Nineteenth century Latter-day Saint missionaries preached to many different cultures, including Europeans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. At the same time, their home lives were complicated by the practice of polygamy and the long absences of the men as they served missions abroad. In this interview, Imperial Zions author Amanda Hendrix-Komoto discusses the complicated intersections of race, family, respectability, and settlement that Latter-day Saints experienced in Utah and abroad in service of their religion.
Read the book by Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific.
What is Imperial Zions about?
Imperial Zions is an attempt to understand how the meaning of Latter-day Saint missionary work shifted as they moved between imperial spaces. In Hawai‘i, Latter-day Saints positioned themselves against existing Protestant missionaries and U.S. imperialism. In the Intermountain West, they became the agents of U.S. colonialism.
At the same time, I am interested in how Native Americans understood the Church and have analyzed oral histories, personal correspondence, and church records to understand how Native Latter-day Saints created a vision of the faith that centered their experiences rather than those of their white co-religionists.
Why were Latter-day Saints with European ancestry portrayed as non-white by many Americans?
Whiteness is not a stable category, especially in the nineteenth century. Many people in the nineteenth century believe that someone’s sexual politics can influence their physical features. As the nineteenth century progresses, some people living in the United States begin to argue that Latter-day Saints are not creating the family structures necessary to reproduce whiteness.
As several scholars have pointed out, Latter-day Saints are often portrayed as being akin to non-white people. Their faces are described as having full lips, and their skin as being sallow. Journalists then use these descriptions of Latter-day Saint bodies to suggest that they no longer deserve the political benefits of whiteness.
How did early sealings focus on linking men as much as they focused on families?
In the nineteenth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a patriarchal religion. I mean that in the Biblical sense. Joseph Smith saw himself as recreating the Old Testament and that included the office of the Patriarchs.
He also sees the sealing ordinance as a way to connect individuals into the Kingdom of God. These sealings sometimes bound together relationships between husbands and wives. Other times, however, they could seal men to each other as ritual fathers and sons and women as ritual mothers and daughters.
The multiplication of kinship ties made the connections between Latter-day Saint leaders increased the power of individuals while knitting them into the community of Saints.
How did the dynamics of polygamy change attitudes around romantic love?
I think the hope of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints was that they would be able to de-emphasize love within polygamous marriages. They believed that strong attachments between husbands and wives would lead to jealousy within polygamous relationships and that love could be used to tie women to unsuitable husbands.
The problem, however, was that few people abandoned the idea of love. Nineteenth-century novels, poetry, and greeting cards encouraged people to develop feelings of romantic love for their partners.
In the late nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints tried to create a home literature that emphasized the dangers of love, but they were never fully able to overcome the idea that people should focus their emotional connection with their husband or wife.
In what ways did women in the Church enable missionary work in the 19th century?
When men were called on missions, they often left their families behind. Because of the structure of family and business in the nineteenth century, women’s labor was required to ensure that farms and businesses stayed afloat.
In addition to caring for their children, women kept accounts, arranged for the sale and management of livestock, and negotiated with people with whom they owed debts.
In what ways did the Church offer communities in the Pacific that had been marginalized by other Christian faiths a way to claim spiritual and political power?
In the Pacific, conversion often happened at the community level. In the case of the conversion of Pacific Islanders to Christianity, there were significant shifts in power, as missionaries favored some communities over others. Accepting alternative forms of Christianity allowed Pacific Islanders to try to shift that balance.
In the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, conversion also offered followers a sense of spirituality that closely matched Polynesian beliefs in prophecy, healing, etc.
Why was Lāʻie an important project for the Hawaiian Latter-day Saints?
As a result of colonization in the nineteenth century, many Native Hawaiians had been removed from the land, which they considered to be sacred and their kin. The creation of Lāʻie allowed Native Hawaiian Saints to create a community that resacralized the land. It also created a space where Native Hawaiian Saints were able to create their own Native Mormonism that foregrounded their concerns and interests.
What was Iosepa?
The idea of gathering was important to nineteenth-century Saints. During the late nineteenth century, Native Hawaiian Saints visited Salt Lake to perform temple work. Native Hawaiians who visited Utah or lived in Salt Lake City faced significant discrimination, as Matthew Kester’s work has shown.
The Church eventually established Iosepa as a Native Hawaiian gathering place in Utah. The community provided Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians with access to the temple where they could redeem their dead. It also provided them with a safe place within Zion, where they could live without fear of harassment.
What can be done to take the stories of Native Americans more seriously?
The answer is at once simple and difficult. The only way for Native American stories to be taken more seriously is for people to read and promote them. In some ways, this can be done on an individual level. People can buy books by Native authors and share them with their family and friends.
It also needs to be done on an institutional level. In Montana, we have a law requiring that Native history and culture be a part of every child’s K-16 education.
This law is implemented patchily. In my daughter’s case, it has resulted in her teachers teaching Native literature every year and collaborating with Native leaders in our community on their curriculum for this unit.
It’s going to take this kind of institutional support for Native stories to be given equal weight with other stories.
In what ways was Peninah Shropshire Cotton a “Godsend” to the Latter-day Saints?
Peninah Shropshire Cotton was an early Native convert to the Church. Family histories frame her as a “godsend” and as being similar to performing a similar role as Sacajawea—guiding the Saints as they moved west. I don’t know whether she would have framed her own experiences in the same way or that her contemporaries would have framed her in the same way.
What does the historical record say about why intermarriage between white men and native women was both encouraged and looked down upon?
Latter-day Saints believed that interracial marriage would allow them to more quickly assimilate Native communities by producing mixed-race children who would evangelize their communities. Ultimately, however, many Latter-day Saints were reluctant to participate in these marriages.
Most white Latter-day Saints saw Native Americans as less than civilized, less than righteous, and hesitated to marry a spouse that they saw as less than.
How did Euro-American colonization in Utah Territory disrupt Native American foodways?
When white settlers arrived in an area, they implemented white understandings of agriculture. The introduction of white crops and livestock displaced the plants and animals that Native people had cultivated for centuries.
White settlers also fenced off land preventing Native Americans from engaging in the seasonal rounds that were important to their way of life.
In what ways do members of the Northwest Shoshone Nation see the Bear River Massacre differently than Euro-Americans?
Some white Latter-day Saints initially celebrated the Bear River Massacre. One local ward famously wrote in their minutes that:
We, the people of Cache Valley looked upon the movement of Colonel Connor as an intervention of the Almighty, as the Indians had been a source of great annoyance to us for a long time.
The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers were less explicit in their writings about the massacre but still framed it as a battle.
For the Northwestern Shoshone, the massacre was a tragedy in which their friends and family members were murdered. After the massacre, they had to rebuild their community and lives.
If Amanda Hendrix-Komoto could be there for one moment of the history covered in Imperial Zions, what would it be?
This is a difficult question. My interest in history is what it tells us about the present. I guess I would want to attend a party at the Lion House and find out how much of the gossip I have heard about Brigham Young’s family is true.
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About the author
Amanda Hendrix-Komoto is an Assistant Professor of History at Montana State University. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, and is the author of Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific (University of Nebraska Press, 2022).
- What Does the Book of Mormon Say about Race?
- Who Were Mexico’s Latter-day Saint Pioneers?
- How Did Native Americans Influence Religious Freedom?
- Pentecostals in America with Arlene Sánchez Walsh
- Who Was in Brigham Young’s Family?
- Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific (Book)
- Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s Montana State University Profile (Web)
- The Author’s Corner with Amanda Hendrix-Komoto (Interview)
- Imperial Zions: Mormons, Polygamy, and the Politics of Domesticity in the Nineteenth Century (Dissertation)
- Utah History Encyclopedia: Iosepa (Article)