Edward Blum is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and most recently, co-author (with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), which will be available next month. He is the co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), (with Jason R. Young) The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections (2009), and (with W. Scott Poole) Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (2005). Ed also blogs at Religion in American History and Teaching United States History.
In this so-called “Mormon moment,” everything about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be getting attention. With newfound notoriety, media outlets have paid increasing attention to scholars far and wide. Jon Stewart featured Joanna Brooks and her memoir The Book of Mormon Girl on The Daily Show, while The New Yorker reviewed an assortment of books about Mormonism (from wonderful scholars, including Matthew Bowman, Spencer Fluhman, and John Turner). Businessweek ran a controversial story (and image) on how “Mormons Make Money.” In many ways, it is good to be a writer on Mormonism in these latter-days.
Amid the laughs and the groans, the thorny issue of race has started to become prominent in some of the discussions. The Daily Beast and The Atlantic ran stories on links among Mormonism, race, politics, and imagery, while the New York Times this past weekend printed John Turner’s op-ed piece “Why Race is Still a Problem for Mormons.” As a scholar of race and religion in the United States (and not as a scholar distinctly of Mormonism), I wanted to reflect on Turner’s essay and perhaps provide some twists.
On one hand, Turner’s op-ed piece builds upon his forthcoming biography of Brigham Young, a work I have read, enjoyed, recommend, and reviewed for The Christian Century (not sure when it will be out). One of the fascinating elements of his book is how and when Turner places Young and early Mormonism in the context of other trends and norms of nineteenth-century American Protestantism and evangelicalism. If Jan Shipps was dedicated to showing how Mormonism was to American Protestantism as early Christianity was to ancient Judaism, Turner wants to show how nineteenth-century Mormons were and were not a part of the broader society. This is the basic element of his New York Times essay – that Mormons have a history of racism and racial segregation, but one that is quite similar to other white Christians. As he writes, “Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.”
There are three points about this approach that trouble me. First, it flattens American religious history and the relationships between race and religion. Second, it sounds strange when put in comparison. And third, it neglects the crucial importance of theology (and theological particularity) within Mormonism. (I want to stop here and say that I recognize Turner’s essay was an op-ed and can only be so nuanced; I also want to reiterate that I am a fan of his work and am making these points to broaden discussions, not to attack his scholarship in any way).
First, when I say that Turner’s claim flattens out history, I mean that it does not take into account that race in American churches has been wildly complex, contested, and changed over time. To simply say that white churches have been racist or parts of America’s racism is to miss so much. Nineteenth-century churches and denominations split over the problems of slavery. Many white Christians joined crusades to improve the lives of African Americans, some of which were even willing to be counted as “Negro” so that other whites did not disturb them. (I detail lots of this in my first book, Reforging the White Republic). Some white churches and colleges had study groups that read W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, while some revivalists (like Dwight Moody) agonized over what was right with regards to segregation. Blanket statements about race and religion just cannot be made.
But even more, Turner’s comparison renders Mormon history flat. As we already know from Newell Bringhurst’s exquisite work, early Mormon attacks on slavery were not necessarily pro-black statements. And changing contexts altered meanings. When LDS writers attacked education for African Americans during Reconstruction, it was not simply because of white supremacy. It was also because they (Mormons) were being legislated against. LDS leaders were appalled that the federal government was supporting rights for former slaves while hindering rights for Mormons. Then throughout the twentieth century, new Mormon art dramatically whitened and masculinized Christ at the same time some of its leaders expressed frustration with George Romney for supporting civil rights marches. Race, even among Mormons, has never been stagnate, because the structures and cultures keep changing.
Second, for a scholar to simply claim that Mormonism’s white supremacy was just part of the broad context of nineteenth and twentieth-century America sounds strange if we put it into comparison with, say, scholarship on patriarchal sentiments among African American leaders in the early twentieth century. Over the past ten years, African American historians have gone to great lengths to study and expose the misogynistic and patriarchal elements of African American leadership (in church and outside of it). Barbara Savage and Kevin Gaines, for instance, have shown the gendered elements of black culture, society, and church lives. To my knowledge, no scholar has tried to give W. E. B. Du Bois, or Booker T. Washington, or Benjamin Mays a pass for this because patriarchy was the norm.
In large part, scholars of African American history do not give these fellows a pass because they were the ones confronting oppression. They were the ones who knew what it meant to be singled out and hated for perceived differences. They were the ones to be innovative, to think outside of the box, to question that which seemed unquestionable. So, the logic goes, they could have stood against patriarchy if they wanted. Why shouldn’t the same approach hold to studying Mormonism?
Many scholars of Mormonism have focused on the terrible experiences early Mormons had, and for good reason. They were attacked; they were forcibly exiled; they were maligned politically. They were mocked culturally. The prophet was assassinated. So why, when it comes to race, did Brigham Young advocate execution for anyone who married an African American? And what does it mean for the flagship university of a faith tradition to bear the name of that individual? Why did early Mormons not look at African Americans and say “we welcome you, downtrodden like us”? It is not because early Mormons did not have the intellectual capacity or imagination to do so … it is because sacred disclosures (to them) said not to, and “not to” in old and new ways.
Since Mormonism taught so many new customs, mores, texts, and ideas (many of which are beautiful and full of the respect for abundant life), why was anti-black white supremacy so vital? (and, of course, their positions on people of African descent different dramatically from other people groups) Instead of avoiding the question, we should look into the particularities. One particularity brings sheds light on an important distinction of Mormon theology: its emphasis on corporeality and the anthropomorphized sacred. Unlike many nineteenth-century Protestants who wanted to avoid from the body (in spiritualism, for instance), Mormonism moved the body to center stage. God has a body. Jesus had and has a body. Early Mormon doctrine dissolved the supposed separation between body and soul that many Christians had tried to make. And when they linked physical bodies to spiritual essences, they participated in the long and tangled history that Paul Harvey and I detail in The Color of Christ, which is basically a book about how race and religion get woven together in America from 1500 to the present.
This is what makes race so important to talking about Mormon history and Mormonism. Not because anyone should label Mormons as “racists” or not; not because they segregated the priesthood. Race matters, in part, because Mormonism’s conceptions of the body collided historically with American obsessions with defining and categorizing bodies, with uniting them and separating them, and with representing holy celestial bodies among moral humanity. This is why the physicality of Jesus in John Scott’s “Jesus Christ Visits the Americas” matters (and it does not just replicate other art, and its’ place in LDS Bibles is important as well) To respect Mormons and Mormon history is not to avoid any of these issues or to shoo them away. Instead, we should dive deeply into them so that we can all understand the faith and the church in the broader sweeps of time and space.