“I’m white with the exception of the color of my skin.”Historians in the News
tags: racism, religion, Race, Mormon, LDS, White Supremacy, Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People
Related Link John Fea interviews Max Perry Mueller
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. ...
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.
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.