Reviewing Religion of a Different Color

I finally finished Paul Reeve’s book Religion of a Different Color.  Paul highlights the strange evolution of Mormons, once seen as not white enough, now seen as too white. From page 270,

…as late as 2012 the perception persisted in some corners that Mormons were racist and that there were few or no black Mormons.  It was a new racial problem for Mormonism, which was the opposite dilemma it faced almost two centuries previously.  In the 1830s reports of the integrated and charismatic nature of Mormon worship services in Kirtland, Ohio, made news in New York and Pennsylvania within months of Black Pete’s conversion to the new faith.  In Missouri, the perception that Mormons invited freed blacks to move to that state in order to incite a slave rebellion and violate white women only fueled interracial rumors.

I found it interesting that Reeve noted (page 269)

In the United States, the Pew survey noted that 86% of Mormons were white, an indication that US Mormonism is more racially diverse than mainline Protestant churches (91% white), Jews (95% white), and Orthodox Christians (87% white).

Yet nobody seems to make this fact known about mainline Protestants.  (I have a feeling that many of these mainline Protestants are Donald Trump supporters…..)

What I loved most about the book was the highlight of Orson Pratt.  Of course many (including myself) have long condemned the racial ban, the more I learned about Orson Pratt’s defense of black rights, the more proud I was of him.  I think Orson is one of my new Mormon heroes. 

On Feb 4, 1852, the Utah Legislature passed “An Act in Relation to Service”, a bill regulating slavery in the Utah Territory.  Brigham Young then gave the oft quoted references to the Curse of Ham as a reason to support slavery in Utah.  Bills calling for the incorporation of Cedar City and Fillmore, Utah came up, both authorizing that “all free white male inhabitants” could vote.  This was a normal provision of the day, yet Orson Pratt made an astonishing claim, just 9 years prior to the Civil War.  From page 153,

Legislator Hosea Stout recorded that Pratt opposed all acts that day that denied blacks the right to vote.  The legislative minutes show Pratt’s “no” votes on both incorporation bills.  For the Fillmore bill the minutes specify that “Councilor Pratt opposed the bill on the ground that colored people were there prohibited from voting.”41  It was an extraordinary stance for Pratt to take.  It is possible that he arrived at the legislature determined to make a point regarding the rights of black residents in Utah Territory, and Young’s speech only strengthened his resolve.  He and Young were repeatedly at odds, and perhaps Pratt’s position was one that spilled over from debate over passage of the territorial election bill.  At the very least it was a stinging rejection of Young’s speech.  Pratt’s votes were politically progressive, well ahead of Young, his fellow Saints, and the rest of the nation.42

I heard Reeve and Lajean Purcell discuss Pratt’s recently discovered speech.  Apparently Pratt’s speech was recorded in a special form of shorthand, which is no longer used.  Purcell learned how to decipher the shorthand and revealed the astonishing speech Pratt made.  I’ve been looking forward to hear more of his speech, but this summary is simply an astounding position for any pre-Civil War politician to make.

It may come as a surprise that Early Mormons also defended Muslims.  From page 221,

In 1841, when the city council of Nauvoo, Illinois, drafted a provision on religious liberty…[including] “Mohammedans,” which was a striking inclusion, especially considering that Joseph Smith was derisively labeled an “American Mohamet” very early in his religious journey.  At Nauvoo the city council signaled a welcoming attitude toward “Mohammedans” should they desire to settle among the Latter-day Saints.  It was an unlikely scenario simply because there were so few Muslims in Illinois and elsewhere in the United States.

The open attitude persisted in Utah as well.  In 1855, for example, LDS apostle George A. Smith defended Mohammed to a Mormon audience in Salt Lake City.  “There was nothing in his religion to license iniquity or corruption,” Smith said, “he preached the moral doctrines which the Savior taught,” including the worship of one God, to treat others as you want to be treated, and not to “render evil for evil.”  In fact, Smith found Mohammed to be an instrument in God’s hands, a man “raised up by God on purpose to scourge the world for their idolatry.”16

In a follow-up speech the same day, fellow apostle Parley P. Pratt was more direct.  He found Islam preferable to Catholicism, a religion he derided for its idol worship, religious iconography, and veneration of saints. For Pratt, “Mahometan doctrine” was a standard raised against such corruption.

Of course Mormon leaders weren’t always so nice.

Three years later, fellow apostle John Taylor was not so complimentary toward Islam when he linked Mohammed to the “power, prowess, and bloodshed” of his day.  Even still, the Mormon position was remarkable accepting within a national culture that tended to view Islam as a religious corruption and its founder as an imposter.17

Reeve tells of another interesting tidbit.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported Mormon apostle Reed Smoot during the contentious debate on whether Smoot was fit to serve.  “It marked a political transition for Mormons, from Democrats to Republicans and from politically suspect to politically desirable.”  Roosevelt championed Mormons exceptionally high birth rate even though it was the result of polygamy.

Reeve documents some terrible quotes from apostle Mark E. Petersen in 1959 in which Petersen derided interracial marriage

was a clear indication of “what the negro is after.”  It was not merely integrated lunch counters, streetcars, and theaters, but as Petersen viewed it, “The negro seeks absorption with the white race.  He will not be satisfied,” Peterson worried, “until he achieves it by intermarriage.”

Of course this is starkly contrasted by apostle Spencer W. Kimball, who in 1963

Signaled his open attitude:  “The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory,” Kimball acknowledged, “I know it could.  I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”

Once again, this is an astounding statement.  Kimball said that God could “forgive the possible error”!  While much has been written about the problems with the ban, I am so grateful to hear the words and positions of Orson Pratt and President Kimball, as well as the encouraging words about Islam in the face of the horrible racism in Donald Trump’s disgusting race war to the White House.

Reeve’s book is an awesome addition to the subject of Mormonism’s racial history, and the changing positions of the Church over the past two centuries is a really interesting way to approach the subject.  I highly recommend the book.  What are your thoughts regarding Pratt, Kimball, and Islam?


2 comments on “Reviewing Religion of a Different Color

  1. Yet nobody seems to make this fact known about mainline Protestants. (I have a feeling that many of these mainline Protestants are Donald Trump supporters…..)

    this is so funny. Mainline Protestants are politically quite liberal.

    Anyway, I was most intrigued by the Cedar City incorporation debates and black enfranchisement. Mormonism could have been SO very different!

  2. Maybe I don’t understand what a Mainline Protestant is then. Because I think of it as Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Republican leaning “values voters.” I think these groups are far from liberal.

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