Immigration: Love is the Great Commandment

Statue of LibertyThe world’s history is a story of emigration and immigration, of people moving from one place to another. Some moved because they were sent by God. Others came looking for the ability to live according to their beliefs. Some came to give their children a better life than they could ever have at home—a hope for their future. Whatever their reasons, however, they changed the world, sometimes only temporally, but sometimes eternally.

The ancient Israelites wandered from place to place for forty years at God’s command, although the length of time was due to their own poor choices. Agency matters. The Jaredites traveled to a new world following the end of the Tower of Babel building experiment and so did Lehi’s family in 600 BC. In each of these cases, God stepped in to help them survive because there was no one else to do it—manna from Heaven or the ability to eat meat without cooking it, for instance. Current studies show they did not land in an empty America. Other people were already here.

Mary and Joseph traveling with baby JesusJoseph, husband of Mary, was warned by an angel to take the infant Jesus to a foreign land, Egypt, in order to protect Him from a king who wanted Him killed. Their journey was, some scholars believed, financed by the gifts the Wise Men gave them. They were immigrants in a strange land until the angel gave them permission to return home. It is likely that during that sojourn in Egypt, no one knew they were there by divine command. They were just another family of immigrants and one that did not know when, or even if, they would return home someday.

In more modern times, Joseph Smith’s ancestors came to America. They probably had their own personal reasons for wanting to come, but they may not have been aware that God was sending them to that country so that in a few generations, a young descendent would be in the right place at the right time to change eternity by helping God to restore the gospel. It is likely the Americans already here did not know that, either—and chances are, that had they known, they would not have approved.

Joseph Smith was no stranger to moving around. His family moved frequently, always hoping to find a place where they could be successful. The founding of the Church would cause Joseph to continually move the members of the Church to new homes in order to preserve their freedom of religion, not yet protected by the federal government. That protection would not come until the Fourteenth Amendment, which would be passed after the Civil War.

Woman pioneer pushing handcartWhen Joseph was murdered, the Mormons found themselves continuing to flee for their lives. Eventually, they settled in Utah, then owned by the Mexican government. When Utah was later given to the United States by treaty, they became among the most valiant of patriotic citizens.

Today, there is even an immigrant in the First Presidency. Dieter F. Uchtdorf is the unofficial expert on immigration among the apostles, having immigrated several times as a child and then again as an adult. He has twice been invited to the White House to represent the Church on immigration issues.

President Dieter F. UchtdorfToday, he is an American citizen, but he began his life in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, born on November 6, 1940. His homeland was controlled by the Nazis and his father was forced into the military. Before he left, his parents decided that if things got too dangerous, his mother was to take them to Eastern Germany, which she did.

However, since President Uchtdorf’s father was known to be opposed to the Nazi regime, their lives again became dangerous. They next fled to West Berlin, which was American-controlled. They became Mormons in Zwickau, Germany in 1947. As an adult, he immigrated to the United States, where he serves as an apostle of the Lord.

While President Uchtdorf grew up to be professionally successful and then a leader in the Church, his childhood was difficult because of his constant need to settle in new homelands. No one in his new homelands knew the man he would one day become. He was just another immigrant.

When I was a young boy, during the aftermath of World War II, Germany was broken and in ruins. Many people were hungry, sick, and dying. I remember well the humanitarian shipments of food and clothing that came from the Church in Salt Lake City. To this day, I can still remember the smell of the clothing, and I can still taste the sweetness of the canned peaches.

There were some who joined the Church because of the goods they received at that time. Some members looked down on these new converts. They even called them an offensive name: Büchsen Mormonen, or “Canned-Food Mormons.” They resented these new members because they believed that once their temporal needs had been met, they would fall away.

While some did leave, many stayed—they came to church, tasted the sweetness of the gospel, and felt the tender embrace of caring brothers and sisters. They discovered “home.” And now, three and four generations later, many families trace their Church membership back to these converts,” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, You Are My Hands, General Conference, April 2010).

President Uchtdorf has spoken often of his experiences as a young immigrant, hungry, discouraged by the lack of educational opportunities, and frightened by the violent world in which he lived. He asks us to be kind to those people, who, like him, find themselves seeking security in another place and who thus stand out.

Woman clutching blanket.At age 11, he was particularly aware of the challenges of being an immigrant. His family lived in the attic of someone else’s farmhouse in Germany. He said that to say they were poor was an understatement. The entire family slept in a single room so small it was hard to even find space to walk around their beds. They used an outhouse and were often hungry. Other children mocked him and called him names because he was a refugee and because of his accent. They sometimes needed the help of charity. (See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Two Principles for Any Economy, General Conference, October, 2009).

I hope that we welcome and love all of God’s children, including those who might dress, look, speak, or just do things differently. It is not good to make others feel as though they are deficient. Let us lift those around us. Let us extend a welcoming hand. Let us bestow upon our brothers and sisters in the Church a special measure of humanity, compassion, and charity so that they feel, at long last, they have finally found home.

When we are tempted to judge, let us think of the Savior, who “loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him.

Charitable efforts to help immigrants has been a part of LDS culture since those early pioneer days and were a special concern to Brigham Young. He created the Perpetual Immigration Fund, which helped more than 30,000 immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands come to Utah. More than a third of the LDS immigrants who came to Utah came through this fund. Those immigrants have strongly influenced Mormon culture and their descendants are serving throughout the church, sometimes at the highest levels.

Volunteer holding childAn official Church website article, The Convert Immigrants, explains the importance of immigration to the history of Mormonism:

As the Church spread through Europe, tens of thousands of new converts emigrated to America, leaving everything behind them for their faith and desire to be with fellow members. Of the 60,000 to 70,000 Saints who emigrated to the Salt Lake Valley in the late 1800s, more than 98 percent of the survivors were from Europe, and 75 percent were from Britain. The British converts began to emigrate with the arrival of Brigham Young to Britain in 1840. As American members faced persecution, new European members brought strength and refreshment. “They have so much of the spirit of gathering,” Brigham said, “that they would go if they knew they would die as soon as they got there or if they knew that the mob would be upon them and drive them as soon as they got there” (quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses [1985], 94).

More than 98 percent of Mormons surviving the trip to Utah were immigrants from Europe. Once immigrants arrived, they were cared for in Salt Lake City by volunteers before being sent to an area the Church wanted to settle. They were given a gift of land and supplies. The constant stream of immigrants to the Salt Lake Valley must have been a challenge to the dedicated volunteers who cared for them, but they saw these immigrants as God’s children and so they gave until they were exhausted, if need be.

An LDS lesson manual, Truth Restored, noted that the heavy influx of immigrants caused suffering for the Saints in general, not just for the volunteers. People were hungry and there were great hardships. However, Heber C. Kimball encouraged them to keep going, prophesying that in less than a year, there would be sufficient goods for sale at lower prices than could be found elsewhere, a prophecy that was fulfilled.

Mormon pioneer immigrants on shipsIn 1870, a third of all Utah residents had been born outside the United States, more than any other territory or state in the country. Salt Lake Stake found that a third of its bishops were born outside the country. 1874 to 1931 gave us at least one foreign-born member of each First Presidency. These statistics were one cause of prejudice against the Church. Harpers complained, in 1881, that the Mormons were “foreigners and the children of foreigners. … It is an institution so absolutely un-American in all its requirements that it would die of its own infamies within twenty years, except for the yearly infusion of fresh serf blood from abroad.” (See William G. Hartley, Coming to Zion: Saga of the Gathering, Ensign, July, 1975.)

One remarkable story of charity given to Mormon immigrants involves non-members at a time Mormons were largely hated and unwanted. After polygamy became illegal, many families escaped to Mexico in order to avoid having to divorce wives and abandon children. However, during the Mexican Revolution, the violence in Mexico, which continues today, became great and the Mormons, descendants of the original settlers, were encouraged to flee for their safety as anti-American sentiment grew.

The Mormons sent off the women and the children who were younger than sixteen, leaving the men to protect their homes and care for their farms. They were given an hour to pack one bag and a roll of bedding per person and then they raced for trains. The railway was forced to add additional box cars and cattle cars to the trains to handle them all. They were met in El Paso, Texas by volunteers who had learned they were arriving without money or supplies. From there, they were driven to a camp by those volunteers, all of whom refused payments. Because the first group—more would arrive—contained 2500 Mormons, a lumberyard donated its property for a tent city to be erected. Volunteers began arriving with food and water. Remember, this was in a time when people still hated Mormons.

girls with nurseThe city had been erected so quickly there were few sanitary facilities and the city soon smelled badly. Entire families slept in tiny cubicles with a blanket around them. The Army built a shower, something the children had never seen before. The government built latrines and other necessary facilities. President Taft authorized a 100 thousand dollar grant to help cover expenses, but more was needed. The local government invited a Mormon to give a speech explaining what it was like in Mexico. This encouraged local people to make donations. The Church, of course, also stepped in to provide what help it could. However, today’s welfare program did not yet exist, and so they could not operate alone.

Eventually, the railroads offered them discounted rates—a penny a mile—to leave the city. Those who had relatives in the country joined them. Others remained in El Paso, creating the very first LDS congregations there. Although they had anticipated staying only briefly, few ever returned home. Their descendants would go on to contribute to the nation and the church and one grandson of a young immigrant in that group, Mitt Romney, would run for president of the United States. His father was a child during that migration. He and his parents lived for a while on government welfare after leaving Texas, but were able to settle in and to go on to a good life for themselves and their families. (See Fred E. Woods, Finding Refuge in El Paso, Meridian Magazine, October 15, 2012 and Mormon Exodus From Mexico, History of Mormonism.)

Mormons serving victims of earthquake in ChileWith its long history of immigration both into and out of the country, and with its focus on God’s children all being part of a single family descended from Adam and Eve, Mormonism has done much to assist immigrants around the world. The gospel is international and so a person’s heritage is unimportant in the eternal scheme of things.

Modern Mormonism offers wonderful services to help immigrants. Many stakes have branches or wards carried out in languages other than the native language of the country. Studies have shown that no matter how proficient people are in a language, they often prefer to worship in their own language. Other wards or stakes sometimes offer language training to help immigrants learn the native language.

Deseret Industries provides language and employment training for refugees in Utah. In 2011, the Church reported there were 13 million people in Eastern Africa who needed help. They were refugees fleeing violence, civil unrest, food shortages, or drought in their own countries. In Somalia, a full fourth of the population had fled to nearby countries in seek of relief and Kenya faced a half million people living in refugee camps and more living outside, hoping to be admitted someday. The Church’s humanitarian program moved in to assist other groups in providing food, water, hygiene and other needs. It has provided such assistance throughout the world to immigrants and refugees.

Jesus with childrenFor Mormons, coming from a premortal life in which we are all God’s children, and then descending from Adam and Eve, we are all family. We are expected to take care of each other, leaving our prejudices and politics behind when there is a humanitarian need. This was the message of the Savior’s parable in the Good Samaritan, where the one who served was serving an “enemy,” according to the culture of his society, and was hated by the listeners for being a Samaritan–and the Samaritan was serving one who was supposed to be his enemy.

“The Savior revealed the perfect priorities for our lives, our homes, our wards, our communities, and our nations when He spoke of love as the great commandment upon which “hang all the law and the prophets.” We can spend our days obsessing about the finest details of life, the law, and long lists of things to do; but should we neglect the great commandments, we are missing the point and we are clouds without water, drifting in the winds, and trees without fruit.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, You Are My Hands,” April 2010 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest posts by Terrie Lynn Bittner (see all)