“A situation worse than polygamy”: Mormon Missionaries, “Mulattos”, and Defending the Faith in North Carolina, 1900

By July 16, 2009

While continuing my research on Mormonism in the South this morning, I came across the story of a debate between some young Mormon missionaries and a couple of Protestant ministers in North Carolina in 1900. The local newspaper contained the following summary of the debate:

About 350 persons went on the excursion train Sunday by Hampstead to hear the debate between Elders J.P. King and J.W.S. Harvey, of the Second Advent Church, this city, and a number of Mormon elders who have succeeded in establishing a church in that section of Pender County. From other sections of the county people came by private conveyance, and the crowd was estimated at from 1000 to 2000. The debate was participated in chiefly by Elder King and a young Mormon elder, not yet twenty-one years of age, both of whom spoke for nearly three hours each. The debate was spirited but friendly, and entertained a large crowd. [1]

Apparently, the debate solidified Mormonism’s standing in the community, as several congregants in the Second Advent Church converted to Mormonism and according to one (quite celebratory) local Mormon commentator writing in 2004, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Hampstead area has never been challenged to another debate” and the local Mormon congregation in Hampstead “furnished the leaders of the Wilmington Branch in sixty-seven of its first seventy years.” [2]

No transcripts or contemporary reports of the debate exist, but several attendees were interviewed much later in their lives and recalled their memories of what occurred. According to those accounts, the Adventist minister brought up the Mountain Meadows Massacre and plural marriage in an attempt to smear Mormonism’s reputation and intimidate the young elders. When Elder King was finished, a young Mormon missionary from Provo by the name of Bert Williams arose to reply. While all of the interviewees recall that Williams handily defeated his Adventist opponent, one remembrance contains a specific recollection of what was said in defending polygamy:

The afternoon was taken up by Bert Williams, a 21-year old Mormon boy. For three or three and a half hours or more he discussed Mormonism with the people. He explained the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He explained everything pertaining to the arguments of Brother King. One item was Mormons and polygamy. When that question came up, Bert Williams said, “People living in glass houses should not throw stones. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and i have never seen a mulatto young’un on the streets of Salt Lake City.” So he insinuated that Brother King was throwing stones when he should have been looking at conditions around his door, which was, if not polygamy, a situation worse that polygamy. [3]

I am both intrigued and appalled (though not necessarily surprised given this sort of stuff) at the missionary’s apologetic tactic. I have never encountered a defense of polygamy by condemning interracial marriage or sex before, and am curious if other examples of such an approach exist. I further wonder what this might reveal about the efforts of Mormons of the era to strengthen their own identity as white Americans, and how all of this plays into Mormonism’s racial history. Does it illustrate, for example, a continuing disdain for interracial marriage (which has been suggested as being crucial to the beginnings of the race-based priesthood ban)? Within its immediate context of time and place (turn-of-the-twentieth century U.S. South), is this simply an example of the missionary trying to make a point to his (likely) predominantly white audience in a region historically plagued with black-white tensions and overt racism? Is there anything else particularly noteworthy in the passage? I’m interested in any feedback along these lines.


[1] “Large Crowd Present to Hear Debate between Adventists and Mormons,” Wilmington Star, April 1900, 10; as cited in Marion F. Barnhill, Sr., A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hampstead, North Carolina (Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, 2004),27.

[2] Barnhill, History of the Church in Hampstead, North Carolina, 31.

[3] Alpheus Marion “Tobe” Shingleton, interview with Marion F. Barnhill Sr., 23 July 1970; in History of the Church in Hampstead, North Carolina, 41. I do, of course, recognize the potential problems of using a remembrance of the event 70 years after the event occurred, but wanted to bounce it around here anyway. And if the remembrance is actually more representative of Shingleton’s own views in 1970 than Elder Bert Williams’s in 1900, that opens up a whole series of other questions equally as interesting as those suggested in the post.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Chris. I see this as a commentary on the heightened sexual anxieties concerning interracial marriage in the post-Reconstruction period. As Pat Mason has shown, it wasn’t until the late 1880s that Utah actually passed an anti-miscegenation bill (although interracial sex was barred as early as 1852 in Utah Territory), and that law stayed on the books in one form or another until 1963. There is also the interesting regional jab, with Utah (and the West) being held up as a place where whites did not condescend to have sexual relations with blacks. Although Mormons did practice polygamy, this missionary is placing it in a hierarchy of sexual taboos, and concludes that at least polygamy was between white people.

    Comment by David G. — July 16, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  2. My grandmother, born into an LDS family in Alabama in 1898, told me that she was often maliciously teased at school for being a Mormon. When someone would say “How many wives has your daddy got?” she was taught by her mother to respond “He only has one. But if he had six, they would all be white, not like your daddy’s women.”

    I don’t know whether the impulse for that was primarily because of the church milieu or the southern one.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 16, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  3. Would the parents of the children in question have been married? Was the point of the quote that intermarriage was not accepted in Utah, or that monogamy was not practiced in this part of the South? (wihout more, I cannot know, since I’m not a historian.)

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — July 16, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  4. David, I should have gone back and read through Pat’s article before I put this up, but didn’t think about it at the time. Thanks for noting his work in your comment, and for your additional commentary on the post.

    Ardis, now that is an interesting quote and suggests that such attitudes extended beyond this isolated example. Thanks for sharing.

    Ugly Mahana, I’m not sure whether you’re directing your comment and question to me or Ardis, though your first sentence suggests that it is in response to Ardis’s comment. The point in both cases, I think, is that Mormons in these instances prided themselves on maintaining what they saw as racial purity, even in their polygamous relations.

    Comment by Christopher — July 16, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  5. I could give the missionary the benefit of doubt. Perhaps he was using mulatto children as a visual evidence of adultery, since mixed marriages were illegal. The wide spread practice of adultery has frequently been used to invoke the “don’t cast stones” approach to defend polygamy.

    My gut tells me though that racism was at the core of his argument. It may be safe to say it was the racism of the audience that this Elder was taking advantage of. Were there similar comments from missionaries in the North? Even today missionaries tailor their arguments to the audience.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 16, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  6. I agree with Bruce’s comment. Was interracial marriage legal in the South at this time? If it was not, than the missionary would probably assume that any Southerners of mixed racial ancestry were illegitimate children of unlawful unions.

    Hence the “glass house” argument: a culture with incontrovertible proof of relationships recognized by neither church nor state should spend no time throwing stones at a culture with relationships recognized by church although not by state.

    Comment by Researcher — July 16, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  7. Bruce and Researcher, thanks for your input. You raise a good point about the legality of what was then called miscegenation. “Anti-miscegenation” laws, as far as I am aware, existed is all U.S. states in 1900, and during the 1870s and 1880s, there were a couple of Supreme Court cases upholding the constitutionality of such laws (which wasn’t overturned until 1967). There were also attempts to amend the constitution to institute nation-wide anti-miscegenation laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which ultimately failed).

    Of course, even if the Mormon elder intended his “glass house” analogy to get at legal issues, racism was still the crux of his argument.

    Comment by Christopher — July 16, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  8. I don’t think this would have had anything to do with interracial marriage. I think a racist world view can probably be assumed, but the elder is making a point about adultery.

    Comment by E — July 16, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  9. E, how do you explain the reference to “mulatto young’uns” then? The elder is clearly referring to interracial sex.

    Comment by Christopher — July 16, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  10. I don?t think the ?Glass House? argument holds. Mixing races was not institutionalized in the South. All southerners should not held responsible for it.
    Polygamy, on the other hand, was institutionalized within the Mormon Church in the West. A different story.

    Comment by Bob — July 16, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  11. Yes, interracial sex, i.e. adultery. Not interracial marriage. He is criticiing white men for producing children with black women, not for marrying them. He might have also criticized them if they had married them, I don’t know. Interracial marriage probably never entered anyone’s mind at that time and place.

    Comment by E — July 16, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  12. BTW, I agree with the elder that the mulatto children were evidence of an ugly practice “worse than polygamy”. These black women were not necessarily willing partners, and were just being used by white men, who they were powerless against.

    Comment by E — July 16, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  13. But adultery and the illegitimate children that resulted were “winked at” in much of the US, creating a de facto institutionalization. It was even worse with the second class status these children had, creating another wrong on top of the first one. Yes, it was a different story, Widespread adultery created more societal problems than the contemporary Mormon practice of polygamy. Polygamy had its own set of problems, but as 19th century Mormons practiced it, they were more individual rather than societal.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 16, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  14. Rather than post enormous comments, I’ve put up two texts on this topic here.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 16, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  15. Thanks, Edje. Excellent examples of the problem at hand. I think it best to remember the dominance of white supremacy ideology throughout the U.S. in the decades after the Civil War, as Southerners in particular, and Americans in general, chose to forget the racial lessons of the War in favor of sectional reconciliation. The racist theories of Jim Crow also permeated Utah, and therefore it is naive to assume the elder wasn’t shaped by them. The point of the post is not to debate the legal distinctions between polygamy, interracial marriage, and adultery, or the whether polygamy and interracial sex really are sufficiently synonymous for the “glass house” argument to work. Rather, the point is that the elder is explicitly appealing to the interracial sexual anxieties of his Southern audience, who would have agreed in principle that whites were biologically superior to blacks and that the offspring from such relations were shameful evidence of society’s pecadillos (however much they deviated in private from the ideology), which the elder contended was not evident in Utah.

    Comment by David G. — July 16, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  16. I have been doing some research for a non-Mormon paper that might be relevant here. The paper focuses on a Jamaican planter who chose to educate his mulatto children in Britain during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. The pamphlets, often include salacious stories, about what would happen to slave women who refused sex to a white man. Mulatto children were seen as evidence of the degeneracy and cruelty of white men.

    My question about the comment that the Mormon boy made would be what discourses might he be drawing upon. People have suggested a lot of possibilities here. Do we have any evidence from local newspapers or from local Mormon publications that might provide us with information about how the local community thought about interracial sex (the post that was made in response to this one provides us with a start)? Does the comment the young boy made have multiple valences?

    Also, I have a question about exactly where the lines between races are being drawn. Are the local church members (and national church members) just concerned about black/white relationships or are they equally concerned about white/Asian, white/Hispanic, and white/Indian relationships?

    Comment by Amanda H. — July 16, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  17. Ed, I love your note 7 on the other post (no pox on me! I read all the footnotes 😉

    Comment by David G. — July 17, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  18. I read this exactly as Bruce did, as an example of interracial rape or adultery, not as interracial marriage or sex per se.

    *Edit: I changed the name from “Ben” to “Ben (visitor)” to avoid confusion. Edje*

    Comment by Ben (visitor) — July 17, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  19. Very interesting Chris. I don’t remember hearing of a polygamy defense like this, and thanks to Ardis for providing that family recollection and Edje for the additional documents.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 17, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  20. Very interesting post and discussion, Chris et all.

    (Also, I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t the Ben commenting above.)

    Comment by Ben — July 17, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  21. This is an interesting discussion Christopher. Good work.

    Comment by Mark Brown — July 17, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  22. Very interesting discussion. I think it’s clear that the problem was interracial sex, whether licit or illicit was beside the point, so I respectfully disagree with those saying this was about adultery. But that’s just my opinion.

    Comment by Bookie — July 20, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  23. I’m with you, Bookie. I think the money-quote from the other docs is “any thing like an inter-marriage.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 20, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  24. I know this thread is old, but I thought I would comment. I am not a historian, so I don’t feel I am qualified on the subject. But my grandfather is Marion Barnhill who wrote the book in which these quotes are found. He is now in his mid 90s, and I called him to find out what he thought. He said he wrote Tobe’s quote exactly as Tobe said it (he recorded the interview on reel to reel tape.) And he then said that while he wasn’t interested in getting in on the debate, he was very pleased to find out he was “on Google!”

    Personally, I have always heard that the young missionary was not referring to the race of the children, but that he was saying they were a visual example of the adultery and (most likely) rape that was going on in the town. I believe at the time interracial marriage was illegal in NC. He was saying that the townsfolk should not judge the polygamists (who considered themselves married and would claim all their children) when their own town was full of adultery and fatherless children. But that is just my opinion. I don’t know for sure.

    If anyone would like to buy copy of my Grandpa’s book, shoot me an email and I will get you one. jolene101 at yahoo dot com

    Comment by Grandkid — March 13, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  25. Thanks for that input, Grandkid. And be sure and tell your grandfather thanks for the book he wrote. It’s the kind of local church history we need more of.

    Comment by Christopher — March 13, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  26. Let me say I am LDS and a convert. I was raised baptist. I know Bert Williams, who in his lifetime is attributed to bringing many families to the church and those families were of all ethnic backgrounds. Understand 2 things. One I could find numerous quotes from baptists, catholics, protestants alike from that time period that would sound offensive to us all now. I am an alzheimers communty specialist in the area and prefer to remain nameless for professional reasons, but as part of my community discussions as well as seperate conferences I do also do extensive education on religous and cultural backgrounds. It was a different world at that time and prejudice was there. However many people did not see their prejudices then because it is all they knew as many christians and others exhibit prejudices to the mormon community for what they do not understand. The attitude towards people of a darker color in the mormon church was also part of many other religous sects, groups, etc in that same time frame. I just wanted to remind everyone of all our prejudicial histories, I love how so many people cast stones at mormons when they live in glass houses. Mormons are not the only religion with a colored past with issues such as racial bigotry or polygamy, catholics have thier issues, muslims theirs, jews thiers, with religion,cultural differences, and politics, we all fall short of the embodiment of christianity and find ourselves being judemental and demeaning. We all have a right to opinions, I have heard this story as part of our areas church history as well as story of many other missionaries notable and interesting stories. I will tell you this with 100% certainity, he was not speaking of the interracial issue as a stand alone issue, he was speaking of the immorality of the white men who had sexual out of marriage relationships with young black women, fathered children and were not man enough to admit thier sins against their wives, thier church, thier community, and especially those children. To further complete your story, a friend of mine in the Hampstead area (she is not LDS, is Catholic) professes to be the grandchild of a interracial women who was able to be in close proximity of that very meeting. I guess if there was an offense to be taking, she would have taken it and as an adult woman was so moved by his actions in that meeting joined the LDS church. Hope this Helps!

    Comment by LDSINWILM — March 19, 2010 @ 2:53 am

  27. Thanks LDSINWILM, any and all additional information is useful. Hopefully, my post did not give off the impression that racism was or is unique to Latter-day Saints alone, though certainly this sort of expression of it (defending polygamy while condemning interracial sex) would be. But even then, as I indicate in the final paragraph, I’m much more interested in exploring what this episode tells us historically than I am in casting stones at anyone.

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2010 @ 7:50 am

  28. Christopher… I understand and also did not mean to infer that you did,,, I was simply speaking in generlizations and add some personal experience with the gentleman in question. I found this post while searching for information on statistics of mormon children attending christian schools.. Here is my personal dilemma. I have a child who is the fifth grade and attending an area christian school. We have been more than ecstatic of the experience our son has had there as he was always uncomfortbale in public school. Not because he was mormon but because he was speaking out concerning his choice for morality and trying not to succumb to the pressures of being a child in this era. He has always (even before he at 11 decided to join the church his stepfather went to a mormon church and before me his mother joined) for this choice he has suffered ostracism from his father (who is catholic) loss of friends whose parents show predjudices and bigotry polygamy jokes etc from peers. He has learned not to announce he is mormon but still really wanted a christian environment. SO we began attending this church and have rallied to other parent s mormon and non mormon as this school truly being a chritian school where children could have christ at the center of thier lives and practice good life skills. However, this past monday we took our 8th grade son (who is facing similiar issues) to This school to attempt to tranfer him in at the highschool level next year. We were excited and we went to meet the highschool principle. We were in his office less than 5 minutes when he became aware of the church we attend. The entire mood changed.. He became slanderous, demeaning, cruel, and disrespectful. I will not bore anyone with the details. My husband and I remained calm (as our church holds priority) in the face of such behavior.. He evn brought up the missionaries and polygamay in front of our child spouting negativities and then told our “B” student that this school was not the place for him that “christians” unlike “mormons” practice certain funadmantal and theological teachings he would like and that the he would have trouble adjusting to the academics in the school but there were remedial classes for kids like him that couldnt adjust! We respectfully explained that we use the same king james bible this school required as a text book in our church every sunday and read it once yearly in its entirety and that in no way would our son be bringing the book of mormon or joseph smith to the classroom. He hurriedly and rudely removed us from his presence after arguing with us the geographial location of our wilmington church (I think we know the address better than he ) we asked as he basically shoved us out the door if we needed to put a deposit for our second childs attendance next year and one for the son we already had going to the middleschool program next year. He Said NO! someone will call u in a week or so. This was monday at 3pm. on wed at noon the mail delivered a letter addressed to our 13 year old son stating the following….
    We select our students carefully and we dont think this is the environment fro you. I am allowed to keep the younger son there I am told because he is already in the school and he is guaranteed acceptance to the highschool program. My fear is will he be treated as we were by this unchristian monster of a man shrouded in lamb clothing when he reaches highschool. I was only pointing out the historical fact that all religions have a colored past and we cannot just forget that.

    Comment by LDSINWILM — March 19, 2010 @ 9:12 pm


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