This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A look through their history books should convince Mormons that they have a duty to defend the religious rights of Muslim immigrants and refugees seeking to make their home in the United States of America. To let President Donald Trump's recent executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries stand without protest dishonors our heritage.
In August of 1859, Apostle Orson Pratt called on Latter-day Saints to welcome Muslims into the Territory of Deseret. "Is it the privilege of the Mahometan to come here," he asked? "It ought to be," was the forceful reply. Nor did Pratt speak alone. Months earlier, Brigham Young made it clear that the Saints would defend the religious rights of any Muslim who desired to make Zion their home.
To be sure, early Mormons did not entirely escape anti-Islamic prejudices of their day. As with most 19th century Americans, Latter-day Saints often viewed Muslims with suspicion, buying into common stereotypes which portrayed Muslims as violent religious fanatics. In 1841, for instance, Apostle Parley P. Pratt concluded a letter from the Middle East to friend Parley P. Pratt by promising to write again shortly "if the Arabs don't kill me" first.
Such reports did little to ease Latter-day Saint fears. But, by the late 1850s, some Mormon leaders' views began to shift. As U.S. citizens debated how to address the Mormon system of plural marriage, Pratt and others asked the Saints to stand up to state governments by welcoming polygamous Muslim families into their cities and towns. "State laws," Orson Pratt claimed, threatened Muslim men with imprisonment should they refuse to "divorce all [their] wives but one." As a consequence their children would be "turn[ed] out … upon the wide world, fatherless and unprotected." These abuses, Pratt taught, must not be allowed to stand. Mormons held a duty to stand up for the religious rights of Muslims worldwide.
Decades later, similar rhetoric continued to echo from the Mormon pulpit. Speaking in 1882, Apostle Erastus Snow criticized states for unconstitutionally legislating against polygamous marriage. Such laws, Snow argued, unfairly prohibited Muslims from making their home in the United States.
But Mormons promised to do better. "The Muhammadans, and their descendants who may believe in plural marriage," the apostle argued, "may come with their three or four wives, as the cause may be, and enjoy freedom and liberty dear to all." By Snow's lights, "the broad folds of the Constitution" were large enough to protect the religious rights of all even Muslims.
Early Mormon leaders then, imagined themselves as protectors of Muslim refugees. Victims of religious persecution themselves, Mormons well understood the consequences of denying others liberty of conscience.
Today, Americans in general, and Latter-day Saints in particular, find themselves debating similar issues regarding refugees. Whether Trump's executive order will be allowed to stand in the long run is an open question. As Mormons today decide how to address the president's unconstitutional ban, we would do well to consider our own history.
Whereas our forbearers only imagined themselves defending Muslim rights, we have been given the opportunity to actively stand up for the religious liberties of refugees seeking to enter our country. Anything less dishonors the spiritual struggles of those who came before.
S. Spencer Wells is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.