Mormon History at the Western History Association

By October 24, 2013

With Andrea R-M

Earlier this month, the Western History Association met in Tucson, Arizona. As always, there was great scholarship, great conversation, and even great Mormon history, with papers by JIers.

The MHA-sponsored session took place on Saturday at 2:30?a slot not normally considered ?prime.? Nevertheless, the panel organizers put together four fantastic papers that all in their own ways examined a question that has occupied the attention of Mormon historians for generations: the Americanization of Mormonism. The papers each brought a fresh lens of analysis that demonstrated that the answers to this question are far from exhausted.

The JI?s Andrea Radke-Moss, who teaches at BYU-I, presented some of her research on Mormon women?s self-representations at the world?s fairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She focused on the transition from polygamous women such as Zina Huntington Young to monogamists like Emily Richards. Although Zina and women like her downplayed the Principle, it was always in the background of their interactions with other suffragists. Richards, the sole wife of church attorney Franklin S. Richards, embodied the modern Mormon woman, unencumbered by the barnacles of polygamy and able to demonstrate the ability of bright Latter-day Saints to promote women?s causes. The move toward Richards, however, also paralleled the gradual withdrawal of official Relief Society sponsorship of World?s Fair participation, especially after the victory of woman suffrage had been achieved in the Utah Constitution in 1896, and by the early twentieth century Mormon women?s participation in these events was scattered and disorganized.

Tom Simpson, instructor at the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy, drew from his research on Mormon students sent to ?study abroad? back East during the late 19th century. We?ve highlighted Tom?s previous publications at the JI here and here, and I was pleased to learn that his manuscript is currently under review at UNC press. Simpson explored how these students left Utah in order to receive an education that would bolster Mormon separatism. Ironically, however, it was at these universities that Latter-day Saints learned to be Mormons in a modern world. Highlighting the experiences of such luminaries as Romania Pratt (who attended the Women?s Medical College of New York) and James E. Talmage (who attended Lehigh University and Johns Hopkins), Simpson explained how they negotiated the tensions inherent in their own loyalties to the church and secular education. These individuals and others like them paved the way ultimately toward détente between Mormonism and the United States.

Eric Eliason, professor of English at BYU, presented a highly entertaining thought piece on the differences between the reconstruction of the South and Deseret. His central question was why Mormons lacked a tradition similar to the Lost Cause in the South?a nostalgia-laced memory of life before federal intervention. Eliason offered several reasons for this disparity: 1) the church?s preference for the patriotic ?trek narrative? over the separatist ?exile narrative? 2) church members? tendency to see the end of polygamy as God?s will rather than federal oppression, 3) memories of the Missouri persecutions and the loss of Zion as a ?lost cause? 4) the need to distinguish ourselves from Fundamentalists, the true ?unreconstructed polygamists? 5) the fact that many church members descend from British and Scandinavian rather than Scots-Irish immigrants (rendering them less likely to go ?against the grain?; my phrasing) 6) the church?s ambiguous relationship with its militaristic past 7) the hole in Mormon memory from 1847-1960s (from the trek to ?when we started fighting hippies?) and 8) the inconsistency of remembering George Q. Cannon in stripes while simultaneously emphasizing the church?s commitment to upholding civil society. Eliason therefore recognized the complex and multifaceted nature of this problem.

Arkansas State University historian Clyde Milner rounded out the panel, offering his own take on the question of why the Saints lack a ?Lost Cause? tradition. Milner, who taught for several years at Utah State University, explained that when he accepted his new position, his responsibilities included heading up ASU?s ?Heritage Studies? program. As he looked at ways that Westerners used ?heritage,? he noted that Mormons were usually omitted from the analysis. That led him to Eliason?s work, and ultimately the idea for the panel. Relying on Eliason and Steve Olson?s work on Pioneer Day, Milner traced the Saints gradual embrace of a pro-US narrative in their annual celebrations, as they emphasized their contributions to the nation?s progress rather than their attempt to flee the US. Milner wondered whether Mormons could borrow a page out of the South?s book by remembering the 1880s, not as a decade of struggling over polygamy, but rather as an era when the Mormons defended religious liberty (as Southerners remember the Civil War as being a struggle over states? rights rather than slavery).

Brian Cannon, BYU’s Western historian extraordinaire, then commented on the papers, all of which addressed the theme in interesting ways. Although Milner?s paper was largely a thought piece, it?s always nice to see prominent scholars include Mormonism within broader frameworks.

Amanda will provide an overview of the other Mormon-history session on race.

This session took place early on Friday morning, a position that ensured that most people were energized and excited for the presentation but also that most of the participants were still a bit sleepy.

W. Paul Reeve, a professor at the University of Utah, began the panel by exploring the racialization of Mormons from the nineteenth century to the present.  He began by suggesting that nineteenth-century Mormons were seen as a non-quite white and used citations from a variety of American newspapers and authors to support his assertions. Perhaps his most interesting piece of evidence came from an army doctor who suggested that Mormons were becoming their own race. The doctor then catalogued the racial differences of Mormons – their “sunken visages” and “gelatinous complexions.” In the nineteenth century, depictions of Mormons as non-white removed them from the core of American society and suggested that they did not have the ability to fully to participate in American democracy. In the twentieth century, depictions of Mormons as “too” white have had the same effect. Spoofs on the Daily Show and serious newspaper articles in the New York Times have suggested that primary audience of Mormonism is white people. Mormons, they suggest, have not adopted the multicultural, multiracial ethic that defines the rest of the United States. As a result, they remain a people apart. This suggestion functions in much the same way as nineteenth-century aspersions on Mormon racial identity: it marks Mormons as different and thus, as unfit to fully participate in the American body politic.

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan and contributor to JI, analyzed the responses to Mormon women to the end of polygamy. She suggested that polygamy had been a vital part of Mormon arguments for women’s rights and that the loss of polygamy represented a crisis in Mormon feminism. What should Mormon feminism look like now that it could no longer publicly argue that monogamy was at the heart of many society’s ills and was demeaning to women? In response to this crisis, Hendrix-Komoto suggests, Mormon women developed an emphasis upon scientific housewifery and positive eugenics. Although Mormon women like Susa Young Gates and Julina Smith followed Mormon leaders in rejecting birth control, they believed that the white race was threatened by the refusal of white, middle class men and women to have children and encouraged their members to embrace large families as the answer. The response to Hendrix-Komoto’s presentation was varied. Some members of the audience were skeptical of the idea that Mormon women could be considered feminists. Others accepted the idea but wondered if Mormon women had simply endured polygamy, while still others were intrigued by relationships between Mormon women and famous feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Jared Tamez, a PhD student at the University of Texas-El Paso and the third panelist, was unable to attend the conference in person but had his paper read by Cassandra Clark. His paper explored Mormon missionary work to Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps the most interesting part of his paper was his description of the spiritual lightening of a female convert upon her conversion. Although this particular convert was not considered beautiful by the white Mormon missionaries who were baptizing her, God provided them with spiritual eyes and they saw her beauty as they baptized her. According to Tamez, the descriptions one of the missionaries provided of her at this moment in his diary emphasized her lightness in this moment and transformed her racially – from an indigenous woman he found distasteful into a beautiful woman who was almost white.

Together, these papers were meant to explore the multivalence of Mormon ideas about race and move us beyond thinking about race in a black-white binary. As Paul Reeve demonstrates, Mormons were racialized at the same time that they participated in nineteenth-century America’s colonial projects. Hendrix-Komoto’s papers demonstrates that the Mormon embrace of racial thought continued well into the twentieth century, while Tamez explores the salience of these categories in local contexts. There is more work to be done on the ideas that Mormons had about race and their dealings with non-white people in the United States. The Mormon Church, for example, struggled in the 1960s to deal with the demands of both the American Indian Movement and of black converts within the church. This panel, however, represents an important first step towards broadening the reach of Mormon history to consider how it has interacted with larger American society.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. Great write-up, David and Andrea. Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 24, 2013 @ 9:57 am

  2. Sounds like a great conference. Thanks for the write-ups, David and Amanda.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 24, 2013 @ 10:23 am


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