Monday, November 12, 2007

Mormons and migration

Every Latter Day Saint, or Mormon, knows about the central role migration played in the history of the early LDS Church. After Joseph Smith founded the Church around 1930 in New York state, he moved from state to state westward, accumulating followers and alienating locals. Much of the membership of the early Church in the U.S. had only recently emigrated from Scandinavia and the British Isles, often after conversion by missionaries, themselves recent converts.

Emigration to the United States to help build the main body of the Church was the recommended pattern for the members during the first century of the Church in the British Isles. The perpetual emigrating fund was established in September 1849 to assist. Those who emigrated with the help of this revolving fund were to pay back the money as they could, so that others might be helped. The fund was formally discontinued in 1887, after thousands had benefited from it. Additional thousands were assisted by friends and relatives who had already emigrated. From 1847 to 1869, more than 32,000 British and Irish converts to the Church left their homelands for a new life in pioneer America.

Religious freedom proved to be elusive for the early Church. Unwelcome in every state they settled, they faced persecution and were targeted by an extermination order by Governor Boggs of Missouri (who later survived an assassination attempt widely assumed to have been undertaken at the urging of Joseph Smith) not rescinded until 1976. Members of the early Church were kicked out of Ohio, Missouri, and finally Illinois, where Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob.

After an uncertain transitional period, Brigham Young took charge of the remaining membership and led it across the plains in an exodus terminating in the Salt Lake Valley. The journey was difficult and many who started the trek did not complete it. Stories of the sacrifices of the pioneers are still retold by their descendants today, and form a crucial part of the historical narrative of the Church's formative years.

This migration was not chosen willingly by the early Mormons; like most migrants, given the chance, they would have stayed in one of the communities they had worked so hard to build in the Midwest. And their new home in the West was already inhabited—like the other groups of Europeans settling in the “uninhabited” territories that became the United States, the Mormons displaced the Native Americans who lived there first. The land the Mormons settled in was part of Mexico at the time, but the United States annexed it along with California, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming after the Mexican-American War in 1848.

For some of those who arrived in Utah in the late 1840s, the journey was not yet finished. Brigham Young instructed faithful members to fan out across the Mountain West, founding communities in some of the least hospitable parts of the continent. My ancestors settled in Vernon and Orderville, located in the deserts of Western and Southern Utah, respectively. In the second half of the 19th Century, Mormons became known for the practice of polygamy instituted in secret by Joseph Smith and then taken up openly by most of the Church’s leadership. Reviled by mainstream society, Church leaders were targeted by federal officials, forcing many of them into hiding. Some continued the long trek, turning southward to settle in northern Mexico. Among this group was Mitt Romney's grandfather. Latina Lista recently had a post on the history of the migration of the Romneys:

It seems that Governor Bill Richardson isn't the only presidential candidate with a Mexican-born parent.

Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, can technically claim Latino heritage as well. His father, George Romney, was born in Colonia Dublán, Galeana, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The elder Romney was born in a Mormon colony on Mexican soil that his parents had fled to, for lack of a better word — sanctuary.

That's why, it's rather ironic that Mitt, being the son of a man whose family fled to Mexico for sanctuary reasons, would authorize a plan to slash funding for American cities that declare themselves to be immigration sanctuary cities.

. . .

According to the book, Mormon Colonies in Mexico, published in 1938,

In the 1880s, as a precondition to granting Utah statehood, the United States government enacted laws to put a stop to the Mormon practice of polygamy.

Those who continued to practice this principle were forced underground as federal marshals roamed the territory searching for “polygs.” In response, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looked for safe places to send its members; many found refuge across the border in Mexico.

The book recounts how the Mormon polygamists soon had grown so tired of the constant pressure from the US federal government that several Mormon leaders discussed "surrendering at the same time, overwhelming the government with the proposition of jailing them all."

Instead, several hundred families made their way to Mexico and established several colonies. The book further states that local Mexican citizens and state officials in the state of Chihuahua tried to drive the polygamists out but they were spared by (drum roll) the Mexican federal government.

The Mormons lived in relative peace with their Mexican neighbors until the Mexican Revolution. Then their settlements were overtaken by the rebels and in 1912 the decision was made to send the women and children back to the United States.

. . .

That the son of a Mexican-born Mormon would so easily forget or ignore his own family history is testament to the fact of how anti-(Mexican) immigrant hysteria has a stranglehold on common sense and has turned a humanitarian issue into a volatile political football.

What she said. Americans generally, but Mormons in particular, would do well to maintain some historical perspective in today's immigration debate.

Migration was familiar to early Mormons both in the context of a young, expanding United States where growth was propelled by European immigration, and in a religious context. Joseph Smith claimed to be leading a restoration of the early Christian church, which had itself claimed the Judaic heritage of the Old Testament. Parallels to the 40-year exile of the Jews in the desert under Moses, as well as the persecution of the early Christian church at the hands of the Romans, came easily to early members.

In addition, the Book of Mormon, one of the Church’s four foundational texts (along with the King James Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants), is filled with stories of migration. The Book of Mormon opens with the story of Nephi and his family, who emigrated from the Middle East to the Americas to found a new nation. The scripture details how the descendants of Nephi became the (usually) virtuous Nephites, while the descendants of his mutinous brothers Laman and Lemuel became the (usually) savage Lamanites. For generations, Church leaders taught that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were remnants of the Lamanite civilization.

As DNA testing has enabled historians and sociologists to pinpoint the geographical origins of modern people with greater precision, the historical claims of the Church have increasingly come into conflict with scientific evidence indicating that the ancestors of the Native Americans migrated across the Bering Straight from Asia.

Now comes news from Church headquarters in Utah:

The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book's current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

The new version, seen first in Doubleday's revised edition, reads, "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

LDS leaders instructed Doubleday to make the change, said senior editor Andrew Corbin, so it "would be in accordance with future editions the church is printing."

The change "takes into account details of Book of Mormon demography which are not known," LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle said Wednesday.

It also steps into the middle of a raging debate about the book's historical claims.

Many Mormons, including several church presidents, have taught that the Americas were largely inhabited by Book of Mormon peoples. In 1971, Church President Spencer W. Kimball said that Lehi, the family patriarch, was "the ancestor of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea."

After testing the DNA of more than 12,000 Indians, though, most researchers have concluded that the continent's early inhabitants came from Asia across the Bering Strait.

With this change, the LDS Church is "conceding that mainstream scientific theories about the colonization of the Americas have significant elements of truth in them," said Simon Southerton, a former Mormon and author of Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church.

"DNA has revealed very clearly how closely related American Indians are to their Siberian ancestors, " Southerton said in an e-mail from his home in Canberra, Australia. "The Lamanites are invisible, not principal ancestors."

As an “inactive” member of the Church but, like Mitt Romney, a DNA Mormon with ancestors in the Church going back to the 1840s, I have watched the unfolding debate on the origins of indigenous Americans with a mix of emotions. I think the scientists have the upper hand, which the Church has been forced to acknowledge with the recent change to the introduction to the Book of Mormon, but I respect LDS scholars who genuinely try to reconcile principles of faith and science. It’s a difficult needle to thread, one I was ultimately unable to manage. Church members place great store in education and in the benefits of science and technology, and ever since I left the Church ten years ago, I have marveled at the ability of LDS scholars to maintain a steadfast belief in the historical claims of Joseph Smith alongside advanced expertise in diverse fields of study. The Church leadership and the bulk of the membership professes belief in the literal truth of the events described in the Book of Mormon. New information attributable to advances in archaeology and genetics more often strengthens long-held religious beliefs rather than weakening them.

But setting aside the truth or errancy of Joseph Smith’s claims, migration is hardwired into the Church’s collective consciousness, both through its religious texts and the experiences of the early membership. Even today, the Church’s focus on proselytizing gives the Church an uncommonly international perspective, as young missionaries learn new languages and fan out across the planet to spread the gospel. Many come back to represent the U.S. government abroad—Mormons, with their language skills and squeaky clean backgrounds, are overrepresented in the Foreign Service, FBI, and CIA.

Active members know that, no matter how comfortable their current lifestyle, the next forced migration could come at any time. Anticipating the eminent second coming of Christ and the tumult that will accompany his return, faithful LDS keep a year’s supply of food and water in their basements. And no matter how well accepted by their neighbors Mormons are today, they know from experience how fragile tolerance by the majority can be. One would hope that all these things would give Mormons special insight into—and compassion for—the plight of immigrants in the U.S. today.

[Images: Wikipedia]


Marisa Treviño said...


Excellent follow-up and very insightful, especially in knowing that you have firsthand experience in the topic.

Great post,
Latina Lista

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nicolle said...

Yave, I agree with you more than I can express