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“Fleeing Back to America from the War Zone of Europe” (1915)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 09, 2012

Walter P. Monson, president of the Eastern States Mission, headquartered in Manhattan, was interviewed by a reporter of the New York Sun early in 1915. Sitting at “the sunny front window of the mission assembly room, with its pictures of the Mormon Temple and the prophets,” President Monson provided information about the ongoing evacuation of non-European Latter-day Saints from parts of a Europe at war. In the words of the reporter:

The missionaries of the Church of Latter-day Saints are fleeing back to America from the war zone of Europe. They come in response to the message of recall to all Mormons on the Continent, cabled at the outbreak of the war by President Joseph F. Smith oft he Mormon Church in Salt Lake City to his son, Pres. Hyrum M. Smith of the European mission at Liverpool, who notified all Mormon conferences in the war zone.

Over 350 Mormons have hurried home from points of danger as rapidly as they have been able to take ship, leaving to face the perils at their mission posts in each European conference a president and two elders. Those in Great Britain, Scandinavia, &c., have remained.

Since this recall the headquarters of the Eastern mission in America, at 33 West 126th street, New York, has been receiving parties of refugees week by week. From Germany, Austria, France, Holland and Belgium have come the refugees by every ship, landing in new York, in Boston and in Montreal. The aggregate thus suddenly shifted from Europe to America is an impressive demonstration of the Mormon forces at work throughout the civilized world.

President Walter P. Monson of the Eastern mission, which comprises the New England and middle Atlantic States, including West Virginia and four eastern provinces of Canada, sat at the sunny front window of the mission assembly room, with its pictures of the Mormon Temple and the prophets and told the story of the home coming missionaries.

President Monson identified some of the returning American Saints – missionaries, students, tourists – and told of some of their experiences:

Thirty refugees from Belgium arrived first, in August. Of those, four came from Liege and had been through the bombardment of Liege. Two of those four, Elder Wiley and Elder Browning, were with us here in New York for some time after their return.

On Sept. 5th came the first party from Germany and Austria, one hundred in all, landing in Montreal, but twenty-one coming to New York. These included six physicians who had been taking post-graduate courses in Vienna, and the families of several of them, the party of medical men headed by Dr. Leroy Pugmire, who is still with us at the Eastern mission. Others came from Berlin, from Frankfurt, from Cassel, from Stuttgart.

Prof. Edward Kimball, assistant organist of the Tabernacle at Salt Lake City, and Prof. Elihu Call of Baltimore were both in Berlin when the war broke out and had some exciting experiences in getting home. Miss Romania Hyde, the young violinist, was in Cassel, Germany, and came through the lines on a military pass, the one woman in a trainful of German soldiers, who called her “foreigner” and “spy” till she took up her violin and played them German national airs through a night of terror.

A party of forty-two sailed on the Mauritania, arriving in New York October 16, and a party of fifty-two sailed on the Pretoria, landing in Montreal October 20. About forty have come from France, including Miss Bailey, one of our well known singers, who was studying in Paris. Another large party sailed from Liverpool on the Scotian, arriving the latter part of October.

He discussed the decision to evacuate missionaries, and the difficulty of implementing the decision once it was made:

As soon as Secretary Bryan warned Americans in Europe to return as speedily as possible, Senators Smoot and Sutherland of Utah immediately notified President Smith in Salt Lake City, and President Smith lost no time in cabling the recall. But it required some time before all the Mormon conferences of Europe could reach all the missionaries and students at obscure points and under the existing conditions of disrupted communication and transit. So it has required over two months to bring our people home. the missionaries in the British Isles have not been recalled as yet, and they may not be unless serious conditions justify it.

There has been no suffering or privation from lack of funds on the part of our returning missionaries. There has been a great stringency in ready money throughout Europe of course, but our people, except in some isolated instances perhaps, have been amply supplied with funds, and it has been chiefly a matter of reaching them with the recall and the problem of transportation under existing conditions. But remember that our missionaries are in nearly all cases people of private means, not salaried workers for the church. No fund has been provided for them or has been needed by them. They pay their own passage by whatever route they come, and in a large number of cases will continue their work or study, which the war has interrupted in Europe, here in New York or some other point in the East.

Students were as much a concern as missionaries, he said – and Mormon students were everywhere:

The Mormon church has always understood and emphasized the importance of education. In fact, Utah stands second in the United States in literacy, and you will find our young people in all the great institutions of learning in Europe and America. Although Germany was supposed to have no Mormon missions, there have been a large number of Mormon students at the German universities.

All the American colleges and schools of importance have our students in them. For instance: Columbia, Cornell and the University of the City of New York have Utah colonies of our young men who are entered in their courses and who graduate with their fair share of honors. They are not directly expected to represent the Mormon church, but I do not believe there is an instance where, if one of our young men is challenged as to his religion, he will not frankly and proudly declare, “I am a Mormon!”

He went on to speak of the history of the Church in New York since the days of Joseph Smith, and about the activities of missionaries working in New York City. He announced plans for an LDS chapel, which would be built in Brooklyn but not completed until the end of the war.

Here is the headquarters of the Eastern mission and an active propaganda is carried on here from year to year by distribution of our literature from house to house, by street meetings, by Sunday services at our meeting house and by young people’s organizations which meet at our head quarters.

At present we hold services every Sunday afternoon at 3 o’clock at 151 West 125th street, where we have an assembly hall, while at our own mission headquarters every Sunday evening there are joint and separate meetings of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Society. These young people’s organizations are very active in the church work.

The growth of Mormonism is such that we contemplate the erecting of a Mormon church in New York City within the near future. It is still too early to speak of plans, but we are already considering sites. I have just returned from Salt Lake City, where I have been in consultation with the president and his counselors in regard to this matter, and it has been decided to hold this matter in abeyance for the present while conditions of business are so unsettled and even Wall Street is at a standstill.

The interview then ranged through the topics of unpaid clergy, tithing, the organization of the mission system, the building of temples, tabernacles, and chapels throughout the west. And in a paragraph that almost seems like it could have come out of any one of many features of the current “Mormon moment,” President Monson said:

I ascribe some of the material success of Mormon communities to the initiative and progressive spirit of its young men who go as missionaries all over the world, and impelled by the lessons of thrift in their own Mormon community at home seek to find the lessons of success which other lands and other men have to give them, bringing home those new ideas and grafting them into the life of the Mormon people. To illustrate the breadth of knowledge and kinship with the ideas of many lands this mission system breeds for our young men, there was a ward meeting entertainment I attended in Salt Lake City some time ago at which there were several young men present who spoke seventeen languages or dialects – we had a prayer in Japanese, a recitation in the Samoan tongue and a polyglot programme entire.

And in another bit that might – almost – have come from an interview in 2012:

How the Mormon vote militates in politics is interesting, for the Mormons, while solid int heir vote against the saloon and the social evil, or on any moral question, are of various political complexions otherwise. For instance, I am a Republican, and when I was in Salt Lake City last I found one of my brothers conducting the campaign against Senator Smoot, while another brother of mine is a Socialist.

Okay, so maybe there are elements of that last paragraph that couldn’t quite have been given in 2012 …

(Note: Some of the paragraphs have been rearranged from the way they appeared in The Sun in order to group topics.)



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