In an 1879 editorial, the Deseret News responded to U.S. Secretary of State William Evarts' effort to prevent Mormons from immigrating to the United States. Substitute "Trump" for "Evarts" and "Muslim" for "Mormon" in the Deseret News' editorial and it reads like a reaction to events in 2017, not 1879:
"It is difficult to believe that a man with a brain like Secretary Evarts' would commit himself to such nonsense. It is absurd to suppose that any European Government would undertake to establish an inquisition for the purpose of determining the religious faith of all intending emigrants from its shores. It is equally absurd to assume that all 'Mormons' who emigrate to Utah intend to break the laws of the United States. And the 'member of the cabinet who said that the administration did not consider “Mormon” immigrants as any more entitled to respect than so many persons who had been convicted of felony,” must have been afflicted with temporary insanity."
The rhetoric aimed at Mormons in the 19th century is eerily similar to that aimed at Muslims and other immigrants today. A quick exercise will illustrate my point. Guess from among the quotes below which represent the sentiments of 21st century politicians and which were directed at Mormons in the 19th century:
“I will not back off until we solve the problem of this illegal invasion.”
“Nine-tenths of the inhabitants are aliens by birth who have refused to become naturalized, or to take the oath of allegiance.”
“These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.”
“We shall expect your co-operation and assistance in expelling the fanatics, who are mostly aliens by birth, and aliens in principle from the county.”
“Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are committed by illegal immigrants. This must be stopped and it must be stopped now.”
“There should be no relaxation in the firm but just execution of the law now in operation and I should be glad to approve such further discreet legislation as will rid the country of this blot upon its fair fame.”
“They are bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
“I found them a community of traitors, murderers, fanatics, and whores. ”
“[They're] child molesters; they're rapists; they're drug runners; they're human smugglers, gang members. It's outrageous.”
“They are the aggressors — they have been guilty of high treason; they have violated the laws and shed the blood of our citizens; and we think this one of the cases of emergency in which the people ought to take the execution of justice in their own hands.”
If you are like me, it is difficult to distinguish. The first and every other quote is from the 21st century; the second and every other quote was aimed at Mormons in the 19th century. If you think that it could not have happened to your ancestors because they were white and European, you might need to think again. Of more pressing concern is the fact that it is happening again, this time with our Muslim and Mexican neighbors as the target.
Very early in his religious career Mormon founder Joseph Smith was derisively labeled an “American Mohomet” and Mormonism the “Islam of America.” Rather than distance himself from Muslims, Smith defended them. In 1841, the Nauvoo City Council drafted a provision on religious liberty which included “Mohammedans” among those granted “free toleration and equal privileges” in the Mormon city. By 1844, Smith further elaborated a philosophy of religious liberty. He advocated “the broad and liberal principle that all men have equal rights, and ought to be respected, and that every man has a privilege of choosing for himself voluntarily his God, and what he pleases for his religion.”
For Joseph Smith, it was not enough to merely tolerate people of other faiths or of no faith. Religious bigotry had no place in his worldview. He stated, “God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses and worships for himself; hence the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intolerance towards a man’s religious sentiments — that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood.”
History matters, and today Mormon history matters even more.
W. Paul Reeve is professor and director of graduate studies in the history department at the University of Utah.