Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Southern Menace

Patrick Mason's new book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a lively read about the perception of Mormon missionaries in the South. Mason argues that white Protestants in the South greatly feared Mormon missionaries seducing their wives and daughters. He begins with the story about Parley Pratt who was hunted down and murdered by Hector McLean. A poor husband, McLean nevertheless felt the humiliation of losing his wife to a Mormon and sought revenge for the sake of his honor. Mason claims that anti-Mormon assaults, although not often ending in murder, were present in all southern states in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But of the fourteen states comprising the Mormon Southern States Mission, Alabama and especially Tennessee were decidedly the most violent, with the 1880s documented as the worst years.

Mason shows that Mormonism only became a national concern in the 1850s after the establishment of what outsiders saw as a Mormon theocracy in Utah Territory and the Mormons' 1852 public announcement that sanctified plural marriage. Polygamy represented a significant danger to most nineteenth-century Americans because it challenged the traditional view of the ideal Christian home. As a result, Christian churches around the country preached out against "the Mormon menace," making polygamy a central concern in moral reform efforts. Missions and schools were established in Utah with the goal of reclaiming and educating people about the evils of Mormonism. Not until Mormons rescinded polygamy at the end of the nineteenth century, did American hostility toward them dissipate.

The unruly atmosphere of the nineteenth-century South proved to be a particularly dangerous area for Mormons to proselytize. Mason provides a key story about the murder of Joseph Standing that illustrates the kind of anti-Mormon violence that the South was capable of producing. What is remarkable in the story is that everyone knew who killed Standing, and yet none of the perpetrators were adequately tried or prosecuted. In looking at the episode of Standing and other accounts, one gets the feeling that parts of the South run parallel to scenes from the movie Tombstone, with roving gangs inflicting terror and brutality on anyone who they wished without any repercussion. Yet these vigilantes were not composed of the dregs of society, but more typically middling farmers or workers who had a stake in the community. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the South often looked the other way as these atrocities were performed, believing that Mormon polygamists to be the bigger threat to the nation's health.

According to Mason, anti-polygamy helped many southerners find common cause with northern reformers, religious leaders, and politicians. Beginning with Rutherford Hayes, U.S. presidents played a prominent role in the fight against polygamy throughout the late 1870s and 1880s. In 1882, the Edmonds Acts declared polygamy a felony and eventually both Republicans and Democrats joined forces to stamp out this ungodly form of marriage. Pressure was so great on Mormons to abandon polygamy that LDS president Wilford Woodruff felt compelled to formerly announce the end of plural marriage in 1890. Apparently, American Christians objected less to Mormon doctrines than the practice of polygamy.

Although based on his doctoral dissertation, The Mormon Menace is surprisingly captivating, and at an affordable price (on Amazon it is around $26). The story of anti-Mormon violence in the South needed to be told and Mason should be commended for telling this tale in such a spirited and engaging manner.

Jonathan Yeager

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