Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Very Real Consequences of the American Government’s 1879 Effort to Bar Mormon Immigration

The Very Real Consequences of the American Government’s 1879 Effort to Bar Mormon Immigration

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 10, 2016

In 2004 I gave a paper at Sunstone that was a dismal failure. Only one single solitary listener – a reader of Keepa, in fact – who wasn’t involved in that session as speaker or moderator came to hear me. It was humiliating, and it was the last time I spoke at Sunstone (apart from the 2011 Pillars of My Faith session, which was a different circumstance; that session had no competition) – the people who go to Sunstone don’t go to Sunstone to hear the kind of work I do. That’s fine; they just aren’t my audience.

In 2006 I posted that Sunstone paper in three parts at the blog Times and Season, and like all my T&S posts, it is archived here at Keepa.

At the time (2004), I could find only one historian – William Mulder, decades earlier, in 1957’s Homeward to Zion – who had given any attention to the topic of my paper; in locating and quoting extensively from US diplomatic correspondence, I went far beyond what Bill Mulder was able to do then. These days, a lot of pundits far beyond the Bloggernacle are aware of the 1879 Evarts circular, the letter written by US Secretary of State William M. Evarts to the governments of countries throughout Europe, urging them to prevent the emigration of Mormons from their nations to the United States.

I’d like to draw attention to that paper from 2004, for readers who might want a more detailed (but not overlong – it was, I think, a 30-minute speaking slot) history of the attempt of the United States government to bar the immigration of Mormons to the United States. The old three-part posting with reader comment can be found in Keepa’s archives as “A ‘Gathering Storm’: The U.S. State Department’s Worldwide War on Mormonism” (part 1, part 2, part 3) – the original paper is posted here as a single document for reader convenience, with citations. (Scholars and journalists, be fair. If you use this material in your own work, an acknowledgment is in order.)


A Paper for Sunstone, August 2004

Ardis E. Parshall


The Supreme Court’s 1879 ruling on the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws triggered an offensive in the campaign to crush Mormonism. Within days of the Court’s ruling, the Secretary of State notified American ambassadors to seek the help of foreign governments to “check the organization of [this] criminal enterprise,” by halting the work of missionaries and cutting off the supply of “recruits” emigrating to Utah “with the intent of violating [U.S.] laws and committing crimes.” While sympathetic, newspapers and governments generally labeled the Secretary’s request as impractical, and the matter faded from public discussion, seemingly a failed and transitory swipe at Mormonism.

Unnoticed by either the press or the Church, however, the Secretary’s request remained the official policy of the American government throughout the 1880s. Friendly nations were prodded to follow its guidelines; less friendly nations could carry out repressive measures knowing there would be no interference by America on behalf of its Mormon citizens abroad; any government expelling missionaries or putting obstacles in the way of Mormon emigration received encouragement and official congratulations through diplomatic channels. And although American policy was reversed following publication of the Manifesto, the State Department’s 1879 circular continued to be cited as authority for anti-Mormon action in places as widely divergent as India, Tahiti, and New Zealand, as late as World War I.

This paper examines the methods used by the State Department to pursue the eradication of polygamy in America. Using State Department files, newspaper accounts, and LDS mission records, several specific incidents of anti-Mormon action abroad will illustrate the effectiveness of the State Department’s foreign war on Mormon proselytizing and emigration.

America’s legal battle against Mormon polygamy got off to a slow start. The first federal law aimed at ending polygamy was passed only in 1862, ten years after public announcement of plural marriage as a Mormon doctrine, and six years after the Republican Party labeled the practice a relic of barbarism. Another 12 years passed before the first man was indicted under that law, and it wasn’t until 1879 that the Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality. The federal government applied increasing pressure against Mormon polygamy throughout the next decade, until at last, in 1890, Wilford Woodruff as president of the church announced his intention to comply with anti-polygamy laws.

The bulk of federal action against Mormon polygamy took place in Congress and in the courts where it was subject to public scrutiny, won public support, and permitted the Mormons an opportunity to air their opinions and defend their rights within the constitutional system. One major offensive against polygamy, however, took place largely outside of public view and even beyond the borders of the United States. What is more, this semi-secret war against Mormon activity remained in effect far longer than any of the oppressive legal measures of the 1880s, and in some parts of the world it was still obstructing the spread of Mormonism well after the First World War. This is the story of the United States’ world-wide campaign against Mormonism.

When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws early in 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States. In the words of a Chicago editor, “Mr. Hayes is a very vigorous Methodist, and his church associates have urged upon him the necessity of his crowning the glory of his reign by abolishing the monster polygamy. Mrs. Hayes [a teetotaler who allowed nothing stronger than lemonade to be served at the White House] is also cordially enlisted in the scheme.”1

One member of the Hayes cabinet who was also deeply “enlisted in the scheme” was Secretary of State William M. Evarts. Evarts, Boston-born and New York-raised, was a lawyer and a politician with wide experience. He had been dispatched to England to stop Britain’s trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War, had prosecuted Jefferson Davis for treason and had defended Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial. Most relevant for his role in the presidential cabinet was Evarts’ successful representation of Hayes in the Electoral Commission hearings that chose Hayes over Samuel Tilden, his Democratic rival, in the disputed election of 1876 – a choice more sorely debated and in longer dispute than the Bush-Gore election of 2000.

In August of 1879, Evarts had chosen his newest battle – a plan to enlist foreign nations in the campaign against polygamy by hindering Mormon proselyting, harassing missionaries, and preventing converts from emigrating to the United States. In presenting his plan to the Hayes cabinet, Evarts said:

“[L]arge numbers of immigrants come to our shores every year from the various countries of Europe for the avowed purpose of joining the Mormon community at Salt Lake, in the Territory of Utah …

“The system of polygamy, which is prevalent in the community of Utah, is largely based upon and promoted by these accessions from Europe, drawn mainly from the ignorant classes, who are easily influenced by the double appeal to their passions and their poverty …

“[T]he bands and organizations which are got together in foreign lands as recruits cannot be regarded as otherwise than a deliberate and systematic attempt to bring persons to the United States with the intent of violating their laws and committing crimes …

“[E]very consideration … should … prevent [American soil] from becoming a resort or refuge for the crowds of misguided men and women whose offenses against morality and decency would be intolerable in the land from whence they come.”2

With this preamble, Evarts defined Mormonism as a criminal enterprise, its missionaries as operatives of an ill-intentioned immigration scheme, and its converts as gullible recruits to the harems and work gangs of an oppressive Mormon hierarchy. He reduced the so-called “Mormon Problem” to a police action against organized crime. While battle was being waged against Mormon polygamy on American soil, the doors to America would be slammed shut against further Mormon immigration. Better yet, Mormon missionaries abroad would be prevented from ever recruiting such immigrants to come knocking at America’s doors in the first place.

With the approval of Hayes and other members of the cabinet, Evarts drafted a circular to be sent to the diplomatic officers of the United States throughout Europe. Such officers were to approach the foreign ministers of each country and present the official American view of Mormonism as organized crime. If foreign governments could be coaxed so far, they were to be asked to prevent the sailing of Mormon converts from European ports. Every foreign action against Mormon converts and even against Mormon missionaries – who often were American citizens – was to receive the thanks and encouragement of diplomats. Every such officer was to inquire into the progress of Mormonism in his particular region and report his findings to Evarts. And every attempted sailing of Mormon converts was to be protested officially, and immediately reported to Washington.

Evarts’ circular to the diplomatic officers was widely reported and discussed in the nation’s newspapers. Editorial comment was mixed: Predictably, the Salt Lake Tribune heralded the action as “a movement which meets the approbation of all law-abiding citizens.” An eastern Presbyterian organ was cheered by news “that something decisive is about to be done by the Government in relation to the Mormon iniquities which have been such a foul blot on the land.” The New York Times, while sympathizing with the desire to remove an “offending ulcer” from the body politic, cautiously noted that there were certain legal obstacles to instituting the plan, including the implied religious inquisition, and the presumption of guilt before crimes were committed. Other Eastern papers recognized that, should European powers refuse to prevent the sailing of out-bound Mormon emigrant ships, Evarts’ intention was “to refuse Mormon emigrants entrance into our ports, and forbid vessels landing them.” Surprisingly, some eastern papers condemned the plan as “hopeless” and “un-republican.” The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Herald both professed disbelief that Evarts had proposed such a scheme, or that the journalists were serious in reporting it – “difficult to believe,” “absurd to suppose,” and “afflicted with temporary insanity” marked Mormondom’s response to the report.3

The first foreign response came from London: Editors of the Times agreed that “the gross superstition [of Mormonism] should be speedily dissipated, but we do not see the way to direct interference.” English Mormons were all monogamists, and therefore had broken no anti-bigamy laws of either England or the United States. No British Parliament would ever abridge the rights of British citizens by interfering with their free movement through the ports of their own nation.

After a few weeks of widespread debate, the Times’s opinion was reluctantly adopted by the American press:

Men and women may believe in polygamy as much as they please, but … they must be actual bigamists … before they can be treated as offenders. A great many Mormons in Utah limit themselves to one marriage, and … foreigners … bring [no] more than one wife with them, however many they intend to get afterwards. … How can they be treated as criminals when they have not committed a crime, and may not even intend to? It would materially facilitate the solution of a very difficult question, if we could persuade the European governments that it is their duty to assist in breaking up Mormonism… ; but we fear that Mr. Evarts’ scheme to impress this upon them will be a failure.4

The Evarts plan was dead on arrival.

Or was it? 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 citizens. 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 reply to his American counterpart 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.5

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.

The 1883 Swiss incident is the only case I have yet identified where Mormon emigrants were scrutinized because of the Evarts circular. Beginning in 1884, several events affecting Mormon proselyting in European countries can be traced directly to that circular:

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 full 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 there to obtain some documentation that the Americans refused passports 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 not only where they had recently traveled, who had given them lodging, and where converts were baptized, but often also 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.”

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, 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 more than 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 a certain class of 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, apparently, 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.

The story related in this paper has drawn interesting responses from those I have discussed it with. Politically conservative friends have been shocked that their government failed to protect Americans abroad – I guess I’m too cynical to have had that reaction myself. Religiously conservative friends have expressed an assurance that somehow this incident must have resulted in ultimate good for the church – unless the creation of martyrs is such a benefit, I see none: the Evarts policy drove the church underground in some areas and delayed the introduction of the gospel into others; persecution may have strengthened the faith of some converts, but doubtless destroyed the resolve of others who were too fragile in the faith when hard times came. Historically minded friends have expressed surprise that this episode of church and state history was previously unknown to them – I too was surprised when I stumbled across it. Surely there is much more to be uncovered by someone with access to more State Department files than I have been able to explore at this distance. Should any of you here learn of a scholar with the interest and opportunity to explore this story further, I will gladly share my research for a starting point.

  1. “[Evarts’ Circular],” Salt Lake Herald, 19 August 1879, 2/1. []
  2. William M. Evarts, Circular to Diplomatic Officers of the United States, 9 August 1879. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of The United States, Transmitted to Congress, with the Annual Message of the President, 1879. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880), 11-12. []
  3. “Awake at Last,” Salt Lake Tribune, 10 August 1879; “The Mormon Question,” Presbyterian Banner (Pittsburg), 13 August 1879; “The Question of Mormon Rights,” New York Times, 13 August 1879; “[Evarts; Circular],” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 August 1879; “Is It a Canard?”; “[Evarts’ Circular],” Bristol (Pennsylvania) Bucks County Gazette, 25 September 1879; St. Louis Republican, quoted in “Where Is That Circular Letter?” Deseret News, 25 August 1879. []
  4. Daily Whig and Courier, 13 August 1879; “Mormonism Shaken,” New York Times, 14 August 1879; “Secretary Evart’s [sic] Circular,” Salt Lake Tribune, 14 August 1879; “Evarts and the Mormons,” Salt Lake Herald, 20 August 1879; “The Twin Relic,” Salt Lake Tribune, 21 August 1879. For continued demands that America had the right to prevent Mormon immigration as a step to curtailing Mormon polygamy, see “Mormonism Must Go,” Virginia Enterprise, 13 August 1879, quoted in “Infernal Institution,” Salt Lake Tribune, 16 August 1879; “The Mormon Question,” Atlanta (Georgia) Daily Constitution, 16 August 1879.

    Excessive ellipses here and throughout the paper are due to the need for easy reading and comprehension in oral delivery. []

  5. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of The United States, Transmitted to Congress, with the Annual Message of the President, 1879. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880), 450-451. “Exit Evarts’ Circular,” Millennial Star, 3 November 1879, 697-698, quoting an unnamed Mormon elder. []


  1. Thank you for a wonderful talk that I would have given much to hear in person.

    Comment by eric boysen — August 11, 2016 @ 7:54 am

  2. Thank you, eric — I’ll consider now that I have an audience of TWO!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2016 @ 8:35 am

  3. Make that an audience of three … 🙂

    Great job, Ardis. Perhaps the most memorable take-away quote for me, in reference to the Swiss/German immigrants: “There were no particularly attractive women in the party, but with few exceptions they appeared to be rugged and thrifty.”\

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 11, 2016 @ 9:22 am

  4. As always, fantastic research, Ardis. I only wish the subject material wasn’t so timely and relevant.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2016 @ 9:32 am

  5. Well done! Quite fascinating.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 11, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  6. Gary doesn’t remember the Sunstone talk, but he was the lone audience member. I was so grateful I almost cried.

    Thanks, Chris, Kevin. This is part of the fun of history, as far as I’m concerned — the course of events rather than mere theoretical discussion, and the relevance of the past to the present.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

  7. I guess counting myself twice would be cheating?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 11, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

  8. Thanks for posting your talk, Ardis. An earlier post of yours alerted me to this effort to keep Mormon immigrants out of the US, but I didn’t know about Everts’ background until now. I’ve been looking at the issue from the European side. Prime Minister Gladstone was asked several times in the early 1880s why the British government didn’t do something to prevent its citizens, especially women, from going to Mormon Utah. His answer was more or less the same: “They are adults, and they go voluntarily.”

    Your wonderful post is timely. If Everts had succeeded, my grandmother’s family might have remained in Sweden. It’s good to have solid information on this topic–I hope it reaches many people.

    Comment by Susan W H — August 11, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

  9. Of course, just as with current calls to limit immigration by adherents of particular religions, I am left with one big operational question: How would they know?

    Comment by David B — August 11, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

  10. It probably wouldn’t have been too hard to identify most Mormon immigrants, David B — by 1879 our immigrant numbers were no longer so large that we chartered entire ships, but Mormons did still travel in groups, shepherded by returning missionaries. The Church had contracts with shipping companies, guaranteeing so many ticket purchases in exchange for lower fares and better accommodations, and I suppose it wouldn’t have been too difficult for immigration officials to have sussed that out to know what ships to inspect … never mind that the Millennial Star regularly published upcoming sailing dates and ships’ names. At some point (I don’t know offhand when that was), emigrants were questioned as to their destinations, which would have been a giveaway in most cases, absent deliberate lying. Officials might have missed some Mormons, and perhaps accused some non-Mormons of being Mormons, but overall I don’t suppose it would have been too difficult.

    No comment about the assumptions or queries that would be necessary to recognize “adherents of particular religions” today.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

  11. Susan W H, I’m so continually impressed by the dedication of England and her officials in that era to living by the rule of law, even when individuals would gladly have broken those laws.

    The official response of the British Foreign Office to the Evarts circular was given early in October, 1879:

    “I referred to Her Majesty’s secretary of state for the home department your letter of the 25th of August, conveying to me the wish of your government that steps should be taken by Her Majesty’s Government to prevent the adoption of the doctrines of Mormonism by persons in this country, and the emigration to the United States of persons emigrating for the purpose of joining the Mormon community at Salt Lake, in the Territory of Utah; and I have the honor to acquaint you that a reply has been received, stating that Her Majesty’s Government have no authority to place any restraint on emigration or to interfere with regard to the opinions which may be held by British subjects on questions of religion or morality so long as no act is committed which is a breach of the law of England, and that they are therefore powerless to carry out the measures suggested by you.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

  12. AWESOME paper Ardis. I’m glad that you shared it. I have all of the old audio recordings on file so now I will have to go back and listen to it.

    I wouldn’t feel to bad about the low attendance. I started to attend Sunstone in 2005. I have been to all or part of every year since except 2011. Attendance at sessions of sessions on History and historical figure tends to be low. Since I have been going the popular sessions are always the ones on contemporary social topics and sessions on History and Theology can hardly get anyone to show up.

    Comment by andrew h — August 22, 2016 @ 11:10 am

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