Just finished Patrick Mason's The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (OUP, 2011). It's an informative book but a bit of a chore wading through 200 pages of 19th-century white southern Protestants assaulting and sometimes killing members of every racial, ethnic, and religious group that wasn't ... white, southern, and Protestant. The short version is that Mormons had it worse than Catholics and Jews but much better than African Americans. But there is more to the story, of course.
The first two chapters cover the 1879 murder of Joseph Standing, LDS missionary, in Georgia and the 1884 murder of two other LDS missionaries (plus two local Mormons and one of the attackers) at Cane Creek, Tennessee. The latter episode prompted B. H. Roberts, at considerable risk, to travel to Tennessee in disguise (see image to the right) to recover the bodies of the two missionaries and return them to Utah. For the first murder, the three defendants actually took the stand and admitted to killing Standing, but the jury found them not guilty. For the Tennessee affair, no arrests or trial occurred. The local vigilantes, emboldened, then proceeded to chase the couple of dozen Mormons who resided there out of the county.
The bulk of the book considers the social, legal, and religious context of these two and dozens of other episodes of religious violence. Contemporary Mormons regarded these events as religious persecution pure and simple, and also as the kind of direct opposition that, for believers, validated LDS religious claims. But the locals obviously saw things differently: in light of the publicly acknowledged LDS practice of polygamy, they were defending their communities, in particular their wives and daughters, from Mormon evangelizing and recruitment. Furthermore, the country was by this time mobilized against the Mormons, with Reynolds v. US foreclosing the LDS legal defense of plural marriage in 1879 and the Edmunds Act of 1882 finally putting some teeth in efforts to enforce the law (later strengthened again by the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887). Given these circumstances — the Mormons had no friends and plenty of opponents, including all levels of government — there was little to restrain local vigilantes once they got riled up. The whole book is an extended commentary on how much damage the practice of polygamy inflicted on the operation and reputation of the Church in the 19th century (and beyond). It's that depressing truth that made the book a bit of a chore. There just isn't much of a silver lining to this cloud.
The last chapter, "Religious Minorities and the Problem of Peculiar Peoplehood," contrasts the LDS experience in the South during this period with that of Catholics and Jews, who largely pursued a path of accommodation to local standards and customs. They tried to fit in, a strategy that was more or less successful. Sporadic violence was less frequent than against Mormons (and of course African Americans) and, when it did occur, was often more economic or ethnic than religious in origin. There was plenty of anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish rhetoric at the general level, but it rarely translated into animosity, or at any rate violence, against particular Jews or Catholics in the local community. Mormons followed an entirely different approach, the opposite of accommodation. Continued tension with local communities (Mormons were "perceived to transgress accepted community norms") was the result, sometimes boiling over into threats or violence, and it was overtly religious in origin.
The author's summary commentary in the last chapter is well worth reading. Essentially, as long as non-Protestants tried to behave like just another Protestant denomination by privatizing their religious views and practices they would not be targeted for threats and violence. This included adopting the Protestant church-state separation model, which Protestants saw as objective separation but historians now describe as informal Protestant establishment. Protestants controlled government and education, and majority Protestants were largely blind to the reality of informal establishment. Protestants got establishment; everyone else got separation. Mormons wouldn't buy into this model until the dawn of the 20th century. In the 19th century, they paid the price for that late adoption, but also reaped a benefit of sorts by firmly establishing Mormon religious identity in the face of sustained opposition.
And where are we now, more than a century after the turbulent era recounted in the main part of the book?
Mormonism not only survived the national antipolygamy campaign but thrived in the century that followed. ... Twelve of fourteen southern states ... saw the number of LDS adherents increase by at least 70 percent from 1980 to 2000; in six of those states the LDS population more than doubled. ... Of 130 LDS temples in operation as of late 2009, 14 were in the American South (including four in Texas), all of which were built after 1980. (p. 192)