How the Latter-day Saint hymn “Love at Home” has to do with blackface

The song stems from a “uniquely American art form,” says the scholar, “which unfortunately is part of Mormon history.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Two girls sing from a Latter-day Saint hymnal. One scholar notes that the popular anthem “Love at Home” has its roots in the 19th-century “blackface minstrel.”

logan • When Latter-day Saints around the world sing the hymn “Love at Home,” they are actually enlivening a 19th-century song written by white composer John Hugh McNaughton about how he adapted slave life introduced America’s plantations.

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

Blackface minstrels, which emerged in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, consisted of touring white entertainers who donned makeup to appear as blacks, Soelberg explained, and staged “dehumanizing” performances for white audiences.

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

Referring to research by scholars such as Michael Hicks, W. Paul Reeve, and Spencer Fluhman, she noted that some early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were recorded as enjoying the racist form of entertainment in Nauvoo, Illinois. , it wasn’t until they arrived in Utah that they began to recreate it themselves, “mostly in the form of songs.”

Blackface minstrels were so popular, she said, that Wilford Woodruff, an early Latter-day Saint leader, once warned with alarm that members were neglecting scripture reading in favor of music.

In contrast, the pioneer prophet Brigham Young reportedly loved the melodies that came from this art form and only became concerned when church members began performing them in black script.

After one such event, Young reportedly approached the cast and told them, “‘Your conversation was good, but don’t make black faces. They are Latter-day Saints. What if you suddenly died with faces like that? What a shame it would be if your standards were lowered.’”

Under Young, the Utah-based faith imposed a ban on black members from entering its temples and participating in its all-male priesthood, a ban 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 through performances by congregations and youth groups well into the 1950s.

“This shift from being reluctant to don a black face in the 19th century to adopting the practice in the 20th century,” Soelberg added, is a way for Latter-day Saints to “define their whiteness” within the larger US society to assert after the end of polygamy.

Blackface remains “a part of our current Mormon history,” she concluded, citing an example of the practice from a 2018 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 the minstrel.”

These include blackfishing (an indication of when people—typically white—change 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 stereotyped “. Black.” How the Latter-day Saint hymn “Love at Home” has to do with blackface

Joel McCord

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