JS, Letter, [, Geauga Co., OH], to , [, Geauga Co., OH], ca. 9 Apr. 1836. Featured version published in “For the Messenger and Advocate,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, 2:289–291. For more complete source information, see the source note for Letter to Oliver Cowdery, Dec. 1834.
A series of three articles addressing slavery and abolitionism appeared in the April 1836 issue of the church newspaper, the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Among these pieces was a letter JS wrote to the paper’s editor, , in which he stated his view on the right of citizens of the to own slaves and addressed the spread of radical abolitionism in and other western states.
Though Americans had been debating the morality of slavery since before the country’s founding, the rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison and other antislavery activists in the early 1830s prompted many Northerners to take a more pronounced stand on slavery and emancipation. Distancing themselves from the faction of the antislavery movement that advocated gradual emancipation and sending the slaves to colonies in Africa, abolitionists like Garrison condemned slavery on moral grounds and demanded the immediate emancipation and enfranchisement of black slaves. Using passionate public speeches and his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, Garrison sought to “lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation.” In December 1833, Garrison joined other prominent abolitionists, such as Theodore Weld and Arthur Tappan, to found the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), an organization that advocated for the “immediate abandonment” of slavery “without expatriation.” The number of local antislavery societies grew rapidly. By 1836, the AASS itself had organized well over 500 branches in communities across the , including 133 in —the most in any state.
As abolitionists began to grow in number, the movement’s leaders launched an ambitious campaign to persuade more Americans to embrace their cause. This campaign generated the desired publicity, but it also resulted in significant social and political backlash. In 1834 and 1835, the AASS began mailing abolitionist literature en masse to members of Congress and to prominent citizens in the South. Letters to legislators urged national leaders to end slavery in the District of Columbia, while mass-produced tracts, directed to thousands of individuals, vividly depicted the cruelties of American slavery. The postal campaign generated intense controversy in the South; in July 1835, a mob ransacked the post office in Charleston, South Carolina, burned abolitionist literature, and hanged Garrison and Tappan in effigy. In 1836, the House of Representatives passed a resolution—later referred to as the “gag rule”—mandating that all petitions relating to slavery or abolition be tabled immediately and not receive further action. The resolution was renewed yearly until Congress rescinded it in 1844. Though Northerners largely condemned southern slavery, most remained indifferent, if not opposed, to the “radical” cries of the abolitionists. From 1834 to 1835, anti-abolitionist riots broke out in , , , and other cities across the North; in July 1836, a mob destroyed an abolitionist press in and then turned on local black residents. The pervasiveness of anti-abolitionist violence meant Mormon leaders were keenly aware that if they so much as hinted at support for abolitionism, there could be violent repercussions—even in the northern states.
Despite social and political resistance to abolitionist ideas, support for the movement grew steadily throughout the western frontier. in particular became a stronghold of abolitionism during the 1830s, attracting a vocal group of students and professors from local religiously affiliated institutions. In 1831, several prominent faculty members at in (thirty-five miles south of ) embraced and promoted Garrison’s brand of abolitionism, leading many students to join local abolitionist societies. In the winter of 1833, some of these students even traveled through nearby towns delivering abolitionist speeches. Following a series of debates between abolitionists and colonizationists at ’s Lane Seminary in February 1834, sympathetic students began to actively work and lecture for abolition in surrounding communities. This angered local residents, who put pressure on the institution’s trustees to fire professors and ban abolitionist activities. During fall 1834, more than fifty students, later referred to as “Lane rebels,” left the institution in protest. The Oberlin Institute welcomed the Lane abolitionists, more than two dozen of whom enrolled at the school by summer 1835. By the spring of 1836, Oberlin—located fifty miles from Kirtland—had become a local center of abolitionism.
Students affiliated with these three institutions played a significant role in spreading abolitionism from college campuses to communities throughout . One student at Oberlin, John W. Alvord, embarked on a lecture circuit in December 1835 that took him through various communities in northeastern Ohio, including and . Alvord, who was employed by the AASS, is likely the “gentleman” referred to by JS in the featured text. Though he had been pelted with stones and threatened with tarring and feathering in Willoughby several months before, Alvord returned in April to give several speeches there; he also helped establish a local antislavery society. According to the abolitionist newspaper Philanthropist, Alvord also lectured in Kirtland in April 1836 and organized a society there.
The experiences of in , Missouri, in 1833, as well as missionary efforts in the South from 1834 to 1836, also shaped the way in which JS and other church leaders responded to the spread of abolitionism in . In July 1833, wrote an editorial in the church’s newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star that was interpreted by the citizens in Jackson County as being an invitation for free blacks to migrate to the state. Asserting that his article had been misunderstood, Phelps issued an extra edition of the Star several days later in which he claimed that “our intention was not only to stop free people of color from emigrating to this state, but to prevent them from being admitted as members of the church.” Phelps’s extra did little to allay the outrage of local citizens. On 18 July, local residents circulated a document that decried church members as “deluded fanatics” and accused them of “tampering with our slaves and endeavoring to sow dissensions & raise seditions among them.” Two days later, a mob destroyed the church’s and tarred and feathered two local members, and . The perception that the church supported the migration of free blacks into ultimately contributed to the mass expulsion of church members from Jackson County. Violent opposition and a traumatic uprooting—felt collectively by church members from Missouri to Ohio—undoubtedly discouraged church leaders from actively engaging in issues of slavery and race from 1833 onward. In addition to their experiences in Missouri, successful missionary efforts in Tennessee and Kentucky from 1834 to 1836 likely made JS and other leaders wary of openly supporting any antislavery movement that could potentially hinder proselytizing or ignite tensions between new converts and their Southern neighbors.
These experiences, along with the spread of abolitionism in during the mid-1830s, compelled church leaders to periodically reiterate their views on slavery and emancipation. In distancing themselves from abolitionism, Mormon leaders were not alone in eschewing what was then considered a radical movement, even among those who regarded themselves as antislavery. The “Declaration on Government and Law,” issued in August 1835 and published in the Doctrine and Covenants, codified the policy that slaves should not be preached to or baptized “contrary to the will and wish of their masters.” A 9 October 1835 editorial in the Northern Times (likely authored by or ) informed readers that “several communications have been sent . . . in favor of antislavery—or the abolition of slavery.” The editor asserted that the church would have nothing to do with the matter. “We are opposed to abolition, and whatever is calculated to disturb the peace and harmony of our Constitution and country,” the editorial continued. “Abolition does hardly belong to law or religion, politics or gospel.” The subject continued to generate discussion within church circles. On 2 February 1836, Oliver Cowdery recorded in his journal that he wrote an “article on the present agitating question of slavery and antislavery.” Regarding the slavery issue, Cowdery further noted, “There is a hostill spirit exhibited between the North and South, and ere long must make disturbances of a serious nature.”
John Alvord’s spring 1836 lecture in likely prompted JS to write the featured letter to . The original letter is not extant, and the text presented here is the version that was printed in the April issue of the Messenger and Advocate. In his letter, JS carefully outlined his position on slavery and emancipation. JS’s views recorded here were expressed in response to a specific geographical, political, and cultural milieu. His ideas about black Americans and slavery were not static. During the 1830s and 1840s, a small number of former slaves or free blacks were baptized into the Latter-day Saint church. During JS’s tenure as church , at least two black converts were ordained to the in Kirtland, and one man, , was selected as a member of the of the in 1836. In the years after church members were expelled from and settled in , Illinois, JS expressed a progressive view of the intellectual capacities of black slaves, advocated granting them certain civil rights, and, as a presidential candidate in 1844, campaigned for their emancipation.
The original letter, written circa 9 April 1836 and addressed to , is not extant, but a copy was subsequently published in the April issue of the Messenger and Advocate.
Motivated by the presumption that black slaves could not assimilate into white American society, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, promoted freeing slaves and then recolonizing them in Africa. Though Garrison and other abolitionists originally supported colonization, they later condemned the society’s efforts as a “conspiracy against human rights.” (Sewall, Selling of Joseph, 1–3; Twelfth Annual Report, 57–58; “Christian Secretary—Colonization Society,” Liberator [Boston], 23 Apr. 1831, .)
Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial. Boston: Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700.
The Twelfth Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States. Washington DC: No publisher, 1829.
Constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society, 4; Second Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society, 83–87; Third Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society, 5, 89–99. Between the 1835 and 1836 annual meetings, the number of chapters grew from 225 to 527.
The Constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society: With the Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention at Philadelphia, December, 1833, and the Address to the Public, Issued by the Executive Committee of the Society, in September, 1835. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838.
Second Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society; with the Speeches Delivered at the Anniversary Meeting, Held in the City of New-York, on the 12th May, 1835, and the Minutes of the Meetings of the Society for Business. New York: William S. Dorr, 1835.
Third Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society; With the Speeches Delivered at the Anniversary Meeting, Held in the City of New-York, On the 10th May, 1836, and the Minutes of the Meetings of the Society for Business. New York: William S. Dorr, 1836.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States , 25 May 1836, 876.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States: Being the First Session of the Twenty-Fourth Congress Begun and Held at the City of Washington, December 7, 1835, and in the Sixtieth Year of the Independence of the United States. Washington DC: Blair and Rives, 1835.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States [1844–1845], 3 Dec. 1844, 9–12.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States: Being the Second Session of the Twenty-Eighth Congress; Begun and Held at the City of Washington, December 2, 1844, in the Sixty-Ninth Year of the Independence of the United States. Washington DC: Blair and Rives, 1844–1845.
The North’s lack of support for abolitionism was partly due to racism and a deep-seated fear of miscegenation. Rumors that abolitionists were promoting interracial marriage, for example, helped spark the anti-abolitionist riot in New York. For contemporary accounts of the riots, see “Disgraceful Proceedings,” New York Journal of Commerce, 11 July 1834, ; “Charlestown Riots Renewed,” Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, 15 Aug. 1834, ; “Abolition,” Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA), 28 Oct. 1835, ; and Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, Narrative of the Late Riotous Proceedings, 15, 39–40.
New York Journal of Commerce. New York City. 1827–1893.
Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser. Philadelphia. 1833–1834.
Hampshire Gazette. Northampton, MA. 1820–1918.
Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Narrative of the Late Riotous Proceedings against the Liberty of the Press, in Cincinnati. With Remarks and Historical Notices, Relating to Emancipation. Cincinnati: No publisher, 1836.
Waite, Frederick Clayton. Western Reserve University, the Hudson Era: A History of Western Reserve College and Academy at Hudson, Ohio, from 1826 to 1882. Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1943.
“Free People of Color,” The Evening and the Morning Star, July 1833, 109; “We the Undersigned Citizens of Jackson County,” [July 1833], Edward Partridge, Papers, CHL; “To His Excellency, Daniel Dunklin,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Dec. 1833, 114.
The Evening and the Morning Star. Independence, MO, June 1832–July 1833; Kirtland, OH, Dec. 1833–Sept. 1834.
Partridge, Edward. Papers, 1818–1839. CHL. MS 892.
Between 1834 and 1836, missionaries such as David W. Patten, Warren Parrish, and Wilford Woodruff established eight branches, consisting of approximately 130 members, in three counties in Tennessee and two counties in Kentucky. (Berrett, “History of the Southern States Mission,” 68–123.)
Berrett, LaMar C. “History of the Southern States Mission, 1831–1861.” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1960.
This included individuals such as “Black Pete,” Elijah Able, Q. Walker Lewis, Jane Manning James, and William McCary. (“Fanaticism,” Albany [NY] Evening Journal, 16 Feb. 1831, ; “Elders License Elijah Abel Certificate,” James D. Wardle, Papers, 1812–2001, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; James, Autobiography, 15; William Appleby, Batavia, NY, to Brigham Young, 2 June 1847, Brigham Young Office Files, CHL; see also Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 106–114, 128–129.)
Albany Evening Journal. Albany, NY. 1830–1863.
“Elders License Elijah Abel Certificate.” In James D. Wardle, Papers, 1812–2001. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
James, Jane Manning. Autobiography, ca. 1902. CHL.
Brigham Young Office Files, 1832–1878. CHL. CR 1234 1.
Reeve, W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Elders License for Elijah Able, 31 Mar. 1836, in Kirtland Elders’ Certificates, 61; Record of Seventies, bk. A, 11; William Appleby, Batavia, NY, to Brigham Young, 2 June 1847, Brigham Young Office Files, CHL.
Kirtland Elders’ Certificates / Kirtland Elders Quorum. “Record of Certificates of Membership and Ordinations of the First Members and Elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Dating from March 21st 1836 to June 18th 1838 Kirtland Geauga Co. Ohio,” 1836–1838. CHL. CR 100 401.
Record of Seventies / First Council of the Seventy. “Book of Records,” 1837–1843. Bk. A. In First Council of the Seventy, Records, 1837–1885. CHL. CR 3 51, box 1, fd. 1.
Brigham Young Office Files, 1832–1878. CHL. CR 1234 1.
JS’s position on racial characteristics can be contrasted to theories of the time that immutable racial biology (cranial size) ultimately determined intellectual capacity; such scientific racism put the “Negro race” at the bottom of a racial hierarchy. In a 30 December 1843 conversation with apostleOrson Hyde recorded in his journal, JS asserted that slaveholders should “bring their slaves into a free country— & set them free— Educate them & give them equal Rights.” While JS favored granting black slaves certain rights, the same entry suggests that he, like many of his contemporaries, remained apprehensive about miscegenation. In his presidential platform, JS proposed to “break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor like other human beings.” Walking an ideological line between radical abolitionists and proponents of slavery, he suggested using the revenue from public land sales to reimburse southern slaveholders for their property, thus enabling them to “rid so free a country of every vestige of slavery.” (JS, Journal, 30 Dec. 1842 and 2 Jan. 1843; JS, General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States, 9, 10, italics in original; see also Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana [Philadelphia, PA: J. Dobson; London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company, 1839]; Samuel George Morton, Crania Aegyptiaca [Philadelphia, PA: John Penington; London: Madden and Company, 1844]; and Samuel George Morton, Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals [Philadelphia, PA: Merrihew and Thomson, 1849].)
Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skills of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Philadelphia: J. Dobson; London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1839.
Morton, Samuel George. Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy, History and the Monuments. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: John Penington; London: Madden, 1844.
Morton, Samuel George. Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals in the Collection of Samuel George Morton, M. D., Penn. and Edinb. Philadelphia: Merihew and Thompson, 1849.
John Alvord certainly lectured in Kirtland before 22 April, the date an account of that visit was published in the abolitionist periodical Philanthropist. An entry in a later JS history, inscribed by Willard Richards in early November 1843, indicates that JS composed the letter “soon after” 9 April 1836. (“Anti-Slavery Intelligence,” Philanthropist, Apr. 22, 1836, 2; Myers, “Antislavery Activities of Five Lane Seminary Boys in 1835–36,” 100–102; JS History, vol. B-1, 728.)
Philanthropist. Cincinnati. 1836–1847.
Myers, John L. “Antislavery Activities of Five Lane Seminary Boys in 1835–36.” Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio 21, no. 2 (Apr. 1963): 95–111.
Dear Sir—This place having recently been visited by a gentleman who advocated the principles or doctrines of those who are called abolitionists; if you deem the following reflections of any service, or think they will have a tendency to correct the opinions of the southern public, relative to the views and sentiments I believe, as an individual, and am able to say, from personal knowledge, are the feelings of others, you are at liberty to give them publicity in the columns of the Advocate. I am prompted to this course in consequence, in one respect, of many elders having gone into the Southern States, besides, there now being many in that country who have already embraced the fulness of the gospel, as revealed through the book of Mormon,—having learned, by experience, that the enemy of truth does not slumber, nor cease his exertions to bias the minds of communities against the servants of the Lord, by stiring up the indignation of men upon all matters of importance or interest.
Thinking, perhaps, that the sound might go out, that “an abolitionist” had held forth several times to this community, and that the public feeling was not aroused to create mobs or disturbances, leaving the impression that all he said was concurred in, and received as gospel and the word of salvation. I am happy to say, that no violence or breach of the public peace was attempted, so far from this, that all except a very few, attended to their own avocations and left the gentleman to hold forth his own arguments to nearly naked walls.
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, and set loose, upon the world a community of people who might peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society,—chastity and virtue.
No one will pretend to say, that the people of the free states are as capable of knowing the evils of slavery as those who hold them. If slavery is an evil, who, could we expect, would first learn it? Would the people of the free states, or would the slave states? All must readily admit, that th[e] latter would first learn this fact. If the fact was learned first by those immediately concerned, who would be more capable than they of prescribing a remedy?
And besides, are not those who hold slaves, persons of ability, discernment and candor? Do they not expect to give an account at the bar of God for their conduct in this life? It may, no doubt, with propriety be said, that many who hold slaves live without the fear of God before their eyes, and, the same may be said of many in the free states. Then who is to be the judge in this matter?
So long, then, as those of the free states are not interested in the freedom of the slaves, any other than upon the mere principles of equal rights and of the gospel, and are ready to admit that there are men of piety who reside in the South, who are immediately concerned, and until they complain, and call for assistance, why not cease their clamor, and no further urge the slave to acts of murder, and the master to vigorous discipline, rendering both miserable, and unprepared to pursue that course which might otherwise lead them both to better their condition? 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.
And further, what benefit will it ever be to the slave for persons to run over the free states, and excite indignation against their masters in the minds of thousands and tens of thousands who understand nothing relative [p. ]
Oliver Cowdery was the editor of the Messenger and Advocate in April 1836, having taken over for John Whitmer (and William W. Phelps, who aided Whitmer to a great extent) sometime that month. Cowdery’s brother, Warren, was largely responsible for editing the next nine issues of the paper. (Masthead, LDS Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, 2:304.)
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Kirtland, OH. Oct. 1834–Sept. 1837.
An unattributed letter, published in the May 1836 issue of the Messenger and Advocate, confirms the anxiety of church leaders regarding abolitionism. Apparently written to an individual who was not a member of the church, the letter notes, “Being aware that our brethren are numerous in the South . . . it was thought advisable to come out decidedly in relation to this matter, that our brethren might not be subjected to persecution on this account—and the lives of our traveling elders put in jeopardy.” (Letter, LDS Messenger and Advocate, May 1836, 2:313.)
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Kirtland, OH. Oct. 1834–Sept. 1837.
An article printed in the April edition of the abolitionist publication Philanthropist offered a more positive assessment of John Alvord’s time in Kirtland. The article noted that Alvord was “well received” and that he was able to form an antislavery society with as many as eighty-six members. It is unclear whether any Mormons were among those who listened to the lecture or later joined the abolitionist society Alvord established. (“Anti-Slavery Intelligence,” Philanthropist [Cincinnati], 22 Apr. 1836, .)
For decades before and after the 1830s, ministers and religious scholars in both the northern and southern United States used portions of the Old and New Testaments to either condemn or legitimate the practice of slavery. Even within the largely antislavery North, however, interpretations of biblical passages regarding slavery varied. The ideology of radical abolitionists—largely inspired by Christ’s teachings generally and the enlightenment doctrine of natural rights—alienated some antislavery moderates in the North who espoused more literal interpretations of the Bible. Slavery exacerbated existing schisms within American religions, eventually leading some churches, including the Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist denominations, to divide along sectional lines during the late 1830s and early 1840s. (Genovese, “Religion in the Collapse of the American Union,” 78–79; see also Noll, Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 1–6, 33–46.)
Genovese, Eugene D. “Religion in the Collapse of the American Union.” In Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 74–88. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
In December 1832, JS dictated a revelation warning of a war in which “the southern states shall be divided against the Northern states.” The prophecy continued, “Slaves shall rise up against there Masters who shall be Martialed and disaplined for war.” (Revelation, 25 Dec. 1832 [D&C 87].)
Apprehensions about interracial mixing were common among white Americans in the 1830s. Historian Elise Lemire argues that the growth of abolitionist societies in the 1830s precipitated an “explosion of anxiety about black political rights” and miscegenation. Detractors of abolitionism, she contends, “repeatedly and vociferously called them ‘amalgamationists.’” An editorial in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate also expressed fear that “amalgamation” could potentially endanger “the chastity of every female.” (Lemire, Miscegenation, 1–2, 54–55; “The Abolitionists,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, 2:300.)
Lemire, Elise. “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Kirtland, OH. Oct. 1834–Sept. 1837.
Virginian slave Nat Turner led a bloody slave rebellion five years earlier. For two days in August 1831, Turner and a “posse” of nearly sixty armed men (comprising both slaves and free blacks) marched through the countryside killing white inhabitants indiscriminately. By the time he was captured on 30 October, some fifty-seven white people, nearly four dozen of whom were women and children, had lost their lives. Though Turner and his followers were tried and summarily executed for their crimes, the specter of slave rebellion haunted Americans in the North and South during the 1830s and beyond. (Howe, What Hath God Wrought, 323–325.)
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. The Oxford History of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.