“Those people are not Mormons”: Holiness Christians and Mistaken Identity in the American South

By May 19, 2008

Recently, while reading Randall Stephens’ excellent new book, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (review here), I came across the following passage, which naturally intrigued me.

On more than one occasion, early holiness evangelists contended with local antagonists who mistook the new sect for Mormonism, an even greater bête noire of southern orthodoxy [than charismatic groups like holiness Christians]. [1]

Intrigued, I checked out the footnote Stephens referenced for the information, and after discovering that BYU’s library didn’t have a copy, I ordered via interlibrary loan a 1944 publication penned by southern holiness preacher Dennis Rogers called Holiness Pioneering in the Southland.  Rev. Rogers’ book contained the following anecdote from the late 1870s or early 1880s.

A rather amusing incident took place . . . after the close of a Sunday afternoon service. . . . At the close of this meeting according to pre-arrangement, Brother Biggs came with his wagon and team and took our equipment to Weston, where we had arranged for a meeting. When we arrived, he went up town for help to raise the tent.  He soon came back with quite a number of men and boys with hoes and pitchforks to clear off the ground.  After a time, some one asked, “Where are the preachers?” We said, “We are the preachers.”  They looked as though they thought, “If you are the preachers, there is a poor chance for a meeting.” Later some one else asked, “Is this all of you?” We said, “Yes.” He said, “We heard that there were ten wagons and fifty women coming.” (Mormons, you know.)

By Saturday evening, we were ready for the first service.  A good crowd came. . . . During this meeting, a man who had been somewhat of a desperate character, but yet a respectable citizen, came to town one night.  He saw at a distance the tent lighted up. He asked some friends, “What is that tent doing here?” They said, “O, that is the tent of some Mormons who are holding a meeting.”  He said, “Why do you let Mormons hold a meeting in the town?” They said, “We have no one to lead us against them.” He said, “I’ll take the lead,” but they would not go with him.  So he said, “I’ll go alone.” He came down to the tent and went around the back, looking for signs of Mormonism, but found nothing.  Then he stepped in under the back curtain and took a seat.  I was preaching on sin and deliverance from it. He said, “That isn’t Mormon doctrine.” I waxed hotter and hotter. He thought, “That is my idea of Christianity.  It will take that kind of a gospel to save a wicked sinner like me.”  He went back to town and said to his friends, “Those people are not Mormons. You ought to go down and have them pray for you.” [2]

There is a lot to unpack in this short passage. From the stereotypical jab at Mormon polygamy (ten wagons and fifty women) to the assertion that “preaching on sin and deliverance from it” “isn’t Mormon doctrine,” it’s unsurprisingly clear that these southerners did not think much of Mormons or Mormonism. But there is also more subtle aspects that intrigue me. Just what were the “signs of Mormonism” the curious individual individual hoped to find outside the tent? The wagons and plural wives? Or something else? Why did the other men refuse to go with the man to confront the Mormon meeting? Why were holiness Christians mistaken for Mormons? Was it the preaching of spiritual gifts and the charismatic nature of their gatherings? Perhaps the lower-class status stereotypes that characterized devotees of each religion in public perceptions?

Finally, this brief excursion from my current studies and research into the religious world of the postbellum South raises larger questions in the field of Mormon history.  Why has there not been more work done on the Latter-day Saint experience in the South? Patrick Mason’s dissertation, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Mob: Violence Against Religious Outsiders in the United States South, 1865-1910,” is an excellent start, but the field remains largely wide open. Aside from Mason’s work and a couple of BYU MA theses on the Southern States mission, there is virtually no scholarly literature on the subject.  A brief search of BYU’s library catalog yields various primary sources, including many missionary journals and a few interviews and articles from southern newspapers.  Any ideas on why there hasn’t been more done? What do you think studies of Mormonism in the American South could contribute to our understanding of the Mormon experience?


[1] Randall J. Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008),  49-50.

[2] Dennis Rogers, Holiness Pioneering in the Southland (Hemet, CA: Published by the Author, 1944), 16-18.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’m very much interested in the Southern States Mission, and my experience has been the same as yours — there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond what you have listed, plus some (chiefly early) journal articles about specific acts of violence, the Standing murder and Cane Creek massacre being the best known.

    But I would very much appreciate a study of Mormon life in the South beyond the violence. That mission produced more growth for the church than Europe at the end of the 19th century. While many migrated west, many more did not — my own family was in Alabama as members for nearly 25 years. What was early Mormon life in the South like over the long haul?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  2. Great find, Chris. While I don’t have an answer to why this topic of Mormon history has been neglected, I echo your and Ardis’ call for more research to be done.

    Comment by Ben — May 19, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  3. Why were holiness Christians mistaken for Mormons? One possible reason was the Word of Wisdom. Even though Mormon policies and understandings would not reach their emphatic form until the 1920s, for the un-subtle theology of many rural Southerners, Mormons and Holiness proponents were riding the same anti-tobacco handcart to hell.

    A 13 April 1900 excerpt from the journal of an Elder Joseph A. Brooks, serving in Southeast Texas, illustrates the possible connection between Mormonism and Holiness as well as some Mormon hemming and hawing on the topic (though the prospect of sleeping outside might be more important than theology):
    “…we got to talking about people using tobacco. Some denominations teaching against it. The subject then changed. The lady of the house spake about people not taking in preachers, that it was a shame to shut the door in their face. The man then spoke up and says that if one of those that are so opposed to tobacco come to my place, I would shut my door against him. He had reference to the Holiness people. The lady says maybe these men don?t believe in using tobacco. Elder Huntsman says we don?t believe it does a man any good. I then told them that we never use it. The man then says he believed that everything God placed here was for man?s use. I told him yes, that was true but I didn?t think God intended man should chew and smoke tobacco. He got very mad about it and says, any man that says God didn?t put tobacco here for man to use is a liar and the truth isn?t in him. And he says, if you don?t like the way I talk there is the door. I told him I was sorry if I said anything that would offend him. His wife tried to reason with him, but there wasn?t much reason about him, but we stopped till morning. Ate two meals.”

    Comment by Edje — May 19, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  4. Ardis, like you, I have ancestors that were faithful Latter-day Saints that remained in the South (Tennessee) throughout the 19th century. I think researching their experiences as “Utah Mormons” that never actually went to Utah forces us to reconsider broad generalizations about what life was like for Mormons of the era.

    Edje, interesting point and thanks for sharing the excerpt from Joseph Brooks’ journal. Is his journal in your private possession, or is it available in published or archival form elsewhere?

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Christopher, I have a photocopy of a long-hand copy of the Brooks journal. I vaguely recall that a photocopy is at the Church archives. I have also prepared a typescript, which I can email to you. A private printing is in the works.

    I do not know the location of the original. The last confirmed sighting was in 1979 (when the long-hand copy was prepared).

    Comment by Edje — May 19, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  6. Edje, check your email. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

  7. Chris, nice job. You raise some good questions, which I do not have an answer for myself. There are a number of excellent resources like the ones that have been mentioned. What’s almost as awesome, though, is that you interlibrary loaned a book just to check a footnote, and that because you were actually interested enough in the topic to do so. Bravo, my brother.

    Grad students, sheesh.

    Comment by Jared T — May 19, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  8. We lack quality studies of Mormonism in the South for much the same reason we lack quality studies of Mormonism anywhere outside of the Mormon Corridor (and Mormonism in the mid-West, 1820-1847). Even areas that have received some scholarly attention such as northern Mexico, Polynesia, and Europe are too often seen as peripheral, and therefore of lesser importance than what is going on at the center. What we need is a new paradigm that forces us to “see” the margins as being just as important as the center. I think that a good place to start is center/periphery literature that has been developed in postcolonial studies.

    Comment by David G. — May 19, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  9. Chris,

    This is a really interesting post for a couple of reasons. First, obviously, is the discovery that this confusion was taking place. Second, and to me just as interesting, is that Stephens found such an obscure source on Mormonism while working in a different field. I think too often specialists in Mormon studies fail to broaden their contextual horizons and so miss important insights contained in the literature of adjacent fields.

    That journal sounds interesting and important. I hope it sees a wide circulation when it is published.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 19, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  10. Jared, as my wife so regularly reminds me, I am a nerd. Telling her I ILL’d a book just to check a footnote for something not related to my thesis research only confirms her accusations of my nerdiness, I’m afraid. But I’m glad I can impress other nerds with my activities.

    David, I think you’re right on. Thanks for your comment and suggestion regarding postcolonial studies on center/periphery as a starting point.

    Taysom, great point (and a fair criticism) about Mormon historians failing to broaden their contextual horizons. I know I’m guilty, though I try not to be.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  11. I served my mission in the Southern States Mission 1968-70. My third area was in the small Alabama town of Andalusia. I was there when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Hurricane Camille struck. The branch met in a small white wooden chapel several miles out of town in the country. It had been built around the turn of the 20th century and because of the distance the branch met for a block of all three meetings years before the church went to the block plan. Many of the members were from families which had been in the church for many years. One of our mission presidents was Sterling W. Sill. He had served a mission there 50 years earlier and was familiar with many of the families including one woman he had taught and worried about baptising because she was intellectually impaired. He stated he had worried whether to baptize her but had had the impression to do so and for 50 years had wondered whether that was the proper decision. As he travelled southern Alabama he found that hundreds of members of the church were members as a result of her baptism.

    Comment by Steve Jones — May 19, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  12. This is not academic, but take it for the underlying truth embedded in the joke:

    North Virginia’s rejected state motto: Tobacco is a vegetable.

    Comment by Ray — May 19, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  13. Interesting, Christopher. I think that the false expectation that the “signs of Mormonism” will be clearly evident as diabolical has been to the church’s great advantage throughout its history.

    Three separate accounts from different ancestors on different lines in my family all talk about how (as investigators) they went to hear the Mormon missionaries, imagining it would be scandalous, only to hear quite normal New Testament preaching. In all three, the fact that Mormons beat (or overturned) expectations was the critical factor that led my ancestors to get baptized.

    One of these examples, one of my sets of great-grandparents were from the southern tip of Illinois, which is all but in the South. It reminded me very much of the account you quote above. My great grandparents all but said the extreme warnings against going to hear the Mormons is what made them go and the shunning they received after going made them join the church.

    These are all examples of how anti-Mormon (or, in this case, anti?Holiness Christian) activity is actually counter-productive for the church’s antagonists.

    Comment by John Hamer — May 19, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  14. There was an interesting history of our mission someone put together. I used to have a copy somewhere but lost it. I’m sure it’s a more amateurish production but it listed most of the lynchings and so forth as well as the development of permanent branches.

    Comment by Clark — May 19, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  15. I have enjoyed Out of the Black Patch as a study of Southern Mormonism. There was an article in the last issue of JMH one Southern States missionary journal in particular.

    I think the conflation between the holiness preachers and the Mormons was likely due to the similarities in evangelism. I don’t think itinerant preachers were common anymore besides the Mormons. And while enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be all that common in Southern States mission, Mormons did have a particular brand of supernaturalism that defied Enlightenment-informed American religion.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 19, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  16. John, thanks for your comments. I think you’re right that “anti” activity is generally counterproductive.

    Clark, in what mission did you serve? It might be worth contacting the mission to see if any of those productions survived. And maybe church archives has one. I’m particularly interested in permanent branches in the South. Thanks.

    J., I’m not familiar with Out of the Black Patch. Can you tell me more about it? Interesting thoughts on the conflation between Holiness and Mormons being a result of similarities in evangelism. You might be right.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  17. Christopher, On a serious note, I lived in the Deep South for a few years, and I don’t think anti- activity is counterproductive at all. The exceptions stand out specifically because they are exceptions.

    A girl walked into one of the buildings in our stake a few months ago because she was impressed by Mitt Romney and couldn’t believe Mormons could be wicked cultists if he was one. She was baptized shortly thereafter – but we have lost more recent converts and potential members in this area due to the attention of anti-Mormons than we have gained thereby. Their claims are hyperbolic and often flat-out fabrications, but they are not counterproductive in real numbers, based on my experience.

    Comment by Ray — May 19, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  18. Ray, fair enough. I guess there’s anecdotal evidence to support both sides.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  19. Out of the Black Patch: The Autobiography of Effie Marques Carmack, Folk Musician, Artist, and Writer is part of USU’s excellent series on frontier women. Carmack lived the a particular tobacco growing region of Kentucky and Tennessee. She converted and married and stayed in the South for some time before trying the great basin only to return South. She ultimately settled in back in Zion and while I haven’t finished the volume yet, so far it is a splendid vignette into the time and people.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 19, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  20. Excellent. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  21. Thanks for the excerpt, Chris. Holiness/Pentecostal groups and Mormon groups are kindred spirits in many respects, but also tend to be extremely hostile toward each other. It’s an incurable case of sibling rivalry, I’m afraid.

    Comment by Chris — May 19, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  22. As someone who lives in the South, I too would like to see more work here. I’ve heard that the MHA is considering holding its conference in Atlanta at some point down the road. Perhaps that could help to jump start things.

    Comment by Randy B. — May 20, 2008 @ 7:39 am

  23. Randy, funny, I heard the same thing. I think that could definitely help.

    Comment by Jared T — May 20, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  24. It?s an incurable case of sibling rivalry, I?m afraid.

    Most likely.

    MHA in Atlanta? That’d be fantastic, not to mention a nice change from the usual places (and some of the not-so-usual, like Sacramento).

    Comment by Christopher — May 20, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  25. If it is going to be held in Atlanta, it won’t be until at least 2012.
    Future Conferences:
    2009 Springfield, Illinois
    2010 Independence, Missouri
    2011 St. George, Utah

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 20, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  26. I have great appreciation for the South, but Atlanta is too smoggy and hot, even in May. I’d rather go to New Orleans in winter for a southern MHA.

    I’m with Stapley that this probably relates to itinerancy and evangelism, a fading/failing art by the postbellum period. In so many respects, we have been a snapshot of a prior broader sensibility.

    This is an interesting inversion of Irvingite:Mormon overlap in 1840s England, which HCK and others complained about. You don’t have to argue that strenuously to separate yourself from Jainism–the loudest protestations of difference often come when difference is hardest to find. That said, late 19th-cent. LDS were pretty different from the early surges of post-Methodist holiness.

    Comment by smb — May 20, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  27. Sam, while I agree that New Orleans in winter would be wonderful, I actually quite like Atlanta. Maybe I can tolerate the heat because I grew up in a similar climate, but regardless, it beats the heck out of Sacramento any time of year in my book. At least Atlanta has good food. 🙂

    I think regardless of whether late 19th century Mormons were much like the devotees of the early Holiness movement, perceptions of the two groups had a fair amount in common, as revealed by some of the other comments.

    Comment by Christopher — May 20, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

  28. #27, last paragraph – So, in relation to Mormonism and popular mis-perceptions, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses the modern equivalent of the earlier Holiness Movement – or is there another group that would be a better example? (not very similar theologically but often mistaken for Mormons)

    Comment by Ray — May 20, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  29. Ray, yeah. The JW’s probably fit that description today, primarily because of the door-to-door proselytizing in semi-formal attire. Also, occasionally in entertainment media, communal religious sects like the Amish are mistaken for Latter-day Saints.

    Comment by Christopher — May 20, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  30. Interesting post Chris. I wonder how much the general perception of the South being a dead end for Mormon evangelism plays into the lack of scholarship on the Mormon experience in the South. Having served my mission in the South, I would love to see a greater level of scholarship devoted to Southern Mormonism.

    Comment by Brett D. — May 20, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

  31. Brett, if I am not mistaken, the Southern States mission was by far the most successful US mission of the 19th and early 20th century.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 21, 2008 @ 12:11 am

  32. Clark, in what mission did you serve? It might be worth contacting the mission to see if any of those productions survived.

    Baton Rouge, Louisiana (although we took in parts of Mississippi)

    One history I’d love to see written but I doubt you’ll get many to talk about it were the mass excommunication of missionaries in the Louisiana mission in the mid-80’s. The fallout was still going on when I was there.

    Comment by Clark — May 21, 2008 @ 12:25 am

  33. while I agree that New Orleans in winter would be wonderful,

    Trust me. It’s not wonderful. I’m a Canadian boy who used to put on shorts and a t-shirt as soon as temperatures broke freezing. But the coldest I’ve felt was Louisiana. Actually camping in Banff when it was 60 below a few years back probably beat it. But even though it was above freezing it just froze you to your bones. (And I grew up a block away from the ocean – so no that’s not it)

    Comment by Clark — May 21, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  34. (Last post – I promise)

    One thing that would make a great paper if you could get primary sources is to analyze the prophecy “the South will blossom as a rose” and how it was interpreted at various periods.

    I know when we were there it was often interpreted as being then fulfilled. (We went through a period of pretty strong growth there for a while)

    Comment by Clark — May 21, 2008 @ 12:28 am

  35. Christopher, On a serious note, I lived in the Deep South for a few years, and I don?t think anti- activity is counterproductive at all. The exceptions stand out specifically because they are exceptions.

    I don’t know if it is true but we had several large meetings where folks from Salt Lake came and told us that from their analysis baptisms went up when anti-Mormon activities were active. (i.e. some local pastor shows The Godmakers)

    I think all of us had investigators meet with mysterious anti-Mormons. (Sometimes it was so weird we felt like either there was something like a neighborhood watch or someone was following us) If the investigator hadn’t made it through the 3rd discussion the almost always fell away. I found at least with my investigators that if they had then the anti-Mormonism strengthened their testimony. (Which didn’t necessarily lead to a baptism – the lines between blacks and whites were pretty heavy there and the black community would sometimes threaten investigators if they “joined a white Church.”)

    Comment by Clark — May 21, 2008 @ 12:32 am

  36. Elizabeth-Fox Genovese and Eugene Genovese’s, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the South Slaveholder?s Worldview (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2006) contains a supplementary section which includes an entry on “Mormons.” If memory serves, it contains a short bibliography of southern newspapers which deal with Mormonism.

    Comment by Jordan W. — May 21, 2008 @ 1:01 am

  37. Yeah, Sacramento is a bust in many respects.
    Clark, I love N.O. in winter.
    And the food would be dramatically better in N.O. than in Atlanta.

    Comment by smb — May 21, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  38. The best thing about New Orleans is the food.

    Comment by Clark — May 21, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  39. One of the coldest days I ever spent was in New Orleans a number of years back in January (Super Bowl that I won a trip to). Super high humidity, daytime temps in the 40’s, and evenings in the upper 30’s. However, the food was great, and I almost missed the game because I was taking in the King Tut exhibit, which was much more interesting than the game.

    Comment by kevinf — May 21, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  40. The weather in Atlanta in May is positively beautiful — neither too hot nor too humid.

    Now as for food, few cities can compete with New Orleans. But given the location of the upcoming conferences — Sacramento, Springfield, Independence, St. George — it would seem that criteria isn’t given much weight. 😉

    Comment by Randy B. — May 21, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  41. Chris, this is an intriguing topic. I think, as other posters have noted, there are some very interesting connections here. There?s certainly a book, or two, or thirty, waiting to be written. For other starting points on the subject, in addition to what some have mentioned above, see David F. Boone and David Buice?s entry, ?Latter-day Saints?,? in the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (p. 450, viewable at googlebooks); Sam Hill?s recent New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 1: Religion may also include an entry, but I?m not sure; and possibly Charles H. Lippy? somewhat dated bibliography of religion in the South.

    I thought it would be interesting to do a few searches on various engines to see what one might come up with. America’s Historical Newspapers, available through a number of public and univ. libraries, yielded some great results: http://www.readex.com/readex/?content=96 I searched ?Mormonism and? the following states. Some of the results are only marginally related, but most look promising.

    Georgia – 318 hits from 1837-1919
    Virginia – 219 hits from 1832-1920
    Mississippi – 137 hits from 1831-1917
    Tennessee – 112 hits from 1843-1922

    Using the Harvard Hollis catalog I entered “Mormonism” into the historic Atlanta Constitution proquest search engine. I got 329 hits from 1881-1939. There is so much out there. I wish that we could get some submissions on the subject for the Journal of Southern Religion.

    This new pdf-searchable world we live in gave me some anxiety while completing the last bits of the book. I found that “holy roller” returned 448 items, beginning in 1881.

    Comment by Randall S — May 22, 2008 @ 2:23 pm


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