Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Deporting “Undesirables”

Deporting “Undesirables”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 14, 2011

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.



  1. One of the great advances in immigration procedures in our country is that elders in a similar situation, never having been officially admitted into the country, could not be “deported.” They would simply be “excluded”, and packed back onto the carrier which brought them to the port of entry for a return trip to their place of origin.

    There. Doesn’t that make us all feel better?

    And, on the feel good side of things, and in honor of Flag Day, there’s a story in the SL Tribune this morning about a Salvadoran family that was “deported” yesterday–after years in this country and after their applications for asylum were denied and all appeals exhausted. But the newspaper wasn’t really accurate–the implication from the few details in the article is that the family left “voluntarily”–under a procedure called “voluntary departure” in the law (“VD” in the trade–which calls up a whole host of other unsavory associations). The procedure is “voluntary” in the same sense that one’s surrendering his wallet to the man with the pistol is voluntary.

    But, isn’t it wonderful that they decided to finally comply with the law and voluntarily leave the U.S.?

    Comment by Mark B. — June 14, 2011 @ 7:36 am

  2. Long time ago I wrote a post that included this detail of a Latter-day Saint couple being excluded this way, and put back aboard ship to be returned: Gohar Yeghiayan Davidian.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  3. the elders were forced to share accommodations with “several Indians and other undesirables.”

    What an amazing statement, given the fact that one of the “undesirable” Indians who spent some time in South African prisons himself just a few years before this story, has become one of the most beloved figures of world history.

    Comment by Researcher — June 14, 2011 @ 7:57 am

  4. One can only hope that the 5 detained missionaries learned some tolerance and gained some empathy for their fellow “undesirables” during their incarceration.

    Comment by andrew h — June 14, 2011 @ 8:05 am

  5. As Bugs Bunny said, “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquoirky”

    Comment by Grant — June 14, 2011 @ 8:28 am

  6. Wonderful and timely Ardis. Thank you for reminding us that we were once the “undesirables.”

    It would have been nice if the First Presidency would have attached their signatures to the official statement, but I am not sure it would have made a difference. Those who disagree with it would still have found reason to dismiss it. A former neighbor of mine held an important position at one of the Temples. Several years ago he told me that back in about 2000 when President Hinckley began addressing the dress and grooming standards of the youth, piercings, tattoo’s and the like, many of the older temple workers were very vocal in their support of President Hinckley because it was “about time” that these kids were given what for and told to clean up their act. BUT a few months later when President Hickley asked that temple workers be clean shaven many of these same temple workers about had a come-a-part, how dare President Hinckley say such a thing, didn’t he realize that their situtation and choices were different than the undesirable ones being made by the youth (ok, the choice of wording was mine, but conveyed the spirit of what I was told). I have been both greatly amused and saddened in recent days as some of my friends and fellow saints who have been so supportive of past Church statements on issues that fit with their political beliefs have really scrambled to find ways around or to dismiss this one which they disagree with.

    Personally I really love the Church’s statement. It addresses the importance of law and order/justice, and of mercy, we of course need both. While the Savior and the scriptures teach the importance of following the law, I just can’t picture the Savior I love and worship, who suffered for my sins, deporting anybody or labeling anyone as being “undesirable” it is sad that it is so easy for us to do so.

    Okay, I’m off my soapbox, I’ll go back to my homework now.

    Comment by andrew h — June 14, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  7. Immigration is one of those things that is easy to legislate from a high seat, but a lot harder when you look people in the eyes.

    Comment by SilverRain — June 14, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  8. I assume that the elders received a change in the field of labor, as opposed to going back to Utah?

    Missionaries being denied entry to a country is still extremely common. Brazil and Switzerland come to mind as recent examples, but the list just in the last 20 years probably runs to the dozens.

    Ghana is a great recent (1989) example. The reason given was that the Church was seeking the overthrow of the nations sovreignty and disturbing the public order. Those charges make no more sense that the harem-stocking accusations of 100 years ago.

    Comment by Clark — June 14, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  9. While there was some hysteria in the old days, there was also some sincerity. Some honest people did honestly feel that polygamy was one of the twin pillars of barbarism. It wasn’t all over-hyped and unreasonable anti-Mormon hysteria. As a Latter-day Saint today, I tend to see the actions of the South African officials a hundred years ago as reasonable based on the information available to them. Still, Satan delighted and still does delight in working against the work of the Lord.

    Comment by ji — June 14, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  10. Ardis, do you happen to know if it was the mission that hired the attorney? I’m still sort of hazy on how this era of mission work functioned financially.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 14, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  11. Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breath free.
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
    Emma Lazurus, 1883

    But not if they are illiterate or mormon missionaries, apparently. This whole US immigration issue is a gordian knot of bureaucratic mismanagement. I am grateful that the Church has taken the time to carefully instruct the members on how to appropriately deal with our illegal ‘brothers and sisters’ as individuals.

    Comment by Cliff — June 14, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  12. Interesting post thanks. It’s kind of humorous to see a literacy test for white people although I’m sure the Elders didn’t think so. In 1852 Brigham Young called 106 men to go on missions throughout the world three were assigned to South Africa. In 1972 the Book of Mormon published in Afrikaans. In 1978 the Priesthood ban was lifted. Then African missions congregated near South Africa and the west coast largely ignoring central Africa until the mid 1990’s. Today half of rural Africa lacks clean water and two thirds lack sanitation a rare situation in the world. What could be taking so long?

    Comment by Howard — June 14, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  13. J., the grammar of the reports I’m using, as well as the lag time for getting the word and any funds to and from South Africa, makes me reasonably certain that in this case, at least, the attorney was hired by the local mission. I can’t know whether there might have been reimbursement (I really doubt it), but the funds had to have come initially from people on the spot in South Africa.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  14. When I served as bishop, I was involved in a situation where an unscrupulous immigration law attorney who has since been disbarred took a large sum of money from some ward members and then missed their court date. The family was from Romania, seeking political asylum from the new government that had come into power following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. As a result the family was under an order of “Voluntary Deportation” which only meant that they could leave voluntarily before a certain date, at which point “voluntary” took on a somewhat different definition.

    They finally got an appeal going with a new attorney. I went to the appeal hearing, which turned out to be extremely interesting. All three federal judges took the INS attorney to task, interrupting her opening statement with questions, and finally issuing an ultimatum to the INS to find some way of accommodating this family or face the prospect of the appeals court issuing a ruling that would set an uncomfortable precedent for future INS cases in the 9th Circuit throughout its reach. As one justice put it “Why can’t the INS see its way to just do the right thing for this family rather than blindly pursuing a course of action in direct disregard of the family’s welfare?”

    The INS and the family’s attorney were able to work out an agreement that allowed them to stay, and the order of Voluntary Deportation was lifted.

    It was nice to see justice served and a court that truly was willing to look at the family instead of the law.

    Comment by kevinf — June 14, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  15. Gotta love the 9th Circuit. If you’re an alien who’s likely to end up in removal proceedings, you better hope you live in California or Washington or Oregon (or Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho or Montana).

    And, if you live in the 5th or the 11th Circuit (the Old South, generally), may God have mercy on your soul.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 14, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  16. Ardis,

    This was an interesting post! My husband served in South Africa. I will have to show this post to him.

    Comment by Marie — June 14, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  17. My wife is an immigrant from South America. When we got married and she requested a change in her immigration status from a student visa she was sent a deportation order dated 6 months or so in the future. After her papers were processed making her a legal resident, I’m not sure the deportation order was ever recended. We have friends who are illegal immigrants and some are members of the LDS church. We treat them as friends although we feel they should take actions to square themselves with the law. We have seen people mistreated because of their illegal status and we have seen those who take advantage in spite of their illegal status. I feel the Church is trying to remind us as individuals to be loving and the uphold and sustain the law without telling us how to vote.

    Comment by Gaikotsujin — June 18, 2011 @ 6:23 am

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