Review: Religion of a Different Color

Paul Reeve’s book, Religion of a Different Color, arrived in time for me to take on my trip and I finished before getting home. I wanted to write something up quickly; this is not meant to be an exhaustive review. Still, I think there is a lot worth saying. Paul opens and organizes the volume with a handy conceit, namely the cartoon from Life magazine that adorns the cover, and he uses the various children as sections to discuss the complex interplay between Mormons, Americans and race. From today’s perspective it does seem absurd that Americans denigrated Mormons as more black, or Native American, or Asian than white. Handy and tremendously perspicuous. Religion of a Different Color is the most sophisticated and penetrating treatment of Mormonism and race to date.

W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). $27.96

Mormon exceptionalism is so easy. With generations of dedicated researchers and an avid (and paying) readership, narrating history with Mormon sources to tell an insular Mormon history is natural. It is also natural that when focusing on issues such as race or even as particular as the restriction against African Americans participating in the temple liturgy and priesthood ordination that we read it in terms of the Mormon actors who levied the policies or suffered the proscriptions. While still leveraging a complete bevy of archival sources, Paul has resisted this impulse and instead situates Mormon racial policies and postures in conversation with the American (and European) outsiders. It is a dialogue that renders otherwise strange bits of journal, sermon, or letter surprisingly comprehensible.

Now, this book doesn’t hit every illuminating source. I know that Paul is aware of many that didn’t make it to the purposefully curated text. This is neither a complete nor documentary history of race. It does however include many important documents for the first time, and Paul opens them up, along with sources one may have seen before, to highly contextualized, novel, and frankly humane analyses. A number of Paul’s paragraphs, particularly conclusions, are fiery and quick, while still empathetic.

In treating Mormonism and race, Paul hits on perceptions of whiteness, Native Americans, African Americans, and Asians. In doing so he offers some expertly new (and sound) readings. The section on Asians and Mormons seemed the weakest of the bunch to me [n1]. I also wondered about Polynesians, who don’t really show up at all in the book. Don’t get me wrong, it is still compelling, but Paul’s expertise in Native American history is evident [n2] and he does some demonstrably heavy lifting in the sections relating to African Americans. As far as I am concerned this is now the go-to source on the history of the temple/priesthood restriction.

Paul caps off Religion of a Different Color with a sort of epilogue that shows how after struggling so long to be white, Mormonism almost instantaneous became too white (despite relative demographic diversity) when the culture shifted beneath it. This section is relevant and important, but definitely rushed. Pushing 400 pages, it is understandable; no book can cover every topic completely. There is just so much work to be done.

I think that Religion of a Different Color will be used in the academy. It is a little thick for undergraduate courses, but I’ve hung out with enough real historians to know this will have some traction. What I hope is that it is read by Mormons of all stripes. I want my children to read it. I know that it will be hard for many, especially those unfamiliar with the details of this history. But I also believe that there is real redemption and reconciliation here.


  1. Perhaps surprisingly, I thought Judge Waddoups’ theoretical framework regarding “Orientalism” and the famous Reynolds decision in in his Brown decision was remarkably sophisticated.
  2. Paul’s previous book Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes is a really great.


  1. I’m buying my copy this week at the King’s English event. Can’t wait.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    …also, more reasons to like Orson Pratt.

  3. John Hatch says:

    Great review of a superb book.

  4. Thanks for this, J. I read the kindle version last month, and when the hardcover edition arrived this week I decided I am going to read it again. (Once I’m caught up with my other stuff!) Mormonism’s racial tradition in the nineteenth century holds significant importance for Mormons, Mormon historians, and scholars of American religion. It is about time we have a book that matches the sophisticated rigor the topic deserves. And more than expertly demonstrating the niceties of Mormon developments and the relevance to the broader environment, Paul is superb at adding a humane touch to the issues at play, never losing sight of the ethical implications at stake. I think it joins Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount as the most theoretically sound yet empathetically responsible treatments of Mormonism from the past decade.

    I’ve been thinking about doing a review that focuses on the vast potential and subtle complexeties of his organizational structure and, perhaps more importantly, the historiographical shift Religion of a Different Color represents. On the latter, I’m especially interested in how, while the book is more successfully integrated into the broader academic field than previous works on Mormonism and race, it might be a bit less reachable for the average LDS reader, and thus its cultural capital might be curtailed. (Though of course still influential.)

  5. J. Stapley says:


    Ben, I agree, especially about the reasons that the average Mormon reader may find it challenging.

  6. I’ve had Armand L. Mauss’ “All Abraham’s Children” on my need-to-read list for a while, and from what I understand that and this new book seem to cover some similar territory — can you give a sense of how the two books compare?

  7. J. Stapley says:

    JMS, Armand’s book is excellent and well worth reading. There isn’t really a ton of overlap. Armand is a Social Scientist, and treats a lot more of the 20th century. Paul is primarily focused on the racialization of Latter-day Saints and the complex interplay between insiders and outsiders for the first 80 years.

  8. Thanks, J. A much anticipated book that I expect will make a splash, not only among Mormon historians, but also scholars of race, religion, and the American West. This book will establish Paul as among the top mid-career scholars of Mormonism.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Mine just came in the mail, and I just barely started it last night. So I very much appreciate this preview.

  10. The book is phenomenal. While I agree with Ben’s comments about this being the most theoretically sophisticed book on Mormonism and race (and thereby might be less accessible than Lester Bush, etc) I think chapter 7 is the best explanation of how the priesthood and temple restriction crystallized in the early twentieth century. It is difficult to read, but Paul’s empathy shines through.

    A professor of mine has already assigned portions of the book this semester in a class on religion and race. This book is a game changer in both the academy and, eventually, for Sunday school.

  11. As much as I’d like to read Religion of a Different Color immediately, I have so much on my reading list that I’m going to have to wait until later this year. Consequently, I haven’t ordered it yet, since it would be too great a temptation.

    In all this discussion about the book, something that’s missing is an explanation for an average reader. Think perhaps of someone who hasn’t done any major work in history since high school but likes to read and has some familiarity with Mormon history. This person might be someone who’s never heard the term “racialization,” and has never had cause to consider Mormon history, or even American history, in these terms. Perhaps it’s an institute director, seminary teacher, Utah history or Mormon studies enthusiast.

    What would this person expect to get out of the book? Could some of you history people summarize the thesis and purpose of Religion of a Different Color for readers who work in fields outside of history?

  12. I want to tackle this, but I’m about to go into Sunday School. If nobody responds before then, I’ll answe in an hour or so.

  13. In the 19th century, race was seen as far more than skin color. Being “white” meant far more than pale skin and fine hair and a certain shape of features – race also was assumed to be a factor in intelligence, political achievement, social abilities, and pretty much all qualities of life. Inferior races – and all races were inferior to whites, in this world view – were not capable of the same achievements and were subject to lower laws of nature.

    Democracy could only be achieved and maintained by whites – anybody else was incapable of governing, and in fact needed to be governed by a superior race: it was the “white man’s burden” to impose order on lesser races who could not govern themselves. White meant intellectual; Asian meant sensual. White meant honor and dignity; black meant thievery and crime. White meant a high forehead, a firm jaw, piercing eyes, a straight body and strong arms; lesser races had sloping foreheads, simian jaws, and shifty gaze. Whites were honorable; Indians were sneaky. All of these things, and many more, were covered by the term “race.”

    Even though Mormons were white-skinned, 19th century America tried to deny them the status of white men – Mormons were discussed and cartooned as having the traits that, according to the times, belonged only to inferior races. Editors and politicians attributed traits to Mormons that otherwise belonged only to Indians or blacks or Asians. Cartoonists envisioned us as physically inferior – women were caricatured as having the facial structure of blacks, or even apes; polygamous men were often portrayed as puny and shriveled, their manhood destroyed by sexual excess. Polygamy was compared to the Turkish harem, making it easy to attribute other traits considered to belong to Asians as also belonging to Mormons – Mormons were overly sensual, for instance, and therefore couldn’t develop intellectually. Mormons were not capable of participating in American government and in fact would destroy the country, because Mormons had degenerated from what it meant to be white, and assumed the characteristics of other races, who were naturally incapable of self-government.

    That’s what “racialization” is – describing a group along racial lines (physically, intellectually, morally, socially). Religion of a Different Color explores how traits that were seen as being characteristically black, Indian, or Asian were applied to Mormons, with the consequences that Mormons were treated as inferior in the same ways as blacks, Indians, and Asians were treated as inferior.

    What will someone who is not primarily a historian get out of it? I suppose an understanding of another cause for the 19th century difficulties between Mormons and the rest of America. It’s too simplistic to say that it was all due to polygamy, or that the devil made ‘em do it. It a broader sense, RoaDC is a case study for how human beings can enlarge relatively minor differences into such huge problems that a genocide, or a holocaust, or a massacre can happen – they aren’t like us, after all, there are such fundamental differences that barbaric treatment is reasonable and justified.

    RoaDC is also the best and clearest story of how the priesthood restriction developed – because Paul shows us that not only did white Americans make us the other through imagining us as a different race, we did the same thing to blacks, imagining them as the other, unqualified to enjoy the full blessings of God.

    And it has great illustrations.

    (apologies for length, yada, yada)

  14. Ardis, that was a wonderfully informative and–given the complexity of the subject matter–succinct comment. Thank you!

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent explanation, Ardis!

    As I started reading the book, I immediately thought of a scene from The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon’s racist mother comes to visit from Texas. At 1:19 of this clip, you can see her using the expression “That would be mighty white of you.” That to me sort of illustrates that “white” can be used in a fuller sense than just skin color, and a recognition of that is the beginning of understanding what Paul is describing in the book.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    Ardis, that was perfect. Thank you. Like you I was at church and wasn’t able to, nor could I have done so well.

  17. Thanks, Ardis.

  18. Ardis: can you translate all my academic jargon into clear, succinct English if/when I ever publish a book? Pretty please?

  19. Just getting into the book and it is fine reading so far. Thanks J. for the review and thanks Ardis for a spot on summary.

  20. Ardis:
    So you’re saying that the racial ban was a reaction to discrimination against mormons? How is that something to be excited about? Why should I buy a book that says that the church was acting as a child would because of pressure from without? Doesn’t that condemn the so called prophets of the racial ban era?

  21. John Hatch says:

    Ardis for President.

  22. seven, I don’t know what you’ve been reading, but it’s certainly nothing *I* wrote. I’m thinkin’ that Religion of a Different Color is probably somewhat beyond your comprehension. Save your money.

  23. MMmmmm noooo….I think “seven” has it right.

  24. No, really, getting anything out of a book like Religion of a Different Color requires the skills to read words that are actually on the page. seven can’t do it, and jill evidently can’t either. May I recommend a nice picture book instead?

  25. Ardis, look for a picture book on repentence.

  26. J. Stapley says:

    Seriously. Reread Ardis’ comments.

  27. repentAnce

  28. It seems that this book, from the reviews, is about mormons’ hyper-desire to be accepted by the population at large. It must have driven the past leaders crazy when they supposedly had the truth, were racist like the rest of the population, but yet were treated as inferiors. Why couldn’t America see that we were exceptional? This attitude seems to continue. Maybe it’s the burden of being noble and great? It seems that every time the Deseret News talks about somebody famous coming to town it always comments how that person likes us. Maybe it’s time to give this attitude a rest? After years of desperately trying to get into the American fraternity and continually being denied, maybe we should just give it up? Popularity seems to come when you don’t appear so desperate.

  29. Ardis, that was phenomenal! I need to read this book.

  30. Ardis and J just convinced me to buy this book. Which I did.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s a great line from page 123: “The very universalism of the opening decades of Mormonism laid the groundwork for the later racial constriction.”

  32. Typo, Ardis. Cognitive impairment is devasting. I work with dementia and stroke patients. To suggest Seven has comprehension problems is offensive to those who struggle daily just to comprehend and express themselves. Please be sensitive. Peace.

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