President Trump’s executive order suspending entry of refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim nations hits far too close to the heart, even for a multigenerational Christian American.
My ancestors, Michael and Marianne Beus, brought 10 children to this country in 1856, seeking refuge with the Mormon church. They came from the northern alps of Italy via Liverpool, where the winter trip proved too much for an infant son.
There was no time to mourn. A ship conveyed the family to New York, where they were processed and made welcome. Then they traveled overland by rail and handcart to join other Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley.
It’s a human quality to fear and disparage a worldview different from one’s own. This family had been persecuted for years in their home country due to their conversion to Mormonism, despite centuries of religious tyranny that drove their ancestors into the remote villages of the Piedmont region; and despite Michael’s eight years of service in the Italian army.
They came to this country to worship freely, like tens of thousands who made similar journeys. And though America welcomed their entry via Ellis Island — a fact that fills me with pride — they were joining a notorious subgroup: citizens ousted from two states by religious intolerance. Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued a Jackson County order of extermination in 1838, proclaiming to his state militia that “Mormons must be treated as enemies … and exterminated or driven from the state … their outrages are beyond all description.” The Missouri order cited reasons of, among others, electoral growth of the Mormon community and the Mormons’ opposition to slavery.
In the winter of 1846-47, Mormons were forced to leave the prosperous city of Nauvoo, Ill., which they’d built in swampland purchased and drained for settlement after the Missouri expulsion. Religious bias turned locals against the Mormons’ vigorous growth and electoral power.
Hundreds of Mormons died both from direct violence and from brutal conditions they faced as refugees in their own country. Yet as a people, they prevailed, endured and eventually prospered in communities throughout the West. Michael and Marianne established themselves on the edge of the Wasatch Front, and their descendants — my family — number in the thousands. Persecution has dwindled. Mormons are now a thriving if curious and very American story of perseverance, endurance, thrift, faith, community, cultural strength and eventual acceptance.
America welcomed my people, without regard to their religious proclivities. Two of its states behaved contrary to those constitutional protections; and I’m grateful for their eventual apologies. In banning refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, our nation reverts to the same brand of fear and blanket outrage those 19th-century state governments displayed; the same forceful, indefensible worldviews so many citizens came to this country to escape. That these views should hold sway here — again — is human, but it’s humanity at its worst. Surely we are better than this. Surely we can learn from the past and rise above policies of hatred, refusal and condemnation.
Heidi Naylor teaches English at Boise State University.