Newell Bringhurst’s book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism is a fascinating look at the church’s relationship to black people from 1830 to 1980. I wanted to share some impressions from the first few chapters.
Some people have incorrectly asserted that early Mormons were abolitionists. Abolitionists were seen as radicals back then and favored the immediate release of all slaves. Mormons, on the other hand, while not in favor of slavery, urged a more cautious approach. Abolitionists were unpopular and often riots broke out at Abolitionist gatherings.
I think a modern-day equivalent would be abortion bombers. Mormons are against abortion today, but we don’t support bombing abortion clinics. People who would bomb a clinic are just too radical. Mormons and other church groups of the day did not want to be associated with radical abolitionists. Bringhurst notes on pages 20-21.
Mormon opposition to abolitionism was primarily motivated by a Latter-day Saint desire to avoid any and all identification with the abolitionist movement. This desire, stemmed, in large part, from Mormonism’s presence in Kirtland, Ohio, on the Western Reserve. This region was a hotbed of abolitionism during the 1830s. Oberlin College, located near Kirtland, was the center for abolitionist actions through the Ohio Valley.36 Such abolitionist activity made Ohio the focal point of more antiabolitionist violence than any other state in the Union.
Because of their close proximity to such violence, the Ohio-based Saints were particularly anxious to avoid the abolitionists. They worried about the parallels that non-Mormons might draw between themselves and the abolitionists…
The Mormons, in avoiding and condemning the abolitionists, were like other northern-based church groups during the 1830s. The official Mormon antiabolitionist resolution of August 1835 was similar to declarations of other northern-based church groups. The Methodists in their 1836 national convention adopted a resolution asserting that their members had “no right, wish, or intention to interfere with the civil and political relation as it exists between master and slave in the slave-holding states of this Union.”43 In a similar fashion, the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics, in national meetings of their respective churches, avoided the issue of slavery and abolition.44 Even the Quakers, who had earlier pushed for gradual elimination of slavery withdrew from active participation in all antislavery movements and condemned abolition in general.45 Several interdenominational organizations, including the Bible, Home Missionary, and Tract Societies, also rejected involvement in the abolitionist movements.
Bringhurst notes that the Book of Mormon does not support slavery. Alma 27:9 says “It is against the law of our brethren…that there should be any slaves among them.” In 1833 Mormons became embroiled in controversy when WW Phelps published as article called “Free People of Color” in the church’s newspaper,Evening and Millenial Star. Phelps wrote about “the wonderful events of this age much is doing towards abolishing slavery and colonizing the blacks in Africa.”
Non-mormons in Missouri, a slave state, were already suspicious of the massive influx of Mormons, and the Phelps article was the last straw. Despite Phelps’ attempt to minimize the damage by printing the following day that Mormons “had nothing to say…as to slaves”, a mob destroyed the printing press and ordered Mormons out of Jackson County Missouri in 1833.
Mormons were against slavery, and favored a more cautious approach to the issue than Abolitionists. Joseph Smith’s presidential platform in 1844 felt money could be raised through the sale of public lands. This money would be disbursed to slave-owners to free slaves. In a previous blog post about Joseph Smith’s Presidential Platform, I quoted from Michael Quinn’s book called The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power page 119,
“On the slavery question, he advocated compensated emancipation through the sale of public lands. To cope with resulting social stress, he advocated the relocation of the several million freed slaves to Texas.”
What do you make of the Mormon position back then? What would Texas look like if Smith’s plan had been adopted? Can you imagine U.S. history if Civil War had been avoided?