Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar by A. Jennie Bartlett, and: Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Struggle for Mormon Whiteness by W. Paul Reeve
Perhaps due in part to our own religious prejudice, very few scholars in the field of western literary studies have considered how the study of Mormon history and culture, especially the history of anti-Mormon prejudice, “could exemplify religious, racial, ethnic, and legal complexities that made the US West distinct” and thereby enhance our understandings of difference, inequality, and the construction of whiteness in the American West (Jared Farmer, “Cross-roads of the West,” Journal of Mormon History 41.1 : 163). W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color reminds us that “rather than being an anomaly in frontier history, the Mormons helped to define America’s racial and religious identity” (6). Drawing from nineteenth-century political tracts and cartoons, Latter-day Saints church archives, US Supreme Court cases, and Western dime novels, Reeve shows that examining the racial prejudices of and against Mormons provides “new insights into the place of whiteness and religion in America’s racial history” (13).
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, white Protestants viewed Mormons as both a racial and religious threat and went to great lengths to deny them the power and privileges associated with whiteness. From the church’s origins in the 1830s, outsiders—Reeve’s term for those representing the Protestant mainstream—claimed Mormons had devilish horns and cloven hooves, a dehumanizing accusation previously directed against medieval Jews. After the practice of polygamy was officially [End Page 257] recognized by the church in 1852, critics used phrenology, physiognomy, and eugenics to argue that Mormon polygamy led to reproductive demise and the production of a new, degenerate, nonwhite race. But because they viewed themselves as carrying the redemptive blood of Israel, “Mormons were just as convinced of the healthy physical benefits of polygamy as their opponents were of its debilitating impact” (41). Nevertheless, Mormon difference in terms of religious and sexual practice placed them in the “lowest stratum of European or American society,” and Mormons were often compared to American Indians, blacks, and Asians (51). In response, Mormons developed their own strategies for distancing themselves from these racialized comparisons in an attempt to obtain the cultural and political capital of whiteness.
Anti-Indian and anti-Mormon rhetoric were often conflated, since both Native Americans and Mormons were viewed as “unwelcome parasites infesting the American body” (54). Nineteenth-century Mormons were obligated to bring the gospel to the Indians since they viewed Native Americans as remnants of the lost tribes of Israel. As a result, outsiders were concerned about a “Mormon-Indian conspiracy,” an accusation that became more prevalent as Mormons intermarried with the Utah tribes. In the years following the notorious Mountain Meadows massacre—an 1857 Mormon attack on an Arkansas emigrant party on its way to California—accusations circulated of Mormons conspiring with and dressing as Paiutes during the five-day siege. These accounts eventually took on a life of their own and were prevalent decades later, indicating that “conflation[s] of Mormons and Indians” occurred wherever and whenever “Mormons and Indians were perceived as a threat” (100). Reeve does not idealize Mormon and Indian relations in Utah, but makes it clear that “Mormon interaction with actual Indians . . . was sometimes marked by compassion and charity and at other times by violence typical of the frontier” (77).
Because the early Mormon church had abolitionist leanings and ordained at least two black priests, Mormons were accused by outsiders of conspiring with blacks to incite slave rebellion and promote interracial marriage. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, politicians characterized Mormon polygamy as the remaining “vestige of barbarism” and portrayed Mormon women [End Page 258] as racially tainted “white slaves” as a means to “blur the distinctions between black and white” (141). In response to accusations of blackness, Brigham Young banned blacks from the priesthood and temple ceremonies, theorizing, as many Protestants already did, that blackness was God’s punishment for Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. Mormon opponents also made orientalist comparisons to Muslim, Turkish, and Chinese cultures in order to claim the Mormon religion was incompatible with American civilization and democracy. But after the church outlawed polygamy in 1904 Mormons began to pass successfully as white and by the 1970s had “successfully made themselves over into white monogamist über Americans” (257). By the twenty-first century, Mormons were “on the wrong side of white,” perceived as too white and racially intolerant, a critique that emerged during the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012 (272).
In her reissue of Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar, written by A. Jennie Bartlett in 1882, Nicole Tonkovich brings attention to the dozens of antipolygamy novels written by Protestant women reformers in the nineteenth century. The novel tells the story of the unsuspecting Marion Wescott and her polygamous marriage to Mormon elder Henry Northfield. Although Marion resigns herself to her duty as a polygamous wife in Utah, her children eventually return to, are embraced by, and marry into the Protestant Christian civilization of the East. With the hope of banning polygamy through federal legislation, the novel preaches that “polygamy was a patriarchal practice that strengthened the religious and political authority of the men who embraced it” and “urges concerned non-Mormons to prepare to repatriate polygamy’s victims” (xvi, x). In her scholarly introduction to the reissue, Tonkovich provides a useful framework for understanding Mormonism by placing it in the broader cultural context of the many early nineteenth-century “intentional communities” such as the Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists that pursued social reform and challenged traditional marriage arrangements.
Both scholars offer much-needed analysis of and context for understanding the rhetoric of anti-Mormon prejudice, yet neither is apologist in tone or approach. Indeed, Reeve’s and Tonkovich’s contributions will challenge us to rethink the role of Mormon culture [End Page 259] and anti-Mormon prejudice in the shaping of the literature and culture of the American West.