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Marriott Library’s New Database Gives Fresh Insight into Slavery in Utah

The database includes “two strident anti-slavery speeches” from LDS Apostle Orson Pratt and a Brigham Young speech debating voting rights, among other important documents.
Tom Denton
The J. Willard Marriott Library at University of Utah in Salt Lake City on April 17, 2019. (Photo by Tom Denton | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah released a digital database of primary sources dealing with legislative debates on slavery in Utah’s territorial government in 1852 and 1856. Most of the documents in the database are being released to the public for the first time.

“It’s really exciting,” head of Digital Library Services Anna Neatrour said. “The library is always interested in engaging with faculty who are working on public history projects, and we really enjoy developing these collaborations to showcase all the excellent scholarship that’s on campus.”

The Marriott Library created the database, called “This Abominable Slavery,” with Professor W. Paul Reeve, the history department chair and Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the U.

Among the documents found in the database is the “first documented instance” of Latter-day Saints prophet and territorial governor Brigham Young declaring a racial restriction on the priesthood.

Young’s speech debating voting rights, given Feb. 5, 1852, was also released to the public for the first time.

In the speech, Young states the racial restriction was because Black people were cursed with the mark of Cain. Young went on to compare Black people and Native Americans to mules and declared, “In the kingdom of God on the earth the Africans cannot hold one particle of power in government.”

“[That speech] has long term impacts. The racial restrictions last in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for almost 130 years,” Reeve said.

Reeve said the database includes “two strident anti-slavery speeches” from LDS Apostle Orson Pratt. One of those speeches dealt with “An Act in Relation to Service,” where Pratt said, “For us to bind the African because he is different from us in color [is] enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush!”

While Pratt did not stop the bill from passing, he helped prevent indentured servitude from being passed onto future generations. Young also demanded changes to the bill to give the enslaved more rights.

“Orson Pratt is arguing for freedom,” Reeve said. “Brigham Young is kind of trying to strike a middle ground between what he calls … the ‘rabid abolitionists,’ those who want immediate emancipation in the north, and those who favor chattel slavery or human beings as property in the south.”

Reeve co-authored the book “This Abominable Slavery: Race, Religion, and the Battle over Human Bondage in Antebellum Utah” — which will be released in 2024 by Oxford University Press — with Christopher B. Rich, Jr. and LaJean Purcell Carruth.

“[The book] is grounded in the primary sources and they are about the legislative debates and how Utah is attempting to answer the same questions that the nation is struggling to answer in the 1850s,” Reeve said. “Can human beings be held as property? … Our database offers Utah’s answer in the 1850s to that question. And that’s what our book will answer as well.”

The book reveals that the “Act in Relation to Service” created a system of indentured servitude not only for the enslaved but for white Mormon migrants from Europe as well.

“We were able to firmly make that conclusion because the speeches themselves, they are talking about white, European immigrants who have come and are still indebted … previous scholars had not picked up on that without the kind of context available with these new speeches,” Reeve said.

Co-author Rich said the practice ended in the eastern United States around 1830 but persisted in Utah, partly for economic reasons.

“You had greater access to cash, greater access to banking services [in the east],” Rich said. “So it just didn’t make sense to hold people in service. Those same economic conditions simply didn’t exist in Utah territory. Young and other legislators saw this as a way that they could continue to pay for European immigrants to Utah, and they could repay those travel costs through their labor.”

A critical difference between the systems of indentured servitude was that European migrants were servants until they repaid their debt, whereas enslaved Black people could be indentured for life.

“The other odd difference is that servitude for European immigrants was clearly heritable under the law,” Rich said. “So if a family in England had joined the Latter-day Saints Church and decided to immigrate to America, if the parents happened to die during the course of the trip, their children would still be expected to pay the debt back.”

Rich said Young avoided taking a firm stance on slavery to maintain unity within the LDS community and to avoid upsetting Congress in hopes of making Utah become a state.

“One thing that has helped me a lot in dealing with difficult material, a friend told me that understanding is not excusing,” Carruth said.

“We often think if we understand why somebody did something, we’re excusing them, but we’re not,” she said. “We can understand why they felt the way they did because they lived in that time — that’s not excusing them. It’s not saying they’re right. I’m with Orson Pratt all the way.”


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About the Contributors
Giovanni Radtke
Giovanni Radtke, Assistant News Editor
Giovanni Radtke is a junior at the U with an associate degree in journalism and digital media from Salt Lake Community College. He is majoring in communications with an emphasis in journalism. Giovanni is a self-proclaimed cinephile who loves traveling and reading history books.
Tom Denton
Tom Denton, Photographer
Tom has been a photographer for the The Daily Utah Chronicle since 2018. He is currently a senior in the multi-disciplinary design program here at the U. Tom is originally from Edison, New Jersey where he first found his passion for photography.

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