The Mormon Menace

John Turner

Last fall, Ed Blum brought Patrick Mason's Journal of Southern History article on southern anti-polygamy campaigns to our attention. Those appetites whetted by Mason's article can now satiate themselves with his full-length treatment of anti-Mormonism in the late-nineteenth-century American South. [Note: Patrick is a former graduate school classmate of mine who helped kindle my interest in things Mormon, so I make no pretense at detachment in the below].

The Mormon Menace (released imminently by Oxford University Press) tells a largely unknown and remarkable story. Patrick's book is not a history of the Latter-day Saints in the South, but an analysis of southern anti-Mormonism. He might have subtitled the book Awash in a Sea of Baptist Haters but chose to not be so impolitic. At first glance, one might object that there were not all that many Mormons (or Mormon missionaries, for that matter) in the American South at this time. However, southerners were incredibly alarmed about the threat Mormon polygamy posed to innocent white women allegedly at great risk of being seduced by traveling elders. Patrick notes that vigilante attacks against Mormons "far exceeded the combined number of attacks against all other religious outsiders in the South, including Jews and Catholics, during this time period." Following the lead of R. Laurence Moore, Patrick suggests one can learn a great deal about the religious "center" of a society by examining the experience of the religiously marginalized.

One great strength of the Mormon Menace is its intelligent engagement with a variety of literatures. Rereading the introduction, I found insights about American vigilantism, southern politics, race, and religious difference. Patrick argues that "anti-Mormonism provided one set of bonds that helped reforge national unity after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and gave southerners common cause with northern reformers and politicians who had been their bitter enemies only a few years earlier." In short, this is first and foremost a book for historians of the American South, not a narrow offering for historians of Mormonism. I would recommend it as absolutely essential reading for anyone studying the place of religious minorities in the South or the history of American vigilantism.

A final note. Well-written and intelligently edited books are always a greater pleasure to read, even for historians. Patrick's book excels in this respect. The narrative is strong, and some of the illustrations are downright shocking (turn to pp. 138-39).

In the late 1800s, southerners were mostly unique in employing violence to ward off the "Mormon menace." Patrick's book prompted me to think about the contemporary nature of anti-Mormonism in the United States, especially in the South. LDS adherents remain a small minority in Dixie (the "real" Dixie, not southern Utah), comprising less than one percent of the population in all states of the former Confederacy save Virginia and Texas. I occasionally hear people talk about LDS growth in this region of the country but do not know whether it's true. Also, I often ask Latter-day Saints about their missionary experiences. Since Mormon missionaries are quite inured to rejection and unfriendly responses, I rarely hear complaints about anti-Mormon attitudes. The exception has been among former missionaries who served in the Deep South. Perhaps southern evangelicals retain their long-standing animus against Mormons, fortunately without the violence documented in The Mormon Menace. I also note a fair amount of theological anti-Mormonism (or simply generic anti-Mormonism, based on not very much) among my students. Since we began our annual summer pilgrimages to Zion, several well-meaning acquaintances in southern Alabama have expressed spiritual concern on our behalf, whereas our New England friends mostly worry about our access to coffee.


Edward J Blum at: February 7, 2011 at 2:00 PM said...

can't wait to read it!

Jacob at: February 7, 2011 at 2:31 PM said...

Thanks for the article John. As a Mormon who spent a summer in South Carolina, I'd be very interested in what this book has to say. I heard all sorts of interesting anecdotes from the southern Mormon community about continued negative treatment. Luckily, my wife and I found the state mostly welcoming, and if our friends had a problem with our religion, they were polite enough not to show it.

Anonymous at: February 8, 2011 at 7:45 AM said...

Looking forward to reading this book. I used Mason's article in one of my graduate seminars on American Religion from the Civil War to the 1920s and got very good discussion going. Thanks for this excellent review.

Curtis J. Evans

Anonymous at: February 8, 2011 at 12:04 PM said...

It's a great book with good arguments presented well, and the figures used are also quite nice. Congrats to Patrick.
--Samuel Brown

AMBurgess at: February 10, 2011 at 5:18 PM said...

Love the last line, John! Of course, access to coffee is not an exclusive concern to one's spiritual condition. At least that's what I've found in my belabored attempts to sacrifice the glorious bean for Lent. :-)

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