Religion of a Different Color

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Review of W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 335 pages, with Notes and an Index.

I just now finished my belated Christmas gift. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since June 5th of last year, when at MHA San Antonio Paul told me his manuscript had been accepted by Oxford and that a seven-month process of publication was starting. I was also looking forward to it due to the “electric” (my word at the time) session at that MHA by Paul, LaJean Carruth and Christopher Rich on the 1852 Territorial Legislature session (for my contemporary notes, see the link at June 7 4:26 p.m.).

Paul uses the image on the cover of the book as a framing device for his text. It is a cartoon by C.J. Rudd published by Life magazine on April 28, 1904 of “Mormon Elder-Berry–out with his six-year olds, who take after their mothers.” This cartoon appeared less than two months after Joseph F. Smith spent a withering six days as a witness before a U.S. Senate committee as part of the Reed Smoot hearings. (Indeed, the long beard on Mormon Elder-Berry, if not the entire image, was no doubt inspired by President Smith himself.) The girls in the image represent a range of ethnicities, including those Paul will focus on here: Indian, black and Oriental.

The overarching theme of the book is, as described in its subtitle, the Mormon struggle for whiteness. At first this notion seems counterintuitive, as most Mormons were Yankees or immigrants from England or northern Europe, and were about as “white” as one can imagine. The notion that they were anything less than white seems absurd to us. But what the book describes is an overt process of racialization, where outsiders denigrated Mormons as in effect their own racial category, and one definitely not with the Anglo-Saxons at the top of the racial pyramid. (I found it helpful to think of the Irish, who like the Mormons were certainly “white” but whose immigrants were denigrated in racialist terms.) It was an intriguing premise, but I have to admit my original assumption was that he wouldn’t be able to find enough material to write a whole book about it. And I was not alone in that thought, as Paul reports that he himself was similarly skeptical. But as he dug into it, it turned out that there was ample material to support the thesis.

The book features eight chapters, preceded by an Introduction and followed by a Conclusion, as follows:

Introduction: All “Mormon Elder-Berry’s” Children

Chapter 1. “The New Race”

Chapter 2. “Red, White and Mormon: “Ingratiating Themselves with the Indians”

Chapter 3. Red, White, and Mormon: White Indians

Chapter 4: Black, White, and Mormon: Amalgamation

Chapter 5: Black, White, and Mormon: Black and White Slavery

Chapter 6. Black, White, and Mormon: Miscegenation

Chapter 7. Black, White, and Mormon: “One Drop”

Chapter 8. Oriental, White, and Mormon

Conclusion: From Not White to Too White: The Continuing Contest over the Mormon Body

The racialization began with a label: Mormonite, soon shortened to “Mormon.” As their pariah status increased, they began to be perceived as their own (degraded) racial category. A Mormon was someone you could pick out in a crowd simply from her appearance. This led to learned (sic) papers such as “Physiological Aspects of Mormonism” read before the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine in 1867 by Dr. Roberts Bartholow, a professor at the Medical College of Ohio, who learnedly referred to the Mormons as a “congress of lunatics.”

While the entire book was interesting, I personally was most interested in the chapters at the heart of the book dealing with Mormons and blacks. Paul I think makes a convincing case for a notion that has been floating around for a while now, that it was really the prospect of “amalgamation” (later called by the fancier latinate term miscegenation) that really drove the increasingly rigid policies relating to priesthood and temple observance. I won’t try to summarize the argument and development here, but suffice it to say that I think this middle section of the book now represents the state of the art on these issues.

I’m old enough that I can remember the terror at the prospect of race mixing that was a part of our culture (and in some quarters still is). When I was a freshman at BYU, living in Deseret Towers, there was a girl in our student branch from the Chicago area who was dating a black man. (I think, but am not sure, that he too was a student at the school, but he did not live in our branch.) One time a bunch of guys on my floor started talking about their disgust at this relationship, and started talking big about finding this guy and beating him up to teach him a lesson. Thankfully, it was just talk and nothing came of it, but I still remember the visceral reaction of disgust at such a prospect. This would have been in the mid-70s, a little before the 1978 revelation. So we as a people are not that far removed from the attitudes that gave rise to the priesthood/temple ban in the first place.

In the “One Drop” chapter, Paul tells the story of Scipio A. Kenner, who began courting Miss Isabel Park sometime late in 1869. Her parents favored the match and gave their consent to the relationship. But in mid-1870, her parents abruptly soured on him, and her mother Agnes (her father was away on a mission) asked him not to come to the house anymore, a request he complied with, but that didn’t keep hm from seeing Isabel. Agnes soon shifted her hostility to her own daughter, even hitting her, causing her to leave home. At first it was a mystery what had caused this sudden change in disposition, but then the truth came out that somehow Agnes had become convinced that Scipio had negro blood in his veins, even though he had every appearance of being white. It is unclear how she came up with this rumor, but it had the potential to ruin his life, and certainly to scuttle his marriage to her daughter. He appealed to Brigham Young, and although we have no record of the result of that appeal, presumably it was positive, as he married Isabel a month later. Later on Paul talks about the balance of his life and his funeral, how he became a very successful and well regarded man in the community. But if the rumor of black ancestry had taken hold, all that would have changed in an instant. It is a sobering framing for discussion of Mormon attempts to follow a “one drop” rule, a rule that ultimately was almost impossible to enforce. Just as I am old enough to remember Mormon freak outs over amalgamation, I too remember almost comical attempts to discern whether a prospective convert had even a drop of black blood.

The great irony of all this is that Mormons in the first instance were the victims of vicious racialization, which spurred them to try to reassert their whiteness and encouraged them to adopt policies separating themselves from those who were not white. For a long time it didn’t help, but then, just as the Mormons were gaining a certain acceptance and even admiration, the ground shifted and all of a sudden the Mormons were too white, and they were not nimble enough to adjust as others were doing. Along the way, the Mormons were both victims and in turn perpetrators of racialization.

If it is not clear by now, I highly recommend the book, which is a landmark study of the intersection of Mormonism with race.

Comments

  1. Thanks for your insightful review, Kevin. I just received my copy of the book from Amazon and I’m looking forward to reading it, especially after reading to your assessment.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin. I also appreciate your personal observations, it adds to why this book is so needed.

  3. Thanks for this, Kevin — you highlight some great points.

    (Pssst — it’s Christopher Rich in your second paragraph)

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the correction. I had “Chris” in my head, but my fingers had Paul on the brain. I’ve made the correction.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    By the way, be sure to check out J.’s review from a couple of weeks ago:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/02/14/review-religion-of-a-different-color/

  6. I think your last para – “The great irony of all this is … just as the Mormons were gaining a certain acceptance and even admiration, the ground shifted and all of a sudden the Mormons were too white, and they were not nimble enough to adjust as others were doing. Along the way, the Mormons were both victims and in turn perpetrators of racialization.” is a great summary. And I have long argued that our active opposition to “alternative lifestyles”, esp. same-sex marriage and polygamy, represents a simialar dynamic. We were beaten down for being “the other”, we succeed at becoming what they wanted us to be, and suddenly – bam – it all shifts on us. And we become the ones fighting to keep “the other” as “the other”.