Mormon and Muslim Immigration-A Shared History

By February 1, 2017

Over the past week, scholars and news outlets have linked the Mormon past to the present Muslim-targeted immigration ban. They point to the 1879 Evarts Circular, in which Secretary of State William Evarts urged foreign governments to help restrict Mormon emigration from their countries. The above writers ask Mormons to remember their immigrant-persecuted-past and show compassion to those in the present.LA times

These calls are noble. Yet, there is more to the Mormon-Muslim immigrant past than these articles articulate. The Evarts Circular was not the only federal action against Mormon immigration. Two legislative currents, federal legislative battles over the existence of polygamy in the 1880s and the federalization of immigration legislation, followed Evarts’ Circular. These forces coincided in the 1891 federal immigration law when legislators banned “polygamists” from crossing into America’s borders while increased funding established federal border regulation. At the same time, the 1891 law gave refugee status to immigrants fleeing from religious persecution. You’ll have to wait for a forthcoming post about the legal developments between the Evarts Circular and the 1891 law. You’ll also have to trust me when I say that the 1891 polygamy-immigration ban targeted Mormons (although this Los Angeles Times article might serve as some consolation in the meantime).[1]

The consequences of this ban, however, bled between religious traditions. According to the New York Times, the first polygamist immigrants banned from the country were Muslim. I don’t know whether the claim that Muslims were the first polygamists banned from the country is true, but I haven’t found any evidence to the contrary, yet. The reported conversation, I have my doubts about its accuracy, was between Herman Stump, the first commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration (formerly the Office of Immigration), and the Muslim immigrants. It goes like this:

NYT muslim men“You believe in the Koran,” asked President Stump.

“Thank Allah, yes!” responded the men in chorus.

“The Koran teaches polygamy,” continued the Inspector through an interpreter.

“Blessed be Allah, it does!”

“Then you believe in polygamy,” Asked Capt. George Ellis.

“We do, we do! Blessed be Allah, we do!” chorused the Arabs, salaaming toward the setting sun.

“That settles it,” said President Stump. “You won’t do.” They were ordered deported.[2]

NYT mormon martyrNow, compare that report with one about a Mormon polygamist immigrant in 1908. The headline reads “Girl Martyr to her Faith. Suffers Deportation Rather Than Renounce Polygamy.” The article states, “Under the law no believer in polygamy may enter the United States. The girl was set aside for deportation, and later, despite the personal appeal of Senator Smoot at Washington, returned to England.”[3] The girl even entered the country a second time through Canada. Immigration officials deported her a second time.

These articles might seem straightforward on the surface. Their subtleties, however, reveal the intersectional nature of stereotyping immigrant groups. Notice, according to the article, the the Muslim immigrants were men who did not speak English. They were, presumably, middle-eastern. Their interaction with the immigration inspector made them seem ignorant of American norms and unlikely to assimilate: they were antagonists to Americanness. However, the Mormon immigrant was a white (English) woman. Narratives of Mormon immigration typified women proselytes as gullible victims of predatory Mormon men.[4] The article, then, portrayed this woman as someone who could be admired for her faith, even if she was ignorant in her belief. Her victimization reflected an appropriately American level of religious belief although that belief was misplaced in the wrong religion. Even though these two groups of immigrants interacted with enforcement of the same immigration restriction law, their resultant stereotyping was drastically different.

Now, it’s important to note that the Mormon article comes from 1908. Historian Paul Reeve has shown that Americans stereotyped Mormons in the nineteenth century as non-white (including orientally Mohammedan).[5] Even though the two groups would have been racially similar in the nineteenth century, by 1908, this Mormon woman was less racially “other” than these 1896 Muslim men.

These interactions reveal that religion, gender, sexuality, and race influenced one another through stereotyping. These stereotypes ranked groups of people on a spectrum from civilized to savage, or barbarian. At the turn of the twentieth century civilization represented white, monogamous, heterosexual, Protestant Americans. Savagery represented everything “other.” The prescriptive nature of these articles’ stereotyping suggested that all Muslim men were middle-eastern (or at least non-English speakers) and predatory polygamists, and that all Mormon women were sexually-innocent white victims who were subject to a false religion.

There’s a point about language here, too. Stereotyping and intersectionality allowed Congress to legislate against Mormons through laws against polygamy. In terms of immigration, this happened in the same law that protected Jewish refugees through a clause for those fleeing religious persecution. All of this occurred without Constitutional and disestablishment conflict. Language allowed those who stereotype others to conflate identities without seemingly targeting specific groups. That is, language made hiding behind the apparent distance between certain words permissible.

We should read this history and reflect on our own, current situation. As with stereotyping, laws tend to make groups of people monolithic. Just like the previous laws that identified Mormons as a polygamous group, current immigration policies imply that all terrorists are middle-eastern, and that all middle-easterners are Muslim. Thereby, the thought goes, Muslims are terrorists who are antithetical to American democracy. Like those Mormon immigrants throughout the twentieth century who struggled to shed an imposed polygamist identity, modern Mormons should recognize the stereotypes currently being imposed upon both middle-eastern and Muslim immigrants. Their immigration histories share more than just comparison?they share a history of stereotyping based on a single law. To buy into that stereotyping is to imagine immigration legislation only as a defensive reaction to protect a victimized America and to ignore the agency that legislation has in creating monolithic (and inaccurate) stereotypes.

[1] “The Immigration Inquiry. Investigations Made Abroad: What a Mormon Elder Says,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1891, pg. 1.

[2] “Six Polygamists Shut out. The Board of Inquiry Orders Mohammedans to be Deported.” New York Times, November 18, 1897, pg. 11.

[3] “Girl Martyr to her Faith. Suffers Deportation Rather Than Renounce Polygamy,” New York Times, November 4, 1908, pg. 16.

[4] W. Paul Reeve, “All ‘Mormon Elder-Berry’s’ Children: Race, Whiteness, and the Attack of Mormon Anglo-Saxon Triumphalism,” in Patrick Q. Mason, ed., Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), 158.

[5] See W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Current Events Memory Miscellaneous Reflective Posts


  1. Well, America, you can’t say that you didn’t get the president you voted for. But, as far as radical Islamic terrorism in the U.S., here are the facts:

    Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, has called Muslim Americans ?a minuscule threat to public safety.?
    In his most recent report tracking Islamist militancy in America, he included this startling figure. ?The United States suffered approximately 14,000 murders in 2013. Since 9/11, Muslim-American terrorism has claimed 37 lives in the United States, out of more than 190,000 murders during this period.?

    Comment by larryco_ — February 1, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

  2. Good work, Jeff. Great reminder of all the intersections at play here and the wide-reaching effects of those stereotypes.

    Comment by JJohnson — February 1, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

  3. Cool, larryco_.

    Comment by Brother X — February 1, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

  4. Thanks, Jeff. Good historicization of current events is a must in this political climate.

    Comment by Saskia — February 1, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

  5. Thanks, JJohnson and Saskia

    Comment by Jeff T — February 1, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

  6. Thanks, Jeff! I’m glad to see further nuance given to matters of immigration and religion.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 2, 2017 @ 11:20 am


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