The National Archives and the British Library are quite different from the Lambeth Palace Library. Whereas the Lambeth Palace Library is small, with a bottle of fruit squash in the cupboard and windows that overlook a courtyard, the National Archives and the British Library are modern, with computerized ordering and delivery systems that make human interaction minimal. At the National Archives, you swipe your card, order your materials, and sip a cuppa tea until the computer tells you that your material is ready. The stuff you ordered is then placed in a locker where you retrieve it. The computer system even assigns you a share. The British Library requires slightly more human interaction – you actually have to speak to someone to retrieve your materials – but everything still seems automated and impersonal.
Reading the documents at the National Archives and the British Library, though, can be like entering into another world. This week, I was looking at documents from the Foreign and Home Offices concerning Mormonism. I discovered that in the 1870s and 1880s, the United States government requested that the British consider taking steps to limit Mormon emigration from India and the UK. The letter that the U.S. consul William Evart sent to the British Home Office that Mormons increased each year primarily from the “ignorant classes” of Europe, who were “easily influenced by the [Mormons’] double appeal to their passions and their poverty.” “A flattering picture of a home in the fertile and prosperous region” induced such people to quit their homes in Liverpool, Manchester, and London for the place where Mormonism had made its seat.
Although the lawyers at the British Home Office advised the British government that they could take no steps to limit the emigration of their subjects to the U.S. to Utah, the British government agreed to take post notices in London and Liverpool advising the British populace that polygamy was illegal in the United States and punishable by fine and imprisonment.
When a similar request arrived at the India Office, the government was willing to go further. In 1884, Evart notified the India Office that three Mormon missionaries had arrived in Calcutta and had begun proselytizing. The India Office agreed to track the movements of the missionaries, and agents from around India sent notices telling the British government in India where the missionaries were staying, how many open air meetings they had held, and how many converts they had baptized. Most reports happily reported little advance on the part of the missionaries and suggested that their open air preaching had met primarily with scorn and ridicule. Although they had been able to baptize several natives, only one woman and a sixteen year old boy had been baptized. It was eventually decided that the Indian Civil Code could prevent the missionaries from sending converts back to Utah. In a 19th century version of the Mann Act, the Indian Civil Code prevented anyone from seducing a woman or from transporting her knowing the result would be illicit intercourse. Polygamy, being illegal in the United States, was by definition, according to one of the India Office’s lawyers, illicit intercourse.
Reading these documents underscored for me the importance of placing debates about Mormonism within larger discourses about empire and sexuality. There have been dozens of articles, books, and dissertations about Mormonism and sexuality in America, on the legal implications of polygamy, and on the number of wives Joseph Smith had. Such scholarship has been compelling. What is less clear, however, is what it means that the India Office was willing to exert its resources to track three men who had just arrived from Utah as they moved about the country.