Dr. Sally Gordon spoke at BYU for the Religious Liberty conference in March. I asked her to give any advice to religious leaders.
Advice to Religious Leaders
GT: Do you have some advice for religious leaders on these kinds of–I’m going to use the word culture war issues: abortion, gay marriage, gay rights, that kind of thing? Do we need to tamp that down or..
Sally: Oh, that’s such a tough question. I don’t feel like I know an answer. Just for me, personally, I can be very inspired by many different religious thinkers and leaders in spaces and places. I’m thinking of one rabbi, who came to address a class I was teaching. She said that what she wants to deliver as a rabbi is transformative ritual, and joy that flows from that. For her, that was the key. It wasn’t about anything–politics, she didn’t care. She didn’t care. She wanted to provide deep and abiding meaning and joy. I was inspired by her. I said, “Now that’s someone you’d want to follow.” I’d want to be taught by her. I tend not to be as thrilled, and everyone’s different. I like really simple religious spaces, ones without a lot of gold leaf, or, you know…
GT: You’d feel fine at an LDS Church.
Sally: One of the things that I think, and I want to write a book about pilgrimage. When I retire, I want to write a book about pilgrimage in North America. I want to do it. There are so many different kinds: Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Native, all over the place, Presbyterian. But, I think one of the things that we maybe have forgotten is that much of religious life happens outside affiliation, and maybe we open ourselves to that, but that’s about as much as I have to offer. I’m sorry to say.
We’ll also talk about the Biddy Mason, who sued for her own freedom in California from her Mormon slaveholder.
Sally: Biddy Mason was an enslaved woman who was born in Georgia and sold, we think, to Mississippi in the early 1830s. She eventually wound up in the household of Robert Smith, who converted to Mormonism in 1844, along with other slaveholding saints. They were called the Mississippi Saints, even though some of them came from South Carolina and so on. They were part of the 1848 [wagon] train that came to Utah. Robert Smith brought the people he enslaved with him on that trek. In 1851, [he] moved to San Bernardino with the Mormon colony there. It was in that 1850 census, which was actually taken in March 1851, that his enslaved people were listed by name, and by race: mulatto or black, they were called, and all listed as going to California.
Sally: Clearly, the Saints were trying to imply that only 26 people were listed, and that those were the only enslaved people in Utah, which was not true. But, they were all going to California. Those 26 did go to California. That wasn’t all. But, I mean, that wasn’t all the enslaved people in Utah, but among them, the oldest among them was a woman named Biddy Mason. Eventually, she was freed by default, actually, in California, when her slave holder tried to take her and 12 other people with him as he left the LDS Church. He didn’t think he was apastosizing, but he didn’t like the group in San Bernardino, who were going to take the ranch that he’d built up, without paying him for it. It was very kind of–there was a lot of controversy in San Bernardino. But, he was leaving to go to Texas. When he got to LA, we don’t know exactly who complained. But, someone complained to a local judge, who issued a writ of habeas corpus, which means “produce the body,” saying that he was being accused of keeping people imprisoned illegally–in slavery, in other words. To make a very long story short, Smith eventually lit out in the middle of the trial, and went to Texas. So, there was nobody holding these people in slavery any longer. Biddy Mason was freed and settled in Los Angeles, and became a noted and successful apothecary and healer, and was one of the co-founders of FAME Church. Another of the enslaved people, not by Robert Smith, but by…
GT: She never converted to Mormonism?
Sally: No, no, and she took the name Mason after she freed herself, really. There’s no evidence that she was ever a Mormon. She co-founded FAME Church, and I have worshiped there several times and enjoyed myself a great deal. Yeah, she was a lovely, clearly a charming person. Everyone liked and admired her.
GT: That’s a nice little tie to Mormonism, I think. Well, I don’t know. Is slavery a good tie to Mormonism?
Sally: Well, I would say that certainly the Latter-day Saints wrestled with slavery. Slavery was very popular and very powerful in the United States. Becoming an abolitionist was a dangerous endeavor. Brigham Young certainly wanted to recruit southerners, welcomed southerners, and called slavery a divine institution, and did say that the best result for a person of African heritage was to be held as a slave by a Latter-day Saint.
GT: Because our slavery is better than everybody else’s slavery. Right?
Sally: Well, let me just say one thing, in defense of that. Because we don’t know when Robert Smith left very quietly from San Bernardino. He clearly was followed by the San Bernardino sheriff, who was a Latter-day Saint. Among the people who was being taken, was a woman named Hannah, who was married and whose husband was held as a slave still in San Bernardino. She was very pregnant. She gave birth about a month after they left. It’s very clear that among the things Brigham Young insisted on, was that no slaveholder break up families. So, one of the things you could see, first of all, that the Latter-day Saints would not be pleased with Robert Smith for leaving. But, he did pay his tithes before he left. But, they also would, I think, have been very upset that he was breaking up this family, just especially as this woman was about to have a child.
The Act in Relation to Service legalized slavery in Utah in 1852. Dr. Sally Gordon tells more about how the statute affected both Indian & black slavery in Utah.
Indian & Black Slavery
Sally: There are many different kinds of slavery. Native slavery was widely practiced here in Utah, across the West, and had been practiced back east. I mean, really. It had been true slavery. The idea that slavery was just African, it was a much later idea. It really is true that slavery became a much more profitable enterprise than indentured servitude, for example. But, the idea that it would be perpetual and inherited slavery was controversial in the colonies. So, I want us to understand that bound labor exists across a spectrum. When a native child was sold, and forcibly removed from their family, and held to labor, until age 18, or whatever it was–even when they were directed to be given shoes, and I don’t know, education of some rudimentary sort. When most of them died before they reached the age of 18, that’s a form of bound labor. That’s not freedom. Is it the same thing as chattel slavery, protected by King George III? No. It fits much more closely into the practice of native slavery.
Sally: There’s a very well-known book called, The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez, who teaches at UC Davis, I think. He argues that about 5 million natives, if I have it right, were enslaved by Europeans, during the period of colonization, which is a long period. So, saying that there’s two kinds of slavery just says what we all know already. There’s lots of different slaveries. Many natives were held with African slaves for long periods. So, it’s not clear to me that people who bought native children didn’t also have black slaves. It seems like they may well have. I was talking to a scholar of slavery and said, “Well, imagine. Just imagine that someone calls this adoption and says that this is someone brought into the family and taught a faith, and that, yes, they’re required to work, but so is the whole family, and life isn’t easy for them. These are people who’ve been made orphans and are not allowed to even speak their own language.” I mean, it’s a rough, rough position for a kid. But, the people who are doing the adopting, say, “Well, they were going to get killed otherwise.” If you study how the slave trade worked in Utah, and across the Southwest, the slave trade went up, when the Mormons arrived. When Europeans arrived, it went up.
Sally: So, it’s hard to say that this was just helping kids. Paiutes were really easy to kill. They were very peaceful people. The slave traders were vicious. It’s true that some Latter-day Saints sold kids, too. So, I want to be fair, I really do. I want to say, even with African slaves, the Latter-day Saints cared about family. That’s what they do. They cared about family. Yes, there’s some idea of adoption here. But, I promise you back east, they were doing the same thing. It’s not like the Mormons made it up. Andrew Jackson adopted a little native boy, took him from his mother’s dead arms. Well, Andrew Jackson engineered the war that killed the woman. I think we need to know a lot more. We can’t just look at the situation in Utah, and say we understand the system, because all of this is about people moving, people on the move. People who had seen native slaves back east, people who had seen slaves in Illinois and copied the statute. In Utah, everybody knew that there were lots of slaves in Illinois, even though Illinois claimed to be a free state. So, I just want us to place, yet again, to think about the Latter-day Saints as part of the United States. They moved, too, as did many others. So, I think separating this out and thinking of it just as a Mormon issue is unfair to the people who were held and unfair to the Latter-day Saints.
Did you know Utah legalized slavery? Were you aware of the Native American slaves in Utah?
Just yesterday my son was asking about slavery and I told him that it was practiced in the US. “In Utah?” he then asked. I wasn’t entirely sure off the top of my head at that moment. Glad you made this post. Great stuff. Also, Native American slavery was widespread throughout the Americas. Thanks for bringing this up. They were the first slaves of Columbus’s party when they arrived in Hispaniola on his second voyage. It wasn’t until 1503 when Nicolas Ovando brought over African slaves to supply labor due to a declining Taino population on the island. Jamestown colonists enslaved Powhatan natives not long after they arrived in 1607. A great read can be found here: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/indian-enslavement-in-virginia/#:~:text=Indians%20were%20enslaved%20in%20Virginia,for%20English%20plantations%20and%20households.
Rick B, to answer your questions, yes and yes. I’ve read Brigham Young’s address to the territorial legislature in 1852, and it was probably the straw that irreparably changed my personal definition of what a prophet is. I can’t reconcile that speech (and many other of Brigham’s actions) with the Primary-instilled idealized leader definition I hung onto for decades.
Rick B. – Yes and Yes. But just the Sunday School version which made Black slavery sound extremely rare and Native slavery (children) sound beneficial.
Once I learned more of what really happened, I was appalled. The notion that those lovely Mormon families taking in those poor orphaned Native children was really “let’s kill the natives, take their stuff, and make the kids slaves until they are 18” is quite a different thing indeed. And then to learn today that most didn’t make it to age 18 because they were so maltreated is appalling. That speaks not only to church leadership but the moral character of the members that participated in any way.
My Black daughter stopped attending at age 13 because of the way her teachers and leaders condescended and kept telling her how lucky she was to be in the church today as compared to “back then”.
Echoing Not a Cougar, yeah reading that BY speech was the final nail in the coffin of my testimony. And I found it through the gospel topics essay footnotes.
One expects a prophet who speaks to God as Moses did might see just a tiny bit farther along the arc of the moral universe than the rest of us. One hopes they might make the church more just and humane than the society around it. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a prophet at all?
I consider myself reasonably well read, but I had never heard of Biddy Mason. Thanks for the introduction. She was quite a woman. Interesting that she chose the Episcopal Church.
Enslaving Native Americans has a long history, particularly with the Spanish. Their atrocities in Bolivia and other mining areas were appalling. Church member participation with slavery was also appalling.
“irreparably changed my personal definition of what a prophet is.“
@Not a Coug
You haven’t happened to read the Old Testament have you perhaps with a modern translation, (not just the KJV prooftexts that come out correlation for Sunday School) and read about Moses, Baalem, Jonah, etc.?
“One expects a prophet who speaks to God as Moses did might see just a tiny bit farther along the arc of the moral universe than the rest of us.”
Really interesting example, as right after Moses gets the 10 Commandments after freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he outlines the laws pertaining to the Israelites holding slaves in Exodus 21.
What did you have in mind in “as Moses” other than being primarily influenced by a corrupt mortal world?
jpv, fair point. The OT is hardly a shining example of egalitarian enlightenment.
When I say, “as Moses,” I mean, “face to face.” I was taught that our modern-day prophets commune with Jesus face to face in the upper rooms of the temple and therefore have a grander view of the cosmos and the future than the rank and file. I was also taught that God was love, no respecter of persons, and that slavery was evil. If I was ever taught about God commanding slavery in the OT, I must have compartmentalized it in an instant and stored it deep in the backlog of sources of cognitive dissonance.
The point is, I would find it bewildering for the benevolent, loving, father of all humankind—the God who Weeps, the God who is Love—to fail to mention to His prophet in the dispensation of the fulness of times, “Oh by the way, slavery is bad. Don’t do it.”
Hence the breaking shelf.
jpv, maybe go back and re-read your statement and ask why it has such a condescending tone.