Race has always been a part of Mormonism. It is often discussed in regard to the priesthood/temple ban that was lifted in 1978. The truth is that the story of race in Mormonism is much greater and longer than that. Racial distinctions are found in Mormon scripture and have been the basis for a variety of attitudes among Mormon people throughout the existence of the church that Joseph Smith founded. Racism is the second most popular topic Mormons are known for (Polygamy wins first place). In the contemporary church, justification for past racist doctrines and practices have been officially disavowed as theories and folklore and have been enthusiastically traded for more inclusive teachings and scriptures that express a view of a more benevolent God that “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, … [for] all are alike unto God.”[1]

While this current inclusive approach is morally correct with respect to race, it is equally valuable to be fully aware of the incorrect thinking of the Mormon past. W. Paul Reeve has provided us with a phenomenal guide into the 19th century American psyche (both Mormon and non-Mormon) as well as the documents that substantiate the shifting attitudes surrounding race within the broader American culture and within Mormonism. The entire book is a trove of historical statements and actions as well as analyses of the thinking behind such statements and actions. Here in this review I will focus on the first chapter which I have found to be a new and deep contextualization of the role the concept of race played in 19th century western thought.

Racism in the Past

Often when learning or discussing racial practices of the past; be it slavery, segregation, or violent hate crimes the superficial context, we frame the disgusting views and actions of people from our past is “products of their time” or some similar iteration that help diffuse the rage and confusion that jumps into our minds when thinking of our ancestors treating fellow human beings badly solely for the color of their skin. In Religion of a Different Color, Reeve illustrates an in-depth understanding of exactly how 19th century American people thought about and used racial designations both as a way to explain away groups they found to be offensive that were already visually distinct from themselves (any group other than white Anglo-Saxons) and as an effective means of making those that appear similar (white Anglo-Saxons) to be “the other” because of differences in religious beliefs and practices.

In the 19th century before Darwin’s evolutionary theory was formulated, understood, and accepted, there was a lot of unfounded thinking and theory making connecting racial hierarchies, morality, and human flourishing. A blend of Lamarckian evolution[2] and moral behavior produced “reasoning” for the variety human races world travelers found during the preceding epochs of seafaring imperialism and exploration (and likely formed a fertile seed for the eugenics movement of the early 20th century).

Physical-Moral Connection

Before Mormons began practicing polygamy, the heretical beliefs they embraced were sufficient to cause outsiders to view them as “physically distinct” from normal white Americans. The excitement that the age of enlightenment and new scientific understanding were bringing forward had the objectionable byproducts of phrenology and physiognomy (pseudo-sciences in which the shape of the face and skull were assumed to be indicative of race AND moral character). When Joseph Smith’s skull was evaluated by a practitioner the conclusions were that his skull and facial features indicate that he had a pronounced fondness for the opposite sex, as well as great ambition, goodness, tenderness, and belief in the supernatural.[3] The fortune telling aspect of these kinds of “readings” becomes clear when one notices that these same characteristics were arrived at by outsiders that spent a little time with Joseph as well as biographers studying his life via primary documents.

Additionally, the shape of the eye was thought to correspond with the inherent eroticism of the individual person or group of people. This “observation” went beyond human beings as well, with hogs having a highly erotic eye shape that just happened to match the drawings of Brigham Young’s eye shape (the drawing of Young was made in 1879, decades after the truth of Young’s extensive polygamous family was common public knowledge). A comparison for low eroticism was found in drawings of the turtle dove and Margaret Fuller Osoli; a woman so committed to monogamy that it is said that she drowned with her husband who was trapped in the belly of a shipwreck rather than choosing to leave him and save her own life by swimming to safety. The comparison of Mormon polygamy to filth-laden swine and monogamy to the virtuous turtle dove is clear, but the basis for those comparisons stemming from objective observation and analysis is anything but true.[4]

In other words, this kind of “measurement” and “correlation” between the physical and the moral wasn’t a true reading of physical or racial features that determines ones character in any sort of predictive way but rather an example the socially observed or projected character itself that guided the “reading.” Modern Americans have made significant strides toward no longer inferring positive or negative connections between physiology and morality; but as Reeve argues, 19th century Americans were steeped in a belief that physical traits of humanity were indicative of their inherent morality.

Physical-Moral Decay

The concern was not only to identify in-group and out-group people for the purpose of not associating with the wrong sort but also to emphasize the lasting negative impact that the wrong sort would have on society. Immorality was not simply a thought crime you see, it was such a violation against the human soul that it was thought to cause physical change within one’s lifetime. Further, it was believed that these negative changes to one’s body and soul would be passed on to the next generation. A sort of social/biological Lamarckian evolution driven by the character and actions of men and women. This belief manifests in Mormons like Charles Penrose that “the monogamic system was producing ‘puny, spindly, and easily prostrated offspring’ … who were easy prey to disease and ‘physical decay.'” Contrast this negative view of immoral monogamy (which according to Penrose did not allow for sufficient expression of men’s sexual appetites to occur within the marriage contract the way polygamy did) to the evidence he finds of polygamy’s virtues manifest in the children produced from polygamous unions that are considered “stalwart sons and fair and robust daughters of Zion.”[5] Mormon Polygamists believed that the continued monogamic marital practice and the inevitable whoredoms it was believed to produce would result in degeneration and a catastrophic fall of the United States. 19th century protestants (monogamists) had the exact opposite view, polygamy would ruin America by spreading the disease of immorality through the generations.

This Lamarckian view of society being biologically connected to the morality of its citizens casts a new light on the extreme political views of Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon. Cannon wanted polygamy legalized and whoredoms to be eradicated via strict penalization. In Cannon’s view adulterers should receive the death penalty; Young expressed similar solutions to fornication and adultery.[6] Cannon and Young both felt that these extreme measures were necessary to prevent the kingdom of God from failing.

cephalopod of the great basin
“Cephalopod of the Great Basin-Genus Polypi Mormoni Priesthoodi” From Enoch’s Advocate 11 May 1874


The view of moral decay leading to physical degeneracy was made clear in political cartoons depicting Brigham Young and other Mormons as animal-like humans taking the shape of goats (the source of the myth of Mormon’s growing horns) and even as the “Cephalopod of the Great Basin”.[7] Mormons and Protestant Americans alike tied morality and race to a hierarchy, the top of which were perched the Anglo-Saxons. Understanding these inter-dependent ideals in context helps the reader to understand the perniciousness of racialization both by early Mormons against African Americans (and other groups) as well as by mainstream Americans towards early Mormons. The pseudo-sciences, the connection between race and morality, and the harsh punitive measures were merely means to make another person or group less human and therefore sooth the dissonance in their hearts and minds generated from their own lack of care, compassion, and fair treatment of “the other.”

The Rest of the Book

Reeve continues to illustrate the many ways in which Mormons tried to show America that they were indeed fully white (i.e. fully human) throughout the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, by the time Mormons achieved their desired status of “whiteness”, the country shifted its social focus to dismantling the white supremacy that was once universally valued. Each chapter focuses on a particular ethnic group and specific doctrines, attitudes, and practices that all changed and morphed over time in response to public perception and changing internal values. Eventually the church forgot about its early black members and black men ordained to the priesthood and simultaneously moved the justification of race doctrines from the bible to Joseph Smith, and finally to God (and who can question God?). LDS leadership stood behind God as a shield during their march towards full American acceptance and whiteness. A complete reversal of race-based restrictions in 1978 was then followed by outsider scrutiny of Mormonism’s racist past and more recently a renewed focus on Mormon bodies being whiter than ever.[8]

My own Thoughts

Reading Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness caused me yet again to grapple with the never-ending fight humanity has in overcoming our fear of “the other” and how this tendency for exclusion has evolved over time both within Mormonism and the greater context of 19th and 20th century contemporary America. Mormons need to own our racist past just like we own the bravery of Mormon pioneers, “the sky is the limit” American mindset, and the freedoms we enjoy as American and global citizens. Owning the good and the bad and recognizing that our past has shaped our present state of mind is the only way, in my mind, to become aware of our blind spots and correct our trajectory. I think that reading Reeve’s work will be instrumental in helping readers re-evaluate their ownership of Mormonism’s past and hopefully craft a brighter future. Modern research and accessibility to this research is forcing Mormons to no longer have the ability to selectively claim attributes of faith or citizenship that we find virtuous while ignoring the flaws. The future of Mormonism needs to recognize that the good, the bad, and the ugly all come as a package deal and affects us whether we admit it or not. Once we admit the presence of race based thinking, we can redirect it and hopefully eradicate it. But it won’t just happen on its own; we need to be active participants in positive change and I think that Reeve’s work will prove to be incredibly useful in helping readers to understand the origins of beliefs about race in the context in which they originated.


[1] Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33.

[2] The idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during it’s lifetime to its offspring. An example: a Giraffe permanently elongates it’s neck during it’s lifetime and passes that quality (longer neck) to it’s offspring. FYI it is not a true mechanism explaining the difference between species and the process of evolution. That would be natural selection.

[3] Reeve, W. (2015). Chapter 1 “The New Race” In Religion of a different color: Race and the Mormon struggle for whiteness (p. 26). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[4] Ibid. (p. 28-29).

[5] Ibid. (p. 31-33).

[6] Ibid. (p. 43).

[7] Ibid. (p. 30, 34).

[8] Ibid. (p. 51).




2 thoughts on “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness

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