Smoot v. Heywood: Exploring Utah Slavery

Tuesday a person stood outside the BYU Creamery protesting Abraham Smoot, early financial backer of the Brigham Young Academy (now BYU) and president of the BYA board of trustees.

My sister and some of her sons encountered this micro-protest while buying groceries. One son asked, “Isn’t it inappropriate to protest on private property without permission?” Another wanted to get into a debate with the protester. But my sister felt it better to not let her pre-teen sons question or debate someone who felt so passionately about their concern.

Some historians point out that Abraham O. Smoot apparently was considered the owner of three persons who came to Utah as slaves. Two of these persons were emancipated when the US Congress abolished slavery in 1863. The third, Tom, died a few weeks before Congress made ownership of slaves illegal in US territories. Thus, the protester wanted to argue that Abraham Smoot was a slave owner and presumably that Smoot’s name should be removed from the 1962-era administration building on BYU campus.

But what does it mean that Smoot was considered owner of these enslaved individuals?

Let me relate the tale of another enslaved individual, a Paiute boy named Omer Badigee. When the Utah legislature passed the Act In Relation to Servitude in 1852, local Indian tribes saw an opportunity. More aggressive Indians could attack less prepared Indians and sell captured women and children to the white folks, threatening that if the white folks did not purchase the newly-captured women and children, these captured individuals would be killed.

This is how Omer Badigee became an enslaved person as a young boy. The white emigrant who saved Omer’s life can be lauded for that action, but his subsequent treatment of Omer left much to be desired.

Enter Joseph Leland Heywood, at the time U.S. Marshall for Utah Territory as well as devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Heywood discovered young Omer clothed in rags and infested with lice and fleas, Heywood relieved the un-named savior of Omer’s care.

Heywood returned to Salt Lake City with Omer. Once home, Heywood charged his young ward, Mary Bell, to clean Omer up and get him properly clothed. Mary shaved off the hair that might harbor critters, washed Omer down with kerosene and soap, burned the rags, and clothed the young boy in proper clothing. When she was done, Omer was so transformed that Mary broke down crying and gathered the young boy in her arms. Ever after, the Heywood family considered Mary to be Omer’s effective mother, though she was only 13 when Omer came into the family.

Omer would die of consumption as a young adult, but before his death he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. Family history records show that he was sealed to Joseph Leland Heywood and Mary Bell. I think it could have been the relationship between Mary Bell and Omer that prompted Heywood’s other wives to demand he wed Mary.

But getting back to Smoot, what does it means that Tom’s ownership was attributed to Smoot?

According to an article about the Smoot controversy written by Peggy Fletcher Stack for the Salt Lake Tribune in 2019, Tom had come to Utah in 1847 as the slave of Haden Wells Church, who was part of Abraham Smoot’s company. Later, Church would be a member of the congregation of which Abraham Smoot was bishop.

According to Michael Quinn, 1 there were times when slave owners would donate their slaves to Church leaders as part of their assessed tithes. When slaves were given to Brigham Young, he would always free these individuals.

We have reviewed the history of Omer Badigee, an enslaved person whose “ownership” was taken over by Joseph Leland Heywood, who proceeded to treat Omer not merely as a free individual, but as a covenant son.

The records are relatively sparse for Tom, who at some point was transferred from being the slave of Haden Church to being in the care of Church’s bishop, Abraham Smoot.

Some have presumed that this makes Smoot a straight-up slave owner. They have not considered the milieu in which this transfer took place. Specifically, nowhere has it been admitted that Haden Church may have transferred Tom to his bishop as tithing, though this is a practice we know to have occurred with Brigham Young.

What we do know is that Tom was baptized, an ordinance that at the time would only be administered if the person who “owned” an enslaved person concurred with performance of the ordinance. 2 Because of the lack of documentation, it is not clear when Church transferred his ownership of Tom to his bishop, though the record of Tom’s baptism identifies Tom as “Brother Churches black man”. Thus the transfer appears to have occurred after baptism, though it is possible the transfer happened around the time of the baptism.

I assert it is possible that Abraham Smoot, who had served missions in states where slave ownership was legal, was likely bishop to multiple families who had brought slaves to Utah. Further, I assert it is possible that Abraham Smoot didn’t purchase these individuals from his congregants, but that these enslaved individuals were tithed to Bishop Smoot.

Why would Smoot retain these individuals as slaves if they had been tithed? Heywood and Young emancipated enslaved persons given to them.

It may matter that Utah Territory, by the time of Tom’s death, had been occupied for an extended time by a plurality of the US Armed Forces, many members of which Initially were from Southern States. It may just be possible that, in this circumstance, it was safer for a Black individual to be considered property of a master who would defend the Black individual rather than to risk whatever treatment Southern-sympathizing Army soldiers might inflict on a free Black individual.

At any rate, I suggest that the data are insufficient to characterize Abraham Smoot as a traditional slave owner. I submit that Smoot was likely a Bishop in receipt of tithed enslaved persons who, for reasons currently unknown, did not make a show of emancipating these individuals before Congress freed them by legal fiat. At best, I submit Smoot had reasons for characterizing these individuals as under his banner, reasons that are lost to us but with which we might be sympathetic if we fully understood the historical milieu.

Now, I would be completely fine with renaming the 1962-era X-shaped administration building after some other individual, perhaps a prominent individual (ahem, Snow, Cannon, or Wells) who lacked a Y chromosome. There are many able female administrators associated in some sense with Brigham Young Academy that do not yet have a namesake building at the institution that arose from BYA.

But let us not presume that consequences arising from the US Congress establishing Utah Territory as a slave territory (as part of the Compromise of 1850) transforms Utah individuals into slave owners on par with those who built their institutions on the backs of enslaved individuals or who violently rebelled against the Union to perpetuate a supposed right to enslave individuals.


  1. Keynote presentation by Michael Quinn at the DC Sunstone Symposium in 1995, where I was in attendance.
  2. For better or worse, this practice of refusing to baptize individuals culturally or legally considered dependents of a head of household who objects continues in some forms even today.

The meaning of the gay dating fiasco at BYU

BYU students and others protesting at church headquarters on March 6, 2020.

In February, news media reported that BYU had dropped its blanket prohibition on homosexual behavior and would no longer discipline students for same-sex dating, hand-holding or kissing. USA Today ran the headline “BYU removes ‘homosexual behavior’ ban from honor code, reflecting Mormon church stance”, suggesting that the church’s doctrine had itself softened.

Two weeks later, the change in BYU policy would be reversed, and it would become clear that the church never had any intention of allowing gay dating at its schools. But the narrative had already taken on a life of its own. It culminated, on March 6, in an unprecedented protest at church headquarters by a group of dissenting BYU students and supporters.

The skirmish over gay dating crystallized tensions that had been building up at BYU and other church institutions for years. A faction of dissenting progressives, hostile to church teachings on sex and marriage and heterodox on core doctrine, has quietly formed within the North American church over the last few decades. Unable to acquire formal, ecclesiastical authority in the church, this faction has operated by gaining influence in non-ecclesiastical church institutions and shaping conversations about the church in online spaces and news media.

It is worth examining the events of the gay dating fiasco at BYU, which make for an illustration of these tactics and give insight into inevitable future conflicts.

Continue reading

Joy amidst the storm

When my youngest daughter shared that she would likely get married this summer, we were thrilled.

Then things started shutting down all over the place. This included temples.

Even once temples started opening for marriages of previously-endowed couples, the temple near us remained closed.

Then there was the question of how to hold a celebration. Some involved felt current restrictions were unwarranted. Others were very concerned.

How could we accommodate all?

In the end I feel we struck a good balance between caution and the desire to celebrate with those we love.

Along the way, we have been surrounded by miracles.

One particular miracle was that my daughter’s choice for sealer was able to perform her marriage. Brother Evans has known me since I was a pre-teen. He has been our bishop, our home teacher, and voiced my daughters’ patriarchal blessings. But with COVID restrictions, he was only able to perform the ceremony in the Philadelphia temple because he had received personalized written permission from President Nelson to officiate in Philadelphia, a need created because the good people of Washington DC thronged to Philadelphia when the DC temple was closed for extensive renovations.

As we entered the temple for the sealing, it was as if everything was being done solely for this one couple. In fact, that day Annie and Tim were the only couple sealed in Philadelphia, so in fact all the people who greeted us and helped us and cleaned up were there solely for that one couple.

The days threatened rain. But for those key events that would have been ruined by rain, we experienced clear skies.

And with the risk some feared of exposure to the virus, there would have been concern about being unmasked in proximity to others. But we were blessed with a stiff wind that minimized the risk of anyone acquiring an infectious load of the virus.

In this time of so much doom and gloom, may our joy prove a bright spot. And may our miracles help someone seeking answers find ways to have their own joyful day in a manner that blesses all.

Book Review: Enos Jarom Omni

 Book Review: Enos, Jarom, Omni: a Brief Theological Introduction, by Sharon J. Harris. Published by the Maxwell Institute.

This is the 4th book in a series on the Book of Mormon. You can find my previous reviews here: 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, Jacob. The Maxwell Institute is focusing this series on modern theology/philosophy, and using new religious/scholarly methods to peek into the minds and writings of the authors of the Book of Mormon, showing us other ways to apply the writings of the Book of Mormon to our own modern lives.

Sharon J. Harris is an assistant professor of English at BYU.

Sharon J. Harris takes a shot at dealing with concepts hiding in these “itty bitty books.” They are small books, especially Jarom and Omni, and many of us tend to rush past them to get to the deep doctrinal teachings of King Benjamin in Mosiah and the war stories in Alma. However, Harris gives us a reason to pause for a few moments and consider what exactly is happening in these centuries that are covered within just a few verses.

The book is divided into three chapters: Enos, Jarom and Omni. Each of these chapters are then subdivided into various concepts that Harris wrings out of the text.

In Enos, she notes the time frame given for Enos and his father Jacob-almost 180 years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem to the time Enos wrote down his experience. This means that Jacob must have born Enos later in his life, perhaps in his 70s or 80s, and Enos also lived into his 80s. When Jacob’s words sunk into Enos’ mind, bringing him to pray, even as a young man, his father probably had been dead for several years.

Harris notes other interesting points that can be found in Enos. One concept that I completely missed in my 70+ times reading the Book of Mormon, is the idea of kenosis. Kenosis, or its verb form (kenoo, empty out, in Greek) is only found once in the Bible: Philippians 2:5-8. In the context, Jesus did not see it as a bad thing (robbery) to be equal with God. For him to do this, Jesus had to empty himself of all his godly power and become mortal, in order that he could be filled with greater Godly power.

Harris suggests that we see a form of kenosis happening with Enos. For him to receive a remission of his sins, he must empty himself of all his sins, fears, preconceptions, etc. In spending the entire day in prayer, he is able to totally empty himself of the world. In doing so, God was then able to fill Enos with something different: godliness. Enos now has a new view of the world, where he not only is able to pray for his friends and family (the Nephites), but also for his feudal enemies. Suddenly, with the promise of God to preserve the sacred records to someday come to the Lamanites (the Nephites having been destroyed as a people in Enos’ future), the Lamanites become his “brethren.”

 “Only that which is whole or complete can fully empty itself. Being whole is a necessary precondition of emptying in this saving, glorifying way. In Enos’s account, as we’ve seen, he writes these activities back to back–his soul was made whole, and then he poured his whole sould out (see Enos 1:8-9). In what sounds like a tongue twister, Enos could not pour out his whole soul until his soul was whole.” (p 30)

First we must empty ourselves of those things that impede our spirituality. Once forgiven of our own sins, or made whole, then we can empty ourselves in seeking blessings for others.

The book shows us the struggle Nephite prophets and people went through, struggling to deal with a Catch 22: the Lamanites were mortal enemies, yet with those same enemies came the promises of having the Lehite family restored in the latter days. For Enos, he struggles with this dichotomy: he prays, emptying himself, for Lamanites as his brethren, yet later speaks of them as blood thirsty, filthy animals, who sought the destruction of his brethren, the Nephites.

With the concept of Enos and kenosis comes the thought: what must I do to empty myself of all my misconceptions, prejudices, jealousies, fears, worries, temptations, sins, and worldly desires? Is this something that is done once, or many times within a lifetime? Then, once emptied and made whole, what do I do with that newfound spiritual strength? Perhaps this is one of the greatest pearls I gained out of Harris’ book. My view of myself and the world will not be the same.

With Lamanites as the long-term salvation for the Lehite promises, Harris asks us:

“Let’s think about the present. Who feels like your enemy? The person who makes fun of your child? The unreasonable neighbor? An ex? A co-worker out to get you? The one who lies and still gets prominent church callings? Or, who as a group seems to be against everything you stand for? Socialists? Democrats? Republicans? Libertarians? Pro-choice advocates? Pro-lifers? Environmentalists? Feminists? Preppers? Neo-Nazis? Globalists? Pornographers? Suburban racists? To put it in Mormon’s terms, which manner of -ites? Whoever they are and in whatever ways they are dangerous or destructive, would you engage in a spiritual wrestle over a long period of time to secure blessing for them and their descendants? Enos’s experience suggests that the same people we view as antithetical to our ideals could ultimately play a key role in our salvation.” (p 37)

Wow! That’s a lot to take in, especially as a Libertarian in a divisive election year!

In the Book of Jarom, Harris notices something that is not there.

“In Jarom’s text, then, let’s take a look at an important omission, something Jarom does not pass down. Jarom is the first writer of the small plates not to use the word, “filthiness.”” (p 51)

She explains that, beginning with Nephi’s Vision of the Tree of Life, prophets have seen filthiness. Nephi saw Laman and Lemuel standing at the head of a river, which he termed as “filthy.” Later, Nephi, Jacob and Enos would all consider the Lamanites filthy. According to Harris, this is one way in which the Nephites developed a bias against the Lamanites. They viewed them as filthy in order to make them undesirable and the “Other.” Once turned into sub-humans, Nephite discrimination against Lamanites was easily justifiable. Harris suggests that we tend to de-humanize groups of people in our own day, calling them “filthy” in our own way. It isn’t a temporary situation, in the view of the Nephites, the Lamanite filthiness was a state of being.

Jacob will compare Nephite sins to the Lamanites, calling them more filthy than the Lamanites due to their sexual sins and pride. Jarom, however, leaves such name calling out. He notes their sins, but doesn’t hold this as a systemic issue for the Lamanites. Instead, Harris notes that Jarom and the other prophets were continually raging at the Nephites to repent. They were only too quick to return to serious sin, no cleaner nor filthy than the Lamanites. Meanwhile, most Nephites

“…could see Lamanite waywardness as confirming the prophecies and as evidence of their own righteousness and superiority.” (p 60)

The book recognizes that as we read the Book of Mormon, many Latter-day Saints favorably compare themselves with Nephites. Harris takes this a step further for us. If we compare ourselves with the Nephites, does that include their times of wickedness? Their embracing Gadianton robbers? Their final destruction? Harris notes that this is a sobering thought. It is.

Harris covers several more ideas from the 3 books. One of her last thoughts that intrigued me was the idea that Jarom and the writers in Omni lived in the “middle” age. They didn’t have the excitement of escaping Jerusalem with Lehi, nor the exhilaration of touching the wounds in the resurrected Jesus’ feet. Instead, they dealt with a middle period of time, in between the creation of the Nephite people, and the coming of Christ in power. Still, Jarom and the prophets prophesied of Christ as if he had already come, even though his coming was afar off.

Today, we also live in a middle period. We are exactly 200 years past the First Vision. No one is alive that knew Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. None of us experienced the dedication of the Kirtland, Nauvoo or Salt Lake Temples. Nor have we seen the coming of Christ in glory for the 2nd Coming. As with Jarom, we too, are in the middle. Harris then asks, what are we doing with our precious time? Have we settled in comfortably, or are we striving and preparing for that coming age. Do we work and live as if Christ has already come? As if Zion was already established?

As you can see from these few examples, there’s a lot packed into these “itty bitty books.” Are you ready to have your understanding of the Book of Mormon expanded? Then take a look.

Available now:

Maxwell Institute:

 Amazon: Enos, Jarom, Omni

Come Follow Me: Helaman 1-6

My blog post on Come Follow Me: Helaman 1-6

Excerpt: “In his book, “An Other Testament”, Joseph Spencer explains the gradual deterioration of both Nephite politics and religion. Beginning with the second Nephite king after Nephi, we find that issues of pride and sexual conquest become issues of religion and possibly politics, as it reflects the problems we later find with King Noah and his priests.

“Nephite politics began with descendants of Nephi as the kings of the nation. When King Mosiah II encountered Zarahemla and the Mulekites, major changes entered into the story. Mosiah finds there are now others who claim the right to rule, such as Mulekites descending from King David and the Jaredite remnants among them descending from Jared.
“Mosiah saw the need to change the government to judges. “