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“Until This Curse of Polygamy Is Wiped Out”: Black Methodists, White Mormons, and Constructions of Racial Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century

  • James B. Bennett


During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, black members of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church published a steady stream of anti-Mormonism in their weekly newspaper, the widely read and distributed Southwestern Christian Advocate. This anti-Mormonism functioned as way for black ME Church members to articulate their denomination's distinctive racial ideology. Black ME Church members believed that their racially mixed denomination, imperfect though it was, offered the best model for advancing black citizens toward equality in both the Christian church and the American nation. Mormons, as a religious group who separated themselves in both identity and practice and as a community experiencing persecution, were a useful negative example of the dangers of abandoning the ME quest for inclusion. Black ME Church members emphasized their Christian faithfulness and American patriotism, in contrast to Mormon religious heterodoxy and political insubordination, as arguments for acceptance as equals in both religious and political institutions. At the same time, anti-Mormon rhetoric also proved a useful tool for reflecting on the challenges of African American life, regardless of denominational affiliation. For example, anti-polygamy opened space to comment on the precarious position of black women and families in the post-bellum South. In addition, cataloguing Mormon intellectual, moral, and social deficiencies became a form of instruction in the larger project of black uplift, by which African Americans sought to enter the ranks and privileges of the American middle class. In the end, however, black ME Church members found themselves increasingly segregated within their denomination and in society at large, even as Mormons, once considered both racially and religiously inferior, were welcomed into the nation as citizens and equals.



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For help in thinking through the issues in the article, I am especially grateful to my colleagues and mentors in the Young Scholars in American Religion Program, the American Studies working papers group at Santa Clara University, and the following individuals: Michael Alexander, Michael McCarthy, S.J., Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Quincy Newell.

1. Southwestern Christian Advocate, March 24, 1881, and June 15, 1882. Despite some Mormon activity in antebellum New Orleans, which some Mormon immigrants used as a port of entry before heading west, Louisiana had even less Mormon activity than elsewhere in the South in the late nineteenth century. See Patrick Q. Mason, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Mob: Violence against Religious Outsiders in the U.S. South, 1865–1910” (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2005), 136; and Buice, David, “When the Saints Came Marching In: The Mormon Experience in Antebellum New Orleans, 1840–1855,” Louisiana History 23 (Summer 1987): 221–37.

2. On the complexities of black Methodism and its presence in Louisiana, see Bennett, James B., Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Hildebrand, Reginald F., The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995); Morrow, Ralph E., Northern Methodism and Reconstruction (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956); and Vernon, Walter N., Becoming One People: A History of Louisiana Methodism (History Task Group, Commission on Archives and History, Louisiana Conference, The United Methodist Church, 1987).

3. Bennett, , Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow, 1416 ; Cone, James, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (New York: Orbis, 1991), 317 ; Glaude, Eddie S. Jr., Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1015 ; and Hildebrand, , The Times Were Strange and Stirring, 82118 .

4. Bennett, , Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow, 4951 ; Garland Penn, I., The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1969), 223–27; and Shockley, Grant S., ed., Heritage and Hope: The African American Presence in United Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 8586 .

5. Bringhurst, Newell G., Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981); Bringhurst, Newell G. and Smith, Darron T., eds., Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Bush, Lester E. Jr., and Mauss, Armand L., Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984); and Mauss, Armand L., All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 212–66.

6. “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, October 30, 1890; “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 21, 1884; “Christianity and Women,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, July 2, 1891; and Gordon, Sarah Barringer, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 13, 55–58. Accounts exemplifying slave women's experiences include Blassingame, John W., ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 156, 382, 400, 540, 649; Burr, Virginia Ingraham, ed., The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848–1889 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 5565 ; and Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 4457, 79–89, 122–30.

7. Southwestern Christian Advocate, August 4, 1892; “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 21, 1884; Gordon, , Mormon Question, 142 ; Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” Signs 14 (Summer 1989): 912–13, 915–18; Litwack, Leon F., Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 3637, 38, 259, 342–43, 348; and McMillen, Neil R., Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 1718 , 205. On the nonconsensual argument against polygamy, see Sarah Barringer Gordon, “‘The Liberty of Self-Degradation’: Polygamy, Woman Suffrage, and Consent in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 83 (December 1996): 832–34.

8. “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, March 20, 1884; Southwestern Christian Advocate, August 31, 1882; “That Dangerous Miscegenation,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, June 21, 1894; and AME Christian Recorder, June 9, 1881.

9. H. W. White, “Sermon Delivered at Clark Chapel, Nashville, Tenn.,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 17, 1889; A. B. C., “Barbarism, Semi-Barbarism and Civilization,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 22, 1879; E. M. P., “The Only Solution,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 7, 1891; and Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 196, 222, 240, 256.

10. James D. Kennedy, “A Few Thoughts on ‘The Freedmen's Case in Equity,’” Southwestern Christian Advocate, March 19, 1885; Gordon, “’The Liberty of Self-Degradation,’” 822, 832; Iverson, Joan Smyth, The Antipolygamy Controversy in U.S. Women's Movements, 1880–1925: A Debate on the American Home (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 134 ; and Jones, Jacqueline, Labor of Love: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books 1985), 47, 50–51, 53, 58–68, 79–80, 96.

11. Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 10, 1888; “A Stirring Appeal,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, August 30, 1888; “The Mormon Problem,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, November 1, 1883; and Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives,” 913–15.

12. Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 5; and Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives,” 920.

13. Davis, David Brion, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (September 1960): 213 ; Givens, Terryl L., The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6, 123, 129–35; “Mission in Our Own Land,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 13, 1881; and Wills, Anne Blue, “Mapping Presbyterian Mission Identity in The Church at Home and Abroad, 1890–1898,” in The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History, ed. Bays, Daniel H. and Wacker, Grant (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 95105 .

14. Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1879); Burgett, Bruce, “On the Mormon Question: Race, Sex, and Polygamy in the 1850s and the 1990s,” American Quarterly 57 (March 2005): 8386, 90; Flake, Kathleen, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 28 ; and Bunker, Gary L. and DavisBitten, , The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834–1914: Cartoons, Caricatures, and Illustrations (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983), 8689 .

15. Mason, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Mob,” 128, 280–83; and Hatch, William Whitridge, There Is No Law: A History of Mormon Civil Relations in the Southern States, 1865–1905 (New York: Vantage Press, 1968).

16. Turner's emigrationist stance may have predisposed him to sympathize with the Mormons, who had successfully carried out an emigration similar to what Turner hoped to accomplish with his Back to Africa movement. H. M. Turner, “Highway Gleanings to California,” AME Christian Recorder, October 25, 1883, and November 1, 1883; Angell, Stephen Ward, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 158–59; Patrick Q. Mason, “’Monstrous Miscegenation’: The Prohibition of Interracial Marriage in Utah, 1888–1963,” (unpublished paper in author's possession), 4–7; and Bringhurst, , Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, 98 .

17. Booker T. Washington, Letter to the Editor of the New York Age, March 28, 1913; and Washington to Mable Delano Clapp Lord, May 17, 1913, in The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Louis R. Harland and Raymond W. Smock (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 12:149–53.

18. The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33; Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, 9, 16–26, 54–63, 222–28; Bringhurst, and Smith, , Black and Mormon, 30 , 51–54; Bush, and Mauss, , Neither White nor Black, 34, 54, 55–57, 60–61, 65, 130–48; Murphy, Thomas W., “From Racist Stereotype to Ethnic Identity: Instrumental Uses of Mormon Racial Doctrine,” Ethnohistory 46 (Summer 1999): 456, 459; and Quincy D. Newell, “Limited Transcendence: Race and Religious Experience in the Life of Jane Elizabeth Manning James” (paper delivered at “Through the Lens of Race and Ethnicity: Re-imagining Religion in the American West,” Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz., March 2–4, 2006).

19. Bringhurst, , Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, xviiixix , 4, 10, 35–46, 84–99, 124–64; Mauss, , All Abraham's Children 4, 9–11, 17, 21–31, 212–17, 238; and Bush, and Mauss, ; Neither White nor Black, 193220 .

20. A. K. Davis, “The Birmingham Matter,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 11, 1883. See also Bennett, , Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow, 4257 ; Stowell, Jay S., Methodist Adventures in Negro Education (New York and Cincinnati: Methodist Book Concern, 1922), 110–20; and Vernon, Becoming One People. On the centrality of the Annual Conference in Methodist polity, see Richey, Russell, The Methodist Conference in America: A History (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

21. Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 10, 1877; Southwestern Christian Advocate, July 29, 1880; Gordon, , Mormon Question, 39 ; and Johnson, Sylvester A., The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 7374, 89, 92.

22. “Political Review,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, July 7, 1887; see also Lee, Daniel B., “A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America,” in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas, ed. Goldschmidt, Henry and McAlister, Elizabeth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 101 .

23. Southwestern Christian Advocate, July 7, 1887; “Mormonism,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 17, 1884; Gillian, James D., “Mormon Disloyalty,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, October 21, 1886 ; Albert, A. E. P., “Address of the Rev. A. E. P. Albert, B. D., at the International Exposition in New Orleans on Louisiana Day,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, June 4, 1885 ; and Wills, , “Mapping Presbyterian Mission Identity,” 9596, 102–4.

24. Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion;” Flake, , Politics of American Religious Identity, 2021 ; Givens, , Viper on the Hearth, 121 ; and Gordon, , Mormon Question, 33 .

25. R. M. Gillum, “What Does African Methodism Mean?” Southwestern Christian Advocate, October 14, 1886; L. M. Hagood, “Tanner's Apology for African Methodism,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, August 12, 1886; and Moore, F. C., “The Color Line and a Colored Bishop,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, April 1, 1880 .

26. “Mormonism,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 17, 1884; S. J. Cotton, “Letter from DeKalb,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, April 14, 1881. See also Gordon, , Mormon Question, 142 ; and Gaines, , Uplifting the Race, 56, 11–12, 57.

27. Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 30, 1878; “Why Not?” Southwestern Christian Advocate, November 12, 1885; “Home Improvement,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 6, 1896. See also Burgett, “On the Mormon Question,” 82–85; Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion,” 213; Flake, , Politics of American Religious Identity, 50, 64; and Gordon, , Mormon Question, 222 .

28. “Let the Women of the Race Have a Hearing,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 2, 1893; Ernest Lyon, “Emancipation Oration,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 30, 1890; “Mormonism and Purity,” AME Church Review 18 (January 1902), 225; L. A. D., “The Blessedness of Being a Woman,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, March 11, 1886. See also Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 31–60, 147–76; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 185229 ; and Johnson, , The Myth of Ham, 100101, 103–5.

29. “New Orleans District,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, May 14, 1885; Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 1, 1883; and “Education in the South,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 3, 1884.

30. “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, September 20, 1883.

31. “Editorial Notes,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 17, 1889. See also Givens, Viper on the Hearth, 58; Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks 153; David Buice, “A Stench in the Nostrils of Honest Men: Southern Democrats and the Edmunds Act of 1882,” Dialogue 21 (Autumn 1988): 110–13; Gordon, Mormon Question, 147–49, 151; and Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 46.

32. “Editorial Note,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, October 30, 1890.

33. Flake, , Politics of American Religious Identity, 12, 8, 46, 146–57; Gordon, , Mormon Question, 221 ; Shipps, Jan, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 6 ; Yorgason, Ethan R., The Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 5, 9, 78, 131–32, 151; Davis, Morris L., The Methodist Unification: Christianity and the Politics of Race in the Jim Crow Era (New York: New York University Press, 2008); Richey, The Methodist Conference in America, 175–84; and Vernon, Becoming One People, 284–99.

34. Important texts on whiteness that largely overlook the category of religion include Roediger, David R., The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991); Ignatiev, Noel, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Brodkin, Karen, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998); and Hale, Grace Elizabeth, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1914 (New York: Vintage, 1999). On the failures of whiteness studies to engage religion as a factor in racial constructions, see “Forum: American Religion and ‘Whiteness,’” Religion and American Culture 19 (Winter 2009): 1–35. Recent studies giving greater attention to the role of race in constructions of whiteness include Fessenden, Tracy, Redemption and Culture: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Goldstein, Eric L., The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

35. “Polygamy Doomed,” Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 16, 1879.

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“Until This Curse of Polygamy Is Wiped Out”: Black Methodists, White Mormons, and Constructions of Racial Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century

  • James B. Bennett


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