Over the past few weeks, a white woman that goes by the name “A Purposeful Wife” (Ayla) has garnered a lot of attention on Twitter and was featured in an article on Buzzfeed for dual loyalties to Mormonism and the Alt-Right Movement (a political movement whose explicit purpose is to create a white, Christian nation). She spends her days spewing Alt-Right messages to her 20,000 followers and thousands more that respond to her. Her alt-right beliefs inform her “white nationalism.” Although she rejects the label of “Nazi,” she subscribes to Nazi race theory. She has issued a “white baby challenge,” encouraging people now considered to be white to bear more children than people of color in order to maintain white supremacy. This cannot be called anything other than a call to eugenics–commonplace rhetoric in the Alt-Right. Ayla has a Mormon.org profile, seemingly written before her adoption of Alt-Right politics [it has been taken down as of 11:40 AM MST, but you can see the profile courtesy of the Wayback Machine].
Despite the unsavory, dangerous, and abhorrent rhetoric, it’s important to know Mormonism’s long history of supporting eugenics–even when they were not considered white or Christian. As Ardis at Keepapitchinin has rightly written, this flies in the face of current Mormon teachings. I applaud the LDS Church’s statement condemning all forms of racism past and present, and join in that call. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the LDS Church condemns its past subscription to eugenics, not only the priesthood and temple restriction or other better-known racist or racial beliefs and practices.
While this post is a very short introduction, I will provide a brief overview of the Mormon embrace of eugenics, explicitly, and implicitly, in terms of race and gender. Mormon eugenics and political history will come in a second installment.[i]
The Book of Mormon teaches that non-righteous groups of people have dark skin as a part of a punishment for their wickedness. There are several readings of passages that speak to whiteness as metaphorical, but it is impossible to ignore the racial overtones in the Book of Mormon. The groups in the Book of Mormon that are identified most closely with righteousness are associated with whiteness, and those with dark skin are associated with bloodthirstiness, civilizational decline, and a preponderance for violence. Historians recognize these racial scripts as a way of trumpeting whiteness at the expense of non-whites, a patter than has existed from the Enlightenment to the present day.
Early Mormons believed that Israelite blood coursed through the veins of white Latter-day Saints and the remnants of the Book of Mormon’s peoples (Joseph Smith identified Native Americans as those remnants). Smith preached that those who were not of the blood of Abraham, those without proper lineage, would have their blood transformed into what was later called Israelite or “believing blood.” Conversion to Mormonism would have “a more powerful effect upon the body” than on the spirit for those that were not of Israelite lineage, like black Africans.[ii] A person without Abrahamic lineage, would have to undergo a physical change to become a Mormon. One would not have black African blood after conversion to Mormonism because conversion changed their blood and, in a way, made them white.
In 1852, Brigham Young made reference to lineage, not to skin color when he preached that no person of the race of Cain (believed to be black Africans) would hold the ecclesiastical priesthood or participate in Mormon temple rituals. In short, lineage was part of being Mormon–and black Africans were not viewed as being compatible with Mormons without change. To be Mormon meant to be white–or at least to share in the religio-racial characteristics of those with the blood of Abraham. Those without the right lineage were not permitted to participate in Mormonism’s most scared rituals.
Within a year of Brigham Young’s enactment of Mormonism’s priesthood and racial restriction, Apostle Orson Pratt justified plural marriage through the logic of creating and raising righteous “seed,” or children. Later in the decade, future apostle and counselor in the First Presidency George Q. Cannon insisted that Mormons were the only people that were rightly seeking to breed humans in the way that animal husbandmen raised livestock. He wrote, “Experience has long since taught mankind the necessity of observing certain natural laws in the propagation of animals, or the stock will degenerate and finally become extinct. But strange to say, in regard to the human animal, these laws, except in certain particulars, are more or less disregarded.” Cannon worried that society did not create or enforce laws “best calculated to develope [sic] our physical nature. A well formed, healthy, vigorous race should be the end sought.”
After suggesting that the law should forbid “the unhealthy to beget children” and should compel “every healthy man to marry,” Cannon promised that under those conditions, no healthy girl would remain single and “no whore shall be permitted to live.” He argued that the simultaneous commitment to sexual purity and racial engineering leading to the improvement of the human race “is precisely what the Saints in the valleys of the mountains are endeavoring to accomplish.” The future apostle then argued, “The genius of Christian monogamy is to encourage prostitution; because it forbids plural marriages, yet compels no man to marry, and thus debars thousands of females from gratifying the strongest instincts of their nature,” by which he meant becoming a wife and mother.[iii] Cannon knew that eugenics could not work (literally) without women; the more women involved in procreation meant more members of the white race.
After the LDS Church abandoned plural marriage, Scott Marianno has shown that after 1890 Mormons worked to be considered “the right type of citizen” through appeals to whiteness, including eugenics. Paul Reeve has proved that in 1908, Mormons crystallized Brigham Young’s 1852 pronouncement barring people of black African descent from temples and ecclesiastical priesthood and participated in scientific conversations meant to help Mormons attain the privileges of whiteness. However, Mormon contributions to scientific, eugenic conversations were saddled with the baggage of polygamy, which Mormons had not discarded on a theological level even if they had on a practical level. In part to justify a continued belief in plural marriage, B.H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and others researched eugenics and connected plural marriage to the production of an elite race. Articles in the Relief Society Magazine warned its female readers against “race suicide,” meaning the lessening of “white” races’ power in the face of non-white immigration to the United States. By 1927, Apostle Melvin J. Ballard proudly quoted a scientist that labeled Mormonism “the most eugenical religion in the world!”
Those that subscribe to the Alt-Right and to Mormonism ignore their leaders’ call for an eradication to racism, but can point to their faith’s history to justify their beliefs. Mormonism theologized whiteness and the women’s bearing of eugenically sound children in the nineteenth century and even when plural marriage ceased to be practiced, continued to undergird much of Mormonism’s beliefs. These views, products of their time and usefulness, continue to shape portions of Mormon subculture today. The LDS Church officially disavows these beliefs–and can show its commitment to antiracism, at a minimum, by taking down her Mormon.org profile. [Update: her profile has been removed.]
[i] Of course, both categories intersect.
[ii] Some have argued that this was an irregular statement from Smith; it was not taught regularly. Still, the idea of believing blood captured the minds of Mormons after Smith’s death.
[iii] Joseph R. Stuart, “Our Religion is Not Hostile to Real Science’: Evolution, Eugenics, and Race/Religion Making in Mormonism’s First Century,” Journal of Mormon History 42, no. 1 (January 2016): 23.