Theology and Racial Ideology

By March 14, 2008

After having shared some of my personal connections to the story of Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho and to set up a future post about my own research which looks at the experience through the eyes of these racialized ?others,? I thought it might be nice to summarize one of my favorite articles by Leonard Arrington.[1] Although it looks like someone is giving a paper at the next MHA conference on this topic, Arrington?s essay represents one of the only attempts by a historian to explain how the World War II internment of Japanese Americans affected Utah and how the unique dynamics of Mormonism affected Utah?s relationship to these Nikkei.[2]

JI?s own Heidi has ably examined how Mormon?s changing racial attitudes toward Asians mirrored the larger malleability of racial ideologies in American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (I hope that she will post some of her research on this point in the future).[3] In his article, Arrington actually makes a very different argument about Mormon attitudes during the war by defining the interactions between Mormons and Japanese Americans as an ?ambiguous reception.? Although Arrington goes to great lengths to avoid exceptionalizing the Mormon experience, in this case, I am convinced by some of Arrington?s arguments that Utah?s experiences contrasted with the internment process in other Western states where the reception of the Nikkei was often anything but ambiguous.

Arrington outlines several reasons why Mormons might have held a favorable inclination toward people of Japanese descent and other reasons why they might have exhibited prejudice toward these people. For example, Arrington argues that Mormons respected the highly gendered nature of Japanese society and its emphasis on social control. He also emphasizes the ties that prominent leaders like President Heber J. Grant and Senator Elbert Thomas made with the Japanese people during their mission to the Asian nation. Before the war, Utah was home to at least 2,210 Nikkei, and Mormons had generally lived in harmony with this small minority population (a population, that never was interned I might add). Finally, he points out that Mormons? past history of persecution might have made them more inclined to sympathize with other oppressed groups.

Nevertheless, there were historical forces that also stoked the flames of anti-Japanese prejudice in the Beehive State. First, Arrington points out how Mormons exhibited signs of hyper-patriotism in the wake of their rejection of polygamy. Second, he gestures to the idea that Mormons rarely welcomed any non-Mormon immigrants into Utah. Finally, he demonstrates how the weak pre-war economy in Utah made Asians immigrants an easy target for bitter nativists.

Arrington proves the ambiguity of Utah?s reception by quoting from letters written to Governor Herbert Maw and articles in the Deseret News addressing the problem of Japanese Americans. Arrington does point out that the harshest criticism of the Japanese Americans came from rural areas where the people had few opportunities to come into contact with Japanese Americans as part of their daily life. Although Arrington might have over-generalized in his reading of how the Mormon character influenced their interactions with the Nikkei, the late-coming of the alien land law to Utah,[4] along with words emphasizing tolerance from President Grant and Governor Maw do stand in stark contrast to Idaho Governor Chase Clark who declared that, ?Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats.?[5]

Arrington?s essay, like most of his writing is insightful and imbued with a sense of humanity both toward the Mormons and the Japanese Americans he is describing. It also models a historical question that I think still needs to be answered in a larger, perhaps comparative, study on Mormon racial thought. Armand Mauss has done much to explore LDS attitudes toward African Americans, but I still think we need a systematic study of the impact of Mormon theology on racial ideology. What influence does LDS theology have racial thought? In the case of Japanese Americans it seems to have sometimes tempered the worst kinds of prejudice. Yet the lifting of the Priesthood ban came so late. Did the priesthood ban represent tradition more than actual racial ideology in the last years of its existence? Also, how have members of other races interacted with the church over the years? Someone needs to write historically about Mormon theology and Latino immigration. Are there books and articles that I haven?t read regarding these subjects? Thanks for wading through this post. Next time I?ll present some of my own research.


[1]Leonard Arrington, ?Utah?s Ambiguous Reception: The Relocated Japanese Americans,? in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, eds. Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H.L. Kitano (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986), 92-98.

[2] The Japanese term Nikkei refers to Japanese emigrants and their descendents all over the world. Historians of the Japanese American experience in the United States often utilize this term to refer to any or all persons of Japanese ancestry

[3] Heidi Harris, ?Another Other: Asian Race and Theological Change, 1880-1930,? unpublished conference paper

[4] Alien Land Laws were statutes that denied Japanese immigrants the right to purchase land in a particular state. Most states in the West passed such laws in the 1910s and 1920s.

[5] As quoted in James A Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Have, CT:Yale University Press, 2003), 373.


  1. Thanks for this summary of Arrington, Joel. You ask some good questions, and I agree that more work needs to be done on Mormonism’s ideology of race and how our theology has shaped it. I’m not aware of any published work on Mormon views on immigration, although Kaimi will be presenting a paper on the topic at Sunstone West.

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  2. Finally, he points out that Mormons? past history of persecution might have made them more inclined to sympathize with other oppressed groups.

    Does Arrington provide specific evidence for this, or is he making a plausible speculation?

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  3. Does Jorge Iber go into some these topics? Polynesian Pioneers (Aikau) (diss.) is another possibility.

    Comment by Justin — March 14, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  4. It’s been a few years since I read Iber, but I don’t remember him getting into white racializations of Utah Hispanic Mormons.

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  5. I should note that I know nothing about Aikau’s work. I simply noticed the title in the Mormon History database.

    Comment by Justin — March 14, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

  6. I’ve never even heard of it. I wonder if it’s in ProQuest.

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  7. I wonder if Mormon sympathy towards people of Japanese heritage is an extension of their favorable leanings toward other pacific cultures (specifically Polynesians). I realize that there are significant differences, but the vibrant Hawaiian colony Iosepa is, I think, a wonderful example of successful Mormon inter-racial interaction. I haven’t heard anything about the recently released title from UU Press: Proclamation to the People: 19th Century Mormonism and the Pacific Basin Frontier.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

  8. Heidi’s paper argues that for a brief time around the turn of the century, Mormons were constructing the Japanese as Israelites. But when the Japanese did not embrace the first Mormon missionaries, the Japanese were again grouped with other backwards peoples from the East, like the Chinese.

    FYI, LMK’s volume is 34% off on Amazon. I haven’t gotten my copy yet, but it looks excellent.

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

  9. I just remembered a book a came across a year or so on google books: Susa Young Gates, ed., Surname Book and Racial History: A Compilation and Arrangement of Genealogical and Historical Data for use by the Students and Members of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ( Salt Lake City: General Board of the Relief Society, 1918). I was hoping that it might have something on the Japanese, but it doesn’t. Good stuff for general racial perceptions among educated Mormons of the period, though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

  10. David,

    I actually think Arrington might have been reading some of his own sympathy for the Japanese onto other church members. He wrote a book on the Topaz internment camp entitled the Price of Prejudice and even the title says a significant amount about what he thought about internment. Nevertheless, many of the Japanese American members of the church, at least in retrospect, bought into the idea of shared persecution. Maybe they were simply trying to justify their entrance into a white church or trying to forget the realities of prejudice during the war, but the found comfort in the discourse of shared persecution. I think that it would have been interesting for Heidi to carry her argument into the 1930s and 1940s where 2nd generation Japanese Americans were joining the church in Utah and speaking out in favor of Americanization. Although she argues that most missionaries from the Japanese mission left thinking that there was no hope for Japan, the evidence is pretty strong that at least Heber J. Grant and Elbert Thomas felt strong affections for the Japanese people in the 30s and 40s–though admittedly in a sort of paternalistic manner. I’ll have to check out Proclamation to the People as it seems to be a very exciting book and it hasn’t been on my radar at all–it’s too bad that a bigger press didn’t pick it up.

    Comment by Joel — March 14, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

  11. Joel, I would be would be extremely interested in any references to the Mormon position taken on the Japanese internment or relocation into Utah. I have queried many of the BYU and Church History Museum folks to no avail. I think Arrington’s thoughts are purely supposition and not based on actual stated positions by any Church leaders. Btw, Arrington did publish a book, “The Price of Prejudice” on behalf of our museum. You referenced a speaker at the next MHA conference who will talk of this subject. Unfortunately, I know that individual and have heard him and know the extent of his work, and it contains less substance than what you present above. And although I have no doubt that Gov. Maw and Senator Thomas were sympathetic to the plight of the Japanese, publicly and politically they did not voice much opposition in support of the Japanese Americans. The fact that the Government actually suspended the civil rights of its own citizens does not surprise me much, the fact that so many stood by and watched it happen does.

    Comment by Steve K. — March 14, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  12. Steve,

    This is a press release from President Grant that Arrington found in Governor Maws’s papers at USU. I haven’t seen the document myself, so we are left to the whims of Arrington’s editing.

    “Reports coming to this office declare that in outlying districts these Japanese-Americans find lack of warmth . . . not evident in the more urban communities . . . Protests have been registered against leasing land to JApanese or those of Japanese ancestry . . . the ranchers need labor imported, but . . . did not want the Japanese boys and girls attending . . . schools where there own children were students.”

    “Prejudice went ever further . . . In one community efforts made to raise money . . . for more books . . . were experiencing difficulty . . . finally some one thought of going to two or three Japanese families . . . for funds, and the response of these people was so generous hat the solicitors decided there must be something crooked in it and reported the generous donations to the sheriff.”

    “Americans who are loyal are good Americans whether their ancestors came from Great Britain or Japan, the Scandinavian countries or Germany. Let us therefore endeavor to banish these foolish prejudices from our natures and let us attempt to see that good and loyal Americans are treated as such.”

    Thus, President Grant did not come out against the internment, but in many ways this rhetoric is as liberal as you will find in the time period unless you look toward radical voices from the Left or religious pacifists like the Quakers. (Just a side note, Quakers and other conscious objectors were often put into labor camps during the war)

    Thomas also did not speak out directly against the camps, but his close relationship with Mike Masaoka, the Mormon national secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League demonstrates his sympathy toward Americans of Japanese descent. This was also more than most national leaders. Even Earl Warren, Attorney general for the State of California at that time, supported the formation of the camps. Some have hypothesized that his part in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education might have come because of the guilty he felt for his actions against the Nikkei. As for Maw, at least his did not actively speak out against the Japanese Americans like many of his contemporaries. The statement above from Idaho Governor Chase Clark was one of many such statements.

    Steve, I would recommend that you get the Arrington article and read it. Also you might check out my Masters Thesis from Utah State on Proquest. It is called Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West: Japanese American Ethnic Identity in Utah and Idaho. The real meat is at the end of chapter three and the entirety of chapter four. I will be posting about some more of my work in the coming days.

    Comment by Joel — March 15, 2008 @ 12:29 am

  13. Joel, I will go back and reread Arrington’s essay in “Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress”. Been a while since I first read it and at that time I wasn’t concentrating on this particular facet. I will also retrace Arrington’s steps through Gov. Maw’s papers at USU. I didn’t know they existed. I’ve been through Gov. Maw’s correspondence files at the State Archives and they show pretty much typical “political speak”, tailoring each response according to the side of the fence of the constituent. I do believe Gov. Maw and Senator Thomas were sympathetic to the JA’s but very afraid to speak publicly that the relocation and internment was wrong. I realize they were not as bad as other governors, but they also did not “stand tall and risk it all” as Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr did.

    I will also look back into Mike Masaoka’s papers at the UofU, but I don’t recall any strong position letters in his correspondence. Yes, I knew Masaoka was a pre-war Mormon as were many of the Japanese immigrants to this state. I suspect that was part of the assimilation process. As a result of the internment, I suspect the conversion to the Mormon religion (and other Christian religions) hastened for those JA’s in Utah. Internment was not only a form of racial persecution but had a religious persecution component also.

    You have piqued my interest with your thesis title. I will surely try to get my hands on a copy, not only for the content that relates to this topic, but also to glean more information on Utah JA history. I’m looking forward to seeing your work, hopefully as an extension to Susan Sunada’s compilations at USU. I will stay tuned to this blog but feel free to contact me directly.

    Comment by Steve K. — March 15, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  14. Steve K.,

    I think you have a pretty good sense of the political climate in Utah at the time. I also think that Maw and Thomas were quite pragmatic politicians. Ralph Carr did speak out much more against the camps than anyone from Utah. He was the exception and not the rule. Arrington and I might be overstepping our case on the Mormon connection–I don’t know. I know that distance from the coast played a large role in supporting or condemning the camps as well. As for Masaoka’s Papers at U of U, in my opinion they are not very useful for understanding the war era. The JACL’s records were raided in Washington D.C. near the beginning of the war and it caused a lot of trouble for those that were supportive of the Nikkei’s cause. After that, he stopped keeping a paper trail. Often, the best sources on Masaoka are found in the collections of other Japanese Americans that corresponded with him. My research isn’t really centered on the political culture of Utah, so I think that I know much more about the Japanese Americans as an ethnic group than I do about the complicated workings of Utah politics in this era.

    Comment by Joel — March 15, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  15. I notice that several of the Utah Centennial County History Series volumes briefly discuss the reception of Utahns to JAs, e.g., Box Elder, Millard, Utah, and Salt Lake.

    Comment by Justin — March 15, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  16. Joel,

    We looked up the thesis and found out who you are. I know your cousins?, Gary and Linda. Please do post more of your research findings and sources on Japanese immigration. I use the BYU-Idaho database all the time. I am Buddhist so I am very interested in your perspectives.

    Comment by Steve K. — March 21, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  17. yeah! I’m totally going to post my little contribution sometime soon. Thanks for the reminder!

    Comment by Heidi — March 22, 2008 @ 12:22 pm


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