Eugenics and the Intellectual Underpinnings of Mormons in the Alt-Right

By March 27, 2017

Over the past few weeks, a white woman that goes by the name “A Purposeful Wife” (Ayla) has garnered a lot of attention on Twitter and was featured in an article on Buzzfeed for dual loyalties to Mormonism and the Alt-Right Movement (a  political movement whose explicit purpose is to create a white, Christian nation). She spends her days spewing Alt-Right messages to her 20,000 followers and thousands more that respond to her. Her alt-right beliefs inform her “white nationalism.” Although she rejects the label of “Nazi,” she subscribes to Nazi race theory. She has issued a “white baby challenge,” encouraging people now considered to be white to bear more children than people of color in order to maintain white supremacy. This cannot be called anything other than a call to eugenics–commonplace rhetoric in the Alt-Right.  Ayla has a Mormon.org profile, seemingly written before her adoption of Alt-Right politics [it has been taken down as of 11:40 AM MST, but you can see the profile courtesy of the Wayback Machine].

Despite the unsavory, dangerous, and abhorrent rhetoric, it’s important to know Mormonism’s long history of supporting eugenics—even when they were not considered white or Christian. As Ardis at Keepapitchinin has rightly written, this flies in the face of current Mormon teachings. I applaud the LDS Church’s statement condemning all forms of racism past and present, and join in that call. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the LDS Church condemns its past subscription to eugenics, not only the priesthood and temple restriction or other better-known racist or racial beliefs and practices.

While this post is a very short introduction, I will provide a brief overview of the Mormon embrace of eugenics, explicitly, and implicitly, in terms of race and gender. Mormon eugenics and political history will come in a second installment.[i]

RACE

The Book of Mormon teaches that non-righteous groups of people have dark skin as a part of a punishment for their wickedness. There are several readings of passages that speak to whiteness as metaphorical, but it is impossible to ignore the racial overtones in the Book of Mormon. The groups in the Book of Mormon that are identified most closely with righteousness are associated with whiteness, and those with dark skin are associated with bloodthirstiness, civilizational decline, and a preponderance for violence. Historians recognize these racial scripts as a way of trumpeting whiteness at the expense of non-whites, a patter than has existed from the Enlightenment to the present day.

Early Mormons believed that Israelite blood coursed through the veins of white Latter-day Saints and the remnants of the Book of Mormon’s peoples (Joseph Smith identified Native Americans as those remnants). Smith preached that those who were not of the blood of Abraham, those without proper lineage, would have their blood transformed into what was later called Israelite or “believing blood.” Conversion to Mormonism would have “a more powerful effect upon the body” than on the spirit for those that were not of Israelite lineage, like black Africans.[ii] A person without Abrahamic lineage, would have to undergo a physical change to become a Mormon. One would not have black African blood after conversion to Mormonism because conversion changed their blood and, in a way, made them white.

In 1852, Brigham Young made reference to lineage, not to skin color when he preached that no person of the race of Cain (believed to be black Africans) would hold the ecclesiastical priesthood or participate in Mormon temple rituals. In short, lineage was part of being Mormon—and black Africans were not viewed as being compatible with Mormons without change. To be Mormon meant to be white–or at least to share in the religio-racial characteristics of those with the blood of Abraham. Those without the right lineage were not permitted to participate in Mormonism’s most scared rituals.

GENDER

Within a year of Brigham Young’s enactment of Mormonism’s priesthood and racial restriction, Apostle Orson Pratt justified plural marriage through the logic of creating and raising righteous “seed,” or children. Later in the decade, future apostle and counselor in the First Presidency George Q. Cannon insisted that Mormons were the only people that were rightly seeking to breed humans in the way that animal husbandmen raised livestock. He wrote, “Experience has long since taught mankind the necessity of observing certain natural laws in the propagation of animals, or the stock will degenerate and finally become extinct. But strange to say, in regard to the human animal, these laws, except in certain particulars, are more or less disregarded.” Cannon worried that society did not create or enforce laws “best calculated to develope [sic] our physical nature. A well formed, healthy, vigorous race should be the end sought.”

After suggesting that the law should forbid “the unhealthy to beget children” and should compel “every healthy man to marry,” Cannon promised that under those conditions, no healthy girl would remain single and “no whore shall be permitted to live.” He argued that the simultaneous commitment to sexual purity and racial engineering leading to the improvement of the human race “is precisely what the Saints in the valleys of the mountains are endeavoring to accomplish.” The future apostle then argued, “The genius of Christian monogamy is to encourage prostitution; because it forbids plural marriages, yet compels no man to marry, and thus debars thousands of females from gratifying the strongest instincts of their nature”—by which he meant becoming a wife and mother.[iii] Cannon knew that eugenics could not work (literally) without women; the more women involved in procreation meant more members of the white race.

After the LDS Church abandoned plural marriage, Scott Marianno has shown that after 1890 Mormons worked to be considered “the right type of citizen” through appeals to whiteness, including eugenics. Paul Reeve has proved that in 1908, Mormons crystallized Brigham Young’s 1852 pronouncement barring people of black African descent from temples and ecclesiastical priesthood and participated in scientific conversations meant to help Mormons attain the privileges of whiteness. However, Mormon contributions to scientific, eugenic conversations were saddled with the baggage of polygamy, which Mormons had not discarded on a theological level even if they had on a practical level. In part to justify a continued belief in plural marriage, B.H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and others researched eugenics and connected plural marriage to the production of an elite race. Articles in the Relief Society Magazine warned its female readers against “race suicide,” meaning the lessening of “white” races’ power in the face of non-white immigration to the United States. By 1927, Apostle Melvin J. Ballard proudly quoted a scientist that labeled Mormonism “the most eugenical religion in the world!”

CONCLUSION

Those that subscribe to the Alt-Right and to Mormonism ignore their leaders’ call for an eradication to racism—but can point to their faith’s history to justify their beliefs. Mormonism theologized whiteness and the women’s bearing of eugenically sound children in the nineteenth century and even when plural marriage ceased to be practiced, continued to undergird much of Mormonism’s beliefs. These views, products of their time and usefulness, continue to shape portions of Mormon subculture today. The LDS Church officially disavows these beliefs–and can show its commitment to antiracism, at a minimum, by taking down her Mormon.org profile. [Update: her profile has been removed.]

 

[i] Of course, both categories intersect.

[ii] Some have argued that this was an irregular statement from Smith—it was not taught regularly. Still, the idea of believing blood captured the minds of Mormons after Smith’s death.

[iii] Joseph R. Stuart, “Our Religion is Not Hostile to Real Science’: Evolution, Eugenics, and Race/Religion Making in Mormonism’s First Century,” Journal of Mormon History 42, no. 1 (January 2016): 23.

Article filed under Current Events Gender Intellectual History Race


Comments

  1. Thank you, Joseph Stuart, for this background and these connections between these current controversies and histories. Some white Mormons frowned upon my parents’ marriage in the 1970s, since my mother is white and my father is Native American. There was also a sense of diluting the blood line on the Native American side, which I have faced in my life. My family has faced. It would be interesting to understand these conceptualizations of “eugenics” or perspectives of interracial intimacies from non-white Mormons. They may not have called such conceptualizations/teachings “eugenics” but had certain practices and views on coupling that relate. There was a time in recent Mormon historical experiences, during my parents’ courtship years, that church officials also stressed “birds of a feather should stick together,” discouraging interracial marriage since it was said cultural differences could disrupt the relationship. These instances may reveal how people used “culture” rather than “race” as a point of difference, although the two were entangled.

    Comment by Farina King — March 27, 2017 @ 8:56 am

  2. We have forgotten that in prescribing a specialness on any group we have deemed “Lamanite” that what at least some members and leaders meant was that they would be saved by being assimilated into a white culture in the latter days.

    And I’m not sure how to untangle that narrative from one of Zion and can understand how everytime the church squashes cultural practices, it looks like we’re still trying to assimilate.

    Comment by EmJen — March 27, 2017 @ 8:57 am

  3. In part to justify a continued belief in plural marriage, B.H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and others researched eugenics and connected plural marriage to the production of an elite race.

    Hmm. This I think needs to be fleshed out considerably more. When Mormons in the late 19th/early 20th century speak of anything that could be considered an “elite race” — and I’ve never read that term, I think — it is always in the context of children born in the covenant to parents, grandparents, and eventually long lines of ancestors, who have been sealed in the temple and live worthy of their covenants and blessings. That is, temple-sealed couples pass on to their children health and vigor and purity: Parents who followed the Word of Wisdom were to be blessed with “health in their navel” — an explicit suggestion of healthy posterity; parents who were chaste were free from sexual disease, which was often referred to (in more or less guarded terms, but frequently); spirits worthy of the priesthood were believed to be sent from premortality to the homes of righteous parents, as another aspect of heritage.

    I can’t rule out whiteness as a factor in the minds of some who taught that a righteous ancestry resulted in righteous posterity, but all the explicit descriptions of anything like an “elite race” were related to bodily and spiritual strength, not color, and a heritage of priesthood, not secular culture. I think it’s important to separate those ideas entirely from the filth promoted by Ayla and her ilk.

    Comment by Ardis — March 27, 2017 @ 9:33 am

  4. Thanks J Stuart. It is been a while since I’ve read a lot of those early twentieth century RS documents. My memory is that the “race suicide” bit was associated with contraception and abortion. Am I remembering that correctly?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2017 @ 9:34 am

  5. …and per Ardis’ comment I seem to remember Talmage talking about a crescendo of the Spirit (perhaps in Jesus the Christ), through generations within the covenant. I hadn’t thought about that eugenically, but that makes sense, I guess. Thanks for that Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2017 @ 9:37 am

  6. I wonder if any of those people realize that eugenics was originally created by Fabian socialists in order to serve a very left-wing, progressive ideology. (They wanted to breed a communist utopia- as opposed to political revolution – by providing full welfare for the poor while also sterilizing them.)

    It’s funny how positions can shift over time. All the more reason to trust in continuing revelation.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 27, 2017 @ 9:56 am

  7. Thanks, J.

    Jeff G, I’m not sure where you’re getting “eugenics was originally created by Fabian Socialists in order to serve a very left-wing, progressive ideology,” but the history of eugenics in America has (in my opinion) more roots in developments in science and medicine, increased immigration, and a history of race in America. These contexts are the ones that carry through to the eugenic statements in the 21st century. I’m not sure what the socialist context has to do with this piece.

    Comment by Jeff T — March 27, 2017 @ 10:52 am

  8. And yet the gods practice eugenics. Only the top tier of humanity is ever allowed to propagate “the race” after this life, into eternity (those who achieve the highest level of the celestial kingdom). Is that not racism based on the fact that bodies celestial differ from bodies terrestrial and telestial? (“a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” Miriam-Webster). God practiced racism throughout the Old Testament. He loved the children to whom He, nevertheless, denied privileges. In Moses 7, Enoch was forbidden to preach to the black people of Canaan and giving them an opportunity to join the City of Holiness that was taken up into the bosom of the Father. If you want to talk eugenics in Mormon theology, you have to go back a lot further than Brigham Young. I applaud the 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban but believe that it was according to the Lord’s timing…not a long-overdue reform. The Purposeful Housewife’s zeal is simply no longer relevant.

    Comment by Amanda — March 27, 2017 @ 11:20 am

  9. Farina–I think you’re absolutely right on track with the culture/race conflation. I hope to dig into this in the future. Mormons read race in different ways than Protestants and Catholics even as they use the same vocabulary.

    Em Jen-agreed. I wish I had something smarter to say than that.

    Ardis: you’re right, more nuance reveals the conversations that Widtsoe and Roberts and others engaged in. Widtsoe in particular was more concerned with spirituality. However, I think that the religio-racial identification of polygamy as eugenically and spiritually productive lingered over their participation in race science conversations in the twentieth century.

    Stapley: You’re correct. Mormons, like other religious groups, referred to birth control and contraception as forms of race suicide. I get into it more in my article in JMH.

    Jeff G.: Jeff T. is right. Science, medicine, race, and the hierarchy of races in immigration legislation established eugenics as scientifically viable at the time. However, I also think you’re 100% correct that these things look differently in different periods and that it’s important to remember the instability of scientific knowledge. What’s accepted today could be debunked tomorrow.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 27, 2017 @ 11:39 am

  10. Great essay Joseph. I have look all over the Mormon.org profiles and cannot find the Ayla “purposeful wife” profile. Perhaps it has already been deleted.

    Comment by Samuel D — March 27, 2017 @ 11:42 am

  11. Looks like it was taken down this morning. I’ll update the post. Thanks, Samuel!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 27, 2017 @ 11:49 am

  12. One still-tangled doctrine that needs to be sorted out from this mess is the longstanding admonition to have large families.

    While current LDS policy allows couples to use family planning/contraception, it also still encourages couples to have as many children as possible. In a Mar 12 Facebook post, Elder Cook (of the 12) reiterated his recent BYU speech and lamented the low birth rate in developed nations.

    Considering the events a few days before his post, I find the timing to be non-coincidental.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 27, 2017 @ 11:59 am

  13. Jeff T,

    When it comes to eugenics within the US, you might be right. I simply do not know much about its migration here from Europe.

    What I was talking about were the British originators of eugenics as a political program. It was very much part and parcel with Fabian socialism. Nearly all the British originators of eugenics were Fabian socialists and the Fabian socialists were quite explicit in their early endorsement of eugenics.

    Here are a couple links:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/17/eugenics-skeleton-rattles-loudest-closet-left
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/2709374

    Comment by Jeff G — March 27, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

  14. Great points Amanda. We often think Mormonism is unique in having to grapple with race or gender and belief, but we a Christian faith with a bedrock that predates 1830.

    I’m interested in the follow up post, seems likes a lot of this eugenics and Mormon history needs significant explanation of the progressive era and the Church’s reasons for embrace in the later 1880s and later retreat from progressive movement in the 1930s.

    Comment by RL — March 27, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

  15. I mean…who controls which spirits go to which families? It’s like we forgot everything that’s been revealed about foreordination…that, just as there will be a judgement and subsequent grouping at the end of this mortal round of our probation, there had to have been one at the end of our spirit round. On what grounds do Mormon “progressives” base the idea that we all started this life on the same footing? No prophet ever taught that.

    Comment by Amanda — March 27, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

  16. The topic of Mormon elite interest in Eugenics is fascinating and requires additional unpacking to fully understand the reverberations of the pseudoscience on the church as a whole. Joseph’s blog post begins the process of investigating Mormon understanding of eugenics at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. If you are all interested in a more expansive historical narrative of eugenics and Mormonism check out Joseph’s Journal of Mormon History article, ‘Our Religion is Not Hostile to Real Science’: Evolution, Eugenics, and Race/Religion-Making in Mormonism’s First Century.” My own article in the same issue of the JMH entitled, “’No True Religion without True Science”: Science and the Construction of Mormon Whiteness” look at Mormon promotion of specific eugenic theories in LDS prescriptive literature. Bradley Kime also presented on his research of Mormons and eugenics at the Mormon History Association conference held in San Antonio, Texas and was willing to share his research and work with me. There is also an informative piece by Stirling Adams posted in 2006 on the blog “By Common Consent.” I am currently conducting research for my dissertation of Mormon women interest and support of certain facets of eugenic theories and would love to talk to anyone about my findings if you are so interested! Links to the works mentioned above are included below!

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jmormhist.42.1.0001
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jmormhist.42.1.0044
    http://mormonhistoryassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2014-conference-program.pdf
    https://bycommonconsent.com/2006/08/02/eugenics/

    Comment by Cassie — March 27, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

  17. Interesting stuff, J. All kinds of fun links to the Taylor-Galbraith efficiency movement and quack psyche.

    Comment by wvs — March 27, 2017 @ 8:12 pm

  18. Don’t forget to check out the influence also of the LDS Genealogical Society, especially the work of its executive secretary James H. Anderson during the 1930s, and the Society’s publication, “Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine,” especially during this same period. Forgive the citations to my own work, but see Chapter 2 of my “All Abraham’s Children,” especially pp. 27-32.

    Comment by Armand Mauss — March 27, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

  19. Thanks, Cassie, WVS, and Professor Mauss!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 28, 2017 @ 9:34 am

  20. […] history of shunning interracial relationships. At points, some of its leaders even flirted with theories of eugenics, or the belief that they could help cultivate a pure race. Just until four years ago, a youth […]

    Pingback by Why it's time for the Mormon Church to revisit its diverse past | Wikipedia Editors — April 18, 2017 @ 7:35 pm


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