In 1846 during the Mormon Exodus from Illinois, as the Saints were strung out in various camps across Iowa and farther west, Mormon Warren Foote went in search of a mill to grind some of his grain: â€œIt is quite a curiosity for the inhabitants here to see a â€œMormon,â€ he wrote. â€œThe women and children all came running to the doors to look at us as we passed by. The most of their talk is about the â€˜Mormonsâ€™ coming down and killing them all off.â€
I spent my summer toiling away, day after day, at the Huntington Library in San Marino California on a research fellowship combing the archives looking for sources such as this (okay, we played a lot too and the Huntington is amazing). Iâ€™m currently on another fellowship at the Tanner Humanities Center at the U. working on the same research project. In February I will present some of my preliminary findings in a works in progress talk at the THC. For my first post, I thought Iâ€™d use the intellectually challenging space of the bloggernacle to vet some of my ideas and let you poke holes in my thinking before I go live at the Tanner Center. Here are some snippets of what Iâ€™ve found and some of the arguments that Iâ€™m trying to make there from. Have at it.
The day following the above entry, Foote wrote: â€œ[W]e were advised to go to Watsonâ€™s Mill which was only eight miles, as they did the most business there, so we took the road to Watsonâ€™s. When we arrived within two miles of the mill, we saw a man plowing corn. As we came near he got up on the fence to look at us. There were two boys also with him in the field. We stopped to enquire the road to the mill as the road forked here. He asked if we were â€˜Mormons,â€™ we told him we were. He halloed [sic] to the boys to come and see some â€˜Mormons.â€™ They all came up to the wagon, although the boys were very shy. After looking at us he said to the boys â€˜They havenâ€™t got any horns have theyâ€™ â€˜and they look like other folks donâ€™t they.â€™ This he said laughing as he told us that the boys had thought that the â€˜Mormonsâ€™ were terrible looking creatures.â€
In an 1855 novel Hubert joins the Mormons to satisfy his lustful desires, but his wife resists. As he begins his acculturation he acquires the requisite knickknacks as a marker of his Mormonness. His wife, however, resists again: â€œHubert insisted on having placed among my treasures a bust of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. I did not wish this, for to me that countenance is repellant, as it is coarse, cunning, and full of low passions, sensuality, and every mean and cowardly vice.â€
An 1857 novel takes on a more evident racial tone as it conflates Mormons and Indians in its description of rural Mormons: â€œThey are coarse and rude in manner, impudent, staring and curious, miserably dressed in a costume half-way between that of the Indian and white man. You are surprised at the unmistakable marks of Indian descent that many of the younger ones exhibit. The straight, well-proportioned figure, long coarse hair, high cheek bones, and wary expression of eye and countenance betray to the most casual observer the mixture of the races.â€
The most explicit physical description is that of Dr. Roberts Bartholow, an army doctor stationed at Camp Floyd during the Utah War. He filed a report with the US Senate printed in 1860 in which he wrote: â€œThe Mormon, of all the human animals now walking this globe, is the most curious in every relation.â€ Mormon physical features included a â€œstriking uniformity in facial expression,â€ â€œalbuminous and gelatinous types of constitution,â€ â€œgenital weakness,â€ â€œyellow, sunken, cadaverous visage,â€ â€œgreenish-colored eyes,â€ â€œthick, protuberant lips,â€ a â€œlow foreheadâ€ and â€œlight, yellowish hair.â€ As Bartholow saw it, polygamy and its attendant â€œmoral depravityâ€ had created this â€œphysical degeneracy.â€ It had spawned an entirely â€œnew race.â€
The list could continue, but I hope that you get the point. The underlying assumption was that Mormons somehow looked different, a curious notion given the firm roots of its adherents in American soil. Even 19th century foreign converts came overwhelmingly from northern and western Europe, the same sources of the broader Euro-American population until the â€œnew immigrationâ€ of the late 19th and early 20th century.
What are the implications of this? It seems to me that outsiders racialized Mormons in the same way that they did the Irish, Italians, and Jews. These groups, historians argue, were not deemed white on arrival, but went through a protracted process whereby they were racialized and then slowly assimilated to the point that they could pass as white. The Mormons, as I see it, fit well within the emerging literature of white studies. That is, I hope to rethink the long standing Americanization-of-Mormonism-discourse into a racialization discourse and place Mormons along side other undesirable groups who fell outside prevailing standards of what it meant to be an American in the 19th century. Doing so, I hope, will give us a fresh perspective on the Mormonsâ€™ suspect spot on the American stage. More significant, I think, is that it was not (initially at least) an immigrant issue with the Mormons, as it was with the Irish, Italians, and Jews. Instead, racializing Mormons turned Americaâ€™s quintessential inside religious group into outsiders. The combined message was clear, Mormons were a people apart, physically not just religiously, from the rest of America and as such were unfit for the blessings of democracy.
For their part, the Mormons were by no means willing to leave the definition of their identity to outsiders. The Mormon body, thus, became a battleground upon which the LDS hierarchy and the federal government grappled to inscribe very different values, laws, and morality. Mormon leader George Q. Cannon asserted that â€œhere in these [Utah] valleys, we shall raise a race of men who will be the joy of the earth, whose complexions will be the complexions of angels.â€ Thus, the Mormon body became a contested signifier of either racial ascendancy or racial deterioration, depending upon who inscribed it with meaning.