This is short, and it has the ugliest cover of any book published in 2014, but this is probably the best book of this nature I've ever read. FormattedThis is short, and it has the ugliest cover of any book published in 2014, but this is probably the best book of this nature I've ever read. Formatted as a series of letters from the author to a "young Mormon," it's author Adam S. Miller's thoughts on twelve topics. It reminds me of my best conversations about religion with friends and family members and colleagues. Some of the topics are more conventionally religious, like Faith, Prayer, and Scripture; others are more secular, but where religion and religious thought are often seen as intrusions or barriers -- Science, History, Sex. It's the kind of book I wish the LDS Church brochure "For the Strength of the Youth" was more like.
This was published by BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute, and although all things BYU make me shudder and arch a skeptical eyebrow, this book is all win. It manages to balance rational thought, observation, faith and our rich-but-complicated history as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I picked up this copy at my library, but I'll be purchasing it. Great read for Mormons of any age, or people who live with them and are trying to understand them. ...more
Short review: This is a well-researched, fascinating look at an American-born religious group that has an intriguing history. If you’re interested inShort review: This is a well-researched, fascinating look at an American-born religious group that has an intriguing history. If you’re interested in race, religion, history, or the overlap of all three, this is a must-read.
I need to start this with a disclaimer that I’m a Mormon. Not only a Mormon, but a “Utah Mormon,” who has family members in the LDS/Mormon Church going back to 1830, the year that religion was founded. So that may bias my reading of this book. I’m also a history teacher, and I think that the history of the Mormons as a religion, as a culture, and as builders of a secular “kingdom” in the Western United States in the 19th Century is one of the most interesting and compelling stories in American history. Even then, I’ve never considered the story of the Mormons to be that of an entirely different race.
W. Paul Reeve, Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah, makes the claim that Mormons were indeed seen as a different race by 19th Century Americans, and that this idea shaped interactions between Mormons and “Gentiles” (church members’ term for outsiders) for the better part of a century. This racialization contributed to the Mormons being forced from homes in Missouri and Illinois, and was part of the impetus for their settling of the Great Basin—pretty much as far away as they could get from other (protestant, white) Americans.
This racializing of the Mormons is particularly odd considering the current notion that all Mormons are as white (or fake-tan) as Mitt Romney, or as bland and white bread as my own family ancestry, mostly English, Danish and Scottish. I’m super damn white. But by 19th Century standards, I’d be considered a separate race…which at the time would also mean that I had limited rights. Reeve points to an arc in Mormondom that starts with Mormons being considered as white (as “normal”) as other Americans, but then becoming more and more conflated with various races and traditions, and being forced to prove their whiteness. This racialization goes beyond skin color and into outright deformity, including claims that Mormons had tails and horns. Seriously. Horns. As Mormons were forced to prove their equality with other Americans, they seemed to overshoot the mark, denying rights to African Americans, moving away from perceived alliances with Native Americans, and other races. By the 1950s, they were finally considered as white as other Americans…but by that point, the tides were turning. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and within a few decades, the Mormons’ denial of priesthood rites to blacks was seen as racist as their own treatment had been a century before.
Reeve has written a masterpiece that lays out the thinking of nineteenth century Americans, using a political cartoon showing a “Mormon Elder-Berry” holding hands with his offspring from multiple wives, each a different race. He uses this as the framework for the book, with chapters on African Americans, Native Americans, Oriental, and other races. He points out that other newcomers to the United States, like Irish and Italians, were also considered “other,” but were generally adopted into the body as Americans within a generation. Mormons were still a separate race.
Using letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, and remarkable political cartoons, Reeve gives us the historical evidence. It ends up being a fascinating look at how Americans constructed the very concept of “race.” How did they decide who was in, how did they decide who was out? How long would it take a group of people to be considered an American?
Most poignant, and most troubling, are the chapters about the evolution of the Mormon policy, and eventual beliefs, regarding African Americans. In the earliest years of the church, there were black members in congregations, they held the priesthood, they had access to “saving” ordinances. Over the course of a few decades, all of that changed. Reeve gives us the evidence explaining when and how and why it happened, and the fallout that lasted for a century. When you have a hundred years of a policy that discriminates against a race, is it any wonder that the modern LDS Church is still trying to get over that hurdle of racism? The priesthood ban based on race was lifted in 1978, but still, nearly forty years later, it’s an issue. This book explains why, and in a concluding chapter “From Not White to Too White: The Continuing Contest over the Mormon Body,” Reeve gets into 21st Century issues that are still bubbling to the surface.
Some scholarly books are just written for other historians to read. This is one that is still academic, but is able to be read and (I think) enjoyed by those who are interested in the topic. Reeve has a conversational style, with enough irony and humor to take some of the sting out of what is at times a very controversial book. Especially for those of us who are Mormon, and who are confronted with the racism of our ancestors or our religious peers. Besides enjoying the information found in the book, I enjoyed reading the book.
This was a readable, well-researched, fascinating look at an American-born religious group that has an intriguing history. If you’re interested in race, religion, history, or the overlap of all three, this is a must-read. ...more