The First ?American Mormons?

By August 20, 2012

The media is buzzing about the current ?Mormon moment,? by which they mean that Americans, in contrast with decades past, currently seem fascinated by and inclined to be positive about the Latter-day Saints. But this is not non-Mormon America?s first flirtation with this long-suspected native-born religion. Americans have had several such moments of fascination with the Saints throughout the last century.

The first such moment that I found in my research on American images of the Mormons after 1890 occurred in the early twentieth century. This in itself didn?t surprise me. Scholarly consensus has long been that American antipathy toward the Mormons radically decreased after the Saints supported the United States? involvement in World War I (1914?1918; U.S. involved, 1917?1918).[1] The Saints, so the story goes, proved themselves to be patriotic Americans by enlisting in the Armed Forces and by working on the home front to supply the war effort. In one widely noted example, the Church earned praise from the national papers for donating the contents of its granaries, more than 250,000 bushels of wheat, to the federal government.[2]

Prior to the mid-1910s, of course, the Mormons were routinely demonized in American news and popular culture. Despite the Church?s declaration of the end of polygamy in 1890 and Apostle Reed Smoot?s successful seating in the Senate in 1907, the images of Mormons that pervaded American culture were holdovers of nineteenth-century stereotypes: the lecherous polygamist; the violent zealot; the power-hungry theocrats of the hierarchy and the countless mindless dupes they ruled. These images were epitomized in Zane Grey?s wildly popular western novel The Riders of the Purple Sage, first published to rave reviews in 1912. Critics praised Grey for the realism of his story, in which a wealthy young Mormon woman who befriends Gentiles and refuses to become the polygamous wife of a greedy local elder narrowly escapes her southern Utah community with the help of a non-Mormon cowboy.[3] Around the same time, national newspapers reported regular anti-Mormon riots and threats of government expulsions of missionaries across Europe, sometimes praising such efforts on the part of citizens to eliminate the ?insidious evil? of Mormonism from their communities.[4] In general, descriptions of Mormonism established a clear dichotomy: there were Mormons, and then there were Americans.

But I found that this dichotomy enjoyed a partial but important hiatus several years before the United States entered World War I. In 1910, national newspapers papers began reporting on the Mexican Revolution (1910?1920), and particularly the threat it posed to American citizens settled in northern Mexico. Many of these settlers were Mormon, and at first the papers made a distinction between Mormon and non-Mormon (?American?) colonists. But as fighting intensified and the revolutionaries?including the notorious Pancho Villa?began targeting Mormon settlements, the papers began printing sympathetic stories about the Saints. Through 1912, the stories still carefully separated the colonists? religious and national identities, referring to the same people as Mormons in one place in a story and Americans in another. But when rebels actually took over the town of Colonia Morelos in 1913, the New York Times declared that an ?American Mormon settlement? had been seized.[5]

Both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune profiled the successful Mormon settlements, praising the Saints for their industry, order, and good business sense. The Times also paid a great deal of attention to ?American Mormon? involvement in the Revolution. Throughout 1916, when the United States sent troops into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa, the Times printed a number of articles featuring Mormon scouts who were leading American troops through Mexican territory. In a preview of the coverage of Mormon support for World War I, these scouts were praised for their contribution to the American military effort. Until, that is, one of them dared to criticize. Lem Spillsbury was assigned to scout for a black troop in the Tenth Cavalry. While marching south into Mexico, Spillsbury reported, the Americans encountered government-backed Mexican troops who ordered them to turn back, as the Mexicans didn?t want Americans to penetrate any further into their country. The white officers in charge of the American troop decided to disregard this order. They ordered their soldiers to march south, and in the resulting fight several officers and soldiers were killed. The rest of the troop, including Spillsbury, was taken prisoner.[6]

Editorial reaction to Spillsbury?s implied criticism of the American officers was swift. The Times emphasized that his story ?differed in important degrees from that told by the troopers.?[7] An editorial printed the same day speculated that Spillsbury?s story blamed the Americans for the disastrous fight ?as a result of his grievances, as a Mormon, against the American government.?[8] Just over a week later, the paper printed a photo of an unnamed ?Mexican Mormon Scout? with ?his Three Wives,? visually reinforcing the Mormons? difference from other Americans.[9] While the Saints would be praised again for their patriotism in World War I, in the 1920s images of the Mormons largely returned the negative stereotypes of earlier decades.

I?m intrigued by this earlier ?Mormon moment? first because, as in the present, despite the increased number of positive images non-Mormons remained ambivalent toward the Saints. Mormons were praised for their support of the nation and their demonstration of American values such as industry and self-reliance, while at the same time being accused of harboring hostility toward the United States and being unquestioningly obedient to their religious leaders. Representations of the Saints from this period are positive insomuch as they illustrate individual freedom and American patriotism; they are negative when they portray a Mormon dedication to the collective, or when they imply criticism of the United States.

The other issue that I?m keen to explore further is the way in which Mormonism serves as a sounding board for racial tension in this period in American history. When Mormons were being attacked by white mobs or by governments in Europe, American newspapers printed responses that ranged from neutral to laudatory toward European anti-Mormonism. In contrast, when Mormons in Mexico were under attack by presumably dark-skinned Mexicans, the Saints were defended in print as ?Americans? and in person by American troops. But when a Mormon criticized the actions of (white) American officers news reports immediately stripped him of his American status, labeling him foreign and anti-American.[10]

The more positive representations that characterize these moments are, in many ways, no more about the Saints themselves than the negative images that have long typified American depictions of the Mormons. One hundred years ago, as now, popular images of the Mormons tell us more about the anxieties of those producing them than they do about their purported subjects.



[1] See Jan Shipps, ?From Satyr to Saint: American Perceptions of the Mormons, 1860 ? 1960,? in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), esp. n. 3.

[2] New York Times, ?Mormons Give Up Wheat: Church Turns Over Reserve of 250,000 Bushels to Government? (June 12, 1918); Chicago Tribune, ?Mormons Empty 250,000 Bushel Granary to Aid U.S? (June 7, 1918).

[3] New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1912. Available online at Grey?s novel spawned a successful sequel, The Rainbow Trail, in 1916, and both books were adapted for film as early as 1918. Riders was adapted for film again in 1925, 1931, 1941, and 1996 (the last version starred Ed Harris and aired on TNT).

[4] Chicago Tribune, ?Attacking Mormonism Abroad? (May 5, 1911).

[5] ?Mormon Town Rebel Camp? (March 2, 1913); ?New Fight across Border? (March 5, 1913).

[6] ?Captured Scout Tells How Troopers Fought: He Saw 11 American Dead, Besides Bodies of Two Officers?Threat by Trevino? (June 23, 1916).

[7] ?No Quarter at Carrizal? (June 30, 1916).

[8] ?Topics of the Times: A Remarkable Amount of Agreement? (June 30, 1916).

[9] July 9, 1916.

[10] The article ?No Quarter at Carrizal? (June 30, 1916), in particular, traffics in a number of racial stereotypes. Reporting on the return of the soldiers taken prisoner by the Mexicans, the front page article referred to a black Sergeant as ?big buck negro,? and described the dirty and ragged attire of the black troops and Mormon scout Lem Spillsbury in detail. The Mexican troops were treated in a similar manner: ?the fat, greasy Captain in command perspired from every pore as he dog-trotted along, with his sword flopping between his legs.? The article did not linger on the only returning white officer?s physical appearance, giving no mention of any dirt on or damage to his clothing.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Cultural History Current Events Popular Culture Race


  1. Great first post Cristine. Seriously fantastic example of the fluctuations of Mormon imagery. Whites, Mexicans, Blacks, and Mormons…what to do? Oh my.

    And thanks for reminding me that I need to go back to your dissertation. 🙂

    Comment by JanieceJ — August 20, 2012 @ 11:54 am

  2. Fascinating. Thanks, Cristine. I think your point about the differences between reporting on anti-Mormonism in Europe and in Mexico is intriguing.

    In your dissertation, did you look much at the media’s portrayal of Mormons during the Spanish-American War, which D. Michael Quinn argues was a real turning point in terms of Mormon patriotism? Occuring as it did not long after the Manifesto, statehood, and the denial of B.H. Roberts’ congressional seat, I wonder how the media and other Americans responded to Mormon patriotism during the war.

    Comment by David G. — August 20, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  3. Absolutely fascinating, Cristine.

    Comment by Ben P — August 20, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  4. Good stuff, Cristine. The story about Spillsbury is interesting from a couple of standpoints. I recently read The General and the Jaguar by Eileen Welsome about Pershing’s ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Villa in 1916-1917. The white officers of the 10th Cavalry not only ignored the warning of the Mexican army officers, but also ignored direct orders from Pershing not to get involved in direct confrontations with the legitimate Mexican Army, resulting in the action that Spillsbury related. The surviving officers did what they could to deflect blame from themselves and their dead fellow officers. Interesting also to note that Pershing’s nickname of “Black Jack” originated with his command of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry, only that its initial usage used the n-word instead of black, and likely not meant to be complimentary. Prejudice against Mexicans was high along the border with Mexico, and it was easy to make the jump from threatened American Mormons to depicting them as again figures of suspicion and disloyalty when the expedition ran into difficulties and defeat.

    Comment by kevinf — August 20, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  5. What a fantastic first post, Cristine. This is really fascinating. I hope you’ll write more in a future post on “the way in which Mormonism serves as a sounding board for racial tension in this period in American history.”

    Comment by Christopher — August 20, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

  6. Agreed. A great post, Cristine. I’m intrigued by how shifts in perceptions of Mormons seem to coincide with periods of war.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 20, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  7. wow. especially second to last paragraph.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 20, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

  8. Thanks to everyone. It’s great to make my status as a JI blogger official!

    I agree that the issues of race here are fascinating. It’s not something I’ve focused on thus far in my research, but it’s definitely something that I’m keeping in mind for future. As evidenced by recent attention to what the priesthood ban says about Mormons — and perhaps about Mitt Romney — today, this is a theme that continues in responses to Mormons throughout the last 100 years. (It also peaked in the late-1960s and 1970s, when the *New York Times* criticized the Church — and George Romney — for not keeping up with the times.)

    David, I didn’t find any particular attention to Mormon support for the Spanish-American War in my research on non-Mormon representations of the Saints. 1898 was the year that B. H. Roberts was elected to the House of Representatives by Utah voters, but then rejected by the members of the House for his ongoing practice of polygamy. That was, in the sources I was looking at, the news media’s primary focus on Mormonism around that time.

    Thanks for the reference, Kevin!

    Janiece, you should not feel beholden to go back to my dissertation. But I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do.

    Comment by Cristine — August 21, 2012 @ 8:33 am


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