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

December 13, 2006 | 9 comments
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Events affecting Mormon proselyting abroad can be traced directly to the 1879 State Department circular of William M. Evarts:

In 1879, no Mormon missionaries were active in the Austrian empire, which then included the modern nations of Hungary, Slovakia, parts of Germany, and the Czech Republic as well as Austria. When Mormon missionary Thomas Biesinger of Lehi, Utah, did visit first Vienna and then Prague in 1884, he was arrested and imprisoned for almost three months. Following his release, Biesinger attempted to continue work in Prague, but police surveillance was so pervasive that he abandoned Prague for Vienna. Conditions there were no better, and when he learned of another warrant issued for his arrest, Biesinger abandoned Austria altogether.

Biesinger, born in Germany but a naturalized citizen of the United States, acted as most American travelers would have done when he was arrested in Prague – he called on the local United States consul for assistance. That consul, A.C. Phelps, did attempt to aid Biesinger but was unsuccessful in winning his release or in ameliorating the conditions under which he served his prison sentence. This is not surprising in light of certain correspondence between Phelps’s superiors in Vienna and Washington, and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The American ambassador called on the Austrian minister to inquire into the Biesinger case, and received a written report of the incident, which reads, in part:

On the receipt of a note [from the American envoy], dated September 3, 1879 the ministry of the interior … directed the attention of … the provincial governments to the sending of Mormon agents to the different states of Europe, and called upon these authorities to keep a watchful eye upon them and to issue such orders to their subordinates as would suppress all possible recruiting for the Mormons by all lawful means.

In accordance with this order, the police at Prague arrested, in March of the present year, a Mormon agent named Thomas Biesinger, from Lehi, Utah Territory, in North America, because he had persuaded people to join the Mormons during his stay at Prague. …

The Imperial-Royal Government will not fail in future to watch all similar attempts to enlist recruits for the ranks of the Mormons, which constitute furthermore an infringement on the laws of the country, in that it is an organized method of inducing people to emigrate.

The State Department at Washington instructed its representative at Vienna to recognize “any steps taken by the Austrian authorities to repress the organization of these unlawful enterprises by agents who are thus operating beyond the reach of the law of the United States.” The American envoy did so, in enthusiastic diplomatic terms, incidentally recording his awareness that Austria had imprisoned an American citizen:

Your excellency’s lucid statement of the measures adopted … to suppress all possible recruiting for the Mormons by all lawful means, together with the detailed account of the action taken in March … in the arrest and punishment of … Thomas Biesinger, from Lehi, Utah Territory, United States of America, affords evidence of the commendable and efficient efforts of His Majesty’s Government in behalf of the interests of peace and morality.

In this sense I am instructed by my Government to recognize the action referred to of His Majesty’s Government, and to express its sincere gratification that such praiseworthy action has been taken.

Also in 1884, four Mormon missionaries – some native, some naturalized American citizens – were arrested in three separate incidents in Bavaria, and all were expelled. While it is unknown whether the Evarts policy led to their arrests and expulsions, it is certain that the State Department used the incidents to encourage further suppression of Mormonism in Germany. The American envoy in Berlin congratulated the Bavarian government in these terms:

The undersigned … has been advised … of certain proceedings … for putting an end to the efforts made … to persuade men and women … to emigrate to the region of Utah … The doctrine of polygamy there inculcated and practiced is in direct violation of the laws of the United States, and that unlawful system is recruited chiefly by inducing foreigners to join them in their criminal habits.

In view of this fact the undersigned is instructed to … convey the thanks of the Government at Washington … for [German] efforts to stop this unlawful and injurious recruiting for purposes which violate … Christian civilization and … American law.

Upon learning that three Mormon missionaries had landed in India in the summer of 1884, the State Department expanded its Mormon policy beyond Europe. The envoy in Calcutta was instructed to seek the assistance of the government in India to check “the proposed shipment of Mormon recruits to this country from India.” Great Britain, which governed India, declined as before to interfere with the freedom of religion and movement of its people, but also expressed regret that no more active measures could be taken to suppress Mormonism than to reissue its earlier warnings that bigamy was prohibited and punished within the United States.

The following year, 1885, a missionary serving in Sweden asked the American consul there for a passport to protect his rights as an American citizen while he traveled in Finland. The consul refused to issue the passport, on the grounds that “his only purpose in visiting Finland was to induce the people of that country to emigrate to Utah and connect themselves with the Mormon Church.” His superiors at Washington approved his action, citing the 1879 Evarts circular as authority. Washington approved a similar action in Switzerland in 1886, asking the consul to obtain some documentation that Americans refused passports there were indeed Mormon missionaries. The consul protested that “these men are too shrewd to furnish any positive proof” of their intentions; he sought “the right to act in all such cases, even in the absence of satisfactory evidence, in its legal sense, but satisfactory in establishing a strong and reasonable suspicion.” Washington confirmed that the envoy was not obliged “to issue a passport in any case in which you have strong and reasonable suspicions that the person applying for the same is a Mormon emissary.”

Louisiana-born Boyd Winchester, the American consul general in Switzerland for the last half of the decade, demonstrated a zeal for the Evarts policy far beyond any other known envoy to any nation. As stated, he sought permission to deny passports to applicants upon the mere suspicion that they were Mormons, because “it would seem inconsistent to extend the protection of the Government to a person who is denounced by the [Evarts] circular as pursuing a ‘criminal enterprise’”.

He worked closely with police in half a dozen cantons to investigate the Mormon presence in Switzerland; his reports to Washington regarding those investigations record detailed interrogations of converts, the landladies of the houses where missionaries stayed, and the neighbors of the houses where church services were held. He reported on the movements of missionaries, the contents of their sermons, and statistical details of church membership; in the process, he reveals a major source of intelligence to be church publications, especially the English and German language versions of The Star. Letters and reports in The Star by the missionaries themselves detailed their recent travels, who had given them lodging, where converts were baptized, and suggested where the missionaries intended to travel next – no wonder the police were often waiting for the elders when they arrived in a new canton! Although I have definite evidence only for Switzerland that church publications were used to track missionary movements and emigration plans, it is possible that the same intelligence sources were exploited in other areas. If so, the church seems never to have suspected that these publications were being used against them – throughout the decade of the 1880s, The Star continued to publish weekly reports from the field that, with hindsight, seem perfectly calculated to aid the enemy.

During the period of Winchester’s consul generalship, the Swiss federal assembly overhauled their emigration laws, setting restrictions on who could emigrate and heavily regulating emigration agencies. Some of this is no doubt unrelated to Mormonism – the United States had long been fighting against an established Swiss pattern of pardoning criminals with the stipulation that they emigrate, and of paying for the emigration of paupers to relieve local communities of their care. Winchester worked so long and so closely with the Swiss on issues of both Mormonism and emigration, however, that it must be assumed that some part of the new Swiss regulations were written with Mormons in mind. Such a link might be difficult to document because Winchester was instructed, and reported so doing, “to bring to the attention of the Federal Government of Switzerland, orally and unofficially, the views of the Government of the United States in regard to Mormon emigration.” [emphasis in original]

One final example of State Department interference with Mormons abroad is interesting not only for its exotic locale but for what I consider to be a somewhat heroic stance taken by a local American diplomat:

In 1887, an overly enthusiastic convert to Mormonism in the Turkish Mission undertook to translate and print a Mormon missionary tract. He did so illegally, because he did not seek official permission under the Ottoman Empire’s press laws. The existence of these pamphlets became known to the Turkish police, who sought the assistance of the American embassy in raiding the home of missionary Ferdinand Hintze to seize the illegal pamphlets. The chief American diplomat at Constantinople instructed a subordinate officer as follows:

I deem it my duty, in the interest of good order and morality and under the instructions issued by the State Department to its ministers abroad in respect to the polygamy of Mormonism, to authorize you to give your assistance … to enable the competent authorities to enforce their laws in this matter.

When the subordinate officer, D. Lynch Pringle, learned that he was expected to raid Hintze’s home himself and seize the pamphlets, “this I declined most peremptorily to do.” Instead, he asked Hintze to visit the consulate, whereupon he learned that Hintze had not printed the pamphlets himself and was quite willing to surrender them voluntarily. The matter was resolved peacefully. Mr. Pringle reviewed a copy of the illegal pamphlet, and, in what might be considered a mild defense of Mormonism, called his superiors’ attention to “the fact that the printing without permission was the cause of the infringement of the law, and not the subject-matter of the pamphlets.”

The federal government’s policy toward Mormonism abroad as well as at home changed with the publication of the 1890 Manifesto, and I have found no post-1890 instances of the State Department encouraging foreign governments to hinder missionaries nor prevent emigration. The State Department, however, did not formally notify foreign governments that the Evarts policy no longer represented American views.

In 1895, the government of Tahiti, under French control, closed the missions of several American churches, including the Seventh Day Adventist, LDS, and RLDS churches, although they permitted other American missions to continue. The State Department protested this discrimination between American citizens. Correspondence between Washington and the consulate in Papeete reviewed the United States stance toward Mormonism abroad:

[Y]ou are informed that as long as polygamy was one of the purposes of Mormon teaching, the agents of this Government abroad were instructed to refuse protection to Mormon missionaries. … But polygamy is now no longer announced as the chief tenet of Mormonism, and the church has the same civil rights as are enjoyed by other religious bodies in this country. If the Mormon missionaries in Tahiti observe the civil law of marriage, as they profess to do, and preach and practice no doctrine violating law or morality, they should have the same impartial protection as other American citizens enjoy for the defense of their just and lawful rights.

The State Department did not circulate news of its reversal of policy. Missionaries banished from Denmark in 1897 sought help from the embassy in Copenhagen. The American envoy there sought instruction from Washington, stating that he assumed the old policy was no longer in force; he received a copy of the Tahitian documents in reply. Similar letters were exchanged in response to incidents in Germany and Turkey in 1898; Denmark in 1900; Germany in 1901 and 1908; South Africa in 1911; New Zealand in 1917; Tonga and Samoa in 1923; Switzerland in 1924, and likely in other times and places I have not yet identified.

I do not want to overstate the case by suggesting that the State Department instigated all difficulties faced by converts and missionaries in foreign lands. Certainly Mormonism has encountered hostility wherever it has gone, without requiring any government’s prompting. Even before the change in American policy resulting from the 1890 Manifesto, and very often thereafter, American diplomats have intervened to protect American Mormon missionaries abroad.

But it also cannot be denied that for a decade, the United States, through its diplomatic corps, actively pursued the suppression of Mormonism throughout Europe, not merely within American borders. Pursuit of this goal resulted in increased danger and direct harm to individual American citizens abroad. It may be that a government such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have imprisoned missionaries without the encouragement of the United States, or that Denmark and Germany would have expelled missionaries on their own account – but the Evarts plan did alert those governments, and all others, that they could act against certain American citizen without the protest or retaliation of the United States.

To its credit, the United States did alter its policy almost immediately after the 1890 Manifesto. The American government did not then, however, nor at any time during the next 30 years, circulate a general retraction of the Evarts policy. Instead, they responded on a case by case basis, notifying individual countries as instances of discrimination against Mormon American citizens were brought to their attention. This failure to circulate a cancellation as widely as they had the initial Evarts policy resulted in a host of identifiable actions against the LDS church in general and individual missionaries in particular – cases of arrest, banishment, delay in or failure to receive visas, reduction in humanitarian and educational services, and inconvenience and expense for travel to distant mission fields only to be denied entry upon arrival. Identifiable costs to the United States include the expense of resolving individual cases, repetitious paperwork and needless minor conflicts with foreign governments, as well as a heavy burden on the office of Senator Reed Smoot who so often involved himself in the more difficult or lengthy resolutions of 20th century disputes.

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

  1. Jim F. on December 13, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    Ardis, like most I don’t really have anything to say about your piece, but I want to thank you for providing it. It has been very interesting reading about matters of Mormon history I suspect few knew about.

  2. Wilfried on December 13, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Ditto, Jim! This European perspective on Mormon history has been fascinating. We want more, Ardis!

  3. Paul R. on December 13, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Ardis,
    Thanks! The strength of your article for me is the global perspective it adds to the significance of the 1890 Woodruff Manifesto as it intersected with the LDS Church’s mission to take the gospel “unto all nations.” Your article suggests that the end of polygamy held more far reaching implications than even Woodruff articulated when he described it as a choice between temples and polygamy. With the Evarts plan no longer in play, it seems a major impediment to a fundamental tenant of Mormonism, spreading the gospel, dissolved over time. The correspondence that you cite between Washington and Tahiti makes that very clear. For me, you’ve added an important new dimension to the Woodruff manifesto. Polygamy was crashing into missionizing, just like the priesthood ban would do decades later.

  4. Ardis Parshall on December 13, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    Paul R., I hadn’t connected those dots, but you’re right! I’m pretty sure that neither Wilford Woodruff nor any other Mormon in 1890 was aware that the Evarts plan had ever gone beyond the 1879 discussions, so he couldn’t have cited it in connection with the Manifesto.You’re probably the first to see the tie.

  5. manaen on December 13, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Many thanks, Ardis, for this series. I’ve enjoyed this and your short domestic histories very much.

  6. Mark B. on December 13, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    One irony is that domestic law finally “caught up” with the Evarts letter in 1891 (Congress just can’t do anything on time, can it?) when amendments to the immigration laws included a bar on immigration by polygamists.

    That bar is still in effect. The application for immigrant visa includes a list of excludable aliens–the applicant has to indicate whether he is a member of that class. Item 30.i. includes “An alien who is coming to the United States to practice polygamy;”

    A person legally in the U.S. who desires to adjust to permanent resident status faces the following question:

    Do you plan to practice polygamy in the United States?

    Old laws die hard.

  7. Ardis Parshall on December 13, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Mark B. — The current law asks about future plans to practice polygamy? That’s an advance over the turn of the last century when the question was “whether a polygamist” at the time of immigration. Every Mormon immigrant could answer that without violating conscience or law — all while frustrating the intentions of those who were trying to exclude Mormons. If the government agents had bothered to learn a little more about Mormonism rather than assuming the sensational press was accurate, they could have framed a law that would have been more effective. Either that, or learn that there was no justifiable reason for excluding Mormons.

  8. roland on December 14, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    US foreign policy today continues to negatively impact the success of foreign missionary work.
    Ever since the invasion of Iraq, the annual baptism number has dropped significantly.

    In many places a American missionaries are eyed with a degree of suspician and contempt simple because of the country that they came from, and that makes it harder to get inside doors.

  9. maria on December 14, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    Ardis—Under current law, intention to practice polygamy in the U.S. is still grounds for exclusion. I believe that formerly the law asked whether a person was a polygamist, or an advocate of polygamy. But today the question is much narrower, and asks only “do you plan to practice polygamy in the U.S.?” Thus, former polygamists can still get in, so long as they don’t plan on continuing the polygamist relationship while in the U.S.

    If you’re looking for a source on the current law, go to the US Citizen & Immigration Services website (www.uscis.gov) and click on the “forms” link. From there you can download the I-485 form for free. You’ll see the polygamy question imbedded in the long laundry-list of bad people we don’t want in the U.S.: Nazis, prostitutes, human rights violators, etc. (I think it’s on the last page or the second to last page.)

    Working for Catholic Charities’ immigration dept. the past two years, I’ve only heard of a few people who were affected by this provision—I’m remembering a man from Africa and also a Muslim woman from somewhere in the Middle East. I can’t remember exactly where. I’ve heard also that this can be an issue for Chinese immigrants from certain regions.

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