President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven countries that are predominantly Muslim for three months isn’t the first time US attempts to limit travel into the country intersected with faith. More than a century ago, it was Mormon immigrants who found presidential administrations less than welcoming.
In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes’ secretary of state William Evarts wrote to US diplomats asking them to seek help from European governments to keep Mormon converts from traveling to the US. And in 1883 President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to “prevent the importation of Mormons into the country,” according to “Immigration and the ‘Mormon Question’” by William Mulder.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced persecution since its founding in 1830, with members fleeing from New York to Ohio to Missouri. In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an “extermination order” calling for all Mormons to be “exterminated or driven from the state.” Members eventually settled in what later became Utah, but opposition continued.
Mormon missionary work brought converts from around the world to Utah, and these immigrants were often viewed as alien and pawns in a sinister un-American theocracy. Like Catholics, their loyalty to a Church leader – in their case, the Mormon prophet – was seen as suspicious. Reverend J.M. Coyner in 1882 imagined the political ramifications of foreign Mormon immigrants “scattered over the great mountain regions of the West” with as many as 16 US senators.
These immigrants were also viewed as poor and uneducated recruits into Mormon polygamy (a practice the Church banned in 1890), something depicted in the 1882 cartoon below by Thomas Nast.
“It is clear that the Mormon Kingdom in Utah is composed of foreigners and the children of foreigners,” Harper’s Magazine wrote in 1881, according to Mulder. “It is an institution so absolutely un-American in all its requirements that it would die of its own infamies within twenty years, except for the yearly infusion of fresh serf blood from abroad.”
Mormon immigration eventually slowed. Between 1840 and 1910, an average of 2,000 emigrated annually, but from 1911 to 1946, it declined to an average of 291 annually, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. But the effects of these anti-Mormon sentiments are still felt today.
In 2015, after then-candidate Trump called for a temporary “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert came out against the proposal and referenced the Hayes administration’s attempts at curtailing Mormon immigration in a Facebook post, writing, “Utah exists today because foreign countries refused to grant the wishes of a misguided president and his secretary of state.”
There are obviously differences between efforts to slow Mormon immigrants in the 1800s and Trump’s executive order. Despite Trump’s earlier call to specifically ban Muslims from entering the US, he said in a statement Sunday his executive order was “not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe.” But the Mormon Church still seems aware of any perceived similarities, releasing a vaguely worded statement Saturday “in response to recent media inquiries.”
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God’s children across the earth, with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution,” the statement read. “The Church urges all people and governments to cooperate fully in seeking the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering.”