Sons of God, Sons of Empire: Mormons, Scouting, and the Colonial Persuasion

lord-robert-baden-powell[1]

Lord Robert Baden-Powell

*Note: This represents introductory research and makes no claims to exhaustiveness

Mormonism and colonialism have often served as unwitting allies.  For some, this is hardly a surprise; as an Anglo-American religion, it seems only fitting that Mormons would place a high value of expansion of Anglo-American populations and values.   While many mainstream Saints hardly give it a second thought–they have yards to water, casseroles to fix, and soccer stars to shuttle–this relationship ought to give us pause.

Few chapters of Mormon history illustrate (and complicate) this relationship as well as the Mormons’ enthusiastic embrace of Boy Scouting.  The founder of the movement, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, was nothing if not a British imperialist. A veteran of several colonial wars in Africa and central Asia, many of his ideas of manhood developed while fighting through the Bush against Zulus, Ashantis, and Dutch Boers.   Baden-Powell’s primary duty was to provide intelligence about tribal movements: scouting.  Having seen his empire lose South Africa, Baden-Powell grew increasingly concerned about the state of the empire–indeed, about the state of imperial manhood.  To assist fellow soldiers in handling the Zulu, he wrote a manual entitled Aids to Scouting.  The lessons he drew were not derived in military tactics but in personal character.  If the empire was to remain intact, it would require vigilant manhood: preparedness, obedience, and dedication to the Mother kingdom (see the introduction to a scholarly reprint of Scouting for Boys for background on Baden-Powell).

When Baden-Powell learned that a number of British boys’ organizations were implementing his , he adapted the lessons into lively stories and yarns more geared for a young audience, a book entitled Scouting for Boys.  Industrialization, laziness, and poor health habits would assuredly lead to the  “deterioration of [the] race.”  Baden-Powell urged boys to learn physical self-control: the regulation of bowel movements, proper breathing methods, and physical cleanliness.  The Empire depended on it. Mormons immediately saw the appeal.  In 1910, the Deseret News published an article favorable to the organization, arguing that the observation was a “remedy for the physical degeneration of British city dwellers that has given so many anxious hours to patriotic scientists of the empire.”     The leading supporter of American scouting organizations was prominent naturalist Ernest Seton, who produced his own volume of Baden-Powell’s work. Social reformer Jacob Riis applauded scouts for “getting at the boy on his own ground, setting him to do the things he ardently wants to do, but, in our cities with their twisted social conditions, doesn’t know how to do.”  Scouting would recreate the “frontier” experience, an experience that historians and thinkers feared had died when the US census bureau declared the frontier’s demise in 1890.

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Heber J. Grant with boy scouts, 1929

Yet the first Boy Scout chapters were not sponsored by Mormons but by Protestant establishments in Utah (see also Ogden Standard, November 6, 1910Salt Lake Herald, October 29, 1910Salt Lake Telegram, December 7, 1910).But it did not take long before the Mormons embraced the British organization.  Eugene Roberts, head of Brigham Young University’s physical education program, launched a full-blown lobbying offensive for the Church to adopt a recreation program. Mormon intellectual Brigham H. Roberts initially resisted, believing that the Saints needed no further programs.   Drawing on the Mormon tradition of wilderness travel and conquest, Eugene Roberts persuaded the Church youth organization to adopt the program .  In 1911, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsored its first troop of Mutual Improvement Association Scouts.  Two years later, it joined the national organization (see here for an introductory discussion of the Mormons’ decision to join the Boy Scouts of America).

By the 1920s, Mormons throughout Utah were raving over the new program and had become the program’s leading supporter in the United States. The Americans had stripped the program of its colonial undergirdings–an irony generally lost of the newly-imperial nation.  Supporters focused on preparing boys for their roles as fathers and community members.   By 1925, community leaders throughout Utah had endorsed the program.  Stake President Robert Young and Bishop Andrew Oldroyd, both of Richfield, called scouting “one of the great movements of our time” and “the foundation of good citizenship.”  With its emphasis on organizing men and boys into units, collaboration, and mutual uplift, it bore all the trappings of the Progressive impulse then sweeping America.  Newly-called Scoutmasters praised the movement for “organizing boys systematically.”  A northern Utah humorist observed that “our scout boys is jest [sic] like a big young corn patch spreadin’ from the Atlantic to the Pacific, an’ they’re planted in straight rows, too.”  According to the head of the Church’s Young Men Improvement Association, the program was teaching their youth to be “loyal to country and to their religion, hardy and persevering” and “shining examples of choicest citizenship.” 

Why would the Saints embrace an institution founded so explicitly on the martial values of the British empire? On first glance, it would appear that the Mormons themselves had affection for the British  They had colonized the Intermountain West, dominated it, and created a new infrastructure after the manner of the industrial West.  Beginning with the early 1840s British mass baptisms, the Saints came to see the British as destined to have a special place in the kingdom; perhaps they were the tribe of Ephraim.   By the 1880s, the Saints had adopted arguments promoted by social Darwinists suggesting that many people–particularly Anglo-Americans–had “believing blood” which was predisposed to accept the gospel.  “Through that chosen seed comes salvation,” Orson F. Whitney wrote, “and it comes by no other route.”   Typically, it was assumed that this “believing blood” flowed in Anglo-Saxon peoples (Neilson and Maffly-Kipp, Proclamation to the People, 274; Farmer, On Zion’s Mount, 57).

But the causes for the Mormon embrace of Boy Scouts are more immediate than that. Historian Daniel Rodgers has argued that much of the early nineteenth-century Progressive movement had a transnational flavor.  Most Progressive reformers–especially naturalists–borrowed their ideas from European social movements.  It is commonplace to observe that post-Manifesto Mormonism exhibited a tendency towards Americanization.  The Mormons’ embrace of Boy Scouts represents something more: the endorsement of nation-statism.   For nearly two generations, polygamy had prompted wide-ranging criticism of the Saints as a colonized people.  Commentators regularly attacked them as “Orientals,” “Turkic,” and, on occasion, black (see Givens, Viper on the Hearth, chpt. 7, for a full discussion of Mormon racialization). Joining an avowedly colonialist  enabled the long-spurned Saints to uphold the system rather than be Otherized by it.

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Boy Scouts celebrating Independence Day, 2010

The Boy Scouts presented an important opportunity for the Saints to adapt to their newly-adopted American society (Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 144-145).  Clearly, Church leaders upheld aspects of the Boy Scout values.  However, its ability to decolonize and “whiten” the Mormon population cannot be ignored.  The Boy Scouts of America represented a synthesis of pragmatic opportunism and doctrinal affinity and marked an important moment in the American Mormons’ transition from being an isolated mountain sect to upstanding supporters of the nation-state and status quo.

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One comment on “Sons of God, Sons of Empire: Mormons, Scouting, and the Colonial Persuasion

  1. Ignacio says:

    One of my foundational arguments about Mormonism is that it sought to “patch” itself into the modern American world rather than to create philosophical and theological entrance ways into becoming a modern church. What is so fascinating about early Mormonism is how unvaliant were so many leaders about standing up for some of their earlier ideals, and how often naive they were about what changes in the modern world would mean to their gospel of peace and equality. In many ways, the church’s isolation in the Mountain West which served to strengthen its organization core weakened its intellectual filters when it came to cultural and political issues, and thus from the early 20th century we became part of every movement that has been discredited, Our only salvation is that we have also been too naive to understand the inherent problems with some programs and so we’ve been spared of having taken them to their logical extreme. Good Work Russell.

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