- Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness by W. Paul Reeve
According to Charles Furley, a medical doctor who visited Utah in 1863, Mormons had a distinctive appearance. Their faces possessed “a general lack of color” and their cheeks were “sallow and cadaverous.” “The eye is dull and lusterless—the mouth almost invariably coarse and vulgar” (18). Other scientific voices commented on Mormon weak frames and even their “polyerotic eyes” which left them prone to moral depravity (28). A new race had begun to form in the American West as the worst dregs of European society immigrated to join the Mormon Church and their participation in polygamy. This discourse was not limited to those opposed to Mormonism. Mormons saw themselves through a similar lens for their missionaries were literally gathering a sacred Israelite bloodline that had forgotten its identity.
In this groundbreaking work, W. Paul Reeve examines the connections between race Mormonism in an effort to explain how Mormons both positioned themselves and were positioned by the nation in racialized terms. This is not the first time a scholar has studied the racialization of early Mormonism. Terryl Givens’s Viper on the Hearth argued that those opposed to Mormonism viewed adherents of the denomination as racial others. Reeve goes beyond this work to address the social construction of whiteness and how Mormonism has both benefitted and been marginalized by their place in this discourse. In short, Reeves argues that Mormonism was once in early America considered not white enough based largely on their adherence to plural marriage; a seemingly foreign and uncivilized practice to nineteenth-century Americans. In the twenty-first century, he argues, Mormons have become too white, based on criticisms of their denial of ordination to African-American Mormons until the late twentieth century.
Reeve’s argument that perceptions of Mormons were racialized is substantiated through his use of political cartoons in the American press. These depictions present [End Page 100] Mormons as having strange physical features or overtly non-white builds in textual descriptions of Mormon otherness. A clever use of an early twentieth century cartoon published in Life provides the framework for the book’s structure. The nativist cartoon, “Mormon Elder Berry––Out With His Six-Year-Olds, Who Take After Their Mothers,” portrays a bearded Mormon patriarch standing hand-in-hand with nine children of different racial backgrounds. Chapter one considers the debate over Mormon whiteness and thus employs the image of Elder Berry’s six European immigrant children as a starting point. Other chapters focus on Mormons and Blacks, Mormons and American Indians, and Mormons with peoples of the Orient, each represented in the depiction of Elder Berry’s children. Additional cartoons are employed throughout each chapter.
While the largest contribution of Religion of a Different Color is its positioning of racialized conceptions of Mormonism in broader conversations about race, Reeve also makes significant strides in our understanding of Mormonism’s own ideas about race. He describes how Mormons demarcated the world through a biblical lens of peoples originating from Noah’s flood and, later, with the aid of the Book of Mormon, identified Native peoples as the descendants of ancient Israel. His chapters on Mormonism and Native Americans examine how complicated this relationship became once Mormons had colonized the Great Basin. He ably examines the history of earliest Mormonism’s acceptance of black members into the ranks of the priesthood and how this position was reversed nearly two decades later. As a result these earlier Mormon priesthood holders were removed from popular memory.
Religion of a Different Color will be recognized as a crucial work in the field of Mormon Studies. Scholars of American religious history and American studies will be interested in Reeve’s distillation of race theory and its application to the study of religion and American culture. It would be a strong addition to any graduate course on race or religion in America.