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The LDS Senator's Trial That Takes Up 11 Feet of Shelf Space in the National Archives

Whether you’re a history buff or simply curious, you have probably collected a decent store of knowledge about important events in Church history. But no matter how well you thought you knew these stories, there are a surprising number of fascinating facts that you might have overlooked. Here is an interesting story about when LDS Senator Reed Smoot was put on trial for false charges of polygamy.

In late February 1903, when LDS Senator Reed Smoot arrived in Washington, D.C., he was met by protestors who charged him with being a polygamist and wanted answers about the old issues of Danites and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Senator Smoot prepared a rebuttal to these charges with the help of several non-Mormon lawyers.

The hearings began in March 1903 with subpoenas issued to every general authority and other Church leaders, asking them to testify about the power of the Church over its members. President Joseph F. Smith was questioned for three days. Elders James E. Talmage and Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve were also questioned. Moses Thatcher, who had been dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve in 1896, was also asked to testify. Their testimonies were published in the anti-Mormon press while federal agents in Utah searched for Smoot’s other wife, only to find that there wasn’t one. He was not and had never been a polygamist.

Historian Kathleen Flake observed, “The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, ‘secret oaths,’ open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics.”

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The trials themselves became a spectacle, with the public actively participating in the proceedings. Around the nation, the trials played out as a fascinating drama, depicted in the newspapers of the day. Flake noted, “At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.”

On February 20, 1907, a vote was taken on whether to expel Reed Smoot from the United States Senate. The vote fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Senator Smoot retained his seat and was re-elected four times, serving for 26 more years.

Lead image from L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

What You Don't Know About the 100 Most Important Events in Church HistoryFor additional unique insights into well-known and little-known events in Church history, check out What You Don’t Know About the 100 Most Important Events in Church History, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

Find this and other great stories like "The Write Stuff" and "Reunited After 62 Years" in the March/April 2017 issue of LDS Living.

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