The End of the Gathering: Mormonism and Immigration Regulation

By May 12, 2017

The Immigration and Ethnic History Society has generously agreed to cross-post this content on their blog. The posts are slightly different, and I try to introduce Mormon readers here to scholarship in Immigration History, and IEHS readers there to scholarship in Mormon History. I’m hoping to facilitate conversation across audiences. Here’s the link:


tumblr_nl27eaveiz1s6lktro1_1280In 1897, “Pres. G.Q. Cannon stated that the Presidents of Missions had been instructed not to encourage people to emigrate to Utah until they had become well grounded in the faith and not then until times in Utah became better, unless they have friends or means to provide a home on their arrival.”[1] This discouragement became public the next year in 1898, when Mormon Apostle George Q. Cannon stated in the semiannual church-wide gathering, general conference, “There is one course that has been taken which I think will be attended with good efforts, that is, counselling the Saints in the various lands where they embrace the Gospel to remain quiet for a while; to not be anxious to break up their homes to gather to Zion.”[2] This was the first of many announcements that called for the end of the gathering. Why did Cannon renege Mormonism’s long history with open immigration? How did the end of the gathering come about, and what did it mean for Mormonism?

First, a caveat about Americanization. Recent scholars of Mormonism have admirably pushed back against the traditional coercive story and timeline of assimilation and Americanization. The old story goes: the federal government pressured Mormons to become Americans by prohibiting polygamy, and by 1890, Mormons were faced with momentous cultural transformation. New scholarship, like Thomas Simpson’s recent work which Bradley reviewed here, instead suggests that assimilation was a process which took time and started earlier than 1890. Both stories undoubtedly have their merits, and the transition to new, process-based scholarship reflects the general absence of a sophisticated theory of assimilation within Mormon histories of the period. Laying out such a theory will need its own blog post (at least!), but let me throw in two things: the coercive narrative follows top-down histories of assimilation in which White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) middle and upper class people “in power” make efforts to Americanize their immigrant workers. This typically happens by way of prescriptive education. The process narrative highlights assimilation histories from the “bottom up,” which emphasize multiple points of cultural contact, immigrants constructing their own identities, and people racially in-between whiteness and blackness (or yellowness, redness, or brownness).[3] The Mormon immigration story here focuses on legislation and thereby leans heavier on the top-down side of assimilation. I do not, however, mean to suggest that Mormon immigration around the turn of the century as a whole follows the coercive narrative. End of caveat.

Congressional attention to immigration as a source for polygamy’s growth lagged behind popular attention. By the 1850s and 1860s, popular writers and newspapers depicted immigration as the moment when female converts entered sexual slavery. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1870s that Congress took action to deal with the immigration portion of the problem. The first federal action against Mormon immigration was when Secretary of State William Evarts sent out a circular that identified the growth of Mormon polygamy with “accessions from Europe, drawn mainly from the ignorant classes” and urged foreign governments to “take such steps as may be compatible with [their] laws and usages to check the organization of these criminal enterprises by agents who are thus operating beyond the reach of the law of the United States.”[4] The circular evoked sympathetic, but sporadic responses from foreign governments who valued friendly relations with the United States and lacked a system to prevent Mormon emigration from their countries (although foreign governments were effective in hampering missionary work). Ardis Parshall was the first (and best) to cover the distribution, reception, and impact of the Evarts Circular. As Ardis notes, the Evarts Circular remained in effect in foreign countries throughout the 1880s, and targeted missionaries well afterward.

The Evarts Circular, however, wasn’t the only moment that the federal government interfered with Mormon immigration. The circular is best understood within a series of trial-and-error regulations. In the 1870s and 1880s, several immigration questions became prominent for federal legislation. American nativists ranked different groups of immigrants between “desirable” and “undesirable.”[5] This desirability was determined by one’s closeness to whiteness.[6] Paul Reeve’s recent work is helpful here: “In building its rhetorical barriers against full citizenship for Mormons, the Protestant majority racialized a predominantly white religious group alongside Indians, blacks, Chinese, and immigrants.”[7] Since Protestants racialized Mormons as Asiatic, and since polygamy was an Asian sign of barbarism, solutions for the “yellow peril” also doubled as answers to the “Mormon question.” That is to say, Congress considered the Mormon immigration problem alongside their Chinese immigration problem. For example, a special congressional report on Chinese immigration in 1877 suggested that polygamy in the two groups of immigrants were linked: “If they [referring to Chinese immigrants] become American citizens, if they become Christianized, in the first place, they would not be allowed to have their polygamy and their second wives. If they become American citizens, our laws will prevent that practice. We are not proposing to turn any part of California into a Salt Lake.”[8] Polygamy united the two: one as evidence of a degenerate white race, and the other as the uncivilized influence of the Asiatic race.[9]

womansbondageinutah-franklesliesillustratednewspaper-1882mar11-v54n1381p1-cropped-849x1024We, then, should take into consideration the narrative of Chinese exclusion alongside the narrative of Mormon immigration regulation. Consider, if we begin with the 1879 Evarts Circular as an attempt to regulate foreign emigration on foreign soil, then we might continue with the regulative successes of the Immigration Act of 1882 and Chinese Exclusion Act of the same year, which targeted criminals and contract laborers when they reached American soil.[10] Congressional concern with immigration and contract labor helps explain Congress’ 1884 attempt to disincorporate Mormons’ Perpetual Emigrating Fund, which funded immigrants’ travels to the United States through individual loans paid back through labor after arrival in Salt Lake City.[11] The Perpetual Emigrating Fund was one institution that, since polygamy constituted sexual slavery in American Protestant minds, facilitated contract labor. The 1885 passage of the Chinese-focused Alien Contract Labor Law, then, follows through with this immigration concern in response to Chinese labor.  The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 mirrors the 1885 act by disincorporating the Mormon Church and with it the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, or Mormonism’s source of contract labor.

The only Mormon historian, as far as I can find, to mention the 1891 Immigration Act described it as “anti-climax” to the long battle over polygamy.[12] The 1891 act federalized immigration regulation, established ports of inspection, and included a variety of excludable classes of immigrants.[13] One of those excludable classes was “polygamists.” 1891, in this light, represents the start of a new story, the end of the gathering.Why did Cannon renege Mormonism’s long history with open immigration? By 1897 George Q. Cannon had dealt with six years of facilitating Mormon immigration through newly regulated borders and through newly minted regulations. Missionaries adapted to these initial restrictions, but restrictions grew increasingly stricter until 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act restricted immigration based on national origins.[14]

Mormon historians have ignored immigration after 1890 for long enough. Instead, Mormonism’s involvement with regulation throughout the 1870s, 80s, and 90s should shed light on the religion’s process of Americanization throughout those decades and in the decades after.

[1] Minutes of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, September 16, 1897. Found in Journal History. Accessed via, March 21, 2016.

[2] George Q. Cannon, Sixty-Ninth Semi-Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Deseret News Company, October 1898), 4.

[3] See the classic essays: James R. Barrett, “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930”, Journal of American History, 79 (1992): 996-1020, and James R. Barrett and David Roediger, “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the “New Immigrant” Working Class”, Journal of American Ethnic History, 16 (1997): 3-44.

[4] “Diplomatic Correspondence, Circular No. 10, August 9, 1879, Sent to Diplomatic and Consular Officers of the United States,” Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States 1879, 11-12.

[5] The classic text on nativism is John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism; 1860-1925 (New York City: Atheneum, 1955, 1988).

[6] See Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) and Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).

[7] W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

[8] Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration (Washington: Government Printing Office, Senate, 1887), 409.

[9] See Kerry Abrams, “Polygamy, Prostitution, and the Federalization of Immigration Law”, Columbia Law Review, 105 (2005): 641-716.

[10] For a history of Chinese influence on the federalization of immigration laws, see Lucy E. Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995) and Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

[11] William Mulder, in Homeward to Zion, conflates the “Hoar Bill” with Hoar’s presentation of the “Cassidy Bill,” which did not pass a congressional vote. He is nonetheless correct in pointing to 1884 as the origins of the proposal to dissolve the Perpetual Emigrating Fund in the Edmunds-Tucker Act. See William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: the Mormon Migration from Scandinavia (Minneapolis: University of MInnesota Press, 1957; 2000), 289.

[12] William Mulder, “Immigration and the ‘Mormon Question’: An International Episode”, Western Political Quarterly, 9 (1956): 421.

[13] See Edward Prince Hutchinson, Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981) and Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).

[14] See Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Historiography Miscellaneous Politics Polygamy Race


  1. It seems that the 1897 statement by Pres. Cannon is a reaction to the economic downturn caused by the Panic of 1897, rather than as a new general instruction on gathering. The 1898 statement also appears to lean on economic factors rather than on a new doctrinal interpretation of the “gathering.”

    Comment by Mark B. — May 12, 2017 @ 10:17 am

  2. Mark B, you’re absolutely right, economics lean heavy in these two quotes and persist as a factor that limits immigration for the next few years. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I do think the quotes are indicative of a broader process of the end of the gathering, not solely an economic process, and I think that end is brought on in large part because of immigration regulation and restriction. Subsequent calls to end the gathering throughout the twentieth century don’t all cite economics as a reason to halt the gathering, and earlier economic downturns didn’t prompt Mormon leaders to respond. There’s something with Americanization, here. Other sources which I didn’t have the space to quote show an explicit monitoring of Mormon immigrants throughout the 1880s, 90s, and 1900s by the federal government at America’s borders, specifically in regard to polygamy and race. Some Mormon immigrants faced detention at these immigration stations, but I think the more important consequence was the increased preparation of immigrants by Mormon missionaries in order to get through the increasingly strict border. By 1924, as far as the numbers I’ve found go, Mormon immigration was at a trickle of what it once was. I think the overall cause of this trickling begins with this nineteenth century legislative history as a cause, and Cannon’s quotes were the first that I’d seen that called for an end. I probably should have been clearer about this context.

    It seems to me like gathering “doctrine” lags well behind both economic and legislative realities. Hope that all makes sense

    Comment by Jeff T — May 12, 2017 @ 10:54 am

  3. Well done, Jeff.

    Comment by Ben P — May 12, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

  4. Thanks, Ben

    Comment by Jeff T — May 13, 2017 @ 3:22 am

  5. Excellent work, Jeff!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 13, 2017 @ 3:11 pm


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