Mormon immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Immigration of Mormon converts from outside the United States was an important part of the building of the Mormon Church into an international organization. The immigration of tens of thousands who saw the United States as a “New Zion” is another example of immigrants seeking religious freedom in the United States.

One of the first major religious movements entirely indigenous to the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–who are better known as Mormons–was founded in New York State by Joseph Smith in 1830. Almost immediately after the church was organized, Smith began sending Missionaries;Mormonmissionaries to Europe to recruit new members. At a time when many Europeans were already warming to the idea of emigrating to North America, the missionaries’ message of a “New Zion” was warmly received. The missionaries found thousands of converts in northern and western European nations during the 1840’s and 1850’s, creating a vibrant Mormon movement in Europe. However, because the religion was founded on the belief that the United States represented a New Zion, Mormon leaders began making plans to transport European converts across the Atlantic.Mormon immigrantsUtah;Mormon immigrantsMormon immigrantsUtah;Mormon immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Mormonimmigrants[03630][cat]RELIGION;Mormon immigrants[03630]

Immigrant Groups

One of the first significant groups of European converts to come to North America were English immigrants who arrived on the British ship Britannia in 1840. Its passengers immediately went to the main Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, a booming Illinois;Mormon immigrantsIllinois town on the Mississippi River. The leader of this group, Moon, JohnJohn Moon, soon sent glowing reports back to England that convinced other Mormon converts to start for the United States. In 1849, by which time church headquarters had relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, the church’s new president, Young, BrighamBrigham Young, founded the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company. Financed by church donations, this body paid for the transatlantic passages of impoverished converts. It also provided money for transportation, food, clothing, and wagons to help the immigrants travel overland to settlements in the West.

The peak years of Mormon immigration occurred between the 1850’s and 1890’s, during which tens of thousands of European converts came to the United States. Among these were more than 50,000 British immigrants;MormonsBritish converts and about 20,000 Scandinavian immigrants;MormonsScandinavians. The largest group of Scandinavians were Danish immigrants;MormonsDanes, who began emigrating in 1852 during a period of domestic turmoil and military conflict between Denmark and nearby German kingdoms. The Mormon leader in Denmark, Snow, ErastusErastus Snow, organized transport for more than 10,000 Danish converts. Europeans always constituted the largest portion of Mormon immigrants, but some came from other parts of the world, most notably Australian immigrants;MormonsAustralia.

Immigration Routes

Most European converts reached North America by way of Liverpool, England, from which to they sailed to New Orleans, Louisiana. A Mormon agent in Liverpool helped converts to find ships and provided them with contacts in the United States. Some Mormon-chartered boats were also used for immigrants. New Orleans was the favored port of entry into the United States because it was on the mouth of the Mississippi River;and Mormon immigrants[Mormon immigrants]Mississippi River, up which immigrants could ride steamboats to Nauvoo during the 1840’s. After most Mormons relocated to the West, new immigrants could take steamboats up the Mississippi to the Missouri RiverMissouri River, on which they could continue west on steamboats. However, many immigrants faced arduous overland journeys to reach New Zion until the first Transcontinental railroad;and Mormon immigrants[Mormon immigrants]transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Passing through northern Utah, the railroad provided fast, safe, and direct transportation to Mormon territory from points in the East. Consequently, increasingly numbers of European immigrants reached Utah by sailing to New YorkCity.

Mormon immigrants moving west on the Oregon Trail. Some immigrants who were unable to afford draft animals crossed the plains pushing and pulling handcarts.

(Library of Congress)
Mormon struggles

The Mormons’ success in settling and developing the Utah Territory may have had the ironic effect of harming their immigration efforts. Under Brigham Young’s leadership, many church members practiced Polygamy;Mormonplural marriage. The growing size of the church and the development of Utah attracted widespread attention to Mormon polygamy in the East. Criticisms of polygamy and other unusual Mormon practices prompted the federal government to pay closer attention to the administration of Utah Territory. The government shut down the church’s immigration fund, slowing Mormon immigration by making it more difficult for European immigrants to reach the country. Federal officials also closely questioned many Mormon immigrants and sent some back to their home countries. As government pressures on the Mormon polygamy mounted, some polygamist families Emigration;Mormonsemigrated to colonies in Mexico and Canada.

Eventually, however, the church officially abandoned its support for plural marriage, and Utah was admitted to the union as a state in 1896. During the twentieth century, the church continued an aggressive missionary program throughout the world but did not make a practice of encouraging new converts to immigrate to the United States.

More than a century after the great wave of Mormon immigration ended, the church created the Mormon Immigration Index, a list of more than 90,000 converts who came to the United States during the nineteenth century. The compilation of names includes the diaries and other writings of immigrants detailing their journeys to their new Zion.Mormon immigrantsUtah;Mormon immigrants

Further Reading
  • Abanes, Richard. One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. Well-documented book that covers the Mormon Church’s struggles with the U.S. government and its efforts to convert followers.
  • Arrington, Leonard J. Brigham Young: American Moses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Biography of one of the founding leaders of the Mormon Church. Includes details of Brigham Young’s efforts to spread the religion around the world.
  • Mulder, William. Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Recounts stories of survival and tragedy as Mormons migrated from Scandinavia through the United States and into Utah.
  • Roberts, David. Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Account of the Mormon handcart migration from Iowa to Utah, a tragic trek across the inhospitable American West.
  • Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Overview of the Mormon Church that includes sections on Mormon migration.

British immigrants

Congress, U.S.

Immigrant aid organizations

Missionaries

Nativism

Pacific Islander immigrants

Utah

Westward expansion

Categories: History Content