Below I summarize (700 words) my 2015 MHA paper (3,000 words), “The Origin and Persistence of Mormon Horns.” Note that I’ve blogged about Mormon horns before and almost all the images I used in the presentation have appeared in prior blog posts, so I’ve omitted them here.
Horns were a common figurative device in the nineteenth century, and most readers and hearers understood biblical and classical associations among horns, power, and sex. The most common instances of Mormon horns were such idiomatic or metaphoric expressions. Furthermore, horns were not specific to Mormons. I found horns connected to several different groups.
So… if Mormon horns were just a figure of speech, what happened? My surmise is that
- In an atmosphere of racialized discourse about Mormonism, which peaked in the 1880s,
- Figures of speech and political cartoons with horns coalesced in the Mormon collective imagination as an actual belief of non-Mormons, and then
- Mormons perpetuated the idea through the twentieth century.
By “racialized” or “racialization” I mean that the speakers believed that there was such a thing as “race” and that someone’s race correlated profoundly with physical, intellectual, social, and moral characteristics.
[I spent the middle bulk of the presentation surveying selected statements and cartoons about Mormon horns, illustrating how Mormon horns worked in particular cases and evaluating each idea as a source for the reification of Mormon horns. The “sources” of Mormon horns I looked at are below. This was the fun part of the presentation with all the cartoons and illustrations.
- The horned figures in Revelation 13-20.
- Temple Satan, whose 19C version may have worn a horn or helmet spike
- Vigilantes in spiked KKK-like robes
- Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and/or Masons
- “White Indians,” or light-skinned people acting like “savages”
- Frontier strongman / Bluebeard
- Pan, Satan, and/or Demons]
Among other things, perceptions of Mormon violence, sexuality, secrecy, mendacity, and ceremony all had plausible connections to horns. Thus confronted with multiple viable hypotheses and with no way to systematically exclude any, I conclude that we must reject the idea of a simple explanation. For a given image or quote we can narrow the list of possible allusions, but for Mormon horns in general, it is not possible to give a straightforward, simple statement of meaning. We cannot say that “Mormon horns represent X” or that “People said Mormons had horns because of Y.”
I think that in many cases the horning was indirect. Instead of an alleged Mormon attribute causing people to think Mormons had horns (eg, Mormons are like Jews; Jews have horns; therefore Mormons have horns), the alleged attributes caused people to think of Mormons as Other—and Others got horns (eg, Mormons, Jews, etc, are Other; Others have horns; therefore Mormons, etc, have horns).
By the early twentieth century Mormon horns were overwhelmingly a Mormon phenomenon, propagated and reinforced as an “urban legend” within the relative social density of Mormon networks. Once the story was established as a Mormon meme, it continued to circulate long after the idioms and plausible symbolisms of Mormon horns had lost relevance.
Speaking loosely, early Mormon discussions of Mormon horns tended to express bewilderment—“they act as if we have horns”—while later versions impugned non-Mormons—“they are/were so backward that they think/thought we have/had horns.” Later stories about Mormon horns, told by Mormons, perform sociological functions such as reinforcing Mormon identity and maintaining tension with host cultures, among others.
Earlier this year, in Religion of a Different Color, Paul Reeve used Mormon horns, along with other evidence, to establish the importance of Mormon bodies in nineteenth-century understandings of Mormonism. My study vindicates Paul’s use of horns as evidence of the racialization of Mormon bodies. However, the connection cannot be completely reversed: the racialization of Mormon bodies does not, by itself, account for the appearance or persistence of Mormon horns. However, the racialization was probably an essential component: because Mormons knew that their bodies were being racialized—and to some extent, participated in such contestations of their bodies—Mormons became more likely to interpret otherwise idiomatic references to horns as literal rather than figurative.