Roundtable on Paul Reeve, RELIGION OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Black, White, and Mormon, pt. 1

By May 15, 2015

BY I'm A Mormon Meme

Meme satirizing the “I’m A Mormon” campaign in the wake of the LDS Church’s 2013 essay on Race and the Priesthood. In context here.

Whence the priesthood ban?

It?s a question that has been wrestled often over the last several decades.  Beginning with Lester Bush?s seminal Dialogue article in 1973, historians, sociologists, and theologians have scrutinized the decisions made between Mormonism?s founding in 1830 and the solidification of the priesthood denial to Saints of African origin in the 1850s.  JI permabloggers and friends have made our own humble contributions to the debates, as well, which continue in the wake of the LDS Church?s essay published 18 months ago on the historical priesthood ban.

Building on decades of scholarship, in chapters 4 and 5 of Religion of a Different Color Paul Reeve shows that Mormonism?s banning of blacks from holding the priesthood was less a black vs. white issue in Mormonism than it was a black vs. white issue in America that Mormonism?s universalist claims were forced to confront, and to which they ultimately gave way, in attempt to preserve Mormon aspirations for whiteness.

At the heart of the national debate were fears of ?amalgamation,? the mixing of the races through sexual relationships.  In antebellum America this was a major critique of abolitionism:   that at its logical extreme black and white would blend together in unrestricted sexual unions, perhaps resulting in the destruction of the white race, and even the extinction of humanity.   (A prevalent scientific theory held that the offspring of multiracial relationships were sterile, like mules).  J. Stuart will take a closer look next week at Chapters 6 and 7 of Reeve?s book, which continue this discussion.

When Mormons are accused of entertaining abolitionist sentiment in Missouri and Ohio, then, they quickly strive to distance themselves from the negative connotations, but ?ultimately laid the groundwork for the later racial constriction? with their universalism.  Slaves who converted to Mormonism were to remain in slavery; their masters were also proselytized.  Abolitionism was ignored, for the time being, in Mormonism, with the result that ?the Mormon message cast?a net wide enough to incorporate ?black and white, bond and free? (2 Nephi 26:33) and then sort?those who responded according to prevailing cultural notions of racial superiority, white and free over black and bound?  (123).

While impossible to pinpoint the exact beginning of the priesthood ban in practice, Reeve rightly focuses on the debates surrounding the 1852 Legislative Session of the first Utah Territorial Legislature.  Here is where his careful mining of sources, and the fortuitous discovery of new sources, reveals Reeve?s greatest contribution on the struggle?and it was a real struggle?to categorize race within Mormonism (Orson Pratt emerges as a vocal opponent of Young?s ideas on race, and the two engage in a fierce debate in early February 1852?see 151-153).  With aid from friend-of-the-JI Christopher Rich  and Pitman shorthand expert LaJean Carruth,  Reeve has uncovered previously unknown shorthand notes that record debates over black slavery?and race?in the Legslative Session.  (The trio initially shared their findings at the 2014 MHA convention.)  Found in the George D. Watt papers at the Church History Library, they include a transcription of Brigham Young?s 23 January 1852 speech that Reeve pinpoints as the first articulation by Young of a priesthood curse on blacks (149-150).  On 4 February 1852 Young solidified his position with another speech to the legislature (152-155).  At almost the same time Brigham Young brought Mormon views on race and black slavery in line with prevailing national sentiment, a larger national conversation criticizing Mormon polygamy as ?white slavery? blinded outsiders to the racialization taking place within Mormonism (161-169).

Woman's Bondage in Utah

“Woman’s Bondage in Utah,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1882. See Edje’s examination of this.

Building on Christopher Rich?s previous research?but not explaining the sources in full yet?Reeve argues that Brigham Young?s encouragement of the establishment of black slavery in Utah was intended to mitigate the conditions of chattel slavery and set Utah firmly on the path to gradual emancipation (151).  Brigham Young biographer John Turner doesn?t buy this idea, citing in part my own rather dated research and my response to Rich?s research.  In a recent conversation, however, Reeve assured me that he couldn?t do the argument adequate justice with the limitations of Religion of a Different Color.  Reeve anticipates that his forthcoming companion volume, a documentary history of the 1852 Legislature coedited with Rich and Carruth, should add weight to his assertions.

In assessing these two chapters overall, I have just a few thoughts:

First, Reeve does a great job examining the case studies he chooses, including early convert ?Black Pete? (111-114); (black Mormon) Enoch Lovejoy Lewis?s marriage to (white Mormon) Mary Matilda Webster (106-111 and 135-139); and the bizarre religious and sexual antics of William McCrary at Winter Quarters  (128-134).  And the 1852 Legislative Session debates are just thrilling to read, having spent a good deal of time examining them myself.

A few oddities emerge in Reeve?s analysis.  Influence is an ethereal idea to measure, and some assertions that Reeve makes are hard to back up, such as the supposition that because the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith had painted their faces black, this ?no doubt impacted how Mormons viewed their own black converts? (121-122).  Other occasional speculations are interesting and rightly cautious, though impossible to corroborate, such as Reeve?s wondering whether the circulation of ideas on the priesthood ban had any impact on black Mormon elder Q. Walker Lewis, who was in Salt Lake City in 1851-52 (161-2).

While much of his treatment retreads familiar ground examined by Lester Bush, Newell Bringhurst, Connell O?Donovan, myself and others; what Reeve brings to the table is the most thorough (to date) contextualization of Mormon attitudes within the larger national contests for whiteness.  As far as race, the priesthood, and slavery in Mormonism, Religion of a Different Color is the new standard by which future scholarship on the subjects will be measured.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Polygamy Race


  1. Thanks for the write up and the links, Nate.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 15, 2015 @ 8:30 am

  2. Well done, Nate. Couldn’t agree more with your last sentence, especialy.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 15, 2015 @ 8:42 am

  3. Thanks, Nate, for the helpful review.

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2015 @ 9:56 am

  4. Nice review of this part of the book. Thanks Nate.

    Comment by WVS — May 16, 2015 @ 12:20 am

  5. This is great, Nate. FWIW, having read an early draft of Paul’s treatment of the 1852 legislative debates, I think he’s right in his assessment. It’ll be a great addition to the literature when it’s published. As for these chapters, I’ll reiterate what I said on Janiece’s thread that Paul has done nice job of not only recasting familiar material in ways that engage broader arguments (while also digging up some nice gems that had not previously been found), these chapters also present the best synthesis on the subject now available in print.

    Comment by David G. — May 16, 2015 @ 8:39 am

  6. Thanks for the comments, all!

    Comment by Nate R. — May 16, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

  7. Good work, Nate.

    Comment by JJohnson — May 18, 2015 @ 12:23 am

  8. That’s very interesting. I hope people do publish the arguments regarding Brigham’s aims and potentially getting rid of slavery. I’m curious as to how much evidence there is for them as I’m skeptical – Brigham just comes off too often as an unrepentant racist.

    It’s often interesting to me given how much dislike of the South there was that Mormonism at the time often aligned with it. Likewise I wonder how much the Republican attacks on Mormonism pushed Mormons into the camp opposed to the Republicans. (You see that same phenomena today where some oppose anything Obama pushes regardless of their own ideology simply because they’re opposed to Obama)

    Comment by Clark — May 18, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  9. Very briefly, Clark: although it’s easy to focus on Brigham Young’s small set of unfortunate and offensive racial statements, two things help explain his contradictory statements and actions in pre-war Utah Territory.

    First, like most humans, he was a product of his time, a time when abolitionism was often viewed as an anti-Christian movement and the country was steeped in strong racial sentiments due to the escalating debate over slavery.

    Second, he was very much a Vermonter and New Yorker. As such, it’s not an uphill battle to prove that he was against slavery; it’s an uphill battle to prove that he supported it in any but the strictest rule-of-law way.

    Since there is so much misunderstanding around this issue, Paul and Christopher are doing Utah history a great service by reexamining the history in the legal context of the times.

    Comment by Amy T — May 18, 2015 @ 11:36 am

  10. “a time when abolitionism was often viewed as an anti-Christian movement”

    This strikes me as something of a dramatic overstatement, Amy, though I admit that my own research has dealt with the earlier abolitionist movement. Can you tell me more about antebellum abolitionism being “often viewed as an anti-Christian movement”?

    Comment by Christopher — May 18, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

  11. Thanks Amy. I know there was a default northern states = abolitionism. And of course the abolitionists were (like the vast majority of people of the era) racists. Even Lincoln was by todays standards a horrible racist. So I fully agree we have to avoid presentism in how we view figures of the past.

    Comment by Clark — May 18, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

  12. Oh my. Thanks for questioning that language, Christopher. Perhaps a slightly better way to make the point would be to note that abolitionists could be and were portrayed as a radical, fringe element fighting against an institution that was clearly supported by both Old and New Testaments. See, for example, Hammond’s Letter to an English Abolitionist.

    The sentiment behind my admittedly clumsy point is that it is all too easy to mistakenly conflate our 21st century views on race with 19th century abolitionism.

    It would be an easy conclusion to assume that if Brigham Young held common 19th century racial views, he would have also supported the institution of slavery, but to conclude that, a person would have to ignore the fact that slavery was (more or less) abolished in Vermont’s constitution, and was either abolished or being phased out in almost every place Brigham Young lived after he left Vermont, and also that the Utah Territorial legislature modeled the language of the Act in Relation to Service on gradual emancipation laws rather than Southern slave codes.

    Comment by Amy T — May 18, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

  13. Clark, there was nowhere close to an identity between abolitionism and the antebellum North. As Amy mentioned, the abolitionists were considered radicals–and a very small fringe of radicals–when the movement began in the U.S. in about 1830. Even 30 years later, during the Civil War, there were strong feelings in the North against abolition–in fact, McClellan’s election strategy in 1864 was an attack primarily on Lincoln’s having changed the purposes of the war from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves. Until some late Union victories–especially the taking of Atlanta by Sherman in early September 1864–it looked as if McClellan might well win.

    For a useful introduction to Lincoln’s (and the nation’s) evolution on slavery and abolition, I’d recommend Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 18, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  14. Mark, I don’t think I was asserting that. Just that there was a perception that if you were in the north you were more apt to be an abolitionist. (Perhaps I said that because I was just reading that passage along those lines in Gentry Fire and Sword I was reading at church – although perhaps he overstates things too) Thanks for the reference. I’ll check it out.

    Comment by Clark — May 18, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  15. Well done, Nate R. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 19, 2015 @ 5:08 pm


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