December 11 marks the 76th anniversary since Germany declared war on the United States. I was pleased to sit down with Dr. David Conley Nelson this summer to discuss his new book Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany published in 2015 by the University of Oklahoma Press. In short, it’s a mixed bag of good and bad stories. This is a really ground-breaking study of international history, as David not only covers modern history of World War II Germany, but goes back to the 19th century to discuss Mormon missionary work as well. Did you know German police monitored the LDS Church in the 1800s?
David: In fact the Germans and the Prussian secret police were so effective that they knew when missionaries were dispatched from Salt Lake City in making their way to the east coast to catch a ship to come to Germany. They knew that because they had a secret police network among immigrants in the United States.
Why, you may ask?
- They knew that in the 19th century that the Mormons had their qualms and their quibbles with the United States government and vice-versa, mostly over the issue of polygamy.
- there were problems with Mormon missionaries converting young men of military age. Then they would come across and immigrate to the United States when they hadn’t done their obligatory military service. That was a problem with German-Americans that went beyond the Mormons. A lot of German immigration to the United States, and in the 1880s or 1890s a German would come to the United States and would settle in, and then 10 years later he would go back to relatives and police authorities would grab him and charge him with evading the draft.
Another interesting tidbit was the fact that the Whitmer brothers were of German descent and spoke with a German accent. I didn’t realize that German was the 3rd largest language group among early Mormon converts. In part 2 of our conversation, I learned that Mormons suffered persecution before Hitler came to power.
David: When the golden spike was driven in Promontory Point, [Utah] and two railroads were connected in 1870s-1880s, one German newspaper said the government was doing that so they could send a train to Utah with troops to put down the Mormon rebellion. So in that particular atmosphere, a lot of local policemen would round up Mormon missionaries. They would put them in jail for a day and then let them loose, or a local judge would tell them that they could have a suspended sentence and go home, charged with what? I don’t know.
GT: These were just trumped up charges.
David: If they would just leave the country. Well what they would do, is that a missionary would get kicked out of Bavaria, so he’d go to Saxony instead of leaving and go home. A Saxon missionary, American missionary being kicked out would go to Bavaria and replace them.
Just prior to Hitler taking over Germany, there was a question about who would take over Germany: the Communists or the Nazis.
David: The mission presidents are writing these letters home saying, we’re afraid for the church for the national socialists and the communists battling for power in the streets.
As Hitler came to power in Germany, how did the LDS Church respond? How should an international church respond to a regime that hates Jews? On the one hand, I understand why Mormons would remove references to Israel in hymns and Sunday School lessons, but J Reuben Clark of the First Presidency was disappointing (to say the least) with how he dealt with Jews in Hitler’s Germany. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Nelson describes the political environment Clark grew up around.
David: Yes, well J. Reuben Clark, you’re right. He was pretty much against war to start off with because the Republicans in his period of time were isolationist. They were very much against the League of Nations after World War I and J. Reuben Clark was an old-style Republican. But yes J. Reuben Clark was a xenophobe, a nativist, and an anti-Semite.
He had a long government career during Republican administrations and then he was in private practice as a lawyer when Woodrow Wilson served eight years as a Democrat as president after [Teddy] Roosevelt up until his [Roosevelt’s] death in 1921. J. Reuben Clark was primarily a nativist and xenophobe, and he became, because of his experiences in the eastern United States, he became an anti-Semite. When J. Reuben Clark gave the valedictory address at the University of Utah in 1898, the whole thing was filled with anti-immigrant sentiment.
Now this was not just J. Reuben Clark. One of the bad things about American progressivism at the time, and don’t think of progressivism back then as progressive is used as the word today. There were good things in progressivism, but there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in progressivism. Immigrants are coming over, they’re taking our jobs away from us and all that.
Find out what Clark said! What are your thoughts with how the LDS Church dealt with Jewish immigrants during World War 2? Were you aware LDS missionaries were persecuted before Hitler? Do you think that influenced how LDS leaders dealt with Hitler?