Mormon Migration Database: Black people and Mormonism

Dr. Fred E. Woods at BYU has recently made available an online database of migration primary sources. This project compliments work done by the LDS church on overland trail sources. Work like this allows for extremely precise surveys of lived Mormonism by groups that often fall beneath the radar of history. As an example of the excellent material now available, I present some of the sources relating to immigrating Mormons and people with black-African ancestry. Coming from Northern Europe, many of these immigrants had never seen black people before.

On February 28, 1853 the International sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans. This group had several interactions with black people. Christopher Arthur was in charge of the company and kept the official journal:

8 Friday. Wind from south, southwest course of ship west, very hot. About 25 Saints rebaptized for their health [1]. Testimony of several that they were better in health. Mary Ann Arthur baptized and a Negro.

10 Sunday. Northeast wind very fine early part of the day; rain towards evening, so that sacrament was not [administered]. Very hot. Baptized 2 sailors & Negro.

20 Wednesday. East wind, very light early in the morning. The captain was baptized. A council meeting was held on quarter deck. Elder [John] Lyon read a letter to send to Elder Richards at Liverpool, proposed that the captain & carpenter be ordained to the office of an Elder. The 1 & 2 mate to the office of Priests and the cook to a Teacher. General rejoicing and full of gratitude to our Father in Heaven in his goodness to us. Baptized one Negro & a Dutch sailor and a Swedish sailor. Ordained Captain & Carpenter to the office of an Elder, 1 mate & 2 to office of Priest. Cook to a Teacher. Caught a dolphin which was cooked and eaten. Captain bore his testimony with the Carpenter [p. 42] and several others of the crew.

Stephen Forsdick, a member of the company, remembered his feelings in New Orleans:

One of the first orders given to us, was not to talk about slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published the year before we left England and as was natural, our sympathies were with the Negroes, but New Orleans at that time, was a poor place to talk it, hence our caution.

The following year, another Mormon immigrant wrote of his experiences in the same city:

…I went along with the others and saw the owners’ magnificent residences and gardens, and I must admit that I had never seen in Germany more beautiful estates than these properties. But when I turned my gaze towards the poor Negroes, with their wives and children working in the fields, then all the great and beautiful lost its value for me.

Apparently, this was a fairly common sentiment. Three years earlier, one immigrant wrote simply, “There is an endless variety of landscape. The one thing which deteriorates from its beauty is the sight of the hundreds of negroes at work in the sun. Oh! slavery how I hate thee!”

In 1854, while stopping off the shore of Tortuga, a passenger of the ship Germanicus wrote:

Saturday 3rd. Fine morning. The sailors are busy fetching water and provisions all day. Some passengers went ashore. At night some of the Negroes come on board the Saints sing the songs of Zion. They were delighted to hear us and seem very much [-] to know we gave them some books [p. 120] and tracts and laid the first principles of the gospel down to them. This seed will spring up in the time order of the Lord. Several of them came to our meeting. They would like to have stayed all day on Sunday so that the ladies on the isle might come to our meeting which numbers fine.

Alma Elizabeth Mineer Felt remembered one black man on her 1861 voyage that should be remembered as one of our heroes:

There were a lot of sailors on the boat and they were so good to me. A Negro cook who did the cooking for the sailors and captain and who had his kitchen on the upper deck was very kindhearted and generous. He used to give me prunes, dried apples, raisins and sometimes cookies, and often a little bowl of soup. I was on deck frequently and knew all the sailors and the cook. Sometimes he used to sneak some [p.196] soup down to the emigrants in the steerage because he felt so sorry for them. The captain caught him at this and he was put in jail. The jail was on the upper deck and I can remember that I used to see his black fingers over the bars through the high opening of the door. One day he died. They told me that the captain had starved him to death. The body of my friend, the Negro cook, was brought into the kitchen where it was sewed up in a sheet. Then they put him on a long board, carried him to the side of the boat and slid him into the ocean. I was the chief mourner because he had been so good to me.

Some of the diaries use terms that are now quite offensive, and some reflect the worldwide prejudice against black people during this period. However taken as a whole, this post reflects well the documented beliefs of Mormon immigrants.

  1. For a history of baptism for health, see Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 34 (Summer, 2008): 69-112.


  1. Matt W. says:

    Painful and Beautiful all at once. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for this, J. These records provide additional important insight into both the history of black Mormons and how white Mormons viewed both black people and slavery. Really interesting stuff.

  3. Mark B. says:

    John Lyon’s diary of that same voyage contains a song written by Henry Maiben (which I wrote about, and quoted, here). The casual use in that song of terms that we today find offensive suggests either that those terms did not carry that same opprobrium in those days, or that, as you say, racial prejudice was common and unexceptional. (Since in much of the western world Africans had been owned as slaves during the lifetime of many of those 1853 trevelers, it’s not surprising to find that prejudice was common.)

    As to Forsdick–his scathing remarks about my great-great grandfather and his family, with whom he shared the voyage on the International and a wagon on the journey west from Keokuk, Iowa, to Salt Lake City, makes me inclined to disregard anything else he said. : )

  4. esodhiambo says:

    Fascinating, as usual.

  5. Thanks. It really is a great resource. Stuff like this and the excellent work BYU has done digitizing sources is really cutting edge stuff. Mormon historical materials are the most accessible of any religion. Extraordinary really.

    As a side note, I’ve wondered how you baptize at sea. I thought they might do it in the ocean, but one of the reviewers of the baptism for health paper suggested that they probably did it on deck in a barrel or something. I haven’t found any evidence for that either. Also, is dolphin tasty?

  6. They ate a dolphin?!

  7. Mark B. says:

    Why not? They weren’t an endangered species in the 1850s.

  8. Very interesting post, Stapley. Slavery’s right up there with child abuse when it comes to thoughts that make my gut clench. I’ve always wondered how people could get used to seeing it. I’m glad to think that many couldn’t.

  9. Great post! And though some terminology today is “now quite offensive”, as you say these quotes do open a nice window into these people’s lives.

  10. I wonder of some of these immigrants had a more positive view of blacks. In Delaware, the local branch was scandalized when a British immigrant married a local black woman in 1856.

  11. Interesting stuff, J. Thanks!

  12. Excellent resource, J. I noticed that Wilson Nowers’s reminiscence describes how baptisms were performed in a barrel and in the ocean.

  13. You rule, Justin.

  14. Cynthia L. says:

    This is outstanding, J.

  15. “They ate a dolphin?!”

    “Why not? They weren’t an endangered species in the 1850s.”

    But were they as tasty then as they are now? No, wait, I meant, er, umm…never mind.

    But seriously, great piece and bit of research. My historical knowledge of the timelines is poor. This seems to reflect well early LDS anti-slavery sentiment that got them in such hot water with pro-slavery Missourians, but when did the priesthood ban come into place that might have started reversing some of these sentiments? Or even after the priesthood ban does one find a divide between new immigrant sentiment versus the longer-settled American saints? I read a biography of Lincoln a couple years back wherein extensive quotations right from the liberator himself could today be mistaken for those of a KKK grand wizard. Granted most of those were before the Civil War and emancipation during which Lincoln’s attitudes changed a great deal (he valued the service of black soldiers whom he considered some of the most committed and reliable he had as I recall from the book), but they go to show just how widespread and commonly accepted such attitudes were among whites at the time.

  16. Non-Arab Arab, like Fleming above, I wonder if the Northern European converts were more liberal in their views than the Americans. Most of them had not seen slavery before and many were converted to Mormonism as part of an anti-capitalist zionism. The reality of slavery had to be jarring to these people. I imagine that most of them had not heard of the priesthood restriction.

  17. By The Rules says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been waiting for at least a semi-appropriate time to ask a quesiton of those of you in the know, and this may be it.

    How prevalent was white slavery (including more than sex slaves) in this time frame? I have recently discovered that white Europeans were frequently slaves. Does anyone have resources or info to share?

    FYI: Dolphin:Dorado:Mahi-Mahi are all interchangeable names for the same fish, not marine mammal. However it is unclear from the post whether dolphin in this case refered to the fish or the mammal.

  18. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    all the great and beautiful lost its value for me


    Can’t help but wonder: if we erased from existence everything produced by oppressive labor, what would be left?

  19. #18: Warning: Stop wondering__ that’s a career killer question. (As my wise professors use to say).

  20. Researcher says:

    Were the Northern European converts were more liberal in their views than the Americans?

    They certainly seemed to be in regards to Native Americans. I’m thinking of the Danes in Sanpete County during the Black Hawk Indian War. They were much more pacifist toward the Native Americans than the Americans were to the point that it infuriated the Americans.

  21. #17: I don’t know about ‘white slavery’, but the ‘indentured servant or laborer’ often was as bad off as the slave’, even if he ‘freely’ entered the indenture.

  22. ByTheRules says:

    #21: The indentured servitude was reviewed, and is distinct from true slavery of my Scottish ancestors.

  23. Great stuff. It would be fascinating to follow these people to see what their response was to the black priesthood ban or any of the racist speculation surrounding that.

  24. It’s unclear to me if the blacks in the writings were Baptized to become Church members, or to deal wth sea sickness(?)

  25. Bob, In all my reading, I have only ever found one example of a non-Mormon being baptized for their health. It seems to me that the focus on sailors and black people suggests in that account that they were being baptized into the church.

  26. #25: Thank you.
    In WWII and after, a lot of blacks reported more “equal” treatment in Europe than the U.S.. Many Black jazz musicians relocated to Europe for that reason.

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