Black Methodists, White Mormons: Race and Antipolygamy

Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor)

The latest issue of Religion and American Culture arrived in my mailbox last week, and I was immediately intrigued by the first featured article: "'Until This Curse of Polygamy Is Wiped Out': Black Methodists, White Mormons, and Constructions of Racial Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century," written by James B. Bennett, associate professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.

The article examines the antipolygamy writings that appeared in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, the official organ of the Methodist Episcopal Church in late nineteenth century New Orleans. As Bennett explains, "Black critiques of Latter-day Saints are significant because they gave voice to anxieties confronting all African Americans, even as they expressed a particular denominational perspective" (170). In contrast to their fellow black Methodists in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Americans in the MEC favored a racially-integrated religious body, believing it to be crucial to the ultimate goal of social and political equality. Critiquing the Mormons' practice of polygamy served multiple functions in their efforts to achieve this end: it was part of an effort to curb the widespread Mormon settlement in the West, which limited to spaces available for black Americans unhappy in the South to migrate; it served as evidence that deviant sexuality was not instinctively tied to race (and played into fears that white polygamy was as threatening to black females as the adulterous relationships of white plantation owners and their black slaves in the antebellum era); and it provided the black Methodists with a convenient other whose lack of patriotism and religious heterodoxy contrasted with the black Methodists' own orthodoxy and support for the nation. Additionally, Mormonism's own policies of racial segregation were an impediment to the goal of an integrated Christian community, threatening to black Episcopal Methodists in the same way that the racial exclusivism of the AME and AMEZ Churches was.

Bennett's nuanced article is insightful and well worth the read to anyone interested. It touches on the subject of the racialization of Mormons (which Paul Reeve's in-progress book manuscript will discuss at length), and provides an interesting and needed complement to the several studies of anti-Mormonism largely limited to the writings of white Anglo-Americans. It also highlights the ways in which the author or editor's own religious, racial, and regional identity affected the reasons for critiquing the Mormons. Bennett perceptively notes, for example, that anti-Catholicism served many of the same purposes as anti-Mormonism did for black Protestants in the nineteenth century, but that articulating anti-Catholic views in New Orleans, where most of the city's religious and political elite were white Catholics, was dangerous business.

Bennett concludes by rehearsing the sad irony of what transpired following the events of the 1890s, as Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice of plural marriage (officially anyway) and began their long march toward the mainstream of American society. Southwestern Christian Advocate editor A.E.P. Albert celebrated Wilford Woodruff's 1890 announcement, declaring that "the twin sister of slavery is now gone forever!" (186). But such celebratory declarations would soon turn to increased frustration. Mormonism's march toward the mainstream in the first half of the 20th century cruelly coincided with the imposition and enforcement of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. The Methodist Episcopal Church, which these black Methodists had once seen as the engine driving the move toward racial equality, pushed them further to the fringes of the denomination. In 1939, the unification of the MEC, MEC, South, and Methodist Protestant Church, resulted in the official segregation of church jurisdictions--a policy that wouldn't be reversed until "less than a decade before the 1978 Mormon decision to extend full privileges to people of African descent" (186).


Edward J. Blum said…
Everytime Jim publishes something, I know I need to read it! Loved his book on New Orleans and race, and now this looks like more terrific material.