How Reed Smoot Restored what Winston Churchill had Preserved

It is hard not to admire Winston Churchill. Churchill flinging oratorical rotundities into the face of the Luftwaffe and Hitler bestride Europe in 1940 is surely one of the truly heroic moments in human history. (I also have a deep respect for the Churchill of 1944 and 1945, doggedly trying to save post-war Europe from communist totalitarianism and Roosevelt’s naiveté.) Mormons can also claim Churchill as a minor hero.

In 1910-1911 an anti-Mormon hysteria swept Britain. Mormon missionaries were attacked, meetings were disrupted, and the papers bristled with lurid stories of Mormon missionaries using their powerful sexual magnetism to lure unsuspecting English lasses into the harems of Utah. At the time, British politics was divided between Labor, Liberals, and Conservatives. The distinctions here are a bit complicated. In contemporary American terms, both the Liberals and the Conservatives were of the right in some sense, but the Conservatives were more like Adam and the Liberals were more like me. At the time, the Liberals were in power, and Conservative MPs began questioning the young Home Secretary (the minister charged with domestic law enforcement) in the Commons about what the government intended to do about the looming Mormon menace. The Home Secretary was Winston Churchill, who throughout his career volleyed back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives, and happened to be in a Liberal phase in the years immediately prior to the Great War.

Churchill responded by investigating the supposed Mormon menace. Finding no truth the tales of Mormon woman snatching (or apparently to the alleged sexual magnetism of Mormon missionaries), Churchill refused to take any action. When Conservative MPs pointed approvingly to the steps that the police of the German Kaiser had taken in expelling Mormon missionaries, Churchill caustically reminded them that the police in the United Kingdom lacked some of the powers possessed by the Prussian authorities. In appropriately Churchillian language, he intoned in 1913 “let us continue upon the solid rock of religious equality . . . giving tolerance, freedom, and reverence to all religious beliefs, giving State favors, State enforcement, State privilege to none.”

World War I emptied Europe — including Britain — of Mormon missionaries. During the war, the Liberals under Lloyd George were forced to bring Conservatives into the government. After the war, the Mormons began seeking visas for missionaries. By now, Gallipoli had officially ended Churchill’s political career, and a Conservative occupied the post of Home Secretary. The Mormons found all of their requests for visas were mysteriously delayed, lost, or ultimately denied. British officials in London and Washington responded to inquiries first from George Albert Smith (then president of the British mission) and later from Reed Smoot with the mealy-mouthed and meaningless letters that made crystal clear that the Conservatives just didn’t regard the Mormons as “our sort of people.”

By 1920-21, the situation was critical. There were less than a dozen Mormon missionaries in the whole of Britain. Mobs of unruly students in Edinburgh had stormed a Mormon meeting there, roughed up some missionaries, and left one old man semi-paralyzed. The English Church desperately needed the energy and support of missionaries. Reed Smoot took the matter to the Secretary of State, when sent official letters to the Home Secretary demanding that His Majesty’s government cease its def acto discrimination against Mormon missionaries. In the face of rising American pressure and diminishing fear of the Mormon peril, the Conservatives relented, and the elders once again began to flow into the United Kingdom.

12 comments for “How Reed Smoot Restored what Winston Churchill had Preserved

  1. A. Greenwood
    July 15, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Remarkable stuff. We should all deplore this kind of def acto discrimination. : )

    In Spain, the Partido Popular famously lost power after the Madrid bombings. Before then, it had been in power for many years, including during my mission. The Partido Popular are the Spanish conservatives (meaning they believe in socialism with muted Catholic sympathies) so quite frequently missionary visas were “mysteriously delayed, lost, or ultimately denied.” Eventually the problem got fixed. I don’t remember if anyone in DC put on pressure, and how would I know anyway? But I do remember that there were some high profile visits made to the King, where he was given a Book of Mormon, his genealogy, etc. And of course ground was broken on the temple.

    I’ve always been a bit suspicious of those kinds of public diplomacy visits to the high ranking. I’ve never heard of a single one of these prominent people who’ve read their Book of Mormon and believed. But thinking back I guess I can see that there are positive effects lower down the food chain. Like building a temple in a country, engaging in these ‘meaningless’ public diplomacy affairs sends the message that we are part of the civilized community. That opens doors and smoothes paths.

  2. July 15, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    A great post. But Roosevelt’s naivete? Interesting accusation–most of those who condemn his relationship with Stalin and his actions regarding Soviet claims on Eastern Europe say that the evidence suggests he knew exactly what he was doing and what the cost would be, and did it anyway, for reasons of American hegemony or lurking anti-Semitism or electoral security or some such thing. What are your preferred historical sources for reading Roosevelt as a man naively oblivious to the plans hidden behind Stalin’s smile?

  3. July 15, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    Great story, Nate. I read “Franklin and Winston” last year, but this little episode didn’t show up there. It’s admirable that Churchill could consistently keep his head (as in this story) when all about him were losing theirs.

  4. A. Greenwood
    July 15, 2005 at 2:53 pm


    For what its worth, someone as immersed in right wing circles as I am has never heard anything about Roosevelt deliberately selling out to the Communists except from the fringes. I’m betting if the evidence was there, I’d have heard a lot more muttering.

  5. July 15, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    Hmmm–I thought among conservative criticisms of FDR, the “sell-out” charge was more common than that. But I’m not even close to being an expert in WWII history, much less the historical debates around it, so if you say it’s a clearly marginal position, I’ll take your word for it.

  6. Nate Oman
    July 15, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Russell: I think that FDR’s niavete came from the fact that he was willing to make large concessions to Stalin for the sake of getting the Soviets into the UN. The UN was then to become the vehicle for establishing global peace and prosperity. As it happened, the UN ended up being largely irrelevent in the half century after the war and the peace (such as it was) was not maintained by FDRs dreams of supra national governing bodies but rather by NATO and the classic tools of alliance and balance of power. As I understand it Churchill thought that the UN was basically a boondogle and that the peace would be maintained by a strong Atlantic alliance to forestall Soviet agression. It seems to me that Churchill diagonsised the post-war world much better than did FDR. The question remains, of course, of whether there was all that much that the Allies could have done in 1944 and 1945 to forestall Soveit expansion into Eastern and Central Europe. On the macro scale, I think that there were probably two alternative. The first would have been to pursue Churchill’s Balkan strategy, which would have put a large Allied army in central Europe. The counter argument, of course, was that this was militarily unfeasible. The Allies would have been bogged down in the rugged terrain of Yugoslavia far from the German heart land. Much better to land in Western Europe, close to the German border and fight across the North Europe plain, rather than through the Carpathians and the Alps. The second possiblity was even more odious, which was to make a seperate peace with Nazi Germany, something that was never seriously considered after 1940. On the grand strategic level then, there may have been nothing that the Allies could do.

    Still, FDR could have made an effort to take Berlin before the Russians and use it as a bargaining chip. Furthermore, once the Americans began adopting a harder, more Churchillian line against the Soviets under Truman they actually did get Stalin to actually keep at least some of his promises. During the war, the British occupied the southern half of Iran and the Soviets occupied the northern part of Iran under a treaty with the Iranian government underwhich they promised to withdraw. After the war, Stalin, of course, tried to ignore the treaty and I believe that he actually got as far as setting up a communist government in northern Iran. The Americans and the British, however, put pressure on the Soviets and the country was reunited per the treaty.

    At the end of the day, there was no real way around the brute fact of the Red Army in the middle of Europe. Still, a Churchillian rather than a Rooseveltian line at Teheran and Yalta might have made some difference at the margins. After all, the Allies were able to get the Russians to withdraw from Austria. Who knows. Still, I think that Churchill had a much clearer image of post-war reality than did FDR.

  7. Mark B.
    July 15, 2005 at 4:34 pm

    Churchill’s fall from power in 1915 occurred just as Gallipoli was starting to turn into just another waste of resources and pointless stalemate, but Gallipoli wasn’t the immediate cause. (That’s not to say that Churchill didn’t get tarred with the Gallipoli brush for years.)

    Jacky Fisher, the First Sea Lord, resigned about a week before Churchill was forced out of the Admiralty. Bonar Law (another nefarious Canadian–see Beaverbrook) let it be known that the Conservatives would not support the government if Fisher left but Churchill remained. Asquith, the PM, agreed to sack Churchill in order to keep Bonar Law and the Conservatives on board (and, in fact, it was at that point that the Conservatives joined with the Liberals in a National government).

    This “end” of Churchill’s career wasn’t nearly as terminal as you suggest, however. Upon getting booted from the Admiralty, Churchill was given the meaningless Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. He resigned from that, took a commission in the army and spent some time on the Western Front, but was back in the Lloyd George government by early 1917 as Minister for Munitions and later, Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air, where he served until 1921.

    One wonders whether the issue of Mormon missionaries in the United Kingdom arose in a cabinet meeting during that later period, and whether Churchill’s previous encounter with the issue helped resolve matters this second time around. (Churchill, of course, seemed never able to limit himself to the portfolio he held–so it’s easy to imagine his weighing in if the Home Secretary had brought it up.)

    The real “end” of Churchill’s career occurred in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald did not invite Churchill to join the government. That was the start of Churchill’s wilderness years, which lasted until he returned to the Admiralty in September 1939.

  8. Mark B.
    July 15, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    When Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Yalta, the Western Allies were still on the west bank of the Rhine, while the Russians were less than 100 miles from Berlin. At that point, nobody expected the rapid collapse of German defenses in the West (particularly since the US and Britain were still smarting from the Bulge), and they expected that the Russians would in fact be in Berlin long before the US and British forces could reach the capital.

    That was the situation when the “stop lines” were agreed to at Yalta, and Eisenhower stuck firmly to that agreement, despite encouragement from Churchill, Monty, Patton and others to disregard them and to move on to Berlin.

    There are two reasons that the Russians got out of Austria. Austria and Vienna were divided, like Germany and Berlin, into four occupation zones, and the Russians gave up the American, British and French sectors which they were occupying on May 7, 1945, to the other powers (just as they gave up those sectors of Berlin in accordance with the Yalta agreements). So, that got the Western Allies’ feet in the door.

    Then, the Austrians say, the Austrian negotiators simply drank the Russian negotiators under the table. And that led to the signing of a peace treaty between Austria and the Allies in 1955, and that’s when the occupying powers, including the Russians, left. (Caution, this may simply be faith-promoting folklore.)

  9. Wilfried
    July 15, 2005 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post, Nate. Let me try to shift the attention back to the Church and the missionaries. We can substitute dates and names in your story and keep most of the sentences, and we would read what has been going on in quite a few European countries this past decade (Belgium, France, Central and East European countries, perhaps also others). The Church has had many problems obtaining visas for missionaries there. Various forms of political pressure and diplomacy behind the scenes have been used and are being used to get missionaries in. Today we’re writing the same history as yesterday and I hope these things are being well preserved. For they are part of the fascinating challenges to establish the Church. One day we should be able to write about them, like you did about Churchill.

  10. Cracker
    July 15, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    I really don’t think FDR had much choice in the concessions he made. For example, sure, he could have said NO to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but then we would have been back into war.

  11. Cory
    July 15, 2005 at 10:12 pm

    I’ve encountered a related story about Tonga. In the 1920s, it was a British protectorate, and it asked permission to pass a law that would exclude missionaries. With regard to the law, Churchill wrote this: “After consultation with His Majesty’s Ambassador at Washington, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs considers that no objections are likely to be raised by the United States Government to the exclusion of these missionaries from Tonga, on the understanding that the contemplated legislation is to be confined to the exclusion of those who may wish to enter in the future and the to the expulsion of those who already reside in the islands.” It isn’t clear to me if these are his views or if he is just relaying someone else’s. This is from R. Lanier Britsch, “Mormon Intruders in Tonga: The Passport Act of 1922,” in Bitton, ed, Mormons, Scripture and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, page 130. In this case Churchill doesn’t come across as pro-Mormon, but in both cases he sounds just like he is not giving his personal opinion.

  12. kodos
    July 18, 2005 at 1:21 pm

    Adam says: “I’ve never heard of a single one of these prominent people who’ve read their Book of Mormon and believed.”

    I think giving them a BOM might be effective because even if they don’t believe it they will see that it is kind of dull and vaguely protestant, not very threatening at all.

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