Cults & Sects
Published in

Cults & Sects

“Islamicized polygamy” as shown in Bell’s Boadicea; The Mormon Wife (Marr 2006, 211; Bell 1855, 10)

religion as “barbarism”

racializing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Resolved: That the Constitution confers upon Congress sovereign powers over the Territories of the United States for their government; and that in the exercise of this power, it is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.

Republican Party Platform, 1856

The quote above was read at the first-ever Republican National Convention as the party’s official platform. Note that slavery and polygamy are linked here, in both explicit (“barbaric,” read: not western, not American) and implicit (racialized) terms. Polygamy and slavery, according to the original Republican Party, were regressive, uncivilized practices, only approved of or engaged in by barbarians — which is to say non-white non-Christian non-westerners.

We’re not reading Sarah Barringer Gordon’s excellent The Mormon Question, nor are we going to spend much time talking about polygamy per se. But if you’re unfamiliar with 19th century American political history, it’s easy to miss the subtext here. Impassioned concern for enslaved Black people and “enslaved” white women (plural marriage is not slavery, but critics frequently conflated the two institutions) decorates much of the abolitionist and anti-Mormon rhetoric of the time. While many reformers no doubt objected to both practices on moral grounds, there’s more at work in these kinds of declarations. As Gordon convincingly argues, the underlying concern for many 19th century American politicians was less human rights than federalism: solidifying the federal government’s control over western territories (like Utah, where LDS was attempting to build a white Christian theocratic ethno-state) and an increasingly fractured and fractious republic of states.

Racialization was among the more successful strategies deployed to discredit this emergent form of Christianity. If you listened to the Keeping It 101 episode on race and religion, you might remember that drawing parallels between Mormonism and Islam is a form of orientalism.

(and if you *didn’t* listen, it’s not too late)

As Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst told us, orientalism is “the idea that the so-called Orient or East is the bizarro world Occident or West. So everything that the West is, the East isn’t, and vice versa…It’s a big smoothie of stereotypes about race and religion and region and gender and sexuality. And oh look, it’s intersectionality again.”

And as I said: “Early Mormonism is really interesting example here, because you get a new religious movement that is explicitly anti-Black and anti-Native, that also gets racialized as not-white. Critics of early Mormonism called LDS [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Mormon Church] “barbaric” (yet more scare quotes) because early Mormon theology like some Islamic traditions, permitted polygyny (or the marriage of one man to multiple women). There are some really interesting — and by interesting, I mean racist as fuck — illustrations in anti-Mormon literature, where you see these super white folks depicted in orientalized, racialized ways that invoke stereotypes about Muslims and the mystic east. Like truly, truly no human has ever been whiter than Joseph Smith. Why is he being drawn as like, swarthy and be-turbaned, whilst lurking in a stately pleasure dome?”

Orientalism and white supremacy are why, friends. And those are the topics of our discussion for today: orientalism and white supremacy in/and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What we’re reading


And by “keywords” I mean “these are important terms; if you’re not clear on what they mean in this context, please ask me.”

  • federalism
  • Orientalism
  • free exercise
  • polygyny
  • hypersexualization
  • agency

Discussion prompts

  • What role has race and racialization played in the formation and development of Mormon theology?
  • How and why have critics racialized Mormonism? Why does this racialization of a new kind of Christianity matter? What do these attempts tell us about how America understands itself racially and religiously?
  • How and why have Mormons racialized themselves and others? Why do these racializations matter?

Important context

If you don’t know anything about LDS or Mormonisms, this discussion might be a little confusing. Don’t get bogged down in the details — and there are a LOT of details when we’re talking about Mormons. Here are three important things to know before we get started:

  1. Mormons are Christians.
  2. There are a lot of different kinds of Mormons (over a thousand, for real). Today we are talking about the largest Mormon sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mitt Romney Mormons, not Sister Wives Mormons.
  3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer permits polygyny, and hasn’t since 1890. LDS arguing that there’s a biblical precedent for plural marriage and that the free exercise clause of the first amendment should protect the practice is why we get our first definition of free exercise from SCOTUS. (I talked about this in our first week of classes, remember?)
  4. Joseph Smith founded LDS as an explicitly American religion. He (and many Mormons after him) considered the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution to be divinely inspired documents and ran for president in 1844 (though he was assassinated before the election).
Joseph Smith for President — pamphlet
thanks, Wikipedia

Mueller, “Prologue: Visions”

If you’re familiar with Mormonism, there probably isn’t a whole lot of new information for you here. Sidebar: If you’d rather learn about the founder of LDS in musical form, might I recommend…

(This is ridiculous, obviously. If you don’t know “Book of Mormon” the musical, it was written by the creators of South Park. But this number is also a pretty quick and accurate overview of how LDS gets started.)

If you’re not familiar with this history, this is really helpful background on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and specifically on how white supremacy has vexed this NRM since its founding. The prologue also shows us that Black and Native Saints are part of the Church’s founding story, too.

Mueller, “Is Mormonism Still Racist?”

This piece is a helpful overview for folks unfamiliar with LDS or the Church’s history of overt and subtle white supremacy.

Here’s a helpful timeline if this is new to you.

I also wrote about race and Mormonism during the Oregon Standoff in 2016, if you like your analysis with a side of snark.

For most of the 182-year lifespan of the LDS Church, members of the church hierarchy — the senior-most of which are called prophets and speak to and for God — used similar racist rationalizations for excluding blacks from full membership.

Mueller says “blacks” here (which I’ll be honest, doesn’t sit well with me), but he means Black men specifically. LDS still does not recognize Black women members — or any women or nonbinary members — as worthy to hold the priesthood.

Mormons around the country — including Bott’s own colleagues and BYU students — are working to make this moment a turning point in Mormonism’s history of race relations.

Here and throughout this class, it’s important to remember that no religious movement can be reduced to its leadership or its hierarchy. The attitudes and actions of the community are equally vital to our understanding of contemporary Latter-day Saints.

Marr, “Turkey Is in Our Midst”

Imagining western spaces as “domestic orients” was a cultural process that marked frontier practices as deviant from the moral customs of the incorporated states. From the time of the first landings by British settlers, the territory of the western frontier had been feared as an unregenerate challenge to orthodox religious, political, and educational systems and structures. Its unformed possibilities…threatened to disrupt the stability of the Christian social order attained in eastern establishments. Islamicist imagination…provided a symbolic means to render suspect domestic territories into alien and outlandish space…by defining strange behaviors as beyond the pale of acceptable Protestant American values. (Marr 2006, 185–6)

From the jump, Marr sets up the tension between an emergent nation-state that imagines itself as white and Christian despite its own diversity and professed commitment to freedom, religious or otherwise. He specifically notes that “Islamicizing” Mormonism racialized the new form of Christianity as “alien and outlandish,” in excess of what mainstream (Protestant) America could tolerate. Anti-Mormon efforts represented LDS as “the replication of Islam as an American phenomenon,” Marr argues (2006, 186).

Marr suggests that LDS challenged core principles of Protestant Christianity by offering a new revelation to supplement existent Christian scripture (the Book of Mormon), attempting to establish a theocracy (the Utah Territory), and permitting plural marriage (polygyny). Islam also offers a new revelation (the Quran), is a guiding influence or governmental structure in many places, and permits polygyny. For critics, “Islam signified despotism, antichristianity, slavery, and excessive sexuality,” (Marr 2006, 217). Comparisons drawn between the two traditions were intended to undermine Mormonism’s claim to Christian legitimacy and discredit the burgeoning movement.

LDS will not be the last NRM we discuss this semester accused of “deception, despotism, and polygamy,” (Marr 2006, 187). Pay particular attention to the ways these accusations are racialized as qualities of an essentially not-white, not-Christian way of being religious — and what that tells us about historical assumptions that “real” Americans are both white and (properly) Christian.

[Critics] believed [Mormons] combine[d] a theological challenge to Christian orthodoxy, a military threat to the United States, and a perverse affront to conventional morality…associating them with the orientalist heritage that viewed Islam as both carnal and coercive. (Marr 2006, 188)

Again, constructing American religious outsiders as dangerous, deviant, and intent on destroying the nation is a standard move in religiously intolerant rhetoric. We’re going to see this one a LOT.

Anti-Mormon islamicism transformed the sacred endowments of the Mormon church into enactments of sexuality in such a way that the reader has difficulty distinguishing whether such actions are portrayed as crimes or as fantasies. (Marr 2006, 217)

Hypersexualization is a characteristic of Orientalism: Muslim men are depicted as sexually voracious and predatory; Muslim women are characterized as sexually enticing and available. Hypersexualization isn’t unique to Orientalism, however; it characterizes anti-Black racism in what’s now the United States as well. Keep an eye out for this sort of rhetoric throughout the semester.

Mueller, “Introduction: Race on the Page, Race on the Body”

When Mormonism was founded in 1830, the idea of race in the United States increasingly took on its modern meaning, which deemphasized race as (biblical) descent and emphasized race as (secular) biology. Observable physical features reflected innate intellectual and moral capacities. Race description became race prescription. Bodies labeled as “red” were by definition home to savagery and heathenism; bodies labeled as “black” were by definition sites of labor, violence, sexual desire, and sexual panic; “white” bodies housed civilization, politics, and Christianity. (Mueller 2017, 12)

See? Like I keep telling you: American religion and race are co-constitutive. The history of Mormonism in the US is also the history of scientific racism and American imperialism. I hope y’all caught that “secular” biology in the 19th century insisted white people were Christian.

How Mormons wrote about race affected how they sought to make their converts into respectable Mormons — industrious, pious, obedient, and, as we will see, metaphorically and sometimes even literally white. How Mormons wrote about race also affected how they sought to shape and shade the image of those people who rejected their new gospel. Mormons often described these enemies of the faith as red or black — signifying impiety, apostasy, heathenism, and savagery — including those enemies of Mormonism whom other Americans saw as white. (Mueller 2017, 8)

This is a really interesting (and depressing, I know) reversal of the trend Marr observes. While critics of Mormonism racialized the tradition to discredit it, Mormons racialized their critics to discredit them. Both these tactics privilege whiteness and perpetuate white supremacy, obviously.

Claiming proximity to Christianity and/or whiteness and most especially white Christianity is a consistent tactic among American minority religions, btw. Rather than reject the terms on which they’re being marginalized, minoritized religions frequently argue that they are closer to the (white, Christian) mainstream than other minoritized groups. (Sean McCloud talks about this in Making the American Religious Fringe; we also see this WRT to sexuality in LDS and Seventh Day Adventists, as Laura Vance has observed.)

I hope you also noticed that the transformation of popular depictions of Mormon men from “lascivious, violent, and secretive…akin to despotic Oriental sultans” to the “clean-cut, patriotic guy-next-door” relies heavily on the performance of being patriotic, heterosexual nuclear family-oriented, respectful of authority, pro-capitalism, pro-military/law enforcement, financially well-off, Christian-in-“normal”-ways, and white (Mueller 2017, 9).

That is: Mormons gained mainstream acceptance in the US by racializing themselves as white. In fact, Mueller argues that “the Mormons also created a new, distinctly white Mormon race to which even other white Americans did not belong,” (2017, 11). Double-plus whiteness, if you will.

It’s worth noting that Mormons both benefit from and complicate 19th century understandings of whiteness. Mueller says Mormons challenge the “secularization of race” by insisting that whiteness was not biological but theological, proof that white people “abide[d] by God’s law,” (2017, 12).

Mueller’s project is to show that

Nonwhite Mormons resisted, acquiesced, and sometimes embraced the racialized theologies of Mormonism (including those arising from the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures) to argue for their inclusion within the sacred Mormon community and the sacred Mormon historical narrative [and] these nonwhite Mormons’ experiences…were central to the shaping of church policies and theologies on race from the founding of the church in 1830 to today. (2017, 11)

While we’re only getting a taste of his project in this introduction, this framework is important. Rather than centering the experiences and attitudes of white Mormons, Mueller underlines the agency of Black and Native Mormons and insists that these minoritized Church members played pivotal roles in shaping LDS history, theology, and policy.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin


author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults