MHA 2013: Ethnicity, Martin Harris, and Banyan Trees

I was pleased to attend the 2013 MHA Convention in Layton, Utah this week.  It was good to catch up with friends.  I was only able to attend on Friday, because I had to work on Saturday, but wanted to share my notes from the conference.  By Common Consent has some additional reports from Ben Park and Jacob.

Wanna write in the JMH?

I’ve been trying to get published in the Journal of Mormon History, and thought it would be nice to find out what it takes.  I was surprised to learn that the board is almost entirely volunteer.  Lavinia Anderson and Boyd Peterson donate time, and all editors are volunteers.  The Editor gets an allowance and is chosen by a board of directors to serve 4 years with an option to renew.  There is a paid production manager and art director, but everyone else is voluteer.  Their budget is $60,000 for the year.  Paper costs fluctuate.  The journal accepts ads, but otherwise member dues fund operating costs.  The advertising manager is Steve Eccles.  From what I can see, they really run this on a shoe string, and it’s pretty amazing the work they do.

Martin Harris History

Following this presentation, I attended a Martin Harris history.  Martin’s father Nathan was a wealthy landowner in New York, and quite important in settling the area in the late 1700s.  Martin inherited much of his father’s land and had a good business acumen.  The presentation dealt alot with real estate transactions (which was a bit bland to listen to), but there was some interesting information regarding the Book of Mormon.  Martin put up 151 acres of his property for $3000 to pay for printing of the Book of Mormon.  Typically the publisher and author split the costs of printing, but E.B. Grandin (the printer) was worried the book wouldn’t sell in 18 months, so he asked for the money up front.  As we know, it didn’t sell, so Martin lost his farm.  But the transaction was a little tricker than that.

Martin had previously given his wife Lucy 80 acres (and the house), so that property was exempt from the agreement with Grandin.  Lucy didn’t like Martin’s assocation with Joseph Smith.  Divorces were difficult to obtain, but it appears they separated.  Lucy accused Martin of abuse in the local newspaper, but Martin never responded to the allegations.  It very well could be that Lucy made up the allegations; she never had them notarized, perhaps for fear of perjury.  Lucy died in 1836, and Martin remarried (Caroline)  in November of that year.

Apparently Grandin needed money before the 18 months was over, so he sold the promissary note to Thomas Rogers for $2000, with the idea that Rogers would get either get $3000 from Harris or his 151 acres.  Grandin soon built a house, and the land went to Rogers. One thing left out of the presentation was the fact that Martin later served a Strangite mission.  However, Martin eventually made his way to Utah, re-united with Brigham Young, and is buried up near Logan, Utah.

Michelle Ferris on the Chinese in Utah

I next attended a presentation on Mormonism and Ethnicity.  Michelle Ferris, a non-Mormon gave an interesting account of how Mormons and Protestants in Utah dealt with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.  Mormons and Protestants didn’t get along well; protestants set up schools to teach as well as proselytize among the Mormons.  They thought it was a good idea to teach English to the Chinese immigrants who were here to help build the railroads.

Mormons didn’t have success among the Chinese, and related it to the fact that the Chinese didn’t have “believing blood.”  Brigham Young said the Chinese were not worth proselyting to.  Following his death in 1877, Mormons began to develop a theological justification about the Chinese.  In 1888, Utah passed a law that whites couldn’t marry blacks or Mongolians (Chinese.)  The rationale was that we shouldn’t pollute Mormon blood line.  Utah law made it clear that Chinese were tainted as well as blacks.  In the 1886 Juvenile Instructor showed that Mormons were related to Hebrew through Shem, son of Noah.  Asians were descended from Japheth.  There were also a large category all of gentiles including Germans, Greeks, and others.

It was held that Chinese lacked believing blood which was why they were unconverted.  Opium dens, gangs, and Chinatown were evil and full of temptation.  At the turn of century, it was stated that Plum Alley was a threat to the cleanliness of the city.  Other Asian groups were included and there was a brief article on surnames from Japheth.  Mormons continued teaching Japheth descendants were rebellious Ham.

Some early Mormon missions to China and India indicated Asians were un-convertible.  LDS leaders created a genealogical connection tying protestants and their conversion of Chinese immigrants.   Through skin color variations, Mormons associated gentiles as corrupted Christians and Chinese immigrants were polluted heathens.  In the microcosm of Salt Lake City, the Chinese became a pawn.   LDS leaders said the unconvertable must be removed.  Plum Alley was eventually torn down.

Spanish Temple Pilgrimage to Mesa Temple

The next speaker was Jared Tame.z  He spoke about Mexican pilgrimages to the Mesa Temple.  President Heber J Grant dedicated the Mesa Temple in 1927 and laid a vision of temple gathering of Lamanites.  It was the first temple to hold the endowment session in Spanish.  As background, Jared said that in 1944, the First Presidency approved translation of temple ceremonies into Spanish.  Workers in the Salt Lake temple completed translation and trained temple workers in Nov 1945.  In a 1945 issue of The Church News, Henry Smith wrote that history was made, and future historians would tell us of the proper importance.

Two hundred “Lamanites” assembles in Salt Lake City, gathering from coast to coast.  Many were entering the temple for first time and said the experience itself seems like dream. In the temple David O McKay, counselor to Pres Grant, welcomed patrons and gave them word picture of endowment.  Church leaders noted new animation in branches where temple goers returned.  There were no temples established in Latin America in 1980s, so the Mesa Temple became a special excursion for Spanish-speaking church members.  Jared’s own parents  were married in 1980 there.  The establishment of new temples in Latin America in the 1980s brought the era of excursions to end, though Mesa is traditional pilgrimage.

I really enjoyed Jared’s final comments, that weren’t really part of the paper.  He said the Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio temples are the newest temples for Spanish-speaking members.  Mesa is still known as the Lamanite temple, but increased border security has curtailed temple excursions.  Undocumented workers can’t attend in Mexico and can’t attend in US.  Border violence has curtailed temple attendance; it has dropped 80% due to drug violence.

He finds that Spanish-speaking members are increasingly rejecting the Lamanite identity, and Jared grew up in home where he was taught he was a Lamanite.  As a historian he finds the identity is not usable, empowering, enlightening, and it is tremendously tied to narratives of American imperialism and racism.  For those who find being called a Lamanite empowering and useful, that’s wonderful–many do, but  we should not impose on that identity on anybody.  Don’t presume to call anybody a Lamanite, because it is laden with negativity.  This needs to be said more often.  This is part of broader struggle, and we need expanding awareness of problems of racial past in this country.

Darius Gray on the Railroad bring Blacks to Utah

Darius spoke about the transcontinental railroad coming to Utah.  The railroad provided opportunities for conversation between whites and blacks.  Many porters and waiters were employed on the trains and friendships with white passengers developed.  Each individual materially influenced the consciousness of leaders.  Ruffin Bridgeforth was a black man who chose to embrace beliefs of LDS Church being baptized in 1953.  Membership afforded him to spend time to spend with church leaders, and was well-respected by them.  Gray asked how many times the entire First Presidency, President of the Quorum of the Twelve and two Seventies have attended a lay member’s funeral?  They all attended Ruffin’s funeral and had love and respect for him.

Margaret Young on Abner Howell

Abner Howell was the grandson of Green Flake.  (Flake was the driver of Brigham Young’s wagon when he declared “This is the Place!”)  Howell was a great athlete who played football, and he became a train porter.  President Grant spoke very favorably about Abner.  Howell wanted to study law and attended the University of Michigan, where he played football.  However, there are no team photos of Abner on the team.  Michigan Coach Yost was an avowed racist and Abner was the only black player for Michigan.  He was on the team in 1903-4 that was part of a 4 year run in which Michigan won the NCAA football title four years in a row.  Yost let him on the team because of his atheleticism where Abner played fullback.  However, he was excluded from team photos.  No other black men played for Coach Yost.  Howell was baptized in 1921, and was known as an “honorary high priest” in the church.  He had tremendous respect among church leaders.

Ron Coleman’s response

U of U professor Ronald Coleman responded to all 4 papers.  He noted that even without religious overtones, the secular gold rush era continued for 50-60 years, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in California.  This reflected what exists in other parts of country.  In 1850-1, the California legislature made a law that anyone with 1/8 or more black blood could not testify against whites.  When blacks protested that the Chinese were not included, California thanked the African Americans and subsequently added Chinese as well.  This did not change until the Civil War in 1863.

Michelle made notes of Deseret News concerns about LDS and Chinese.  The footnotes did include the Salt Lake Tribune as well, which would provide a more clear a reflection of secular racial attitudes rather than religious bias.  The 1852 Utah legislature prohibited whites and blacks sexual relations, and was among many anti-miscenation laws in the US.  If married in state that permitted interracial marriage, then the couple can live here as mixed race couple.  These laws didn’t change until 1966-7.

Margaret and Darius are making Coleman re-think his own work in black studies.  In the 1930s, transportation became more affordable to the public via the railroad which accommodated passengers to include dining cars for all travelers.  Union Pacific and Southern Pacific hired many African Americans to work in the dining cars.  Coleman had not given much consideration for African American on LDS leaders and these connections that were formed.  Blacks forged relationships with prominent leaders, and this laid the basis for community contact and to look at civil rights differently.

Jared’s paper on post World War 2-era Hispanic and Latino relationships look in more expansive way.  In the post ww2 era, LDS leaders deal with issues of race and diversity in the same way as much of the US.  In course of time there is a gradual increase of tension within the LDS Church.  There is a growing awareness of the status quo, which needs to change over time.

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye on Studying Mormonism

Meslissa had a really interesting presentation on international Mormonism.  A native of Hong Kong, she wondered where the charistmatic center of Mormonism is?  It doesn’t appear to be North America.  She noted that “hard core miracles” such as visions, speaking in tongues, etc seem to occur elsewhere in the world.  Supernatural miracles are a part of Mormon history.  We need to study international Mormonism in different ways.  In the past, Mormon history has been a study of filling in blanks.  In this year, Mormons first went to country x, had x number of converts, dealt with language problem y, and difficulty z.  Now in the 21st century we have this temple.

Oak Tree

Oak Tree

She challenged us to confront Mormonism in terms other than the central administrative structure.  The Chinese have a saying that goes, “heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.”  While the headquarters is indisputable Salt Lake City, there are other centers.  We need to define these not by administrative structure, but by culture and practice.  Instead of religious history, look at their conversion to Mormonism for non North-American Mormonism.  To extend that, where are the 21st century mean hard core miracles:  healings, visions, exorcism?  How many of these are occurring in a non-North American setting?  Perhaps we consider reviving the genre of branch history, accounts of families, seasonal activity?


Banyon Tree

The oak tree common metaphor in America and Europe.  Everything comes together in one place where roots are.  This is like the geographical structure o f Mormons.  We starts here and stop in the limits of what roots support.  The Banyan tree is common in Asia.  This tree is planted in soil around trunk, but soon branches and trunk grow new roots, and are indistinguishable from the original trunk.  All form a single living Mormonism.  The Banyan tree is not like the oak. You can dive in anywhere.  Hong Kong Mormons are no more or less exotic than Davis County Mormons.  Scholars must be willing to do hard work, and use multiple methods and approaches all over world.

I was only able to attend Friday.  Does anyone have updates for Saturday or the Sunday devotional?  Do you have any thoughts regarding these presentations?

3 comments on “MHA 2013: Ethnicity, Martin Harris, and Banyan Trees

  1. Great post. I like the ‘Banyan tree analogue; I’ll have to give that more thought.

    Question: What *exactly* is the MHA all about? Is it a totally pro Mormon organization that only seeks to validate Mormonism as the “one, true, living church’? I’ve never been clear about that.

  2. No, MHA is not at all affiliated with the church. Past presidents have included non-LDS and RLDS historians. They do seek to be objective about church history. There were some fireworks a few years ago when Todd Compton (lapsed Mormon), Larry Foster (non-LDS), and Brian Hales (active) spoke frankly about polygamy. See my post from 2011: https://mormonheretic.org/2011/05/29/the-finale-of-mha-2011/

    I’ve attended FAIR, and it seems rather stuffy. Sunstone is kind of a wild-west atmosphere. MHA is a very scholarly atmosphere. I ate breakfast one year with a Jewish scholar from Auburn University. He was there to discuss the Spaulding Theory at MHA.

  3. Thanks for the info. Sounds like very interesting people attend these conferences. I suppose there is a difference between ‘stuffy’ and ‘academic.’ I’ve corresponded with FAIR in the past, but you have to walk on egg shells with those people (at least, that’s how I felt). And objective? Hardly.

    I get that the MHA is more about ‘we can agree nicely to disagree’ and that everything is left open for more thought and discovery — like science. In other words, you gather and present facts and then establish a conclusion (that’s always subject to peer review, criticism, and revision), instead of establishing a dogmatic conclusion and only accepting those facts that substantiates that one conclusion.

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