Today I’m flying west, from Boston to Chicago, for the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference. Depending on how the plane banks west, we might fly directly over Lowell, Massachusetts, the onetime home of Walker Lewis, a black Mormon whom Brigham Young once described as “one of the [Mormons’] best Elders, an African.”
The timing of this indirect mention of the black Mormon convert—Spring of 1847—is important. Young and most of the leaders of the Latter-day Saints in exile and exodus—passing the winter of 1846-47 in Winter Quarters—were debating the place of black men, or at least a black man, in their community. William McCary, the “Nigger Prophet,” as some of the Mormons leaders called him, was causing quite a stir in camp. The Saints loved it when McCary entertained them with his flute. But according to McCary’s own self-conception, he wasn’t simply some Negro song and dance man. Instead, McCary saw himself as both an ancient biblical and “Lamanite” prophet. McCary presented himself as one of the Native Americans whom the saints were hoping to redeem and—at least according to the prophecies of then-martyred founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith—place at the center of the new Jerusalem, the city of Zion God had charged the Mormons with building up in the latter-days before Christ’s return.
According to John Turner’s fantastic new biography of Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet, in the Spring of 1847, Young occupied a liminal space in his thinking about the place of people of African descent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a descendent “of Ham”—the Mormons rejected McCary’s claim that he was the son of an Indian chief—McCary wasn’t yet an existential threat to the Mormons. Walker Lewis had proven that as long as blacks didn’t “mingle [their] seed” with that of white Mormons, blacks could be made “elders” in God’s restored Christian church. Not equals, to be sure. But not by nature excluded from the powers and duties of the priesthood, essential to Mormon (male) identity and authority. In fact, Young rejected polygenism, which was promoted by many theologians and scientists in antebellum America to justify African chattel slavery. “For of one blood God has made all flesh,” Young declared. Young could accept a good “elder” like the one in Lowell. That is, as long as he doesn’t try to bed white Mormon women and corrupt the lineages of the Saints, who increasingly saw themselves as heirs to a lost and now restored covenant God had made with the ancient Israelites, a covenant that manifested itself at the level of belief and blood.
Turner shows that Young couldn’t keep to this in-between position, as his views about blacks’ place within Mormonism “soon hardened” (222) after providing his favorable description of Lewis. But Young didn’t see this as his fault, but the fault of black men who couldn’t help but be drawn to white women. Walker Lewis’ own son Enoch Lovejoy was apparently “married to a white [Mormon] girl,” a report from Boston indicated, a fact that infuriated Young. Offspring of such unions were against God’s law and the law of nature. “Mulattoes are like mules they can’t have children,” Young said. By 1849, Young established definitively that, due to biblical-era perfidy, “the seed of Cain” was cursed and excluded from the full blessings of the gospel, most notably the Mormon priesthood.
This is not necessarily what God had hoped for, Turner explains in his chapter on Young’s racial thinking and policies. As the chapter’s title indicates, “One Family,” God had charged the Saints with unifying the spiritual and racial schisms of humanity, especially the “Lamanites,” and by extension of early Mormon universalism, African Americans too. Yet the facts on the ground proved heavenly aspirations untenable. According to Turner, Young blamed the natural character of both “Negros” and “Indians.” Even the power of Mormon faith couldn’t stifle African male desire for white women. But more significantly than the “Negro problem,” the westwardly-moving Saints had to contend with the “Indian problem” of “Idlness” (214) and savagery. Rather than the heirs to the keys of the New Jerusalem, as his predecessor had prophesied, Young believed that the Indians were to be controlled, corralled or removed. Only then could the saints bring forth the full flowering of the Utah desert.
It is worth mentioning here the fruits a study of mid-nineteenth-century Mormon concepts of race, like Turner’s, bears for American history. Early Mormon theological deployment of words like “blackness” and “darkness” as indicating spiritual inferiority did not necessarily equate with “black” (African) bodies. This is a stumbling block for many 21st century critics of the history of Mormon exclusion of people of African descent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Mormon views on race, at least in the beginning of the Mormon movement, were more complicated than a simple, wholesale antipathy toward black people. In fact, at least before Brigham Young took over, the Mormons under Joseph Smith hoped to rid the world of “race” altogether, creating “one family,” as Turner suggests, with the lesser races becoming more and more “white,” both in demeanor and pigmentation as they became more and more Mormon.
And herein lies my critique of Turner’s biography: the all-but-unexplored relationship between Joseph Smith’s thinking about race and that of Brigham Young. Since the 1978 revelation ended the priesthood ban, the LDS Church has worked to rediscover its own black Mormon past by showcasing Joseph Smith as a racial egalitarian, providing an unspoken contrast with the more racist and acerbic Brigham Young. Though starting from a very different place (that of a rigorous historian whose archival work and analysis is a model for younger scholars, myself included), I read Turner as producing a similar outcome—dissociating Joseph from the origins of Mormonism’s infamous racial doctrines, and placing the “blame” for them squarely at Brigham’s feet (208). To be sure, it is certainly natural for a biography of Young to focus on his thinking more than Joseph Smith’s. Yet this superb biography would have benefited from a fuller exploration of the similarities (and the possible transference) between Joseph’s thinking and Brigham’s when it comes to issues of race.
 Turner would not use such “presentist” language of “blaming” Brigham, and making Joseph thus the innocent. But this language, to my mind, is worth exploring here because “who’s to blame for the priesthood ban?” has long been the framing question for studies of Mormon conceptions of race, at least within the Mormon interpretive community.