Was Mormonism Ever Pro-slavery?

Related Posts: Blacks and the Priesthood; Race issues in the Book of Mormon: Part I; Race issues in the Book of Mormon: Part II

Summary: On the McLaughlin Group Lawrence O’Donnell ranted against Mormonism. He said the LDS faith is racist and Joseph Smith was a criminal. He also accused the Church of being pro-slavery. His views are extremely biased–that will be obvious to anyone who watches the clip below.

So, was Mormonism ever pro-slavery?

The LDS faith was never pro-slavery. Neither were Joseph Smith and Brigham Young–the only LDS Presidents during the antebellum period. Joseph Smith wanted to free the slaves by purchasing their freedom. Brigham Young said, “I am neither an abolitionist nor a pro-slavery man.” He goes on to say if he had to choose he would be against the pro-slavery side.

Brigham Young wanted Utah to be a free state, but as a territory it permitted slavery. Though there were probably never more than 100 slaves in the entire territory.

Naturally, politics came into play. When the church was in Missouri it was accused of being abolitionist, which is something Joseph Smith had to deal with. Brigham Young was afraid if slavery were abolished polygamy would be next. So they both walked a political tightrope.

Their positions on slavery are not what we would like them to be. But I cannot conclude either of them were pro-slavery.


Recently Lawrence O’Donnell on the McLaughlin Group accused Mormonism of being a racist faith and that in its past it was pro-slavery. This post addresses the pro-slavery accusation. (See also Blacks and the Priesthood)

The church was organized in 1830 and the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865, which means for 35 years the church existed in an environment where slavery was an issue. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are the only two presidents of the church who presided over the church during the time that slavery legally existed in the United States. So I will focus primarily on what they thought of slavery and black people.

In 1833 W.W. Phelps, editor of the church magazine Star, wrote in that publication,

Slaves are real estate in this and other states, and wisdom would dictate great care among the branches of the church of Christ on this subject. So long as we have no special rule in the church as to people of color, let prudence guide; and while they, as well as we, are in the hands of a merciful God, we say: shun every appearance of evil. (Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. I, p. 327)

Joseph Smith

In 1836 Joseph Smith published in the church magazine Messenger and Advocate his views on abolition.

I am aware, that many who profess to preach the gospel, complain against their brethren of the same faith, who reside in the south, and are ready to withdraw the hand of fellowship because they will not renounce the principle of slavery and raise their voice against every thing of the kind. This must be a tender point, and one which should call forth the candid reflection of all men and especially before they advance in an opposition calculated to lay waste the fair States of the South…

… I do not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall.

…when I see persons in the free states signing documents against slavery, it is no less, in my mind, than an array of influence, and a declaration of hostilities against the people of the South! What can divide our Union sooner, God only knows!

…if the principle had been an evil one, in the midst of the communications made to this holy man …[Abraham] would have been instructed differently. And if he was instructed against holding men-servants and maid-servants, he never ceased to do it; consequently must have incurred the displeasures of the Lord and thereby lost his blessings — which was not the fact.

…we have no right to interfere with slaves contrary to the mind and will of their masters. In fact, it would be much better and more prudent, not to preach at all to slaves, until after their masters are converted: and then, teach the master to use them with kindness, remembering that they are accountable to God, and that servants are bound to serve their master, with singleness of heart…[I] hope, that no one who is authorized from this church to preach the gospel, will so far depart from the scripture as to be found stirring up strife and sedition against our brethren of the South. (Messenger and Advocate, Vol. II, pp. 289-291; see also History of the Church Vol. II, pp. 437-???)

At that time there were a great number of Mormons living in Missouri, and it had been rumored among the Missourians that the Mormons were abolitionists. In 1833 hundreds of Missourians signed a manifesto accusing the Mormons, among other things, of tampering with their slaves (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 374-376). This put the church in a very difficult situation. The above statement was intended to clearly establish that the church was not against the institution of slavery, and by showing that the Old and New Testaments contain no prohibition against slavery–the OT actually appears to be pro-slavery–that the abolitionists were extreme in their views. But during the time the church was based in Missouri it had another reason to be cautious. In 1832 Joseph Smith prophesied, “after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters” (D&C 87:1-5).

Joseph Smith also held the view (common at that time) that blacks were descendants of Ham:

[Noah] cursed [Canaan] … and the priesthood which he held, notwithstanding he was drunk, and the curse remains upon the posterity of Canaan until the present day (History of the Church, Vol. 4, p. 445).

In 1843 Joseph Smith’s opinion of black people was as follows.

Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine off many of those they brush and wait on.

Elder Hyde remarked, “Put them on the level, and they will rise above me.” I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant and try to rise above me…Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization. (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 269; see also History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 217; quote can be found here)

In 1844 Joseph decided to run for president. He wrote an article titled “Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States” in which he outlined his platform. In it he writes about the issue of slavery.

My cogitations…have for a long time troubled me, when I viewed the condition of men throughout the world, and more especially in this boasted realm, where the Declaration of Independence “holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours…

Petition, also, ye goodly inhabitants of the slave States, your legislators to abolish slavery by the year 1850, or now, and save the abolitionist from reproach and ruin, infamy and shame.

Pray Congress to pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from the members of Congress.

Break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor like other human beings; for “an hour of virtuous liberty on earth is worth a whole eternity of bondage.”…

The Southern people are hospitable and noble. They will help to rid so free a country of every vestige of slavery, whenever they are assured of an equivalent for their property…
…Wherefore, were I the president of the United States, by the voice of a virtuous people, I would honor the old paths of the venerated fathers of freedom; I would walk in the tracks of the illustrious patriots who carried the ark of the Government upon their shoulders with an eye single to the glory of the people, and when that people petitioned to abolish slavery in the slave states, I would use all honorable means to have their prayers granted, and, give liberty to the captive by paying the Southern gentlemen a reasonable equivalent for his property, that the whole nation might be free indeed! (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 197-209)

Joseph was never an abolitionist, nor was he a pro-slavery man. Many northerners of his time had personal objections to the institution of slavery but felt it was an issue better left to the individual states. His feelings about slavery focused on the detrimental effects it would have on the United States, and not on freedom for the sake of freedom. His concern is likely related to his earlier revelations about war within the United States, which he believed would be related to the slavery issue. In 1832 he prophesied, “the commencement of the difficulties which will cause much bloodshed previous to the coming of the Son of Man will be in South Carolina. It may probably arise through the slave question. This a voice declared to me, while I was praying earnestly on the subject” (D&C 130:12-13). And again in 1832 he prophesied “concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass,” and “after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters” (D&C 87:1-5).

Joseph Smith was murdered on June 27, 1844. Following a brief succession crisis Brigham Young assumed the leadership of the church.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young also expressed a “neutral” attitude about slavery issue.

It is not the prerogative of the President of the United States to meddle with this matter, and Congress is not allowed, according to the Constitution, to legislate upon it. If Utah was admitted into the Union as a sovereign State, and we chose to introduce slavery here, it is not their business to meddle with it; and even if we treated our slaves in an oppressive manner, it is still none of their business and they ought not to meddle with it. (Journal of Discourses [JD], Vol. 4, pp. 39-40; 1856)

And while the Civil War was raging on he stated,

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.

I am neither an abolitionist nor a pro-slavery man. If I could have been influenced by private injury to choose one side in preference to the other, I should certainly be against the pro-slavery side of the question, for it was pro-slavery men that pointed the bayonet at me and my brethren in Missouri, and said, “Damn you we will kill you.” I have not much love for them, only in the Gospel. (JD, Vol. 10, p. 110; 1863)

The anti-polygamy bill that he refers to is the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. In the above statement he is making an appeal to the idea of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of polygamy.

In 1859 the nationally recognized reporter Horace Greeley interviewed Brigham for the New York Tribune. And excerpt of the interview is given below.

HG: What is the position of your church with respect to slavery?

BY: We consider it of divine institution and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants.

HG: Are there any slaves now held in this territory?

BY: There are.

HG: Do your territorial laws uphold slavery?

BY: Those laws are printed – you can read for yourself. If slaves are brought here by those who owned them in the States, we do not favor their escape from their owners?

HG: Am I to infer that Utah, if admitted as a member of the Federal Union, will be a slave state?
BY: No, she will be a free state. Slavery here would prove useless and unprofitable. I regard it generally as a curse to the master. I myself hire many laborers and pay them fair wages. I could not afford to own them. I can do better than subject myself to an obligation to feed and clothe their families, to provide and care for them in sickness and health. Utah is not adapted to slave labor. (The Life of Horace Greeley, p. 421)

Brigham Young’s views were not uncommon for his day. In another statement he mentions the rumor that was prevalent in Missouri while the saints were located there, that the Mormons were interfering with the slaves. He then goes on to speak of his views of blacks and the issue of slavery.

Formerly the rumor was that “they were agoing to tamper with the slaves,” when we had never thought of such a thing. The seed of Ham, which is the seed of Cain descending through Ham, will, according to the curse put upon him, serve his brethren, and be a “servant of servants” to his fellow-creatures, until God removes the curse; and no power can hinder it. These are my views upon slavery. I will here say a little more upon this point. The conduct of the whites towards the slaves will, in many cases, send both slave and master to hell. This statement comprises much in a few words. The blacks should be used like servants, and not like brutes, but they must serve. (JD, Vol. 2, p. 184; 1855)

Final Comments

From early in the history of the church to the time slavery was abolished the church’s position on slavery was ambivalent. It generally opposed abolitionist sentiments. But even so, Joseph believed slavery was generally detrimental to the health of the nation; and Brigham disliked the harsh treatment of the slaves and believed that owning slaves tended to put master and slave on a path to hell. Brigham Young definitely had non-slavery leanings. But like Joseph, they were not based on freedom as a higher ideal. Joseph’s concern seemed to focus on his fear that the slavery issue would lead the nation to a bloody conflict–and in that he was correct. In that respect Joseph’s views were similar to those of President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln writes in a letter to Horace Greely,

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. (The Life of Horace Greely, p. 466)

Brigham Young did have harsh views on interracial sex: “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” (JD, Vol. 10, p. 109; 1863). “Death on the spot” applied to the white man. The Utah territorial legislature passed a law stating,

…if any master or mistress shall have sexual or carnal intercourse with his or her servant or servants of the African race, he or she shall forfeit all claim to said servant or servants to the commonwealth; and if any white person shall be guilty of sexual intercourse with any of the African race, they shall be subject, on conviction thereof to a fine of not exceeding one thousand dollars, nor less than five hundred, to the use of the Territory, and imprisonment, not exceeding three years (Acts, Resolutions, and Memorials of the Territory of Utah: An Act in Relation to Service, sec. 4)

Before the Civil War territories were admitted to the Union as free states or slave states. In the case of the Utah territory the issue of slavery was left to the territorial legislature. Just as the prohibition against intercourse between master and slave was not intended to protect the slave, laws restricting or prohibiting slavery were not so much intended to protect blacks from slavery, but rather to keep the slaves out. That is, to prevent black people from being brought into the state. In his book The Frontier against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy Eugene H. Berwanger writes,

When a southern senator, as late as 1854, insisted that racial antipathy prompted Free Soil doctrine, Augustus Dodge was surprised at the remark. He has always been under the impression that opposition to the expansion of slavery existed in order to insure a white population in the West and could not remember anyone who had ever demanded the nonextension of slavery “for the benefit of the Negro” (p. 126)

Utah territorial law permitted slave owners to bring slaves into the state, but once there they could not sell their slaves out of state or to another person in state without court approval and the consent of the slave (Acts, Resolutions, and Memorials of the Territory of Utah: An Act in Relation to Service, sec. 7 & 8). It also required that slaves be sent to school (Ibid., sec. 9).

Though the 1850 census put the number of slaves in Utah at 26, it’s possible there were more. It’s likely there were never more than 100 in Utah. The 1860 census listed 29 slaves.

(See Lester E. Bush, “Mormonisms Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue, Vol. 34, Spring/Summer 2001, see footnote 74 on p. 246; see also Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 487; History of Utah: 1540-1886, p. 484, footnote 9; US Census Bureau 1850 census, p. 998, and 1860 census, p. 576.)

It is generally popular to lionize great leaders and glorify our great causes. Mormons have done this with Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, and Americans have done it with Abraham Lincoln. Though they were truly great men, the truth is our great leaders were very much people of their time and were no more enlightened about social issues than the average person was.

So is Lawrence O’Donnell correct? Was the church pro-slavery? Well its leaders certainly did not have 21st century attitudes about race. And it appears they had a very “Northern” attitude about slavery. And just as Abraham Lincoln was, they were also men of their time. But Brigham’s non-slavery leanings and Smith’s advocation of freeing the slaves by 1850 leads me to conclude that the church was not pro-slavery; neither were Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.

10 thoughts on “Was Mormonism Ever Pro-slavery?

  1. Hey thanks for this, I really needed an answer on Brigham and Slavery, our paper wrote that he did have slaves himself. I really needed an answer for a friend. It seemed like people would only find the bad that was said and would leave out the good with it. I am glad someone wasn’t afraid to tell the whole story. I admire you whoever you are. Thanks!

  2. Brigham Young’s statements should also be considered in their pre or post civil war context. Before the war the southern states were blocking anti-polygamy legislation because they were afraid it would be the slippery slope to antislavery laws; they knew that strong states rights would protect slavery. Thus on the polygamy issue they were for local control. Naturally Brigham Young knew this. Consequently, before the civil war his statements were intended to appease the southern states on the slavery issue, so as not to loose their support, which for the Mormons meant protection of plural marriage. In the interview with Horace Greeley (1859) Brigham Young says, “We consider it [slavery] of divine institution and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants,” but then goes on to say that if Utah were admitted as a state, “She will be a free state.” He does seem to have had anti-abolitionist non-slavery inclinations.

  3. Also,

    “When asked about slavery during his Springfield trial in December 1842, he had come out for manumission. Orson Hyde wanted to know ‘what would you advise a man to do who come in the [Church] having a hundred slaves?’ ‘I have always advi[s]e such to bring their slaves into a free country,’ was Joseph’s reply; ‘set them free, Educate them and give them their equal rights.’ (Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 516, brackets are Bushman’s)

  4. Brigham Young once said in the territorial legislature,

    “I am opposed to the present system of slavery.” (Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, p. 351)

  5. In early 1852, Brigham Young asked the territorial legislature to approve slavery. This was done on February 4, 1852. (From the above comment, this territorial act was overridden by the act of Congress in 1862.) Brigham Young obviously held anti-black prejudices based on the exclusion from the priesthood.

  6. It was nice to read something purely factorial rather than opinion, especially since you have so much documentation. Thanks so much for thoroughly researching this! However, I did find the video difficult to watch. Regardless of my own beliefs, it’s hard to watch someone who won’t let anyone else state their opinion. The whole video was mainly just them yelling at each other because he wouldn’t let anyone else talk. If I didn’t have an opinion before watching the video, I would be inclined to want him to be wrong. It was a really nice read, though! Thanks so much for posting!

  7. Yep, written like a true Mormon. Sounds mostly pro slavery to me, and it if was to appease the south then shame on them anyway,

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