From the Archives: A Jewish Perspective on Mormon Undergarments (and more), circa 1853

By May 19, 2016

Carvalho_autoportretIn September 1853, John C. Frémont embarked on his fifth and final overland expedition of the American West. Accompanying the noted explorer on his final journey was Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a South Carolina-born Sephardic Jew of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Carvalho was an accomplished painter and photographer, and in spite of having a wife and three children at home, eagerly “accepted [Frémont’s] invitation to accompany him as artist of an Exploring Expedition across the Rocky Mountains.”[1] 

Over the course of the next year, Solomon Nunes Carvalho traveled with the Frémont expedition “across the Great American Desert,” including an extended stay in Utah, where he spent three months recovering from sickness. Unfortunately, almost all of the sketches, paintings, and daguerrotypes from Carvalho’s journey (including several from his time among the Mormons) are no longer extant, evidently destroyed in a fire. But an account of his journey was published in 1856 as Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, a volume that proved popular enough to go through several additional printings on both sides of the Atlantic.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.55.16 PMCarvalho commented extensively on Mormonism, its adherents, and its religious beliefs and practices. On the whole, that commentary is remarkably sensitive, thoughtful, and considerate (“The Mormon Episodes,” he noted in the book’s preface, “I have rendered almost verbatim from personal relations by the parties themselves, and not from ‘hearsay.'”).[2] From what I can gather (and if I’m wrong, please correct me — I’m venturing a bit beyond my own chronological comfort boundaries here), Carvalho’s account of his time in Utah has not received the same sustained treatment from historians of Mormonism as the writings of other contemporaneous travel writers. This strikes me as curious, both because some of Carvalho’s observations are entirely unique to him and because unlike so many other travelers to Utah in the 19th century, he was not Protestant (or even Christian), but rather Jewish.[3]

I want to highlight here just a few passages I found particularly intriguing.

First are two otherwise unremarkable observations made more significant by the observer’s own religious identity:

Commenting on Mormon undergarments:

They wear an under-garment with distinctive marks upon it, in imitation of the Jews, “who all wear fringes on the borders of their garments, that they may look upon them and remember the commandments of the Lord to do them.”–Deuteronomy.[4]

And later on a sermon by Ezra T. Benson:

Apostle Benson also preached a sermon on the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem, which would have done honor to a speaker of the Hebrew persuasion; they call themselves “Ancient Israelites of the order of the Melchizedek priesthood.”[5]

Those comments seem striking coming from the pen of Carvalho, as opposed to, say, Mark Twain.

But the observation that really caught my attention came in Carvalho’s earliest impressions of the Mormons he met in Utah:

Nine-tenths of this vast population are the peasantry of Scotland, England and Wales, originally brought up with religious feelings at Protestant parish churches. I observed no Catholic proselytes. They have been induced to emigrate, by the offers of the Mormon missionaries to take them free of expense, to their land flowing with milk and honey, where they are told, the Protestant Christian religion is inculcated in all its purity.[6]

Mormonism, Carvalho observed, was preached by Mormon missionaries not just as Christianity restored but as “the Protestant Christian religion … in all its purity” (emphasis added). I cannot, off the top of my head, recall any other such explicit instances of Mormonism being framed this way, but Carvalho’s observation does square with some of my own thoughts on how early Mormon converts from Protestant churches understood their own conversion to Mormonism (“as a culmination of scattered truths carried on in disparate movements within the Christian tradition”) and seems relevant to conversations concerning whether or not Mormonism is Protestant in any meaningful way. 

___________________

[1] Solomon Nunes Carvalho, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West: with Col. Fremont’s Last Expedition across the Rocky Mountains: Including Three Months’ Residence in Utah, and a Perilous Trip across the Great American Desert to the Pacific (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1857), 17. Last year, Steve Rio produced Carvahlo’s Journey, a documentary film exploring SNC’s life and journey west.

[2] Carvalho, Incidents, vii.

[3] Carvalho himself makes no explicit mention of his religious and ethnic identity in his account, but as others have noted, his Judaism is evident to careful readers.

[4] Carvalho, Incidents, 148.

[4] Carvalho, Incidents, 185.

[6] Carvalho, Incidents, 143-44. Emphasis added.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Christian History From the Archives


Comments

  1. This is cool. Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 19, 2016 @ 11:33 am

  2. Fun stuff, Christopher. I love the characterization of Utah Mormon population. I looked through my speeches collection, but I didn’t find the Benson address. Again, fascinating stuff.

    Comment by WVS — May 19, 2016 @ 11:36 am

  3. Love it. Maybe it’s no coincidence that ETBenson spoke on that topic — hearing Orson Hyde preach about the restoration of Israel while Hyde was on his way to Jerusalem in 1840 seems to have played a great role in Benson’s conversion.

    Comment by Ardis — May 19, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

  4. Very cool. Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 19, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

  5. Carvalho is quoted in Turley, Walker, and Leonard’s “Massacre at Mountain Meadows.”

    Comment by MH — May 19, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

  6. Among Carvalho’s observations of the Mormons are his words regarding departure from Parowan: “I left for great Salt Lake City, in a wagon belonging to one of a large company of Mormons, who were on their way to ‘Conference.'” In 1854, Conference was already a thing, in quotes and capitalized.

    Comment by John Mansfield — May 20, 2016 @ 9:31 am

  7. Really interesting source. Thanks for the post and the framing!

    Comment by Jeff T — May 21, 2016 @ 3:24 pm


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