In recalling the persecutions and forced migration of Latter-day Saints in 19th-century America, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland noted that their anguish was lessened by the compassion of others. “We will never forget the precious opportunities, blessings, and miracles given to us during that time from God and from kind, caring people.”
Elder Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, shared the religious refugee story of the Church during a gathering of civic, philanthropic, and religious leaders from around the world as part of a conference held at historic Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom.
The address was one of two offered by Elder Holland—one on September 11 and the other on September 12—during a five-day conference titled “Religious Persecution: The Driver of Forced Migration” (see related story).
Elder Holland spoke at the invitation of Baroness Emma Nicholson, a member of the United Kingdom House of Lords and the chair and founder of the international relief organization the AMAR Foundation, which sponsored the conference.
In sharing the experience of Mormon pioneers as refugees during his address on Septemer 12, Elder Holland told the gathered leaders, “I do not pretend my people’s experiences are the same as we see happening today. However, all refugees share some common denominators of grief and suffering, so perhaps there is some insight for our conference participants hidden in the persecution of my ancestors nearly two centuries ago.”
Elder Holland Transcript: The Mormon Refugee Experience
Religious Persecution: A Driver of Forced Migration Conference
September 12, 2016
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
I would like to thank Baroness Nicholson for inviting me to participate again today. I treasure the friendship I have with her and the opportunities LDS Charities has to work alongside AMAR. We take our relationship and its ability to address the crisis of displaced persons seriously. Together we have made great strides, but much remains in our quest to alleviate human suffering. Last year, at Emma’s invitation, I discussed some of the ways in which LDS Charities renders assistance on behalf of its sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today I have been invited by her to share the religious refugee story of that Church and any lessons it might have for addressing present tragic circumstances. Such an exercise is worthwhile, because as Professor Barry N. Stein has observed:
“Refugee problems are usually seen as isolated, deviant, and non-recurring. The consequence of this view is a failure to learn the lessons of the past . . . and a constant need . . . to re-invent the wheel. . . . When we re-learn the lessons of the past we repeat the mistakes, blunder into the same crises, and use the same erroneous ideas that caused needless human waste, suffering, and hardship in earlier refugee programs.”
An article in the Journal of Refugee Studies expressed something of the same idea a little more academically but a little less poetically:
“The story of religion in global migration, particularly forced migration, needs to be understood both globally and locally. The chapters of the story are being told in refugee camps, countries of first asylum, and settlement sites all over the world. We need to write down those chapters and analyse the stories to better inform . . . policies, practices, and future academic research agendas [on the subject].”
Being very anxious not to “blunder into the same crises,” to use Stein’s phrase, and wanting to understand the past’s instructive possibility for the present, let me comment on the Mormon experience in 19th-century America. In doing so, I do not pretend my people’s experiences are the same as we see happening today. However, all refugees share some common denominators of grief and suffering, so perhaps there is some insight for our conference participants hidden in the persecution of my ancestors nearly two centuries ago.
In the early decades of the 1800s, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, found themselves first misunderstood, then violently persecuted, and finally driven, displaced—or in some cases, dead. From the outset, Protestant America rejected Latter-day Saints. They believed that Mormons were either duped or dull-witted, and for a variety of reasons the persecution began. Fleeing from New York to Ohio and from Ohio to Missouri, at virtually each stop homes were burned and demolished. Men were beaten, sometimes to death; others were simply left with crippling injuries; women were harassed, threatened, and often enough sexually assaulted in full view of their husbands and children.
Things hit rock bottom in 1838 when Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri issued his infamous “Extermination Order.” Boggs declared, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies . . . and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary.” Yes, I stand before you as an officer of the only church in United States history which has had an “extermination order” issued against it.
In such dire circumstances, the Latter-day Saints found themselves homeless, hopeless, and in desperate need of a sanctuary. They fled from Missouri to Illinois, where in 1844 their Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred at age 38. The ragged corpus of the Church forged on to the West, where they eventually found refuge in the Great Basin desert, nestled between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the emerging mecca of California on the west.
The picture of Latter-day Saints today is strikingly different than their circumstances in the 19th century. The world now knows us as well-integrated citizens who are often titans of industry, scholars in academia, and leaders in our communities, with a Latter-day Saint being nominated by his party in 2012 for the office of president of the United States of America. But this transition did not happen serendipitously. A number of factors helped Latter-day Saints navigate their refugee experience.
First, Identity and Faith
The Latter-day Saints’ unique religious identity and faith were keys in navigating their refugee experience. In spite of the conflict they faced, they believed they were God’s chosen people, a modern-day Israel, reliving and fulfilling biblical narratives as part of the restoration of the gospel. They interpreted the persecution and conflict they experienced as a sign of their identity as a chosen people.
Their shared faith in the restored gospel also created a strong sense of community among the Latter-day Saints, and they supported each other during their trials. They were willing to share housing, ration food, and divide up resources because of their collective belief in God and the restored gospel. The Saints’ unique beliefs and identity unified and strengthened them in the face of persecution.
Second, Organizational Participation
Organizational participation was another important factor the Latter-day Saints relied on to navigate their refugee experience. The centralized nature of the Church’s administrative structure allowed members to remain informed, united, and engaged in the problems they faced, a fact that is still true today.
Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s prophetic successor, took up the reigns of leadership and continued to manage the Church and superintend the forced migration. He formed a committee, called the Committee on Removal, which solicited donations for the poor, loaded passengers and belongings in wagons, sent men ahead to survey and locate possible settlement sites, and directed appeals for help to state and city agencies. The committee was critical to keeping the Saints united in the migration from Missouri to Illinois.
Third, Neighbors’ Assistance and Relief Efforts
The assistance and relief efforts of neighbors saved Latter-day Saints from greater casualties than they might have otherwise suffered. When they were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, the residents of Clay County, Missouri, welcomed them temporarily. Similarly, when the Saints were driven from the state of Missouri altogether, the residents in Quincy, Illinois, received them and offered food, shelter, and clothing. Without the generous aid of those not of their faith, members of the LDS Church would have found themselves in much more difficult circumstances.
Lastly, Petitions for Redress
The Latter-day Saints understood the importance of using the justice system to navigate their refugee experience. Church leaders hired non-Mormon attorneys to represent their cause in the courts, and they made efforts to learn the law in hopes of representing themselves in the future. They prepared and submitted hundreds of affidavits outlining the abuses against them and petitioned redress for property losses. Eventually, when these pleas fell on deaf ears, Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States in part to raise awareness of the injustices against the Saints.
Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob during his presidential campaign, and although he never gained redress for the wrongs suffered by the Saints, his bid for the White House made the plight of the Mormons much more evident than it ever could have been otherwise.
Let me share four ways these experiences might apply today.
The Identity and Faith Issue
Whenever possible, we should facilitate and perpetuate the unique identities of refugees and highlight stories from their past. My people’s identity and faith carried them through decades of crisis. They did not call themselves refugees but became known as pioneers, relying on heroes from the scriptures and motivated by the promises of their faith.
Similarly, modern-day migrants bring unique traditions and beliefs that should be celebrated, not dismissed, allowing them to establish, as two scholars have said, “permanent religious institutions [as] a sign of enduring, committed presence . . . in [new] homelands.” They should be allowed to hold to their unique cultural traditions that will help them navigate the uncertain waters they currently traverse. These traditions will not only help them in the present but will anchor the future to the past.
Second, we need to help today’s refugees regain a sense of fulfillment by allowing them to participate in the resolution of their own circumstances as much as possible. That is not easy and sometimes is not possible.
No one is suggesting that less assistance be given to refugees; we need more help. But at the same time we need to give refugees greater organizational participation in shaping their own post-dislocation destiny when and where we can. Baroness Nicholson’s AMAR has been a pioneer in this regard with programs ranging from teaching refugee survival skills to that of recruiting locals to staff its clinics.
Neighbors’ Assistance and Relief Efforts
Third, in the communities where displaced people live, we need to encourage local citizens to welcome them into their everyday lives. As expressed earlier, the LDS Church to this day recognizes the heroic contributions of the people of Quincy, Illinois, for helping us during one of the darkest times in my Church’s history. They did not do so under compulsion or because of affiliation with an aid organization. They were everyday people, living everyday lives, who came to the rescue. Without this critical community link, refugees will persist in isolation and in a state of dependence longer than is healthy.
Petitions for Redress
The last and perhaps most difficult issue to address is moving governments to redress the atrocities committed against refugees and grant them the migration rights they have guaranteed as victims of these atrocities. The leaders of my faith went to great lengths to seek the help of government bodies. Certainly, in some ways they were relieved, but on a grand scale, the U.S. and state government bodies failed them.
Similarly, governments today are not responding to the refugee problem urgently enough, nor on a large enough scale. Unless matters change, the refugees will be left to their own devices just as the Mormon migrants were. Right now there are simply not enough safe places—not enough Quincys, if you will—for the large amount of refugees around the world.
My friends, there will be a tendency to talk this issue to death without much action. And no wonder. The problem is large, complicated, amorphous, and painful. So we will have to strive to the point of suffering somewhat before we see victory here. But that is all right because then these displaced, struggling millions will know that we know a little of how they feel. The Apostle Paul spoke of the “fellowship of . . . suffering,” and perhaps that is what we are to experience before this is over.
And frankly it does help when one knows that others share his pain. No less a poet than William Shakespeare said: “One fire burns out another’s burning. One pain is lessened by another’s anguish.”
My people faced many fires and felt much anguish, but it was lessened by the compassion of others. We will never forget the precious opportunities, blessings, and miracles given to us during that time from God and from kind, caring people. Furthermore, if any one of you go back far enough, you likely will find that you are linked to a displaced people somewhere, sometime. And so it is that we share identity with all refugees, whether recent or ancient. If I may be a bit scriptural in closing, I invoke the prophet Isaiah in his poetic tribute to the Messiah: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: . . . He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities: . . . and with his stripes we are healed.” This is the greatest of all examples of shared grief, compassionate intervention, and the extended hand of redemption by another. May we follow that lead by bearing the burden of our displaced brother and sister, “succor[ing] the weak, lift[ing] up the hands which hang down, and strengthen[ing] the feeble knees.” Thank you.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Religious Conflict: Can Humanitarian Aid Help?” Mormon Newsroom, June 10, 2015, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/transcript-religious-conflict-can-“humanitarian-aid-help
 Barry N. Stein, “The Experience of Being a Refugee: Insights from the Research Literature,” ed. Joseph Westermeyer, in Refugees and Mental Health, ed. Carolyn Williams, https://msu.edu/course/pls/461/stein/MNREXP1.htm.
 Gozdziak and Shandy, “Editorial Introduction: Religion and Spirituality in Forced Migration,” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (2002), 134.
 See Testimony of Brigham Young before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo, July 1, 1843, as cited in Clark V. Johnson, ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833–1838 Missouri Conflict (1992), 649.
 Lilburn W. Boggs letter to John B. Clark, Oct. 27, 1838, Mormon War Papers, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri, sos.mo.gov/cmsimages/archives/resources/findingaids/miscMormRecs/rg005_01/B1F49_1838..
 Citation from Church History.
 Journal, December 1841–December 1842, josephsmithpapers.org; Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (2011), 8.
 William G. Hartley, “Missouri’s 1838 Extermination Order and the Mormons’ Forced Removal to Illinois,” Mormon Historical Studies, 5–27.
 See James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976), 173–90; Arnold K. Garr, “Joseph Smith: Campaign for President of the United States,” Ensign, Feb. 2009, 48–52.
 Gozdziak and Shandy, “Editorial Introduction: Religion and Spirituality in Forced Migration,” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (2002), 131.
 Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “Introduction: Faith-Based Humanitarianism in Contexts of Forced Displacement,” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 24, no. 3, 433. (“Displaced people’s agency to negotiate and mobilize faith in order to enhance their own and other displaced people’s human welfare and to develop systems of spiritual, material and political self-sufficiency…”)
 Jon Schuppe, “As Refugee Crisis Grows, U.S. Strains Under Asylum Backlog, Report Says,” NBC News, June 29, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/refugee-crisis-grows-u-s-strains-under-asylum-backlog-report-n601346; Ashely Cowburn, “Refugee Crisis: Britain Is Failing to Take In Its Fair Share of Unaccompanied Children, House of Lords Report Says,” Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/child-migrants-europe-house-of-lords-theresa-may-uk-government-syria-refugees-a7155516.html; James McAuley, “Central European Countries Resist New E.U. Refugee Quota Proposal,” The Washington Post, May 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/central-european-countries-resist-new-eu-refugee-quota-proposal/2016/05/04/5be5a32c-120e-11e6-a9b5-bf703a5a7191_story.html.
 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act 1, scene 2, lines 45–46.