Separate But Equal. Joseph Smith and the Presidency.

Fall semester is coming up. Maybe I’m feeling a little solemn.

Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign platform called for relocation of African Americans. Effectively, they would be Americans in the mold of Daniel Webster’s 1820 address at Plymouth Rock. Webster observed that colonization meant the propagation of civilization. He never mentioned the non-whites in America but many felt colonization, “benevolent” colonization was the key to advancing the benighted blacks and Indians among them. They could become more white by separation. Civilized futures awaited!

True, Andrew Jackson and sympathizers with his racial ideas were a bump in the road here, but “removal” was clearly seen by commentators as far different than colonization.[1] The latter held the promise of reconciling the morality of the Declaration with the realities of slavery. Joseph Smith’s position imitates the pre-1840s. After this, the national, or at least the southern conscience began to style slavery as a paternalism paralleling a theology centered in “Ham’s curse.” Colonization certainly manifested the separate but equal ideas of phenomenological prejudice, but it faded into the background of economic claims and its religious lubrication.

Joseph Smith harked back to an Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment which saw civilization as the product of circumstance, not race. Gradually, a malevolent theology overtook this science that originally saw the Indian as potentially white via intermarriage.[2] A position Smith himself may have advocated in the 1830s. It’s not that Joseph’s concept was not racist. It was. But it wasn’t the evil that overtook American Christianity (including Mormonism I think) in later years. Slippery is the only way to describe any sort of racism. And there was a slope more and more apparent near the end of Joseph’s lifetime.

Joseph echoed the earlier American position well prior to the aspiration to the presidency. A conversation recorded by Willard Richards, Jan. 1843:

after Supper asked what is the situation of the Negro? They come into the world slaves mentally & phyically. change their situation with the white & they would be like them. they have souls, & are subject of salvation[.] go into cincinati– & find one– educated rids in his carriage he has risen by the powers of his mind to his exald state, of rspectability. Slaves in washington more refined than the presidents. boys will take the shine off those they brush & wait on. —

Says Elder Hyde put them on the level & they will rise above me. — Joseph[:] if I raised you to be my equal & then attempt to oppress you would you not be indignant, & Try to rise above me? did not Oliver Cowdry & Peter Whitmer & may others say I was fallen & they were capble of Leading the people[.] had I any thing to do with the negro– I would confine them to by strict Laws to their own Species put them on a national Equalization

In a sense, Joseph was regressive. He doesn’t report the Hamic mythos here though his successors would found a Mormon version on his own revelatory translations. The thickness of that tradition required revelation to reverse it. The ease with which it was erased testifies to the weakness of that tradition’s foundation in Mormon thought.[3]

Joseph’s theological position is perhaps best seen in the light of his ordaining African-Americans. The post-Nauvoo rereading of Joseph as Southern Baptist is just that. And that’s sort of a sermon. (grin)
[1] Guyatt, The Ourskirts of Our Happiness: Race and the Lure of Colonization, J. Amer. Hist. 2009. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic, 371. Branagan, Serious Remonstrances, Addressed to the Citizens of the Northern States, 43.

[2] See Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 8ff and more broadly Guyatt, The Ourskirts of Our Happiness

[3] Think polygamy, if you want to. This is not to say JS and others didn’t subscribe to or acknowledge the long standing tradition that slavery itself was connected to Ham and the curse of Canaan (even Augustine accepted the association between Ham and Africa). But predictive value was not seen as inherent depravity and the pernicious meanings extrapolated from this common belief didn’t find a home in JS’s thought as far as I can tell. That is not to say other Mormons didn’t harbor such ideas. Many undoubtedly did and would.

4 Responses to Separate But Equal. Joseph Smith and the Presidency.

  1. J. Stapley says:


  2. David G. says:

    Very nice, WVS.

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