alleged sins. I will, too.

    If there is any racism in our day, I hope the perpetrators will apologize as soon as they become aware.

    To the original posting, I appreciate it. We need to study the past to be aware of the present. The people of the past were people, individuals, with baggage not unlike our enlightened selves.

  4. Great post and interview. I went to the link and read the whole interview. I’m excited to read Mueller’s book. He seems like a really fair guy who is interested in all of the fine complexities of race in the church. On his point on literacy, I had never thought of it that way. One story that isn’t consistent with the literacy argument is the story of Sherem. It isn’t said that Sherem is a Lamanite, but you’d think he would have to be. And he was acquainted with the scriptures. But throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon, Lamanites are the savages who seem akin to white settler descriptions of Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  5. Sad that folks in the bloggernacle commentariat are so committed to the conclusion that our racial theologies are evil folk beliefs, that they are willing to contradict scripture and denounce prophets. I suspect that “RACIST” was one of the mocking accusations shouted from the great and spacious building that resulted in many abandoning the tree of life.

  6. ji, is Nazi really the best comparison to early church leaders? As to us forgiving past racism, aren’t we to revere their words above others’? Aren’t they supposed to lead us the way and have access to a special sort of enlightenment that is more in line with truth and morality than what others are saying? How come they didn’t realize and call out racism earlier than others?

    “If there is any racism in our day…” says no non-white person.

    “I suspect that ‘RACIST’ was one of the mocking accusations shouted from the great and spacious building”

    And not racial slurs? I would think that to be the evil, not calling out racism. The delusion that some white males live under that calling someone a racist is worse than actual racism is truly mind-boggling. You guys are fragile snowflakes beyond any SJW I’ve ever encountered.

  7. You seem to have missed my point, Whitfield. Perhaps the Lord did not instruct His anointed to “call out racism” because “racism” is not the grave sin you believe it to be.

  8. It seems to me that the Lord’s anointed has called out racism — at least GBH in April conference 2006 quoted by an official release in 2017, https://kutv.com/news/local/lds-church-issues-statement-about-weekend-events-in-charlottesville, and cited at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng for this proposition: “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” As always, I wonder what I missed.

  9. I’m just going to put this out there that race is, as mentioned in the OP, a very sensitive topic and all parties should proceed with all due caution and remain civil.

    Keep in mind as well that the Church’s statement that: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng). This was reiterated earlier this year as applying to interpretations of the skin color of the Lamanites advanced by Joseph Fielding Smith as well as applying to rationales related to the priesthood/temple ban.

    Consider also the statement from the Church’s official history that in the mid-1800s: “Like other groups of Christians at this time, however, many white Saints wrongly viewed black people as inferior, believing that black skin was the result of God’s curse on the biblical figures Cain and Ham. Some had even begun to teach the false idea that black skin was evidence of a person’s unrighteous actions in the premortal life. Brigham Young shared some of these views, but before leaving Winter Quarters, he had also told a mixed-race Saint that all people were alike unto God.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-1/05-bowed-down-to-the-grave?lang=eng). Note the emphasis on wrong and false ideas.

    And, as Wondering pointed out, President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that: “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2006/04/the-need-for-greater-kindness?lang=eng).

    So, those statements represent the Church’s current teachings about racism and must be kept in mind in this discussion.

  10. Whitfield,

    Inasmuch as there was nothing meaningful in your comment to me, I am unable to respond to your charges. Best wishes.

  11. Chad you’re right, this is a sensitive topic. So let’s proceed civilly and especially be considerate of the fact that people continue to experience racism and that claiming that whites are victims of being called racists is offensive and a slap in the face to those who have experienced actual racism.

    To add to your quotes, here is Neal A. Maxwell in a 1995 conference talk: “In the same vein, God’s second commandment, love thy neighbor, clearly leaves no room for racism.”

    Here is M. Russell Ballard in a 2017 talk: “We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.” In that same conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen quoted this very passage from Elder Ballard to further emphasize its importance.

    Here is Gary E. Stevenson just a couple of months ago: “All are alike unto God….Our position as a Church is clear. We do condemn all racism, past or present, in any form, and we disavow any theory that black or dark skin is a sign of a curse.”

    So, Bryan,I find it a bit odd that you’re lecturing us about how racism isn’t that big of a deal because the leaders supposedly haven’t called it out, when in fact they seem to have condemned it. Maybe in light of this you should consider taking back some of what you’ve written and joining the rest of us in calling out racism and taking back ludicrous and offensive claims that calling people racists is what is offensive. I’m often amazed at how thick of skin many non-whites have when I hear their experiences of racism against them. They’ve had to learn to brush it off and keep going. And yet, so many whites get bent out of shape for someone calling them out for telling a racist joke or saying that immigrants are stealing are jobs. Maybe these folks should actually take the time to reflect on what racism is and how to avoid doing and saying racist things, even if they are rather minor offenses.

  12. Thank you, Chad. Other current teachings of the Church can be found in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, Alma 3, and Moses 7. Our racial theology, which is informed by the aforementioned passages, does not conflict with the recent church statements you highlighted (just as it doesn’t conflict with 2 Nephi 26:33 and Acts 10:34-35), yet for some reason its affirmation is met with disapproval or sensitivity warnings. Perhaps there are good reasons for this, but my concern is that the fear of social disapproval is keeping saints from embracing what the Lord has revealed through prophets ancient and modern.

  13. Whitfield, my comment was not meant to imply that church leaders have never denounced racial animus. It was a response to your question: “How come they didn’t realize and call out racism earlier than others?” You’ll notice my reply is in past tense, reflecting your question.

    I maintain that it is not sinful to accept the obvious meaning and implications of the race-related scriptures that are so fashionably rejected by bloggernacle writers and commentators.

    I also maintain that members dissatisfied with the Church’s lack of anti-racist activism have misplaced priorities. The Church of Jesus Christ is a vehicle for bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, not for the gospel of Ta-Nehisi Coates. The fact that they rarely align says something about the latter’s eternal significance.

  14. 3 Nephi 2 is another chapter that falls under that list, Bryan. What I personally struggle with is reconciling the teachings about skin color advanced in those chapters of our scripture with the statement that: “The Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”

  15. “my comment was not meant to imply that church leaders have never denounced racial animus”

    Here is what you wrote:

    “Perhaps the Lord did not instruct His anointed to ‘call out racism’ because ‘racism’ is not the grave sin you believe it to be.”

    This is incorrect. As of recent, church leaders have called out racism, as has been pointed out. Leaders in earlier periods when the effects of racism on society were much worse didn’t call out racism, and they should have. What you may have meant is that God didn’t instruct them in earlier periods to denounce racism. And yet they denounce it recently when its effects aren’t so bad but don’t in earlier periods when its effects were much worse? And you put racism in quotes as if to deny that it is a valid term. Unbelievable. Disgraceful.

    “It was a response to your question: ‘How come they didn’t realize and call out racism earlier than others?'”

    Church leaders were slow to call out racism. We had more business listening to radical abolitionists in the 1800s on the topic of race than we did Brigham Young. The church didn’t stop excluding blacks from the temples and leadership callings until 14 years after the Civil Rights Act. That they came late in denouncing racism is just a basic fact. And you acknowledged this in your comment and then followed that by suggesting that racism wasn’t that grave of a sin. A sentiment that in decades prior was behind slavery and the Holocaust? Take it back, Bryan. We can have no progress in this discussion until you recant what you wrote. Don’t try to deny or dodge what you wrote. You need to take full ownership and say that you were completely wrong and denounce what you wrote. Don’t you minimize racism.

  16. Whitfield,
    Variation of the Whitefield family. Famous for a certain famous religious preacher who argued that converting African slaves to Christianity saved their souls and made them better slaves in the first place.

    All kinds of heresies pervade the past. Focus on the present action and future decisions matters more.

  17. Chad, I prefer to interpret that sentence as a statement on the present condition of people with black/dark skin. Black people today are not cursed and are authorized to hold the priesthood and make temple covenants. Admittedly, my interpretation is influenced by my desire to reconcile a moderately ambiguous sentence with the clear and repeated teachings of scripture and prior prophets. If subsequent statements clarify that the Church is disavowing scripture, I’ll reassess.

  18. “…the topic is a heavy one.”

    Indeed, and painful. But, to me, not inaccurate.

  19. Bryan—

    If all teachings in the Book of Mormon are to be held as current doctrine, why don’t we use wine in the sacrament? Moroni leaves no room whatsoever for a substitution.

  20. I have wondered why the words of Book of Mormon prophets should be thought any more infallible than the words of latter-day prophets, why their sometimes racist comments or their attributing them to God should be privileged over the condemnation of racism “past and present,” In contrast to such privilege, though he may not have had canonized scripture in mind, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. taught

    “… the Brethren may speak when they are not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ yet only when they do so speak, as so ‘moved upon,’ is what they say Scripture. No exceptions are given to this rule or principle. It is universal in its application.”

    – J. Reuben Clark, “When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Being Scripture?”, address at BYU on July 7, 1954; see Church News, July 31, 1954

    It would seem that if we insist that we have prophets as of old recorded in scripture, then it would seem that those of old were like those we have now — human, fallible. Canonization is an administrative process, not a revelatory one.

  21. Bryan, I can understand where you’re coming from and your commitment to preserving respect for past prophets. There was a time in my life where I felt similarly to you on this subject, so even though my current view has changed, I understand. For what it’s worth, my personal feeling nowadays is that the culture and personal situations of those prophets had more to do with their statements than God’s revelations, but I haven’t spent time inside their shoes (let alone their heads), so I cannot say for certain. I also worry about how easily the view of “universal whiteness” discussed by Max Mueller and that seems embedded in the narrative of the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, etc. can be used to embrace racism and white supremacy, which is another reason for why I have reservations about taking those narratives at face value (note that I’m not saying that you have embraced those ideologies personally).

    Whitfield, I also understand where you are coming from in your comments. I am probably closer in my feelings on this subject to you these days and I appreciate your passion for standing against racism when and where you find it. Your question of why Church leaders seem behind the curve in denouncing racism when they should have been ahead of it is one that I wrestle with as well. That being said, we do have a standing comment policy that includes a requirement to critique arguments instead of people (no insults) and to respect other readers (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/comment-policies/). Some of your comments have been borderline on being acceptable under that policy, so please be careful in attacking ideas vs. people, even with your (understandably) strong feelings on the subject.

    I don’t see a lot of value in continuing down this path in the discussion. I believe that everyone has made their stance clear, and I suspect that further discussion will continue to circle around re-stating what has already been said without anyone’s opinions actually changing.

  22. ji, in SS, I learned that the steps to repentance involve acknowledging your error or sin and, to the extent possible, trying to correct the situation. That is what is taught to members. Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to organizations, particularly churches. They should lead by example. How long ago the problem occurred is irrelevant. The Church, as an organization, would be apologizing for its past actions. Recently, the State of Illinois apologized for expelling the Mormons. President Hinckley apologized for M3, which certainly didn’t happened during his lifetime. When Church leaders recently met with leaders of the NAACP, many of us were hoping for an apology. We were disappointed.

  23. Chad, you’re right. Thanks for expressing your sentiments and I apologize if any of my comments got out of line. It is just that I think that some folks just forget how bad racism used to be and that if you’re surrounded by other whites, you don’t realize the pain that racism inflicts on people because you’ve never had to deal with being a minority or being the target of racism. I attend a Latino ward and about every Latino I know has a story of racism to tell. I also interact with a lot of black clients and some of them have simply given up on trying to fight racism and simply accept its presence while hoping that things get better over time.

  24. roger, an organization cannot sin. Individuals sin and need to repent. We believe a man will be punished for his own sins, and not for Brigham Young’s alleged transgression. But if an apology will make you feel better, please accept mine — on behalf of Latter-day Saints everywhere, living and all the way back to 1830, I apologize for any and all real or perceived misdeeds or wrongs done to you. Please forgive us.

  25. ji, Not even when a person authorized to act and acting on the organization’s behalf sins? I’m wondering why that should be so different from the way intentional torts or acts of violence by corporate agents acting in the scope of their employment are treated. Perhaps you don’t think Germany should ever have apologized for the holocaust. Or that the Church should never have apologized for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. https://www.deseret.com/2007/9/12/20040883/lds-church-issues-apology-over-mountain-meadows#flags-wave-at-the-event-marking-the-150th-anniversary-of-the-mountain-meadows-massacre-at-the-memorial-site-near-enterprise
    You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

  26. I believe a person should apologize for his or her wrongs, upon realization of the wrongs. I do not believe an incumbent office-holder should be made to apologize for the alleged wrongs of his or her near or distant predecessors.

    To me, apologies and demands for apologies should not be weaponized. I believe in honesty, sincerity, patience, and charity.

    I have not seen or heard of the President of the Church doing or saying anything for which he needs to apologize. But if he became aware of such, I am certain he would quickly do so.

  27. Br Jones,
    We don’t use wine for social, and physical reasons, among others. They used wine for symbolic and social reasons. 85% of the composition of wine is actually water to begin with. We have all kinds of adaptions based on actions taken in the Book of Mormon (missionaries don’t go and cut off the arms of Al Qaeda either)

    The key difference here would be if you wanted to justify that they were wrong in the scriptures for using wine, they shouldn’t have done it, and we should delete it from the page, or use it as an example of being deceived whenever we read it.

    I think Bryan’s position is defensible, if unpopular. I’d go further and bet that Bryan has no desire to advertise or even talk about this particular issue in the physical company of those he might cause to morn from hearing it, mingled with their past and present struggles of racist harm.

    But rather, when people bring it up as a “ah hah, gotcha” moment, he pushes back and says there’s more to the narrative you’re trying to build.

    I’ve also noticed the careful phrasing on this issue. The general authorities are either carefully putting their toes into the water, looking to the future when they might fully jump in the direction progressives seek, and/or they are trying to navigate a complex issue without going to certain extremes.

    Jesus didn’t say everyone in the past was wrong when he was plagued with questions about seeming inconsistency with scriptures (or rigid interpretations of them). He pointed to what’s right and invited to follow.

    Our prophets do that now. I have no inclination to focus my faith on a defense of Brigham Young (I’ll certainly cite his example and teachings as they build faith). He doesn’t want me to do that either. But I won’t throw him or Nephi under the bus. I also won’t dredge up everything he says on issues that aren’t relevant to the present or future.

    Our social system is different now. No need to try to apply those murky and not well understood lessons or justifications from the past.

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