The Jewish “Gentile” Governor: A Brief Snapshot of an Interaction between Jews and Mormons

By May 8, 2013

In my early years of graduate school, I became interested in a project that compared mainstream American attitudes toward Mormons and Jews during the Progressive Era. One night while looking around on the internet, I came across the name Simon Bamberger, the first Jewish, democratic, and non-Mormon governor of Utah. He served 220px-Simon_Bambergeras governor between January 1917 and January 1921. Born in Germany in 1846, he left for New York City as a teenager and eventually migrated to Utah in 1872. Throughout his years in Utah before he ran for governor, Bamberger ran two hotels and built a railway between Ogden and Salt Lake City. As the story goes, Bamberger?s supporters urged him to campaign in a community of Norwegian Mormon converts   where Bamberger was greeted by a Norwegian man who stated:

?If you tink ve let any damn Yentile speak in our meeting house, yure mistaken.? Bamberger replied: ?As a Jew, I have been called many a bad name, but this is first time in my life I have been called a damned Gentile!? The Norwegian man changed his demeanor when he learned Bamberger was a Jew and enthusiastically proclaimed: ?Hear him men, he?s not a Yentile, he?s a Yew, an Israelite. Velcome my friend; velcome, our next governor.?[1]

Besides offering a funny anecdote that features confusion surrounding the term ?gentile? within the Mormon context, this exchange also highlights how Utah served as a site of convergence for people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.Whenever I mentioned that Utah had a Jewish to colleagues, I was almost always met just surprise and complete disbelief. I had many people tell me ?It was not possible.? I always responded with the question of ?Why not??

An article from a Missouri newspaper about Simon Bamberger provides a snapshot to view how non-Mormons viewed the religion in the early-twentieth century. During a trip to Missouri in 1918, a reporter asked Bamberger during a speech if it was true that Mormons in Utah were contemplating a return to polygamy. The governor said that the Church was against it and the young people of the Church were horrified at this earlier practice. His wife Ida Bamberger, who was born in Germany in 1863 and spent her early life in Cincinnati, also spoke up and said that: ?All the Mormon women are loyal to their government and are very active in war activities. Mormonism must be understood as a religion, and not as a polygamous living, for polygamy is a thing of the past in Utah.? Perhaps as an attempt to ?get back? at the reporter for posing the question Governor Bamberger said: ?I was elected governor of Utah by the women, and I prophesy?and prophets are said to come from Utah-?that before long the women of Missouri will vote too.?[2]

This exchange between the Bambergers and the reporter reveal (not surprisingly to any of us that) Americans were still intrigued with the marital practice of plural marriage. Of course for many, 1918 was only a decade and a few short years after information was made public during the Smoot hearings that polygamy was still being clandestinely practiced by a select few members of the church.[3] During the exchange, Ida Bamberger, who was involved in many different charities in Salt Lake City, is quick to defend Mormon women not only as loyal Americans but also demonstrated their patriotism through their support for troops abroad in Europe for World War One.  Ida Bamberg?s statement combined with Governor Bamberger?s comment about Utah women winning the vote before Missouri serves as a not so subtle reminder that Utahns wanted other Americans to view the Mormon women not as continual victims or perpetuators of polygamy but independent and politically active women involved in monogamist marriage.

Several articles from during and after Bamberger?s tenure as governor in the Bamberger Collection at the University of Utah Marriot Library mentions how he repeatedly defended Mormonism and always tried to clear up any misunderstandings about the religion. While my own research has drifted away from a comparative focus, I am still intrigued by pursuing a historical exploration of how non-Mormons living in Utah and the Mormon Culture Region have come to define themselves in relationship to Mormonism.  I also wonder how non-Mormons living in these areas have come to explain and, ultimately, defend Mormonism to other Americans outside of the Mormon Culture Region and even the larger Intermountain West. [4]

During my early years of grad school, I was struck by a conversation with a colleague from Montana who explained that many Montanans simply viewed Mormonism as just another church among many other churches. This contrasted deeply with my own experiences with Michiganders and New Yorkers (I spent most of my youth divided between New York City and Michigan) many of whom expressed extreme ignorance of Mormonism and often said something along the lines of ?They are the ones that practice polygamy, right??  Now, several years into my own graduate education and research, I find myself continuously explaining to disbelieving Midwesterners and East Coasters that Salt Lake City is actually a fun city for non-Mormons.

I am going to return briefly to the Bambergers? exchange with the reporter in Missouri. Bamberger?s own humorous comment that ?prophets are said to come from Utah? points to his familiarity with Mormon history and his insider status as a Utahn while still maintaining a bit of distance from the religion. A more nuanced exploration of exchanges like this would provide further insights to how a positive image of Mormonism was perpetuated by people of a different faith.


[1] Leon L.Watters, The Pioneer Jews of Utah. (New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1952), 9-10.
This story has appeared in many accounts of this meeting between Bamberger and the Norwegian convert. The link I first across that contained this story is unfortunately no longer active. However, this site provides a brief but detailed description of Bamberger?s life and tenure as governor.

[2] Quotes pulled from a 1918 article titled ?All are Talking if Utah from Missouri? from an unnamed newspaper found in the Bamberger Family Papers. Ms 0225. Box 1. Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[3] As they were on different sides of the political spectrum, the republican Reed Smoot and democratic Simon Bamberger often sparred with each other over issues within the state.

[4] It would be remiss not to mention how Ethan Yorgason?s work has opened up this conversation and helped my viewpoint on the subject. See Ethan R. Yorgason. Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I was unaware of Bamberger; thanks for the writte-up. I’m looking forward to Kevin Barney’s forthcoming history of the translation of the Book of Mormon into Hebrew, which spans the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 8, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

  2. Thank you for this post.

    My great-great grandmother was a Democrat and a Utah state representative and senator from 1915 to 1922 so she interacted with Governor Bamberger regularly. I know there is a bit of correspondence between the two in the family collection, but I don’t have time to look right now and see what it is.

    Besides a cursory glance, I’ve never looked him up, so this is more than I’ve ever known about him, and it reinforces the impression of friendliness that I got from the correspondence.

    Comment by Amy T — May 8, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  3. This is fascinating stuff, especially since I’ve never heard of it before. Well done, Natalie!

    Comment by Ben P — May 8, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  4. Great post!

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 8, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

  5. Thanks all!

    I am really looking forward to Kevin Barney’s study as well.

    Those correspondances sound fascinating. It does seem that his friendliness was a characteristic many of his contemporaries commented on.

    Comment by Natalie R — May 8, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

  6. Excellent. Thanks, Natalie!

    Comment by Christopher — May 9, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  7. I enjoy surprising New York friends by telling them that Utah had a Jewish governor before New York did (Herbert Lehman, 1933-42), and that New York has had only one more than Utah (Eliot Spitzer, 2007–ignominy).

    Comment by Mark B. — May 9, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  8. Yes, people are always shocked that there were two Jewish governors in Idaho and Utah before many places on the East Coast. Makes people rethink their assumptions (hopefully!)

    Comment by Natalie R — May 9, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  9. The only thing that shocks me about Utah’s early Jewish governor is how horribly unlikely it is to happen today.

    Comment by Steve — May 11, 2013 @ 5:53 am

  10. It isn’t that unlikely. The candidate in question must simply be a Republican to have a reasonable shot. We haven’t had a Democratic governor in thirty years.

    Comment by Mark D. — May 12, 2013 @ 12:08 am

  11. Once again plumbing my memories of my mother’s stories: there was a train from Salt Lake to Saltair called the Bamberger that the younger crowd liked to take on weekends. I heard that name from the time I was a small child and thought little of it, but much later learned about the Jewish governor of Utah, Simon Bamberger.

    Comment by Susan W H — May 23, 2013 @ 11:21 pm


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