Mormonism and racial issues/Brigham Young/Race mixing punishable by death
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"...Brigham Young said race mixing was punishable by death."
Brigham Young's comments can be read as a condemnation of abuse and rape of helpless black women, and not necessarily as an overtly racist statement condemning interracial marriage in all times and places.
In 1863, couplings between black women and white men would virtually always be a relationship of a staggering power imbalance, with few rights for the woman, who was often forced into sexual activity. Her children would have been automatic slaves if she was a slave, and the men under no legal responsibility to provide for her or the children. (This failure to provide for offspring was a common Mormon criticism of Gentile non-marriage relationships when contrasted with plural marriage.)
Unlike contemporary 1860s fears for the virtue of white women when subjected to the predation of black men,. Brigham was far more worried about white men abusing their position of political and cultural superiority.
This is not to say that Brigham did not share some ideas about the desirability of keeping races separate; virtually everyone of his era did. American ethnologists taught that whites and blacks were separately created races, the mixture of which would corrupt both.
But, when in the same speech Brigham Young condemns the whites for their treatment of blacks, and threatens punishment for white men who have what is likely forced intercourse with black women, it is not fair to portray him as a ravening racist with no concern for the downtrodden. His fire and brimstone is all for the aggressor; his sympathy is for those who were mistreated.
- Master-slave race mixing—
Brigham Young said, "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot..." What was he referring to? (Link)
This criticism refers to a pair of statements, but more often the latter, made by Brigham Young:
- If they [a mixed race couple] were far away from the gentiles they would all [have] to be killed -- when they mingle seed it is death to all. If a black man & white woman come to you & demand baptism can you deny them? The law is their seed shall not be amalgamated. Mulattoes [are] like mules they can't have children, but if they will be eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake, they may have a place in the temple.
- Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. The nations of the earth have transgressed every law that God has given, they have changed the ordinances and broken every covenant made with the fathers, and they are like a hungry man that dreameth that he eateth, and he awaketh and behold he is empty.
The "chosen seed," in LDS doctrine, are those who hold the Melchizedek priesthood (see DC 107:40). So, Brigham is likely addressing his remarks particularly to those under the "oath and covenant" of the priesthood. This is not surprising, since the rest of the United States was certainly not listening with any respect to the Mormons, whose polygamy and doctrines they regarded with abhorrence.
With the Civil War at full burn, Brigham went on to declare: "I say to all men and all women, submit to God, to his ordinances and to His rule; serve Him, and cease your quarrelling, and stay the shedding of each other's blood." He is thus in the mode of condemning the United States and the "nations of the earth" for their sins, and he then says:
- If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been; they had also a right to make a law that negroes should be used like human beings, and not worse than dumb brutes. For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.
As governor of Utah Territory in 1852, Brigham Young had promoted legislation that he takes the US government to task for not passing. Positioning Utah to be strategically admitted to the Union as a slave state, Brigham Young nevertheless advocated humane treatment of slaves and provisions for their eventual release. Summarizing the 1852 legislation, Lester Bush wrote:
- Though Negro slaves could no longer choose to leave their masters, some elements of consent were included. Slaves brought into the Territory had to come "of their own free will and choice"; and they could not be sold or taken from the Territory against their will. Though a fixed period of servitude was not prescribed for Negroes, the law provided "that no contract shall bind the heirs of the servant ... for a longer period than will satisfy the debt due his [master] ..." Several unique provisions were included which terminated the owner's contract in the event that the master had sexual intercourse with a servant "of the African race," neglected to feed, clothe, shelter, or otherwise abused the servant, or attempted to take him from the Territory against his will. Some schooling was also required for slaves between the ages of six and twenty.
In the 1863 context, Brigham Young did not sympathize with pro-abolitionist sentiments in the North or the pro-slavery sentiments in the South, but advocated a moderate, middle ground. His practical remedy for a master coercing sexual relations with a foreign slave was not the master's death as Old Testament styled retribution might require, but the slave's freedom.
Brigham's Remarks in Historical Context
Brigham made his remarks, then, in the context of a civil war over the issue of slavery. Brigham condemned the white male (and perhaps priesthood holder) who "mixes" with black Africans. Why?
When would a white person "mix their seed" with the blacks? At the time, black slaves could not legally marry—this was a "human right," and the slave-holding states were very careful not to let blacks marry, since to do so implied that they had human rights (and, if they have one right, why not a right to be free?) As a history of marriage in the United States noted:
- The slaveholder's callous lust—his moral violence as well as his physical cruelty—gave abolitionists their most effective theme. Sexual abuse of female slaves by rape, incest, forced mating, and concubinage figured even more sensationally in abolitionist literature than the sale of slave family members..."No part of the dark and hidden iniquities of slavery" deserved revelation more than its travesty of the "nuptial covenant" with "odious lusts," the abolitionist George Bourne intoned, referring to the master's unchecked freedom to use the bodies of his female slaves.
Representative Justin Morrill, who would help write the first anti-polygamous legislation, thundered that "By the license of Slavery, a whole race is delivered over to prostitution and concubinage, without the protection of any law."
So, under what conditions would a white priesthood holder (or any white) be mixing their seed with a black woman? All too often, this was under the context of what was essentially rape and assault. Many slave-holders kept their own children in slavery, as they sired children on black slaves who could not refuse. By law, any child born to a slave was automatically a slave. One southern woman wrote:
- God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system...the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.
Blacks created a variety of their own arrangements which formalized these "informal" marriages, but families were always at risk of being broken up and sold by their owners, with no recourse. A major element of post-Civil War federal policy was the establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which had "the aim to reorient slaves' sexual and family behavior around legal marriage," a goal which had been impossible under generations of slavery.
Intermarriage with blacks was either illegal or virtually unheard of, and for decades after the Civil War, courts repeatedly rebuffed efforts by mixed race couples to legalize their unions.
Thus, a good part of Brigham's objection likely rested on the circumstances which would attend most white male/black woman pairings in his day. He would have likely known of no counter-examples—no relationships with blacks could be legal, and most resulted from duress.
Spiritual death seems an appropriate punishment for a priesthood holder who behaved in such a way, and literal capital punishment might not be too severe if "the law of God" could be administered by a genuine prophet. There are few crimes more grievous than to treat others as subhuman, and rape the powerless.
- [note] Brigham Young, "The Persecutions of the Saints, etc.," (8 March 1863) Journal of Discourses 10:110.
- [note] Brigham Young, "The Persecutions of the Saints, etc.," (8 March 1863) Journal of Discourses 10:111. (emphasis added)
- [note] Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2000), 58. off-site
- [note] Mary Boykin Chestnut, diary, from Root of Bitterness, ed. Nancy F. Cott (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1972), 209; cited in Cott, Public Vows, 59. off-site
- [note] Morrill (Vermont), 1860; cited in Cott, Public Vows, 74. off-site
- [note] Cott, Public Vows, 84. off-site
- [note] Cott, Public Vows, 101–104. off-site
- [note] See Cott, Public Vows, 98—99. off-site
- [note] Cott, Public Vows, 98–99. off-site