Popular Culture

Remember Zelmo Beaty: Race, Religion, and Basketball in Salt Lake City

By September 13, 2013

Michael J. Altman received his Ph.D. in American Religious Cultures from Emory University and is an Instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Mike’s areas of interest are American religious history, theory and method in the study of religion, the history of comparative religion, and Asian religions in American culture. He is currently completing a book manuscript analyzing representations of Hinduism in nineteenth century America. This post originally appeared at Mike’s personal blog. He graciously allowed the Juvenile Instructor to repost it in its entirety.

One of my favorite weekly podcasts is Slate’s Hang Up and Listen, a sports podcast that deconstructs sports media and culture with a wry wit that deflates American sports of all its self-seriousness. If sports talk radio is Duck Dynasty, Hang Up is 30 Rock.

Every week host Josh Levin signs off with the phrase “remember Zelmo Beaty.” Beaty, a basketball star in the 60s and 70s passed away recently and this past week Hang Up and Listen reminded us why we should indeed remember him. Stefan Fatsis’ obituary of Beaty opened by staking out Beaty’s importance as a pioneer for black players in professional basketball. But what caught this religious historian’s attention was the confluence of race and religion that surrounded Beaty’s move to Salt Lake City to play for the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association in 1970.

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Mormon Jesus at the Jersey Shore: Some Thoughts on LDS Images of Christ in Non-Mormon Venues

By September 4, 2013

As a sort of follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago on early Mormonism on the Jersey Shore and as my own contribution to the blog’s emphasis on material culture this month, I thought I’d offer some brief thoughts on Mormon images of Christ and their appropriation and use by non-Mormons.

Earlier this summer, a family member handed me a handful of pamphlets she’d picked up during a recent trip to the Jersey Shore. Knowing of my own interests in Methodist history, she thought I’d appreciate the literature she’d picked up at the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Methodism has a long and rich history in New Jersey—Asbury Park, a seaside community made famous by Bruce Springsteen, was named after the father of American Methodism, Francis Asbury, and the town of Ocean Grove traces its own roots to the efforts of two Methodist ministers in the mid-19th century to establish a permanent camp meeting site to host summer retreats and worship services. While I found the content of the pamphlets interesting, I was struck most by the image adorning the tri-fold pamphlet advertising a series of lectures entitled “Our God Present During Difficulty.”

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Breaking Brigham: Or, Methamphetamine and Mormon Tea

By August 26, 2013

Breaking Brigham

The original Heisenberg?

Over at the blog for The Appendix: A new journal of narrative and experimental history, Benjamin Breen has written a fascinating post on historical discoveries of illicit drugs. Capitalizing on the success of Breaking Bad‘s final season (a show centered around the dealings of a cancer-diagnosed high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook), Breen notes that while “the invention of Breaking Bad‘s blue meth has become the stuff of television legend” very few people “know the true origin stories of illicit drugs.”

After briefly covering “the first academic paper on cannabis” (penned in 1689 by British scientist Robert Hooke, who noted that “there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”), Freud’s 1884 publication extolling the virtues of cocaine, and “Albert Hoffmann’s accidental discovery of acid,” Breen turns his attention to “the strange fact that methamphetamine was actually invented in 1890s Japan.” In 1893, Nagayoshi Nagai successfully synthesized meth by “isolat[ing] the stimulant ephedrine from Ephedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.”  For those interested in the whole story, I recommend clicking over and reading the entire post—it really is quite fascinating. But one throwaway line caught my attention and will almost certainly interest readers here. Describing ephedrine, Breen notes that it “is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs permitted to Mormons.”

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Review: Haws, “When Mormonism Mattered Less in Presidential Politics: George Romney’s 1968 Window of Possibilities”

By August 19, 2013

Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns came to seem, in the media frenzy of the last few years, like bookends to America’s much-touted Mormon moment. But Americans’ fascination with the Latter-day Saints did not begin or end with Mitt Romney. This is not the first period in American history when non-Mormon Americans have, to some extent, embraced their LDS neighbors. In fact, Mitt Romney isn’t even the first Republican Romney whose religious affiliation has colored his national political image. His father George, the successful head of the American Motor Company in the 1950s and popular governor of Michigan in the 1960s, was a prominent candidate for the 1968 Republican nomination for President. Also like Mitt, George owed at least some measure of his political success to a period of increased interest in and positive feeling towards the Mormons. As J.B. Haws, Assistant Professor of Church History at BYU, shows in his article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History, George Romney’s candidacy was not seen as tainted by a “Mormon problem,” as were his son’s campaigns a half-century later. [1] In the United States in the 1960s, the Romneys’ Mormonism simply “mattered less” than it does in the 21st century. And if it mattered at all, Haws argues, it did so by lending George Romney the air of “benign wholesomeness” that characterized public perceptions of the Latter-day Saints in this period (99).

Haws’ current article is based on the research for his forthcoming book The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (OUP, November 2013), and essentially lays the groundwork for that longer study, in which he traces public perceptions of Mormonism in the American media across the last half-century. In the 1960s, he argues, George Romney ran for the Republican nomination for the presidency and faced remarkably few challenges to his religion—or at least what look like remarkably few challenges to those of us who lived through the most recent Mormon moment. By comparing political polling data from both Romneys’ campaigns and examining news coverage of the elder Romney’s presidential aspirations and editorial commentary on his campaign and on the larger question of the role a candidate’s religion should play in voters’ assessment of his fitness for office, Haws convincingly demonstrates that Americans were less concerned in the 1960s—or at least said they were less concerned—by the possibility of having a Mormon in the White House than were their early 21st-century counterparts. While George Romney’s religion was occasionally challenged—primarily, Haws claims, regarding the Church’s policies on race (remember, George Romney was running for the presidency in the midst of the Civil Rights movements, and a decade before the Church lifted its ban on blacks in the priesthood)—according to Haws it was not Romney’s religion but his moderate politics and his ill-advised declaration in 1967 that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam war that sunk him with American voters. In short, Haws argues that political views, not religious beliefs, were the elder Romney’s greatest obstacles.

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BYU and the 1984 National Championship

By August 8, 2013

As part of this month’s series on 20th century Mormonism, I’d like to take a brief glance at BYU and the 1984 National Championship. For those unfamiliar with 1980s sports history, BYU won the national championship for the very first time in 1984. As a 2009 article puts it, “I can’t think of a more unlikely national champion … an unranked (preseason) team from a non-power conference.” I refer you to the article for an analysis of games played; today, I’m going to give you a few media perspectives on the win.

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Youth Trek, Public History, and Becoming “Pioneer Children” in the Digital Age

By August 7, 2013

In 2009 our stake organized its first trek for youth conference and put it into the regular rotation for youth conference planning. So 4 years later, we repeated the event this summer with roughly the same itinerary and logistics and presumably will keep it going in future years as well. Now, you may know that I live in New England, not in the Wasatch front region or along anything remotely resembling a traditional handcart route. Treks outside the historical landscape of the handcart companies have become commonplace: unusual enough to generate local news coverage, but frequent enough that a whole subculture has sprung up to support and celebrate it. With some similarities to Civil War reenactment in its emphasis on costuming, role play and historical storytelling, youth trek evokes and romanticizes selected aspects of the Mormon past to cement LDS identity and build youth testimony and unity. It is a unique (and, I’m arguing, actually very recent) form of LDS public history.

I’ve now attended and had a hand in planning both of the treks our stake conducted, so I’m of two minds about the whole experience. A double-consciousness, if you will.

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Wife… Mother… And…?

By June 18, 2013

Let me be blunt. This makes me mad:

2013.6.11, Boston Frangelico ad

A seemingly innocent advertisement…

I walk home from work most days and on a one mile stretch of that walk, on Western Avenue in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, this ad appears on no fewer than three bus stop shelters. One of these bus stops is only a quarter of a mile from a playground and little league baseball diamond. It’s across the street from a grocery store. It doubles as a stop for school buses for children of various ages. And in a city where people routinely walk and use the public transit system, you can bet it gets seen. I’ve been contemplating it for weeks.

Why does this advertisement make me mad, you ask?

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Book of Mormon into Darkness

By June 14, 2013

Please join us in welcoming this guest post from Edward Blum, a recognized scholar of race and religion in U.S. history who has contributed to JI previously. Ed is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and most recently, co-author (with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012). He is the co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), (with Jason R. Young) The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections (2009), and (with W. Scott Poole) Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (2005). Ed also blogs at Religion in American History and Teaching United States Historyand last week attended his very first Mormon History Association conference in Layton, Utah.


Has darkness ever overwhelmed you? Have you seen cities sink and communities set ablaze? Has a voice saved you? If you know the Book of Mormon, then you are familiar with the tale I tell. After hundreds of pages chronicling the ebbs and flows of civilizations, the narrative reaches a climax. In Palestine, Jesus Christ was crucified and buried. The world felt the reverberations. “Thick darkness” fell upon the land. Nothing could bring light, “neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceeding dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all.” The sounds of howling and weeping pieced the darkness. Sadness reigned.

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Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture,

By June 3, 2013

For those of you not familiar with it, the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture, headquartered at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is a leading “research and public outreach institute that supports the ongoing scholarly discussion of the nature, terms, and dynamics of religion in America.” Among others things, they sponsor and host academic conferences, publish the bianual Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, and host a seminar for Young Scholars in American Religion (whose roster of mentors and seminarians reads like a who’s who of the best and brightest in the field).  

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Guest Post: Erin Anderson, “In and Out”

By May 29, 2013

Today, as part of our continuing series on Mormonism’s Many Images, we are pleased to welcome Erin Anderson as a guest blogger. Erin left the LDS Church in her early teens, along with her parents and siblings; her extended family is still active. She holds degrees in religious studies from New York University and Boston University, and works as an administrator at Harvard.

The last time I set foot in an LDS building, more than a decade ago, I spent the entire day in the foyer. It was an ideal location. Like the rest of my immediate family, I had come to welcome these in-between settings: close enough to see friends and relatives, but removed from problematic religious spaces. My uncle’s wedding at the temple? We’ll volunteer to watch the kids outside. Visiting grandparents? Let’s fly in on Sunday afternoon, to spare them from asking us to church. We kept the peace by finding comfortable gray areas, neither embracing nor rejecting our heritage.

My parents, sisters, and I had withdrawn from a tight-knit congregation two years earlier, resulting in this “betwixt and between” strategy. Even in Massachusetts’ progressive Mormon community—surrounded by the lovely women of Exponent II—it had simply become too difficult for my mom and dad to raise three liberal, feminist daughters. And so I twiddled my thumbs that Sunday outside the chapel doors, already a veteran of living between two cultures at fourteen.

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Review: Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth, updated edition

By May 27, 2013

Terryl L. Givens. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, updated edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Paperback. 978-0-19-993380-8. $24.95.

Since its original publication in 1997, Terryl Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth has been a mainstay of the study of Mormonism and anti-Mormonism in American culture. And deservedly so. Givens’ work provided the first substantial scholarly book-length exploration of images of the Latter-day Saints in American culture in any time period. His examination of the representations of Mormons in the United States in the 19th century is sweeping in its coverage of the period; thorough in its inclusion of a wide variety of sources, from newspapers to popular fiction to fictive memoirs; and convincing in its argument that, whatever American claims of separation of church and state and tolerance for differing religious views may have been, religion was at the heart of mainstream America’s intolerance, suspicion, and occasional violence toward the Mormons. For many students of Mormonism and of American religion, Viper has served as an introduction to anti-Mormonism in America. For the generation of scholars who have examined the subject since Viper’s first publication—including Megan Sanborn-Jones, Patrick Q. Mason, and J. Spencer Fluhman—Givens’ scholarship has served as a guide. No one can engage in a study of anti-Mormonism in the United States without responding to his arguments about the mechanisms of and motivations behind anti-Mormon sentiment in American culture.

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Pinning the Mormon Image: on Mormon (non)distinctiveness

By May 23, 2013

Last September, I wrote about the Mormon “hey girl” meme as a signifier of Mormon culture. I’d like to continue in that vein today when talking about Mormon pins on Pinterest.

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Mormon Robots

By May 21, 2013

[Part of the Many Images of Mormonism series.]

In the 2012 US presidential campaign candidate Mitt Romney was frequently described as a robot or robot-like. Mormons in general are sometimes compared to robots, the Borg (a cybernetic species from Star Trek), or Stepford Wives. In this post I will look at some of the context for using robots to describe people, particularly when those people are Mormon. [1]

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Where Do I Come From? What Am I? Where Am I Going?: Exploring Representations of Mormonism to Understand American Religious History

By May 13, 2013

In my years in Boston, I have been a frequent visitor at the city’s wonderful Museum of Fine Arts. While I couldn’t name a single favorite object, one piece that I return to again and again is Paul Gauguin’s epic masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” While there is much to be said about the painting, I’m most concerned in this post with its title. Students and scholars tend to be a self-critical bunch, and I think most of us regularly ask these questions of ourselves and try to have ready answers for our colleagues. But when you’re a non-Mormon in the world of Mormon Studies, I’ve found that those questions take on a special shape and urgency. Who am I? What’s my real interest in Mormonism? What exactly am I going to do with my scholarly explorations of Mormonism in American culture? What’s a non-Mormon doing studying the Latter-day Saints? Am I anti-? Is it a fetish? Am I on the road to conversion? All of these questions are regularly leveled at me by Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and regularly with a degree of suspicion bordering on accusation.

So, where do I come from? I was raised in rural America, in a family that I only realized as I got older was noteworthy for our relative religious diversity – and our general acceptance of it. We counted members of a variety of Christian denominations in the extended clan, including a number of very heterodox members of different denominations (a Methodist grandmother who argued with people in church that the Trinity wasn’t biblical, anyone?), as well as nonbelievers of several different stripes. There was disagreement, but in general we accepted that we were all doing our best and, really, none of us could be sure we had the corner on the meaning of life. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized that many of the people around me – most of whom were generally decent people – were not as comfortable with religious difference as much of my family seemed to be. (As I got older, I also began to see that my family members were much more tolerant of Christian diversity than they were of non-Christian religions.) Unfortunately, I witnessed some respected adults in my life making very ugly comments – which they often used their professed Christianity to justify – about other people and their religions. In my teenaged brain, this gave rise to two questions: Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about loving your neighbor? Isn’t the United States supposed to be about separation of church and state and thus acceptance of religious diversity?

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Bringing Jane Manning James into the 21st Century

By February 26, 2013

Note: It is a pleasure to have Margaret Blair Young contribute to JI’s monthlong series on issues of Race and Mormonism. Margaret Blair Young has written extensively on Blacks in the western USA and particilarly Black Latter-day Saints.  Much of her work has been co-authored with Darius Gray.  She authored I Am Jane.

The first staged reading of I Am Jane was on the Nelke theater stage at BYU.  It was the climax of a playwriting class, and met some deserved criticism.  It was, as I recall, about 120 pages.  Too many words.  The first draft I wrote used a clichéd convention: rebellious teenager dreams about/ learns about/ re-enacts the life of a heroic ancestor and gains self-respect and courage.  But such a play is more about the teen than the character whose life I wanted to explore.  And I was researching it even as I was scripting the play.

After I had chiseled away at the script, I thought it ready for its debut, which happened on March 5th, 2000.  The play was that month’s Genesis meeting.  There was no stage, so we threw a blanket over a trellis to suggest a covered wagon, used the sacrament table for Jane’s death bed, and the clerk’s table for other scenes.

I knew there was more sculpting to do, and revised several times before our performances in Springville’s Villa Theater.  During that two-week run, I played Lucy Mack Smith, who let Jane handle a bundle purportedly containing the Urim and Thummin. (This is according to Jane’s life story, which she dictated near the end of her life.)

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“Manvotionals” and (Gentle)manly Nostalgia

By January 16, 2013

This Christmas we got a lovely gift under the tree from my sister that was especially appropriate for our family, and which we really liked. It was a gift set on the “Art of Manliness” with two books and a set of coasters in a self-described “classic cigar box.” One book was an etiquette and advice manual updating 19th and early 20th century counsel for the 21st century man dispensing “classic skills and manners,” and the other was a collection of readings described as Manvotionals, clustered around “the seven manly virtues” (in case you’re keeping track, those are: manliness – which, I have to say, seems a little redundant, plus courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline and honor). My teen sons have already devoured both books and the collection’s appeal is undeniable – the books come pre-scuffed in that new-but-looks-old-book way that is so popular these days, abundantly illustrated with graphic elements and engravings that look borrowed from Gilded Age business periodicals and 1920s Arrow collar ads.

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Touchdown Jesus, Catholic Blessings, and Supporting Mormon Religion

By January 9, 2013

Not even a Catholic blessing could save Manti Te’o and the dying pop-culture Mormon moment he represents. (source: Wall Street Journal)

[cross-posted at Religion in American History]

On Monday afternoon, just hours before the Alabama Crimson Tide blew out the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the BCS National Championship football game, Peggy Fletcher Stack posted a short note at the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Following Faith blog on the Catholic pregame rituals of ND.

Specifically, Stack drew readers’ attention to the Mormon story embedded within a fuller exploration of that subject at the Wall Street Journal: Star linebacker, Heisman Trophy runner-up, and devout Mormon Manti Te’o joins his teammates in “attend[ing] a Catholic Mass, receiv[ing] ‘a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint,’ and ‘kiss[ing] a shrine containing two slivers Notre Dame believes came from Jesus’ cross.'” He was even photographed receiving a blessing from Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh (a blessing Te’o reportedly sought out). Football team chaplain Father Paul Doyle explained that Te’o has privately told him that “he feels supported here [at Notre Dame] in his Mormon religion.”

All of this immediately brought to mind some of my previous thoughts on Mormon supplemental worship, in which Latter-day Saints supplement their Mormon activity by attending other Christian church’s services (a habit that dates back to at least the late nineteenth century). While the example provided by Te’o is clearly part of that larger historical tradition, it also strikes me as unique for a couple of reasons:

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From the Archives: Mormon Women and Pants, circa 1856

By December 13, 2012

I’ve watched with interest the ongoing debates this week over the proposed “Wear Pants to Church Day” spearheaded by a group of Mormon feminists. I’ve little desire to wade into the treacherous waters that conversation has become, but thanks to our resident Strangite expert Robin Jensen, I now know that the history of Mormon women and the controversial wearing of pants extends back much earlier than the late 20th century.

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Bob Dylan and the Mormons…?

By December 8, 2012

I am not a Bob Dylan fan. But I happen to live with one, and I’ve learned a lot about Dylan by osmosis. I suppose it’s only fair that some of my husband’s knowledge about music that isn’t to my taste has rubbed off on me. In the last several years, he’s become something of a scholar of representations of the Latter-day Saints in American history without any significant interest in the subject – a hazard of living with someone who’s working on their PhD. [1] He has also become a valuable scout of sources for me, and can spot a pop culture reference to Mormonism at twenty paces. Imagine our mutual surprise when he recently starting putting things in front of me in which Bob Dylan makes explicit – and sometimes admiring – reference to the Mormons.

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Romney Lost. Is the Mormon Moment Over? And What Would That Mean, Anyway?

By November 7, 2012

Mitt Romney hoped to be the Mormon JFK. Instead, he will now go down in the history books as the Mormons’ Al Smith — the Roman Catholic who was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party in 1928, but lost to Calvin Coolidge in part because of anti-Catholic prejudice.

But I’m not interested in how long it will be before we elect our first Mormon president. I’m more interested in the so-called “Mormon Moment,” and what the end of Mitt Romney’s political career means for the place of Mormons in American culture. With Romney (and his ubiquitous political ads) out of the spotlight, will the Latter-day Saints now fade from the national stage? Will Americans forget about their odd Mormon neighbors and move on to lambasting and lampooning someone else?

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