Review: The Mormon Menace

Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 264 pages; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4. Hardcover: $29.95. ISBN13: 978-0-19-974002-4

Patrick Mason, of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a dissertation in which he examined violence against religious minorities and outsiders in the post-bellum American South. This book builds upon that research, and while limiting itself to Mormonism, it also expands the narrative to include the legal, theological, and cultural objections to Mormonism in the Old Confederacy in the generation following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Harold  Bloom has called Mormonism the quintessential American religion.  The Mormon Menace demonstrates conclusively, repeatedly, and in great detail just how offensive the latter-day saint faith was to Americans in the late 19th century, especially to southern Americans.  It situates the American response to Mormonism in the aftermath of the Civil War and illuminates how residents of Dixie and Deseret, though separated by thousands of miles, influenced the way Americans saw themselves.  This is not so much a Mormon history as an American history.  It explores questions of religious freedom, vigilantism, federalism, and the role of the state in defining marriage and regulating sexual behavior.

Although the description of violence might be discomfiting to many readers, it is impossible to tell the story of Mormonism’s encounter with the post-bellum South without it.  The first two chapters relate the harrowing details of the murder of Elder Joseph Standing at Varnell’s Station, Georgia, and the murders of Elders Berry and Gibbs, along with a local member, Martin Conder, at Cane Creek, Tennessee.  Local newspapers printed articles encouraging and justifying the violence.  Mason explores the causes of the murders against the backdrop of polygamy and the particular phenomenon of Southern honor, whereby men are bound to defend the sanctity of the Christian home and the chastity of white women.

In the nineteenth century, honor was a defining concept for most Americans, holding particular sway in the South and West.  Honor was a socially constructed characteristic in which the collective estimation of the community dictated the social reputation of each individual…..When a man’s honor was impugned, it was imperative that he confront the aggressor in order to save face….In serious cases, violence against the offender was often the only way to restore lost honor…..No insult to a man’s honor was more egregious, and thus more deserving of a violent response, than a serious imputation on the character of a close female relative…..The violent enforcement of honor was thus a powerful means of social control in which both southern law and custom asserted that the family, particularly the wife and her sexuality, was the exclusive preserve of the male head of household.

Itinerant LDS missionaries came into this milieu spreading a religion which practiced plural marriage and taught a doctrine of gathering. When people converted they often went west, and when a woman or girl of marrying age joined The Restoration and left her home, her male relatives were duty-bound to save her from a fate worse than death. The sexual insecurity of southern men was already in play after the Emancipation, in the form of the specter of the recently freed African slave.  He was assumed to be roaming the countryside and forcing himself upon white women, ravishing and defiling them at will. Mormon missionaries without purse or scrip were a close second in the nightmares. Mason demonstrates how the charges of licentiousness and illicit sexual behavior which were often made against the elders served to bring hatred and violence upon them, even though the charges were without merit.

In later chapters we read about the theological objections to Mormons, and some of those objections are still current.  It is interesting to see how the question of whether America is a Christian nation and exactly what that means is still being answered.  Mason gives insight into the way that the principle of federalism was understood by both Mormons and Southerners.  Mormons thought the practice of plural marriage should be an issue best left to the individual states.  Southerners, who a decade or so previously had ostensibly gone to war over the principle of states’ rights, decided that the federal government wasn’t so bad after all and succeeded in influencing the government to place restrictions upon the way Mormons practiced their faith.  Mormons had to give up plural marriage and theodemocracy in order to become fully American; Southerners had to give up vigilantism and Jim Crow.

A review would be incomplete without mentioning that the book is a pleasure to read.  Mason has command of facts and details but nonetheless manages to keep the narrative moving without getting bogged down in minutiae.  Readers are reminded that the skirmishes over religious freedom and individual rights are not settled and really never have been.  We also see fascinating hints at several other avenues of fruitful research which are beyond the scope of this book.

Comments

  1. Glad to see this available as an ebook for my Nook Color. I’ll be buying it and downloading tonight.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve heard wonderful things about this book, and am glad you have confirmed them.

  3. Ditto to what Kevin said. I’ve been interested in reading this book, and now I think I’ll bump it up in priority. Thanks for the great review, Mark.

  4. I ordered a copy immediately after reading this. I had intended to get one but hadn’t gotten to it yet — there’s evidence that blog do have an effect.

  5. Excellent review, Mark. Thanks.

    Does Pat get at the other minority religions in the South at all, as per his dissy, or is it strictly Mormonism?

  6. Mark Brown says:

    J., He does have a chapter where the treatment of Mormons is compared to the treatment of Jews, Catholics, and black Christians.

  7. To follow up Brown’s point, part of what inspired this book was how different the violence was against Mormons compared to other religious minorities. While it certainly doesn’t compare to attacks on blacks, Mormons received the brunt of the South’s brute vigilance.

  8. Great book and great review. Very useful treatment of postbellum south and mormonism.

  9. “It is interesting to see how the question of whether America is a Christian nation and exactly what that means is still being answered.”

    The answer is to both clearly given in the First Amendment: Not now, and not ever, respectively.

    The answer to the related question of whether America is a “nation of Christians” is slightly harder to answer because the U.S. Census is forbidden by law to ask (thanks to GOP lawmakers). Still, one source (http://www.thearda.com/) puts the percentage of Christians in the US at about 50%, so the answer is roughly “half yes, half no”.

    What is still being debated is whether empirical data is overruled by anecdote and projected bias (the belief that one’s own opinion is more likely to be correct than others’). Judging by the sad state of news media, uncritical thinking transcends all religious boundaries and may itself be the quintessential American religion.

  10. “so the answer is roughly “half yes, half no”.”

    Or, if you’re an optimist, “half full”!

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Patrick’s follow up volume is tentatively titled “Volume 2: Attack of the Mormon Clones.”

  12. John Taber says:

    Dan Weston #9:

    [quote]The answer to the related question of whether America is a “nation of Christians” is slightly harder to answer[/quote]

    . . . also because some denominations don’t consider others to be “Christian”.

  13. Great review Mark!

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