All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage

All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage

by Armand L. Mauss

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All Abraham’s Children is Armand L. Mauss’s long-awaited magnum opus on the evolution of traditional Mormon beliefs and practices concerning minorities. He examines how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have defined themselves and others in terms of racial lineages.
Mauss describes a complex process of the broadening of these self-defined lineages during the last part of the twentieth century as the modern Mormon church continued its world-wide expansion through massive missionary work.
Mauss contends that Mormon constructions of racial identity have not necessarily affected actual behavior negatively and that in some cases Mormons have shown greater tolerance than other groups in the American mainstream.
Employing a broad intellectual historical analysis to identify shifts in LDS behavior over time, All Abraham’s Children is an important commentary on current models of Mormon historiography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252091834
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Armand L. Mauss, a professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, is the author of The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, and Social Problems as Social Movements, and the coeditor of Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church.

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All Abraham's Children

Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage



Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09183-4



The Mormon Missionary Impulse and the Negotiation of Identity

Even if politically imbalanced, conversion encounters are always two-sided, and the social and intellectual dynamics of each camp affect the outcome.

—Robert W. Hefner, 1993

Several story lines are intertwined in this book. At the most abstract level, one story illustrates the power of religious ideas and human behavior on each other, indeed on the operational definition of reality itself. It is an oft-told story, but this version shows how the followers of the nineteenth-century American prophet Joseph Smith created a spiritual and ideological world within which they encountered and attempted to convert various peoples. In the process, these ideas and the ongoing reconsiderations of their meaning changed both the Mormons and their converts. Another story line implicates religious ideas in the creation of racial prejudice and invidious ethnic distinctions. This, too, is an old story, but the Mormon version is much more complex than most, and it reveals some profound unintended consequences. Still a third story explores the construction and reconstruction of various peoples' identities. Ethnic, religious, and even family identities are not created in a vacuum but are the products of negotiations across time between peoples—often peoples of unequal power, sometimes mutually hostile peoples. The identities at stake here are not only that of the Mormons themselves but also those of certain other peoples with special definitions in traditional Mormon religious teachings.

I ardently hope that the facts, figures, and details in this book will not obscure these underlying stories that I am trying to tell. They are important stories, quite apart from the academic trappings that occasionally encumber them here. Stories about human beings and their institutions always involve the discovery of paradoxes and contradictions. One of the contradictions in the Mormon case is found in the juxtaposition of two general historical realities: Mormonism has traditionally taught particularistic doctrines favoring some ethnic groups over others, yet the church has always had an extensive proselyting program with a focus intended for all peoples everywhere. These two tendencies have remained in dialectical tension throughout Mormon history, and each has affected and modified the other. Most observers seem to have noticed only the impact of the first on the second—that is, how (until recently) traditional doctrines have channeled Mormon missionary efforts toward some societies (those in northwestern Europe, Latin America, Polynesia, or the North American aboriginal peoples) and away from others (for example, societies with large populations of blacks).

While these two general tendencies are, of course, always acting on each other, this book gives more attention than most to the impact of the second on the first—namely, the universalistic missionary program's impact on traditional doctrines. This is the reciprocal relationship between ideas and behavior to which I referred at the beginning: If religious doctrines and other ideas are expressions of the cultural settings from which they emerge, they also reflect back on those cultures—though perhaps only selectively—to influence the religious, social, and political behavior of the people. In this story line, the reader will see the overarching intellectual presence of Max Weber, whose extensive works on the connections between religious ideology and behavior have influenced a century of scholarship. In the chapters to follow, there is more than one illustration of Weber's underlying theme of the reciprocal influences of ideas and experience in human history.

Of special interest here is the account of the development of religious ideas in response to proselyting experience—the unintended consequences, in particular, of the ambitious Mormon missionary program, which gradually transformed the Latter-day Saints from a "peculiar people," preoccupied with invidious divine distinctions among lineages, into a worldwide movement embracing all humankind as "Abraham's children." The moral and spiritual concomitant of this ideological transformation was the refinement of the Latter-day Saints' own understanding of universal kinship in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are thus presented with the inspiring irony that a modern, universalistic vision of the spiritual potential in all peoples should emerge from the parochial nineteenth-century Mormons' vision of themselves as a chosen lineage.

Although not well known to non-Mormons, traditional Latter-day Saint (LDS) doctrine defined most of today's Mormons as literal descendants of one of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, primarily the tribe of Ephraim. This designation was part of an implied arrangement of various contemporary peoples, by divine plan, into ancient lineages from most favored to least favored. Descendants of Ephraim stood at the top, as most favored, while descendants of Cain were least favored, having been singled out for a special curse that prevented them from holding the priesthood until very recent times. American Indian peoples, as descendants of both Manasseh and Ephraim, stood near the top in favored status, as did the Jews (descendants of Judah), who provided the lineage for the Messiah himself. Descendants of the remaining Israelite tribes, some of whom are scattered throughout the world, were apparently yet to be identified or to come forth as a distinct people before the return of the Messiah; nevertheless, they had been understood as enjoying favored lineages by virtue of sharing in the special covenant that God made with their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Standing in a kind of neutral zone, somewhere below the Israelites but well above the descendants of Cain, have been the "Gentiles," whom God has been able to use for his purposes throughout history and who might, through their acceptance of the Messiah, eventually be "grafted into" the covenant people of Israel.

Paradoxically, these ideas have always coexisted in Mormonism with the much more general Christian teaching that the Abrahamic covenant since Christ has its efficacy no longer in lineage per se but rather in acceptance of the true gospel. Through faithful adherence to that gospel, anyone of any lineage is spiritually incorporated into the family of Abraham and given both the blessings and the responsibilities of the "chosen people." With the passage of time, especially in recent decades, authoritative Mormon discourse has placed less emphasis on the salience of literal lineage and more emphasis on the potentially universal inclusiveness of God's ancient covenant with Abraham. As this change of emphasis continues, the logical paradox is on the way to resolution. After all, if embracing the gospel of Christ is all that really matters for full participation in the Abrahamic covenant, why should one's genetic lineage be given any salience whatsoever? Yet the earlier focus on the importance of literal Israelite lineage has remained influential in the thinking of many Mormons, even into the twenty-first century, seemingly as a residue of the racialist interpretations of history once so common in America as well as in Europe. How and when did such ideas arise in early Mormonism? What was the course of their development? What purposes did they serve?

Within weeks of its formal founding in the spring of 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to dispatch missionaries in all directions. They saw themselves as heralds of a new dispensation of the gospel of Christ, a new restoration of the ancient gospel and church, sent to preach that gospel "to every creature," as in ancient times. Despite the most discouraging obstacles and opposition, these missionaries within a generation had visited every continent and nearly every major nation on earth. As of this writing, some sixty thousand LDS missionaries are now at work in 150 nations. Their numbers and methods have varied with time and place, but their message has always included a "call to repentance," a challenge to the inhabitants of the earth to forsake all other religions and to embrace instead the "only true gospel" as taught by the latter-day prophets and apostles of Jesus Christ.

Such a message would not be considered by most peoples as an expression of universal tolerance and appreciation for the world's varied races and cultures—any more than it was so considered by the Roman world to which the emissaries of Jesus preached two thousand years ago. Yet the apostle Paul envisioned a world outside Jerusalem, where all humankind could become "the children of Abraham," without regard to original race, lineage, or culture. This Pauline vision has only gradually taken hold in Mormonism and displaced the racial exclusivism that had earlier been absorbed from the Anglo-American heritage of most Mormons. Of course, Christianity in general has always struggled with invidious comparisons among racial or ethnic groups in the world. Paul and his followers had already encountered this struggle in their own disagreements with the early Christian Judaizers of ancient Palestine. Even at the end of the twentieth century, Christianity was still trying to purge itself of a pervasive, inherited anti- Semitism and from a great many other mutual ethnic hostilities among Christian peoples themselves.

While such racialist thinking is clearly apparent also in early Mormonism, as in early America more generally, I argue that the full-fledged racialist framework of modern Mormonism arose primarily during the century after the arrival of the Saints in Utah. It was the product not of any particular revelation but of a social and intellectual movement among some of Mormonism's most powerful and articulate leaders. The public discourse of these leaders demonstrates that they synthesized or combined certain interpretations of LDS scripture with two important influences from outside Mormonism: British Israelism and Anglo-Saxon triumphalism. In doing so, they contributed greatly to the emergent ethnic consciousness that Thomas F. O'Dea discovered in his study of the Mormons at midcentury (O'Dea 1954). Their retrospective construction of a "chosen" lineage identity also enabled them to resist the growing national and international definition of Mormons as a despicable people.

As will be seen later, although the specific content of this retrospective reconstruction of lineage has much that is unique to the Mormons, the process is far from unique. Many peoples, indeed entire nations, have constructed idealized ancestries for themselves, with or without much empirical, genealogical evidence, as part of a larger mythological history. It is important for all peoples, but especially scholars, to understand that these constructed histories and lineages carry their own truths and have their own purposes totally apart from historical reality. One of these purposes typically is the creation and vindication of a favorable national or ethnic identity in which all members, particularly the youth, can be taught to take personal pride and find personal honor. Another common purpose is more political: a means of resistance against outside powers threatening domination, colonialization, assimilation, or all three. Such purposes are all apparent at different times in Mormon history.

Two different aspects of lineage identity are considered in this study. One is the reciprocal relationship in Mormon history between lineage identities and proselyting programs—that is, how the selection of certain peoples for proselyting has been influenced by Mormon preconceptions about their lineages and how, reciprocally, these preconceptions have been modified by the church's actual proselyting experience. A second and related aspect is the discourse and the processes involved in the social construction and uses of lineage, both by missionaries and by the converted peoples. It is important to emphasize at the outset that what follows is not intended as a general history of the processes, relationships, or periods under discussion. Such a history of Mormon relationships with the various ethnic groups would take far more space than one volume could provide, and anyway I make no pretense of expertise as a historian.

What I attempt instead is a certain sociological interpretation of historical materials provided mostly by other scholars, supplemented by documentary and survey data from my own original research. For my theoretical frameworks, as well as for any interpretations of specific episodes, my presentation therefore draws only selectively on historical materials, though I have tried to avoid undue bias. With this strategy, I feel no need to cite every source, primary or secondary, bearing on a given assertion or interpretation, for that only lengthens endnotes and often results in "overkill" in trying to establish a given point. Finally, let me be clear that my focus is intentionally limited to the Western Hemisphere, where lineage constructions and negotiations among Mormons have principally occurred. I begin, however, with some comparative examples of identity construction and then return to the Mormon case.

Lineage and Ethnicity as Social Constructions

Lineage and ethnicity, whether of an individual or of an entire people, are popularly understood as matters of objective "fact." When one thinks of his or her lineage, one tends to think in simple genealogical terms: One is or is not a descendant of a given ancestor; it is a matter of finding out from reliable records who were one's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on back, as far as the records will go. Similarly, whether in ordinary conversation or in our mass media, one tends to regard "ethnic group" as given in nature: One simply is or is not Anglo-American, African American, Hispanic American, and so on.

Yet scholars and scientists who work with such concepts have long recognized the inadequacies and ambiguities of such popular understandings. Where lineage is concerned, very few people in any society have any idea who their ancestors were more than four or five generations back, to say nothing of five hundred or a thousand years ago. Reliable records simply have not survived, if they ever existed. As for ethnicity, the many migrations and invasions that have occurred in human history have rendered such categories as "ethnic group" and especially "race" increasingly imprecise and suspect. This is particularly the case in such highly assimilative societies as ancient Rome and the United States, as is well attested by the recent quandary in the United States over how to classify and count the many citizens of mixed ethnic background in the official census. To be sure, various scholarly definitions for ethnicity or ethnic group have continued to be proposed and have proved more or less satisfactory for some purposes; but much imprecision and uncertainty remain in actual cases.

In the face of all this ambiguity, social scientists have come increasingly to understand that the collective construction by a people of their own ethnic and genealogical past is probably more important than the historical and empirical realities, even if these could be scientifically determined. After all, people act on what they believe to be true and real, about themselves and about others, rather than on what science has "shown" to be real. This principle of behavior applies at the collective level of the nation, the society, or the ethnos, just as it does at the level of the individual or the family. The "historical record" itself, as constructed across time by the scribes or oral custodians of that record, is at least as likely to be the product as the source of a people's collective understanding of themselves and their ethnic or genealogical heritage. Furthermore, as often as not, the popular and especially the official record of the past is a retrospective reconstruction produced in the service of the religious or political objectives of a powerful interest group in a particular era.

This process has been discovered repeatedly in the analysis, deconstruction, and critiques of the great recorded sagas of many different cultures. An important recent example is the work of E. Theodore Mullen Jr. on the origins of the Hebrew Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic history of Israel (1997, 82). Setting aside the long scholarly dialogues and disputations over historicity and the so-called documentary hypothesis, Mullen argues that these books, in their received form, date back only to the mid-sixth century B.C.E., for they bespeak the concerns and preoccupations of the post-exile scribes during the period of the Second Temple and the Persian hegemony. Although these scribes (e.g., Ezra and Nehemiah) doubtless had some earlier records, record fragments, and oral histories at their disposal, the Pentateuch and derivative books of the Hebrew Bible familiar to us (i.e., translated into modern languages) were products of this post-exile period (Mullen 1997, 80).

Excerpted from All Abraham's Children by ARMAND L. MAUSS. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Cover Title Page Contents Preface 1. The Mormon Missionary Impulseand the Negotiation of Identity 2. Mormons and Israelite Lineage 3. From Lamanites to Indians 4. The Return of the Lamanites 5. Old Lamanites, New Lamanites,and the Negotiation of Identity 6. Christian and Mormon Constructionsof Jewish Identity 7. Mormons and Secular Anti-Semitism 8. The Curse of African Lineagein Mormon History 9. The Campaign to Cast Offthe Curse of Cain 10. Reprise Appendix A: Notes on Library andPersonal Sources Appendix B: Supplementary Tablesfor Measuring Mormon Beliefs aboutJews and Blacks Appendix C: Path Diagrams as Summariesof the Formation of Mormon Attitudestoward Jews and Blacks References Index

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