I just began reading Newell Bringhurst’s book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism. Â It was printed in 1981, and is a hard book to find on the cheap. Â Used copies are around $30 on Amazon, and the local booksellers tell me it is a highly requested book. Â 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. Â They said the Mormons weren’t in favor of slavery, but they weren’t abolitionists either. Â Bringhurst expands on this topic. Â 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. Â 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. Â Bringhurst notes that the Book of Mormon does not support slavery. Â 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. Â 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. Â This desire, stemmed, in large part, from Mormonism’s presence in Kirtland, Ohio, on the Western Reserve. Â This region was a hotbed of abolitionism during the 1830s. Â 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. Â They worried about theÂ parallelsÂ 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. Â The official Mormon antiabolitionist resolution of August 1835 was similar to declarations of other northern-based church groups. Â 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? Â Bringhurst states on page 23,
Mormons rejected the abolitionist goals of immediate, uncompensated emancipation for all black slaves. Â 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.
â€œOn the slavery question, he advocated compensated emancipation through the sale of public lands.Â To cope with resulting social stress, he advocated the relocation of the several million freed slaves to Texas.Â In keeping with the spirit of â€œManifest Destinyâ€ in the 1840s, he proposed annexation of Oregon and Texas and whatever parts of Canada wished to join the Union.Â As a reflection of the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, Smithâ€™s platform also advocated presidential intervention in civil disturbances within states.Â As one author noted, this interventionist impulse â€˜did not exist until the Civil War and Reconstruction.â€™â€
What do you make of the Mormon position back then?