For the 33rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Vicki Knasel Brown about conflict faced by Mormons trying to settle in Missouri in the 1830s and how mainstream and religious newspapers differed in their coverage.
Vicki Brown is an an assistant professor of journalism at Savannah State University. Her article “Commercial and Religious Press Coverage of the Mormon Struggle in Missouri, 1831–1838” was published in the September issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Will Mari, author of the new book, A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies.
Teri Finneman: 00:10 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Will Mari, author of the new book, A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies. This is the first book-length account of the computerization of the newsroom during the Cold War. It tells the story of how word processing and a number of related technologies, including early laptops in pre-internet networks, changed the daily work routines of American news workers. It’s available on Amazon and routledge.com.
On today’s show, researcher Vicki Brown discusses her work on religion and media. Shortly after Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the group left its New York roots in search of space to practice their faith in peace. They moved to Missouri in 1831, settling near Independence and Liberty, but conflict arose between the newcomers and those already settled in the area leading to violence and death. This study examined how selected commercial and religious newspapers represented Mormons in the conflict that ultimately ended when an executive order forced Mormons from the state.
Vicki, welcome to the show. Why is it important to do research on how the media covers religion?
Vicki Brown: 01:41 Because religion is an integral, integral part of American society, even though it’s considered less important today. I believe that that’s the reason we need to do research. Historically, religion played a major role in the development of the U.S. as a nation. So politically, Americans need media to cover religion to help us understand the role that religion plays, like in the Middle East, Israel, other parts of the world. Continued research is important to first understand how the media has contributed to defining religious groups and to promoting or hindering specific religions. And second, to understand how the media may have contributed to redefining the place of religion in society. I mean, if you look right now, particularly, well, over probably the last 50 years or so, the move toward giving religion a less prominent place in society or minimizing the role that religion has played in history.
02:54 Part of my purpose for this study was to begin to explore the role of the religious press itself. Quite a bit has been done on how commercial media covers religion, but not as much has been done to explore the role that the religious press itself had played in American history.
Teri Finneman: Why were you interested in specifically studying press coverage of the establishment of Mormons in Missouri?
Vick Brown: Well, while a master’s student at Missouri, I worked full time for a Baptist newspaper in the state, and I wrote a story about Mormons as a part of a package. The paper, along with four other Baptist publications, developed in the fall of 2012 because some considered presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon, unfit for the nation’s top political spot because they believed he would primarily be responsible to Mormon authorities and would take their advice and their direction over a White House adviser’s, and many feared that Mormons would take over the government.
Teri Finneman: 04:05 Which is interesting ‘cause that’s like John Kennedy, right, with the Catholics.
Vicki Brown: Exactly. I was going to bring that up because it kind of mirrors what happened with John Kennedy as a Catholic and the move, particularly among religious groups that, well, you know, you can’t have John Kennedy because he’s Catholic and he’s going to answer to the pope. So the package was an attempt to provide information about Mormon beliefs and practices. Earlier in 2012, a Mormon temple was dedicated in Independence, Missouri. Now, that was a huge thing in Missouri because it was because Independence had been declared by Mormon founder Joseph Smith that Independence would be the new Jerusalem when Jesus Christ returned to Earth and Jackson County would be Zion. And you know, quite a bit has been written about the general circulation press coverage of Mormons in Missouri. And I was especially interested in how the religious press of that time dealt with it, particularly because Missouri reacted so much more radically against Mormons than did any of the other states where Mormons tried to settle.
Teri Finneman: 05:25 So you studied news coverage in the 1830s. Talk about what the newspaper industry was like during this time.
Vicki Brown: Well, the newspaper industry was undergoing its own shift. The 1820s marked a shift away from partisan politics particularly as advances in printing technology allowed publishers and printers to produce newspapers more cheaply. I’m sure your listeners have heard of the penny press and that’s allowed newspapers to be more widely circulated. Even though Missouri’s state government chose a newspaper as its official paper, most publishers began to concentrate on circulation and revenue, rather than partisan politics by the 1830s, news itself became a commodity. Most of the newspapers though were – remained more localized, primarily because most of them were operated by one or two individuals. They didn’t have the resources to send correspondence to gather information and so they tended to concentrate locally as opposed to dealing with national issues.
06:46 Now, there were bigger papers that did deal with national issues in Missouri. For example, the St. Louis Daily Republican tended to be more national than some of the others.
Teri Finneman: You discussed the religious atmosphere in the 19th century, including the rise of a host of religious reform and social movements. Tell us more about what was going on at this time.
Vicki Brown: Well, it really, in terms of religion was an extremely interesting time. The period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War was a time of experimentation, both religious and social. There were three basic types of movements along religious lines. Some were short term movements such as Utopian communities, which generally didn’t last for a long period. Longer term groups such as the Shakers and the Oneida community in New York. And they were – they lasted a little bit longer but didn’t totally endure.
07:51 And then there were the new religious traditions like the Latter Day Saints that endured over a longer period of time. In addition to the new communities that arose, evangelicalism itself strengthened during that period. The evangelical movement embraced a broad spectrum of Christian traditions that were held together by three core beliefs. The Bible is revelation and authority. Salvation is personal and emotional. And a call to share the Christian Gospel. Revivalism expanded primarily following the westward expansion of the U.S. itself. And it was based in that fervor and emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening, which was occurring through that first half of the 1830s. So the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening itself contributed to a kind of fervor, an emotionalism and that movement relied on preacher farmers and the circuit riders. Restorationism, which the LDS church grew out of, moved through the nation in the 1800s —
09:16 and that was the philosophy that the church could be restored to its New Testament beginnings. The more mature church felt that it needed to help bring about that restoration, but there were other proponents of the same movement that believed that the LDS church was not valid. Then there were some other movements such as transcendentalism based on the belief that divinity infuses everything in life and society. So there was just a broad group of people who were experimenting with their spirituality.
Teri Finneman: You note that Mormonism became “the focused social enemy on which the public could blame the country’s ills.” How and why did that come about?
Vicki Brown: Well, Protestantism really dominated the U.S. religious culture during the 1800s and Protestant leaders pushed the idea that Mormons were enemies because they were plotting to usurp the control of society. Mormons practiced a form of communalism that really distanced themselves from their neighbors, from non-Mormons in general.
10:45 And they believe that people could develop God’s kingdom on Earth as a part of Americas societal and political mission. They believe that God’s laws were to be obeyed over the nation’s laws. And that belief really contributed to the political tensions that grew between Mormons and non-Mormons because non-Mormons interpreted the Mormon belief as a declaration that Mormons would take over the government. And then by 1845, Mormon leaders openly denounced the federal government and that kind of added more fuel to that fire.
Non-Mormons accused the LDS Church of fomenting tyranny and so that, from the political point of view, that’s what fomented a lot of the tension between the two groups. But then also, you have other societal issues and two in particular. Mormons ministered to Native Americans and to blacks. And so non-Mormons believed – well, it created a problem for non-Mormons, especially in Missouri because the state was on the western frontier at that time.
12:15 And so there was a fear of Indian attack and that sort of thing. And Missouri was right smack in the middle of division over slavery, over the slavery issue. And you know, the Missouri Compromise, the political Missouri Compromise was developed with Missouri and Maine when Missouri and Maine went in as, as states into the Union in 1821. So that created then, that political level of contention between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri specifically.
Teri Finneman: Let’s talk more about religious newspapers specifically in the 1830s. Who ran them and what did they focus on?
Vicki Brown: Well, my study didn’t really look at like, you know, a broad spectrum of religious papers. I concentrated primarily on the Catholics, the Mormons, and the Baptists. The Catholic and Mormon papers were owned and controlled by the respective churches. So there was a little bit more administrative control over what can be said and what couldn’t be said.
13:33 And by and large, most of those, most of the contributors to those papers were church leaders. Baptist newspapers generally were owned and operated by individuals, privately owned. And those individuals decided to promote the work of the Baptist denomination. So there was not as much of a, for lack of a better term, a hierarchical control. Most of those three groups of papers tended to focus on theology, the proclamations by, and proclamations, of course, by their church leaders.
And interestingly, they spent a lot of time in their respective papers taking jabs at other faith groups and denominations. The Mormons in the Mormon newspapers really chided other Christian groups for their lack of concern over, you know, the Mormons. The Mormons felt like, both politically and religiously, they were being mistreated and so they chided the other religious groups by, you know, pointing out you’re not acting like Christians.
14:59 And then the Catholics and the Baptists spent a lot of time within their publications to writing one another. So the Catholics and the Baptists, partly I think for the reason that, well, first of all, Mormonism was new and they really didn’t know that much about it and really didn’t understand it. And then secondly, Catholics and Baptists through their publications indicated that they believed that Mormonism wouldn’t last, that it would be one of those groups that eventually faded away. And so they didn’t spend as much time on really dealing with or trying to understand Mormons. Many of the newspapers, religious newspapers included items such as poems and stories, you know, designed to uplift the readers. And several did include some – to use perhaps not the best word – worldly news or secular news, if you want to put it that way.
16:13 Especially like market information. I know the Baptists included some of that. The Mormons had a section in their newspaper called worldly ideas. The Catholics pretty much didn’t deal with a whole lot of issues, although all three of them dealt some with broader political issues. But they dealt with those political issues primarily from a theological point of view.
Teri Finneman: You studied news coverage between 1831 and 1839. Tell us more about what you were looking at and what you were looking for.
Vicki Brown: I looked at that decade primarily because that was the period in which Mormons came into Missouri looking for a place to settle. And then, the end of that period when they were driven out of Missouri. I wanted to – because the change happened kind of over time, at first when the Mormons came to Missouri, they were accepted in 1831.
17:25 As small groups began, you know, began that trek from Ohio, they were seen as industrious. They were seen as contributors to society, to Missouri. But then as more and more Mormons came into the western half of Missouri and began to pull themselves away from the rest of the people in the communities, that conflict started to develop. I wanted to see, did the commercial newspapers and the religious newspapers follow what happened, or did they just pretty much ignore it? I wanted to examine what the similarities and the differences were between the religious press and the general circulation press over a new faith tradition and then the development of the conflict itself.
Teri Finneman: And so what were some of your key findings?
Vicki Brown: The primary difference I think between the coverage was that the general circulation newspapers focused on the political perspective while the faith-based press portrayed Mormons more in religious terms.
18:56 I found five themes: theology and religion, politics and patriotism and how the politics of patriotism in terms of the U.S., in terms of our governmental system, affected the coverage. Theocracy, because Mormons were pushing the idea that the government needed to be – you know, God needed to be in control of government. Legal processes and First Amendment rights came out in the study as well, particularly because of the idea of Mormons having the opportunity to express their own beliefs, the destruction of the Mormon press twice. And the idea that, you know, that Mormons saw the press as a legitimate way to get their ideas out into public. And then that whole idea of war and conflict. There was that pull between – well, not only war and conflict within in that conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons, but also that broader understanding of war primarily with Native Americans, the Spanish earlier, and you know, and as the country was building toward the Civil War itself.
20:28 And so all of that kind of worked together to – the newspapers used some of those ways of trying to explain what was going on between Mormons and non-Mormons. I found that coverage shows the conflict involved both religion and politics and that the two couldn’t be separated during that timeframe. I found that societal upheaval nationally occurred during the study period, overshadowed what was going on with the Mormons. It overshadowed what was happening to them and because of the societal upheaval, I think the newspapers covered the Mormon conflict less than what Mormons might have been given otherwise.
Teri Finneman: What is the state of the religious press today?
Vicki Brown: Well, broadly the religious press has been affected by some of the same problems that affect journalism in general. Lower circulation, economic issues and that sort of thing.
21:51 Many have gone to internet-only based and that sort of thing. But readership is still down. I’m probably not the best person to speak to what’s going on broadly in the religious press today or are about specific religious publications. My primary focus has been southern Baptist media. That’s been my research focus for the last few years and particularly I’ve kind of watched what’s been going on there. And I think maybe in some respects some other religious groups are doing the same thing, at least among Southern Baptists, started out primarily as a public relations tool for a time, moved into more of a mainstream, took a more of a mainstream press approach. And over the last few years has gone back to more of a public relations kind of tool. But there are some really good publications out there that are addressing some more issues from a social responsibility point of view, Sojourners and some others.
23:24 There are some others that are doing probably a little better in terms of economically but I can’t speak authoritatively to that.
Teri Finneman: How can journalists do a better job covering religion?
Vicki Brown: Well, personally I think many journalists likely do not realize that religion often is a part of a story or that a story has an underlying religious component. So first they can train themselves to see or to try to recognize that religious component. Some stories are overtly religious or involve a specific religious group, okay. So it’s easier to find that tie. I realize that it does take time that journalists often don’t have, but spending time to learn a little bit about the specific faith tradition or the denomination involved in a story will help the journalists add context, depth, and some nuance that readers might not be able to see or might not know themselves.
24:41 And journalists also should probably remind themselves that most faith traditions and denominations include sects, or subgroups. So we have a tendency to kind of describe everything as equal. So for example, when a journalist is doing a story about the Middle East or about Islam in the U.S. or whatever, oftentimes the distinctions in groups of Muslims or in groups of Christians or in groups of Jews. Evangelicalism I think is a good case in point in that often all evangelicals are lumped together when in reality there are different groups. So even those broad groups are not all the same. And so journalists would be better serving their readers if they could include some of that nuance in their stories.
Teri Finneman: And our final question of the show is always, why does journalism history matter?
Vicki Brown: It matters because we believe that we learn from history.
26:05 I’m not sure that that’s always true, but I think we believe it to a certain extent. I personally see history as a forward motion, but with circular motion to it as well. And that as journalists, we can take some of the lessons that we’ve seen over the years, that we learned by going back and seeing the way journalists in the past have dealt with issues because we’ve never really answered the issues of society. They change, but a lot of the underlying tensions are still there. A lot of the underlying ideology is still there. And as journalists, we can apply those ideologies to our current production, to our current needs, to our current way that we approach stories by learning what was done in the past. And regardless of the platform. And I think even regardless of the technology, because there are societal issues, there are belief systems that are in place and our role as a journalist is to describe them, to analyze them, and to help our readers and viewers understand what they mean.
Teri Finneman: 27:43 All right, well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Vicki Brown: 27:45 Thank you.
Teri Finneman: 27:47 Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, Will Mari, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism history. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. “Good night and good luck.”