This thoroughly documented study of race and identity within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints unravels various ways Mormons have constructed and negotiated their identity throughout history. Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology at Washington State University, makes the intriguing argument that Mormonism provides a unique case in which religious prejudice or particularism actually undermines secular prejudice. While Mormon relations with other races have not been without difficulty, documentation provided here demonstrates that in specific cases, Mormons hold less prejudicial attitudes than other white Americans.
This is due, according to Mauss, to a theology linking Mormon lineage with other ethnic groups. Believing Native people of the Americas to be the “Lamanites” of the Book of Mormon, a group sharing their divinely chosen lineage, Mormons treated Native Americans with unique respect from the mid-19th century. Israelites, too, occupy a special place in this lineage, and Mormons have for the most part abandoned their few and largely unsuccessful historical attempts to proselytize Jews. Mormon relations with Blacks have improved in recent years, after a long span from Brigham Young’s presidency until the Mormon proclamation of inclusion in 1978, when many Mormons believed Blacks were of a cursed lineage.
Utilizing a wealth of data, including decades of his own survey work among Mormons, Mauss demonstrates that the construction of Mormon identity has shifted as a direct result of encounters with these others—away from a superior status based upon lineage to an emphasis on a universal appeal to all to embrace their shared heritage as children of Abraham.
While it may be that a universal call for all people to come to Christ signals a partial repudiation of racism, the reader may question whether a religion holding the missionary belief that people of all races will eventually revoke their own beliefs to embrace the universal appeal of Mormonism, can ever truly escape ethnocentrism.
Yet, this impressive work offers a provocative and challenging contribution to Mormon historiography, as Mauss provides evidence that not only has the missionary activity of Mormons changed the world, but the world has changed Mormonism.
– Gail J. Stearns, director, The Common Ministry at WSU, and adjunct faculty member in WSUs Honors College and Department of Womens Studies