Roundtable on Paul Reeve, RELIGION OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Black, White, and Mormon, pt. 2

By May 19, 2015

Miscegenation and “One Drop”

The sixth and seventh chapters of Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color focus on the six decades after plural marriage became public in 1852. In these chapters, Reeve examines the intertwining of polygamy and blackness after the 1856 presidential election, and how Mormonism’s racial restriction on priesthood/temple ordinances became official policy during the first decade of the twentieth century. These chapters, and the book as a whole, have already found their way into syllabi in one religious studies course.

Reeve places the Republican Party’s promise to eradicate the “twin relics of barbarism” in the 1856 presidential election into much broader trends of racialization in American history. According to Reeve, the “fear of race mixing escalated” after the Civil War, when the 14th and 15th amendments gave black men the right to vote. These amendments aimed to make blacks and whites equal in the eyes of the law. This raised the hackles of whites that sought to maintain their place at the top of America’s racial hierarchy. White Americans associated hyper-sexuality with blackness. As a result, Mormons and their polygamous marital practices were caught in the cross-hairs of national discussions of what it meant to “perform” whiteness. In short, Mormons were believed to be “black” because their marriage practices were seen as outside the norm of white, hetero-normative, monogamous sexuality. Reeve gives several examples of how Americans associated polygamy with blackness, including the supposed integration of a black “mammy” and other non-white women into Brigham Young’s family. Young’s willingness to marry non-white women, rather than just use them as sexual objects, was considered to be too “black.” Many white Americans believed the Mormons practice of polygamy would lead to “race suicide” and “threatened the very foundations of American democracy.” (173) Mormons were guilty of both “racial treason” and “racial contamination.” (174)

Reeve

 

I believe Chapter Seven is the most valuable chapter in Reeve’s book for several reasons. First, the chapter addresses how groups positioned themselves to become white. Second, Reeve outlines this process through exploring how the Mormon racial restriction crystallized more than fifty years after Brigham Young’s address to the Utah State Legislature in 1852. Although several historians have seen this speech as the first official pronouncement of the priesthood and temple restriction, it was actually quests of the first converts of African descent to Mormonism to gain their temple rites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that cemented the beliefs outlined by Brigham Young in the mid-nineteenth century. Those converts, Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James, petitioned to receive their endowments and the sealing ordinance over several decades. Through the life of Abel, Reeve explores how the memory of blacks and priesthood slowly shifted through the 1870s and 1880s. He examines the discussions that surrounded Abel’s requests for his endowment and sealing blessings, particularly Zebedee Coltrin and Joseph F. Smith’s remembrances of supposed policies enacted by Joseph Smith rather than later leaders. Through these meeting minutes, Reeve demonstrates that the priesthood restriction had not been decided by the Abel’s death in 1884. Following Abel’s death, Religion of a Different Color narrates how Latter-day Saint leaders re-positioned their church’s institutional memory through attributing the priesthood restriction to the time of Joseph Smith rather than Brigham Young.

A vital part of this re-oriented institutional memory of race and priesthood is Jane Manning James’ attempts to gain her own temple ordinances from the presidency of John Taylor to Joseph F. Smith. Again and again, she petitioned to receive her endowments only to be turned away based on her race—despite reporting an offer from Emma Smith to become a part of her eternal family in the 1840s. In 1895, Wilford Woodruff allowed for her to receive a proxy sealing to Joseph Smith—which, as Reeve points out, is bizarre for a host of reasons.Despite this conciliatory offer from Woodruff, James continued to pursue the receipt of her own endowment. It was not until 1908 that the LDS racial restriction’s became a formal policy—although, Greg Prince has shown that the policy was not well-known among church leaders even by 1921.

The author’s sophisticated use of memory studies is particularly valuable for academic classroom settings. Reeve’s narration of how the Mormon racial restriction solidified over six decades employs a sophisticated but accessible framework of memory studies. This framework is useful for several reasons. First, Reeve’s account shows how the LDS Church used the temple restriction to solidly identify itself as “white” after the Woodruff Manifesto. Indeed, the author makes sense of the priesthood ban, rather than traditional narratives which ascribe the ban to mere racism. Mormons sacrificed “fellow black Mormons” in the name of attaining whiteness in the early twentieth century. Reeve deftly shows how and why leaders made that sacrifice without pulling punches on the trauma it causes black Mormons. Second, it shows how religions change internally over time. Although Mormonism did not initially restrict the participation of non-white members, it came to do so over time. Third, for those specifically interested in the study of Mormonism, this framework shows how and why the priesthood ban moved from folk belief to policy over a little less than six decades. Reeve is not the first to narrate the plights of Abel and James, but he is the first to fit their story into an accessible academic framework that could be used in a university classroom.

I would have liked to see an exploration of how the concept of race “hardened” in the first decades of the twentieth century. Reeve’s narrative of the Mormon racial restriction becoming a formal policy rather follows that pattern to a T and would have fit into chapter 7 quite easily. I would have also liked to see Reeve engage with eugenics—something Mormons believed in before it was recognized by the western world as a “science.” These are quibbles that would have surely been addressed without page limits, though, and should not take away from the brilliance of Reeve’s work. The author admirably chose examples to showcase the evidence for the racialization of Mormonism in chapter 6 and then methodically drives his point home in chapter 7. These chapters in particular help Mormons and religious historians more broadly understand the causal links between race, religion, and acceptance in American culture. Reeve’s book is an excellent example of how to not only organize a book, but frame it on a level that is useful for general overviews and more specialized and nuanced readings in graduate classrooms. All in all, Reeve deserves high praise for his research, analysis, compassionate and nuanced writing, and straightforward argument.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Cultural History Miscellaneous Polygamy Race


Comments

  1. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but I thought that Reeve’s placing of Mormonism’s chrystalization of the racial restrication at the end of the 19th century within the context of American discussions concerning “one drop rule” was the most novel argument concerning the topic for quite some time.

    Comment by Ben P — May 19, 2015 @ 9:43 am

  2. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by Saskia — May 19, 2015 @ 10:22 am

  3. Ben: completely agree.

    Saskia: thank you!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 19, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

  4. Very useful. Thanks, J Stuart.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 19, 2015 @ 5:08 pm


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