Trump wants to ban Muslim immigrants? U.S. tried to do the same thing once — targeting Mormons

Angel Moroni with his trumpet atop the spire of the Salt Lake Temple. Al Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune 3/24/08

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, citing terrorism fears, has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Nearly 140 years ago, a similar barrier was proposed — for Mormons.

On Aug. 10, 1879, U.S. Secretary of State William M. Evarts, amid concerns about the LDS Church's then-practice of polygamy, sent a letter to the country's European ambassadors, instructing them to get their host nations to stop Latter-day Saints from getting on ships bound for the U.S.

Evarts' letter was read by the president's Cabinet "and copies [were] sent by tonight's mail to our diplomatic representatives in [Europe]," several newspapers reported, as quoted by Mormon historian Paul Reeve. "Our ministers are instructed to lay a copy of the letter before the governments to which they are accredited without delay."

LDS converts entering the U.S., Evarts wrote, "do so with the avowed intention of becoming criminals. ... A member of the Cabinet said last night that the administration did not now consider the Mormon emigrants as any more entitled to respect than so many persons who have been convicted of felony."

It was the secretary's hope, Reeve notes, that Evarts' European counterparts would "take measures to cease the arrival of future lawbreakers."

Those governments, legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon says, "did no such thing."

Imagine how the European officials reacted, she asks sarcastically, "We are going to prevent someone who has a perfect right to leave our country because you don't have any immigration laws ?"

The move was a "stupid ploy," says Gordon, a University of Pennsylvania scholar who has studied Mormonism for decades, "and a direct attack on a particular religion, presuming its immigrants all to be suspect." .

After Trump's December immigration comments about Muslims, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted statements on its newsroom site, pointedly defending the religious rights of others.

A church spokesman said the statements reflect the Utah-based faith's position on "the national conversation about protecting the rights of people to be here and worship as they choose."

Given Mormon history, the LDS Church and its members have a natural affinity for those perceived as religious outsiders. They've been there.

Peggy Fletcher Stack

The Salt Lake Temple is seen in a long exposure night shot at Temple Square, Sunday March 23, 2008. Jeremy Harmon/The Salt Lake Tribune