May 27, 2011

Review: Patrick Q. Mason, "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South"

Title: The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South
Author:  Patrick Q. Mason
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: American History
Year: 2011
Pages: 252
ISBN13: 978-0-19-974002-4
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

In 1857, Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt died with two stab wounds to the chest and a bullet in the neck, delivered by a disgruntled husband of one of Pratt's plural wives, in Arkansas (4). Elder Joseph Standing was murdered in 1879 by a Georgia mob, his body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds, "frightfully mutilated" by knife and gun (26). During the 1884 Cane Creek Massacre Elders John Gibbs and William Berry, along with Mormons Martin Conder and J.R. Hutson, were shot dead in a home where Sunday worship services were being held (40). These deaths, in addition to threats, beatings, abductions, destruction of property, and other violent intimidations, made the Southern States mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints notorious to, and oddly faith-promoting for, the burgeoning nineteenth-century Mormon movement. In The Mormon Menace, historian Patrick Mason uses these stories of violence from the post-Civil War south to analyze "the attitudes and actions of southerners as they perceived and then responded to Mormon proselytizing in their region" (11). For this review I decided a brief overview of the chapter contents would be sufficient to demonstrate the quality and relevance of Mason's work.

Masons first chapter is the introduction to the book. In clear and straight-forward prose he sets the stage for the rest of the book. While narrating and dissecting southern violence toward Mormons, Mason will touch on "some of the most important cultural and political discussions of the age, including debates over modern American notions of the nature of religion and its role in society, the limits of religious freedom, the construction and application of gender norms, state regulation of domestic affairs such as marriage, and the contest between popular sovereignty and the rule of law" (17).

Chapters two and three are narrative case studies of the murder of Joseph Standing and the Cane Creek, Tennessee Massacre, respectively. Mason uses these stories to introduce the ideas that he examines in the remainder of the book, including southern gender roles, the problem of Mormon polygamy, religious competition, and the prevalence of extra-legal and largely understood vigilante action.

Mason makes a strong case that the violent reactions to Mormons were largely motivated by perceptions of polygamy. In chapter four he outlines arguments used against Mormonsarguments which stand in stunning contrast to present arguments made by Mormons themselves in the public arena. As one anti-Mormon tract warned: "Mormonism is an organized, systematic attack on the permanence and purity of the Christian home....The law must guard the Christian home as the main pillar of the state" (62). So Mormon missionaries were seen as "home wreckers" on the prowl to seduce young women away to their harems in mysterious Utah. Mason draws interesting and carefully qualified comparisons between these southern views of Mormon missionaries and views of recently-liberated blacks, who were also seen as a threat to southern white male possession of women (67-8). Opposition to Mormon polygamy also proved a nice gathering point for differing religious sects in the south; it was an interdenominational effort (76).

The fifth chapter continues his analysis of reactions to polygamy by shifting his attention into the political and legal sphere. Latter-day Saints viewed their peculiar practice as being protected by the First Amendment. Their mantra was "no retreat, no surrender," and they defied laws to the contrary which they deemed unconstitutional (80). Southerners, who argued heavily in favor of state's rights, found themselves in a strange position when they felt aligned with Republicans on the other "relic of barbarism," polygamy, the twin of the defeated slavery. North and south found a common cause here. Mason then analyzes the three main structural approaches southerners used to purge polygamy: Christian missions, legislation, and vigilantism.

Mormon theocracy loomed large in public fears of the Mormon kingdom rising in the west, and Mason explores these theocratic accusations in chapter six. By painting Mormons as anti-Christian and specifically anti-American, southerners could justify violence and coercive legislation, despite their Christian beliefs and their desire for state's rights. Rumors of a Mormon "political conquest" took on a conspiratorial tone, as one writer warned that the "settled policy of the Mormons is to control Utah and the adjacent Territories, and from there to conquer the United States, and, subsequently, the whole world" (113). I chuckled a little at this section, recalling similar claims still being made today, with Mitt Romney and now John Huntsman throwing their hats in the presidential ring. Alongside the problem of theocracy, which threatened the body politic, was Mormon theology, which threatened the very soul. Mason explores some of the early Mormon claims which captured the nation's imagination in the worst of ways. The "to a point" tolerance of nineteenth-century America allowed for much diversity, but had to draw lines nevertheless (126).

Mason turns particularly numerical in the crucial seventh chapter by quantifying and describing more than three hundred documented episodes of southern anti-Mormon violence. It is particularly fascinating to see how the geographical and historical setting of the opposition to Mormonism helps account for its violent nature and the motives behind it. Latter-day Saints, of course, viewed the violence as pure religious bigotry, but Mason finds this view "ultimately insufficient in explaining the extent and nature of southern anti-Mormon violence" (127). The Mormon case is a particularly interesting anomaly to other repeated violent opposition, for instance towards blacks, because "the geographical divide [Upper South versus Deep South, which demonstrates a clear difference in treatment of freed blacks] holds little or no explanatory power for understanding anti-Mormonism" (128). He documents and charts the time, place, and forms of opposition and deeply contextualizes this within southern vigilantism. Indeed, the opposition was actually quite "democratic," but revealed "one of the fundamental flaws of democracy, namely that the people prey on the people in the name of the people" (148).

Chapter eight discusses the ways violent opposition contributed to the way Latter-day Saints understood their own identity. Mason condenses the "persecution narrative" which still echoes in Mormonism today:

They were God's chosen people, and God's chosen people had always suffered persecution and even martyrdom at the hands of evildoers. Latter-day Saints were key players in a cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness. Casualties would come along the way, but ultimately God would exact vengeance on the wicked and vindicate the faithful remnant (149).

He supports this view of personal identity by including revelations from Joseph Smith, sermons by high-ranking Mormon leaders, and accounts from lay missionaries, all of whom faced real and physical opposition in the history of Mormonism. At times Mormons had responded in kind, at times they played a large role in precipitating the violence they encountered, but Mason also analyzes the Mormon pacifism manifested by leaders like George Q. Cannon, who quoted Joseph Smith's revelation that the Mormons must "renounce war and proclaim peace" (161). Mormons found solace in the idea that God would "bare His almighty and powerful arm" to defend them if need be, that "the wicked and ungodly will feel the avenging hand of God" (161). Ultimately, their "collective defensive mentality" steeled the faithful's resolve and helped keep the new movement together. Being "other" has a few benefits too (170).

"Most studies of conflict in the postbellum South focus exclusively, and justifiably, on racial and political violence against African Americans and to some extent their political allies," Mason notes in his final chapter. Mormons, as his book shows, deserve some attention as well, but they were not "the only religious minorities in the post-bellum South, nor the only victims of violence" (171). Thus, his book fills a gap in the current historiography regarding southern violence and religion, but he broadens his scope here to briefly compare the Mormon experience to that of Catholics and Jews, who paid closer attention than Mormons to accommodation with American culture by privatizing their religion. Attention is especially due to the case of Catholics, more of whom were lynched in the late nineteenth century South "than any other religious group (excepting black Christians), more than Mormons and Jews combined" (180). Why not a book on that? As Mason shows, however, this violence was "comprised largely of Irish and Italian Catholics" themselves, and they didn't name religion as a motivation (181). Racial, economic, political, cultural, and other factors trumped religion here, which demonstrates "how religion can be subsumed in ethnic and racial identities" (181).

Times change, and understanding the history behind religious and political movements can uncover strange surprises. The Mormon trajectory from margin to relative mainstream is placed in context of morphing views of what America is supposed to be. The "runaway logic of liberalism [in the classic sense] allowed all kinds of groups excluded in the Founders' original formulationwomen, blacks, the propertylessand groups whose claims as political communities they could not have envisionedMormons, homosexualsto demand full inclusion and insist on constitutional protections to express fully their cultural identities within the American polity" (193). The feared "tyranny of the majority" still casts a shadow over the country; extra-legal violence still occurs. Despite remaining difficulties, "the boundaries of American tolerance have enlarged considerably but unevenly in the century since the end of the nation's anti-Mormon crusade, shaped as much by the paths that have foreclosed as those that have opened (194).

Mason's conclusion demonstrates, whether his analysis is accepted or rejected, the amazing relevance such classic questions still hold for the American people: the nature and limits of the freedom of religion, the majority versus minority, the contests between the will of the people and the rule of law, and how our worldviews powerfully impact how we approach these matters in the public and political spheres. Mason's The Mormon Menace exemplifies the new historical analysis at its bestcareful consideration of cultural contexts, both past and present, thus making our history not only understandable, but extremely relevant.  


Patrick Q. Mason was recently selected to replace Richard Bushman for the Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Mason discussed this book, some of his other projects, and his selection to the Hunter Chair here: "Patrick Mason answers your questions,", 24 March 2011.   


LR Whitney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LR Whitney said...

Considering that the entire Mormon population was burned, raped, tortured, pillaged, murdered and chased out of Missouri, Illinois, and then had an army set on them in Utah, the notion that any one missionary getting shot or shot at by hillbillys in Appalachia seems rather weak as evidence of anti-Mormonism. The greatest examples of anti-Mormon violence lies in the creation of the Republican Party on the platform of exterminating polygamy (and slavery) the "twin relics of barbarism" as they put it.

The fact remains that Mormon candidates like Mitt Romney are still being berated on the basis that they are unfit for office because Mormonism is a demonic cult. Little of that sentiment has changed in the "Bible Belt" in particular.

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