The Origin and Persistence of Mormon Horns

By June 9, 2015

Below I summarize (700 words) my 2015 MHA paper (3,000 words), ?The Origin and Persistence of Mormon Horns.? Note that I?ve blogged about Mormon horns before and almost all the images I used in the presentation have appeared in prior blog posts, so I?ve omitted them here.

[Remember that the She Shall Be an Ensign Kickstarter campaign is still going. I encourage your support.]

Horns were a common figurative device in the nineteenth century, and most readers and hearers understood biblical and classical associations among horns, power, and sex. The most common instances of Mormon horns were such idiomatic or metaphoric expressions. Furthermore, horns were not specific to Mormons. I found horns connected to several different groups.

So? if Mormon horns were just a figure of speech, what happened? My surmise is that

  1. In an atmosphere of racialized discourse about Mormonism, which peaked in the 1880s,
  2. Figures of speech and political cartoons with horns coalesced in the Mormon collective imagination as an actual belief of non-Mormons, and then
  3. Mormons perpetuated the idea through the twentieth century.

By ?racialized? or ?racialization? I mean that the speakers believed that there was such a thing as ?race? and that someone?s race correlated profoundly with physical, intellectual, social, and moral characteristics.

[I spent the middle bulk of the presentation surveying selected statements and cartoons about Mormon horns, illustrating how Mormon horns worked in particular cases and evaluating each idea as a source for the reification of Mormon horns. The ?sources? of Mormon horns I looked at are below. This was the fun part of the presentation with all the cartoons and illustrations.

  • The horned figures in Revelation 13-20.
  • Temple Satan, whose 19C version may have worn a horn or helmet spike
  • Vigilantes in spiked KKK-like robes
  • Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and/or Masons
  • ?White Indians,? or light-skinned people acting like ?savages?
  • Frontier strongman / Bluebeard
  • Goats
  • Pan, Satan, and/or Demons]

Among other things, perceptions of Mormon violence, sexuality, secrecy, mendacity, and ceremony all had plausible connections to horns. Thus confronted with multiple viable hypotheses and with no way to systematically exclude any, I conclude that we must reject the idea of a simple explanation. For a given image or quote we can narrow the list of possible allusions, but for Mormon horns in general, it is not possible to give a straightforward, simple statement of meaning. We cannot say that ?Mormon horns represent X? or that ?People said Mormons had horns because of Y.?

I think that in many cases the horning was indirect. Instead of an alleged Mormon attribute causing people to think Mormons had horns (eg, Mormons are like Jews; Jews have horns; therefore Mormons have horns), the alleged attributes caused people to think of Mormons as Other?and Others got horns (eg, Mormons, Jews, etc, are Other; Others have horns; therefore Mormons, etc, have horns).

By the early twentieth century Mormon horns were overwhelmingly a Mormon phenomenon, propagated and reinforced as an ?urban legend? within the relative social density of Mormon networks. Once the story was established as a Mormon meme, it continued to circulate long after the idioms and plausible symbolisms of Mormon horns had lost relevance.

Speaking loosely, early Mormon discussions of Mormon horns tended to express bewilderment??they act as if we have horns??while later versions impugned non-Mormons??they are/were so backward that they think/thought we have/had horns.? Later stories about Mormon horns, told by Mormons, perform sociological functions such as reinforcing Mormon identity and maintaining tension with host cultures, among others.

Earlier this year, in Religion of a Different Color, Paul Reeve used Mormon horns, along with other evidence, to establish the importance of Mormon bodies in nineteenth-century understandings of Mormonism. My study vindicates Paul?s use of horns as evidence of the racialization of Mormon bodies. However, the connection cannot be completely reversed: the racialization of Mormon bodies does not, by itself, account for the appearance or persistence of Mormon horns. However, the racialization was probably an essential component: because Mormons knew that their bodies were being racialized?and to some extent, participated in such contestations of their bodies?Mormons became more likely to interpret otherwise idiomatic references to horns as literal rather than figurative.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great fun. Makes me wonder. Did Shakers have horns? Oneida perfectionists? Free love/utopianists? Irish immigrants? If not, why not? The problem with invoking alterity as an explanatory model is that there are lots of Others, and if a phenomenon is differentially distributed among those Others, then alterity itself can’t be held to be straightforwardly causal.

    Comment by Samuel Brown — June 9, 2015 @ 7:28 am

  2. Thanks for the comment, Samuel Brown.

    I agree that alterity itself is not straightforwardly causal. If my synopsis gave that impression then I apologize for the lack of clarity.

    The following is the list of groups I have identified as being associated with horns in some way between 1800 and 1945 (but mostly between 1800 and 1900): Abolitionists, Americans, Blacks, Canadians, Catholics, Democrats, French Canadians, Frenchmen, General Sherman, Germans, Irish, Jews, Lord Byron, Masons, Protestants, Sinn Feiners, Suffragists, Whites, Wisconsin politicians, Yankees (Civil War Unionists), and Yankees (WW2 Americans).

    Compared to the list of all possible Others in the Nineteenth Century it?s pretty small and does not (at this point) have Shakers, Oneida perfectionists, or free love/utopianists (but it does have the Irish and Sinn Feiners, though not specifically Irish immigrants to the US). The list is not long enough to support Otherness as the only cause for horning.

    It is, however, long and varied enough to make unlikely Mormon-specific causes for horns (at least early on). All the (alleged) Mormon attributes that have been suggested over the years—violence, sexuality, secrecy, mendacity, ceremony, etc—are shared by some but not all the other groups on the list. For example, we can?t say that Mormon sexual deviance led to horns because neither the Oneida community nor the Shakers got them (so far as I know), nor can we point to Whites and Protestants as models of sexual deviance even though they did get horns.

    There are very few attributes that might account for all the horns on the list. Otherness (usually limited and situational) appears to be a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for nineteenth-century horns.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 9, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  3. It is interesting that I began reading “The Giant Joshua” this last week and the author mentiones Mormon horns in the first chapter.

    Comment by G. Jones — June 9, 2015 @ 11:26 am

  4. You’re darn right Lord Byron had horns.

    Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by John Keats — June 9, 2015 @ 11:49 am

  5. Thanks, G Jones. I’m embarrassed to say that _The Giant Joshua_ reference was not on my list of Mormon horns.

    Thank you for the confirmation, John Keats.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 9, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

  6. I don’t have the book on me, but I can get you the page number later.

    Comment by G. Jones — June 9, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

  7. Nice response. I wonder whether it’s alterity plus threat that drives horning. People thought Shakers were weird, but I don’t get the sense that people felt threatened by them.

    I agree with your argument that old Mormon ideas about why they were horned are unlikely to be explanatory. And that some of what makes the horning question interesting is the ways Mormons could use it as a synecdoche for other forms of prejudice or dismissal by mainstream American Protestants. nice work.

    Comment by Samuel Brown — June 9, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

  8. Adam Jortner’s article “The Political Threat of a Female Christ: Ann Lee, Morality, and Religious Freedom in the United States, 1780-1819” points out that /some/ Americans found Shakers threatening–and that the Shakers used more “feminine” self-representations to combat those impressions.

    Comment by Glenstorm — June 11, 2015 @ 11:10 am

  9. Fun stuff, Edje. I wondered, like Sam, how broadly this label was used, and whether it might be connected to (claimed) abuse of power in some sense or other.

    Comment by WVS — June 11, 2015 @ 9:04 pm


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