What the Latter-day Saint hymn ‘Love at Home’ has to do with blackface

The song traces its roots to a “uniquely American art form,” scholar says, “that is, unfortunately, a part of Mormon history.”

Logan • When Latter-day Saints around the world sing the hymn “Love at Home,” they are, in fact, reviving a song from the 1800s written by white composer John Hugh McNaughton about how he imagined life for slaves on America’s plantations.

The song, with its lyrics about “bliss” and “joy,” traces its origins back to the cultural phenomenon of the mid-19th century known as blackface minstrelsy, Grace Soelberg, a recent graduate from Brigham Young University, explained during her presentation at this year’s Mormon History Association conference.

Blackface minstrelsy, which took off in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, consisted of touring white entertainers donning makeup to appear as Black people, Soelberg explained, and staging “dehumanizing” performances for white audiences.

“It is a uniquely American art form,” she said, “that is, unfortunately, a part of Mormon history.”

Drawing on the research of scholars such as Michael Hicks, W. Paul Reeve and Spencer Fluhman, she noted that while records indicate some early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoyed the racist form of entertainment in Nauvoo, Ill., it wasn’t until they arrived in Utah that they began re-creating it themselves, “mostly in the form of song.”

Blackface minstrelsy was so popular, she said, that at one point an alarmed Wilford Woodruff, an early Latter-day Saint leader, warned that members were neglecting their scripture reading in preference for the music.

In contrast, pioneer-prophet Brigham Young reportedly loved the tunes that originated with the art form, only growing concerned when church members began performing them in blackface.

After one such event, Young reportedly approached the performers, telling them, “‘Your entertainment was good, but don’t black your faces. You are Latter-day Saints. What if you should die suddenly with faces like that? What a disgrace it would be and your standards lowered.’”

Under Young, the Utah-based faith instituted a ban on Black members entering its temples and participating in its all-male priesthood, a prohibition that lasted until 1978.

Even as the blackface minstrelsy industry faded from popular American culture in the 1890s, Soelberg said, Latter-day Saints kept the tradition alive well into the 1950s through performances put on by congregations and youth groups.

“This shift, from being hesitant to don blackface in the 19th century” to embracing the practice in the 20th was a way, Soelberg added, for Latter-day Saints “to assert their whiteness” within larger U.S. society after the end of polygamy.

Blackface remains “a part of our current Mormon history,” she concluded, citing a 2018 example of the practice at a BYU Halloween party.

Going forward, she said she is “interested to see” how the Latter-day Saint community will “interact with more modern forms of minstrelsy.”

These include blackfishing (a reference to when individuals — typically white — alter their appearance to look racially ambiguous), the “colonization of African American Vernacular English,” and the use of a “blaccent” to, as Soelberg put it, “sound stereotypically Black.”