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An Unexpected Lens Into the American Racial Story

By Shavauna Munster

Paul Reeve wearing square black rim glasses and a purple small checkered button-down.

Paul Reeve

Fortuitous timing and a researcher dissatisfied with current historiography led to the discovery of new documents, two databases, three books, and accolades for University of Utah History professor Paul Reeve. In 2013, Reeve was researching whiteness and religion, specifically as it related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when a chance meeting with Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber led to a book contract quite unexpectedly. That contract led, in turn, to more  research on what Reeve describes as “a reflection on the American racial story;” the process culminated in 2015 with the publication of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants to the United States were not automatically accepted as white on arrival and would go through a process of racial assimilation. Noticing a similarity in the language used to describe immigrants who were not considered “white enough” and converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reeve sought to explore possible connections. “I wasn’t satisfied with the existing explanations for why the church implemented racial priesthood and temple restrictions,” explains Reeve “and the existing whiteness studies offered intriguing clues.”

Early Latter-Day Saints were widely accepting of those deemed undesirable and were eventually accused of being too accepting. In Missouri, for example, Latter-day Saints were charged with creating “an asylum for rogues, and vagabonds, and free blacks.” Native American and African Americans were accepted into the religion without question, the very people that the rest of white society said should be segregated and even enslaved. As the national backlash against the Latter-day Saints intensified over time some outsiders suggested that Mormonism was giving rise to a new race altogether. Medical professionals met at the New Orleans Academy of Science in 1860 to discuss their concerns over a purported new race arising in the American West. “My argument is that this racialization process changes the way we think about how Latter-day Saints were perceived as different in the 19th century,” Reeve argues. “In the minds of outsiders, Latter-day Saints were not just religiously different, they were racially different as well.”

Amid political cartoons, an extermination order, and congressional threats, Mormons attempted to position themselves as “white enough.” Distancing themselves from their own Black converts, Mormons renounced Black priesthood holders and barred Black men and women from temple admittance. Reeve explains, “You see the open racial attitudes of the first couple decades giving way to segregated priesthood and temples over the course of the 19th century. Latter-day Saints do so in an effort to claim whiteness for themselves.”

“I wasn’t satisfied with the existing explanations for why the church implemented racial priesthood and temple restrictions”

- Paul Reeve

By the early 20th century, Mormons had successfully instituted segregation policies that solidified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “white church.” However, the 21st century gave way to a new backlash, that of being “too white.” Deemed the “Mormon moment” by the New York Times, the Latter-day Saints gained widespread attention in the early 2000s due to the hit Broadway play, “The Book of Mormon,” Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and the Church’s own international, “I’m a Mormon” media campaign. The Church sought to reconcile itself with its founding universalism and claim a more international and racially diverse identity for itself. From stridently anti-racist sermons to statues of Black Mormon pioneers in This Is The Place Heritage Park, Latter-day Saints aim to reclaim the inclusiveness of the faith founding decades and hope to modify the view of the faith among outsiders. Efforts for reconciliation have extended to Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the LDS Church, the leaders of which requested Reeve to translate “Religion of a Different Color” for a general Latter-day Saint audience. He did so and in 2023 Deseret Book published the result as “Let’s Talk About Race and the Priesthood.” Reeve has continued to examine Black Latter-day Saint experiences in an online public history database called Century of Black Mormons. The database is “designed to recover what was lost – the identities and voices of Black Mormons during the faith's first one hundred years.”

Reeve worked closely with the Church History Department of the LDS Church and helped to uncover a variety of speeches delivered in 1852 by the likes of Brigham Young and Orson Pratt, two 19th century political and religious leaders, that shed new light on race and church doctrine. “The speeches were recorded in Pitman shorthand in 1852 but never transcribed into longhand,” Reeve explains. “This document collection is therefore the most significant burst of new information to come to light on 19th century indigenous and African-American enslavement in Utah Territory in the last 40 or 50 years.” LaJean Purcell Carruth at the LDS Church History Department transcribed the speeches and Reeve added punctuation, grammar, and formed the words into sentences. The entire collection is now publicly accessible via the Marriott Library digital database, This Abominable Slavery. It is the topic of his next book due out later this year from Oxford University Press also titled “This Abominable Slavery.”  It is co-authored with Purcell Carruth and University of Utah history doctorate student Christopher Rich.

Through the building of relationships with archivists, digging deeply into the archives, and diligent research, Reeve has crafted books and digital collections that give us a profound and unexpected lens into the American racial story taught through a study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities | 801-213-0866

Published March 19, 2024

Last Updated: 3/19/24