Joseph Smith, Brigham Young Among Most Influential Americans

The list is the cover story in the December issue of Atlantic magazine, and ranks Joseph Smith — "the founder of Mormonism, America's most famous homegrown faith" — at No. 52, and his successor as LDS Church president — Brigham Young — at No. 74.

"What Joseph Smith founded, Young preserved," the magazine said, "leading the Mormons to their promised land." (See the list at

The top four people on the list are all past U.S. presidents, in order: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Though the list is dominated by presidents, America's Founding Fathers and politicians, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young join Mary Baker Eddy — the founder of Christian Science (No. 86) and theologians Jonathan Edwards (No. 90) and Lyman Beecher (No. 91, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, No. 41) as those most recognized for their religious influence.

Martin Luther King Jr., a black minister, was the only religious leader in the top 10, listed at No. 8. While the magazine notes that no one did more to further racial equality, King's religious role wasn't mentioned specifically, though the church served as his bully pulpit for social change.

William Lloyd Garrison, also a preacher whose newspaper, "The Liberator," became "the voice of abolition" in the 19th century, ranked 46th.

The 10 historians who came up with the list — four of them Pulitzer Prize winners — also cast votes for other religious figures who failed to make the list, including Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, missionary and Methodist leader Francis Asbury, 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody and his 20th century counterpart, Billy Graham.

Many of the panelists are political historians, but at least two of them have written about or researched the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to Jan Shipps, president of the American Society of Church History and a longtime scholar of Mormonism.

Mark Noll, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, preceded Shipps as president of ASCH and specializes in religious history. Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown University, presented a keynote lecture on the early history of the LDS Church at the Mormon History Association more than two decades ago, she said.

Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Mary Baker Eddy were selected because they led indigenous American religions, Shipps said. "I think they should all appear there, but I think there are other (religious figures) that should also appear," including Asbury, John Winthrop, Roger Williams and William Penn.

King's listing was appropriate, she said, though "you can't think of him as anything other than a religious figure. He made civil rights a religious mantra. That's the biggest movement to come out of the black church." Other luminaries listed without reference to their religious influence include Ralph Waldo Emerson (No. 33), William Jennings Bryant (No. 36), John Dewey (No. 40) and William James (No. 62), Shipps said.

While Joseph Smith is a certainty, if she were casting a ballot, "I'm not sure that I would have kept Brigham Young if I'd had to choose between him and Roger Williams." She'd also choose Penn over Eddy. "The Christian Science movement was important for a long time, but it's really pretty small now."

Shipps said Graham is "clearly a more important figure in 20th century America than Elvis Presley," who ranked 66th. "I know rock and roll was important, but so was Billy Graham. They were drawing the same kinds of huge crowds."

When asked if he was surprised by the listing of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the LDS Church's family and church history department, said, "Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I sometimes wonder whether people are as familiar with (them) and their importance as they ought to be. No, in that we see a growing understanding of their significance."

Had the list been compiled a decade ago, Turley said it's likely that "one or both would have appeared, but there's no question that with passage of time, their significance becomes better understood by historians in general in the U.S., and this was a list created by historians."

Unlike Graham, whose ministry has only spanned recent decades, the two early LDS leaders have had "a dramatic impact for more than a century and a half that continues not only in the United States, but worldwide," Turley said. "There are many who make a significant impact for a period of time, but the historical impact of that person is measured not by the moment, but by the passage of time."

He said the LDS Church's yearlong bicentennial commemoration of Joseph Smith's birth in 2005 "certainly had something to do with it" and predicted scholarly attention to the founding of the LDS faith — which now numbers more than 12 million worldwide — will continue to grow.

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