Mormon Perceptions of Asian Race, 1880-1930 (Part I:Chinese)

By June 23, 2008

Since we’ve been posting a bit on race topics, I thought this would be a good time to contribute selections from my Joseph Smith Seminar 2007 paper entitled “Another Other: Asian Race and LDS Theological Change 1880-1930.”

Just as a note, I only chose to analyze perceptions of the Chinese and Japanese because those “races” had more sources to work from for the period I was interested in. However, I think a further inquiry into Korean, Southeast Asian, Mongolian, and South Asian perceptions would be helpful and fascinating. The sources are out there, the work just needs to be done.

Browsing through library databases and catalogues today, it is difficult to find even a handful of hits on Mormonism and Asian Race. Even Armand Mauss’ recent sweeping study, All Abraham’s Children, notably omits any specific inquiry on the subject, though he meticulously dissects an LDS understanding of Blacks, Native Americans, and Jews.[1] Yes, some inferences may be made by delving into historical studies on missionary work in the Far East, but a comprehensive look into what it meant to be Asian in Mormonism and, perhaps more importantly, how the particular theologies came to be, are disappointingly diaphanous. Happily, from what I have previewed of Reid Neilson’s recent dissertation (and Joel’s own research interests), I suspect that this dearth in Asian-LDS race scholarship will soon have an outstanding historical foundation on which to develop. Subsequently, for my presentation today, I will not attempt to trace every intricate historical nuance of the subject but rather focus on my own particular research into how cultural influences created and shaped Mormon conceptions of Asian Race between 1880 and 1930.

The LDS conception of Asian Race shifted dramatically at the turn of the last century. The first era, roughly from 1880 to 1905, established a rigid hierarchy clearly favoring the Japanese over the Chinese. As cultural attitudes became more entrenched through the popular media, LDS magazines soon picked up these accepted assumptions. By 1901, the concept of an Asian hierarchy was so enmeshed in Mormon thought that explanatory theologies of what was termed “believing blood” began to appear in Conference addresses and missionary work.

The second era, dating approximately from 1905 through 1930, suddenly and dramatically “demoted” the Japanese down to the level held by the Chinese and categorized them both as “regrettably” “Mongolian” which race, as one 1891 LDS article noted, “exerted little influence upon the world’s history.”[2] And, just as the first era engendered theological speculation, the second followed by dropping the idea of “believing blood” to favor a new concept of Asian lineage through Japheth, the son of Noah.

Through analyzing the cultural pressures and attitudes prevalent during these two eras, perhaps a more rounded analysis of Asian racial conceptions may emerge than simply a recounting of events. Racial conceptions and even theologies were not formed in a bubble, sealed off from modern thought and American mores. Rather, Mormons gathered in the knowledge available to them to rationally construct a worldview that, over time, took on religious significance.

At the Gateway Mall in downtown Salt Lake City, any visitor can walk through the restored central terminal of the old Union Station. Two large murals dominate the North and South walls, each celebrating different moments of arrival into Utah. First, the pioneer train, and second, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad. Completed in 1869, the transcontinental railroad established Utah as a bustling hub for coast-to-coast travel and commerce. The economy in Northern Utah boomed and Salt Lake City often hosted visiting dignitaries and celebrities. And, along with the railroad came the Chinese. At one point, twelve thousand hired by the Central Pacific line worked their way from California and into Promontory Point where right before honored guests arrived with a golden spike, “a gang of Chinese, in clean blue jackets, moved out to put the final, east rail in place.”[3] After its completion, many Chinese chose to stay in Utah, providing railroad maintenance, opening shops and laundries in emerging Chinatowns, or mining coal and copper. The Chinese outnumbered all other Utah minorities except the well established Native American population and they garnered significant attention from curious local journalists and even Union Station’s unknown mural artist. In the mural commemorating the railroad on the North Wall, three Chinese men look on from the extreme left and though marginalized visually and culturally in Utah, they were still a noticeable presence.

The settlement of Chinese immigrants presented a problem, however. Not only did their presence shatter the previously territory-centric worldviews of LDS settlers, but it also demanded an explanation for their very existence. Previous to the opening of the transcontinental railroad, Mormons had not put much thought into Asia. The world consisted of Lamanite Native Americans, Hamite people of African descent, and the Caucasian “Jews” and “Gentiles.” The world made sense, but by 1880 and the rise of Salt Lake, Ogden, and Park City’s Chinatowns, there was another other.

To answer these questions, Utahns turned to science and their own observations in an attempt to place the Chinese within an understandable context. Explanatory articles began to appear in local newspapers describing their physiology, habits, beliefs, and culture. Unfortunately, by 1882, Utahns were also informed by the Chinese Exclusion Act and articles telegraphed in from other American newspapers underscored established prejudices from across the country.[4] In 1888, the Utah legislature passed its first anti-Asian miscegenation statute, prohibiting marriage between a “Mongolian” and a white person on then commonly accepted grounds of Eugenics.[5] [As a note, that law was not repealed until 1963]. It is also probable that Utah Mormons specifically were concerned about marrying outside of the House of Israel based on biblical injunctions against intermarriage between God’s chosen and pagan unbelievers.

Beyond law, local newspapers repeated and reemphasized racial stereotypes. Between 1890 and 1891, for example, the Provo Daily Enquirer ran numerous explicitly anti-Chinese articles. One report of a funeral in Central Utah accused the Chinese of human sacrifice and “bacchanalian reveling.”[6] Other articles emphasized the “bizarre” joss idols and openly scoffed at Chinese accents as the immigrants attempted to speak more “Melican.”[7] By 1896, The Ogden Standard Examiner went so far as to matter-of-factly report that “the Chinese practice cannibalism.”[8]

From this prolific cultural atmosphere of 1880s and 90s Utah, it is not surprising that official church publications would take up similar subjects as simply accepted fact. The Young Woman’s Journal in 1893, compares Chinese medicinal practices to the “awful and blood-curdling remedies practiced by the witches of New England fame.”[9] Superstition and inexplicable rituals such as observed in healing practices labeled the Chinese as clearly unenlightened and even at time devilish. Racial assumptions also piggy-backed with phrenology and evolutionary science. In The Contributor, for example, an 1894 article entitled “The Brain of the Chinaman” reports that a Chinese brain is “very nearly what is to be found in the chimpanzee.”[10] The Chinese were also apparently morally depraved as other travel-log articles from the same publication describe female slavery and, without apology, a “filthy empire” of “d—ed” Chinamen.[11] These conclusions made within LDS periodicals were undoubtedly cultural commentary rather than doctrinal statements. In an era hallmarked by forays into the most “modern thought” of the time, it would be surprising not to find such racial attitudes present in Mormon publications. Its prevalent presence in the Mormon mentality undoubtedly influenced the way missionary work and lineage constructions would be formulated by the turn of the century. However, to fully understand the developed doctrine of Asian lineage which peaked in 1901, one must first understand where the Chinese stood in relation to the Japanese.

(to be continued…)

[1]Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), passim.
[2] Willard Done, “The Origin of Profane History,” The Contributor 12:6 (April 1891), 223.
[3] Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962), 326.
[4] One good example of these reprinted articles can be found in the Provo Daily Enquirer (11 Feb 1890) “A Chinese Defaulter” which reprinted a telegraphed article from Chicago detailing the ways “Chinamen are rapidly getting into the ways of the country.” The Salt Lake Tribune’s “By Telegraph” series also showcases many of these anti-Asian reprints.
[5] “Miscegenation Statute, 1888.” Utah Laws, Chapter 45, Section 2, p 88.
[6] “Chinese Festivities: Strange Proceedings at a Funeral-Death of Big Ling,” Provo Daily Enquirer (11 Feb 1891), 1.
[7]”Chinese New Year: How the Celestials of Provo Spent the Day-Their Opium Den,” Provo Daily Enquirer (9 Feb 1891), 1; “A Chinese Romance,” Provo Daily Enquirer, (7 October 1890), 3.
[8] “Warfare in Formosa,” Ogden Standard Examiner (14 Feb 1896), 8.
[9] “Healing of the Sick,” The Young Woman’s Journal. 4:4 (1893), 174.
[10]”The Brain of the Chinaman,” The Contributor 15:10 (Aug 1894), 652.
[11] G.H. Snell, “Ramblings Around the World,” The Contributor 14:10 (August 1893), 485, 488.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great stuff, Heidi. Even better the second time around.

    Comment by David G. — June 23, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  2. I have a theory that most of the time when Mormons go wrong, it’s because they are imitating the larger Protestant culture. This would certainly be a data point on that score.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 23, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  3. Nice work Heidi. You are right–this is a virtually untapped vein.

    I agree with your theory.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 23, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  4. Heidi,

    I agree with you that there is much work to be done on the relationship between Asians and Mormonism. Although the discussion of the priesthood ban has rightly dominated the discussion over the last few weeks, I think it is important to remember, especially in the time period that you are addressing, that the average Mormon at the turn of the century was far more likely to encounter Asians, Native Americans, and Latinos as embodied examples of racial others than African Americans. Rather than simply black and white binaries, a variety of racial fault lines informed Mormons’ understanding of race. I think your work demonstrates the importance of including other racial groups when analyzing the history of Mormon racial thought if for no other reason then to understand the context of the ban as it continued into the second half of the 20th century.

    Comment by Joel — June 23, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  5. I hope this won’t be taken as blatently stumping for my own blog, but coincidentally this morning I put up a summary of a Primary children’s operetta performed in 1918. Characters representing the building of a new world at the end of the war appear on stage. All the European nations are welcomed by patriotic America, but when representatives of China, Japan and Hawaii arrive (the Chinese speaking the stereotyped accent Heidi describes), the stage is bare. Nobody welcomes them. In the finale, though, the Asians are there along with the Europeans and Uncle Sam and it’s one big kum-bay-yah lovefest.

    I’m not quite sure exactly what point was being made by the different treatment of Europeans and Asians in the play. I offer it here, though, as another illustration of what Heidi is describing.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 23, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  6. I find references in family histories to my great grandfather harassing “Chinamen” by throwing scrap peices of metal from the loft of his father’s harness shop so that they hit the hands being used to steady baskets of clean laundry. Of course, the cleanliness of the streets at the time given the proximity of a horse based business, meant that the laundry needed to be rewashed.
    My Great grandfather was born in 1871s so this was probably in the mid 1880’s.
    I find the tone in which the biography was written is an indication of how accepted this kind of behaviour was. My Grandfather wasn’t much better, but his racially motivated mischief was directed against hispanics, so I’ll save that for another post.

    Comment by BruceC — June 23, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  7. Very cool, Heidi — light for a blind spot that has typically gone unnoticed.

    I’m looking forward to Part 2.

    Comment by Kaimi — June 23, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  8. Very interesting. And, like David says, better the second time around.

    Comment by Edje — June 23, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  9. Working from memory–in one of the historical novels I co-authored (_The Last Mile of the Way_), we tell the story of Abner Howell, a Black Latter-day Saint who served as train porter when Heber J. Grant and several missionaries were on the land leg of their trip to Japan. As I recall, Pres. Grant had very little success in Japan, converting only one person, who soon de-activated. I have only my memory to go on, but I believe he pronounced the Japanese as “Not of Israel” and hence not inclined to accept the gospel.

    I wish we could get rid of the concept that those who are responsive to the Gospel are “the elect of God.” I’ve heard it within the past two months. It jars.

    Comment by Margaret Young — June 23, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  10. I wish we could get rid of the concept that those who are responsive to the Gospel are ?the elect of God.? I?ve heard it within the past two months. It jars

    But the scriptures are full of ideas like this. “My sheep hear my voice.” What we should jettison is the idea that it is based on ethnicity. I served my mission in Hong Kong and found that simply having a heart prepared to receive the gospel makes far more of a difference than lineage. Ultimately not being prepared at a given moment does not make one better than others nor does it preclude them from becoming prepared at a later time.

    Comment by BruceC — June 23, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  11. Heidi: I look forward to your serialized articles. I wrote a research paper on a similar topic when I was an undergraduate at BYU. You said “The world consisted of Lamanite Native Americans, Hamite people of African descent, and the Caucasian ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles.'” I think the Mormons at that time also believed that some Asians and Pacific Islanders were descendants of the Nephite Hagoth. In addition, some Native Americans (like Pueblo Indians) were considered Nephites by LDS church authorities in the late nineteenth century.

    Margaret: My research showed that Pres. Grant, in his dedicatory prayer for Japan, believed the Japanese were descendants of Lehi and Nephi. Maybe he changed his mind after he started trying to convert the Japanese.

    Comment by Sterling — June 23, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  12. I couldn’t find the dedicatory prayer Pres. Grant gave in Japan, though I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to find. I do have some of the words of the prepared tract he took with him to Japan:

    As an apostle and a Minister of the Most High God, I salute you. We bring to you greater light, more truth, and an advanced knowledge which we offer you freely. We recognize you as the children of our common Father, the Creator of the universe. The spirits of all men are the offspring of God. Therefore, men and women of all races and kindreds and tribes and tongues upon the face of the earth are brothers and sisters.

    Comment by Margaret Young — June 23, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  13. Margaret: Here is the citation I had for Pres. Grant’s dedicatory prayer: ?Opening of the Chinese Realm for the Preaching of the Gospel? Relief Society Magazine 8 (Apr. 1921): 191-203.

    Comment by Sterling — June 23, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  14. Sterling: What? No link??
    I don’t have time right now to go into detail, but my parents had rich, rich experiences in Mainland China, where they lived off and on since 1980. (Dad is on dialysis now and hence unable to travel.) In 1980, they went to a freshly painted Christian Church in the Jinan province which was finally re-opening. The building had been used as a factory from 1949 until that time.

    The paint was too fresh, but modern Chinese Christians came from everywhere–old women, mostely–and sang carols outside of their church. They had been practicing their religion in secret for all those years.

    Comment by Margaret Young — June 23, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  15. Joel: yes. You’re right. I think that many of the “older” settlers in Utah around that time may have been influenced by early Mormonism’s history in states like Missouri and Illinois and their knowledge (at the very least) of the Civil War would have made them more apt to consider/theologize the existence of people of African descent before those of Asian? That is, until the railroad came… But I agree with you that at least during this time, Utah Mormons probably had more actual contact with Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans than with African-Americans.

    Ardis (5): No. Way. Wow.

    Bruce C and Margaret: Yes, your accounts fit right in with what I seemed to find as “common” assumption and treatment. Here’s another anecdote: in Park City, the white residents built a bridge OVER the chinatown so they wouldn’t have to walk through it. You can still see signs near mainstreet called “China Bridge” or something like that.

    Various: In ref to things like polynesian peoples and the Japanese dedication prayer, I’m just going to ref. my next post since I deal with that specifically there. Maybe I’ll post it tomorrow or Wednesday. Probably tomorrow though.

    Comment by Heidi — June 23, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  16. Very interesting stuff, thanks! I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t be more correct to speak of “Utah Mormon Perceptions of Asian Race” though? I don’t think Asian or European Mormons of the time would have necessarily thought along the same lines as Americans or Utahans.

    Comment by Observer — June 24, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  17. Observer: I thought about that, but the next part of my paper deals more with “official” (aka, over-the-pulpit at conference and in wide-circulation magazines) LDS ideas and doctrines that probably reached in some way to European Mormons. As for the Asian Mormons–first, there really weren’t that many. Hardly any, in fact. And, as I include in the next section, even they seemed to buy into the whole houseofisreal/believing blood thing for a while…

    Comment by Heidi — June 24, 2008 @ 9:01 am

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  19. Heidi: Thank you so much for this. I wish I had something more substantive to add! But thank you.

    Joel #4–You said it very well for me–it’s not all about black & white binaries.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — June 24, 2008 @ 9:59 am

  20. Great stuff, Heidi. I know I’m coming late to the discussion, but just returned from a two week trip to Korea, which sparked a new interest in topics dealing with Mormonism in Asia. This is a great start. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 8, 2008 @ 12:30 am

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  22. This was a great article. Thanks

    Comment by Joanie — April 18, 2009 @ 10:09 pm


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