Whence the priesthood ban?
It’s a question that has been wrestled often over the last several decades. Beginning with Lester Bush’s seminal Dialogue article in 1973, historians, sociologists, and theologians have scrutinized the decisions made between Mormonism’s founding in 1830 and the solidification of the priesthood denial to Saints of African origin in the 1850s. JI permabloggers and friends have made our own humble contributions to the debates, as well, which continue in the wake of the LDS Church’s essay published 18 months ago on the historical priesthood ban.
Building on decades of scholarship, in chapters 4 and 5 of Religion of a Different Color Paul Reeve shows that Mormonism’s banning of blacks from holding the priesthood was less a black vs. white issue in Mormonism than it was a black vs. white issue in America that Mormonism’s universalist claims were forced to confront, and to which they ultimately gave way, in attempt to preserve Mormon aspirations for whiteness.
At the heart of the national debate were fears of “amalgamation,” the mixing of the races through sexual relationships. In antebellum America this was a major critique of abolitionism: that at its logical extreme black and white would blend together in unrestricted sexual unions, perhaps resulting in the destruction of the white race, and even the extinction of humanity. (A prevalent scientific theory held that the offspring of multiracial relationships were sterile, like mules). J. Stuart will take a closer look next week at Chapters 6 and 7 of Reeve’s book, which continue this discussion.
When Mormons are accused of entertaining abolitionist sentiment in Missouri and Ohio, then, they quickly strive to distance themselves from the negative connotations, but “ultimately laid the groundwork for the later racial constriction” with their universalism. Slaves who converted to Mormonism were to remain in slavery; their masters were also proselytized. Abolitionism was ignored, for the time being, in Mormonism, with the result that “the Mormon message cast…a net wide enough to incorporate ‘black and white, bond and free’ (2 Nephi 26:33) and then sort…those who responded according to prevailing cultural notions of racial superiority, white and free over black and bound” (123).
While impossible to pinpoint the exact beginning of the priesthood ban in practice, Reeve rightly focuses on the debates surrounding the 1852 Legislative Session of the first Utah Territorial Legislature. Here is where his careful mining of sources, and the fortuitous discovery of new sources, reveals Reeve’s greatest contribution on the struggle—and it was a real struggle—to categorize race within Mormonism (Orson Pratt emerges as a vocal opponent of Young’s ideas on race, and the two engage in a fierce debate in early February 1852—see 151-153). With aid from friend-of-the-JI Christopher Rich and Pitman shorthand expert LaJean Carruth, Reeve has uncovered previously unknown shorthand notes that record debates over black slavery—and race—in the Legslative Session. (The trio initially shared their findings at the 2014 MHA convention.) Found in the George D. Watt papers at the Church History Library, they include a transcription of Brigham Young’s 23 January 1852 speech that Reeve pinpoints as the first articulation by Young of a priesthood curse on blacks (149-150). On 4 February 1852 Young solidified his position with another speech to the legislature (152-155). At almost the same time Brigham Young brought Mormon views on race and black slavery in line with prevailing national sentiment, a larger national conversation criticizing Mormon polygamy as “white slavery” blinded outsiders to the racialization taking place within Mormonism (161-169).
Building on Christopher Rich’s previous research—but not explaining the sources in full yet—Reeve argues that Brigham Young’s encouragement of the establishment of black slavery in Utah was intended to mitigate the conditions of chattel slavery and set Utah firmly on the path to gradual emancipation (151). Brigham Young biographer John Turner doesn’t buy this idea, citing in part my own rather dated research and my response to Rich’s research. In a recent conversation, however, Reeve assured me that he couldn’t do the argument adequate justice with the limitations of Religion of a Different Color. Reeve anticipates that his forthcoming companion volume, a documentary history of the 1852 Legislature coedited with Rich and Carruth, should add weight to his assertions.
In assessing these two chapters overall, I have just a few thoughts:
First, Reeve does a great job examining the case studies he chooses, including early convert “Black Pete” (111-114); (black Mormon) Enoch Lovejoy Lewis’s marriage to (white Mormon) Mary Matilda Webster (106-111 and 135-139); and the bizarre religious and sexual antics of William McCrary at Winter Quarters (128-134). And the 1852 Legislative Session debates are just thrilling to read, having spent a good deal of time examining them myself.
A few oddities emerge in Reeve’s analysis. Influence is an ethereal idea to measure, and some assertions that Reeve makes are hard to back up, such as the supposition that because the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith had painted their faces black, this “no doubt impacted how Mormons viewed their own black converts” (121-122). Other occasional speculations are interesting and rightly cautious, though impossible to corroborate, such as Reeve’s wondering whether the circulation of ideas on the priesthood ban had any impact on black Mormon elder Q. Walker Lewis, who was in Salt Lake City in 1851-52 (161-2).
While much of his treatment retreads familiar ground examined by Lester Bush, Newell Bringhurst, Connell O’Donovan, myself and others; what Reeve brings to the table is the most thorough (to date) contextualization of Mormon attitudes within the larger national contests for whiteness. As far as race, the priesthood, and slavery in Mormonism, Religion of a Different Color is the new standard by which future scholarship on the subjects will be measured.