As anyone who hasn’t been living under an internet rock knows by now (and if you have been living under a rock, that’s fine too—given the state of things, I would envy you), Donald Trump has called for banning all immigration of Muslims to the United States. His plan is not qualified, focused, or limited. All Muslims. Full stop.
Our initial impulse for outrage urges us to see Trump as an Unprecedented Horror Unleashed on Liberal Sensibilities to Heights Unknown. But to believe that Trump’s outrageousness are Never Before Seen is perhaps unintentionally, buy into precisely the mythology that Trump hopes to craft for himself. Trump is not venturing onto new territory; he’s running around flailing his arms on a well-trodden, surveyed, excavated, and groomed trail that enables those in power to stay in power. Trump is neither an innovator nor a groundbreaker.
I could easily teach a course on American history simply by using anti-immigrant sentiment. Various pundits have used the Catholics, the Freemasons, the Irish, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Italians, and the Russians at various times as the villain d’jour. When George Wallace became the apostle of racial segregation in the South, he did so deliberately, betraying an African-American voter base whose support he had once enjoyed. Of the many things Trump is, an original and independent thinker, he is not. He recognizes that when he does not need to reinvent a wheel.
Today’s case study: the Mormons.
In the nineteenth-century, the literati saw Mormons as a ready-made, homegrown villain. Some fifty-six anti-Mormon novels were published between 1850 to 1900, all of them teeming with Mormon murderers, rapists, and assassins. Arthur Conan Doyle made a Mormon the primary villain in A Study in Scarlett. The Mormon bete noire was not woven out of whole cloth; when people imagine a stereotype, they tend to have a reason or two ready-at-hand to justify to themselves its use. Between the horrors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre to the fog of evil hanging over polygamy, Mormon men seemed to be complicit in multiple levels of evil. Of course, such images seemed to coalesce nicely with distasteful images of American constructions of Islamic depravity as well as Islamic notions of prophetic authority and scripture. Indeed, to compare Mormons to Islam was a practice so common that it verged on the cliché. It was “American Mohammedism,” one missionary journal declared. While “Islam is a dry rot,” it observed, “the robe of Mormonism is rank and smells to heaven” (The Missionary Review of the World, vol. 22, part 2, 844). In 1841, a British paper reported that “the sword may be unsheathed by an unfurled fanaticism and be to this continent what Mohamemedism is to the continent of Asia” (“Reply to the Preston Chronicle,” Millennial Star, July 10, 1841, 42). in 1912, Bruce Kinney wrote his expose, Mormonism: The Islam of America. Newspaper regularly compared Mormons to the thuggees of colonial India (the Hindi word from which our current word, “thug,” is derived).
Some Mormon leaders accepted the association freely. George A. Smith lauded Mohammed who, he claimed “preached the moral doctrines which the Savior taught” (JD 3:31, September 23, 1855). The next day, Apostle Parley P. Pratt applauded Muslim nations for “hav[ing] better morals and better institutions than many Christian nations.” Pratt felt that “there has been no idolatry in the world, under any form or system, that could surpass [Christianity]” for “it is the mystery of iniquity.” Surely, Pratt observed, Islam had “exceeded in righteousness and truthfulness of religion, the idolatrous and corrupt church that has borne the name of Christ” (JD 3:41, September 23, 1855).
In 1879, the Supreme Court decreed that Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was legal; that same year, President Rutherford B. Hayes directed Secretary of State William Evarts to request that all European countries cut off Mormon immigration to the United
States. The Supreme Court condemned the Mormon church for importing polygamy into American life, which had been “almost exclusively a feature,” it proclaimed, “of the life of Asiatic and African people” and thus, associated with life under Islam. And Mormon missionaries abroad “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 expressly punishable under the statute” (Evarts Circular). Surely, Mormonism was so fundamentally—and ironically—un-American that it could only thrive in a foreign environment.
Evarts’ efforts met with a measure of sympathy but largely ridicule and incredulity.. In Leavenworth, Kansas, the Leavenworth Times reported that “it would be absurd to suppose that any European government would undertake to establish an inquisition to determine the religious faith of emigrants or whether they intend to enter into polygamy.” (“Serious Attitude of the Mormons,” Leavenworth Times, August 13, 1879, 1). The Independent Record criticized the sheer infeasibility of Evarts’ request: “if a form of religious belief is at once made a test, where is the line to be drawn? Mormons are not different from other people in general appearance, and if they did not choose to avow themselves of that peculiar faith, it would hardly be possible to separate them from the believers in the new dispensation.” (“Evarts’ Mormon Question Sensibly Discussed,” Independent Record, August 16, 1879, 3). Some papers thought the circular a token and “farcical” letter, at best (“War on the Mormons,” Montana Standard, September 25, 1879, 2). The Pittsburgh Daily Post considere Evarts’ efforts to be nonsense: “There are dozens and scores of Mormon missionaries operating in this country,” it observed. “Why does not Mr. Evarts turn his attention to these missionaries? Because he knows perfectly well that they have the same right under the Constitution and laws of the United States to preach and proselytize that his own paster has” (“Evarts and the Mormons,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 23, 1879, 2).
The New York Sun thought it so absurd that its correspondent considered that perhaps the report was false: “Surely injustice is done to Mr. Evarts by these report,” since “Mormonism is no more a crime under our laws than Methodism or Quakerism.” If a Mormon “violates the laws regulating the marriage relation, he renders himself liable to the statutory penalty; so does a Methodist, a Quaker, or an Atheist in the same case” (New York Sun, August 14, 1879, 2). Erroneous reports circulated that “Mormonism has been declared a crime in the United States and is hereafter to be prosecuted as such”; surely, the New York Times observed, Secretary Evarts “could not have made a statement so loose and random in its terms.” (“Mormonism Shaken,” New York Times, August 14, 1879, 4). In Kansas, the Atchison Daily Patriot was sympathetic to the cause: “No European government can be otherwise than desirous that gross superstitions should be speedily dissipated,” but the plan was unworkable: “We don’t see any way to direct interference through migration.” Banning the immigration of Mormons would demand for the U.S. government “to declare the profession of Mormonism to be an offense in itself, and to institute a kind of inquisition into the religious opinions of the immigrants.” Mormonism “has taken deep root in this country,” it concluded, and “it will be years before it is eradicated, if it ever is” (“The Mormon Question,” Atchison Daily Patriot, August 13, 1879, 2). Evarts’ efforts were ineffectual anyway; in November, some 250 Latter-day Saints arrived in New Orleans from Scandivania and the United Kingdom. Frustrated, the Donaldsonville Chief lamented that while “American proselytes would not keep the institution on its legs for a single year,” European converts “seem to give Mormonism a new lease of life.” But no matter; “The devil assails us in so many different ways that we are kept busy looking out for our own individual salvation” (“Our Broadbrim Letters,” Donaldsonville Chief, November 15, 1879, 1).
Commentators both sympathetic and hostile believed that the circular would serve as a recruitment tool for expanding the Mormon presence in Europe. An Elder Morgan serving in Georgia thought the document to be “a great piece of nonsense” and “a very flimsy fabric” meant to distract from domestic concerns. But the circular, at the very least, “plac[ed] Mormonism on equal footing with the government of this great and glorious republic, and acknowledg[ed] Mormons to be worthy of his steel” (“Latter-day Lights,” Atlanta Constitution, October 31, 1879, 1). Some years after the release of the circular, a Reverend, Ballard S. Dunn, thought the circular so ill-advised that he credited it with giving Mormonism a short in the arm: “If we may judge the future by the past,” Dunn wrote, “it is safe to predict that the foreign circular of our able Secretary of State (Evarts) on this subject, will do more to build up Mormonism than anything that has happened for many years.” The circular gave the Mormons “free, international advertising,” he lamented, and Mormonism had “risen to the dignity of a great, international question.” (“Polygamy and Divorce,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 27, 1886, 11).
Foreign governments generally dismissed the idea out-of-hand, even as they expressed sympathy for the Americans plight. Lord Salisbury told Secretary Evarts that the Government had “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.” (Salisbury, Letter to Hoppin, October 6, 1879). Foreign service officer George W. Wurts in Rome informed Prime Minister Cairoli of Evarts’ request; Cairoli congratulated himself that “the circular had no apparent
application to this country,” since “Mormonism is, as yet, unknown.” There had been “a few Mormons of Sicilian extraction” in Palermo “with the ostensible purpose of looking after their pecuniary [financial] interests” but found no success obtaining converts (Wurts, Letter to Bayley, October 4, 1879). In the Netherlands, the Baron Von Lynden Von Sandenburg expressed reservations that “it might be difficult in many cases to discover motives of immigrants, but said they could instruct officers at the several ports of the country to make investigation.”(Birney, Letter to Evarts, September 30, 1879). Sweden and Noway, they were told, would “aid in preventing the Mormon agents and emissaries from seducing from their homes the men and women of Sweden and Norway, to help swell the numbers of the lawbreakers in that community beyond the ocean, where a strange fanaticism audaciously assumes to criminally confront the authority of a friendly nation, and to trample under foot the morality and teachings of Christian civilization” (John L. Stevens, Letter to William Evarts, September 23, 1879).
But the most enthusiastic collaborator of all was the Austro-Hungarian empire. It “adopted measures to put a stop to Mormon proselytizing,” and “the Vienna police have been ordered to arrest all Mormon missionaries engaged in obtaining converts and immigrants for Utah.” In March 1884, German Thomas Biesinger served a mission to Austria-Hungary where, under the prosecution inspired by the circular, he was arrested and imprisoned for two months in Prague. Count Szogenyi assured the State Department that they would continue their vigilance: “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 to the laws of the country.” (Szoegenyi, Letter to Francis, September 18, 1884).
Biesinger’s conditions were abysmal. The police placed him in an 8 x 12 “dirty hole” that “swarmed with lice, bed busgs, and fleas.” After two days, the police moved him to another cell deper in the city of Vienna where “in the dim twilight, [he] could discern millions of vermin [in this context, lice] . .crawling over wall and ceiling.” When Biesinger was arraigned before a judge a couple days later, he found himself barraged by bitterness and resistance; he learned that newspapers had been running a publicity campaign against him, accusing him of seeking to lead people into enslavement. He returned to his cell the following week, he received word that his former mission companion, Paul Hammer, who had managed to escape. Hammer was suffering from smallpox in a Schliessen hospital and anticipated death. His companion soon recovered, but Biesinger found no sympathy from the judicial system. He was “found guilty of canvassing as a missionary or agent for any society, church or sect with the intention of gaining them as converts to their faith providing such societies and sects are not acknowledged by the Church and authority of the state.” Biesinger stayed in prison for two months; when he left, one of his accusers, Anthon Just, caught up with him and requested baptism. Just became a member of the LDS Church on June 21, 1884. (“A Missionary’s Two Months in Jail,” New Era, November 1982). The American effort to crack down on Mormonism had only begun. In 1885, federal marshals went to Utah where they tracked down Mormon polygamists, just as the State Department had encouraged foreign officials to do. In 1890, the LDS Church announced that no new polygamist marriages would be contracted, a promise that finally came into fruition by 1904.
The American government’s fear of Mormonism was based in large part on a bugaboo(outside of Great Britain, the Mormon presence was negligible), and even within the United States, several commentators had a sense that prosecuting Mormons based on the anticipation that they might contract polygamy was nonsensical and defied any pretense to upholding the rule of law.
Trump knows the pulse of American life. Brash, crude, and unrefined he may be, but obtuse, he is not. He knows what Saul Alinksy knows—and what we all know: that a movement needs an enemy. Trump is playing an old fears and exploiting longstanding patterns. And if no one else, the Saints should be shrewd enough to see it precisely for what it is.