Walker Lewis is a key figure in early Mormon history as one of the few African-Americans that had the Melchizedek priesthood bestowed upon him. Before the restrictive priesthood policy tightened, Brigham Young singled out Lewis as “one of the best Elders.”
Recently I was asked for my opinion on Wikipedia’s article on Walker Lewis. Currently the state of the article is such that Wikipedia’s editors have recognized that it does not even meet their low scholarly standards and is not written from a neutral point of view. The Wikipedia entry is based on a scholarly article written by Connell O’Donovan for the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. The Wikipedia article elevates some of O’Donovan’s prose
Lewis left Massachusetts at the end of March 1851 and arrived in Salt Lake City about October 1. He received his Patriarchal Blessing under the hands of Patriarch John Smith, an uncle of Joseph Smith. After arriving, he asked a black Mormon from Connecticut, Jane Elizabeth Manning James, to marry him as his polygamous wife, but she turned him down. Otherwise, Lewis was completely ignored by his fellow Mormons. The missionaries and Apostles who had stayed in his home, eaten his food, and worshiped God under his roof refused to even acknowledge his presence now that he was in Salt Lake City.
(Wikipedia, accessed 4 Mar 2008)
This blessing, coupled with a statement made by Jane James in February 1890, is the only evidence from Utah I have found that Lewis was in the Salt Lake valley for about six months. I can find no other Mormon/Utah record of his presence there. Unfortunately, none of the Mormons who knew him from Massachusetts and who were in Salt Lake or environs at the time recorded his stay that I have found. Unfortunately, none of the Mormons who knew him from Massachusetts and who were in Salt Lake or environs at the time recorded his stay that I have found.
O’Donovan goes on to conjecture about Lewis’ reaction to some pro-slavery, anti-miscegenation legislation passed with the support of Brigham Young. Lewis “must have been personally and politically appalled at this bigotry from his church leaders whom he had esteemed, welcomed into his home, trusted, and assisted.” O’Donovan then cites some speeches by Brigham Young. Despite finding “there is no record of Walker Lewis’ reaction to such rhetoric,” O’Donovan characterizes Lewis’ visit as a “frigid reception in ‘Zion’” with Zion in scare quotes. He suggests that Walker Lewis left the church after his visit to Utah, but provides little evidence to support that claim. Unless persuaded otherwise, I prefer to think of Lewis as a man who endured through very trying conditions to the end. While O’Donovan attempts to link the territorial legislation as a reaction to Lewis’ visit, a more compelling reason is that the Saints anticipated an easier path to statehood if they could be admitted as a slave state.
I depend on O’Donovan’s article for what I know about Walker Lewis. I read it with interest around the time it first came out. The article is a mixed bag. O’Donovan received encouragement from Margaret Young to pursue this study. In my eyes, Margaret deserves much respect for her work with Darius Gray for helping the Mormon community undergo healing for the hardships created by the doctrinal folklore used to support the priesthood ban. I have tickets to see the documentary they made that is currently making the rounds through film festivals (see Nobody Knows). In what must have been a labor of love, O’Donovan has uncovered a great deal of facts about the extended Lewis family’s involvement in the abolitionist movement. I feel edified learning about Walker’s interaction with the missionaries that ministered to his branch in Lowell, Massachusetts. Walker Lewis’ involvement in a type of masonry is also intriguing.
I recommend the article as a must read in Mormon studies, but I hope this post will help inoculate those who might find the information therein and analysis shocking and disorienting. Part of the problem here is that Mormonism does have what is considered racism by today’s standards in its past, so we must be careful not to shoot the messenger. However, while the article has numerous strengths, it is the flaws that tend to attract my critical attention. I do not interpret some of the sources the same way O’Donovan does, nor would I present them in the same context that he does. I don’t know how some of his wild, irresponsible speculations that the Danites “certainly … might have” killed at Brigham’s bidding passed peer review. O’Donovan frequently plays arm chair psychologist or passes judgment on Mormon leaders that appear to be uncalled for. How does he know what degree racism may have played in Appleby’s inquiries about the Lewis family? Or that Brigham Young was “incensed” about the situation, or that Brigham Young really would have enforced anti-miscegenation at the pain of death if if the Lewises lived on the frontier? Some scholars of Brigham Young, who have broadly read through his remarks on related issues of blood atonement, crime and punishment, retribution, vengeance, etc. have demonstrated time after time that Brigham’s bark was worse than his bite. He would talk tough but would never follow through and usually the surrounding text of any fiery proof-text usually reveals some excuse or another on why he wouldn’t follow through. Some of FAIR wiki’s articles that might be helpful are:
The title of O’Donovan’s article, The Mormon Priesthood Ban & Elder Q. Walker Lewis, is somewhat of a tease. Very little is done to establish that Brigham Young’s reaction to the news that Lewis’ son married a white woman was what dramatically shifted the priesthood policy. O’Donovan’s article could have been strengthened had he interacted more with prior scholarship on the topic advancing various theories for the ban’s origin. He summarizes his position:
I feel certain that William McCary’s troubling actions at Winter Quarters in the spring and fall of 1847, Young’s discovery of the Lewis-Webster marriage in December 1847, and Walker Lewis’ high standing in African Freemasonry, were the three most important factors in Brigham Young’s instigation of a priesthood ban against all men with African ancestry in late 1847 or early 1848.
While I can see two of these three factors as being important, I would not include them in a short list of most important factors of the ban. I consider the conflict in Missouri, the ensuing adoption of southern slave owner’s views in Church publications to placate them, and an increasingly eisegesic readings of scripture (including uniquely Mormon scripture) as more causal. I think that O’Donovan failed to make his case that Lewis’ masonry was known about and much less that it was a problem. Why would post-martyrdom Mormons impute guilt universally on all masons, given that many of their own were masons? Prior to the martyrdom, being a mason helped prepare one to understand the new temple ordinances and this made masons more likely to be selected for an initiation. So arguably, being a mason should have helped and not hindered any chance Walker Lewis had to receive his endowments. If evenly applied, a post-martyrdom temple ordinance ban would have affected white Mormon masons and we don’t see that at all.
Despite my nitpicking at some of Connell O’Donovan’s interpretations, my overall assessment is that his paper brings Walker Lewis out of of obscurity and restores his rightful place to be honored as Mormon pioneer. Walker Lewis was more than a pioneer, he was an Elias, one who prepared the way.