Some recent blog comments have discussed how the church’s history on race compares to other religions. Now, national politicians and pundits are discussing the same thing. There seems to be a general perception that the LDS church has not had a strong record as to race. The underlying facts, however, are quite a bit more complicated than that simple answer would suggest. As it turns out, the correct answer to the query “In matters of race, has the LDS church been progressive compared with other religious institutions, or has it been regressive?”, is: Both. This is the first in a series of posts which will discuss the church’s comparative record on race, and particularly on interaction with Blacks. I will proceed more or less chronologically. This post will discuss the antebellum era. Future posts will discuss the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, and the modern era. I realize that the interaction of religion and race is quite complicated, and this post cannot hope to capture all of the details. I apologize in advance for any omissions or oversights.
The good news is that church has a relatively (though not entirely) good record in its interactions with chattel slavery.
Protestant and Catholic Interactions with Slavery
Many prominent leaders and preachers in many denominations — including the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic faiths — were instrumental in instituting and defending the system of chattel slavery in America.
In particular, Protestant apologists in America articulated a moral and Biblical justification of slavery that defended the moral integrity of that institution against the attacks of Christian abolitionists. For example, the prominent and eloquent Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer eloquently defended slavery on the grounds that Blacks were descendants of Ham and Nimrod and thus subject to Biblical curse. Palmer was later a leading voice in support of the Confederacy.
Other apologists were common. Presbyterian minister James Thornwell argued that the Bible accepted slavery, and that rejection of slavery was rejection of the Bible. Thorton Stringfellow, a Baptist preacher from Virginia, published a widely disseminated pamphlet providing scriptural justifications for slavery. Methodist ministers like Augustus Longstreet did the same.
The moral justification of slavery was used in slave religious instruction. Slaves were not always allowed religion, but where they were, they were often instructed that they should be submissive and passive in their God-given role as slaves. This pattern existed in the Protestant faiths, including Baptists and Episcopals.
Not only did many antebellum Protestants defend the institution — in many instances, they participated in it. Prominent church leaders were slave owners. For example, “by the eighteenth century, probably as many as 40 percent of Baptist preachers in South Carolina owned slaves.” (Dictionary of African-American Slavery, at 77).
The Catholic church also has a number of links with slavery. The church was instrumental in establishing the transatlantic the slave trade, in response to Bartolome de las Casas’ arguments against enslaving Native Americans. Some Catholics supported slavery in the antebellum United States. Pope Gregory XVI condemned the transatlantic slave trade in 1839, leading to a lively debate over whether this meant that Catholics should support abolition more broadly. In response, Catholic leaders including John England and Orestes Brownson publicly supported slavery. In later years, many Catholics adopted a private/public distinction, freeing their own slaves but not supporting abolition. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision, was a Catholic. Religious orders including the Jesuits bought and sold slaves.
Not all religious interaction with slavery was negative. Some Catholics and Protestants drew on religious ideals to argue in favor of abolition, and not all Protestant and Catholic leaders were slave apologists. Slavery was the direct cause of a number of denominational schisms. In the 1830s, many Northern Baptists began supporting abolition. In response, the Southern Baptists withdrew from the national organization. The Presbyterian church also split over slavery. (The Episcopalians did not divide, and developed neither a strong abolitionist element nor a strong apologist element.)
The churches did often try to work within the system to limit abuse. There are a number of examples of such responses. For example, Baptist members were occasionally subjected to church punishment for mistreating their slaves, though this was relatively uncommon. Southern Baptists urged relaxation of laws against slave marriage, as well as law prohibiting slaves from being taught to read or write. Jesuits and Methodists were pioneers in teaching slaves to read. The Vincentian order (Catholic) allowed slaves to veto their sales.
Nevertheless, on balance each of the major Protestant religions, as well as the Catholic faith, had major and problematic interaction with slavery. Prominent leaders from nearly every one publicly justified the institution (with the exception of the Episcopalians, who remained largely apolitical).
These interactions had a number of ongoing invidious effects. The religious justifications were important in maintaining the moral foundation of slavery. It is impossible to say that they extended the time of slavery; however, without them, the moral critique of slavery made by abolitionists (some of whom were also religious, and many of whom were Quakers) could well have swayed public opinion against slavery. However, prominent Protestant leaders were eloquent at marshalling arguments, and their words carried great moral weight. Thus, the many sermons and writings of Christian (especially Protestant) apologists for slavery probably extended the time that Blacks suffered in slavery.
In addition, these statements inflicted secondary and ongoing harms. Many of these apologias articulated explicitly racist ideology, such as the idea that God had cursed Blacks or had put Blacks into the place of slavery. This had the effect of encouraging racism and linking racist ideas to religious belief. Later racist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan and its successors often adopted religious or quasi-religious rationales. They drew on the framework already put into place by religious defenders of slavery.
LDS Interactions with Slavery
The LDS church has less egregious links to slavery.
Joseph Smith was never a strong supporter of slavery. Coming from early 19th century New England, he carried the cultural attitudes of the North. Slavery was not a part of his upbringing or economic vision. In addition, many of the early converts were from free jurisdictions (such as England) and were not in favor of slavery.
Overall, however, the church’s attitude was ambivalent or inconsistent. This can be seen in a series of events in Missouri. W.W. Phelps clashed with slavery advocates in Missouri. Phelps wrote an editorial in the Evening and Morning Star, suggesting that free Blacks might be able to migrate to Missouri and become Mormons. Phelps’ editorial led to angry mob reaction, because Entry of free Blacks was against Missouri law. The church then officially disavowed that position in the next edition of the paper, writing that the church did not support free Black migration to Missouri and that no such migrants would be admitted into the church.
Similarly, Joseph Smith’s own position was not particularly consistent. He made some public statements during his lifetime supporting slavery, suggesting that it was the natural consequence of the curse of Cain. He did not consistently criticize slavery for most of his ministry, and the church was never strongly abolitionist. Individual members (particularly converts from the South) owned slaves, though not in great quantities.
Joseph Smith publicly stated that the church was not abolitionist, and at times he critized the abolitionist movement. However, in the last few years of his life, he became more vocal in his criticism of slavery. Beginning in 1842, he made a limited number of strongly anti-slavery comments. Then, in 1844, he adopted a kind of moderate abolitionist position in his run for president — he publicly advocated ending slavery through purchase.
The ambivalent approach to slavery continued after Joseph Smith’s death. Utah had a slave presence since the pioneers arrived. Three slaves — Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay — came with the first group of LDS pioneers to Utah in 1847. Green Flake was later freed by Brigham Young, following an interesting chain of events in which he may have been paid as tithing. (I am indebted to Margaret Young for bringing this possibility to my attention.)
Utah was organized (along with New Mexico) as a popular sovereignty territory in 1850 — that is, it was initially designated as neither a free territory nor a slave territory, but the choice was left to its residents. The 1850 Utah census listed 24 free Blacks, and 26 slaves; the 1860 census listed 32 free Blacks and 29 slaves.
In 1852, the Legislature passed an act establishing rules for slavery in Utah. Utah had unusually generous slave laws — slave education was required, and abuse or sexual exploitation of slaves prohibited. Also that year, Brigham Young spoke to the legislature about slavery, criticizing the abolition movement and suggesting that slavery was the logical consequence of the curse of Cain. (It is likely that Indian slavery was largely responsible for the attitudes in Utah’s slavery laws. Had Mormons been primarily concerned with black slavery, it is entirely possible that they would have lacked the provisions on education and possibly some other of the more provisions. Utah’s slavery laws were drafted with the purchase of Indian children in mind. I am indebted to Ardis Parshall for this observation.)
Utah did not ammass a very substantial Black slave presence. When the Civil War began, Utah lukewarmly took the side of the Union. Slavery was formally abolished in the territories in 1862.
On balance, the LDS church has a relatively good record in its interactions with slavery. Church leaders intermittently made statements supporting the institution. However, the church leadership never approached the level of support for slavery of some other religious leaders (like Stringfellow or Palmer), and the church even briefly supported a moderate form of abolition. The early church was neither strongly nor consistently abolitionist, but it did have its periods of stronger anti-slavery sentiment. Also, slave ownership was never very prevalent among Mormons.
Some of the church’s relatively strong record is probably the result of geographic and demographic factors. The church did not have much of a presence in the South, and so it never really had a need make concessions to the institution or to promulgate defenses of slavery like the major Protestant religions. (The question did come up when Southern converts who were slave owners asked about bringing their slaves to Utah, but was not a major concern.)
Overall, the church does not have a superlative record vis-a-vis slavery. The organization with the best record is almost certainly the Quakers, who were consistently and vocally abolitionist in a way the LDS church never was. Nevertheless, compared with the major Protestant and Catholic faiths, the LDS church has a relatively strong record as to slavery.
This conclusion should not be overread. I do not wish to suggest that the simplistic critique “the church’s record on race is bad” be replaced with an equally simplistic “the church’s record on race is good.” The church’s interactions with race include both positive and negative, and the sometimes-suggested idea among members, that the church was always abolitionist, is clearly wrong. Hopefully, this post allows readers to appreciate the complexity of the matter.
Also, slavery does not end the query. As noted at the beginning of the post, future posts in this series will address Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, and the modern era.