Christine Talbot is an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Northern Colorado. She answered our questions about her UIP book A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890.
Q: How did the geographic separation of Mormonism from the mainstream, middle-class political culture of the east contribute to negative or inaccurate portrayals of Mormons?
Christine Talbot: When Mormons settled the region in the late 1840s and 1850s that became the Utah Territory, they deliberately wanted to be at a geographic distance from the rest of the nation. Decades of persecution had alienated Mormons from other Americans, and Mormons wanted to settle in a distant place where they could live out their unique marital, family, and religious ideologies in peace.But this separation had consequences because it made inaccurate and negative portrayals of Mormons much easier to propagate at a national level.
Many anti-Mormons who portrayed Mormons to the rest of the nation had personal experience with Mormons, as government officials, spouses of government officials, apostates, visitors to the Territory, or travelers passing through. Other anti-Mormons, it is clear, had no direct experience with Mormons, and many, especially visitors and travelers passing through the territory, had very little; they seem to have simply written their impressions of Mormonism gained through other means. Most anti-Mormons, regardless of their experience with Mormons, carried with them ideological frameworks from the east that they used to make sense of Mormonism, often in negative and inaccurate ways. The geographic distance of Mormons from the rest of the nation also made it much easier to characterize Mormons as a foreign race or people with a foreign government, because few Americans interacted with Mormons.
More important than who was producing anti-Mormon literature, however, was who was reading it. Those consuming anti-Mormon literature rarely had any experience with Mormons, and so may have easily believed inaccurate and sometimes outlandish claims about the new faith. The separation between Mormons and the rest of the nation meant that there were very few people with experience among the Mormons to produce a counter discourse about Mormons except Mormons themselves. Mormons’ credibility, however, had already been undermined by anti-Mormon rhetoric, as well as by the secrecy within which Mormonism had operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This meant that for most Americans there was only one available lens through which to view Mormonism, the lens produced by a remarkably uniform set of anti-Mormon literature that usually misrepresented Mormons.
Q: How did the issue of plural marriage violate the era’s mainstream political focus on the separation of public and private spheres?
Talbot: This question addresses one of the central themes in my book, cutting straight to the heart of the nineteenth-century Mormon question. During the nineteenth century, the American white middle class was very concerned with establishing the household as a “private” sphere, separate from the more “public” worlds of government and economics. In rhetoric, if not in reality, the middle class prized the household as a haven of peace and love in which Americans learned the principles of democracy and virtue that future adult men would carry into the public sphere of politics. During the nineteenth century, most Americans grounded their conceptions of American citizenship in the family. That is, a man became a citizen by virtue of his role as husband and head of a private household, and represented the interests of that household in public economic and political spheres.
Anti-Mormons under the sway of middle-class perspectives saw in Mormonism the improper blurring of the public/private divide. From anti-Mormon perspectives, Mormons were actively mixing public and private, contaminating the private sphere with the competition and corruption that often characterized the public sphere, and bringing that which should remain private—family and religious conscience—under the purview of public government.
The Mormons undercut the public/private divide in three ways. First, Mormons amalgamated religion, family, civic life, economics, and government all together under God’s kingdom. The practice of plural marriage encouraged Mormons to think of their entire community as a large, extended family tied together not just by common belief, but also by the eternal bonds of celestial marriage. This discouraged Mormons from imagining their families as individual units within a private household and encouraged Mormons to think of their families as embedded within a larger community-based family of God. The second way Mormons troubled the public/private divide was that they imagined their whole community, the family of God, as a kind of private sphere writ large that they juxtaposed to a broader American “public” and to the “public” institutions of American government. Third, Mormons inverted the customary understandings of the public/private divide by, in a sense, “publicizing” the family (making it synonymous with the broader community) and by “privatizing” government in Utah. Mormons argued that the role of the Church in government in Utah was a private affair akin to a father governing his family.
Q: How did anti-Mormon sentiment fit into more general national anxieties about citizenship and minority cultures?
Talbot: This is a really interesting question because how the young American nation went about incorporating new groups of citizens into the American republic tells us a lot about the gendered and racial ideologies that informed national culture and law makers during the nineteenth century.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, the South had been the epicenter of questions about citizenship and who did and did not fully belong to the nation. Newly freed slaves asserted their citizenship, while white southerners moved to bar Blacks from political participation through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, violence, and other means. As the systematic disenfranchisement of Black men resolved the “Negro question” (temporarily, at least) in the South, questions of citizenship turned westward to confront the political status of Mexicans, American Indians, Chinese immigrants, and Mormons. The question in all of these contexts, including in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, was about how “American” these people were, and how “American” they could become. People debated endlessly about these questions, particularly in regard to Mexicans, American Indians, and Chinese immigrants.
These discussions took on a different flavor in the context of the Mormon question, largely because Mormonism was a faith born on American soil and many Mormons were already American citizens. (Others, however, were immigrants, largely from Western Europe). For many anti-Mormons, Mormonism was a betrayal of the American legacy, a kind of political and racial treason. Mormons were a contradiction in terms—Americans who embraced un-American marital and political practices. For anti-Mormons, this threatened the very definition of Americanness, showing that Americans could become un-American by virtue of conversion to Mormonism. As I show in the last chapter of my book, many anti-Mormons resolved this tension by turning to racial analogies to make sense of this contradiction. Ultimately, this ideological process informed the legal actions taken against Mormons in the 1880s, as the federal government outlawed plural marriage and stripped some Mormons of their rights as U.S. citizens. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Reynolds v. The United States Supreme Court case that declared anti-polygamy legislation constitutional and prepared the way for the legal prosecutions of the 1880s.
Q: What distinguished Mormonism from other utopian religious experiments in nineteenth-century America?
Talbot: At least three things distinguish Mormonism from other nineteenth-century utopian groups. First, after 1852, the Mormons occupied a Western Territory and exercised real political power and dominated civil government in Utah. Second, the Mormons were a larger community that attracted converts and grew much more rapidly than other utopian experiments of the nineteenth century. Thirdly, and most importantly in my view, what most troubled anti-Mormons was the particular ways Mormonism mixed religion, politics, family, and sexuality into a comprehensive and uniquely Mormon understanding of the meanings of citizenship and national identity and belonging.
By establishing the family of God through the practice of polygamy, Mormons cast the entire community as one great family, contesting the groundwork upon which white, middle-class Americans founded citizenship and national belonging. For most Americans, American men (not women, it is worth noting) became citizens by virtue of their status as husbands and as heads of households; they represented the interest of that household in public politics. However, Mormons claimed to be citizens, first, of the kingdom of Godand only secondarily of the American republic. They marked their citizenship in God’s kingdom through their belief in and sometimes practice of plural marriage. However, Mormons also claimed a kind of dual citizenship in the American republic not by virtue of marriage and status as heads of households, but by claiming that Church government itself was a perfection of American political principles. Because anti-Mormons found church government not only despotic but treasonous, these claims did not set well with most Americans and, eventually, led to the political and marital restructuring of Mormonism in the 1890s.
Q: What aspects of Mormon religious beliefs and social structures led their community to enfranchise women so early on?
Talbot: This question has been puzzling historians of Mormonism for quite some time. Utah enfranchised women without the sort of political agitation that occurred in other states. Ironically enough, woman suffrage simply made sense to Mormons because of the ways they believed polygamy trained women for civic equality and American citizenship.
The idea of enfranchising Mormon women came initially from anti-Mormons who thought that, given the chance, Mormon women would vote to cast off the chains of plural marriage. However, William Hooper the congressional delegate of the Utah Territory, as well as Mormon Church leaders welcomed the idea. Congress quickly abandoned the idea, but Mormon women petitioned the Utah Territorial Government for the vote, and the Church supported the passage of a woman suffrage law. One month later, Utah became the second territory (after Wyoming) to enfranchise women.
Behind the specific political developments that enabled the passage of woman suffrage was an ideological framework that paved the way for woman suffrage to make sense to an avowedly patriarchal church. For Mormons, polygamy paved the way for women to develop their intellectual, mental, cultural, and political capacities beyond the demands of wife- and motherhood.