Mormonism, ‘Asiatic’ Polygamy, and Immigration Regulation in 1891

May 12, 2017
By: Jeff Turner

At the Value Voters Summit in fall 2016, American politician Gary Bauer offered a history lesson. Then-candidate Donald Trump had come under a storm of criticism for calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Politicians from both sides of the aisle had proclaimed this antithetical to American identity, as Bauer noted, claiming “That’s not who we are. That’s not our values.”

“Well they’re wrong,” Bauer said. “Teddy Roosevelt enforced the law during his presidency that prohibited immigration to the United States of anybody who believed in polygamy, promoted polygamy, or lived in a country that practiced polygamy. Who do you think he was trying to keep out of the country, Episcopalians?”

Mormons, actually. The law prohibiting polygamists from entering the United States was a part of the 1891 Immigration Act that federalized immigration regulation, and targeted Mormons through excluding polygamists. Building on historian Hidetaka Hirota’s argument that immigration histories have tended to ignore the influence of localized and state-specific regulation on the 1891 Act, my work argues that the history of legislation against Mormon immigration is an example of the racial complexity, religious intersectionality, and trial-and-error process that eventually resulted in the nation’s first federal regulation of immigration.[1]

First, some background about Mormonism and race in the nineteenth century. Mormons garnered members through an international missionary program. Most foreign converts came from the United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries, and thought of themselves as Anglo-Saxon and Nordic. However, since its public announcement in 1852, the practice of polygamy marked Mormons as barbaric in American minds—an example of how white races could degenerate into savagery.[2] Over the next forty years, Congress struggled to eliminate the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.[3] Historian Paul Reeve writes, “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.”[4] Since white Protestants racialized Mormons as Asian, solutions for the “yellow peril” also doubled as potential answers to the “Mormon question.”

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.”[5] Immigration, then, became a concern for controlling both Mormon and Asian populations in America in the 1870s.[6]

Legislation addressing the “Mormon Question” blended with regulating undesirable immigrants. While Congress first legislated against polygamy in 1862, and popular novels and newspapers linked immigration to the growth of the practice in the 1850s and 1860s, the U.S. did not specifically target Mormon immigration until 1879. That year, 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.”[7] The circular evoked sympathetic but ineffective responses from foreign governments who valued friendly relations with the United States and could do little to prevent Mormon emigration from their countries. The circular did, however, provide a lasting rationale to imprison and expel Mormon missionaries for proselytizing in foreign countries. The U.S. federal government, it seemed, could do little to impede the growth of Mormon polygamy through its foreign relations and was limited in what it could do by national legislation.

Immigration historians have focused on the development of federal immigration regulation to address Chinese immigration, but this broader narrative of federalized control should also include Mormon immigration. Doing so tells a larger story of legislative trial-and-error and links 1891 with prior localized contexts. A history of regulation in the early 1880s might contrast the foreign failure of the 1879 Evarts’ circular with the regulative and domestic successes of the Immigration Act of 1882 and Chinese Exclusion Act of the same year, which targeted criminals and contract laborers. In 1884 Congress proposed a bill to disincorporate Mormons’ Perpetual Emigrating Fund, which funded immigrants’ travels to the United States by providing individual loans paid back through labor after arrival in Salt Lake City. The bill failed, but the 1885 passage of the Alien Contract Labor Law enacted similar measures to control Chinese labor.[8] In 1887, Congress did disincorporate the Mormon Church and with it the Perpetual Emigrating Fund specifically.[9] These are but a few moments of similarity and crossover.

Regulation efforts coalesced in the 1891 Act which centralized these prior efforts and included excludable categories based on polygamy, contract labor, and Chinese origin, among others. The 1891 law contained a variety of localized concerns coded in intersectional language, and since Utah was a territory (rather than a state), its immigration law had always been under federal control. This, however, was the first moment that legislation was successful at regulating Mormon immigration.

The 1891 Act represented continuity with previous policy towards Mormons, rather than a break from the past. If we treat it as such, I would argue that Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union Address, which encouraged the immigration ban on polygamists, was rooted in concerns about Mormons who were racialized as Asian and religious concern about “Asiatic” Mormons.

While Bauer’s 2016 comments suggested that banning the immigration of Muslims would be acceptable because of past practice, the 1891 Act – which targeted a religious minority to protect “whiteness” – should hardly be taken as a model. To their credit, a group of scholars of Mormonism recently put together a curiae brief arguing against Trump’s Muslim ban by bringing to light the history of legislation against Mormon immigration in the nineteenth century.

[1] Hidetaka Hirota, “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy”, Journal of American History, 99 (2013): 1093-4.

[2] J. Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[3] Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

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

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

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

[7] “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.

[8] See Report of the Governor of Utah (Salt Lake City: Presented to Congress, 1883), Marriages in Territory of Utah, April 24, 1884 (House of Representatives, 1884), and Edward Prince Hutchinson, Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981), 88-91.

[9] William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: the Mormon Migration from Scandinavia (Minneapolis: University of MInnesota Press, 1957; 2000), 294.

Jeff Turner

Jeff Turner is a PhD student in US History at the University of Utah. He has a MA in Religion from Claremont Graduate University, and undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religious studies from Washington State University. Jeff studies immigration history and religious history. This post has been cross-posted at the Juvenile Instructor, a Mormon History Blog. For a slightly different take with a different historiography, read here: Jeff can be reached at

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