A “Gathering” Storm: The U.S. State Department’s Worldwide War on Mormonism (2 of 3)

Secretary of State William M. Evarts informed American diplomatic officers overseas of the Hayes Administration’s policy to discourage Mormon emigration from Europe to the United States. Public discussion in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reluctantly concluded that the policy was unenforceable, because the policy would require European governments to assume future criminal guilt on the part of converts who had, as yet, broken no law. Editors widely concluded that the Evarts circular could have no practical effect.

Nevertheless, the circular had been sent to American diplomatic officers, who, in the absence of official retraction, quietly incorporated Evarts’ directive into the machinery of government. In the methodical, formal manner of the diplomatic service, American ambassadors and consuls made discreet inquiries, approached foreign ministers, and filed their reports with Washington.

The British home secretary courteously declined to interfere with the freedom of conscience or movement of British subjects. He did, however, consent to publish a notice alerting potential emigrants of the anti-bigamy laws and penalties of the United States. Such a notice did appear, said one Mormon elder, “in a corner of the leading papers, among the lost dogs, cats and other personal items, giving us the solemn intelligence that if we break the laws of the United States, we will be punished.” The Belgian minister published a similar notice in the official government newspaper, but his formally worded statement could not mask his clear refusal to let American demands govern the thoughts and actions of Belgian citizens. Swiss and Danish officials sympathized with the aims of the American government, but thought their own nations’ laws would not allow them to restrict emigration.

American officers in Paris and Rome assured Evarts that the citizens of those countries were too enlightened to become victims of Mormonism. They also provided amazingly detailed histories of Mormon proselyting efforts in both countries, demonstrating a well-established habit of noting Mormon activity.

The minister of foreign affairs for the Austrian empire instructed that state’s police agencies to keep a strict watch for “attempts at recruiting by agents sent by the sect of the Mormons” and report all such activity to higher authority. The Dutch government promised to do “whatever could be found practicable to prevent proselyting by Mormons among the people of the Netherlands.” Sweden would enlist the aid of every parish pastor to hinder proselyting and prevent “the Mormon agents and emissaries from seducing from their homes the men and women of Sweden and Norway.”

The courteous, formulaic language reporting such contacts makes it difficult to judge the initial reactions of individual governments. However, none – not even Great Britain – rejected the plan out of hand; most expressed a willingness to assist the United States as local law permitted, without making specific promises. At the very least, we know that all of the most productive fields of Mormon proselyting – Britain, Scandinavia, and the area of the Swiss-German Mission – as well as a number of other European nations, were contacted by American diplomats regarding the Evarts plan.

The first known anti-Mormon action taken in response to the Evarts circular occurred in 1883, when the American consul to Switzerland cabled Washington that a shipload of Swiss paupers was being imported to the United States by Mormon missionaries – “poor, degraded creatures,” he called them, “most of them women. … Polygamy can probably never be exterminated in Utah while its harems can be freely recruited from the dregs of European society.” This exciting news was forwarded to New York City, and emigration officers there prepared for a close examination when the steamer Nevada landed its passengers at the end of May. Far from being paupers, the New York Times reported, the 184 Swiss and Germans aboard carried about $5,000 in cash with them. Reported that paper:

Commissioner Taintor spent some time walking about among the Mormon immigrants, and conversed with several of them through an interpreter. He paid particular attention to the people from Switzerland, and subsequently said that there was nothing… to justify any objections to their landing[.] … nothing in the appearance or conduct of the immigrants to indicate that they were imbecile or depraved. The party was made up principally of families, and the parents and children as a rule, looked healthy. Nearly all of them were comfortably clad, and many of the children showed bright and intelligent faces. It was noticeable that most of the Mormon immigrants were clean. More than one-third of them were children, from 2 to 12 years old; not quite one-half of the remainder were able-bodied and active married women. There were no particularly attractive women in the party, but with few exceptions they appeared to be rugged and thrifty.

The American consul arrived at New York a few days later and defended himself with a claim that the emigration inspectors had been duped by shrewd Mormon missionaries who had only temporarily furnished the emigrants with money to prevent the appearance of pauperism.

Because restricting Mormon emigration required European countries to violate their own laws regarding the free movement of their citizens, this part of Evarts’ circular was largely ignored. Restricting the proselyting activities of Mormon missionaries in foreign countries was a different matter, and serious actions against missionaries can be connected directly to Evarts’ circular.

To be continued: Part 3, Actions against missionaries

6 comments for “A “Gathering” Storm: The U.S. State Department’s Worldwide War on Mormonism (2 of 3)

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve
    December 11, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    I’m gonna give Evarts SUCH a wedgie when I see him…

  2. Wilfried
    December 12, 2006 at 2:00 am

    Fascinating data, Ardis. I can’t help it, but I’m constantly comparing with the situation of the past decade, when the anti-cult movement took hold in a number of European countries (especially against Jehovah Witnesses and Scientology, but also affecting Mormons). A number of European countries have enacted legislation and put controlling agencies into place to curb activities of minority religions. Through various channels the U.S. has been countering this movement in the name of freedom of religion. Reverse world.

  3. manaen
    December 12, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    Wilfried, it’s not a reverse world; the world’s countries take turns.

  4. December 12, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    This is fascinating. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    Just out of curiosity to read more, what are your sources for this?

  5. December 12, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Naiah, see comment 5 to the first part of this series for general information about sources. As for reading more, the only article I’m aware of discussing this campaign is William Mulder’s “Immigration and the ‘Mormon Question’: An International Episode,” _Western Political Quarterly_, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June, 1956), 416-433.

    Bill Mulder, a grand old gentleman, has been active in historical work, still translating and extracting the Utah Dutch-language newspapers, until a stroke this summer. While his name is probably not familiar to most T&S readers, his work from the last generation still holds up so well that most of it won’t have to be re-examined for a long time to come. He wouldn’t remember having met and encouraged me — I’ll never forget him, though.

  6. December 12, 2006 at 8:57 pm

    Excellent, thanks. :)

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