I, as many of us, have laughed with the outside world at the thought that there are Mormons, presumably in the expanses of rural Utah, who routinely refer to Jews as Gentiles. The observation that in Utah a Jew is a Gentile seems to adorn most current journalistic treatments of Mormonism. Never having met a live Mormon guilty of such a gaffe, I have long assumed they existed historically. The more work I do in early Mormonism, the less certain I am that such Mormons ever existed.
Under the term Gentile, we English-speakers generally intend a translation of Hebrew goyim, the nations, meaning those who are not of the house of Israel. Such a division of self vs. other or national (tribal, etc) vs. foreigner is typical of almost every society known and often bears considerable weight in constructing worldviews. For a society which has spent so much time struggling to maintain its identity against outsiders, Judaism’s version of this division has come to represent paradigmatically what it means to view someone as an outsider.
At some level, objections to Mormon appropriation of the term Gentile to refer to outsiders may relate to concern about Mormon intrusion on the difficult history of Jewish nationhood, a sense that yet another Christian (or para-Christian) group has appropriated Jewish history for their own purposes, demonstrating a lack of respect for the tradition from which the specific term arose. Others may object to the sense of “chosenness” implied by use of the term Gentile. I think people snicker, though, because they believe (or want to believe) that the LDS are just dumb enough to not appreciate the irony of calling the Jews Gentiles.
However, my readings in Mormon history through about 1845 (I will confess I have not been as drawn to the Utah period as many others whose work I greatly respect) have given me no indication that any LDS termed Jews Gentiles. According to early usage, Gentile referred very specifically to American Protestants (and perhaps Catholics). The house of Israel, with its “remnants” of Jacob and Joseph, comprised a) actual Jews, b) Latter Day Saints, whether by birth or ordinance, and c) the native inhabitants of the New World. The very few encounters with Jews that the Mormons actually had (Alex Neibaur, whom they converted to Mormonism, and Joshua/James Seixas whom they did not realize had converted to Protestantism) suggested their earnest fascination with Jews.
These Mormons did, as most Christians, believe that Jews had rejected their true Messiah (witness Oliver Cowdery’s published discussion with a New York rabbi during his mission to obtain reference materials for the Kirtland Hebrew School), even as they anxiously sought to engraft themselves into the sacred Old Testament covenant. However dated and unkind that belief and its ramifications sound now, Mormons are a drop in a very large bucket on this topic.
The earliest Mormons did not view Jews as Gentiles, they viewed themselves as a part of the house of Israel. I am entirely sympathetic to Jews rejecting such bizarre proselytes, although feeling vaguely flattered is another possible response. But Christian Israelitism is much larger than Mormonism. The Puritans believed they were acting out Old Testament history, and a wide variety of Protestants to this day have seen the secrets of their future in the history of the Jewish people. For heaven’s sake, the Armageddon that incites such silly fiction and horrifying warmongering among some sectors of the Evangelical Right is a mountain in Israel, Har Megido.
I worry a little that there is a paper I’m unaware of that shows how in 1860 or 1890 or 1930 Mormon Utahns began to call Jews Gentiles. Please bring it to my attention if so, because I just can’t find it in early Mormonism. Was this something Brigham Young was known for preaching? Does anyone know a living Mormon that calls Jews Gentiles?
If this does prove to be an urban legend, what do you think is the significance of the legend?