A Brief History of Mormons and Politics

by | Jul. 01, 2007

LDS Life

Decades before Lincoln, Joseph Smith's progressive announcement that he would run for president on an anti-slavery platform was explosive and all but doomed. His plans of turning prisons into learning institutions, or giving felons jobs on public works projects, or annexing Texas and Oregon into the Union, were lost to angry mobs that would take his life four months after his announcement to run. Here is a brief look at the long history of Mormons and politics.

Joseph Smith for President

Under the leadership of Joseph Smith, Nauvoo was growing faster and larger than most cities in America, including neighboring Chicago. When Joseph contemplated a run for the White House, he was up against a litany of new laws designed by the establishment to leave things as they were. Slavery was growing more and more divisive and was barely eased by sneaking black citizens out of southern plantations and hiding them in a northerly network of basements, attics, and barns. The issue of slavery was not ignored by the Prophet; even before his candidacy, he once said regarding slavery, "It makes my blood boil."

Joseph's campaign started in Nauvoo in February of 1844, and soon news spread to neighboring states that the Mormon prophet was running for president. He was then serving as lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, which at the time had over three thousand men and was second in size only to the U.S. Army. He was also the mayor of the city.

Nauvoo was already making news around the country and so were the "Mormons." Newspapers and magazines were publishing stories and drawings of the flourishing city. Nauvoo was the subject of many books written by travelers who happened upon it on their trips down the Mississippi.

Joseph Smith fascinated most readers, even, or particularly, when the news of him was critical. His name was already deemed good or bad among many Americans. Etchings and drawings of him that appeared in print frequently showed him in formal or proper attire and often plump and noble looking. Eastern reporters and dignitaries that came to meet Joseph were surprised that he was the strong, young man who helped carry their luggage from the steamboat. He loved to work and was often in his work clothes. His home, by necessity, was converted into a hotel of sorts, and many times it was full. There were nights when he and Emma would sleep out on the front lawn because every room in the house was occupied.

Joseph's bid for president included a pamphlet outlining his views on government and policy. He proposed several ideas that were progressive and even dangerous, yet long after Joseph Smith, when Lincoln announced his candidacy in nearby Springfield, Illinois, his anti-slavery ideas were explosive and deadly. Lincoln's life was threatened from the moment he began his campaign. When Booth eventually killed him, it was the third time someone had shot at him.

Not far from Springfield, and fifteen years before Lincoln, Joseph not only called for an end to slavery, but he actually published a plan on how it could be done by 1850. Joseph wrote:

"I ever feel a double anxiety for the happiness of all men, both in time and in eternity, where the Declaration of Independence which states that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; but at the same time some two or three million of our people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours. Government officers, who are nothing more nor less than the servants of the people, ought to be directed to ameliorate the condition of all, black or white, bond or free; for 'God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.'

"'We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice ... and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity' meant just what it said without reference to color or condition. Petition, also, ye goodly inhabitants of the slave states, your legislators to abolish slavery by the year 1850, or now, and save the abolitionist from reproach and ruin, infamy and shame. Pray Congress to pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from the members of Congress."

Joseph Smith's progressive ideas fell prematurely on the printed pages of history decades before it would begin to embrace such concepts. He declared the debtor's prisons to be cruel and unjust. He wanted to reduce the number of congressmen to just two per state, and suggested Congress take no more pay than the hard working farmers, "who earn an honest living."

Whatever role the Prophet Joseph Smith would have played as the president of the United States was ended on June 27, 1844, just four months after his announcement to run.

Governor Brigham Young

In the rotunda of the U.S. Capital Building in Washington, D.C., is a series of statues of past state leaders. Brigham Young's statue, carved in marble, sits among them on the east side of the room. It stands as a monument to someone who not only settled Utah, but who really colonized much of the west. In addition to Utah, Brigham Young also helped to settle Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

As the first governor of the Deseret Territory, Brigham Young did much to build a place where people could not only live, but thrive. He went to work on the infrastructure of what was needed to sustain the people. First things first, Brigham proposed a cultural hall and theater. It would be a place where the Saints could get what he thought was essential to the human experience: some laughter and enjoyment. The cultural hall was one of the first buildings to begin construction in the area.

He then went to work sending people to different parts of the West to settle towns. He established over 350 communities. He oversaw the building of canals, railroads, and temples. He founded banks, stores, schools, and several universities. He literally created dozens of other industries so that citizens would have plenty of work and commerce.

Brigham Young saw the need and benefit of educating women. He not only opened the Deseret University (now the University of Utah) to all women, but he also sent groups of women back east to medical schools and hospitals for training. Some of the very first female doctors in America were Mormon women. He amended the territory constitution to allow women and black citizens to vote.

Brigham Young was the first Latter-day Saint governor in American history, and the impact and growth of his ideas still continue to this day. The statue of him in the capitol building, sculpted by his grandson Mahonri, is there because of his role as an early leader, yet his success as a colonizer of the entire western United States is still being acknowledged and studied today.

Sending a Latter-day Saint to the U.S. Senate

In 1903, Reed Smoot was the first Latter-day Saint to become a U.S. senator. His arrival in Washington, D.C., created a stir that would soon build into an actual Senate investigation. At issue was whether or not Senator Smoot's seat should be contested since he was a member of a church that was associated with plural marriage, though he never practiced plural marriage and the Church had issued its manifesto stopping the practice over decade before. Some insiders felt the investigation was a power play to keep one more Republican senator out, and Smoot was the easy target.

The proceedings went on for four years. The halls of the Senate were filled daily with spectators and reporters. When all was said and done, Senator Smoot took his seat in the Senate and everyone went back to work. He went on to serve in the Senate for a total of thirty years.

Senator Smoot became one of the most respected and powerful senators on Capitol Hill. He became a close friend and confidant to President Warren G. Harding, who, in 1920, offered Smoot a seat on his cabinet as the head of the Treasury. His tireless efforts and unwavering integrity in the Senate earned him and the Latter-day Saints the respect and esteem of many Washington leaders. He has been recognized over the years as one of the great senators in American history.

The records surrounding his proceedings now fill over eleven feet of shelf space, the largest collection of proceedings in the National Archives. When speaking of the struggle Reed Smoot faced, President John F. Kennedy said:

"Fortunately the forces of reason and tolerance enabled him to take his seat. And in the years that followed, Senator Smoot earned the respect and affection of every Senator who had challenged him. He rose to be dean of the Senate and chairman of its powerful Committee on Finance--and no voice was ever heard to say that he had not been devoted solely to the public good as he saw it."

Ezra Taft Benson

As a young graduate from BYU and a returned missionary who served in Britain, Ezra Taft Benson began his career by going into agriculture, which was the leading industry in America. In 1939, when he was working at the University of Idaho, President Benson moved to Washington, D.C., where he became the executive secretary to the National Council of Farmer Cooperative. The first stake in Washington, D.C., was organized with Ezra Taft Benson as its stake president.

In 1953, Benson was asked by President Eisenhower to be the Secretary of the Agriculture, which was a very powerful position at the time. When he tried to explain that he was a busy apostle in his church and might not be the best candidate for the job, Eisenhower told him that the most spiritual work he could do was to strengthen his country. At the encouragement of President David O. McKay, Elder Benson took his seat in Eisenhower's cabinet and became the second apostle in Church history to divide his time between the federal government and his work with the Church.

Five Latter-day Saints Have Run for President

Joseph Smith announced that he would seek the office of president of the United States in February 1844. Up until that time, his highest elected office was that of mayor of Nauvoo. Shortly after his announcement, he released a pamphlet about his views on the policies of the federal government. It caused immediate turmoil with his enemies when he not only suggested abolishing slavery within five years, but he laid out a plan on how to do so.

Joseph Smith had unmatched experience in leading a large number of people and building a fast growing city. He was already the commander in chief of the second largest military body in America.

George W. Romney, father of Mitt Romney, announced his candidacy in 1966. He had been president of American Motors Corporation and served as a popular and respected governor of Michigan. For a time, he was the GOP favorite and was expected to take the nomination for his party.

Romney's lead slipped in the polls and he eventually decided to withdraw from the presidential race when Nelson Rockefeller became a candidate. "There was no way I could get the nomination fighting both Rockefeller and Richard Nixon," Romney told reporters. He went on to serve both in public and private endeavors.

Morris "Mo" Udall came from an early pioneer family that was among those who settled Mesa, Arizona. He served in Congress for almost two decades when he made a bid for the White House on the Democratic ticket. Some believed Udall had actually won his party's nomination late into the night of the convention voting. He was declared the winner by several people, but by dawn's early light, he was behind by 7,500 votes, and thus Jimmy Carter went on to represent the party.

Orrin Hatch, a Utah Senator for more than thirty years, has served with six U.S. Presidents. Although his political ambitions have often led him to seek appointments outside the Senate, such as a seat in the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's Office, his most public attempt was his bid for president of the United Sates in 2000. He lost the bid to Texas Governor, George W. Bush.

Mitt Romney formally announced his candidacy in February 2007. His impressive victory in the race for Massachusetts governor astonished both Democrats and Republicans, creating a presidential buzz long before his announcement. His record for surmounting difficult tasks has always been impressive; winning a very liberal and mostly Catholic state was no small feat.

Some of Romney's issues for his presidency include: simplifying the tax system, creating energy independence for America, fixing our competitive edge with Asia, and restoring the America's educational lead in technology and sciences. Go to mittromney.com for more information.

A Century of Progress

1833: W.W. Phelps printed an explosive article in the Evening and Morning Star titled "Free People of Color." The article invited black citizens from around the country to join the Church and move to Missouri to "live among" the Saints. Missouri was a slave state, and by law people could beat any free black person with ten lashes when he or she crossed in or out of the state. The article sparked a mob riot that led to the destruction of the press and the expulsion of the Saints from Missouri. In that same year the revelation came: "Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another" (Doctrine and Covenants 101:79). This verse brought further violence to the Saints.

1838: John Corrill became the first Latter-day Saint ever to be elected to any office. He held a seat on the Missouri State Legislature. Few if any knew he was a Mormon.

1839: Joseph Smith traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with President Martin Van Buren at the White House. President Van Buren told Joseph Smith that nothing could be done about the lawlessness of the Missourians. The Prophet left a copy of the Book of Mormon with the president, met with and preached to several congressmen, and sat for interviews with a few national newspapers.

1841: The first missionary to be called to labor in the nation's capitol, Samuel James, arrived in Washington, D.C.

1844: Joseph Smith's announced his bid for the White House.

1860: Abraham Lincoln, who met Joseph Smith and signed the Nauvoo charter when he was in the legislature in Illinois, was elected President of the United States on an anti-slavery platform.

1867: The Saints in Utah amended their constitution, removing the "Free, White, Male" requirement in order to vote. This cleared the way for both black citizens and women to vote. The U.S. Constitution would not guarantee these rights for blacks until 1870 and for women until 1920.

1868: In the October general conference, Brigham Young announced he would be sending Utah women to eastern universities to train as physicians. Many of the men in the medical schools were outraged and did anything they could to stop the women.

1872: The first woman to be deputized as a sheriff in the United States was an LDS woman named Ellen B. Ferguson.

1896: Martha Hughes Cannon ran for Utah State Senate on the Democratic ticket, and defeated her own husband who was running for the same seat as a Republican. She became the first woman in American history to serve as a state senator.

1896: Heber Wells became the first elected Governor of Utah, and the first Latter-day Saint to hold the office of Governor of any state (Brigham Young governed a territory).

1953: Ivy Baker Priest, an LDS woman from Coalville, Utah, became the first woman to ever serve as U.S. Treasurer. Her signature appeared on U.S. currency from 1953 to 1961.

1972: Jean Westwood, an LDS woman from Price, Utah, became the first woman in history to serve as chairperson of the National Democratic Committee.

1981: Paula Hawkins, who was LDS, became the first woman elected to the United States Senate to accompany her husband to Washington, D.C. As a result, the long standing "Senate Wives Club" was forced to change its name to the "Senate Spouse Club."

1982: Bay Buchanan, while serving as the head of the U.S. Treasury Department, decided to take the missionary discussions and converted to the Church.

2006: Harry Reid from Nevada became the first LDS Senate majority leader, and the highest-ranking LDS politician.

The First Mormon in the White House

In the fall of 1839, Joseph Smith and a small group of Latter-day Saints traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Martin Van Buren. In a meeting held at the White House, the Prophet explained his situation and gave detailed accounts of the injustice the Saints had suffered at the hands of both lawless mobs and a renegade state government. President Van Buren gave his famous reply: "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. If I take up for you, I shall lose the vote of Missouri."

Abraham Lincoln Reads the Book of Mormon

Abraham Lincoln walked down the cold streets of Washington, D.C., on November 18, 1861, to the Library of Congress and checked out a couple of books. Lincoln's signature and his government office, "President, U.S.," appears in the library ledger which notes that he took a copy of the Book of Mormon. Records show that he returned the book on July 29, 1862. He later had two other books delivered to the White House, Gunnison's Mormons and Hyde's Mormonism. Lincoln was already familiar with the Latter-day Saint people since he had met Joseph Smith in Illinois and was a signer on the original charter for Nauvoo.

Meet Mitt

Prior to his Mitt Romney's Olympic service, most people knew more about Governor George Romney than they did his son. Mitt's work in the private sector can be seen in the companies he helped create like: Staples, Domino's Pizza, Sealy Mattress, Brookstone, and The Sports Authority. But at last it was his highly visible impact on the sinking 2002 Olympics that showcased what Mitt could do.

In his three years at the helm of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, Romney erased a $379 million operating deficit, organized 23,000 volunteers, galvanized both community and national spirit, and oversaw an unprecedented security mobilization just months after the September 11 attacks, leading to one of the most successful Olympics in our country's history.

Romney surprised both Democrats and Republicans when he won the election for governor in a mostly liberal state, which seemed to always favor someone with the last name Kennedy. At the beginning of Romney's term as governor of Massachusetts, his state was losing thousands of jobs every month. Then, in Olympic style, he went to work on a series of crushing problems. Without raising taxes or increasing debt, Governor Romney balanced the budget every year of his administration, closing a three-billion-dollar gap he inherited when he took office, transforming all deficits into surpluses. His agenda going forward, which is listed on his website (mittromney.com), details the top ten problems he would fix as president. It ranges from simplifying the tax system to competing with Asia in education and technology to protecting our global strengths.

Mitt Romney and his high school sweetheart-turned-wife have five sons, (Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, and Craig). Mitt attended BYU and was valedictorian. He went on to get his JD/MBA from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School.

JFK Speaks at Mormon Tabernacle

Like Mitt Romney, a young presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, was forced to answer many questions about his religion. Although he tried to focus on policy instead, the press wouldn't let qualms about his religion go, despite the fact that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states: "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

In 1960, while speaking from the pulpit in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, John F. Kennedy said the following in reference to his battle with the subject of his religion: "I am grateful to the presidency of the Latter-day Saint Church, and to its presiding bishopric, for according me the privilege of speaking within the historic walls of this magnificent tabernacle. This is an honor which I shall long remember.

"Tonight I speak for all Americans in expressing our gratitude to the Mormon people--for their pioneer spirit, their devotion to culture and learning, their example of industry and self-reliance. They suffered persecution and exile, at the hands of Americans whose own ancestors, ironically enough, had fled here to escape the curse of intolerance.

"But they never faltered in their devotion to the principle of religious liberty--not for themselves alone, but for all mankind. And in the eleventh Article of Faith, the Prophet Joseph Smith not only declared in ringing tones: 'We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience'--but he also set forth the belief that all men should be allowed 'the same privilege. Let them worship how, where, or what they may.' Then--and only then--can we truly heed the command which Brigham Young heard from the Lord more than a century ago--the command he conveyed to his little band of followers: 'Go as pioneers, to a land of peace.'"

John F. Kennedy; September 23, 1960; Salt Lake City

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