What Do Mormons and Southerners Have in Common?

The news has been full, this election cycle, of Mitt Romney’s evangelical problem. The conservative evangelical Protestants who form the core of the Republican Party continue to be wary of Romney’s Mormon faith, and that wariness could translate to a lack of enthusiasm that drives down Republican voter turnout on election day—which could sink Romney’s bid for the presidency.  This evangelical problem is particularly of note in swing states in the South, a red state region that has long been defined by conservative evangelical Protestantism. But as a Southerner and a scholar of Mormonism, I’ve long been puzzled by many Southerners’ suspicion of or even hostility toward the Latter-day Saints. For one thing, the two groups have been fighting the common stereotypes and biases of their fellow Americans for more than a century.

Most recently, the similarities between popular images of Mormons and Southerners have caught my attention thanks to TLC’s reality television line-up. On the surface Sister Wives, the network’s popular chronicle of of a contemporary polygamous family, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a new offering that follows a child pageant contestant and her stereotypically country Southern family, seem to have little in common. But having reality TV shows side-by-side that highlight the weirdest and, in many cases, most laughable practices popularly associated with Mormons and Southerners is just the latest example in a long history of American representations that denigrate the two groups with the same stereotypes. Mormons and Southerners have long been reflections of one another in the American imagination.

The most benign stereotype of both groups is the country hick. We’re all familiar with the image of the Southern redneck –a stereotype that many in rural America have embraced. But Mormons, too, fulfill the role of the rube surprisingly often in popular culture.  In the 1998 neo-noir detective film Goodbye Lover, for example, the lead detective alternately refers to her sidekick, a Salt Lake City Mormon, as “Brigham Young” and “Barney Fife.” Steven Soderbergh’s more popular remake of Ocean’s 11 (2001) featured “the Mormon twins.” The pair, characterized by their immature bickering, first appear on a dirt track in Provo, Utah, racing a souped up pick-up truck against a radio-controlled version of the same. When the radio-controlled truck wins, the losing driver runs over it in a fit of destructive petulance. While the brothers never mention their religion, they—and their obnoxious behavior—are defined by it because of the label given to them by the film’s other characters.

The image of the Mormon hick is not only a contemporary phenomenon. In the late-19th and early-20th century, newspapers regularly reported that Mormons were recruiting among the most ignorant and least respectable Southerners. According to one 1898 article, published in both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, in the mountains of western North Carolina the people’s illiteracy prevented them from studying the Bible for themselves. As a result, “they bec[a]me indifferent, or else gr[e]w fanatical on unessentials in faith and creed. They therefore provide[d] responsive material for Mormon missionaries.” [1] Another article asserted that the fact that Mormons reportedly gained some three-quarters of their North Carolina converts among mountain people proved that, in that section of the country, “[i]gnorance [wa]s rife and morality at a low ebb.” [2] This image made the leap to popular writing, as in Edward Moffatt’s 1914 comic novel The Desert and Mrs. Ajax, in which the buffoonish Bishop Moroni Sorenson, a Utah Mormon, spoke in “drawling” accents and physically resembled “a hard-faced daguerreotype of Civil War times.” [3] In Mark Twain’s famed travelogue Roughing It, which narrated Twain’s Western adventures in the 1860s, Twain featured a “Destroying Angel” with a crew of “slatternly” wives. But despite his high-and-mighty pretensions, this Angel sported “an unclean shirt and no suspenders” and demonstrated “a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer.” [4]

While Twain found his Destroying Angel too uncouth to inspire any terror, the fact remains that Twain accepted him as a Destroying Angel who engaged in vigilante justice. In other words, he accepted that violence was a routine part of Mormonism. Such casual representations linking Mormonism and violence have persisted into the present, and not just in bad re-creations of the all-too-real Mountain Meadows massacre. The 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, tracks the adventures of a group of (non-Mormon) 19th-century gold-seeking pioneers. During a winter in Salt Lake City, the book’s heroes live alongside Mormons who are dirty, uncouth, superstitious, and hypocritical. While only a faction within the community is violent, that faction roams the territory unchecked “to hunt down and murder all backsliders.” The gang leader particularly enjoys punishing recalcitrant women: “Somebody said he seemed to relish it, being uncommonly religious even for a Mormon, and would grow flushed and sweaty, while shouting prayer aloud in a kind of frenzy as the naked women twisted and screamed. But when it was over, he was limp and loose, as if he had really driven the devil out. Most everybody was afraid of him, he was so religious.” [5] The Gentile heroes barely escape Salt Lake City with their lives, leaving it in “the Dark Ages” under the threats of “the long arm of Sanctimony.” [6] During the same period, movie audiences were thrilling to Robert Mitchum’s terrifying depictions of psychopathic Bible-quoting Southerners in the classic films The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962).

But I must say that my personal favorite (if you can call it that) characterization of Mormons using what I grew up identifying as Southern stereotypes is Messenger of Death, a 1988 film vehicle for action star Charles Bronson. The movie is a Mormon Deliverance populated by Hatfields and McCoys—members of rival polygamous sects led by two brothers. (Bronson refers to them simply as “Mormons” throughout much of the movie, without regard for the difference between the members of the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints and its fundamentalist offshoots.) In a clear reference to the same supposed band of 19th-century Mormon secret police referenced by Twain and Taylor, both factions revere the image of an Avenging Angel and practice a religion of retribution and blood. After the murder of several polygamous wives and children—filmed in gory detail—one of the patriarchs, believing that his rival ordered the murders, leads a number of men to attack his brother’s compound. They are enacting their doctrine, which one leader preached early in the film: “Though the anti-Christ comes in the guise of a friend—in the guise of your brother!—you must recognize him and smite him! Your own brother—smite him! Annihilate him! Obliterate him from the face of the earth and all his progeny!” In the end, both brothers are killed along with a number of their followers. While the story concludes with Bronson proving that someone outside the “Mormon” communities paid to have the women and children killed in order to turn the polygamists against each other, the conclusion was far less compelling than the brutal Mormon clan warfare that was so easily sparked and that threatened innocent non-Mormon bystanders.

Such popular misrepresentations point to other parallels between the two groups. Stereotypes of Southern evangelical Christians and Mormons alike are built on the wider society’s criticism of both groups’ perceived clannishness, and of their social, political, and above all religious conservatism. These stereotypes also highlight the distance between both groups and mainstream American culture—a distance that both groups have prized at various points during their history. Perhaps if evangelical Protestants looked at themselves alongside the Mormons through the lens of American popular culture, they would find that they have more in common with Mitt Romney than they thought.




[1] Chicago Tribune, “Of Interest from Exchanges: North Carolina’s 500,000 Illiterates—Good Chance to Introduce the French School System for Adults,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 21, 1898. Reprinted from New York Times.

[2] Chicago Tribune, “Bad As Barbarians: Peculiar Traffic among the Mountains of North Carolina,”  June 12, 1892. Mormon missionaries were also reported to target ignorant and superstitious populations overseas—peasants and laborers in Europe, and native populations in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific.

[3] (New York: Moffatt, Yard, and Company, 1914), 180–84 and 178.

[4] (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1873), 106–107.

[5] (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 330.

[6] Ibid., 345–46.

  • Hooter

    Catholic, Lutheran synods, all Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, Southern Baptist Convention, 2,500 Evangelical ministers, Mennonites, Orthodox Rabbi’s are united.. UNITED in opposition to OBAMACARE and the direct threat on Religious Liberty…


    • debbie

      Mountain Meadows Massacre. A Massacre where many southerns were murdered in Utah.
      This is not meant to be a mean spirited post, only a truthful one. Things haven’t changed much in the century or so, only most people losing their knowledge of history and believe too much in sound bites they hear in the news. Many Christians in the south were concerned over the welfare of their wives, daughters and families when the newly founded Mormon faith came their way. They were right to be.

      Exposing Romney an interview with Debbie McCord-Skousen – on Jeenyus Corner
      Harassment by active Mormon Church members and people getting ready to leave the Mormon Church exacerbated the abuses inflected. Scott Romney, Ronna Romney McDaniel the daughter of G. Scott Romney, Mitt’s Michigan Financial bundler David T. Fischer, along with active Mormon Church, Skousens, are discussed on the blog are discussed on the blog and during the interview.

  • delmar Jackson

    Face it, the media has only two targets left it can ridicule and denigrate without any fear of retaliation, white southern males and mormons. As a southerner, don’t think it is not noticed how biased the media is and how readily it will portray southerners in ways it wouldnever blacks,hispanics jews, etc.
    I have to say I like mormons. Their religion seems odd, but the people I have met have been universally kind and genuine.
    here is a revealing pattern of behavior. go and watch American idol when they visit cities across America, watch how the contestans cried and ranted and raved when they lost or were told they could not sing, and then watch the contestants from salt Lake City. almost all of the losers thanked the judges and behaved like people you would like to have as neighbors, not as cross eyed lunatics like many other contestants from other cities. That tells you a lot about Mormons the media would never admit as it wouldnot fit their stereotype.
    I know some black people dislike Mormons as they used to deny blacks membership in their church, but now readily accept them. I wonder how many blacks that think that way about mormons ever reaised a fuss about Obamas church giving a lifetime achievement award to farakkhan who preaches blue eyed whites are devils, or gives a thought about the democrat party and its awful history when it comes to race.

  • Jettboy

    “I know some black people dislike Mormons as they used to deny blacks membership in their church”

    Blacks could and were allowed to become baptised members of the LDS Church or Mormons. They weren’t allowed to be given the Priesthood that all males were and are given. I wanted to clear that difference up, although some would say it has no distinction.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jettboy, that is a significant distinction, because there were black peopke who chise to become and remain Mormon during the entire period of the ordination restriction. There were black familiws in my Mormon congregation in the 1950s in Salt Lake, who taught Sunday School. I helped teach a black Army oaratrooper who joined the LDS Churvh in Colorado Springs in 1974; he told us he had visited many churches looking fir a spiritual hime, but the Mormons were the furst congregation thatnwelcomed him.

    Since the ordination restricted was ended 34 years ago, some 200,000 blacks have become Mormons in the US, plus about 400,000 in African nations like Ghana, plus many of the Mormons in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and among the milluon Mormons in Brazil. Black Mormons lead congregations here in the US, and are found all over the country. One of the stake presidents leading a group o of congregations in the Philadelphia area is black. if Mitt Romney is elected, the Mormon ward gemwill attend includes people if several ethnicities, including of course black.

  • Pigpen

    Once upon a time, Southerners were (like Mormons) loathe to be called a hick, a redneck, or even a farmer. Your article quite rightly cites that now those pejoratives are “…a stereotype that many in rural America have embraced.” Why? Because it is being done out of the same sort of DEFIANCE shown by African Americans who adopted calling each other the “n-word”. And it is being done for the same ANGRY reason. The original reality shows that tapped the unexpected and (to the Left) frightening Redneck Renaissance (such as Ax-men, Deadliest Catch, etc.) are all now (or will soon be) extinct. The men on those reality TV shows for the most part portrayed the White Man as hard-working and courageous. That is why those same TV shows are all gone and will not be replaced. This leaves on the air only those horrible reality shows with the more “proper” interpretation of America’s working White Man –as an uncouth “Larry the Cable Guy” type of buffoon. This is the image of the Southern Man with which those (let’s call them “urban elements” who produce TV shows) are more comfortable portraying to the public. These decidedly low-brow shows are there to reassure the more elite members of American Society that no one is giving the horrible, racist, CR@CKERS ANY opportunity for self-respect in the public square. The R3DN3CKS are securely in their place. This “reality” is not lost on the Southerner. Hence the defiant adoption of the once shameful pejoratives. The message from the South is: SCR3W YOU

    There are no kinder, more wonderful people in the world than the “Utah Mormons”. However, they DO hate Southerners as a group, and have for a VERY long time. The LDS still blame the South, well, the WHITE South for the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. So what? It is sad that Utah Mormons are still so self-loathing when it comes to their own rural roots. “Farmer” is still the worst thing that any LDS young or old could say of another. True, the Mormons LOVE their Pioneer Ancestors, but Mormons are wholly ashamed of the subsequent ancestors who farmed and ranched in those settlements that the Pioneers had, well, had pioneered. But even sadder is the fact that the highest honor among them is “Harvard graduate.” That honor ranks almost equally as high as having “Pioneer Ancestors” in the family tree! The LDS have a simple-minded devotion to the Eastern Intelligentsia that is hard to explain. It seems they have an enormous need to live down the “farmer” image and perceive “Harvard” as the antithesis of all they dislike about themselves. I love living in Utah and love the people, BUT they are pathetically slavish to “Harvard” and all it represents. And the only group of people the Utah Mormons HATE MORE than White Southerners, are the Utah Polygamists. But, that is another story.

    • ann pierce

      You are all so wrong. I am a Mormon, raised in Utah. Never in over 60 years of going to church and being part of Mormon congregations around the country have I ever heard criticism or hate spewed at any particular group of people. Not Southerners, not farmers, not any racial or ethnic group EVER. We embrace people of every background and send help and aide all over the world. I was taught we are all God’s children, and that I should follow the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us to Love one another.

      • DB

        You never heard hatred and bigotry spewed in a Mormon church? So you are saying that your church teaches that gay marriage and heterosexual marriage are exactly the same to God and that all married couple families should have the same rights? And women and men are equally able to serve as prophet/priest pastor? If you answer no to any of these questions, then you have been taught hatred against particular groups of people.

  • http://annemarie1717@yahoo.com Anne

    Interesting that the only people who were safe targets for hate speech and discrimination (Christians) has now spread to Mormons. It seems history really does continue to repeat itself. We haven’t learned a thing in this country….just changed targets.

  • Cristine Hutchison-Jones

    It’s important to note, re: Mormons’ relations with Southerners, that the Mountain Meadows massacre was an isolated incident that occurred well over a century ago in response to very specific historical circumstances. Yes, part of the reason that members of the communities in southern Utah attacked the wagon train was because of where the travelers were from — primarily Missouri and Arkansas — but it was about specific anti-Mormon incidents that had happened in those places and not about the culture of those states more generally. Further, persistent tensions between Mormons and Southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the result in no small part of continuing Southern anti-Mormon violence (see Patrick Mason’s excellent book on the subject, *The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South*.

    As for the present, it doesn’t appear to me based on my research that Mormons living outside the South (there are certainly many Mormons who are also Southerners) demonstrate greater “anti-Southern” sentiment than people of any other religious or non-religious persuasion who aren’t from the South.