Examining Mormon Ethnicity (Part II)

By December 8, 2008

I realized after thinking about my previous post that I did not really summarize what scholars mean by defining Mormons as an “ethnic” group or “ethnicity.” Different historians have explained the idea in different ways. For example, Dean L. May’s explanation emphasizes the shared migratory experience of the pioneers and the voluntary spatial isolation represented by Mormon settlement in the West. [1] Jan Shipps similarly argues in her Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition that “by virtue of a common paradigmatic experience as well as isolation, [Latter-day Saints have acquired an ethnic identity so distinct that it sets the Saints apart in much the same fashion that ethnic identity sets the Jews apart. [2] Patricia Limerick outlines the components of Mormon ethnicity as “the creation of a community in which religious belief laid the foundations for a new worldview, a new pattern of family organization, a new set of ambitions, a new combination of common bonds and obligations, a new definition of separate peoplehood.” [3] All of these definitions sound very apt until you start to think about the process of defining and the ways that these definitions either include or exclude.Patricia Limerick, a vaunted New Western historian who should be commended for not ignoring Mormons within the history of the American West, in her essay, “Peace Initiative,” demonstrates one difficulty with the conceptualization of Mormonism as ethnicity. Coming from a Mormon background–her father grew up in a Mormon family–she points out the snippets of Mormon culture that she perceives were passed on to her from her non-practicing father. From this observation, Limerick moves to a discussion of the history of the church as a laboratory for the development of ethnicity within a people generally accorded the privileges of whiteness. To be fair, Limerick addresses some of the difficult issues associated with the ethnicity as a conceptual category. She realizes that ethnicity has become a new way to rearticulate old racial boundaries and bemoans this rhetorical shift. Thus, Limerick celebrates the fact that the study of Mormon ethnicity offers a safe theoretical space outside the politically charged study of race and the internal/external battles for the Mormon sense of historicity. Yet at some level she comes to her historical conclusions based on present observations about how Mormon identity has shaped her own life. [4]

One of the things I was trying to argue with my previous discussion of the origins of ethnicity is that historical actors have always espoused various identities, but such self-identifications, at least in 19th century, were never self-consciously ethnic. Brigham Young never got up in the morning and thought to himself, “I’m so glad that I am a part of the Mormon ethnic group.” He had no conception of what ethnicity was; it was not available to Young as a method for interpreting his life and the connection he felt with the rest of the saints. The idea of ethnicity is something that has been imposed as an analytical tool on the past by historians of the present. By inventing the idea of Mormon ethnicity as an explanatory tool for the past, historians think they have conveniently created a paradigm to explain the Mormon present as well, while in actuality they look to present “separateness” as an explanation for past separateness.

Limerick acknowledges the fact that ethnicity is a construct, but she argues that ethnicity existed because Mormons created and maintained a group identity without some unifying idea like ethnicity. Can you see the circular logic? Ethnicity was made manifest because Mormons held together without knowing about ethnicity. I am perfectly willing to concede that Mormons formed some sort of group identity in the past and that they hold some sort of group identity in the present, but these two identities have been profoundly different. Armand Mauss has tried to explain the differences between these two identities by narrating the death of Mormon ethnicity through the globalization of the church. I would argue that the true problem is that the paradigm of ethnicity is at the same time too broad and too problematic to describe the Mormon experience at any point in its history. [5]

I hope everyone will wait with bated breath for the conclusion of my discussion on Mormon ethnicity.

[1] Dean L. May, “Mormons,” in Mormons and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion, ed. Eric Alden Eliason (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2001), 47.

[2] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 187 n. 24.

[3] Patricia Limerick, “Peace Initiative: Using the Mormons to Rethink Culture and Ethnicity in American History,” in Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New¬†West (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), 240.

[4] Ibid., 246-255.

[5] Ibid., 252; Armand L. Mauss, “Mormons as Ethnics: Variable Historical and International Implications of an Appealing Concept,” in The Mormon Presence in Canada, eds. Brigham Y. Card et. al. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1990), 332-337.


  1. I’m looking at Mauss’s All Abraham’s Seed 22-23, under the heading “Believing Blood.” The quote from JS about how Gentiles “must have ‘a new creation by the Holy Ghost … to purge out the old blood and make him actually the seed of Abraham,'” coupled with BY’s statement about Gentiles undergoing “fits” and “spasms” suggests to me that Young saw himself and his fellow Mormons as being radically (even racially) distinct from Gentiles. Just because the term “ethnic” wasn’t around back then …. One wonders if he might have used it if it had been.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 8, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  2. I think you may be correct that there is a unique ethnicity here but it is not ‘Mormon” as much as “Wyoutho” (or some other name that would describe that part of the western U.S. that comprise the area that the Mormons originally claimed as “Deseret”). If you study Church Members from different areas, the Mexican Colonies come to mind for an example here, you will probably find marked differences from their Western US counter parts.

    Comment by Jim B — December 9, 2008 @ 1:54 am

  3. Thanks, Joel. Enlightening, as always. In your opinion, are any of these authors grounded in the literature on ethnicity, or are they just attempting to borrow the concept without doing sufficient research into the field?

    Jim, I’m not sure if you’re referring to Joel’s post or Steve’s comment, but Joel is taking the position that there is no such thing as Mormon ethnicity (although there is a distinct Mormon identity), either in the 19th century or in post-World War II America.

    Comment by David G. — December 9, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  4. Steve,

    I think Young probably thought of Mormons in racial terms because at the same time Americans were thinking of Italians, Germans, and Jews in racial terms. I am not arguing that 19th century Mormons didn’t see some kind of racial component in their Mormon identity. What I am arguing against is calling that group identity “ethnicity” for the reasons I have outlined in my two previous posts. I think both yours and Jim’s comments demonstrate how ethnicity is always about reading a very problematic contemporary category into the past.


    Your question reveals again some of the difficulties with the idea of ethnicity. May and O’Day were heavily engrossed in the literature on ethnicity of their day. I just think that recent trends in the historiography of race have identified some incredibly important problems with the ethnicity literature–a few of which I have tried to demonstrate. Ethnicity is an attractive concept because it not only describes a certain type of socio-cultural identity and community, but also can become an explanatory tool for the continuation of that identity and community–especially for those who can’t or don’t want to understand that particular community. This became a significant problem for historians of ethnicity in the 1970s and the 1980s. Limerick’s conception of Mormon ethnicity actually tries to address most of the concerns that I have with the term. She is trying to resurrect the term as a useful substitute for a certain sense of identity, yet I am not convinced for the reasons outlined. In short, I am not being critical only of Mormon scholars that use the analytical category of ethnicity, I think it is a problematic category in much of the scholarly literature where it is invoked.

    Comment by Joel — December 9, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  5. I would argue that the true problem is that the paradigm of ethnicity is at the same time too broad and too problematic to describe the Mormon experience at any point in its history.

    I think this is right and explains why I always found something a bit off in ethnic investigations. (Razib over at Gene Expression has done a lot of this)

    I think our fundamental prosalytizing nature means that there’s something fundamentally different from us and say Jews.

    Comment by Clark — December 9, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  6. I am enjoying your posts. They have made me check the furniture inside my head. I do think your views on ” ethnicity ” are too narrow. I would say Boaz would go much deeper into the Human Mind. That putting things and people into groups is as old as Man’s mind. That language had ‘nouns’ in it long before Man understood what was a sentence. ( That ‘ethnicity’ is hard wired in the head).

    In the ’60s, Lamarck (Russia’s Darwin), was more tied to Marx than to Race.

    Comment by Bob — December 9, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  7. Fascinating stuff, Joel. Thanks for addressing these issues. Its nice to have someone who studies ethnicity and race bring that perspective to Mormon history.

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  8. Thanks for these posts.

    And breath = bated.

    Comment by Edje — December 9, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  9. I agree, great stuff!

    Comment by Jared T — December 9, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  10. Actually, I am waiting for the conclusion.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — December 12, 2008 @ 7:05 pm


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