One Family? Race and Mormonism in John Turner’s “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet”

By November 17, 2012

Today I?m flying west, from Boston to Chicago, for the American Academy of Religion?s annual conference. Depending on how the plane banks west, we might fly directly over Lowell, Massachusetts, the onetime home of Walker Lewis, a black Mormon whom Brigham Young once described as ?one of the [Mormons?] best Elders, an African.?

The timing of this indirect mention of the black Mormon convert?Spring of 1847?is important. Young and most of the leaders of the Latter-day Saints in exile and exodus?passing the winter of 1846-47 in Winter Quarters?were debating the place of black men, or at least a black man, in their community. William McCary, the ?Nigger Prophet,? as some of the Mormons leaders called him, was causing quite a stir in camp. The Saints loved it when McCary entertained them with his flute. But according to McCary?s own self-conception, he wasn?t simply some Negro song and dance man. Instead, McCary saw himself as both an ancient biblical and ?Lamanite? prophet. McCary presented himself as one of the Native Americans whom the saints were hoping to redeem and?at least according to the prophecies of then-martyred founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith?place at the center of the new Jerusalem, the city of Zion God had charged the Mormons with building up in the latter-days before Christ?s return.

According to John Turner?s fantastic new biography of Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet, in the Spring of 1847, Young occupied a liminal space in his thinking about the place of people of African descent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a descendent ?of Ham??the Mormons rejected McCary?s claim that he was the son of an Indian chief?McCary wasn?t yet an existential threat to the Mormons. Walker Lewis had proven that as long as blacks didn?t ?mingle [their] seed? with that of white Mormons, blacks could be made ?elders? in God?s restored Christian church. Not equals, to be sure. But not by nature excluded from the powers and duties of the priesthood, essential to Mormon (male) identity and authority. In fact, Young rejected  polygenism, which was promoted by many theologians and scientists in antebellum America to justify African chattel slavery. ?For of one blood God has made all flesh,? Young declared. Young could accept a good ?elder? like the one in Lowell. That is, as long as he doesn?t try to bed white Mormon women and corrupt the lineages of the Saints, who increasingly saw themselves as heirs to a lost and now restored covenant God had made with the ancient Israelites, a covenant that manifested itself at the level of belief and blood.

Turner shows that Young couldn?t keep to this in-between position, as his views about blacks? place within Mormonism “soon hardened? (222) after providing his favorable description of Lewis. But Young didn?t see this as his fault, but the fault of black men who couldn?t help but be drawn to white women. Walker Lewis? own son Enoch Lovejoy was apparently ?married to a white [Mormon] girl,? a report from Boston indicated, a fact that infuriated Young. Offspring of such unions were against God?s law and the law of nature. ?Mulattoes are like mules they can?t have children,? Young said. By 1849, Young established definitively that, due to biblical-era perfidy, ?the seed of Cain? was cursed and excluded from the full blessings of the gospel, most notably the Mormon priesthood.

This is not necessarily what God had hoped for, Turner explains in his chapter on Young?s racial thinking and policies. As the chapter?s title indicates, ?One Family,? God had charged the Saints with unifying the spiritual and racial schisms of humanity, especially the ?Lamanites,? and by extension of early Mormon universalism, African Americans too. Yet the facts on the ground proved heavenly aspirations untenable. According to Turner, Young blamed the natural character of both ?Negros? and ?Indians.? Even the power of Mormon faith couldn?t stifle African male desire for white women. But more significantly than the ?Negro problem,? the westwardly-moving Saints had to contend with the ?Indian problem? of ?Idlness? (214) and savagery. Rather than the heirs to the keys of the New Jerusalem, as his predecessor had prophesied, Young believed that the Indians were to be controlled, corralled or removed. Only then could the saints bring forth the full flowering of the Utah desert.

It is worth mentioning here the fruits a study of mid-nineteenth-century Mormon concepts of race, like Turner?s, bears for American history. Early Mormon theological deployment of words like ?blackness? and ?darkness? as indicating spiritual inferiority did not necessarily equate with ?black? (African) bodies. This is a stumbling block for many 21st century critics of the history of Mormon exclusion of people of African descent. As I?ve argued elsewhere, Mormon views on race, at least in the beginning of the Mormon movement, were more complicated than a simple, wholesale antipathy toward black people. In fact, at least before Brigham Young took over, the Mormons under Joseph Smith hoped to rid the world of ?race? altogether, creating ?one family,? as Turner suggests, with the lesser races becoming more and more ?white,? both in demeanor and pigmentation as they became more and more Mormon.

And herein lies my critique of Turner?s biography: the all-but-unexplored relationship between Joseph Smith?s thinking about race and that of Brigham Young. Since the 1978 revelation ended the priesthood ban, the LDS Church has worked to rediscover its own black Mormon past by showcasing Joseph Smith as a racial egalitarian, providing an unspoken contrast with the more racist and acerbic Brigham Young. Though starting from a very different place (that of a rigorous historian whose archival work and analysis is a model for younger scholars, myself included), I read Turner as producing a similar outcome?dissociating Joseph from the origins of Mormonism?s infamous racial doctrines, and placing the ?blame?[1] for them squarely at Brigham?s feet (208). To be sure, it is certainly natural for a biography of Young to focus on his thinking more than Joseph Smith?s. Yet this superb biography would have benefited from a fuller exploration of the similarities (and the possible transference) between Joseph?s thinking and Brigham?s when it comes to issues of race.

[1] Turner would not use such ?presentist? language of ?blaming? Brigham, and making Joseph thus the innocent. But this language, to my mind, is worth exploring here because ?who?s to blame for the priesthood ban?? has long been the framing question for studies of Mormon conceptions of race, at least within the Mormon interpretive community.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. One need not be “presentist” to conclude that Brigham Young harbored deep racist notions. Turner may not say so but all his evidence and the points that he chooses to emphasize all point to that. For LDS who are ambiguous about how to classify President Young, they should ask themselves how they would describe someone–nonMormon–who used the same terminology about racial mixing even back then. It is important to remember that black men were lynched for “desiring” white women. It is likely that (some) Mormons would have done the same if they saw this as a problem in their own”all-white” communities. Shameful but it is best to call it what it is then to try to find torturous explanations.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — November 17, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

  2. Good work as always, Max, though I have issues with a few things. I can’t accept the idea that Young’s ideas about interracial marriage were the exclusive motivator for the restriction. I have to return again to Paul Reeve’s excellent research, revealing this conversation between young and McCary: At Winter Quarters, Brigham Young told McCary, ?We dont care about the color,? and then asked those around him to voice their agreement, saying, ?[D]o I hear that from all?? The question was met with a resounding, ?Aye!? (Church Historian?s Office, General Church Minutes, 1839-1877, CR 100 318, Box 1, Folder 52, 26 March 1847).

    I think accommodation of the Southern pioneers with their slaves was also involved. Young’s 1852 speech which formalized the restriction–though given as a political not a religious speech–also addressed slavery, and Utah accepted slavery, after being given a choice to choose whether to be free or slave-holding in the California Compromise.

    We can lay the foundings of the restriction at Young’s feet, but the embellishments, which are where we get such things as _Mormon Doctrine_, _Doctrines of Salvation_, appalling speeches at BYU by the likes of Mark E. Peterson, indict all of us. Bless men like Chase Peterson, who represented his ward in writing to Spencer W. Kimball expressing discomfort with the policy and urging its change. Bless Lester Bush and Armand Mauss and others who helped us find the history we had hidden away.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — November 17, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

  3. P.S. to Ignacio–there was at least one black man who was killed in Utah because of the fear of interracial marriage: Tom Coburn, who had a sign hung around his neck: “Warning to all niggers–stay away from white women.”

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — November 17, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  4. Margaret, I’d personally be careful about separating intermarriage and slavery. As we all know, slave owners routinely had sex with enslaved women who bore their owners children. Black women, free or slave, were denied the ability to name the acts of sexual coercion they experienced rape. In countenancing slavery, Mormon leaders winked at coerced sex between white men and black women while denouncing the ability of black men to have sex with white women.

    Comment by Amanda — November 18, 2012 @ 8:10 am

  5. I actually think that is so directly applied, Amanda. I think it is pretty clear that BY abhorred slavery as practiced in the South. That doesn’t justify his positions on “service” qua slavery as practiced in Utah Territory, but I do think it is a tremendous distinction. Whether people in East would have recognized such distinctions, I don’t know.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 18, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  6. ..”that it is not so directly…

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 18, 2012 @ 11:53 am

  7. This discussion illustrates one of the things that makes Young such a fascinating figure to me. He was extraordinarily cagey, and it is very difficult to get at what he actually thought about anything. It seems to me that Young was almost always working an angle of some kind, usually trying to manage power dynamics either inside the Mormon kingdom or with the broader culture.

    Comment by SC Taysom — November 18, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  8. Got to agree with Taysom here.

    Comment by WVS — November 18, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  9. And JS clearly had a racist record in terms of the Cain narratives, etc. He just doesn’t seem to have a restriction policy on board. So the background was there.

    Comment by WVS — November 18, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

  10. Thanks, Max, for the review. I think Turner’ did a fine job of addressing the subject, though I share your wish that he (or someone else) would research and write more fully on the relationship between JS and BY’s respective thoughts and attitudes on race.

    Comment by Christopher — November 18, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

  11. Thanks all for your thoughts. Margaret, absolutely I think you’re right. I’d add Turner to those historians who should be “blessed” for their important work.

    My focus on male sexuality reflects what I read as the heart of Turner’s explanation.

    And yes, Taysom. BY was a pioneer prophet, but also a pioneer politician and thus always politiking.

    Comment by Max — November 19, 2012 @ 7:43 am

  12. Okay.God bless Turner. God bless Max. God bless us, every one.
    I do hope to meet Turner sometime soon.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — November 19, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

  13. I just recieved my copy of Turner’s biography and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But looking at the comments, I see that there is still an impression that the Utah Legislature legalized a system of chattel slavery in 1852 which is not the case. It was almost identical to the system of indentured servitude in the free state of Illinois, not to slavery as practiced in the South. Technically courts ruled this to be a system of “involuntary servitude” and it was still “slave-like” in many particulars. But it was a far cry from Southern slavery. In fact, An Act in Relation to Service specifically criminalized sex between a white master and black servants, and it was only to master who could be punished.

    Comment by Christopher Rich — November 20, 2012 @ 6:17 am

  14. Christopher R., if you are referring to my comments, I mean them to apply as much as to Missouri and Nauvoo.

    Comment by Amanda HK — November 20, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  15. […] Max: One Family? Race and Mormonism […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Pioneer Prophet Roundtable: Turner Responds — November 27, 2012 @ 8:53 am


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