‘A burst of new information’: Database reveals new truths about slavery and race in early Utah

Brigham Young spoke vehemently against letting Black men vote, while fellow LDS apostle Orson Pratt said basing such a policy on skin color “is enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.”

(The Abominable Slavery) A new database means the public can now access, among other documents, fiery speeches from church and state leaders Orson Pratt, left, and Brigham Young about slavery, race and voting rights — topics that often divided the two men.

The year was 1852 and the Utah Territorial Legislature had a decision to make: whether to grant Black men the right to vote.

Orson Pratt, who served as a representative and a Latter-day Saint apostle, persistently pushed for it. In the opposite corner, powerful governor and Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young, pushed back, arguing “we just as well make a bill here for mules to vote as Negroes or Indians.”

This and other speeches to emerge from this fiery debate, University of Utah historian W. Paul Reeve said, are among some of the most important — and disturbing — not only for the state’s history but also the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Despite their value, however, most of them have never seen the light of day.

Until now.

Today, the public can access those transcripts and other primary source documents regarding Indigenous and African American enslavement in the Utah Territory through a new digital database called This Abominable Slavery.

(University of Utah) W. Paul Reeve, the Simmons Mormon Studies professor at the U., co-authored the database along LaJean Carruth of the Church History Library, and U. doctoral student Christopher Rich.

The collection constitutes the most exhaustive compilation of primary sources to date on the subject and represents a joint effort by Reeve, LaJean Carruth of the Church History Library, and U. doctoral student Christopher Rich. The three are co-authors of a narrative history based on these documents due out from Oxford University Press in 2024 to be titled “This Abominable Slavery: Race, Religion, and the Battle over Human Bondage in Antebellum Utah.”

The U.’s J. Willard Marriott Library and the Church History Department also contributed to the database.

Among the collection’s most noteworthy sources is what Reeve called “the worst speech in Latter-day Saint history,” a racist 1852 screed delivered by Young in which the church leader “created a cursed racial identity” that, Reeve said in an interview, would be used for more than a century to deny Black Latter-day Saints equal status in their faith.

Another includes Pratt’s 1856 rejection of this argument — “the only” one, Reeve noted, “that Young ever gave” for the policy that barred Black Latter-day Saints from the faith’s temples and all-male priesthood. Church leaders lifted the ban in 1978.

Brigham prevails

Ultimately, Young’s view would rule the day in early Utah and the right to vote was not extended to Black males. That same year, the Legislature overrode Pratt’s objections — documented in the database — to pass a bill that failed to free anyone then enslaved, even while granting them limited rights.

It appears that Pratt did sway fellow lawmakers to erase a clause that would have made enslavement perpetual. “Without that clause,” Reeve explained in a news release, “the likely legislative intent was that the condition of servitude not pass to the next generation.”

Still, Pratt wanted no part of slavery in Utah. “Shall we hedge up the way before us by introducing this abominable slavery? No! … Shall we take then the innocent African that has committed no sin and damn him to slavery and bondage without receiving any authority from heaven to do [so]?” he questioned. “For us to bind the African because he is different from us in color [is] enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush!”

Users of the collection can also view a bill of sale for an enslaved woman named Lucinda, sold by Latter-day Saints Margaret Thompson McMeans and Abraham O. Smoot for $400, and an estate settlement for another Latter-day Saint that listed two Native American boys and three Black individuals, including an 11-year-old girl named Tampian, valued at $300.

Teaching tool

Alice Faulkner Burch, a board member of the Utah-based Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, plans to use the database to teach about the Beehive State’s Black history.

(Alice Faulkner Burch) Alice Faulkner Burch is a board member of the Utah-based Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation. She plans to use the database to teach about the state's Black history.

The documents “reveal the truth of enslavement in Utah,” she said, “and the contribution of past leadership toward its furtherance and perpetuation.”

Reeve stressed that he hoped users would feel empowered by the unfettered access to this “burst of new information” to primary sources to draw their own conclusions about what past Utahns and Latter-day Saints thought and did in regards to race and slavery, along with the faith’s former racist priesthood and temple restrictions.

“People do not have to take our word for it,” he said, “but they can access the evidence and read the speeches in their entirety.”