The Faithful Dissident asked a very interesting question in my last post.
Back to Joseph Smith and theocracy, there’s something that puzzles me about Quinn’s claim. If JS truly intended on establishing a theocracy in America, wouldn’t that be in complete contradiction to what his religion proclaimed (i.e. that the US Constitution was a God-inspired document)? I never took American history, so I’m no expert on the Constitution, but how could it have been upheld in a theocracy?
The short answer is Joseph absolutely believed in the Constitution, and felt it was a God-inspired document, but that’s not to say it couldn’t be improved. I don’t have Quinn’s book anymore, but in answering FD’s question, I decided my comment would be too long, and I wanted to write a post directly to her question. I have been planning a post on the Richard Bushman interview at the Pew Research Forum anyway, and this question gave me the perfect opportunity.
Some snippets of the interview, and then I’ll let Mr Bushman speak for himself. Bushman said,
- Joseph Smith became a great devotee of constitutional rights because they seemed like his only hope. He said some very extravagant things about the Constitution being God-given because of those rights and became quite conversant in constitutional matters.
- They [Mormons] believed to the end that the Constitution was on their side and that they were simply claiming religious freedom, but the Supreme Court knocked down their claims one after another.
- [Joseph Smith] began [his presidential candidacy] by citing the Declaration of Independence, the famous passages about all men being equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, which of course could be a lead-in to religious rights. But he didn’t use it that way. Instead, in the very next sentence, he talked about the obvious contradiction: “Some two or three million people are held as slaves for life because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” His platform called for the elimination of slavery, proposing that the funds from the sale of Western lands, a major source of revenue along with the tariff in those days, be devoted to purchasing slaves from their masters in order to avoid the conflict that would otherwise ensue.
- He was already mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion when he ran for the presidency. He seemingly had no sense that church and state should be separated. He gave no hint that he was going to give up his religious offices if he were to become president of the United States.
- In the closing peroration of his platform, Joseph Smith indirectly, but I think clearly, offered himself to be the priest of the people, as well as the president.
- But let me get a little closer to politics by talking about his daring in the re-envisioning of society. What is not recognized about Joseph Smith is that there is a very deep strain of what I am calling “civic idealism” in him, by which I mean the construction of a new kind of urban society that would embody Christian principles more thoroughly.
So, I think that probably answers FD’s question the best. And now, let me quote Mr Bushman. There are many obvious problems with a theocracy–one of the biggest is religious freedom. But Smith did not see it that way, and, according to Bushman, was actually for more religious freedom than many other areas of the country, which not only discriminated against Mormons, but Muslims and Jews. It was even legal to discriminate against Jews and Muslims in some states. Bushman says,
But by the time he got to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith saw the city as more open. One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and “Mohammedans,” as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion.
Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith’s civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society. Nauvoo didn’t develop that way; it came to an end too soon, but that is what he projected.
Bushman also tells why Smith entered into politics.
Smith was forced into politics by the abuse that the Mormons received. As soon as they were driven out of their first city site in Independence, Mo., he turned to the government for redress. He never obtained it. No level of government, from local justices of the peace to governors to the president of the United States — to whom he constantly appealed — ever came to the defense of the Saints. But Joseph Smith became a great devotee of constitutional rights because they seemed like his only hope. He said some very extravagant things about the Constitution being God-given because of those rights and became quite conversant in constitutional matters. He even visited the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, in the White House in 1839.
Gradually, then, Joseph Smith backed into American politics. In the fall of 1843, as the 1844 campaign began to take shape, the authorities of the church wrote to all of the known political candidates asking them about their views of the Mormons, and none returned a satisfactory answer from the Mormon point of view. The Mormons wanted a pledge that these candidates would protect them if they were attacked again, and they couldn’t get it.
Joseph Smith was nominated as a protest candidate in February of 1844. Like other protest candidates, he began to warm to his work and got quite excited about it. He may have dreamed for a moment that through some strange concatenation of events, he would get elected. Every candidate has to dream such things.
His involvement in politics was manifested in a political platform of which he was very proud. He would bring it out whenever he had visitors and read from it. It is an interesting document because it represents a man whose world had been his own people, whose own project had been to create a kingdom of God, and who now had to turn his mind to politics.
He began by citing the Declaration of Independence, the famous passages about all men being equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, which of course could be a lead-in to religious rights. But he didn’t use it that way. Instead, in the very next sentence, he talked about the obvious contradiction: “Some two or three million people are held as slaves for life because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” His platform called for the elimination of slavery, proposing that the funds from the sale of Western lands, a major source of revenue along with the tariff in those days, be devoted to purchasing slaves from their masters in order to avoid the conflict that would otherwise ensue.
Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston, visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1844 when this platform was in circulation. Much later, Quincy wrote about that visit, saying that Joseph Smith’s proposal for ending slavery resembled one that Emerson made 11 years later in 1855.
As Quincy put it, writing retrospectively in the 1880s, “We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty” — Joseph Smith’s and Emerson’s — “would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844?”
I cite this example to illustrate the radical tone of Joseph Smith’s political thought, which seemed to carry over from his religious radicalism. It extended to prison reform and better treatment of seamen, big issues in the 1840s and 1850s. Smith seemed to identify with all of the underdogs in society. I think that was why he thought he might get elected â€“ because the little people, the beat-up people, would rise and select him.
This part of his platform accords perfectly with what modern people like us would have liked a candidate in 1844 to say. But Smith went beyond our sense of political propriety in other parts of his platform: he blended his role as candidate with his role as prophet. He was already mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion when he ran for the presidency. He seemingly had no sense that church and state should be separated. He gave no hint that he was going to give up his religious offices if he were to become president of the United States.
In the closing peroration of his platform, Joseph Smith indirectly, but I think clearly, offered himself to be the priest of the people, as well as the president. “I would, as the universal friend of man, open the prisons, open the eyes, open the ears, and open the hearts of all people to behold and enjoy freedom, unadulterated freedom; and God, who once cleansed the violence of the earth with flood, whose Son laid down his life for the salvation of all his father gave him out of the world, and who has promised that he will come and purify the world again with fire in the last days, should be supplicated by me for the good of all the people.” He would be the intercessor as priest as well as prophet.
Of course, that is point at which moderns part company with Joseph Smith. We don’t want a prophet with his authoritative words from God governing the nation. That seems to lead to the exclusion of unbelievers and the repression of naysayers. All the alarm bells go off when we see these roles merging.
But I would appeal to you, before you turn away completely from that idea, to pay heed to the underlying theme of that platform and that proposal. I think it can be argued that Joseph Smith actually felt he was fulfilling one of America’s dreams. We think of the American dream as the promise of ascent for the wretched refuse of the teeming shores — the promise that in America, everyone has a chance to prosper and to achieve respectability. That is a dream for the individual.
Smith wasn’t the only one who supported a theocracy. Brigham Young often derided capitalism, and promoted a theocracy as well. After all, many people have lamented the abuses in capitalism. Certainly, capitalists do not want equality of wealth, while a theocracy supports equality of all people. Bushman continues,
Brigham Young was appointed as the first governor of Utah, and he would have remained in that position if he hadn’t been ousted by the federal government. The church set up schools, it managed the courts, it regulated the irrigation system — no small thing — and it created a political party, the People’s Party, distinct from Republicans and Democrats.
All told, the charges that Utah was a theocracy were well founded. It was a theocracy, a merger of church and society under God. Two complaints about Utah were directed against Mormons in the 19th century. One was polygamy, of course, but the other was theocratic rule by Brigham Young, his successors and the presidency of the church.
This was the radical Mormonism of the 19th century, descended from Joseph Smith and continued by Brigham Young. It included a far-reaching social critique. Young criticized capitalism as often as he did philandering. Mormons were sympathetic to European revolutionaries in 1848. They saw themselves as a society set against American society with all of its inequities and iniquities.
It was a society that, as we know, was doomed to defeat. For 40 years, Mormons resisted attempts of the federal government to end polygamy and to destroy theocracy, but finally they gave in. The government began imprisoning Mormon men who had more than one wife and denying Mormons their civil rights. They couldn’t serve on juries, polygamists could not vote in elections, the government began to escheat all Mormon property — including their precious temples — and the church was actually unincorporated. By the late 1880s, it looked like the church, as a church, would be obliterated.
That intense pressure from the federal government was backed up by every branch of government, including the Supreme Court, which was, in Joseph Smith’s spirit, the Mormons’ last best hope. They believed to the end that the Constitution was on their side and that they were simply claiming religious freedom, but the Supreme Court knocked down their claims one after another. Eventually they saw it was hopeless. In 1890, the president of the church announced that they would no longer practice plural marriages.
It wasn’t just polygamy that Mormons gave up; they dismantled the whole theocratic structure. The People’s Party was dissolved and Mormons were instructed to join one or another of the national political parties. They were sometimes assigned: “You become a Democrat; you become a Republican.” There are Democrats in Utah to this day who are Democrats only because their great-grandfathers were told they should be.
They also began to give up all of the church businesses. Not immediately, but steadily over the course of the 20th century, they were not only turned into capitalist enterprises, but the church divested itself of ownership. The church elementary school system was given up. The hospitals have now all been turned into private corporations. All told, the Mormon theocracy was leveled.
Mormonism gave up on its radicalism because the United States government beat it out of them. They were forced to the point of extinction and then realized it all had to be abandoned to preserve their existence as Mormons. As a result, everything became secular. Mormons, in reaction to this treatment, turned to laissez faire liberalism, having no confidence in the government. Their history gave them no reason to trust the United States government as an agency of the people.
This was reinforced in the famous seating hearings of Reed Smoot in 1904. Smoot was an apostle â€“ a very high official in the Mormon Church â€“ elected to the Senate on a Republican ticket, but refused a seat. To settle the question he went through hearings for four years. This protracted examination brought forth all of the opposition to Mormons that was still residual in the nation. It was charged that they were still practicing polygamy, that they were still theocratic, that their reforms were superficial and not to be trusted.
The president of the church, a man named Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph Smith, was called to testify. He was asked over and over again, will Reed Smoot be obligated out of his loyalty to you as the prophet of the church to do what you say in political matters? Over and over, Joseph F. Smith answered, no, he is not obligated; he should follow his own conscience and the obligations he feels to his constituency, not to the president of the church.
The repetition of that question was an indication of the deep suspicion that prevailed and I think prevails to this day. To calm the fears, at the end of the hearings, the church authorities codified the testimony of the church president in an official statement: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state.” At the time that was a departure, but an accurate statement of what they had come to believe. “They believe in the non-interference of church authority in political matters and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties.”
On these terms, Mormonism entered the political scene: We will not interfere in politics or in the action of any politicians who are members of the church. And that policy hasn’t changed over the century.
There is, on the church website, this statement: “Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. While the church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they are elected to represent.”
On the whole it is fair to say that by comparison to the 19th century, the church has withdrawn from politics. It does get entangled in Utah politics; it’s such a large part of the state’s economy and population that engagement is inevitable. The church also occasionally takes stands on political measures that it considers to be moral issues, such as prohibition, but it doesn’t direct politicians how to vote. There is nothing like the Catholic bishops’ statements. There is no bishop who would threaten to excommunicate a Mormon because he took a position contrary to church positions on abortion or gay marriage or anything of that sort â€“ nothing like the Pope’s recent statements in Latin America.
Now, I know I’ve quoted quite a bit of Bushman. The interview is much longer, and there are questions asked by reporters. I’ll stop for now, but I’m sure I’ll revisit other portions of the Bushman interview in the future. Comments?