A “Gathering” Storm: The U.S. State Department’s Worldwide War on Mormonism (1 of 3)

December 9, 2006 | 6 comments
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The bulk of federal action against Mormon polygamy took place in Congress and in the courts where it was subject to public scrutiny, won public support, and permitted the Mormons an opportunity to defend their rights within the constitutional system. One major offensive against polygamy, however, took place largely outside of public view and even beyond the borders of the United States. This semi-secret war against Mormon activity remained in effect far longer than any of the oppressive legal measures of the 1880s, and was still obstructing the spread of Mormonism well after the First World War.

When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws early in 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States. In the words of a Chicago editor, “Mr. Hayes is a very vigorous Methodist, and his church associates have urged upon him the necessity of his crowning the glory of his reign by abolishing the monster polygamy. Mrs. Hayes is also cordially enlisted in the scheme.”

One member of the Hayes cabinet who was also deeply “enlisted in the scheme” was Secretary of State William M. Evarts. Evarts, Boston-born and New York-raised, was a lawyer and a politician with wide experience. He had been dispatched to England to stop Britain’s trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War, had prosecuted Jefferson Davis for treason and had defended Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial.

In August of 1879, Evarts chose his newest battle – a plan to enlist foreign nations in the campaign against polygamy by hindering Mormon proselyting, harassing missionaries, and preventing converts from emigrating to the United States. In presenting his plan to the Hayes cabinet, Evarts said:

“[L]arge numbers of immigrants come to our shores every year from the various countries of Europe for the avowed purpose of joining the Mormon community at Salt Lake, in the Territory of Utah …

“The system of polygamy, which is prevalent in the community of Utah, is largely based upon and promoted by these accessions from Europe, drawn mainly from the ignorant classes, who are easily influenced by the double appeal to their passions and their poverty …

“[T]he bands and organizations which are got together in foreign lands as recruits cannot be regarded as otherwise than a deliberate and systematic attempt to bring persons to the United States with the intent of violating their laws and committing crimes …

“[E]very consideration … should … prevent [American soil] from becoming a resort or refuge for the crowds of misguided men and women whose offenses against morality and decency would be intolerable in the land from whence they come.”

With this preamble, Evarts defined Mormonism as a criminal enterprise, its missionaries as operatives of an ill-intentioned immigration scheme, and its converts as gullible recruits to the harems and work gangs of an oppressive Mormon hierarchy. He reduced the so-called “Mormon Problem” to a police action against organized crime. While battle was being waged against Mormon polygamy on American soil, the doors to America would be slammed shut against further Mormon immigration. Better yet, Mormon missionaries abroad would be prevented from ever recruiting immigrants to come knocking at America’s doors.

With the approval of Hayes, Evarts drafted a circular to the diplomatic officers of the United States. Such officers were to approach foreign ministers and present the view of Mormonism as organized crime. If foreign governments could be coaxed so far, they were to prevent the sailing of Mormon converts from European ports. Every foreign action against Mormon converts and missionaries was to receive the encouragement of diplomats. Every sailing of Mormon converts was to be protested officially.

Evarts’ circular was widely reported. Predictably, the Salt Lake Tribune heralded the action as “a movement which meets the approbation of all law-abiding citizens.” An eastern Presbyterian organ was cheered by news “that something decisive is about to be done by the Government in relation to the Mormon iniquities which have been such a foul blot on the land.” The New York Times, while sympathizing with the desire to remove an “offending ulcer” from the body politic, cautiously noted that there were legal obstacles to the plan. Some eastern papers condemned the plan as “hopeless” and “un-republican.” The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Herald both professed disbelief that Evarts had proposed such a scheme, or that the journalists were serious in reporting it – “difficult to believe,” “absurd to suppose,” and “afflicted with temporary insanity” marked Mormondom’s response to the report.

The first foreign response came from London: The Times agreed that “the gross superstition [of Mormonism] should be speedily dissipated, but we do not see the way to direct interference.” English Mormons were all monogamists, and therefore had broken no anti-bigamy laws of either England or the United States. No British Parliament would ever abridge the rights of British citizens by interfering with their free movement through the ports of their own nation. Declared the Times: “Men and women may believe in polygamy as much as they please, but … they must be actual bigamists … before they can be treated as offenders. … How can they be treated as criminals when they have not committed a crime, and may not even intend to? … Mr. Evarts’ scheme … will be a failure.”

The Evarts plan was dead on arrival.

Or was it?

(To be continued: Part 2, Action against immigration; Part 3, Action against missionaries abroad)

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6 Responses to A “Gathering” Storm: The U.S. State Department’s Worldwide War on Mormonism (1 of 3)

  1. Wilfried on December 9, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    A fascinating start, Ardis! And I can’t help already extrapolating to the 21st century in some European countries, where politicians are still intent to counter the arrival of Mormon missionaries by making it difficult to obtain visa, in order to protect the population against a malicious cult…

  2. Mark B. on December 9, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    When I joined the New York law firm of Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts about 20 years ago, the managing partner was William M. Evarts, Jr., a gentle soft-spoken man who seemed hardly likely to have inherited the sentiments of his more famous ancestor. (I’d guess he was a great-grandson, but I never asked.)

    I also never asked Mr. Evarts about the previous Mr. Evarts’s obvious antipathy towards my co-religionists–I should have. Who knows–if I had got that one out in the open I might have ultimately made partner at the firm.

  3. Proud Daughter of Eve on December 9, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    *shudder* This and the other things like it in history (but most especially LDS history) make me feel as if someone is choking me. That’s putting it mildly; I feel like even that’s not conveying the depth of my disturbance enough but I’ll leave it at that for now. No need to dwell on it.

  4. maria on December 9, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    Fascinating, Ardis. I always think of early US immigration restrictions as mainly directed towards the Chinese…so I’m interested to hear the rest of the story about other groups who may have been discriminated against as well. If you could point me in the direction of any of your primary sources, I’d love to read more about this.

  5. Ardis Parshall on December 9, 2006 at 6:52 pm

    A WORD ABOUT SOURCES: I’m a little protective of source citations in this and other blog entries, because much of what I’ve been putting up hasn’t been published yet in a formal way. However, if anyone — especially a student — is working on a related topic and wants to contact me privately to explain what they’re doing, I may be able to help. (Write to me at AEParshall at AOL dot com)

    For this series, my principle sources, generally described, are the volumes of diplomatic/foreign relations correspondence published annually by the State Department, available in the government documents sections of major university and research libraries; their British equivalent (Hansard’s); newspapers from around the country; Reed Smoot’s papers; and diaries and correspondence of LDS missionaries who described their official foreign contacts, usually following arrests, banishments, or deportations.

  6. Tatiana on December 9, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    You know, if we don’t stop them at home we will have to deal with them here. =)

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