[editor’s note: Troy Wynn is a doctoral student studying physics. He runs Some Mormon Stuff which is a “blog about Mormon history, its people and beliefs.” He has done several well-researched articles dealing with racial issues in the LDS church, including one that addressed Lawrence O’Donnell’s charge made the height of the Romney campaign that Mormonism was pro-slavery. Troy has been invited as a guest blogger to do a series on interracial marriage and to provide a critique of Connell O’Donovan’s seminal work on the topic. Previous discussion can be found here at FAIR and at the Juvenile Instructor blog.]
In his paper titled “LDS Historical Rhetoric & Praxis Regarding Marriage Between Whites and Blacks,” Connell O’Donovan asserts that Brigham Young’s fear of black sexuality was the reason he prohibited black-white marriage and instigated the priesthood-temple ban, and that Young’s resistance to black-white marriage must be seen within the context of his own marital experimentation which at that time was receiving scrutiny via the press and the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. He then lists several topics of discussion, such as, examples of inter-racial marriages in LDS history, the fruition of anti-miscegenation laws under BY, statements about black-white marriage from the Deseret News, and eventually how LDS leaders abandoned their restrictions against black-white marriage. Or, as O’Donovan puts it, “unnecessary restrictions on the boundaries of love and marriage.”
His paper also demonstrates that LDS feelings at one time were deeply hostile to black-white marriage and that many Latter-day Saints believed black-white marriages would never be permitted, etc.
With that in mind, he doesn’t explicitly state the purpose of his paper. If it is to parade prejudicial attitudes once held by many Mormons, and Mormon leaders, then why talk about gay marriage? Though he doesn’t come out and say it explicitly, his paper is principally, though indirectly, about gay marriage.
His declamations about LDS attitudes toward black-white marriage ultimately serve his beliefs about Mormonism and gay marriage. In the past (and not-so-distant past) many Mormons believed black-white marriages were really bad and held rather racist attitudes towards blacks. But eventually the LDS Church abandoned their antiquated beliefs. He then draws on those former attitudes to create parallels with current attitudes about homosexuals and homosexual marriage. By building on those parallels O’Donovan takes those feelings of shame and embarrassment about the past and attaches them to present-day negative attitudes about homosexuality, gays, and gay marriage. From there he creates a sense that the past changed for the better and hopefully the present situation will too.
As far as BY’s involvement in a rather embarrassing divorce—BY had married a plural wife, Augusta Cobb, who had not yet divorced her first husband—I don’t see the relevance. Why must BY’s resistance to black-white marriage be “seen within the context of his own marital experimentation”? One would think O’Donovan would build a solid case that very strong assertion. But instead, he chickens out by posing and then answering the question, “Did Young then turn and take out his frustrations on a group of ‘inferiors’?…it would certainly seem so.” Though he doesn’t build a much of case for his assertion as to why BY’s opposition to black-white marriage “must also be seen within the context of his own marital experimentation” (italics mine), as a parallel device it works. BY took out his fear on those who were an easy target and today the LDS Church takes out its fear on homosexuals who are also an easy target.
O’Donovan’s paper fails as serious historical inquiry. As an exhibition of dirty laundry he succeeds, but ends up with a rather confused paper. As polemics creating a connection between abandoned, embarrassing attitudes about race and soon to be abandoned (he hopes) attitudes about homosexuals and gay marriage, he succeeds.
In other words, his paper is a nice piece of propaganda.
Drawing on the past
O’Donovan’s paper is a variation on the theme, “The patterns of the past are the patterns of the future.”
BY’s fear about black male sexuality prompted a ban on black-white marriage (an attitude the church eventually abandoned); the Church’s ban on homosexual marriage comes from its attitudes about homosexual sex (an perhaps that too will be abandoned). The church abandoned plural marriage and will eventually abandon opposition to gay marriage. The church dropped its priesthood ban and eventually will drop its own ban on gay marriage. In the past Mormons had racist attitudes against blacks, but that changed; Mormons will eventually abandon their attitudes against homosexuality. At one time laws prohibited black-white marriage; and one day laws prohibiting gay-marriage will also be history. The push for gay marriage is a continuation of the civil rights movement which overturned many discriminatory laws and attitudes. It will continue and eventually overturn laws and attitudes against gay marriage. Since Mormons find some aspects of their past embarrassing; one day they will feel embarrassment about present-day opposition to gay marriage…But why wait. Start change now!
That is how the usual polemic goes. I’ll write more in another post, but this will do for now.