On April 23, 1914, five Latter-day Saint elders arrived at the port of Table Bay, South Africa, to begin service as missionaries in that country. Before they had actually set foot on the docks, government officials boarded the ship to examine the passengers. Upon learning of their presence, the officials separated the five Mormon men and held them for special questioning.
The elders were subjected to a special “literacy test”: officials, selecting some of the most difficult words they could find in the dictionary, ordered the elders to write the words. None of the elders was able to spell all of the words correctly, and the officials ordered them deported on grounds of their “illiteracy.”
[Aside: This reminds me of a racist joke I heard when I was a child: Three men show up at the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter tells each of them that he must spell a certain word before they are allowed to enter heaven. Each of the first two men was told to spell “God.” The third man – member of whichever ethnic group was to be the butt of the joke – was told to spell “Albuquerque.” I didn’t know then what I know now — that this was actually a common tactic used even in the United States to deny voting privileges in certain times and places.]
This was not the first time Mormon elders had been denied entry into South Africa, although the practice was still fairly new. Three elders had been similarly ordered deported on May 3, 1911, upon arrival there: David V. Shurtliff and Norman D. Salisbury, both of Baker City, Oregon, and Earl C. Ahnders of Hyrum, Utah. To his credit, the U.S. Consul General to South Africa, Richard Guenther, made every effort in 1911
to induce the Immigration Department to reverse their decision, or allow them to land temporarily until their case could be investigated, and upon receiving an unfavorable answer an appeal was made to the Governor General at Pretoria, both by telegram direct, and through the American Consul at Johannesburg by telephone.
His efforts were unsuccessful, and LDS mission officials reported with regret to the First Presidency that “they were prevented by the Immigration Commissioner from landing, for the reason that they were Mormon missionaries and ‘undesirables.’”
Mr. Guenther reported to the State Department his suspicions that the only cause for excluding the elders was a spate of newspaper reports printed in the newspapers of South Africa, reports originating in England, claiming that Mormon elders were not-so-secretly restocking the harems of Utah. Along with his report, he submitted two newspaper clippings that had been printed in the Cape Times of Cape Town, South Africa, within the week preceding the elders’ arrival. One article decried western interference in Chinese affairs when a more immediate menace was at the English doorstep:
People who are perfectly ready to set up a brand-new code of morals in China are singularly tolerant of the state of things in Utah. What is more, they perceive all round them an elaborate and energetic organization for making converts to Mormonism in our midst, and packing these deluded victims off to Salt Lake City to stock the harems of the “Latter-day Saints.” For some few years past there has been an active propaganda waging in London and the chief provincial towns, for the mouthing of the Mormonised version of the Scripture, the spreading of whitewashed and misleading descriptions of Utah and its ways, and the making of converts, as I have said. These for the most part are silly servant girls, all easily beguiled by promises of marriage, and from some of the specimens of this class that I have seen, I should judge that the Mormon missionaries are instructed to enlist females with more physique than brain. And only in this way can we account for the apparent success which has attended their efforts hitherto.
The other article charged that Mormons were secretly – and illegally – advancing money to pay the transatlantic passage of converted girls, but not of men or old women.
The evidence on the charge is, of course, twofold – that from Utah and that from our own country. As to the evidence from Utah, it is chiefly from one source – namely, the ex-Mormon who is a present conducting a lecture campaign against the Mormons in this country. His evidence is very damning indeed. Of the home evidence I found enough in Liverpool alone to prove this much – that girls of small means find money to go to Utah and that they go on the promise of good engagements in the occupations they have followed here. Money in some cases has been advanced not by any official Mormon institution but by the employer to whom they were going. This might be a woman. Marriage was not mentioned to the girls. In fact, one of the women who went was already married, and she took a child with her, deserting her husband. Though the girl had been told that Mormonism was the only thing wanted of people who went to Utah, I could find no evidence of any inducements being offered to the men converts of Mormonism in Liverpool, or the married couples among them, to go to Utah.
The same kinds of reports were still current in South Africa three years later when the second group of elders was detained. In their case Mission President Nicholas G. Smith, becoming immediately aware of the situation, hired an attorney. While that attorney filed his appeal with the courts, the elders were held in an enclosure on the docks, surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped iron fence. (In a betrayal of common racial attitudes of the era, the mission president complained that the elders’ enclosure not only was right next to that “where the negroes are kept,” but also that the elders were forced to share accommodations with “several Indians and other undesirables.”) The men were charged $2.50 per day for their maintenance in those conditions.
[The elders during their detention, left to right: John E. Riggs, William C. White, S.E. Van Francis, Peter J. Peterson, Gerald R. Eldredge. Behind them stands Mr. Ross, their jailer, who, according to President Smith, “felt they were upright men, and did everything in his power to make their stay pleasant. His kindness will long be remembered by the elders.”]
After eight days of confinement, the elders’ appeal came on to be heard before the Board of Pardons. President Smith reported,
We had secured an eminent attorney, and he made a very good case out of it, actually showing that the men could write even better than some of the judges who were sitting on the case, but all to no avail. … the action of the emigration official was sustained and the elders ordered deported.
I do not know when the policy of South Africa to exclude Mormon missionaries was changed, or whether other elders were similarly deported. The Church maintained a presence in South Africa during this period despite such problems, and, of course, has a flourishing presence there today.
Note: I was reminded of this story because of the word “deportations” used in discussions in connection with the recent official statement of the Church regarding immigration. I recognize that beyond use of that word, there is little resemblance between what happened to the elders in 1911 and 1914 and the current political climate of the United States. Regular Keepa commenters are welcome to say just about anything you want, either about this story or about immigration matters in general. If you are not a regular Keepa participant, but have come here solely to air your opinions on immigration policy, be aware that I moderate ruthlessly when comments detract from Keepa’s peaceful, LDS-friendly, and usually non-political tone.