Lecturing about Race and Mormonism at Harvard College

By March 18, 2010

First, thanks to Kristine and Matt for their kind invitation to join you folks. Second thanks to all members of JI for your kind welcome.

For my first (trepidation filled) post for your august community, I want to briefly share my fresh experience having lectured this past week on Mormonism for a Harvard College undergrad course on American religious history (led by Prof. Marie Griffith, formerly of Princeton).

Frequently in such survey courses, Mormonism is treated in one of three ways, all of which come with their own intellectual and (I’d suggest) moral problems.
1. Mormonism is handled as part of the burnt-over district family of millennial movements, without exploring the unique theological contributions the movement made or recognizing that of all these traditions (Millerites, Oneida etc.) Mormonism alone transcended its particular period of origin to become a restoration movement which lived up to its own ambitions.
2. Mormonism is covered during the “cult/sect” week and is lumped together with Branch Davidians, Scientology Moonies. Often teachers have good intentions with this week; their aim ostensibly is to convey the lesson, embodied in the axiom (sometimes attributed to Tom Wolfe) that “a cult is a religion without political power”. Yet, such lessons, which maintain the standard proximity between Mormonism and the word “cult” , often result in the perpetuation not the disassociation of Mormonism and cult (and its on the ground manifestation–polygamy) in the minds of students uninitiated in the study of religion.
3. In response to the first two trends, Mormonism is sometimes placed at the center of American religious history (a la Harold Bloom) as some kind of poetic gnosticism (Mormonism as religion is personal revelation). Yet I believe, in attempt to avoid discussing Golden Plates, polygamy, and persecution, this trend takes Mormonism right out of history, its own and American.

Wanting to avoid these pitfalls (but recognizing that I was digging some of my own), my decision was to discuss Mormonism and race. Mormonism served as a two-way window; first Mormonism helped us explore theissue of race in American religion and race was means of exploring Mormonism’s unique theological and historical contributions (as well as controversies) to American religious history. I also had more selfish reasons for this approach–I wanted to try to see if my recent research on Jane Manning James (cultural history) and Booker T. Washington (intellectual history) could fit into broader discussions of Mormonism as American religion.

I argued that it was not polygamy but the question of race?or as Americans (Mormon and Gentile) called it?the ?Negro Question??that has been the most vexing question for Mormons since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.

To support this position we discussed various statements by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, all of whom in various ways reaffirmed the ban on black men holding the priesthood.  Yet we traced how the Church’s position changed from a righteous declaration of unequivocal and eternal truth of black inferiority during the mid 1850s to by the 1970s, the continuation of the ban representing nothing more than a “mystery of faith”, one that could be reversed through prophetic revelation.

Yet to complicate a progressive narrative (a racist church moving to fulfilling its own universal ambitions), we discussed Jane Manning James, a woman who was at the time of her death in 1908 celebrated as a faithful Mormon and a true pioneer while also deemed a second class citizen of both earthly Zion and the celestial kingdoms. My point here was that Mormons have always struggled internally with how to handle blacks.

We also discussed the Mormons’ long-time relationship of Booker T. Washington (culminating with a 1913 visit by Washington to Salt Lake) as part of their attempt at reintegration in the American nation. I argued that in exchange for the public and financial support, Washington used his great popularity to challenge the perception of Mormons as anti-Americans, a perception common among the white and black east coast elites who supported Washington. Washington hoped to reintroduce the Mormons as acceptable, even exemplary members of the national community. With their hard fought fortunes and political recognition engaged in support of Washington, Mormons hoped to close the book on the ?Mormon problem? by becoming active participants in the national debate about how to solve the ?Negro problem?.

My purpose in all of this to provide three lessons to the students:

First, though both the longevity and complexity of the Mormons? racialized theology is I would argue without par in American religious history, Mormonism?s relationship to race follows patterns that are typical to many American Protestant movements and denominations (I reminded our students that Mormons, like all American churches, were forced to take sides during the 1840s over the question of slavery. As such the references to the Curse of Ham were certainly not unique to Mormons).

Second, because it has always been a mission oriented church, Mormons have always sincerely struggled with how to handle questions of race:  to what extent could they politically as well as theologically fully enact what they understand as their divine calling to bring the message of the Restored Gospel to ?all the families of the earth?.

Finally, the story of Mormonism and race is non-linear. The story of Mormonism and race follows neither a pattern of progress (moving from a racial past to a more egalitarian future) nor declension (from a egalitarian origin to a more racialized future).

Instead Mormonism?s relationship with race is a history of contingency, determined by political modes in the nation and by personal views of church leaders. This means that mapping Mormonism?s racial past produces more peaks and valleys instead of smooth mounting or descending planes.

My biggest fear was that, like my critique of discussions that pair Mormonism with “cults”, I’ve forever linked Mormonism with “race”, or worse yet “racism” in out students’ minds. I was very conscious of the potential for this (as well as very aware that as in almost all of the courses we teach, there are a few LDS members to whom we have the responsibility to not add material for anti-Mormon ridicule). I hope I showed that Mormonism is both similar to and different than all other American religious traditions and should be studied as such.

Nevertheless, I wonder if I’ve helped to “open” or “close” our students’ minds on Mormonism as a viable, but not unproblematic, faith tradition of the American pluralistic community.

I recognize I’ve said a lot for my first post. I very much welcome any thoughts on whether you all think this approach to teaching about Mormonism in a liberal arts setting is interesting, worthwhile (or dangerous).

I promise in the future I’ll be more brief in my thoughts!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Max, I’m not an academic, just a dabbler in Mormon history, but I like this approach. I would have to agree with your thesis that race, not polygamy, has been the most vexing issue for the Church since 1900. While a lot of the students might first identify with the polygamy issue, there has been so much new research done regarding the Church and race that it would be enlightening for your students, and perhaps engage them more. As to the danger, some no doubt would say “cult, strike one; polygamy, strike two; race, strike three”. But for those who are willing to look at things in the greater context of national race and slavery issues, this might promote a more nuanced interest in Mormon religious studies.

    Comment by kevinf — March 18, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  2. The idea that Mormonism has always been an “American” phenomenon seems suspect to me. I’m American because Porfirio Díaz happened to find himself on the wrong side of Mexican history. That said, at this point, I would find myself no more at home in Mexico than Booker T. Washington would have if he’d returned to Africa back in his day. We’re all Americans now, but one interesting aspect of Mormonism is that such was not always the case, and that’s a history that’s largely been ignored, because it’s messy.

    If it were my course, I might try to introduce reports from African Americans who’d made the attempt to relocate to Africa after having been brought up in America. Something post Marcus Garvey.

    And maybe it’s just because my people hail from Lancashire. How we found ourselves caught up in the Mormon project, well, that’s almost nearly as uncomfortable a discussion as the one about how it is that place eventually manages to supplant race in the formation of identity.

    In any case, my sense is that most theories (including the three noted in the OP), tend to be awfully reductive.

    Comment by Chino Blanco — March 18, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  3. Welcome Max. I like the thoughtfulness of your pedagogy. My only questions have to do with the justifications you give for taking the approach that you took–I think it might be a bit strawman-ish. Race is clearly one important avenue that needs to be more fully appreciated and applied. I would have to say though that any survey course that places Mormonism in just one of the three categories you mentioned earlier is pretty unimaginiative. My experience is that the best professors in the field are much more creative in their survey courses than your typology suggests. I’m also not sure I buy your objection outlined in #2. A discussion about the contestation over and cultural implications of the term “cult”
    benefit greatly from the use of Mormonism as an example. Most of my students experience “expectation failure” during that lecture in ways that make it one of the most satisfying of the semester for me. Please don’t take my comments as somehow dismissive or needelssly critical. I welcome such thoughtful contributions to the way we are teaching American religion in general and Mormonism in particular.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 18, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Max; you have obviously put much thought on the issue, and I think you make some great points. The difficulty of teaching such complex issues within the limits of a survey course is definitely at play. I think the race issue for 20th century Mormonism is particularly potent because it touches on many of the major themes of the Church: tradition, loyalty to the Brethren, public vs. private discourse, scriptural exegesis, the hurdles of radical revelation in a period of routinized charisma, etc.

    Also, you may be interested in looking at this thoughtful post by Ryan T., as well as the helpful discussion that followed.

    Comment by Ben — March 18, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  5. I think it perhaps would be more informative to look at the Mormon attitude to tribe and extended family without addressing the “black” question at all, because history and circumstance corrupted the attitude towards blacks in a way that it did not the attitude toward tribal or extended familial associations generally.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 18, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  6. Mark: I disagree. A major part of history is to examine how a culture reacts to/adapts outside influences, and Mormon race relations provides an important example of that. To just say that “history and circumstance corrupted the attitude towards blacks” is just side-stepping the important historical question.

    Comment by Ben — March 18, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  7. #5, good luck with that.

    And maybe the lecturer can invite Marlin-“It will be a good long while before I’m part of such a diverse crowd again”-Jensen to the class.

    Comment by Chino Blanco — March 18, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  8. You’ve got me thinking. That isn’t easy.

    I immediately questioned your assertion that race has been the most vexing question for Mormons to deal with, simply because it was a personal issue to a vanishingly small number of Mormons. There were so few black members historically, and although there were a few outspoken members who called for change, I think there are far more people claiming *today* that they were activists *then* than the record can possibly support. I think that the vast majority of church members from the beginning through 1978 never gave it a thought beyond the occasional article or lesson justifying the ban — we heard it, it sounded reasonable, it came from a voice of authority, it didn’t affect anybody we knew, so we nodded and went about our business. (I’m describing what I think actually did happen, not what perhaps should have happened.)

    That’s hardly a “vexing concern” when contrasted with the issue of polygamy that just wouldn’t go away, especially when so many members knew people who were directly affected by the efforts to stamp out polygamy, and even more members who had to come to terms in one way or another with their ancestors’ practice of it. That was a greater vexation much more often to a far greater proportion of the church than those that were ever concerned with blacks and the priesthood.

    But I think after a little consideration that you may be right after all. Because of the way western culture developed in the 20th century, polygamy is not something that causes much serious grief for most of us. It’s an historical artifact, and we have to deal with general societal ignorance, but it hasn’t brought us persecution or stopped the spread of the gospel. Because of the way western culture developed in the 20th century, race *did* become more and more vexatious as time passed. Without the events of 1978, the course of the church and the affect of race on ever more numbers of Mormons would have become more and more vexatious.

    Sorry for the length of the comment. I’m thinking with my fingers.

    Did Mormons of 1913 consciously have in mind the use of Booker T. Washington to help us reintegrate into the nation? Or is that just the effect you see it having in hindsight?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 18, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

  9. I haven’t read the Smoot hearing transcripts, but I’d be willing to bet that there are thousands of words in there about polygamy, and not a whisper about race and church membership or priesthood. (If I lose the bet, I’ll take someone to lunch.)

    And, I’d be willing to guess that the ratio of polygamy questions to race questions didn’t change much until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement brought questions of race to the forefront.

    However much the issue of the priesthood ban vexed Mormons before then is impossible to determine, but the lack of questioning from outside the church and the limited personal contact between church members in the intermountain West and people of African descent (the Provo, Utah, where I grew up in the 1960s was nearly 100% white–there wasn’t a single African American in my high school, and only a handful that I ever saw in any of the interactions we had with the other high schools in the state) suggests that it is something most of us didn’t think about much. It was a vexing question by the mid-1960s, when I was old enough to think about it, but because it was vexing, and because for most of us there seemed no solution other than to wait patiently, there was little purpose in letting oneself be actively vexed by it–so it was pushed aside in favor of other thoughts.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 18, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

  10. Whether the description of the three theories is overly reductive or not, I do applaud Max’s effort to avoid falling into cliched ways of approaching Mormonism. Bravo.

    I have to say that your approach surprised me a little, but to the extent it validates (there’s that word again) Mormonism by placing it within a larger context, I think it works. In other words, even if the question of race isn’t objectively the most vexing problem for Mormons (it may well be), the fact that you’ve attempted such an analysis is a model to students for how they can and should approach study of all other American religions. An “each one is similar, each one is different” approach seems very helpful and useful.


    Comment by Hunter — March 18, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  11. Max, thanks for the thoughtful post. I don’t have much to add in way of critiquing your approach (I largely agree with the potential pitfalls Taysom points out in #3 and like Ardis’s thoughts in #8), but like the idea of how you handled it because it introduces students to the complexities of Mormonism (specifically) and religion and race in America (more generally). And those few LDS students in your class surely would benefit from it.

    So what sort of response did you receive?

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

  12. I grew up in Ogden, Utah, which had a larger population of blacks both by number and percentage than Salt Lake City, and it was often a topic. I was not an activist, but I was acutely aware of it, and was finding by my college years in the early 70’s that the old explanations just weren’t making much sense anymore. Racism was an issue that played itself out in the headlines after the HiFi shop murders in 1973 (1974?), with a handful of the black students at Weber State that I personally knew who basically went into hiding to avoid getting stopped by the police in Ogden during that time.

    I can see it not being as much an issue in Provo, other than the NCAA problems, but it was much more upfront in Ogden, and caused some significant community turmoil. I actually did a paper for a journalism class my senior year on civil rights violations and ethical lapses on the part of the Ogden Police during the investigation of those murders.

    Anecdotal evidence, certainly, but Provo was not the whole Utah/Mormon experience.

    Comment by kevinf — March 18, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  13. Max, may I just say that I extremely appreciated this post and your discussion about race in the Church. I would agree with the idea that for members of the Church now race is the most difficult historical aspect of the Church to assimilate, much more than polygamy. With polygamy, we can wrestle with the idea of the practice, but we still can trace its history in the Church and ultimately rely on the idea of it as divine revelation. The priesthood ban and the Church policy in relation to race does not have that type of tidy history that we can rely on. With different ideas being taught by different leaders in the Church from the 1850s to the 1970s, as well as questions over the origins of the ban, it is a difficult concept to work through (as a Church member and as a historian).

    In relation to your research on Booker T. Washington, have you found any type of material on Church members discussing W.E.B. DuBois and/or comparing him and Washington? I’m not sure if the sources exist or if that’s within the extent of your research, but that would be an interesting analysis of the Church and race – to see if Church members reacted to the ideas of those men if different ways. I guess that could also partially be measured in reactions to the early years of the NAACP.

    Welcome again to JI!

    Comment by Ardis S — March 18, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  14. Interesting. I think that it is interesting what we bring to discussions. I believe, Max, that your personal research involves race and Mormonism. Naturally you would emphasize that in a survey of religions. I’ve been doing a lot of work with liturgy, particularly healing. If I were going to Contextualize Mormonism in American religion, I would like frame it within American liturgical traditions and with regards to the interaction between Churches and miracles. For example, I tend to view Pentacostalism as Mormonism’s heir.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

  15. Hi Max,
    Great post! I gave a guest lecture at Kenyon College this last spring on Mormons and race. I went over the material from Mauss, Bush, and others, and tried to complicate the students’ understanding of the material. Then, at the end, a student from Africa raised his hand and said, “I have a friend who is a Mormon elder. Now, I’m really worried for him after hearing this. What should I send him.” Uh-oh, I thought. I was a bit taken aback, and we were running out of time. The instructor intervened. I had assigned the students a short excerpt from the Ostlings Mormon America and the instructor suggested that the student send his friend the article. Class ended.

    Yes, I’m a little worried, too, that when we teach about Mormons and race in the classroom, students (even thoughtful intelligent students) walk out of the classroom thinking, “Mormons are racist.” This is not to say that I advocate not talking about the subject. Perhaps it’s just that you need to have a follow-up discussion after students encounter the material for the first time.

    One of the hardest things I have found is getting students to not make snap judgments about people in the past without knowing more about the moral horizons for an era. (Martin Marty had a good quote that said just as much, but exactly what he said now escapes me.) Of course, the other pole undergrads generally take is to think no one can judge anyone; that works only until they have to think about genocide. But, I think a good liberal arts education can get students to make better informed judgments of the past that avoids sheer relativism or presentist indignation.

    Comment by David Howlett — March 18, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  16. I tend to view Pentacostalism as Mormonism?s heir.

    No J. Pentecostalism is Mormonism’s cousin. Wesleyanism is the grandfather. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  17. Greetings all.

    Thanks for all your comments. I’m really glad to be a “guest” member of your community.

    Let me try to answer some of the questions and comments that you all thoughtfully provided.

    SC, Hunter and others pointed what I see as a problem when we discuss Mormonism as a cult and suggested, rightfully I believe, that my analysis was a bit reductionistic. SC is totally right. Studying Mormonism in terms of labeling certain traditions “cults” and thus outside of acceptable religion can serve as a great vehicle for better understanding the politics of constructing “good religion” and “bad religion”. I’ll consider doing this in the future (that’s what is nice about academia–there is always next year’s batch of students with which to get it right!).

    As for the question of equating “race” with “black”, especially in Mormonism in which there are so many other facets to LDS racialized theology (e.g. Native Americans), I did this to call attention to (and hopefully problemitize) the fact that race in America is a racial binary, with other ethnicities fitting uneasily into one of the two categories.

    As for inflating the importance of what we study (J. Stapley’s helpful comment), this is certainly the case. Nevertheless, I’ll follow on Aldis’s comment that after the seating of Reed Smoot, race did replace Mormonism as a “vexing” question. This is true internally for the Church as it tried to live up to two conflicting commitments–bring the gospel of restoration to all people everywhere while also maintaining a particularistic doctrine of the (pre-eternally self-willed) election of certain people. I would also argue that the Mormons’ support of B.T. Washington and after his death, their very public criticisms of Dubois and the NAACP shows that Mormons as Americans also participated in the national discussion of what to do with African Americans. In fact, my latest work shows that Salt Lake City was an early battleground (and the site of the NAACP’s first major victory) of civil rights. In other words, the Church’s position on black men holding the priesthood did not suddenly become a stumbling block for Mormons as Americans when George Romney sought state and national office in the 1960s or the BYU football team became the target of anti-Mormon ire in 1969-1972. The black intellectual community as well as the liberal Protestants in the East who supported it was well aware of the Mormons’ racialized policy (and spent a good amount of time critiquing it) as early as the 1920s. Certainly polygamy remained (and still does) the most tantalizing issue and got the most ink. Yet after Reed Smoot, the debate over polygamy was narrowed to accusations of continued practice of plural resulting in subsequent denials from the Church. Yet because the race question was still an active part of the Church’s “particular” theology–in fact superficially it increasingly became the most definable feature in the public’s imagination of Mormonism–I am still comfortable arguing that it was the most “vexing” question (both internally and in terms of Mormonism’s American identity) for the Church in the 20th century.

    As for the students’ reactions, I was really quite heartened (and relieved) at how generous they were in comments. In our discussion section, when I posed them the question, “what would keep someone like Jane Manning James and her more recent Mormon sister converts active in a church that held them as women and as blacks at arms’ length?”–a loaded but I think obvious question–they readily recognized that Mormonism provides much that could be “attractive” (personal revelation, community support) to those looking for spiritual homes. Despite the difficult history I spent an hour highlighting, the students understood how James, and the cadre of contemporary black Mormon women who Margaret Young’s play has put on stage to portray James, could nevertheless stake a claim to be “worthy” Mormons.

    Thanks again. I look forward to further discussions with this lively bunch!

    Comment by Max — March 18, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

  18. Max,

    Welcome to the JI and thank you for this post. Although you make a compelling and convincing case for using race as the central category of analysis for understanding Mormonism in the 20th Century, I would argue that the main narrative of Mormonism is its interactions and eventual reconciliation with the forces of modernity. That being said, I think the declension model is too confining and simplistic. I see Mormon struggles with both polygamy and the race question as manifestations of this process. I very much agree that race has been one of the fundamental problems for Mormons in the 20th Century, but I also would argue that the globalization of the church has also been a major theme. Truth be told, these two questions have often intermixed in interesting ways throughout Mormon history. In addition, I think it is difficult, based on several recent studies, to separate the doctrine of eternal marriage from prejudices against miscegenation in the early church.

    Keep doing such great work. I did not know that the church had offered financial contributions to Booker T. Washington–though such support makes sense. I hope you will offer us a summary of your research along these lines in one of your posts. I did a paper a while back comparing the Mormon Mike Masaoka’s memoir, They Call me Moses Masaoka, to Washington’s Up from Slavery and was fascinated by the similar religious imagery in the titles of both projects. I was especially interested because they were written almost eighty years apart. Thank you again for your analysis, and I await your next post.

    Comment by Joel — March 19, 2010 @ 7:27 am

  19. Thank you for posting this, Max. I’m excited to hear more about your research, and hope with Joel that you’ll offer a summary in a future post. Often (and I’ve been guilty of it) our narrative of the history of blacks in the Church seems to come to Jane Manning James’ later years and “since there were few blacks in the Utah church” the issue is moot until the Civil Rights movement resurrects it (as you basically say in your last comment). I glanced through Bush, Embry, and Mauss, and there is very little there that I noticed as being from this early 20th century period. And what’s there is more localized in Utah than what you seem to be doing, so I’m looking forward to more.

    Comment by Jared T — March 20, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  20. I’m coming late to this (I’ve been a little, um, distracted over the last couple of weeks), but thanks for the post, Max. I echo others in requesting a post on your research on the NAACP, Washington, and SLC in the early twentieth century. I’ve blogged before about Wallace Thurman’s 1926 article on blacks in Utah, where he opined that UT wasn’t all that different from GA in terms of racism and segregation, which adds to your contention that folks were discussing race and Mormonism early on in the 20th century. While I’m skeptical that it’s possible to prove with any accuracy whether polygamy or race was more “vexing” to the Saints post-Smoot, I agree that Mormonism’s race problems deserve more attention in the interwar period.

    Comment by David G. — March 22, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  21. David, thanks for the reminder of your post. I’d forgotten it was from that period.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 22, 2010 @ 9:31 pm


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