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Early Mormons Were Anti-Slavery and Anti-Abolitionist

I just began reading Newell Bringhurst’s book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism.  It was printed in 1981, and is a hard book to find on the cheap.  Used copies are around $30 on Amazon, and the local booksellers tell me it is a highly requested book.  I wanted to share a few impressions from the first few chapters.

During the Q&A session at the MHA meetings last year for the film Trouble in Zion, a few scholars took issue with the original narration that indicated that early Mormons in Missouri were abolitionists.  They said the Mormons weren’t in favor of slavery, but they weren’t abolitionists either.  Bringhurst expands on this topic.  Mormons became embroiled in controversy in 1833 when WW Phelps published as article called “Free People of Color” in the church’s newspaper, Evening and Millenial Star.  Phelps wrote about “the wonderful events of this age much is doing towards abolishing slavery and colonizing the blacks in Africa.”

Non-mormons in Missouri, a slave state, were already suspicious of the massive influx of Mormons, and this article was the last straw. Despite Phelps’ attempt to minimize the damage by printing the following day that Mormons “had nothing to say…as to slaves”, a mob destroyed the printing press and ordered Mormons out of Jackson County Missouri in 1833.

So while Mormons didn’t like slavery, they didn’t want to be associated with Abolitionists either. Abolitionists were seen as radicals back then.  Bringhurst notes that the Book of Mormon does not support slavery.  Alma 27:9 says “It is against the law of our brethren…that there should be any slaves among them.”

Many saints were from the north, where slavery was unpopular.  Yet Abolitionists were unpopular too. Mormons tried to straddle the fence, and Bringhurst states why Mormons and other church groups did not want to be associated with radical abolitionists on pages 20-21.

Mormon opposition to abolitionism was primarily motivated by a Latter-day Saint desire to avoid any and all identification with the abolitionist movement.  This desire, stemmed, in large part, from Mormonism’s presence in Kirtland, Ohio, on the Western Reserve.  This region was a hotbed of abolitionism during the 1830s.  Oberlin College, located near Kirtland, was the center for abolitionist actions through the Ohio Valley.36 Such abolitionist activity made Ohio the focal point of more antiabolitionist violence than any other state in the Union.

Because of their close proximity to such violence, the Ohio-based Saints were particularly anxious to avoid the abolitionists.  They worried about the parallels that non-Mormons might draw between themselves and the abolitionists…

The Mormons, in avoiding and condemning the abolitionists, were like other northern-based church groups during the 1830s.  The official Mormon antiabolitionist resolution of August 1835 was similar to declarations of other northern-based church groups.  The Methodists in their 1836 national convention adopted a resolution asserting that their members had “no right, wish, or intention to interfere with the civil and political relation as it exists between master and slave in the slave-holding states of this Union.”43 In a similar fashion, the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics, in national meetings of their respective churches, avoided the issue of slavery and abolition.44 Even the Quakers, who had earlier pushed for gradual elimination of slavery withdrew from active participation in all antislavery movements and condemned abolition in general.45 Several interdenominational organizations, including the Bible, Home Missionary, and Tract Societies, also rejected involvement in the abolitionist movements.

So why were all these churches so opposed to abolition?  Bringhurst states on page 23,

Mormons rejected the abolitionist goals of immediate, uncompensated emancipation for all black slaves.  In addition, the abolitionist desire to absorb these emancipated blacks into the mainstream of society upset those Latter-day Saints obsessed with racial intermixture.66 In contrast to these abolitionist goals, W.W. Phelps and other Mormons favored gradual compensated emancipation and colonization of the freed blacks abroad.

In a previous blog post about Joseph Smith’s Presidential Platform, I quoted from Michael Quinn’s book called The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power page 119,

“On the slavery question, he advocated compensated emancipation through the sale of public lands.  To cope with resulting social stress, he advocated the relocation of the several million freed slaves to Texas.  In keeping with the spirit of “Manifest Destiny” in the 1840s, he proposed annexation of Oregon and Texas and whatever parts of Canada wished to join the Union.  As a reflection of the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, Smith’s platform also advocated presidential intervention in civil disturbances within states.  As one author noted, this interventionist impulse ‘did not exist until the Civil War and Reconstruction.’”

What do you make of the Mormon position back then?

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8 comments on “Early Mormons Were Anti-Slavery and Anti-Abolitionist

  1. Pretty freaking weak, if you ask me. I’d be all for voluntary resettlement of people who didn’t want to live in the US anymore, but any slave who wanted to live in the US should have been able to do so w/o incident. They paid a debt to society that they didn’t deserve.

    Still, anti-slavery anti-abolitionism is more sensical than pro-slavery pro-abolitionism, so there’s that. 🙂

  2. Randall, were you aware that Abraham Lincoln’s solution was to send slaves back to Liberia? His thinking was along the ideas of Joseph Smith as well. Lincoln gets a lot of credit for the Emancipation Proclamation (as he should), but he was far from enlightened on race. I think this speaks to the difficulty of the slavery issue.

    With the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolitionists got what they wanted–immediate freedom and no compensation for slave holders. As I said on the Presidential post,

    Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston, visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1844 when this platform was in circulation. Much later, Quincy wrote about that visit, saying that Joseph Smith’s proposal for ending slavery resembled one that Emerson made 11 years later in 1855.

    As Quincy put it, writing retrospectively in the 1880s, “We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty” – Joseph Smith’s and Emerson’s – “would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844?”

  3. […] read about the evolution from trinity to godhead, Adamic language, more on the Book of Abraham, Mormons vs. slavery, and Mormon […]

  4. In light of the exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood until 1978, combined with the vitriol toward them by BY (Journal of Discourses), what is the explanation for JS bestowing the priesthood on at least two Black men – Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis – affording them full access to temple ordinances? An overview of this topic can be located on LDS.org.

    Try as I might, I’ve never been able to find any subsequent revelation (D&C or elsewhere) canonizing the Black/priesthood prohibition. Can anyone clarify this matter?

  5. Lee, this is a favorite topic of mine. In short, there was no revelation on the matter. Prior to about 1851 or so, there was no prohibition on blacks getting the priesthood either. I have a very long post on the History of the ban. William McCary’s actions were probably the catalyst for the ban.

    A list of my blog posts on this topic is available at http://www.mormonheretic.org/category/priesthood-ban/

  6. You could not say anything either way if the Mormons were not abolitionist.

  7. In History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a book written by Joseph Smith, a letter written to Oliver Cowdery from the Prophet provides great insight.

    “…if the principle had been an evil one, in the midst of the communications made to this holy man …[Abraham] would have been instructed differently. And if he was instructed against holding men-servants and maid-servants, he never ceased to do it; consequently must have incurred the displeasure of the Lord and thereby lost his blessings — which was not the fact.
    …we have no right to interfere with slaves contrary to the mind and will of their masters.” (History, p 436 – 440)

    Joseph Smith, at least at the time this letter was written, was not anti-slavery. It’s disappointing, I know.

    Smith, Joseph, B. H. Roberts, and E. Keith. Howick. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Vol. 2. Salt Lake City, UT: Published by the Church Deseret News, 1904. Print.

  8. Most slaves were either kidnapped or sold into slavery by their own African government. The slaves living in America in mid-1800’s were descendants of these slaves ripped from their homes. I do not believe that anyone lobbying to send emancipated slaves back to Africa thought of it as a punishment. On the contrary, they thought only of it as returning them to their home.

    I am not saying it was right, I am only saying that the nation and its leaders were treading new waters. There were no examples to follow or an established protocol. We seem to think the answers are obvious, but that is only because we have the luxury of examining their decisions 170 years later.

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