Joseph Smith reminds me of a chameleon, especially regarding his beliefs about slavery and black people. I wonder if, like a chameleon, he adapted his dogma to what most benefited himself and the church.
Mormons entered Utah with little regard for the indigenous people already living there. It didn’t take them long to begin participating in the purchase of Native people to add to their labor force. Mormons believed it was better to have them live as an enslaved or indentured person among the Mormons rather than a free life of what they perceived was savagery and degradation with their own people.
All these years later, Mormons are still proud of their rescue stories. Theatrical reenactments, complete with music and costume, pay homage. Youth participating in coming-of-age treks are encouraged to draw upon the strength of the Mormon pioneer.
Emma Maria Ellis Wood crossed a continent, turned her back on one God, and embraced another to become my great, great, great-grandmother.
She is wearing a dark-colored dress with a lace collar in the only photo I could find of her. Her hair is pulled back and hidden neatly under a bonnet. To me, she has gentle eyes.
Five men in Brown’s small army were black, a fact I never learned in school. Who were these black men, the white-centered telling of history left out, and why did they cross the bridge at Harpers Ferry that fateful night?
If teachers taught us of their bravery and sacrifice, we would know courage is not skin color. And that whiteness is not what makes us American.
It would be easy to absolve my grandfather of his choice to participate in a religion touting white supremacy by saying he was merely a man of his time. But that is a lie.
In addition to black people tirelessly championing their right to fair treatment, white men and women have fought beside them.
One such white man, John Brown, was born in 1800, like my grandfather Daniel.
I was thrilled my bloodline included a man willing to swear and stand against religion and a corporation because his moral compass told him it was the just and right thing to do.
Why didn’t he use this same fury to fight against slavery, especially when Utah voted to make owning human beings legal within its territory? He did not call his neighbors for meetings to discuss the horrific treatment of native tribes and the stealing of their land. Nor did he create petitions asking to eradicate the ban on blackness which the church wickedly perpetuated.
Lucy, Mary, and Thomas’ stories are not unique. Brigham Young encouraged Mormon families to purchase or barter for native children believing they would be better off in Mormon households. Native Americans, called Lamanites, could lighten their skin, becoming white and delightsome through conversion to the Mormon church. The saints saw bringing native children into their homes as an opportunity to save them while increasing the church roster.
“Pioneer’s ownership was made possible by our participation in the genocide and forced removal of the indigenous tribes.
Before Brigham Young’s claim that God wanted us here, these tribes had lived on and stewarded the mountains and valleys. They used bows and arrows to hunt for birds, bison, and mammoths and fished in lakes and rivers.”
“Daniel planted our family in the soil of the Mormon church. He watered us with his loyalty to them. His faith in the gospel’s truthfulness was the warm sun, inviting us to sprout and bloom, taking hold of the church dogma with blind trust.
As adept as he was in finding good dirt for corn and wheat seeds, he did not spot the church’s tainted soil, which allowed racists like me to grow. Or maybe, the less tasteful truth is he did see it and planted us there anyway.”