Zion and 19th Century Cross-cultural Missionary Work

How does a faith that claims global reach while being rooted in a specific Anglo-American context in the 19th century interact with cultures that are different from the Anglo-American culture of their time?  Further, how did they approach that issue while also being a pariah among the general Anglo-American culture?  These are some of the types of questions that are examined in Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto discussed some of her study.

The book Imperial Zions studies the intersection of missionary work and polygamy while interacting with Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.  As Hendrix-Komoto explained:

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.

It’s a complicated matrix to explore, since it examines so many different perspectives.

For example, on one front there is the attempts at vilification and discrediting of Latter-day Saints by contemporary Euro-Americans.  Part of that effort to do so included portrayal of Latter-day Saints as becoming their own, non-white race as a result of plural marriage:

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.

Missionary work by Latter-day Saints among Native Americans and Pacific Islanders may have been done, in part, to gain respectability by having a civilizing effect on these other cultures.

Success in their missionary work among Native Americans and Pacific Islanders was varied.  In the American West, there were some examples of conversion, but conflicts over land and resources complicated the picture.  One problem for the Native Americans that emerged from Latter-day Saint colonization involved access to traditional food:

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.

The demands that these changes made on Native Americans were difficult and, at times, placed Latter-day Saints and Native Americans in an adversarial position relative to each other.

In the Pacific Islands, however, the interests of the Latter-day Saints aligned better with those of the Pacific Islanders, leading to more positive experiences.

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.

In addition, the Church offered an important resource to Latter-day Saints in Hawai’i in the form of land.

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 L??ie 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.

These more positive relationships between Euro-American Saints and Native Hawaiians laid the foundation for a different dynamic in their missionary work in Hawai’i.

For more on the narratives explored in Imperial Zions, head on over to read the full interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk with Amanda Hendrix-Komoto.