Religious Liberty Put to the Test

In early America, the vast majority of colonists were Protestants. Some religious minorities were banned altogether, and others were merely tolerated. By the late 18th century, many founders had rejected toleration in favor of a commitment to the principle that all individuals have a natural right to religious liberty. In his 1790 letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote to this tiny religious minority that:

All possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This right seemed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The First Amendment restricted only the national government, but after America’s break from Great Britain, every state adopted constitutional provisions or passed laws to protect religious liberty. Protestant majorities were able to protect themselves through the democratic process, and it seemed now that religious minorities would be guaranteed religious freedom as a matter of law.

Unfortunately, some religious minorities continued to be discriminated against, harassed, and even persecuted by mobs and governments. Perhaps no minority illustrates this reality better than the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS), better known as the Mormon church.

Spencer W. McBride’s Joseph Smith for President documents well the persecution of the early Mormons and shows that it, along with one man’s personal charisma and ambition, gave rise to an unlikely presidential campaign in 1844. McBride recognizes that Mormon leader Joseph Smith never had a chance of winning, but he also shows that Smith and other LDS leaders thought he could succeed and were determined to fight in the public arena for the religious liberty that was denied them. The book offers a riveting account of one of the most fascinating antebellum Americans and one of the most interesting presidential elections in American history.    

A Persecuted People

The LDS church was founded by a young man named Joseph Smith. In 1823, he claimed the angel Moroni appeared to him and revealed gold plates buried in a box near his family’s farm. Upon the plates, written in “reformed Egyptian,” was a revelation which Smith translated and published as the Book of Mormon in 1830. He organized the LDS church in the same year. Smith asserted that this new revelation was on a par with the traditional Christian Bible. Other revelations followed.

Despite deviating from numerous tenets of traditional Christianity, relentless missionary activity helped the LDS church to grow quickly. Smith believed he was called to build a “City of Zion” where these church members could gather and await the Second Coming of Christ. He received a revelation telling him that the New Jerusalem was to be built in Jackson County, Missouri. Progress was being made when extrajudicial mob violence, including the destruction of a printing press, rape, and arson, forced the Mormons to relocate to Caldwell County, Missouri. 

An election day brawl in 1838 set off another wave of violence against the LDS church.  Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs addressed the “problem” by issuing an executive order stating that the “Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.” In response to the violence and the extermination order, many Mormons fled to Illinois. Joseph Smith went in the opposite direction, to Washington, D.C. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

In the nation’s capital, Smith sought and received an audience with President Martin Van Buren. He hoped the president would endorse a petition to Congress that was highly critical of Missouri and sought compensation for Mormon losses there. The president expressed sympathy, but declined to help because he feared losing Missouri’s electoral votes in 1840. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the petition, but unanimously concluded that Congress had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Disappointed by Congress’s failure to act, Smith poured his energies into building Zion, now located in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River. He named it Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful place.” Illinois was split evenly between Whigs and Democrats, and both parties desired the support of the state’s newest citizens. Exploiting this fortuitous situation, Smith was able to obtain a charter in 1841 that gave the city a great deal of autonomy. Already serving in the office of the first presidency of the LDS church, Smith was now elected to the city council and appointed Lieutenant General of the city militia (its highest rank). He was elected mayor in 1843.

Smith praised America’s founders and early civic leaders, but (perhaps remembering his unproductive meeting with the eighth president) lamented that the nation began retreating from its commitment to liberty under Van Buren. 

In the early 1840s, rumors began to circulate that Smith and other Mormon leaders were practicing polygamy (which they had, in fact, been doing since the 1830s). These rumors, combined with the extraordinary power Smith had accumulated, led once again to calls to remove the Mormons from the state. Smith’s attempts to use the promise of the Mormon vote to gain favor with the Whigs and Democrats were successful at first, but eventually led both parties to distrust him. 

One of Smith’s responses to these threats was to write letters to the leading presidential candidates for the 1844 election: Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Richard M. Johnson, and Lewis Cass. He sought assurance from each candidate that he would protect the LDS church, and hinted strongly that the candidate with the best answer would receive the Mormon vote. There were about 25,000 Mormons in the United States at the time, so their votes wouldn’t matter much at the national level, but they could make a difference in the swing state of Illinois.

Van Buren and Johnson ignored Smith’s letters, but he received responses from Clay, Cass, and Calhoun. These candidates expressed sympathy for the plight of the Mormons, but they all declined to promise to use the power of the federal government to protect them in the future. Smith decided to take matters into his own hands. 

The Campaign

In January of 1844, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles met in Smith’s office and determined that Smith should run for president. Over the next few days, Smith laid out his political views in a twelve-page pamphlet that was published as General Smith’s Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. He began by praising America’s founders and early civic leaders, but (perhaps remembering his unproductive meeting with the eighth president) lamented that the nation began retreating from its commitment to liberty under Van Buren. 

It is not surprising that the leader of a religious minority that had been repeatedly persecuted by mobs and local governments would call for a more powerful national government with the authority to “[g]ive every man his constitutional freedom.” Among other things, the president must have “full power to send an army to suppress mobs.” 

Other planks in Smith’s platform included reducing the size of Congress and paying its members less. He endorsed re-establishing the national bank, closing all of the nation’s penitentiaries, and ending the practice of imprisoning debtors. Most radical of all, Smith called for “the immediate and total abolition of slavery.” Slave owners would be compensated for their losses with revenue from the sale of western lands. 

After declaring his candidacy, Smith created a political auxiliary to the church called the Council of Fifty. The council appointed a committee to “draft a constitution which should be perfect and embrace those principles which the constitution of the United States lacked.” The council would rule with Christ during the millennial kingdom. Smith was the body’s standing chairman, but the council also anointed him its “prophet, priest, and king.”

Smith’s political ambitions may seem far-fetched, but he and his followers were convinced that God was on their side. Even so, Smith prudentially downplayed the theocratic implications of being “prophet, priest, and king” and instead sent numerous “electioneering missionaries” to stump for him through the country where they emphasized the above-mentioned platform. Like the Whigs and the Democrats, his supporters planned to hold a national nominating convention in Baltimore. 

The Democratic convention of 1844 was one of the most extraordinary in American history. No major candidate was able to secure a majority of the delegates, including former President Martin Van Buren. The delegates finally agreed on an obscure former Representative from Tennessee, James K. Polk. He would run against the Whig Henry Clay, Liberty Party candidate James Birney, and Joseph Smith.

Alas, this four-way contest was cut short. In Nauvoo, Mormons concerned with the power Smith had accumulated and with the practice of polygamy formed a splinter church. The dissenters started a rival paper, the Nauvoo Expositor, which was highly critical of Smith.  Smith, as mayor, ordered the press to be destroyed. Shortly thereafter, he declared martial law (which, McBride points out, had never been done by a mayor before). These events alarmed Illinois’s governor, who called out the militia. The governor demanded that Nauvoo’s militia surrender its weapons and that Smith turn himself over to local authorities in Carthage. Smith complied.

A Sad Ending and a Sad Future

On June 27, 1844, an angry mob broke into the Carthage jail and killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The mob did not descend on Nauvoo as many feared, but tensions remained high. Under threats of violence, Smith’s successor Brigham Young agreed that the Mormons would leave the state by May of 1846. Unable to receive assurances from any state that their religious convictions would be protected, they departed for the unorganized territory of Mexico—territory that soon came under that authority of the United States. McBride only briefly mentions the harassment and persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory, this time by the federal government. 

Religious liberty is a foundational American principle, but Joseph Smith for President reminds us that religious minorities have not always been respected or even tolerated. In the case of the LDS church, deviation from Christian orthodoxy combined with practices such as polygamy and the concentration of power in a charismatic leader led to inexcusable persecution. The church’s repudiation of polygamy in 1890 paved the way for the toleration, and even acceptance, of the Latter Day Saints in the twentieth century.

America’s commitment to religious liberty demands that minority sects with unpopular views must be tolerated, and it generally requires that citizens be allowed to act upon their religious convictions. But it does not necessarily mean that religiously motivated actions like polygamy must be permitted. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young married 40 and 55 women respectively, one as young as 14. Governments have a compelling interest in prohibiting such practices—but through the law, not the mob.

Joseph Smith for President offers an excellent account of Smith’s dark-horse run for the presidency, and McBride does a wonderful job of putting Smith’s political activities in their broader context. This book should be read by anyone interested in Mormon history and/or antebellum politics. And it is a must-read for anyone who thinks Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Synagogue reflects the lived experience of all religious minorities throughout American history.