Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness

Mormonism’s nineteenth-century white Protestant critics often cast the Latter-day Saints as racially degenerate—a tragic decline into non-white barbarism. Anxious about the lack of obvious physical markers of this degeneracy, critics constructed fantasies of distinctive Mormon bodies: red, black, yellow, and otherwise malformed.

Mormons responded with a counter-image of themselves as the very paragons of white racial progress. And indeed, after a long “struggle for whiteness,” Mormons in the early twentieth century did finally succeed in passing as white. But with the advent of the mid-century civil rights movement, Mormons came to be seen as too white. They had achieved snow-whiteness just as the fashion for it was on its way out.

Such, at least, is the contention of W. Paul Reeve’s new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Reeve’s book has been met with great critical acclaim, and for good reason. He writes with rare verve and real insight. I began the book with the expectation that racialization of Mormons would be fairly subtle and evident only upon close reading of the sources. So I was surprised to learn that nineteenth-century critics spoke quite explicitly of Mormons as a “new race,” even going so far as to offer elaborate scientific analyses of their supposed distinctive racial characteristics. Reeve packs all his best evidence for this into his first chapter, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Another standout chapter is Chapter 4, where Reeve examines how the politics of slavery and fear of “amalgamation” shaped early anti-Mormon sentiment. Reeve does a particularly good job contextualizing the Mormons’ 1833 expulsion from Jackson County. In a decade when “at least 165 antiabolitionist riots convulsed the North,” the expulsion appears as “an early salvo in a violent, riot-filled anti-abolitionist backlash” that climaxed with the Civil War (114–15). For instance, abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy had his printing press destroyed by angry mobs four times—once in Missouri and thrice in Illinois—before his 1837 assassination. So when Jackson County citizens destroyed the Evening and Morning Star’s printing press and drove Mormons from the county, they followed a fairly typical pattern for dealing with perceived abolitionists.

Still, I inevitably had a few disagreements with the book, especially its two “Indian” chapters. I am currently in the midst of writing a doctoral dissertation that argues almost exactly the inverse of a few of Reeve’s key arguments. I contend that, far from aspiring to their culture’s conventional model of whiteness, the earliest Mormons set out to revise that concept of whiteness. They redrew its boundaries, recast its significance, and reimagined the mechanisms of inheritance. In so doing, they sometimes identified and affiliated with Indians. Whereas Reeve argues that critics racialized Mormons and Mormons reacted by claiming racial superiority, I see the causal arrow pointing the opposite direction. Mormons claimed racial superiority almost from the very beginning, and behaved in ways that outraged white Protestant racists and provoked racialization as backlash.

Mormon revision of whiteness began in the Book of Mormon, where white skin is only one racial marker of divine blessing, along with Israelite blood. The Book of Mormon requires that white “Gentiles” submit to adoption as Israelites in order to enjoy the blessings of ethnic superiority (1 Ne. 14:1–2). By September 1832, Smith introduced the idea that the transformation of Gentiles into Israelites was a physical process (D&C 84:33–34). As he described this process in 1839, the Holy Ghost must miraculously “purge out the old [Gentile] blood” and replace it with new Israelite blood.[1] Meanwhile, Indians will be miraculously whitened and massacre the unconverted “Gentiles” (2 Ne. 30:6; 3 Ne. 20:16; D&C 87:5). The blessed white race will thus ultimately include Mormons and Indians, but not white Protestants. Reeve acknowledges that these scriptural passages exist, but does not robustly account for them in his thesis concerning Mormons’ relationship to whiteness.

I also think Reeve’s image of Mormons striving for conventional whiteness leads him to systematically undervalue the evidence for Mormon interest in and involvement with Indians. When apostate Mormons Nathan Marsh and John Sapp testified that Mormons during the 1838 Mormon War hoped to recruit Indians to their cause, they spoke with the authority of insider knowledge. When William Smith in the 1850s claimed to have heard Mormon pioneers speak openly of plans to incite Indians, he likely referred to Alpheus Cutler’s efforts in the late 1840s to raise an Indian army to redeem Zion.[2] Reeve dismisses such evidence too casually, chalking it up to rumor, prejudice, and the rare anomaly.

Another weakness of the Indian chapters is that Reeve does not actually succeed in proving his contention that “Outsiders constructed a Mormon-Indian body” and portrayed Mormon bodies as “red” (9, 64). He certainly shows that critics cast Mormons as “white renegades” and “savages” and consigned them to “reservations.” But except for native converts and the children of interracial marriages, Reeve documents no examples of Mormon bodies racialized as “red.” Certainly the word “savage” had racial overtones, but it was not an unambiguously racial term. The rhetoric Reeve documents seems mostly to treat Mormons as not-quite-white.

Finally, I’d like to highlight something that Reeve states, but that I wish he emphasized a bit more. Whiteness, he notes in the introduction, “was a socially imagined category that was taken for granted” and “deemed normal or natural” in the nineteenth century (7). This probably should be a more central argument of the book: that the entire struggle over whiteness was a kind of moral fiasco in which both sides tilted at a socially constructed windmill. Instead, sections of the book read dangerously like a kind of atrocity tale about how nineteenth-century Mormons were unjustly deprived of their rightful whiteness. This is a risk in any study of the history of racism: that by a careless slip of language we may seem to naturalize historical people’s racial categories and legitimize their racial fallacies—surely the opposite of what Reeve intended.

Similarly, I worry that the book came too close to implying that persecution of Mormons resembled the treatment received by blacks and Indians. Despite comments like the one George A. Smith quoted from a Missourian who “said he hated [Mormons] worse than he did the Indians” (9), Mormons enjoyed many privileges because their skin color fell within the range culturally defined as white. Unlike blacks and Indians, Mormons could sometimes defeat racism simply by being seen. Speaking in 1854 of emigrants who passed through Utah, Heber C. Kimball remarked, “How comfortable they feel, and rejoice to dwell in the midst of white people. They never thought for a moment we were white men and women; but when they came, they found out, to their astonishment, that the people in Utah were quite white, and right from their own country.”[3]


[1] Lyndon W. Cook and Andrew F. Ehat, eds., Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1996), 4.

[2] Richard E. Bennett, “Lamanism, Lymanism, and Cornfields,” Journal of Mormon History 13, no. 1 (1986): 50–51.

[3] Heber C. Kimball, September 17, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:224.

Follow Christopher Smith:  Facebook  RSS


Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness — 4 Comments

  1. Meanwhile, Indians will be miraculously whitened

    Do we have anyone before Spencer Kimball attributing whitening of skin to a divine miracle? I always interpreted passages about the Lamanites becoming white as meaning a natural consequence of intermarriage with white people, not because God would miraculously change their skin. Brigham Young is quoted as saying the same thing in Turner’s bio, so I know this interpretation is neither unique nor contemporary. Even the scripture you cite says it will take “many generations” before it happens.

  2. Actually it says many generations shall *not* pass away before they are whitened. And I would note that in context, it’s talking about the number of generations that will pass away from the time of European arrival in the New World. So by 1830, there had already been several generations.

    The Book of Mormon doesn’t explain the mechanism of skin color transformation except as cursing and marking or the removal of marks and curses. In the Book of Mormon this seems to happen instantaneously (Alma 3:7,10; 3 Ne. 2:15), and the book doesn’t seem to countenance racial intermarriage as a solution. The whole point of the skin color curse in the first place is to make the Nephites and Lamanites repugnant to each other and thereby prevent intermarriage (2 Ne. 5:21–22; Alma 3:8,14). The Book of Mormon warns that in the event of intermarriage, the offspring of the marriage will be cursed (2 Ne. 5:23; Alma 3:9,15). The mechanism of skin-color inheritance here isn’t genetics; it’s generational cursing.

    Anyway, yes, people in the 1830s and early 1840s seem to have thought it would be a miracle. For instance, a Gentile newspaper report of the first Mormon preaching in Kirtland summarized, “the Indians, as fast as they are converted[,] are to become white men.” Most Mormon sources aren’t so explicit, but they imply the same. For instance, the Messenger and Advocate predicted, “the hour is nigh when they will come flocking into the kingdom of God, like doves to their windows; yea, as the book of Mormon foretells — they will soon become a white and delightsome people.” In 1834 Joseph apparently told his traveling companions concerning Zelph the white Lamanite that “the curse had been taken off from him because of his faith and righteousness.”

    In fact, I’m not sure anyone even *suggested* it might occur by intermarriage until the 1850s.