Mormon Racism in Modern American Historiography

By October 20, 2009

As one of the assigned texts for my course this quarter in “Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619-1865”, I’ve engaged David Brion Davis’ latest work on American slavery, Inhuman Bondage. [1] Davis, for those unacquainted with the scholarship on American slavery, has held a prominent place in groundbreaking discussion in the field for many years. This latest work presents something of synthesis of the most recent relevant scholarship in a sweeping effort to see American slavery as part of a global practice and, most especially, to articulate its transatlantic contexts.

A small part of Davis’ purpose (and a central component of the course in general) is to understand how the practice and ideology of slavery became integrated to Christianity, and to understand the way it influenced both the development of Christian theology and the course of Christian practice. Although Davis’ work does not have a particularly religious orientation (he seems, here at least, to focus on the secular social), his work is comprehensive enough to give a summary overview of slavery in Christian thought.

It was as a paradigmatic summary that I found Davis’ discussion of racism and its Christian iterations most interesting. Although it runs against other scholarly opinions and his own previous work, Davis gives great emphasis to the role of the “Curse of Ham” as unquestionably central in the way that racism was taken up into Christianity. (His argument is quite similar to that recently made here at the JI by David G.). Davis does not expend too much energy unpacking the text itself (which has been done exhaustively elsewhere; here seems dependent on secondary literature) or in demonstrating the way that it influenced Christian thought. He does not, for instance, show how the passage or other influences enabled racism to be taken up into Christianity.

Davis does, however, as part of his summary of racism in American Christianity, identify one group that he seems to regard as quintessentially invested in racist discourse: Brigham Young and the Mormons. As a result, Mormonism is situated rhetorically (and perhaps unconsciously), near the forefront of religious anti-black racism in the United States. Given as a solitary example, Mormonism appears to assume a position of prominence and high visibility.

Davis’ rendering, so far as I have been able to see, is representative of general narratives of American racism, which often use Mormonism in this way, typically seizing on popular (that is, widely recognized) statements made by Brigham Young or Joseph Smith to highlight the inroads that racism had made into Christianity. While the focused treatments of American religion, anti-black racism, and the Curse of Ham I have seen do not give Mormonism much play, for some reason broad-brush narratives like Davis’ not only include but highlight it. [2] It seems that for historians writing synthetically about racism and/or slavery, Mormonism is conceived in a uniform, normative way as representing the upper limits of Christian racism. The currency of this idea was demonstrated for me when my instructor, Curtis J. Evans, who published his The Burden of Black Religion with OUP recently and has no interest in Mormon history, invoked Mormonism in this way. [3] In fact, as one of his recommendations for research in the course, he suggested that Mormon anti-black racism might taken up.

Of course, Mormonism and racism have been thoroughly discussed in a number of inflammatory contexts. My interest here is not really to revisit those, but rather to investigate specifically whether Mormonism is fairly represented (in this respect) in broader, mainstream American social and cultural history. Does Mormonism deserve a singular or leading place in discussions of Christian anti-black racism in America? Is it fair to use Mormonism, as Davis and other modern historians seem to do (consciously or unconsciously), to epitomize or symbolize such racism? Might modern concerns with race influence retrospective conceptions of race in earlier eras of Mormonism?

[1] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), see esp. 69-70.

[2] The works on the “Curse of Ham” and religious anti-black racism that I consulted include: David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Alan Davies, Infected Chrstianity: A Study of Modern Racism (Kingston, AB: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), Sylvester A. Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Stephen  R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[3] Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Wow, I totally missed that one, Chris. Nevermind, I agree, the conspiracy has now been shown to be real. 🙂

    The funny thing is, the broad topic of race and the church is not exactly an area where new attenuated theories are needed. We* all know (and have discussed online), that it’s pretty easy to assemble real evidence that a number of prior church leaders *did* make real, problematic racial statements. This makes detours like Elder Carmack’s piece really unnecessary — if someone really wants to take on past church leaders on race, there is a whole lot of low-hanging fruit to pick from.

    *”We” = you, I, Dave, Ardis, the whole JI crew, and basically anyone who’s read Mauss or Bringhurst or Darron Smith’s book or Greg Prince’s DOM bio or Embry or Bush&Mauss or any of a dozen other major works.

    Comment by Kaimi — November 2, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

  2. I’m glad I was able to bring entertainment to you folks here.

    Something to clarify with one of the other posters. The book itself is far more than just politically incorrect. Use the links I provided about the Pioneer Fund. Eugenics is a very real study, and is quite harmful. Hitler was influenced by the United States research and publications on this subject.

    I’m laughing that my comments were immediatley categorized into a conspiracy theory. There is no conspiracy. The only truth is that folks are ignorant to history, and fail to understand current topics which are quite damaging to humans. This ignorance can be found even among general authorities.

    Oaks was not the president of BYU when the comment was made, to correct another poster.

    Setting aside conspiracy nonsense, why do educated, general authorities even waste time or money on books such as the one I mentioned?

    Also, I gave links to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Before anyone ridicules that organization, as has been done by the media recently, keep in mind that the Aryan Compound in Idaho no longer exists thanks to SPLC.

    Back to Oaks:

    Oaks spoke at the October 2009 General Conference:
    http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-1117-9,00.html

    He stated that if a person thinks it is wrong that suffering is inflicted on a race, they are simply confused about God’s love. Is there an underlying sentiment there? Why bring race into the discussion of God’s love?

    Racism is not nearly as open as it once was, but is still very real. I noticed at the LDS Newsroom that the LDS Leadership supports Gay partnerships, just not gay marriage. Many might see this comparable to “we are not racist because we provide separate restrooms for colored people”. Kindness and declaring love for other races or groups does not make everything good. If one group believes themselves to be superior, the underlying racism is still there.

    Comment by Mike — November 20, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  3. About the Pioneer Fund
    http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=83

    About the new head of the Pioneer Fund
    http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=580

    Comment by Mike — November 20, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  4. well, i have to be honest, i lack the intelligence and knowledge on this subject to make any real claims here.

    but i have to say that the argument generated here has been quite fantastic. Good job with the initial article and responses. especially kaimi and jared t.

    needless to say that i will be recommending this site, as well as many of the sources sited in this debate to many of my friends who are currently studying in these areas.

    Fantastic article Ryan

    Comment by landon — November 21, 2009 @ 6:05 am

  5. Mike, nobody is defending the Bell Curve here. You are just making ridiculous assertions and connections based on a minor reference. Most of the people take racism within Mormon culture very seriously. I am just not sure what you are trying to contribute.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 21, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  6. I’m late to the discussion, but I do have an interesting fact to contribute.

    In the early decades of the 20th century, the LD Saints in Baton Rouge, LA did not have a place to meet, so they rented space from the KKK hall. There was also some overlap in the membership of both organizations.

    Comment by Mark Brown — November 21, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  7. And I am later than Mark but wanted to thank everyone for the discussion I just now found the time to read.

    Comment by BHodges — December 3, 2009 @ 2:50 pm


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