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.
doubt but those who believe the bible will admit these facts, and that they also knew the mind and will of God concerning what they wrote to the churches which they were instrumental in building up.
This being admitted, the matter can be put to rest without much argument, if we look at a few items in the New Testament. Paul says:
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ: Not with eye service, as men-pleasers: but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart: With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men. Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” Eph. 6:5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
Here is a lesson which might be profitable for all to learn, and the principle upon which the church was anciently governed, is so plainly set forth, that an eye of truth might see and understand. Here, certainly are represented the master and servant; and so far from instructions to the servant to leave his master, he is commanded to be in obedience, as unto the Lord: the master in turn is required to treat them with kindness before God, understanding at the same time that he is to give an account.— The hand of fellowship is not withdrawn from him in consequence of having servants.
The same wri[t]er, in his first epistle to Timothy, the sixth chapter, and the five first verses, says:
“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren: but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness: he is proud, knowing nothing but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.”
This is so perfectly plain, that I see no need of comment. The scripture stands for itself, and I believe that these men were better qualified to teach the will of God, than all the abolitionists in the world.
Before closing this communication, I beg leave to drop a word to the travelling : You know, brethren, that great responsibility rests upon you, and that you are accountable to God for all you teach the world. In my opinion, you will do well to search the book of Covenants, in which you will see the belief of the concerning masters and servants. All men are to be taught to repent; but 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 masters, with singleness of heart, without murmuring. I do, most sincerely 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. Having spoken frankly and freely, I leave all in the hands of God, who will direct all things for his glory and the accomplishment of his work.
Praying that God may spare you to do much good in this life, I subscribe myself your brother in the Lord.
An August 1835 declaration, which was included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, outlined the church’s belief regarding the proper role of government in society. Among twelve declarations was a clause asserting, “We do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them, contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with, or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men.” In his article published in the Messenger and Advocate,Warren Parrish observed, “God . . . teaches us to pay due defference and respect to magistrates, and rulers, and to be in subjection to the powers that be.” (Declaration on Government and Law, ca. Aug. 1835 [D&C 134:12]; Warren Parrish, “For the Messenger and Advocate,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, 2:295.)
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Kirtland, OH. Oct. 1834–Sept. 1837.
A Lutheran synod in South Carolina in 1836 similarly protested against the “injustice of the interference or intermeddling of any religious or deliberative body with the subject of slavery or slaveholding.” A clause in the August 1835 “Declaration on Government and Law” stated that “sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen” and that the church did not “justify sedition nor conspiracy.” (Gaustad, Religious History of America, 169; Declaration on Government and Law, ca. Aug. 1835 [D&C 134:5].)
Gaustad, Edwin Scott. A Religious History of America. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990.