Book Review: Mason, Patrick Q. The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

By November 30, 2011

In The Mormon Menace, Patrick Mason adeptly traces the contours of anti-Mormonism in the late nineteenth-century South and explains how proselytizing, polygamy, and extra-legal violence shaped the South’s response to Mormonism. Mason attends to the ways in which southern honor, defined by a communal estimation of the individual and often deployed to protect or avenge the virtuous female, provided justification for illicit actions against Mormon missionaries. While granting that anti-Mormon violence paled in comparison to racial and political attacks against African Americans, Mason contends that “Mormonism was unique in the way it inspired southerners to set aside general norms of civility and religious tolerance” (13).

In his thematic treatment, which primarily relies on newspapers and periodicals, Mason provides two case studies of anti-Mormon violence”the murder of Joseph Standing (1879) and the Cane Creek Massacre (1884)” explores the ecumenical, bipartisan, and national nature of attacks on polygamy, outlines three overlapping southern approaches to its eradication, vigilantism, evangelism, and legislative reform, and quantifies and qualifies southern anti-Mormon violence. Though focused on southern anti-Mormonism and its violent aspects, Mason also describes how the South contributed to Mormon constructions of an oppositional identity and suggests that the emphasis on difference informed the violence. While filling a gap in the historiographical record, Mason’s attention to southern anti-Mormonism also allows him to address larger questions about postbellum American culture, including the limits of religious toleration, the process of national healing and reunion, and the politics of domesticity in the South and the nation.

Mason argues that polygamy propelled southern anti-Mormonism. In two of his most illuminating chapters, he traces the emergence of a national bipartisan anti-polygamy movement, most evident in the widespread support of Reynolds v. U.S. (1879) and the Edmunds Act (1882), and describes the ecumenical nature of the southern Protestant repulsion toward the practice. Building on Sally Gordon’s study on anti-polygamy legislation, Mason characterizes the national anti-polygamy campaign as a second Reconstruction. He also makes use of David Blight’s argument in Race and Reunion to describe the southern reversal on federal intervention, shrewdly explaining that “anti-Mormonism” served to subsume regional and partisan identities by uniting southern Democrats with their erstwhile northern Republican foes in a common religious and national cause” (100). To highlight this shift, Mason demonstrates how Representative John Randolph Tucker of Virginia refused, despite his condemnation of polygamy, to support the Edmunds Bill, only to later change his position and back the federal crackdown on the Latter-day Saint Church.

At times Mason attends to Mormon responses to anti-Mormon violence and this subject receives extended treatment in the eighth chapter. LDS speakers used the memorial services of Elders John Gibbs and William Berry to reinforce their identity as a persecuted people with ties to suffering saints of the primitive church and forbearers from the immediate past. In describing how Utah Mormons positioned themselves within a tradition of religious persecution, Mason utilizes the scholarship of D. Michael Quinn, R. Laurence Moore, and Jan Shipps. Persecution narratives emerged in the pages of the Deseret News, missionary reports, and autobiographies. Mormons pinned the violence on the Southern press, local anti-Mormons, and a bigoted Protestant leadership. As Mason argues, “violence and other forms of resistance experienced in the church’s southern hinterland considerably shaped Mormon identity in the western hinterland” (151).

Mason’s study is sensibly structured, well written and carefully argued. He admirably narrates a neglected story in southern and Mormon history and in the process illuminates national developments and explores broad themes. I’m left with only a few questions. Mason rightly stresses the qualitative and quantitative differences between racial violence against African Americans and religious violence against Mormons, while still addressing points of overlap. He explains how questions of honor and manhood informed southern attempts to check LDS proselytizing efforts and, in doing so, notes the parallel between the characterizations of the Mormon “home wrecker” and the “black beast rapist” (66-68). Beyond these loose rhetorical connections though, one wonders how southerners racialized Mormons or contributed to the claim that polygamous Mormons had committed what one scholar labels as “race treason.” [1] If southerners did not view Mormons as a “new race” or a “new ethnic group,” that also begs some explanation. [2] W. Paul Reeve’s forthcoming work, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, will likely shed light on at least some of these issues.

Mason does not pretend to offer a complete account of the Mormon experience in the postbellum South and indeed he explains that his work is “less about the experience of Mormons in the South than the reaction of southerners to their presence” (11). Still, at times Mason’s discussion seems to present the South as monolithic and this owes in part to his focus on necessarily circumscribed anti-Mormon reactions and representations. In other words, the emphasis on southern anti-Mormonism, a phenomena constrained by narrow views of the Mormon other, can be mistaken for a consensus southern response to and representation of Mormonism. And yet, while we should not collapse southern anti-Mormonism with Southern responses to Mormonism, Mason’s efforts rather successfully demonstrate that southern reactions to Mormon presence often partook of anti-Mormon sentiment. Mormon proselytizing efforts, their polygamous beliefs and practices, and notions of southern honor all contributed to this sentiment. But the reach of this sentiment may have also had to do with antebellum North/South debates about slavery. This is not to suggest that the South’s response to Mormonism was monolithic after all, but perhaps the extent to which postbellum anti-Mormon sentiment permeated southern discourse about Mormons corresponds with an antebellum proslavery consensus. Southerners were hardly of one mind on slavery, and indeed some in the Upper South preferred racial exclusion to racial subordination, but most agreed that the institution was historically and biblical legitimate, and thus divinely ordained. [3] Thus, as Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese note, when Mormons defended the widely condemned practice of polygamy on similar grounds this “plunged Southerners into a quandary.” No wonder then, that after the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent military defeat, southerners turned their attention from a careful defense of their anachronistic system to a wholesale castigation of the Mormon’s relic of barbarism. [4]

Pointing out Mason’s neglect of antebellum slavery, though, is tantamount to critiquing a book that he did not write. Indeed, one of The Mormon Menace’s great strengths is its tight and focused discussion and incorporating debates over slavery into the mix might have overwhelmed the focus on postbellum anti-Mormonism. Mason’s work, in short, gives us a lot to think about and directs us to ask further questions. In attempting to answer these questions, The Mormon Menace will prove invaluable.


[1] Martha M. Ertman, “Race Treason: the Untold Story of America’s Ban on Polygamy,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 19, no. 2, (2010): 287-366.

[2] On the claim that Mormon polygamy produced a “new race,” see Roberts Bartholow, “Sanitary Report-Utah Territory,” in Sickness and Mortality in the Army of the United States, prepared by Richard H. Coolidge (Washington: George W. Rowman, 1860), 302. On the idea of Mormons as a “new ethnic group,” see Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987), 282. Incidentally, in a class discussion with Limerick via telephone, I asked her whether scholars or other readers had questioned this claim and she stated that, surprisingly, no one had broached the issue with her before.

[3] See, for example, Lacy K Ford, “Making the ‘White Man’s Country: White: Race, Slavery, and State-Building in the Jacksonian South,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 713-737.

[4] Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the South Slaveholder’s Worldview (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 513-15, quote on 514.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Comparative Mormon Studies Miscellaneous Race


  1. This is an excellent review! I would like to read this at some point. It looks quite interesting. Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by Jack Ply — November 30, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  2. Quality review, Jordan. You ably demonstrate the book’s worth, and do well in situating it within the broader context.

    While filling a gap in the historiographical record, Mason?s attention to southern anti-Mormonism also allows him to address larger questions about postbellum American culture, including the limits of religious toleration, the process of national healing and reunion, and the politics of domesticity in the South and the nation.

    This, I thought, was the best (of many) of the book’s virtues. I thought Mason addressed broader themes and issues, using Mormons as “objects” rather than “subjects,” better than all but a handful of Mormon studies books in recent memory. I found it a remarkable book.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 30, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  3. Thanks for the review, Jordan. I agree that this is good news for Mormon history, as it shows (along with other recent works such as those by Flake, Farmer, Reeve) that Mormonism can be used to write not just Mormon history, but also American religious history, Western history, and even Southern history with national implications. It’ll be interesting to see how non-Mormon sources review it.

    On the question of whether Mormons can profitably understood as a new ethnic or racial group, the idea was first fully explored by Dean May in an article in a Harvard encyclopedia of ethnicity, although Limerick I think has done more than anyone to popularize the idea. I’ve noticed that some younger scholars (including Reeve, who was trained by May, and Mason) have found the concept to be useful in their work. But I’ve also heard scholars who have actual training in ethnic studies (Ignacio Garcia at BYU and the JI’s Joel) express considerable skepticism regarding the concept’s utility to illuminate Mormonism. So the jury’s still out, I think.

    Comment by David G. — November 30, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Wait. Jordan still blogs here?

    Comment by the narrator — November 30, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  5. Nice work, Jordan. I am eager to see how this dovetails with Fluhman’s work, when it emerges.

    Comment by Ryan T. — November 30, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

  6. Thanks folks.

    I agree Ben, Mason successfully shows how Mormon history can illuminate American history.

    David, thanks for your insight. As I mention in a footnote, I was surprised that no one had critiqued Limerick, at least by her own account, for her mention of Mormons as a new ethnic group.

    Loyd, the more appropriate response is, “Wait. Who’s Jordan?”

    And Ryan, I had the same thought.

    Comment by Jordan W. — November 30, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  7. great book, great review.

    Comment by smb — November 30, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Nice to see you posting again, Jordan, and thanks for the review. I really enjoyed Patrick’s book–fascinating content, and important topic, and highly readable.

    Comment by Christopher — December 1, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

  9. Jordan,

    Thank you for this thoughtful, even incisive, review. It’s gratifying for an author to have a reviewer really understand and represent what the book is trying to accomplish, as you’ve done here. The other nice thing about an online review like this is that it allows for the author to respond to some of the points raised by the reviewer.

    First, you’re right that the book can tend toward presenting a kind of monolithic southern anti-Mormon culture. At various points I try to nuance that, including my acknowledgment in the beginning that on most days most missionaries were received with basic decency and even hospitality, meaning the story I tell is already exceptional. And of course there were those precious few southerners, including those who never joined the church, who ardently defended the missionaries. But I was struck by just how pervasive and consistent anti-Mormon sentiment was in the postbellum South. Although most southerners didn’t take it to the violent extreme, real antipathy toward LDS missionaries, and the Mormon religion, was, I dare say, nearly universal.

    In terms of providing shades of nuance to variations within the South, I would point you to Jim Bennett’s fine article, “Until This Curse of Polygamy is Wiped Out: Black Methodists, White Mormons, and Constructions of Racial Identity in the Late 19th Century,” Religion & American Culture 21:2 (Summer 2011): 167-194. I only briefly refer to African American responses to Mormonism in the book, so Bennett’s article, which unfortunately I hadn’t seen before the book went to press, is a necessary, if friendly, amendment. Blacks used similar language as whites in opposing Mormonism, especially polygamy, though for their own purposes. As I told Jim, I wish his article had appeared as a chapter of my book!

    Speaking of race, I too am looking forward to Reeve’s book on the racialization of Mormons. Although I’m aware of the broad contours of those processes, I didn’t see much of it being produced by southerners. Perhaps I missed it. More likely, I think, is that southerners knew “real” racial otherness when they saw it — and whatever Mormons were, they weren’t black. At least from my understanding of the whiteness literature, much of that discourse originated in the North, where race relations always had more shades than just white and black. Perhaps Paul will identify southern sources that prove me wrong here (which I would be glad for), but that’s my hunch.

    Finally, on Jordan’s point about antebellum slavery and how that relates to postbellum southern antipolygamy. There is, as I suggest in the book, a strong connection between the two. The remarkable thing is how long southern Democrats remain as political allies — if not friends — of the Mormons; indeed, the Edmunds Act in 1882 was extremely unpopular with a number of southern Democrats. They were still making many of the same arguments about popular sovereignty and local control — themes which were only exacerbated by their experience with Reconstruction — well into the 1880s. Finally, though, the moral weight of antipolygamy is just too strong, I argue, and one form of ideology (defense of womanhood and Christian civilization) outweighs another (popular sovereignty).

    Thanks again to Jordan and the other commenters here.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — December 1, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  10. In case anyone is interested, I put up a short summary of Bennett’s article that Patrick refers to above a couple of months ago here.

    Comment by Christopher — December 1, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  11. Thanks Sam and Chris.

    And thanks Patrick for your response, which clarified some points that I left unclear. Also, I had not seen Jim Bennett’s article, but it sounds like a nice contribution to the discussion. (Thanks Chris for the link to the summary). On the issue of race, your explanation seems quite plausible. Others here are more familiar with the relevant literature, but to the extent that the racialization of Mormons is going on elsewhere, perhaps the Mormon experience in the South can further illuminate regional developments in the construction of race and the ossification of racial categories.

    In thinking about your final point, I’m struck by the failure of the moral argument as regards slavery in comparison with its success in relation to polygamy. Of course, this seeming discrepancy largely owes to slavery’s embeddedness in antebellum society. Further, as your book clearly demonstrates, the fact that the moral argument against polygamy won out doesn’t mean that its end came without struggle and violence.

    Comment by Jordan W. — December 1, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

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    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 2011 in Retrospect: A Look at Important Books and Articles in Mormon History — December 5, 2011 @ 4:29 am


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