Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Neutral Ground?: Nephi Anderson and Race


A popular strain of Mormon folk doctrine throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries maintained that men of African descent were barred from the priesthood because of the neutral stance they took during Satan’s uprising in the premortal life. While never officially or universally accepted by church members, the doctrine nevertheless found support in high places. As late as 1939, for example, Elder George F. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve alluded to it in the church’s General Conference:

I cannot conceive our Father consigning his children to a condition such as that of the negro race, if they had been valiant in the spirit world in that war in heaven. Neither could they have been a part of those who rebelled and were cast down, for the latter had not the privilege of tabernacling in the flesh. Somewhere along the line were these spirits, indifferent perhaps, and possibly neutral in the war. We have no definite knowledge concerning this. But I learn this lesson from it, brethren and sisters, and I believe we all should, that it does not pay in religious matters, matters that pertain to our eternal salvation, to be indifferent, neutral, or lukewarm. (59)

Among those who actively repudiated this teaching—while still affirming the rightness of the priesthood ban—was Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, Richard’s contemporary and fellow apostle. Fifteen years before Richards’ sermon, Smith had argued that while it was “reasonable” to think that “the spirits of the premortal state were of varying degrees of intelligence and faithfulness,” it “[entered] too much on the realm of speculation” to believe that “certain nations” were “cursed because of their acts in the pre-existence” (565). Such was also the opinion of Elder John A. Widtsoe, another early twentieth-century apostle, who wrote against the folk doctrine in the Improvement Era twenty years later—a length of time that speaks to the staying power of the folk doctrine (see 385). Many Mormons, it seems, simply found the explanation too convincing—and convenient—to abandon.

Contributing, perhaps, to its staying power was Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, the most popular depiction of the premortal life to come out of Mormon culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Anderson no doubt knew about the teaching, and possibly even accepted it as truth at some point in his life, so it would not be surprising if Added Upon showed traces of this folk belief on its pages.  Interestingly, though, the first part of the novel, which deals with pre-mortality, has only this to say about neutral spirits during the War in Heaven:

Then there were others, not valiant in either cause, who stood on neutral ground. Without strength of character to come out boldly, they aided neither the right nor the wrong. Weak-minded as they were, they could not be trusted, nor could Lucifer win them over. (18-19)

The novel reveals nothing further about these neutral spirits or the consequences of their neutrality. Prior to his departure for earth-life, however, Homan, one of Anderson’s pre-mortal protagonists, makes a speech in which he glories in the opportunities mortality provides:

“We have been taught that we shall get that position to which our preparation here entitles us. Existence is eternal, and its various stages grade naturally into one another, like the different departments of a school.”
            “Some have been ordained to certain positions of trust. Father knows us all, and understands what we will do. Many of our mighty ones have already gone, and many are yet with us awaiting Father’s will.” (27)

As this speech indicates, Homan believes that one’s place in mortality is determined by one’s pre-mortal “preparation,” which qualifies individuals to “certain positions of trust.” While nothing about neutrality and race has an ostensible place in this discourse, the notion that one’s place in mortality is based on merit could easily be carried through to racist conclusions. Anderson may or may not have believed the folk teaching about the premortal origins of black skin—my research into the matter has been inconclusive—but his novel certainly provided nothing to disarm those who did.    

My intention, of course, is not to label Anderson and Added Upon as racist, but merely to point out that Added Upon contributed to an understanding of the pre-mortal life that accommodated existing racist folk beliefs. In his other writings, Anderson focused solely of white characters and largely avoided representations of non-white peoples—although they occasionally appear at the margins of his storytelling. For example, Native Americans are objects of respect, anxiety, and some derision for Anderson’s characters. In John St. John (1917), the titular character gains new admiration for them when he reads the Book of Mormon and learns that they are the remnants of “a civilized people” who “were a branch of the Hebrew race” (9). Also, when he hears Dora, his love interest, express her fears about the dangers of Native Americans, he expresses the opinion that “Indians can do no worse” than what “so-called civilized men” have done (133). We find a similar treatment in The Boys of Springtown (1920), although in a much more whimsical mode. In this novel, the Native Americans are on friendly terms with the fictional Utah village of Springtown, yet exposure to the “tales of wild Indians” in dime novels have made them alluring objects of fear and danger in the eyes of the local boys (43). Indeed, Anderson capitalizes on the effects of this misrepresentation to poke fun at his young white characters and expose their nascent racism:

There had been some discussion whether it would be wise to take along such a weapon when visiting Indians. The Redmen might think the fire-arm was meant for them, when in fact, it was only to shoot sage-hens, should any be seen. “Anyway,” Ned had said, “it might be a good thing to have a gun along in case the Indians became ‘sassy’.” (35)

At the same time, Anderson’s works themselves are not innocent of racist stereotypes and pejoratives. In The Boys of Springville, Native American women are “squaws” who beg for “sooger” and “biscuit” while the Indian men gamble, scowl, and make “gruff noises” (40-41). In John St. John and Dorian (1921), the titular characters name their horses “Nig” and “Old Nig” respectively. Like many of his time, including Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anderson expressed a degree of prejudice and racial insensitivity that grates on today’s readers.

Yet, like Twain and Fitzgerald, Anderson’s prejudices were intertwined with a potent sense of justice, equality, and tolerance. In John St. John, he subtly equates the plight of the Mormons in Missouri with those of racially marginalize groups when he has a bigoted mobber tell John that “in this state there are two classes of people: ‘Mormons’ an’ whites” (39). Elsewhere, a Mormon shames a Missourian who kidnaps Joseph Smith by calling him—not unproblematically—an unmannerly “nigger-driver,” implying that the Missourian is guilty of the dual sins of kidnapping and slavery (105).  As associate editor of the Millennial Star, Anderson also frequently promoted justice and equality in his editorials, although almost always in regards to the rights of religions and creeds to preach and assemble without molestation. In a 1906 editorial entitled “The Larger Nationality,” however, he condemns the narrowness of Henrik Ibsen’s avowed Teutonism and asks:

Why stop at Teutonism? Are not other races our brothers and sisters, inasmuch as all are children of one common Father? Why should one's love, sympathy, and fellowship be limited to any part of this earth or any portion of its inhabitants? The mind that grows under the benign influence of the Spirit of God soon gets rid of arbitrary boundaries of race or geography. He is not satisfied with the little plot of ground marked off on the earth and called "his country"; but in every land and clime where there are souls honest and true there are also his country and his kin. (“The Larger Nationality” 152)

To what extent this statement informs on Anderson’s approach to interpersonal relationships with his “brothers and sisters” of “other races” is unknown since his minimalistic journals and letters are silent on the matter. At the publication of this editorial, John St. John and The Boys of Springtown were still to be written, suggesting that his universalism was not without spot as he matured as a writer and artist. Nevertheless, it is to his credit that he never used his fiction to promote--at least overtly--the racist folk beliefs of his day, which is more than can be said about some later Mormon novels, like Emma Marr Petersen's Choose Ye This Day (1956). So too is his constant advocacy for a place of respect for Mormonism in the national and global stage. Indeed, in this respect, his novels are not unlike those of his African- and Native American contemporaries, which likewise used the genre to call attention to the ills of prejudice and injustice.

Sources
Anderson, Nephi. Added Upon. 1898. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1939. Print.
---. The Boys of Springtown. Independence, MO: Press of Zion Printing and Publishing Company, 1920. Print.
---. John St. John. 1917. Print.
---. “The Larger Nationality.” Millennial Star 68.10 (1906): 152. Print.
Richards, George F. “Punishment of Those Not Valiant.” Conference Report, April 1939, 59.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. “The Negro and the Priesthood.” Improvement Era 27.6 (1924): 565.
Widtsoe, John A. “Evidences and Reconciliations” Improvement Era 47.6 (1944): 385.

1 comment:

  1. .

    We've now reached a point where you've read waaaaay more Nephi Anderson than I have. And I'm gratified to see that my high opinion of his as a person and an artist keeps getting validated (occasional missteps notwithstanding; no one's perfect).

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