The Prophet and the Presidency: Mormonism and Politics in Joseph Smith's 1844 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

The kingdom of God is at the defiance of all earthly laws and yet breaks none.

- Joseph Smith, April 6, 1844 1

Resolved... that we ... discountenance every attempt to unite church and state; and that we further believe the effort now being made by Joseph Smith for political power and influence is not commendable in the sight of God.

Resolved... that while we disapprobate malicious persecutions and prosecutions, we hold that all church members are alike amenable to the laws of the land: and that we further discountenance any chicanery to screen them from the just demands of the same.

-Nauvoo Expositor, June 7, 1844 2

One of the most intriguing movements that sprang from the religious fervor of early nineteenth century America was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons. Throughout its existence, the Mormon church has distinguished itself as one of the fastest growing religious denominations in the United States. That phenomenon was all the more surprising since in many ways the Mormon church represented a radical departure from both mainstream American culture and orthodox Christianity, while at the same time remaining a continuation and adjustment of that culture and faith.

However, at no point in its early history did the Mormon church so ambitiously attempt to influence the larger American society than in the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's 1844 presidential campaign. Smith used his presidential platform to articulate a series of social ideals developed since the founding of the LDS church in 1830. As a religious leader, Smith harkened back to a day when the preponderance of society's moral and religious authority resided within local institutions, such as the church and an individual's immediate community. Smith believed that the primary duty of the federal government was to defend religious liberty and maintain an atmosphere in the United States where such communities grew and thrived. However, the shifts in doctrine that hit the LDS church during the early 1840s introduced several new practices, including polygamy, that disrupted the social, political, and religious balance articulated in Smith's campaign. The Mormon prophet's dramatic change of course reenergized the church's enemies, leading him down a path that culminated in his own murder in June,1844.

Most contemporary scholarship on Mormonism may be seen as falling roughly within one of two schools of thought. The first was best expressed in Fawn M. Brodie's 1945 biography No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet. Brodie's goal was first and foremost to understand Joseph Smith the man through the social and psychological forces that shaped his life. As Brodie herself put it: "The source of his power lay not in his doctrine but in his person, and the rare quality of his genius was due not to his reason but his imagination. He was a myth-maker of prodigious talent. And after a hundred years the myths he created are still an energizing force in the lives of a million followers. The moving power of Mormonism was a fable - one that few converts stopped to question, for its meaning seemed profound and its inspiration was contagious."3 As a historian, Brodie separated Smith's personal motives from his symbolic role within the larger Mormon movement. Ultimately, Brodie concluded that Smith was a brilliant con artist who came to believe in the delusion that he himself had engineered, all the while presiding over a growing community of faith motivated by values far different than his own.

The second approach to Mormon history is best represented by the LDS historians Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton in their 1979 book, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. In the introduction to their work, Arrington and Bitton stated that: "Both authors of the present work are believing and practicing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. …