Roundtable on Paul Reeve, RELIGION OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Introduction

By May 5, 2015

ReevePaul Reeve‘s recent work, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015), was one of the few books that were highly anticipated yet exceeded expectations. To both celebrate and engage its arguments, we here at the JI have organized a roundtable that will take place over the next three weeks and offer a multivocal overview and analysis of what will certainly become one of the classics of the developing (sub)field of Mormon studies, not to mention the best book on the contested issue of the Mormon racial restriction’s origins to date. In this post, I will give a general overview and discussion of the work’s framework, and starting next week we will hear from Janiece J, Nate R, Joey S., and Amanda HK on the different sections of the book. In total, we hope to identify Religion of a Different Color‘s biggest strengths, historiographical contributions, and contested questions, as well as future avenues that scholarship on Mormonism and race can take in the next generation.

Religion of a Different Color uses Mormonism as a case study for understanding notions of “race” throughout the ninteenth century. We may assume that such a concept has always been clear, yet ideas of what constituted “white,” “black,” and a myriad of other racial qualifiers were constantly in flux in early America. More, even while these ideas were contested, their meaning was all the more important: being considered “white” gave access to the rights of citizenship and, far to often, the dignity of humanity. (In the 1850s, there was even a rise of the “Know Nothing Party,” a political base which centered around the principle of purely white citizenship.) This made the case of the Mormons all the more peculiar: by most estimations, they were clearly Angl0-Americans descended from the very ethnic lineages that were supposedly valid. Yet a combination of their actions and beliefs led Mormonism’s contemporaries to marginalize the sect any way they could, including through racial othering. Mormons were depicted as blending the racial lines between white and black, white and red, and eventually even white and yellow. In response, Mormons tried to prove their whiteness, and thus validate their rights of citizenship and civilization, by marginalizing the racial minorities within their own Church, most famously by instituting a restriction on black access to priesthood and temple activities.

Historians have long recognized that Mormons were not accepted as full “Americans,” and a growing number have even noted how anti-Mormon literature depicted the LDS community as non-white. The recent decade of sophisticated scholarship on anti-Mormonism by Terryl Givens, Spencer Fluhman, Christine Talbot, Patrick Mason, and Megan Sanborn-Jones have ably demonstrated that othering the Mormon population was crucial to American identity politics, and was often accomplished though depicting a particular Mormon ethnicity. Yet what struck me in Reeve’s tale is how prevalent this concept was. I expected discussions of a Mormon racial blending with minorities to be more subtle and assumed, things that needed to be teased out by an expert historian. Yet while Reeve is still indeed an expert historian, he had help by a shockingly large number of pamphlets, speeches, books, and especially cartoons that overtly and directly connected Mormonism with disenfranchised racial minorities. Even the Mormons noted this: “We are not accounted as white people,” Heber C. Kimball noted on the eve of the Mormon exodus, and so “we don’t want to live among them” (24). Indeed, sometimes Reeve’s biggest strength, his ability to draw from a myriad of sources, could also be his weakness: he often fell into the trap of excessive quotations with limited analysis. Reeve was often at his best when he chose one or two sources as gave them an extended and close reading, as he did with military doctor Robert Bartholow’s clinical description of a new Mormon race or with Brigham Young’s critical lectures on slavery at the 1852 Utah Territory Legislature. Further, sometimes the insistence on racial descriptors overshadows other potential elements at play in Mormon othering; for instance, chapter 1’s focus on the racial dynamics and physical difference of unwanted minorities like Irish and other “miscreant” Europeans perhaps overlooked tensions of class that, while tethered to race, deserve more consideration. But such is rightly left to future scholarship.

The framing for the book is quite creative and provocative. Reeve uses the cartoonist C.J. Rudd’s Life depiction of “Mormon Elder-Berry” and “his six-year-olds, who take after their mothers,” published in 1904 at the peak of Reed Smoot’s trial in Washington DC when questions of Mormonism’s citizenship took the national stage, as not only the evocative cover image but also the structural devise through which the text is organized. The book is broken up into four sections, each opened with one of “Elder-Berry”‘s children: a superficially “white” child (like the Irish Catholics denounced as “non-white” in America at the time), a “red” child (representing Native Americans), a “black” child (representing African-Americans, the bulk of this book), and a “yellow” child (representing oriental immigration, especially in the Pacific). While this format was indeed engaging and allowed Reeve to dig into each category with concomitant rigor, it often made the book repetitive as the text bounced between decades and, in rare occasions, was prone to lose contextual focus.

But the framing also raises other, perhaps more important, questions. Most especially, Reeve’s approach to Mormonism and race in this book represents the growing evolution of Mormon history from its “New Mormon History” past to the Mormon studies present. I recently wrote about this transition a few weeks ago: while looking at Richard Bushman’s current work on the gold plates, I argued that Mormon studies scholars of today are not as much interested in Mormon cultural issues as they are broader historiographical questions that can be addressed through Mormon examples. This is acutely seen in Reeve’s book. Previous work on Mormonism and race have certainly drawn from broader historical context to better understand the LDS racial restriction, but the latter was always more important than the former. Reeve’s book takes a reverse approach: the latter (Mormonism’s racial ban) is only academically relevant when subservient to the former (the broader context). This might seem like a subtle shift, but it’s actually quite important, especially if Mormon studies wishes to gain credibility from the scholarly world. Reeve’s primary purpose is to show the elasticity of race in nineteenth-century America, and Mormonism just so happens to fit that bill. As a result, Religion of a Different Color is a much more important contribution to the academic community, especially the subfield of whiteness studies, than any other work on Mormonism and race previously published.[1]

But this academic contribution, in a way, comes at a cost. New Mormon History’s biggest flaw, its failed attempt to speak to both academic and lay Mormon audiences at the same time, had considerable benefits: because it was based around Mormon cultural questions, it carried more cultural capital. That often made the work of Thomas Alexander, James Allen, Michael Quinn, and the many other stalwarts of that generation much more relevant to parochially Mormon discussions, a halmark that has to be respected even by methodological snobs like myself.[2] But as the gap between Mormon studies and Mormon cultural discourse continues to widen, a fact that I believe to be necessary for the subfield’s credibility, there are consequences to be dealt with. This can be partly solved, in part, through historians being publicly conscious and translating the lessons of their work for a more public audience, like Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall did with their excellent Maxwell Institute podcast.[3] But it is hard to expect academics, who often have a growing number of responsibilities in a world where support for the humanities is declining, to do double-speak for both the academic and Mormon communities. So the question remains: how do we keep Mormon studies relevant even as it, by necessity, becomes more specialized?

But these are good problems to have because they demonstrate the maturation of Mormon studies. May we have more Paul Reeves to make the issue even more acute.


[1] I must admit that I wish Reeve would have engaged with more recent work in whiteness studies , as most of his historiographical conversations on this particular topic overlooked scholarship from the past decade.

[2] It also helps that the New Mormon History written by top-shelf historians like Allen and Alexander was so good that even with their limitations they still set a standard impressively high that commands engagement.

[3] This can also be seen in Jared Hickman’s balance of a purely academic article on the Book of Mormon in American Literature, and a more devotional take on the same issue published in Dialogue.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Ben. It’s terrible to admit, but I haven’t read the book yet. I’m looking forward to doing so soon!

    Comment by Saskia — May 5, 2015 @ 10:32 am

  2. Great intro to the book, Ben. I’m not sure that I agree with your assessment that “Mormon studies and Mormon cultural discourse continues to widen.” I would say, rather, that the average Mormon is just less likely to read it. I’d say that’s also an issue of what’s culturally acceptable to consult, but that’s another story.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 5, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

  3. This is great, Ben. Thanks. I’m looking forward to the other contributions to this roundtable.

    Comment by Christopher — May 5, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  4. Great intro, Ben. I was a pre-reader on certain chapters of this book, and I have to say, I think you hit it right on: Reeve does an excellent job of being a historian first and a Mormon historian second. This book’s exploration of racism in American history certainly does justice to racism in Mormon history, but it does so much more than that by making the reader consider broader questions of race. Reeve makes some bold claims (that Mormons were not considered white, for example), but he supports them well with textual evidence from many contemporary sources. It would be nice to see some follow-up treatment on the “red” and “yellow” categories by Reeves or someone else as this topic develops.

    Comment by Heather Stone — May 5, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

  5. Good stuff. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 5, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

  6. Thanks, all. I can’t wait to see the other contributions to the roundtable.

    Comment by Ben P — May 6, 2015 @ 10:03 am

  7. Great intro, Ben. One of the things I was struck by in one of the book talks Reeve gave recently–I attended the one at King’s English a few months ago–was the terrible lack of knowledge that audience members had of the issues Paul raises in the book. One attendee fixated on Jane Manning James as an examplar of the Black Mormon experience, but had an obviously difficult time with Reeve’s teasing out of the larger historiographical nuances, especially the discussions of race as not exclusively a black/white categorization. This is, I think, a major obstacle in the modern LDS Church: its members need the perspective that Mormon Studies is adding; but many of them do not have the expertise or historical critical thinking skills to contextualize the history within their framing of their religion, if that makes sense.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, which promises to be great!

    Comment by Nate R. — May 11, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

  8. […] Nate R.: Roundtable on Paul Reeve, […]

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  9. […] by such thoughtful scholars as those at the JI. Thank you for your insightful and thorough reviews. Ben P.?s overview which launched the roundtable was particularly astute. I was somewhat caught off guard at Ben?s ability to perceive many of the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Author Meets Roundtable: Paul Reeve Responds — June 17, 2015 @ 6:00 am


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