How Joseph Smith and the Early Mormons Challenged American Democracy (2022)

It would be years before any Mormon leader formally acknowledged the practice of polygamy. Instead, somewhat shockingly, the Nauvoo city council passed a law punishing adultery with six months in jail and a fine of up to a thousand dollars. (Because the city’s municipal leadership overlapped entirely with its spiritual leadership, Smith could choose to protect colleagues from prosecution under this new law.) Even more audaciously, Smith cursed “all Adulterers & fornicators” in a speech, then excommunicated two Church leaders for attempting to expose his secret marriages. The first, JohnC. Bennett, had been the mayor of Nauvoo; when his own polygamy became public, he accused Smith of having sanctioned it. The second, William Law, had denounced plural marriage after Smith propositioned his wife. After being banished from the faith, Law started a breakaway movement called the True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Such two-faced dealing was characteristic of Smith’s leadership during the Nauvoo years, both within and beyond the bounds of the Mormon Church. Not only was he struggling to maintain control of his followers—suppressing dissent over plural marriage and quashing concerns about his own moral purity—he was also trying to expand his secular power. Since arriving in Illinois, Smith had, ahead of every election, courted the favor of the two major political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, dangling the Mormon vote in exchange for political favors and personal protection. In a state where a few hundred votes could determine the outcome of an election, particularly at the county and congressional levels, the thousands of active and enfranchised Mormons became a sought-after constituency. After a few election cycles, though, this courtship soured, partly because Smith did not reliably follow through on his promised endorsements; in one congressional race, he supported the Whig candidate while instructing other Church leaders to support the Democratic opponent, dividing the promised bloc vote. Moreover, he was becoming politically toxic. When Boggs, the Missouri governor, was shot, in 1842, rumors circulated that Smith had placed a bounty on his head. Missouri forced Illinois into an extradition arrangement for the Mormon leader, but the municipal courts in Nauvoo thwarted it, in a scandalous act of disregard for the rule of law.

Like the Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony before them, and the Rajneeshees in Oregon after them, the Mormons in Illinois came to be seen as a danger to democracy: not a mini-America, where the saints could take refuge, but an anti-America, where social deviance threatened the moral order, and religious authorities sought too much power. In the case of the Mormons, that perception was not entirely inaccurate. This became clear in 2016, when the sealed minutes of the Council of Fifty were finally made public. Smith first convened the secret organization in the spring of 1844, and it immediately began drafting an alternative to the United States Constitution, rejecting democracy as a failed political project and outlining a theocratic kingdom to replace it.

Park’s access to these minutes is part of what makes “Kingdom of Nauvoo” so illuminating. The documents offer new insights into Smith’s decision to run for President, a campaign that exasperated authorities in Illinois and in Missouri and drew criticism of the Mormons from around the country. It was the Council of Fifty that appointed Smith “Prophet, Priest & King,” helping him shape a political platform while also making plans for what would happen if he lost the election and the Mormons needed to leave Nauvoo. The Council sent missionaries south and west, to see about resettlement, and Smith, in his Presidential platform, called for the annexation of Texas from Mexico, suggesting that the sale of the nation’s public lands could be used to buy the freedom of enslaved persons around the country, thereby ending slavery and promoting Manifest Destiny at the same time. (That suggests a stronger commitment to racial equality than existed. In the Book of Mormon, dark skin is depicted as a curse from God; after Smith’s death, the Church began withholding the priesthood from black members, a policy that lasted for much of the twentieth century.)

Smith had queried the five other Presidential candidates before deciding to run. Only three responded, and none expressed a willingness to protect the Mormons if elected. Smith’s ensuing campaign was not so much a vanity project as an attempt to advocate for a more assertive federal government and a stronger executive branch, making the case that the Union should intervene against the states whenever the rights of minorities were threatened. “Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion,” Smith lamented, after announcing his candidacy. “And no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief. And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence.”

Nearly three hundred Mormon missionaries were sent into all twenty-six states to evangelize for Smith’s candidacy. Political conventions were just becoming popular, and his newly created Reform Party planned to hold them in every state—and to hold a national one in Baltimore later in the summer. But, not long before it was to take place, Smith was imprisoned in Illinois. The arrest stemmed not from forces outside Nauvoo but from forces within it: William Law, the excommunicated leader who founded a rival church, had, with a group of other dissenters, begun publishing a newspaper, which accused Smith of polygamy and detailed the ways in which he was supposedly dangerous to American democracy.

Smith and his Council of Fifty ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press that printed Law’s Nauvoo Expositor. Smith then declared martial law. The state of Illinois responded by threatening military retaliation against Nauvoo, and by adding a new charge to all the outstanding ones against Smith: attempting to incite a riot. Smith surrendered himself at Carthage, the county seat. Two days later, a mob of more than two hundred men stormed the jail where the Prophet was being held and shot him as he tried to escape by jumping from a second-story window. He died not long after hitting the ground, either from the fall or from the bullets the mob fired at him once he landed.

Only five of the vigilantes were tried for Smith’s murder, and none were convicted. Smith’s First Counselor and Vice-Presidential running mate, Sidney Rigdon, tried to take control of the Mormon Church; then Brigham Young, a former carpenter who’d been ordained to an advisory council called the Quorum of the Twelve, made the more politic suggestion that the whole Quorum should oversee the Church, with Young as its president; the congregation agreed. (The Council eventually excommunicated Rigdon, who later established a competing church, which condemned polygamy, in Pittsburgh.) Young was a forceful figure—“a man of much courage and superb equipment,” per the weathered stone that marks his birthplace, in Whitingham, Vermont. Ignoring the criticisms of the surrounding secular authorities, he began to “marry for eternity” more than a dozen women, seven of whom had also been “M.E.” to Smith, while also organizing the Mormon vote for county elections. The state retaliated by revoking Nauvoo’s charter, and the antagonism between the theocratic city and its surrounding democratic neighbors intensified until, finally, the Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo.

There was no reason to believe, at that point, that the Mormon Church would survive. Some supporters had proposed giving the religion its own sovereign reservation, like those that had recently been designated for Native Americans; opponents of the faith advocated, outright, for the extermination of its adherents. Park suggests that the Mormons’ migration to Utah was a preview of the sorts of secessionist tendencies that would play out two decades later, when Southern states left the Union, though the Mormons departed the country entirely—or tried to. When the faithful settled in the Salt Lake Valley, more than twelve hundred miles from Nauvoo, they were pleased to find themselves outside American territory, then displeased to discover, after the Mexican-American War, that their foreign soil was suddenly domestic. In yet another example of their continually complicated relationship to the United States, the Mormons almost immediately petitioned for statehood, trying to get federal recognition for the State of Deseret.

Nearly half a century later, Utah finally became a state, and the Mormons rejoined the Union—but not before they had mounted an armed resistance against the National Guard, in response to the American military entering the territory, in 1857. Five previous applications for statehood had been denied, on the ground that the Mormon Church’s political theology clashed with the country’s democratic values: the same conflict that had forced the Mormons out of Nauvoo was now playing out, over and over again, in their new home. Unlike the separatist Shakers and Mennonites, the Mormons wanted to participate in the democratic process, and they tried to consolidate enough political power to bend the laws of the majority to protect their minority beliefs. But polygamy, for the U.S. Congress, was a non-starter; eventually, judicial debates over its legality went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. U.S. (1879), the Justices ruled that the free-exercise clause did not protect plural marriage, and that a federal law banning polygamy was constitutional. Congress then passed more laws punishing the Church, including one that called for the seizure of its property. Finally, Mormon leaders, who had previously called for open defiance of federal laws, declared an end to plural marriage. Six years after this public capitulation, in 1896, Utah was recognized as the forty-fifth state.

Such compromises are the stuff that democracy is made of—and, it seems, the stuff that successful religions are made of, too. Many denominations came and went during the proliferation of faith and fanaticism that characterized the Second Great Awakening. What kept Mormonism from joining their ranks was its willingness to change its political theology. Park suggests that part of what the Mormons learned at Nauvoo was the limits of theocracy. Adapting their beliefs and practices in Utah strengthened their standing with the federal government; by balancing religious liberty with democratic authority, they survived persecution and persisted, eventually coming to play a significant role in the political life of the nation.

Although a Mormon was elected to state office in Illinois in 1838, it wasn’t until 1896 that one was elected to the federal legislature. That achievement did not end the suspicion on both sides of the church-state divide: when a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Reed Smoot, won a United States Senate seat, in 1903, he endured several years of congressional inquiries into whether his duties as a Mormon apostle would keep him from exercising secular authority. Such was the uneasy evolution of the relationship between the faithful and their government: enmity and mistrust slowly gave way, on both sides, to accommodation and alliance. So it was that earlier this year, on the floor of the Senate, another onetime Mormon Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, could declare that he had sworn “an oath before God to exercise impartial justice,” and become the first politician in American history to vote to impeach a member of his own party. In explaining why he would convict President Donald Trump on the charge of abuse of power, Romney said, “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.”

It was a remarkable gesture, the sort of profile in courage that so many people had been waiting for during the impeachment trial. It was also a vote to constrain the power of the executive branch, which Joseph Smith had wanted to strengthen, and to uphold traditional democratic principles, which Smith and his early followers had sought to undermine. And it was a vote at odds with some of Romney’s co-religionists in Congress: of the three other Mormons in the Senate, one, Tom Udall, a Democrat, joined Romney in voting for impeachment, while the other two, Mike Crapo and Mike Lee, both Republicans, voted to protect the President. That schism might have dismayed Smith: this time, there was no Mormon bloc. But, nearly two hundred years after the founding of Nauvoo, there was, within his faith, something that Smith had demanded from his country, even if he had not always permitted it in his church: room for dissent.♦

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