Scholar: Book of Mormon among religious texts that outline racial divides

Scholar: Book of Mormon among religious texts that outline racial divides

Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, is pictured.
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A new book by Nebraska’s Max Perry Mueller examines the Book of Mormon and its origin story of Native Americans as sinners fallen away from God. The book also recounts stories of several non-white early Mormons who were welcomed into the church only to be ostracized by its policies. Pictured above is a temple of the Latter-day Saints Church in Salt Lake City.

Where did the notion of race arise? Historians and social scientists have long sought to answer this question, identifying ebbs and flows in its cultural significance, yet never reaching agreement on how it began.

After spending nearly a decade researching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, historian of American religion Max Perry Mueller argues that racial constructs often originate in religious texts and that religion played an outsized role in establishing the notion of race in the United States.

Max Perry Mueller

“The origins of race don’t really begin from observations of the body or even experiences, they’re written histories,” said Mueller, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Race starts on the page, particularly in written scriptures.”

The Latter-day Saints Church was founded in the United States in 1830. Its members are commonly called Mormons, after the church’s sacred text, the Book of Mormon.

In his new book, “Race and the Making of the Mormon People,” Mueller examines the Book of Mormon and its story of Native Americans as sinners fallen away from God. The text characterized white skin as a sign of God’s favor and said that those who converted to Mormonism would become white. Mueller’s book also recounts the stories of several non-white early Mormons, who were welcomed into the church yet later ostracized by its policies.

Cover of Max Perry Mueller's new book.

Mueller said such religiously based racial constructs continue to reverberate in the United States and around the world.

“It’s worth understanding the Mormons have a particularly unique racial perspective, but also one that is representative from which we can draw some lessons,” Mueller said. “The main story I tell is the original American races — white, red and black — and the origins of them. I argue that their origins are actually religious categories.”

“Why is it so difficult for folks to let go of racial distinctions? Because those distinctions operate as theology, a belief system, which is more immune to dismantling,” Mueller said. “Not so long ago, many considered the Bible as the true, historical origin of racial distinctions when one part of the human family sinned against the other.”

Mueller didn’t plan for his book to come out right after an election that was tipped by racial anxieties, but he’s grateful to be adding to the discussion that is forming in the election’s wake.

“As Americans, especially white Americans, we all have a responsibility to understand this history and how the effects are still present,” he said.

The book is published by the University of North Carolina Press.