Last weekend Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith burst into the national news when Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in Dallas, after endorsing Texas governor Rick Perry for the presidency, said that Mormonism was “a cult” and that Romney was “not a Christian.” I suspect that most Americans, me included, consider one’s religious beliefs to be a private matter, but it is clear that a chunk of the electorate that will select the Republican nominee for the presidency do focus on religion and probably agree privately with Pastor Jeffress to Romney’s competitive detriment. Most people in Lowell, I believe, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Mormon Church one way or another. But in the 19th century, Lowell developed an interesting connection with the relatively new Mormon Church:
Walker Lewis was born in Barre, Massachusetts in 1798, the son of former slaves. In fact, Lewis’ uncle, Quock Walker, had been the plaintiff in a 1783 case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that resulted in the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth. Lewis’s parents eventually settled in Cambridge where young Walker became a successful barber. In March 1826, Lewis and his young family moved to Lowell where he opened a barber shop on Merrimack Street and eventually purchased a two-family home in Centralville.
Lewis worshiped in the Episcopal Church until 1842 when he was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by Parley P. Pratt who had traveled to Lowell as part of his duties as a Mormon missionary. The next year, Lewis was ordained an Elder of the Mormon Church by William Smith, the brother of the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith. In 1850, Lewis moved to Salt Lake City to be closer to the center of Mormon faith.
Unbeknownst to Lewis, shortly before his arrival in Utah, Brigham Young had changed the Mormon church’s view of African Americans. Previously, those of African descent were welcomed into the church but that approach was completely reversed. In Salt Lake City, Lewis was completely shunned, even by those who had befriended him back in Massachusetts. Six months later, Lewis moved back to Lowell where he died, purportedly of “exhaustion”, a short time later.
There is some thinking that Lewis’s family was central to the Mormon Church’s reversal on race. In Lowell, Enoch Lewis, the son of Walker, had married Mary Webster (who was white) and both were members of the Mormon Church. It was the discovery of this situation that supposedly caused Brigham Young to reverse course on race.
This connection with the Mormon Church was only a small slice of the Lewis family’s Lowell legacy. They were very active in the anti-slavery movement and made Lowell a major stop on the Underground Railroad. They served in the military and excelled in education sports and community life. But with Mormonism again in the news, I thought it appropriate to relate this anecdote from the early days of Lowell.