“A Mormon has a right to believe what he will. His thoughts may be as free as the unconfined air, and his conscience should by no means be restrained by legal enactments. But his acts are quite a different thing.”
-Raleigh News and Observer, July 20, 1881
I’ll get this out of the way first thing: this is not a book that everyone will be into. It fills a very specific niche–late nineteenth century American fringe religions. Frankly, if I wasn’t Mormon, I never would’ve picked this book up.
That’s right, I’m a Mormon. A non-practicing one, but still one of the tribe. Growing up, I learned Church history mostly through Sunday School and early-morning Seminary (a class I attended every morning before school during my high school years). It was a pretty sanitized form of that history that started with Joseph Smith and pretty much ended with Brigham Young entering the Salt Lake Valley. And since this was the pre-internet era and I grew up as a Mormon loner in Michigan rather than the Mormon Belt, that was the only history I knew.
Thank goodness for the internet and the new, modern era in Mormon history scholarship. Because now I can get my history-loving hands all over new books about old subjects that no Mormon would have ever dared to write about back in the era of Church Retrenchment. There’s a new freedom to discuss and understand difficult topics that even contemporary Church leaders would prefer that we not know.
Personally, I’m loving it. And it’s why I picked up this book. Because who knew that there was violence against Mormons in the post-Reconstruction South? I certainly didn’t.
The book itself is interesting and fairly informative. Mason did his best work in detailing the types of violence and analyzing Mormon reactions to it but his central thesis about the causes of the violence, that Southern men turned to violence in an attempt to protect Southern women, did not work for me.
Don’t get me wrong, Mormon missionaries were seen as a threat to women because, of course, they were only sent out to ensnare innocent women and ship them back to the polygamous whorehouses in Salt Lake. Well, at least, that was according to the anti-Mormon and anti-polygamy discourses that ran through the country during that time. And while people did sincerely believe in those Mormon boogeymen, Mason’s reasoning falls flat because I don’t think he actually understood the nature and causes of lynching. And it shows whenever he awkwardly tries to compare anti-Mormon violence with the lynching of African-Americans.
Those passages are awkward, and uncomfortable, and I dearly wish he had not compared the two types of violence. Because beyond the surface similarities (extra-judicial violence against a minority group) the two types of violence are simply not comparable.
Furthermore, in trying to connect the so-called reason for the violence (protection of women) Mason unwittingly legitimizes its use. Extra-judicial violence is about power, not protection, and Mason stumbles, big time, any time he argues otherwise.
However, Mason truly shines when he sticks to analyzing Mormon culture and Mormon reactions to that Southern violence. These chapters were especially interesting to me because they helped to connect the dots between what I knew about Mormon history and my experiences with contemporary Mormon culture. There is a strong persecution complex that is threaded through the Mormon identity and it was clearly conceived during the Polygamy era–a time when it was Mormons against a sinful world that was trying to wipe them out.
They weren’t wrong. The United States was trying to wipe out Mormons, in fact, one of the earliest immigration acts outlawed the entry of “polygamists” which was commonly, at the time, understood to refer to Mormons. It was a crazy, mixed-up time that, before I picked up this book, I knew very little about. *
Mormons don’t talk about polygamy. It’s the Church’s dirty little secret, and for good reason–the Church’s practice of polygamy nearly destroyed the Church. It’s abundantly clear, even from the little I know, that if the Church hadn’t abandoned the practice it would not have continued as an institution into the 20th or 21st centuries. Well, it might have survived Warren Jeffs’ style, little communes dotted throughout the desert, but that would be it.
To me, that’s the most interesting thing of all. While the Mason’s book is interesting, the things it made me contemplate were even more interesting. It inspired me to think about the way that Mormon practice and culture took a giant 180 in the early 20th century, how Mormons actively worked to assimilate into American culture, and not just assimilate, they would be the most American Americans they could possibly be. It transformed from a militant fringe religion into a conservative church strongly associated with the image of nice, attractive, white people with smiles, dressed in stereotypical Sunday-going-to-church clothing.
We turned so completely that a religion that once espoused a radical form of marriage as one of its deepest doctrines is now fighting tooth and nail to uphold “traditional” marriage and “traditional” families. There’s an irony and a deep hypocrisy there that is both kind of hilarious and deeply sad. Sad for the Church but even sadder for us queer Mormons who no longer have a home.
The Mormon Menace was an interesting little book with some good and some not-so-good historical analysis. As an armchair historian it made some interesting points and as a Mormon it encouraged a little inspiration, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to the general reading public.
Now I need to go back and go through all of the little sticky notes I made, because whatever I meant by “Authoritarianism and John Taylor. Varying definitions of ‘theodemocracy,’” deserves a lot more thought.
*Side note: Mormon polygamy is a complex topic that, to this day, evokes a lot of strong responses. Trust me, it’s a doozy. And this review really isn’t the place to dig into that subject.