#22—Race and Mormonism in the 19th century, with Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall (part 1 of 2) [MIPodcast]
One of the most anticipated reviews in the upcoming Mormon Studies Review focuses on a landmark book called Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness by W. Paul Reeve. In this special two-part episode, historians Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall talk about the book and answer questions about the historian’s craft more broadly.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms the universal sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity. A recent Gospel Topics essay at lds.org explains that “Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes salvation available to all. God created the many diverse races and ethnicities and esteems them all equally.” The essay also traces the Church’s complicated history of perspectives on race, including the controversial restriction of priesthood and temple participation by black members of the Church which was lifted in 1978.
LDS church history on this topic is complex and at times surprising. Part one of this interview focuses on Reeve’s research about the concept of race in the nineteenth century. His book tells the puzzling story about how Mormons had to “struggle” to be recognized as “white.” The struggle had dramatic consequences especially for black church members. How did Mormons perceive American Indians, “Oriental” people (to use nineteenth-century parlance). How did the question of slavery impact early Mormon views of race and how were Mormons themselves racialized by outsiders?
Reeve organized his book around this striking political cartoon from a 1904 issue of Life, which we discuss throughout the interview: Ardis Parshall will join us in part two, which focuses directly on the topic of black members of the nineteenth-century LDS Church.
W. Paul Reeve is an associate professor of history at the University of Utah. Oxford University Press published his latest book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, earlier this year.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thanks for listening to another episode. I’m your host, Blair Hodges.
At the end of 2013 a new Gospel Topics essay appeared on lds.org, the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The essay, called “Race and the Priesthood,” affirms the universal sister and brotherhood of humanity, explaining that Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of his children and makes salvation available to all. God created the many diverse races and ethnicities and esteemed them all equally. The essay traces the church’s complicated history of perspectives on race, including the controversial restriction of priesthood and temple participation by black members of the church, which was lifted in 1978.
LDS church history on this topic is complex, so in this special two-part episode I talk to two historians, Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall. Together they edited a book called Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, but more recently Paul Reeve published a landmark book with Oxford University Press called Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.
In part one, this episode, Reeve—who is a University of Utah professor of history—talks about the concept of race in the nineteenth century. His book relates the puzzling story about how Mormons had to struggle to be recognized as white. The struggle had dramatic consequences, especially for black members of the church.
After we set the stage in part one, part two will focus on the priesthood and temple restriction in particular. We’ll also cover interesting aspects of working as a historian, and independent historian, Ardis Parshall, will talk about the benefits of seeking out lesser-known Latter-day Saint stories. Both historians reflect on how they theologically think through the difficult issues posed by church history.
It’s Paul Reeve, talking about Religion of a Different Color in this episode. Paul and Ardis both join me in the next.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to the show, Paul Reeve, and Ardis Parshall.
PAUL REEVE: Thank you, Blair. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
ARDIS PARSHALL: Thank you, Blair. Glad to be here.
HODGES: I wanted to start by talking about the “I’m a Mormon” publicity campaign, which the LDS church launched in 2010. This campaign featured a variety of people from around the globe, a racially diverse group of Americans as well, mixed-race couples, and it was designed to let the wider public know that Mormons aren’t secluded or outdated, to kind of show Mormon diversity.
Showing so many different people is considered a positive today. It’s incorporated into a publicity campaign. Your book, Religion of a Different Color, is framed around a different piece of media from a hundred years earlier. This is a political cartoon from Life magazine back in 1902. The cartoon also depicts Mormons as being racially diverse, but for an entirely different reason. Talk a bit about that cartoon.
REEVE: So the Life magazine cartoon is simply titled “Mormon Elder-Berry—Out with His Six-Year-Olds, Who Take After Their Mothers.” It’s an internationally and diverse group of children that he’s holding hands with. It’s really striking, as you point out, if this were to appear in 2014 we might imagine the church’s Public Affairs department recruiting several of Elder-Berry’s children to be in its “I’m a Mormon” campaign. In 1904, Life magazine was not intending this as a celebration of Mormon diversity. In fact, I see it as Life magazine’s effort at trapping Mormonism in a racially suspect past, at the same time that Mormonism is attempting to transition into a white and pure future.
I start with this political cartoon as this moment of racial transition of Mormonism. Obviously it’s an attack on polygamy, but more than an attach on polygamy, I think the book really demonstrates that outsiders aren’t just afraid that polygamy is destroying the traditional family, they’re afraid that it’s destroying the white race. Mormon Elder-Berry’s this political cartoon and his interracial family and this international family really highlight that and capture it in just one simple picture.
HODGES: So this is an idea that I think will be new to a lot of people, and this is the idea that Mormons had to struggle for whiteness. There’s a part of the introduction where you write, “The Mormon struggle for whiteness is a microcosm of the history of race in America.” I think people will be surprised to hear that Mormons had to struggle to be recognized as white. We’ll drill more into Mormonism a little bit later on, but first let’s talk about the second part of that sentence—the idea that America has a history of race. I’d like you to talk a little bit about American views of race in the nineteenth century as Mormonism was getting started.
REEVE: Yeah, so I’ve been working on the book for seven years now, and especially when I tell people the subtitle for the book, Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, I get a lot of really strange looks, and especially sort of skeptical looks on people’s faces. I understand that, and I think people should be skeptical, especially if we are understanding race from a twenty-first century perspective. What you really have to do is go back and recover what race meant in the nineteenth century. I invite the skepticism. I hope people are skeptical and skeptical enough to buy the book and look at the evidence themselves.
Really what I’m suggesting, then, is that you need to recover a very fluid and illogical racial context in the nineteenth century, wherein this monolithic “whiteness” is fracturing in America. Mormonism is born into this period wherein monolithic whiteness is fracturing and race was understood both as a nationality, as well as skin color, as well as character traits, and a variety of different things are associated with race. So they had a variety people of race in the nineteenth century.
HODGES: Why did that matter, though? You talk a little bit about hierarchical views of race. They could categorize, for what reason?
REEVE: Yeah, so this is the way that Americans are trying to sort out the various peoples who are coming to America, so Irish immigrants—
HODGES: Because they look “white” to us. You look at photographs in the nineteenth century of Irish people, they’re white, aren’t they?
REEVE: Absolutely. So if we’re just basing it on our perception of skin color, everyone’s going to simply say Irish people are white. But there are a variety of whiteness studies that have been done, and it was partly in engaging these whiteness studies that I kept saying, “Wow, this is happening to Mormons.”
The interesting thing is that they’re an inside religious group, and yet they’re being racialized in the same way that Irish people are being racialized. So cartoons of Irish people in the nineteenth century will frequently include simian or ape-like features associated with Irish, comparisons to black people in the nineteenth century, so they’re more black than white. And it’s this sort of argument of guilt by association. “You’re more like them, the undesireable group, the marginalized group, than you are like us, and therefore we can justify discriminatory policies against you.”
So America in the nineteenth century is really about creating a hierarchy of races. Which race is at the top? It’s the Anglo-Saxons who are perceived to be the superior race because they have come from Europe, marched across Europe, and as they have done so they have left adherence to despotic rule behind, they’ve left polygamy behind, they then march to America and establish a constitution based on freedom, so these are really freedom-loving people and freedom equals whiteness.
The first Congress, 1790, establishes conditions for citizenship. You have to be a free, white person to be a citizen. So obviously whiteness is deemed normative. It’s the normal condition, and anything that’s less than white is the other. So what you see, then, is outsiders trying to make sense of the Mormons. You have this inside religious group. Had they not converted they would have been on top of the racial ladder. Most Mormons are either native born Americans, or coming from western and northern Europe. They’re just white. So when they convert, however, there’s this effort—and it’s sort of this process that I trace in the first chapter of the book—of figuring out an identity for them.
That identity starts to accumulate a variety of assumed negative character traits that become applied to the whole group, not to just individuals. They start to associate what it means to be a Mormon which these negative character traits, like they did with black people, like they did with Native American people, like they did with Irish, like they did with Asian immigrants. In a variety of ways you start to assume that all black people are lazy, have hypersexuality, all of these sort of assumed racial characteristics. They start to do this with Mormons as well.
So the assumption is that then Mormons become a group that is racialized as “less than” white. This effort is to move them away from the top of the hierarchical ladder to make them less than acceptable, and to basically justify discriminatory policies against them.
HODGES: One of the striking things in your book is when you actually provide your examples, because this idea of race, and this level of discrimination, seems so foreign to most people today. When you talk about this theoretically like this it just seems strange. When you read the actual words of some of the people, it’s shocking.
I’m thinking of, for example, John C. Calhoun, who was a senator. In the late 1840s he puts a resolution forward regarding Mexico, as the United States has won the war and they’re deciding, “are we going to incorporate Mexico, what are we going to do?” You’ve got these quotes from him in there that are astounding.
For example, Calhoun says, “We’ve never dreamt of incorporating into our union any but the Caucasian race, the free, white race. Ours, sir, is the government of a white race.” He figured that bringing in new races would place them on an equality with the people of the United States. He says, “There’s no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government. We make a great mistake when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government.”
These are shocking comments to read.
REEVE: Absolutely. I think that very idea that Calhoun articulates is really crucial to keep in mind as a person reads the book, simply because that’s really what is at stake in the outsider’s mind with Mormonism. So it’s all based upon this “development” theory, the whole notion that all societies go through three basic stages. They begin at savagery, progress to barbarism, and then from barbarism to civilization. The notion was that as societies, all societies go through these development stages, and that as they do so they leave things like adherence to despotic rule and—
REEVE: Yeah, tyrannical leadership, you know, that you’re going to just simply, blindly obey whoever your leader is. That notion is sort of embedded in that progress narrative, from savagery to barbarism to civilization. As well as, the other argument was that polygamy is also left behind. Savage societies and barbaric societies practice polygamy, but not civilized people.
So the fear then is that you see people who on first blush appear to be white. These are people who are from western and northern Europe, as well as from America, who should be freedom loving white people, Anglo-Saxons at the top of the racial ladder, but now they’re converting to Mormonism so they’re giving their free will over to what is branded from the outside, despotic rule. Giving their will over to Joseph Smith or to Brigham Young, and especially after polygamy is openly announced, they’re practicing polygamy. White people should not do this.
Marriage is racialized in the nineteenth century. Monogamy is explicitly stated as the preserve of the white race. So here the fear is that Mormons represent a fear for racial decline. Basically, the book is really sort of just a lot of examples of how people are fearful that racial decline is bound up in Mormonism. It’s not just that you have this suspect religious group, but then democracy is at stake. Democracy is the government of a white race, and you have white people who are participating in a religious system that equals giving away their will to a despotic ruler, as well as polygamy, and democracy is at stake in the minds of people like John C. Calhoun and other political thinkers in the nineteenth century.
Really that’s what they believe is going on in the American west is that there is a deterioration from whiteness, which equals this inability to practice and participate in democracy.
HODGES: One of the things about the book that stands out, and that I wanted to ask you about, was the fact that you identity these political reasons for the discussions about race and the perceptions about race. And there are scientific justifications that are based in scientific thinking of the time, there are religious justifications that are based on readings of the scripture. And I just wondered how difficult it was to take those separate threads and weave them into one historical narrative. When you do that it kind of smoothes things over, you make it into a coherent narrative.
How was it taking all those different elements—scientific, political, religious—and putting them together in one book talking about the issue of race?
REEVE: It’s not easy. That’s for sure.
On the one hand that’s sort of the job of the story, in a way. You take all of these various sources and you have to make sense of them because the average person doesn’t have the luxury, and I guess I consider it a luxury because I’m a historian—or the will or the desire to actually scour the archives and sort of get all of these sources and collect them, and then bring them together into a readable narrative.
In doing so, it sometimes does sort of smooth out or make seem to the reader perhaps that it’s a more organized kind of take on Mormonsim than what the record actually can substantiate. So the job of the historian is also to organize these sources and sort of make sense of them for the reader. But in doing so, it perhaps smooths out the messiness more than if you were dealing with the raw data. But once again, that’s sort of the job of the historian.
I kind of try to at least tune the reader to that notion in the introduction that, my goodness, this was just a mess! People from the time period couldn’t ever quite figure out how they thought about Mormons, but they’re just sort of throwing a variety of things out there. Maybe they’re more “red” than they are “white.” Maybe they’re more “savage” than they are “white.” Maybe they’re more “black” than they are “white.” Maybe they’re more Asian or Oriental. Maybe they’re just less white.
So in a variety of ways they’re sort of groping, but they are associating Mormons with a variety of marginalized groups, and in the process marginalizing Mormons. I try to bring coherence to it. Certainly the historical record isn’t as well organized, perhaps, as it’s presented in the book. I organize it around Mormon Elder-Berry’s children. So those children become the organizational tool. The black girl in Mormon Elder-Berry’s family gets four chapters. The Native American gets two. The Oriental child gets one. The six white children only get one chapter. In any case, I’m sort of trying to organize the way in which outsiders saw Mormons as less than white.
HODGES: That’s Paul Reeve, he’s associate professor of history at the University of Utah, and author of the new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness from Oxford University Press. He also co-edited Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, which was co-edited with Ardis Parshall. We’ll speak with her a little bit later.
Paul, you write that the Mormon experience highlights the racialization process at work from the very birth of a suspect group. So the Mormon experience gives historians an opportunity to see the imputation of race to a select group of people from the very beginning. For years, religious scholars have said Mormonism is a great way to look at the beginnings of a new religion. You’re suggesting Mormonism is also a good way historians can look at the origin of race.
REEVE: That’s right. I know that people will be surprised by that idea, but once again I kind of welcome their skepticism. So I think really what you see with Mormonism is—especially in this highly racialized culture in the nineteenth century—this effort to figure out who they are. Because they’re born into this really charged racial environment, one way in which outsiders try to figure out who they are is through a racial lens, not just a religious lens, and not dismissing the religious part of it.
It’s important, it’s crucial, and other historians have done a fantastic job of looking at that. I’m saying here’s another facet, not trying to replace that, but I’m saying here’s another facet of the story that we haven’t looked at. What you see then is the ability to kind of trace this trajectory over time.
Initially it starts with a label. “Mormonite,” and then Mormon—
HODGES: Why did they need to be labeled to begin with? There’s a lot of different religious groups that are being labeled, so they got the Mormonite label. What made Mormons different from, like, Quakers. Why weren’t Quakers racialized compared to Mormons being racialized?
REEVE: Yeah, well it starts out just simply with a term that they’re using from the Book of Mormon, but it’s a way to try to, I think, justify discriminatory policies. How do you justify an extermination order against people who look like you?
HODGES: In a country that values the “white race,” so to speak?
REEVE: Exactly. When whiteness is seen as essential, and you have white people who are then joining this religion, I think it’s just an effort at justifying discriminatory policies. So you start to associate negative characteristics with the term “Mormonite,” and then “Mormon,” and then by the 1840s they’re saying “Mormon race.” By 1860 an associated group of physical characteristics with what that race was.
HODGES: So they were making it a little more scientific even. They were going further than—You had government reports, for example. There was a doctor who was out with the army expedition and observed Mormons.
REEVE: That’s right. So Dr. Roberts Bartholow came west with Johnston’s army and observed Mormons for a couple of years. When he leaves Utah he files a report with the United States Senate, and he gives a full-blown physical description of a degraded Mormon body. This is not just sort of something that gets filed in the United States Senate and forgotten as a government report, but in fact by the end of 1860 there’s a conference on the Mormon body held at the New Orleans Academy of Sciences and several doctors attend this conference. And only one doctor objects.
He says, “Look, it’s only thirty years since this religion began. It’s too early to suggest it’s giving rise to another race. We should observe it for at least another thirty years before we can arrive at that firm conclusion.” All the other doctors at the conference actually buy Bartholow’s argument and even push it further. It doesn’t just go away. There are other doctors who come to Utah territory who file similar reports. Bartholow doesn’t back away from it, but as a part of the medical community, gives another speech on it in Ohio and pushes it even further without any additional evidence. No record of him returning or doing any kind of scientifically verifiable study, but he just simply expands upon these earlier notions of a degraded Mormon body and calls them a “congress of lunatics.”
HODGES: That’s what suggests to me that it was maybe a little bit more political for him, because you did have that objection to him, where one scientist is saying, “we need empirical data, we need an actual study, you’ve given us anecdotes,” and rather than doing that Bartholow just goes kind of on a little speaking tour and doesn’t go on to do those things that even the colleagues he had that appreciated his first report said, “yeah, that’s right, why don’t we go on and do more work on this?” He didn’t.
REEVE: No, that’s right. It really is kind of perplexing to me that there really isn’t—at least he doesn’t give us evidence that he has done anything to try to use a scientific methodology. The one doctor who objects argues that there’s got to be some sort of methodology that would satisfy sort of the broader scientific community, and no evidence that he ever does that, and yet he doubles down on his claims.
I think he’s really trying to situate the Mormon body within his kind of understanding of human sexuality in the nineteenth century, and the prevailing notion is that people who engage in sexual intercourse can imprint their carnal desires and lustful desires upon the unborn fetus. This is producing, then, a degraded race because polygamy is inherently lustful, in his mind, and it’s all about satisfying simply physical desires, and therefore because it’s all about engaging in carnal desires, Mormons are leaving their carnal desires imprinted on the unborn fetus, and that is creating a degraded race.
So it sort of gets bound up, I think, in his nineteenth century understanding of sexuality. But in any case, he doesn’t ever use what would be considered a rigorous scientific methodology. It’s really kind of baffling, especially from the twenty-first century, to try to understand how he came to the conclusions that he did. But nonetheless they’re there.
HODGES: I just got the feeling that there was more to it for him personally than the science.
REEVE: There may have been. Personally animosity may have been bound up in it. It’s hard to figure out. I simply don’t know.
HODGES: Or just having an interesting project—
REEVE: Yeah, sure.
HODGES: So there’s a lot of things. The historian always bumps up against those walls where there are things the records can’t really tell us about that.
REEVE: That’s right. Yes.
HODGES: You mentioned polygamy. That’s one of the reasons outsiders were so alarmed about this new Mormon race, because it was reproducing itself. That played into anti-polygamy discussions.
I think one of the most important elements of your book is the way that you show that Mormons themselves began buying into the same sort of assumptions about race. Comparing Mormons to black people or to Native Americans, and so forth, obviously trades in on negative views of those people, discrimination. When Mormons begin buying into those same assumptions, they begin turning them back against the people who are accusing them.
This was especially the case in the debate about polygamy. There was the idea that polygamy would degenerate the race. How did Mormons respond to that in terms of what their sexual practices were actually doing?
REEVE: So some strands have talked about some of the speeches coming from Mormon leaders in the nineteenth century that demonstrate this idea, or this argument, that polygamy is in fact giving rise to an elevated, celestial, angelic race, and sort of find it curious—and I think rightfully so—and suggest that Mormonism is in fact anticipating the eugenics movement, which sort of comes later at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m simply suggesting that the best way to understand those statements by Mormon leaders is to understand them as an argument against the charge that polygamy was giving rise to a degraded race.
So you have people like Albert Carrington and George Q. Cannon who are simply suggesting that, in fact, polygamy is ordained of God. Because it’s ordained of God, the outcome will be godlike and that polygamy is, in fact, producing an elevated, celestial, and even divine race. So neither side is really questioning the notion that a marital practice could give rise to a race. They’re only debating the outcome. On one side, deformed and degraded. The other side angelic and celestial.
HODGES: You mentioned George Q. Canon. There’s a quote here, Mormons kind of gave a unique twist to the same ideas that were going on about procreation and about how it impacts offspring.
George Q. Canon says, “Do good spirits want to partake of the sins of the low and degraded? No. They will stay in heaven until the way is open for purity and righteousness to form a channel in which they can come and take honorable bodies in this world.”
Orson Hyde, for his part, promised that Mormon offspring “will be the fairest specimens of the work of God’s hand.” Polygamy was a way, he says, to “improve our own race.” So they’re buying into these same assumptions but then sort of baptizing them with Mormon theological ideas.
REEVE: I think that’s right. I think the best way to understand those statements from Mormon leaders is in context of the way in which outsiders were describing Mormonism as producing a degraded race. The Mormon pushback is, “oh yeah? No it’s not. It’s giving rise to an angelic, celestial race.” But with a unique Mormon twist. There are spirits waiting in heaven, and the choicest spirits only want to be born into the most righteous family lines. Because polygamy is ordained of God, that’s providing a righteous family line for them to be born into. So the choicest spirits will be born into these families and therefore they are, as the choicest spirits, sort of elevated bodies, an elevated race, Mormons will argue.
HODGES: So both sides of the debate, Mormons and outsiders who are accusing Mormons of degeneracy and of non-whiteness, are arguing that their sexual practices will result in an elevated race. So they have the same assumptions, they’re just saying we got the right way, and you got the wrong way.
REEVE: That’s right. This debate will also produce some of the arguments that the Mormons will make that polygamy is the better marriage practice, that monogamy inherently creates adultery, fornication. The other part of the argument is that men simply have greater sexual needs than women, and that to satisfy their sexual desires men who are married in monogamy have to go outside the bounds of monogamy. But polygamy provides a solution, and especially if you throw in the notion that you shouldn’t engage in sexual intercourse if a woman is pregnant or nursing, because it has the ability to imprint those carnal desires on the unborn fetus, then polygamy is the answer. If one wife is pregnant, then the man can fulfill his sexual desires still within the bounds of marriage. Monogamy only allows them to go outside the bounds of marriage.
George Q. Canon will actually argue that, in fact, this is why society’s base on monogamy decline and deteriorate. He gives Rome as an example. The better societies are the eastern societies that practice polygamy.
HODGES: He was a pretty good historian of Rome then—[laughter]
REEVE: These are sort of laughable arguments to us in the twenty-first century, but he’s engaged in this debate, and it becomes a debate about western and eastern civilizations in fact. Those are the grounds of the debates. Once again, you sort of have to situate it within this very fluid and illogical racial context.
HODGES: That’s Paul Reeve. He’s the author of Religion of a Different Color.
So far we’ve kind of talked about race in general in the nineteenth century United States in particular. We’ve talked a little bit about how Mormons were being racialized. We’ve talked a little bit about how Mormons turned the tables and tried to push back against the accusations that they were degenerating the race. I think contemporary Mormons might be surprised to hear that their foremothers and forefathers fought for a white racial identity. Mormons are used to talking about their history of persecution, about being driven from their homes and these types of things, but this never comes into the story. It’s overlooked. I think that Mormons might be even a bit more uncomfortable with what was going on inside Mormonism rather than Mormonism against outsiders, what was happening within Mormonism.
So following Elder-Berry’s children from that cartoon, as you mentioned, you separated the book out into different perceived races—Native American, black, and what was referred to as Oriental, and that’s the term they used, today we obviously don’t use that term, but it’s a historical term. Mormons had different views toward these different groups of race. So let’s start with Native Americans. What was the Mormon approach early on to Native American peoples?
REEVE: Well the Mormons obviously viewed Native Americans, at least partly, through a theological lens. They use the Book of Mormon to inform their understanding of who Native Americans were. So they seem them as fallen descendants of ancient Israel and need redemption.
One way in which they can be redeemed is through intermarriage. Intermarriage, Brigham Young argues, and other Mormon leaders argue, will create a white and delightsome race out of Native Americans. So in this move towards whiteness that Mormonism makes, they are attempting to bring Native Americans with them in their efforts at achieving whiteness. This earns them the scorn of the nation, and all kinds of accusations that they are conspiring with Indians against true white America, that they are descending below the level of the Indians, more savage than the savages, and then they are producing a degenerate race as a result of their marriages with Native Americans. From the inside, Mormons are simply arguing that it’s a form of racial uplift, in fact.
So yet again it’s just further evidence of this debate and the struggle that’s taking place over the terms of whiteness.
HODGES: You talk about British Israelitism and how that informed early Mormon views of what they were. Was it in important, then, for early Mormons to have that sort of Caucasian British Israelitism? Talk about that context and how that played into the idea of racial uplift for Native Americans.
REEVE: So there’s this British Israel movement that predates Mormonism. It’s around throughout the nineteenth century, the notion that Britain then becomes the location for the lost tribes of Israel, and that in fact then they are the preserved of ancient Israel. And it gets kind of wedded with the notion of this Anglo-Saxon triumphant narrative, that Anglo-Saxons are then the true preservers of liberty and freedom that have abandoned despotic rule. They’re the champions of self-determination, and in order to then create a government of freedom you have to be an Anglo-Saxon. That’s sort of how wedded it becomes in the minds of people in the nineteenth century.
So you have Mormons who plug into that same context. When you have these vast conversions taking place, in Britain as well as northern and western Europe, it sort of reinforces this notion that when Mormons are converting they’re not just joining a new church, they’re redeeming ancient Israel. Brigham Young certainly buys into this idea.
HODGES: They had a lot of success gaining converts in England as well. So that had to coincide with that expectation.
REEVE: That’s exactly right. They just become convinced, because the conversions convinced them that this is true, it’s sort of a self-reinforcing kind of idea that the field is white and ready to harvest and they are really harvesting a lot of white people.
Brigham Young will simply say that Anglo-Saxons are the Ephraimites. He sort of reinforces that notion that, in fact, they are Anglo-Saxons and preservers of liberty and all of those kind of wonderful things that outsiders are suggesting they’re not. And they’re trying to claim that identity for themselves on the inside at the same time they are being denigrated from the outside.
HODGES: The Native American question seems to have put Mormons in kind of a difficult spot, because as you said there were repeated accusations of Mormons collaborating with Indians and that there would be some sort of uprising if they would enlist them against the government. Indians had just been tragically moved to the frontier. That’s where Mormons were headed as well, so outsiders would look at this and say, “oh, Mormons are saying positive things about Native Americans, trying to meet with them, they’re going to come and take it back.” Some Mormons fed into those fears by saying things about Native Americans being the “Lord’s battle ax” and this type of thing, but Mormons then would also go out of their way to say, “Hey, we’re not collaborating with them.”
So Mormons were stuck in this difficult position of believing that Native Americans had a lot going for them, but also wanting to distance themselves from Native Americans at the same time.
REEVE: It’s complicated and messy for sure. Really, what I argue in the book is that any time that there is a Mormon expulsion that takes place, or an increase in tension between Mormons and outside society, one accusation that is there every time is that Mormons are conspiring with Indians. It takes place in Jackson County, it takes place in Clay County, it takes place in the expulsion from Missouri altogether, it takes place in the Mormon exodus from Illinois, it takes place in the Utah war. Any time that there is this broader fear, one accusation is that Mormons are conspiring with Indians, are more savage than the savages. It takes a variety of forms but it’s always there.
Then you have the Mormons on the inside who do have these theological beliefs that Native Americans are the remnant of Jacob, and that the Book of Mormon holds out significant promises for them, that they have a role to play in the winding up scene that, in some situations, Mormons argue that they will become the battle ax of the Lord.
What that actually means in the minds of the Mormons who said it versus the minds of outsiders who also are sort of aware of some of these statements because the Mormons are apparently making them, and you have letters from Mormon leaders saying to some Mormons on the ground, “Hey, that might be true, but let’s back away from making those claims because it’s not winning us friends, and it’s not influencing people the way that we want it to.”
It becomes really complicated with the Native Americans and their identity gets sort of caught in the cross hairs from both sides. So Brigham Young has this great statement in a speech that he gives in Utah territory, but he’s remembering back and he’s complaining saying, “In Missouri we were booted out because the charge was we were conspiring with the Indians. In Illinois we were booted out because we were deemed not good enough to associate with white people and we had to go live with the savages.”
So they’re sort of caught in this catch twenty-two, he points to it, and I think it really is an interesting irony of how the Mormons actually felt. Sort of this sense that they needed to stay away from Indians because they were conspiring with them against true white Americans, but they needed to go live with them because they weren’t white enough.
HODGES: I also got the sense that occasionally Mormons could cash in on the idea that they might be collaborating with the Indians because they were still a minority group, they had faced severe persecutions, they had been driven from homes, and now in the Utah valley the President of the United States sent an army out. So was there ever a time when they might appreciate the idea that that might make people think twice about messing with the Mormons? Did they ever cash in on that?
REEVE: That’s right. So during the Utah war, that’s certainly one thrust of Brigham Young’s overall idea in terms of trying to combat a potential war with the federal government.
So in attempting to maybe line allies, he turns to the Native Americans and attempts to attract them to the Mormon side in a potential war against the federal government. Certainly outsiders, that’s an accusation that’s been there all along. The interesting thing that I point out in the book is that no one really considers Native American agency in any of these accusations.
So no one considers that Native Americans have their own polices, their own ideas, their own reasons, their own negotiating power. In the accusations from the outside, they only come across as dupes of Mormon control, that they are simply waiting at the behest of Mormons to do whatever the Mormon leaders tell them. It denigrates both Mormons and Native Americans, and racializes both groups in the process as not white. But for the Native Americans, just the suggestion that they’re incapable of their own policies and procedures, really is a suggestion that they’re unthinking and somehow they’re in control of the Mormon priesthood. That’s simply not true.
That’s the other thing I point out, is obviously that more than conspiracy and control, Mormons are fighting with Native Americans. We have the Walker War, we have the Black Hawk War, we have the Shoshone and Banaque attacking Fort Limhi and killing Mormons which closes the mission down. All of those things, the facts on the ground, are ignored by outsiders and all they see is conspiracy in control.
HODGES: That’s what’s interesting about your history compared to some of the other histories that are out. You spend a lot more time giving Native Americans their own historical agency, and it’s funny because in the past some treatments have kind of used Native Americans as a point of leverage in polemical battles.
In some depictions of Mormon history the idea is to make it faith promoting, so they focus only on positive statements about helping Native Americans. “It’s cheaper to feed them than to fight them,” said Brigham Young. They don’t talk about the fact that some Mormons would should an Indian for stealing a shores, or that those wars happened.
On the other side you have treatments of Mormonism being corrupt and cynically manipulating Indians, and the Indians are these stooges who get enlisted into things. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is an example of this, where you talk about the accusation that Mormons have been dressing up as Indians.
REEVE: Yes, so I was familiar with that idea that Mormons dressed as Indians and killed white Americans, mostly in association with Mountain Meadows Massacre, and realized that it was a factor in the historiography, and was curious about that.
I was really kind of stunned when I started doing research for this book when I came across an 1855 dime novel that included an illustration—I have it in the book—that’s simply labeled “Mormons as Indian Spies.” In this illustration, the Mormons are in the foreground and they looked like what everyone would expect a Native American to look like, and then you have the poor unsuspecting traveler starting to wander through the picture, and the obvious notion as articulated in the text of the book is that the Mormon Indians are going to take out this traveler. That’s published in 1855, that’s two years before the Mountain Meadows Massacre takes place.
The more that I dug into it, the more I realized that this was sort of a standard discourse that predated the massacre by at least seven years. So the earliest account I found was actually one articulated by William Smith, Joseph Smith’s younger brother, a former church apostle that breaks with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and flirts with a variety of schismatic groups—eventually he will become affiliated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But in any case, in 1850 he publishes the accusation that Mormons are dressing as Indians and killing travelers on the overland trail. That’s picked up by newspapers and repeated, and he resurrects that charge in 1857 as the Utah war is playing out, and it’s also reprinted just a few months before the massacre takes place.
Then the post-massacre charges of Mormons dressing as Indians almost don’t miss a beat. It’s almost like the charge is pretty consistent before the massacre and picks up right after the massacre. It’s I think pretty difficult to figure out—Mormons dressed as Indians at the massacre—I’m just simply highlighting the notion that historians need to take into account the fact that this is something that predates the massacre, and a part of outside understanding of who Mormons are.
HODGES: That’s Paul Reeve. He’s an associate professor of history at the University of Utah. His new book Religion of a Different Color was just released from Oxford University Press.
So we’ve talked about Native Americans. I want to talk about the “Oriental” chapter. Briefly. It gets less coverage in the book. I wanted to focus on Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage—this is a Presbyterian minister in 1880, and he gave two sermons two weeks in a row. One on the Chinese question, and the next week on the Mormon question. The idea was that a lot of Chinese people had immigrated, especially to California, and there was worry that they were somehow some sort of cancer within the American body. Then the other west coast problem was the Mormons.
So the first week, speaking of Chinese, he’s quite positive, almost defensive, apologetic. And the second week he’s calling for the extermination of Mormons. Talk about how Mormons came to be linked with Oriental people.
REEVE: I was really quite stunned by Reverend Talmage’s two speeches. When you juxtapose them against each other it’s really quite remarkable and sort of stands out because a variety of people, I found, conflated Mormons with people of Asian descent in the nineteenth century.
Talmage is basically making this case that the Chinese should stay as the national political scene is ratcheting up the pressure to produce the Chinese Exclusion Act, which does pass in Congress in 1892. He’s making the case that in fact they should stay and that God has brought them here, and part of the reason he brought them here was so that they could convert to Christianity.
Then the following week he just lambastes the Mormons, and they should go. He uses all kinds of really violent rhetoric suggesting that Mormons, if they don’t listen to nice appeals, then guns and bombs and everything else should be what we expel them with. Other people conflated Mormons with people of Asian descent—and in fact this becomes one of the arguments that the Supreme Court uses in the 1879 Reynolds Decision, is that goes back to whiteness equals the government of a white race, “whiteness equals democracy”, and the notion is we can look around the globe and there are no other societies that are practicing democracy other than white people. And therefore, the illogical argument was, people who are not white are not capable of democracy.
So the same association is made with Mormons. Monogamy is the preserve of the white race. Polygamy is either Asiatic or African. The Supreme Court buys this argument in the Reynolds Decision and actually makes that case. So the other thing I highlight is that the same Congress that passes the Chinese Exclusion Act passes the Edmund’s Act in 1882 within a couple of months of each other.
This is not lost on the national press. So the national press conflates Mormons and Chinese in a variety of ways. Some of the headlines are “The Mormons and the Chinese: Two Problems that Must Go,” so they want both of them expelled. Others will variously favor keeping the Chinese but expelling the Mormons, and some will favor the Mormons over the Chinese. But in any case, they’re pretty consistently conflated in the national mind as two oriental problems on American soil.
HODGES: That “orientalness” of Mormonism was mostly related to the way that Mormons were perceived to structure their government, and the fact that they practiced polygamy?
REEVE: Correct. Yes. So adherence to theocratic rule and polygamy. Again, a deterioration to what any Anglo-Saxon loving person would participate in.
HODGES: So we’re going to move onto blacks next. Before we do, I wanted to point out that there weren’t really any stories of individual Mormons who were of Asian descent in the book. I wanted to ask about that, if there just weren’t any Asian Mormons of record, or what the circumstances were.
REEVE: Yeah. There were Asian Mormons and records to indicate that the first conversions of Chinese took place in Hawaii, and there were efforts at converting Chinese immigrants in California, and some Mormons were very enthusiastic about this. You also have editorials published in the Deseret News arguing against Chinese Exclusion.
In fact, the Mormons are arguing that Chinese should be allowed to remain. They send missionaries to China itself, but the success is just really minimal. So I really wasn’t able to latch onto any of these stories to highlight, but there were efforts, and there is evidence that some Chinese immigrants in Hawaii did convert. But the numbers were never large and by the time you had Chinese living in Utah, Mormons aren’t really making a concerted missionary effort amongst them. It’s actually the Protestant churches in Utah who do more outreach than the Mormons do.
I think by that point the conflation has really been labeled onto the Mormons, or projected onto the Mormons, and one way in which you claim whiteness for yourself is by distancing yourself from other marginal groups, never to the degree that they do against blacks, but in any case they weren’t sort of a generally missionary-minded church who earlier had sent missionaries to China itself, really didn’t do a lot to try to missionize amongst the Chinese once they arrive in Utah.
HODGES: Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the book for contemporary Mormons who pick it up and read it will probably be the chapters on Mormonism and black people. Let’s begin by talking about one of the biggest ironies you note. You say, “The very universalism of the opening decades of Mormonism lay the groundwork for later racial constriction.”
So you’re arguing that in the earliest years of Mormonism there was a more expansive vision of universalism of the human family, which ironically laid the groundwork for later more restrictive views?
REEVE: Yeah. I hope that readers will actually welcome this notion of the initial decades of Mormonism being very universally minded and expansive in terms of the vision of who is included in this gospel outreach. I quote a variety of early Mormon leaders and their expansive vision. Their notion for who is going to worship in the Nauvoo temple is very expansive and explicitly says that “people of all colors and all nations we invite to worship in this sanctuary with us.” Parley Pratt is talking about spreading the gospel to Africa and the entire globe, and William W. Phelps talks about his expansive notion that the gospel message and redemption in Christ Jesus is for Shem, Ham, and Japheth, which especially for religious people the way that they understand racial distinction—
HODGES: How did that break down?
REEVE: It goes back to sort of the religious notions of repopulating the world after the great flood. So these are obviously Noah’s children and the understanding was that the three major races—yellow, white, and black come from those children, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
HODGES: And Mormons were using that to paint a picture of a universalism rather than an exclusivism?
REEVE: That’s exactly right. So people like Phelps and other Mormon leaders are saying, “this is a gospel message for all, for Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” In other words, very expansive kind of notion of who they envision as a part of the Mormon fold.
The other thing that substantiates this notion is then the accusations from the outside. So you have internal messages for Mormons saying, “we have this open and universal gospel message.” And then outsiders, the accusations in the early decades of early Mormonism is “they are too inclusive. They are establishing a society of rogues and vagabonds and free blacks. They are welcoming people of all colors.” These are not charges that are positive in the nineteenth century, and in a society that favors segregation of undesirable peoples, they’re charging Mormons with being too inclusive.
That’s really an important notion for readers to sort of get in their minds, is that Mormons are being accused of being too inclusive and accepting all people and all colors, including, some people will say, Africans and Indians. So they will even specify, “they’re accepting black people and they’re accepting Native Americans.” The first black person to join the church is in 1830 in Kirtland, Black Pete. And within a few months you have news accounts published in Philadelphia and New York, “Mormons have a black person worshiping with them.”
This is not a compliment about Mormon diversity. These are accusations leveled against the Mormons, and it’s only just gained steam in Missouri when Phelps publishes an article about free people of color. He’s saying to black Mormons, “if you’re coming to Missouri this is great. This is Zion. This is where we need to gather, but beware. Missouri has racial codes in place that you have to have papers that specify your status as a free black. Otherwise you’re subject to whipping.” He actually quotes the Missouri State Code. “You’re subject to whipping and expulsion from the state.”
So Mormonism has no special rule, he says, in terms of people of color. But just be warned if you’re a black Mormon coming to Missouri to gather with the saints, that there are laws in place that govern your ability to freely move about in Missouri. That sets off all kinds of consternation amongst outsiders in Missouri. “Mormons are inviting blacks to start a slave revolution,” they say. “They’re trying to steal our white wives and daughters,” they say. It’s a fear of race mixing and a potential slave rebellion that causes a swift co-factor in the expulsion from Jackson County, in fact.
HODGES: So then you have the reaction to that. This openness of early Mormonism, you say it laid the groundwork for later discrimination.
REEVE: Yeah, that’s right. I think especially if you place it in this bigger religious context, you have other churches going through very difficult times vis-à-vis blackness and slavery in the nineteenth century. So the Baptists and the Methodists and the Presbyterians either split all together or have schisms as a result of these questions that are percolating in American society. You have southern branches of those churches to this day as a result of this context that we’re talking about.
Mormonism actually avoids any sort of split or schism over those racial issues because it has this expansive universal vision. They’re baptizing free blacks as well as black slaves, but because of this highly charged racial context, there are some stipulations. Joseph Smith will say, “if you’re going to preach to a black slave, make sure you have the permission of their masters or convert their masters first. We don’t want accusations of inciting slave rebellions leveled against us.”
HODGES: They would publicly say that too, right? Like after the Phelps article, Mormons publicly tried to say, “whoa, hold on,” because they knew it was like a tinder box. So in a way, they sold their black brothers and sisters out a little bit by saying, “okay, we’re going to walk this back a little bit. Let’s be very clear, we’re not trying to incite slave rebellions; we also have policies about preaching to blacks and that sort of thing”?
REEVE: Absolutely right. Yes. So Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders actually published this and they really tried to calm the racial storm. They tried also to do so out of concern for Mormon missionaries preaching in the south, of violence that might be leveled against them. So yeah, they are sort of entering into a very charged national debate.
Other religious groups at the same time are also issuing statements against immediate abolitionism. This is seen as a very fearful brand of anti-slavery. Those who want to immediately free the slaves—it’s a two-fold problem. Race and slavery is a two-fold problem. You have a group of people are not free, which violates American standards of independence and freedom established in the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, but the other problem is a racial problem. What do you do with blacks when they’re free?
The vast majority of Americans—this really is a crucial point to understand—the vast majority of Americans don’t want black people living amongst them. The vast majority are of the more conservative colonizationists stripe. “We don’t like slavery, but we don’t want black people living amongst us either.” So the other part of the problem is, you get rid of slavery, but what do you do with the blacks once they’re free? And the vast majority are colonizationists who say we should send them to Africa.
So Mormonism sort of is immersed in that context and is of the more conservative stripe, colonizationist stripe, despite the charges that they are trying to foment racial rebellion, and that they’re trying to produce a mixture of the races. So Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders do respond out of that same kind of context, trying to protect white missionaries as well as establish some policy, saying, “hey, if you’re going to preach to slaves, get permission from their masters. If you’re going to baptize them, make sure you convert the masters first to defend themselves against charges of inciting a slave rebellion.”
HODGES: Okay. So Mormons are dealing with political issues in those instances, talking about blacks coming into Missouri and what they need to be aware of, and then kind of walking things back and assuring people that they’re not encouraging slaves to come.
Now that’s more political with the church itself on issues of priesthood. How did the ban come about? Let’s talk about the priesthood restriction against blacks, black men cannot hold the priesthood, and could not attend the temple, and so likewise black Mormon women would be excluded from the temple as well. So Joseph Smith, what was his part in that?
Paul Reeve will address that question in the next episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
I’m Blair Hodges and thanks for listening.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)