The Long Night of Whiteness

For my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, click here

Official Declaration #2 is often cast–in its most generous light–as the Church’s efforts to usher in a new era of racial pluralism and globalization.  President Kimball had long dreamed of “when all the world will be converted,” and this was merely the next step.  It speaks to what I call the dispensational interpretation of Official Declaration #2.  Because Peter received a vision to “take the gospel to the Gentiles,” we assume that Official Declaration #2 was merely another incarnation of that. The interpretation has become almost axiomatic.  Continue reading

Faith Crises: A Believer’s Guide

So you don’t  really care about Mormon history.  “People are people and the gospel is the gospel,” you say.  What’s the point? You have a lot of things on your plate. And whether Joseph Smith used a rock, some plates, or a pink kangaroo to translate the Book of Mormon, you read them, you love them, and you live by them.  What’s the point? Continue reading

Correlation: A Good Thing?

Mattson-gate continues on.   Some are already over it.  And that’s fine.  But some aren’t.   And they deserve a hearing too. The latest response to Mattson’s New York Times editorial is a complaint about the Correlation Committee.  Why do they exist?  Isn’t it just a bunch of boring guys in suits keeping us from exploring the truth of our history on our own terms? Continue reading

Learning to Adapt: Mormons and Patriotic Environmentalism

Can you believe they would allow students to substitute biology with environmental science?
–Mother associated with The School That Shall Not Be Named, brimming with moral outrage

Beginning in the early 1870s, the Utah Territory found itself teeming with industrial mining giants from the East. Brigham Young had been an avowed isolationist: banning all mining activities and pushing for a protective tariff following the Civil War (Brigham Young to Thomas L. Kane, October 26, 1869). The Saints sought to contain the industrialists’ power play but with little luck.  As the railroad executives told Joseph Young, the government would send “the whole military power of the government against them” (Joseph Young to Brigham Young, 1869).

Brigham Young had long directed the Saints to be careful about their use of natural resources.  He had never opposed industrial activity per se, just mining activities.  Mines, he believed, tended to attract the wandering sort and cultivated a feeling of materialism among the Saints.   When explorer John Wesley Powell visited the territory, he was impressed by the Saints’ measured use of water resources (see Worster, A River Running West, 351). Having lost control of the territory, Mormons also began to lose their identity as Zion-dwellers tucked away in their mountain home.  It was not Zion anymore; it was a hotbed for capitalism, materialism, and rank exploitation of the railroad workers;  some Saints were even beginning to wonder if Brigham Young was using the new order to make himself rich.

As children neither of Zion nor of America, the Saints struggled to find their new identity.  They had been stripped of a marital system and out-purchased of their lands.  Talk about conserving the natural environment resonated with the Saints’ desires to resist the encroachment of federal power.  In this regard, environmental rhetoric represented a a method of demonstrating their patriotism rather than a hearkening back to the collective conservationism of earlier generations.  An influential group of Saints began to draw upon earlier Mormon doctrine of their stewardship over the earth, not merely over the Intermountain West.   In 1903, President Joseph F. Smith encouraged the Saints to convert their farmland into forests as a “public duty which every Latter-day Saint owes to the Church and to his country.”  Failing to do so begets  a “selfishness harmful to religion and discreditable to patriotism.” Church leadership used environmentalism as a tactic for winning national and international favor. In 1908, Senator and Apostle Reed Smoot served as a member of a Congressional delegation to study forestry preservation policies in Europe.; Smoot would eventually help to establish Zion’s National Park. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles felt it would “allay prejudice abroad and help Bro. Smoot at home” and would show that he “has the confidence of the administration.”Some Mormons politicians, such as William King, resisted the impulse, arguing that national forests should be open to concessions for the “best and most responsible bidder.

The agricultural college of Utah and the University of Utah played active roles in promoting environmental awareness.  Academics were beginning to study not merely soil systems and crop productivity but ecology–the inter-relatedness of environmental systems. In 1923, University of Utah professor, Dr. Harold R. Hagan, began the first ecological study of the state–a project widely-publicized in the state press (see here and here).  The study of ecology had no stigma in Mormon society; its purpose to analyze the “practical problems arising as a result of man’s becoming civilized and interfering with the animal and plant life around him.” Though the efforts were confined to the state of Utah, the forestry initiative and the ecological study represented the first efforts by Mormons to approach the environment on its own terms rather see it primarily as a source of natural resources.  Ecumenical community groups–including a significant Mormon population–collaborated to repair damage brought on by industrial agents.

The environmental moment would not last long in Mormon society.   Feeling compelled to play by the rules big business capitalism had set, the Church built industry of their own, most notably the Utah-Idaho sugar company (for a contemporary critique of the Saints’ business practices, see here.  For a sympathetic, secondary assessment, see here).  Though the factory came under antitrust prosecution by the Department of Justice, the prosecution trimmed rather

than transformed the big business foundations of American society. The Great Depression coupled with World War II finished off whatever remained of the Mormon collective stewardship that defined nineteenth-century ideas of the environment.  With the need for jobs and warmaking capacity now defining Mormons’ needs and identity, the Saints’ Zion had become economically like the rest of America, forcing the Mormons to identify themselves in new ways.

Environmentalism has taken on three successive faces in Mormon history: 1) as a product of Mormon collective identity focused preserving their “way of life” in the face of overwhelming government power and industrial capitalism; 2) as an  indicator of American patriotism, and 3) as a means of demonstrating goodwill to international powers. This is problematic, as it demonstrates a failure to be rooted in theology rather in cultural or political expediency.  The result is that the Mormon people struggle to determine who they are: environmentalists or capitalists?  In Mormonism’s efforts to prove its fidelity to the American populace, its people have wavered in their commitment to the environmental movement.  Willing to embrace whatever political philosophy proved opportune, the Saints have departed from the foundations of their theology in order to adapt to what they believe America expects them to be.

Monkeys and Gods: Male Objectification in Mormon History

Click here to purchase Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables


50 Shades of Gray
has no want of customers in Utah.  The insanely popular Twilight series, written by a Mormon housewife, is perhaps one of the raciest novels of our time in which the romantic leads keep it all on until wedding night.  Thirty-something Mormon moms apparently have a Thing going.

Continue reading

Pants: Creating a Mormon Icon

*An introductory essay.  For my latest book, click here for Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables [a.k.a Elijah Abel]

Mormons love their Sunday best.  Go to church with them sometime.  Suits, ties, skirts, and heels–it’s religiosity visualized.

Whence comes Mormonism’s love of snappy decorum? They have an impulse for celebrating mud trails, oxen, bonnets, and dirty hands even as they resemble a horde of Wall Street investment bankers—alongside their attractively dressed administrative assistants.

During my childhood, I imagined early Mormon society to look something like this:

We should probably imagine this: Continue reading

Destroyer on the Waters: The Missouri River Revelation

*As usual, an exploratory essay.  If you like what you read, you can purchase my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, here

In 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation identifying water as the devil’s domain.  The revelation has been used as a rationale to explain the policy prohibiting missionaries from swimming.  It’s a rationale that has seeped into Mormon memory.  Yet for claiming to believe the doctrine, modern Mormons don’t actually live it.  The role of water in Mormon history reveals a compelling story of settlers’ struggles to situate themselves against the wilds of a natural environment ill-disposed towards settlement.  Historian Donald Worster has argued that understanding the environment’s role in defining historical events is crucial to accurate interpretation.  The environment represents the “ground level” of the story.  If left out, the story becomes distorted (Worster, “History as Natural History,” in The Wealth of History, 36.) Continue reading