Black, White, and Red: Race and the Making of the Mormon People, 1830-1880

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Black, White, and Red: Race and the Making of the Mormon People, 1830-1880

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Title: Black, White, and Red: Race and the Making of the Mormon People, 1830-1880
Author: Mueller, Max Perry ORCID  0000-0002-9231-2065
Citation: Mueller, Max Perry. 2015. Black, White, and Red: Race and the Making of the Mormon People, 1830-1880. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: This dissertation uses the histories and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as case studies to consider how nineteenth-century Americans turned to religion to solve the early American republic’s “race problem.” I begin by approaching Mormonism’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon, as the earliest Latter-day Saints did: as a radical new lens to view the racialized populations—Americans of European, African and Native American descent (“white,” “black,” “red”)—that dominated the antebellum American cultural landscape in which the church was founded in 1830. Early Mormons believed themselves called to end all schisms, including racial ones, within the Body of Christ as well as the political body of the American republic. However, early Mormon leaders were not racial egalitarians. Their vision consisted not of racial pluralism, but of the redemptive “whitening” of all peoples. Whiteness—both as a signifier and even phenotype—became an aspirational racial identity that non-whites could achieve through conversion to Mormonism. As the church failed to become the prophesied panacea for American racial and religious divisions, its theology evolved to view race as fixed. Black and Mormon became mutually exclusive identities. And though based on Book of Mormon theology, the Mormons held out hope for mass Indian redemption, it was forestalled as the church focused on shaping white converts into respectable Mormons.
However, this history is not simply one of declension. Instead, the church’s evolving view on race arose out of the persistent dialectal tension between the two central, and seemingly paradoxical, elements of the Mormon people’s identity: a missionary people divinely called to teach the gospel to everyone everywhere, and a racially particularistic people who believe that God has, at times, favored certain racial groups over others. As Mormon identity became more racially particularistic, white Mormons began to marginalize non-whites in the “Mormon archive”— which I conceptualize as the written and oral texts that compose the Mormon people’s collective memory. However, a handful of black and Native Americans wrote themselves into this archive, claiming their place among the prophets and pioneers that mark membership in Mormon history. They understood that literacy signified authority, and thus with their own narratives, they wrote against what they believed was the marginalization of their historical subjectivity.
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