Religion of a Different Color
Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness
- ISBN: 9780199754076
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: February 2015
W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness begins with a riddle: how is it that Mormons, who Americans see as almost “too white” today, were in the nineteenth century regarded as closer to non-white by virtue of their unusual beliefs and practices? Working from a background of previous scholarship on the malleability of whiteness and the process by which immigrant groups “became” white in the American context, Reeve examines how Mormons, despite mainly coming from “white” ethnic groups, simultaneously were excluded from Protestant notions of whiteness and sought to advance a view of themselves as white.
Reeve organizes Religion of a Different Color around a political cartoon from 1904 which depicts a fictional Mormon elder and his nine children, each from a different racial or ethnic background. Sections of the book take each child as a starting point, allowing for a broad overview of the different ways in which Mormons were racialized and in which they racialized others, including African Americans, Native Americans, and members of various European ethnic groups.
Reeve unearths a tremendous variety of primary sources, from letters and diaries to popular culture and media. For example, alongside more conventional sources, he uses a 1905 song called “The Mormon Coon” to discuss the conflation of negative stereotypes of African Americans with Mormons (183-85). One of the book’s innovations is its argument that interracial relationships (in particular, those between black men and white women, real or imagined) were a primary concern both for those outside the church, who imagined that Mormons tolerated these relationships, and for Mormons who sought to refute that perception and to prevent interracial unions within the church.
Drawing its logic from the opening cartoon, Religion of a Different Color’s organization is occasionally confusing. For example, while three separate chapters cover Mormons and African Americans, all three cover quite similar ground—namely, that of interracial marriage and sexual contact—and it is unclear as to why the chapters are divided. Additionally, Reeve’s strict adherence to the political cartoon ignores other ethnic groups, such as Pacific Islanders, whose relationship to Mormonism is perhaps worthy of its own book due to its longstanding nature and complexity.
Overall, Reeve’s book is a tremendous step forward in studies of Mormonism, race, and racialization, and indeed of race in American history more broadly. By examining a spectrum of groups, Reeve creates an unprecedentedly fleshed-out picture of these racial processes.
Alexandra Griffin is a doctoral student in American religion at Arizona State University.Alexandria GriffinDate Of Review:November 22, 2017