First, thanks to Kristine and Matt for their kind invitation to join you folks. Second thanks to all members of JI for your kind welcome.
For my first (trepidation filled) post for your august community, I want to briefly share my fresh experience having lectured this past week on Mormonism for a Harvard College undergrad course on American religious history (led by Prof. Marie Griffith, formerly of Princeton).
Frequently in such survey courses, Mormonism is treated in one of three ways, all of which come with their own intellectual and (I’d suggest) moral problems.
1. Mormonism is handled as part of the burnt-over district family of millennial movements, without exploring the unique theological contributions the movement made or recognizing that of all these traditions (Millerites, Oneida etc.) Mormonism alone transcended its particular period of origin to become a restoration movement which lived up to its own ambitions.
2. Mormonism is covered during the “cult/sect” week and is lumped together with Branch Davidians, Scientology Moonies. Often teachers have good intentions with this week; their aim ostensibly is to convey the lesson, embodied in the axiom (sometimes attributed to Tom Wolfe) that “a cult is a religion without political power”. Yet, such lessons, which maintain the standard proximity between Mormonism and the word “cult” , often result in the perpetuation not the disassociation of Mormonism and cult (and its on the ground manifestation–polygamy) in the minds of students uninitiated in the study of religion.
3. In response to the first two trends, Mormonism is sometimes placed at the center of American religious history (a la Harold Bloom) as some kind of poetic gnosticism (Mormonism as religion is personal revelation). Yet I believe, in attempt to avoid discussing Golden Plates, polygamy, and persecution, this trend takes Mormonism right out of history, its own and American.
Wanting to avoid these pitfalls (but recognizing that I was digging some of my own), my decision was to discuss Mormonism and race. Mormonism served as a two-way window; first Mormonism helped us explore theissue of race in American religion and race was means of exploring Mormonism’s unique theological and historical contributions (as well as controversies) to American religious history. I also had more selfish reasons for this approach–I wanted to try to see if my recent research on Jane Manning James (cultural history) and Booker T. Washington (intellectual history) could fit into broader discussions of Mormonism as American religion.
I argued that it was not polygamy but the question of race—or as Americans (Mormon and Gentile) called it—the “Negro Question”—that has been the most vexing question for Mormons since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.
To support this position we discussed various statements by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, all of whom in various ways reaffirmed the ban on black men holding the priesthood. Yet we traced how the Church’s position changed from a righteous declaration of unequivocal and eternal truth of black inferiority during the mid 1850s to by the 1970s, the continuation of the ban representing nothing more than a “mystery of faith”, one that could be reversed through prophetic revelation.
Yet to complicate a progressive narrative (a racist church moving to fulfilling its own universal ambitions), we discussed Jane Manning James, a woman who was at the time of her death in 1908 celebrated as a faithful Mormon and a true pioneer while also deemed a second class citizen of both earthly Zion and the celestial kingdoms. My point here was that Mormons have always struggled internally with how to handle blacks.
We also discussed the Mormons’ long-time relationship of Booker T. Washington (culminating with a 1913 visit by Washington to Salt Lake) as part of their attempt at reintegration in the American nation. I argued that in exchange for the public and financial support, Washington used his great popularity to challenge the perception of Mormons as anti-Americans, a perception common among the white and black east coast elites who supported Washington. Washington hoped to reintroduce the Mormons as acceptable, even exemplary members of the national community. With their hard fought fortunes and political recognition engaged in support of Washington, Mormons hoped to close the book on the “Mormon problem” by becoming active participants in the national debate about how to solve the “Negro problem”.
My purpose in all of this to provide three lessons to the students:
First, though both the longevity and complexity of the Mormons’ racialized theology is I would argue without par in American religious history, Mormonism’s relationship to race follows patterns that are typical to many American Protestant movements and denominations (I reminded our students that Mormons, like all American churches, were forced to take sides during the 1840s over the question of slavery. As such the references to the Curse of Ham were certainly not unique to Mormons).
Second, because it has always been a mission oriented church, Mormons have always sincerely struggled with how to handle questions of race: to what extent could they politically as well as theologically fully enact what they understand as their divine calling to bring the message of the Restored Gospel to “all the families of the earth”.
Finally, the story of Mormonism and race is non-linear. The story of Mormonism and race follows neither a pattern of progress (moving from a racial past to a more egalitarian future) nor declension (from a egalitarian origin to a more racialized future).
Instead Mormonism’s relationship with race is a history of contingency, determined by political modes in the nation and by personal views of church leaders. This means that mapping Mormonism’s racial past produces more peaks and valleys instead of smooth mounting or descending planes.
My biggest fear was that, like my critique of discussions that pair Mormonism with “cults”, I’ve forever linked Mormonism with “race”, or worse yet “racism” in out students’ minds. I was very conscious of the potential for this (as well as very aware that as in almost all of the courses we teach, there are a few LDS members to whom we have the responsibility to not add material for anti-Mormon ridicule). I hope I showed that Mormonism is both similar to and different than all other American religious traditions and should be studied as such.
Nevertheless, I wonder if I’ve helped to “open” or “close” our students’ minds on Mormonism as a viable, but not unproblematic, faith tradition of the American pluralistic community.
I recognize I’ve said a lot for my first post. I very much welcome any thoughts on whether you all think this approach to teaching about Mormonism in a liberal arts setting is interesting, worthwhile (or dangerous).
I promise in the future I’ll be more brief in my thoughts!