The Church History Library contains many materials—and receives many questions—related to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company (PEF). What was it, why was it started, how did it function, and how can these records be used in research?
In 1849 Brigham Young established the PEF to help poor and impoverished Saints around the world gather to Utah. The call to gather was not new to the Saints. As early as December 1830, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received a revelation instructing Church members to assemble in Ohio. By the time the PEF was established, the gathering location had transitioned to the Salt Lake Valley. For many Saints, traveling to Utah meant incurring the costs of a transoceanic journey, a train ride, and supplies for the remaining overland trek. Travel was not easy or inexpensive, yet members of the Church were willing to make difficult sacrifices so they could join their fellow saints in Zion. The PEF could help.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals received assistance (either directly or indirectly) from the PEF. Donations of money and goods made up the bulk of the loan funds. Saints already in Utah were encouraged to donate time, money, and resources to the fund so their spiritual brothers and sisters could also gather to “Zion.” Church members in countries outside the United States were also encouraged to contribute to the fund so that individuals from their ward or branch could make the international journey. Those with large families were encouraged to emigrate as individuals or in smaller groups. According to an article in the Millennial Star, sending one or two people at a time made it easier to save travel funds. This process meant families reached Zion in less time than it would take to save the money to fund an entire family’s journey as one large group. (It should be noted that while some families followed this advice, others did not.) Along the way, PEF agents kept track of travel and supply costs, issued promissory notes, and reported back to the main offices in Salt Lake City.
Since travelers received the funds on loan, they were expected to repay the costs they incurred. However, debt collection proved difficult for the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company. At some point between 1855 and 1860, the First Presidency issued a circular letter to Church leaders “throughout the Territory of Utah.” The circular listed the names of individuals who owed money to the fund and the total sum of their debt. Those in debt were warned that if they failed to pay their loans, “the withering curse of the Almighty will be upon you to darken your minds, to lessen your faith, and cause a famine spiritual and temporal to consume you.”1 This threat notwithstanding, by 1877 over 19,000 people were in debt to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, and many had defaulted on their loans. In that same year, a printed pamphlet was circulated that listed the names of all “Persons and Sureties indebted to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund.” The pamphlet was recirculated in 1878 and included a letter from John Taylor to local Church leaders. The letter provided instruction on how to collect payment and what to do if someone in debt had died. It also encouraged children to help pay the debts of their parents.
By 1880 the PEF debt among the Saints was very high. In response, and as a way to bolster that year’s jubilee festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Church, the PEF Trustee in Trust and the Twelve Apostles proposed that “$800,000 or one-half of the indebtedness to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company”2 be forgiven in order to free “the worthy poor” from “a burden which they have been unable, to honorably cast off.”3 A general vote was held at that year’s annual General Conference and “this very liberal proposition was cordially sustained by the unanimous vote of the vast congregation.”4 A circular issued by the Twelve Apostles provided details of the vote and included instructions on how this debt forgiveness program functioned. Bishops were to submit recommendations to their stake presidents for those borrowers they felt deserved loan amnesty. The bishops could suggest that the entirety or a portion of an individual’s debt be absolved. The stake presidents had the responsibility of examining the submissions from bishops and forwarding their approved endorsements to the PEF office. Final decisions on debt forgiveness were made by the “proper authorities” in Salt Lake City.5 The circular also addressed the issues of remitting delinquent tithing of the worthy poor, donation of cows and sheep “for the relief of the deserving poor Saints,”6 and Relief Society wheat loans.
It is interesting to note how, from 1849 to 1887, Latter-day Saint international migration efforts contributed to increased U.S. immigration rates before, during, and after the American Civil War. Somewhat ironically, the PEF was established around the same time as the Know-Nothing Party (formally known as the American Party), an anti-immigration political party in the United States. The Know-Nothing Party promoted nativist ideologies, lobbied for immigration restrictions, protested the admittance of newcomers into the United States, desired stricter naturalization laws, and encouraged suffrage prohibition for foreign-born citizens. Their actions were motivated by a fear that immigrants, especially those who were Catholic, German, or Irish, threatened national security. Unlike the Know-Nothing Party, the Church actively participated in immigration efforts that helped enlarge the country’s diverse population.7
The Church’s promotion of immigration during the late 1880s contributed to tense relations with the United States government. In 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds Tucker Act. One of the many outcomes of the Act included the disincorporation of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company. In direct reference to the PEF, section 15 declared, “it shall not be lawful for the legislative assembly of the Territory of Utah to create, organize, or in any manner recognize any such corporation or association, or to pass any law for the purpose of or operating to accomplish the bringing of persons into the said Territory for any purpose whatsoever.”8 The Act was repealed in 1978.9
Researching the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company shows us more than just ledgers and ships’ logs; it teaches us about charity, world history, politics, and economics, as well as giving us a glimpse into the personal histories of many early Saints. For more information about conducting PEF-related research, please visit the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company research guide.
Top image: European immigrants at the docks, PH 4290