Review: The Mormon Menace
Patrick Q. Mason. The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 264 pp. ISBN 9780199740024.
In The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South, Patrick Q. Mason discovers the limits of religious tolerance as he explores reactions to the Mormon presence in the post-Civil War South. Mason explains that Mormons inspired opposition and violence with an intensity and frequency that other religious minorities did not experience. Southerners would settle for nothing less than the total eradication of “the Mormon menace.” Mason argues that the long tradition of vigilantism in the South extended to Mormons because the institution of polygamy challenged white male honor. Envisioning Mormon missionaries as potential seducers of southern women, white men fell back on a long tradition of extralegal coercion to support the common good and violently asserted their masculinity and prowess to protect “the chastity of their women and the sanctity of their homes” (66). Exacerbating the violence, Mason contends, was anti-Mormon rhetoric that attacked Mormon doctrine, legitimacy, and practices. This rhetoric was strongest from evangelical Protestants who became more vitriolic where itinerant Mormon missionaries were most successful. At a national level, southern evangelicals played a role in the campaign against Mormon polygamy and theocracy. Here, Mason is careful to note the irony. Southerners abandoned their earlier battle cries of popular sovereignty, states’ rights, and limited federal government in the crusade against Mormonism. In the postbellum years, Mason argues, the anti-polygamy campaign “subsume[d] regional and partisan identities,” united southern democrats and northern republicans, and contributed to the reforging of the nation (95). North and South could both agree that the polygamous theocracy in the West must be stopped.
As the national anti-Mormon campaign intensified, so did violence against Mormons in the South. Mason identifies the 1880s as the time when the federal government got serious about the “Mormon question,” passing two major pieces of legislation that struck at Mormon politics and polygamy. Correspondingly, the 1880s were the high point of anti-Mormon violence with 15 to 45 cases reported each year (131). Missionaries were targeted, but so were converts or even those who were merely friendly to Mormons. Mason postulates that attacks on neophytes were in response to the social disruption and severing of kinship ties that conversion to Mormonism was assumed to cause. He outlines the various types of abuse the missionaries faced, including abduction, expulsion, whipping, property damage, death threats, arson, and outright murder, to reinforce his assertion that vigilante violence was a means of social control. Rather than having the desired effect of driving the Mormons from the South, however, the myriad types of persecution only strengthened Mormon resolve. The victims became martyrs, and their suffering was added to the larger persecution narrative that was instrumental in shaping Latter-day Saint self-identity and in defining boundaries between Mormons and non-Mormons. The Mormon Church deliberately deployed tales of southern persecutions to sustain their oppositional identity.
Mason opens with two case studies of southern anti-Mormon violence that introduce his two primary themes of polygamy and religious competition: the murder of Joseph Standing and the Cane Creek massacre. He hones in on polygamy in the next two chapters, discussing Southern perceptions of, and concrete responses to, Mormon missionaries, while arguing that polygamy was the driving force behind southern anti-Mormonism. Chapter 7 describes the physical reactions that resulted from pervasive anti-Mormon rhetoric and outlines patterns of anti-Mormon violence. The last two chapters discuss the effects of southern violence on the creation and maintenance of Mormon identity, as well as the limits of religious pluralism in the postbellum United States. Using Jews and Catholics in the South as examples, he shows that religious pluralism was possible only if non-Protestants kept their worship private and fit into mainstream society in all other ways. Mormon insistence on maintaining themselves as a separate and chosen people transgressed southern expectations and aggravated tensions. As Mormons mainstreamed into American society, anti-Mormon violence and sentiment decreased.
In his examination of the role of violence in (re)creating identity, Mason joins fellow American religious historian Edward J. Blum (W.E.B. DuBois, American Prophet ). While Blum’s focus is on African-American lynchings and the narratives they inspired, both he and Mason reach the same conclusion: minority groups, whether racial or religious, could and did transform the meaning of violence by actively reconstructing their identities to include, and even glorify, brutality. Mason’s work also dovetails with Jason C. Bivins’ Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008) in that both demonstrate the effectiveness of the deliberate deployment of fear to advance evangelical goals. Finally, Mason finds commonality with Anthony Pinn’s study of black religious responses to terror (Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion ) in that both probe the role of suffering in creating or strengthening religious commitment.
By moving the focus from the frontier to the South, Mason is able to add to the traditional understanding of the self-conscious creation of Mormon religious identity through antagonism. He also brings a new perspective to southern vigilantism by focusing on white-on-white violence instigated by religious difference. Another strength of this work is Mason’s ability to move smoothly between non-Mormon and Mormon viewpoints, drawing out not only southern thoughts and concomitant actions but also the Mormon response. Mason illuminates relatively unknown episodes in southern history and finds relevant meaning for Mormons, the South, and the nation as a whole.