Joseph Smith declared his candidacy in the 1844 presidential race as a political reformer on an independent ticket. Joseph never gave his own movement an official name; he believed that all political parties were degraded, their leaders corrupt, and that the entire United States government was in need of reform. In print and from the pulpit he advocated a return to the “holy principles of ’76,” the republican ideals espoused by America’s founding fathers. Smith’s supporters established a political newspaper in New York City, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Truth. Its editors reported on Jeffersonian conventions promoting General Joseph Smith (he was a lieutenant general in the Illinois state militia), described as a man who would be “neither a Whig, a Democrat, or pseudo democratic President, but a President of the United States, not a Southern man with Northern principles, or a Northern man with Southern principles, but an independent man with American principles.”
Joseph Smith was not simply one more third-party candidate for the presidency of the United States. He was the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, a flourishing Mississippi River community second only to Chicago in population. And, he was the charismatic founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with tens of thousands of followers who sustained him as a prophet of God.
For the thirty-eight-year-old prophet Joseph, the American presidency was only the beginning. His publicly stated motivation for seeking the presidential chair was to facilitate compensating the Saints for their losses—of life, land, and property— during years of persecution in Missouri and their subsequent expulsion from the state. His private vision (initially made known only to a select inner circle of confidants) was even more ambitious. He prophesied the demise of the United States government within his own lifetime and proclaimed that his political Kingdom of God would ultimately overthrow all earthly regimes in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Smith’s dual political agendas were managed by a secret Council of Fifty, organized as the nucleus of a new world government.
For Joseph and his followers, the prospect was glorious: a heavenly-inspired theocratic democracy where “God and the people [would] hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness,” a literal fulfillment of the Christian prayer for God’s kingdom to become established “on earth as it is in heaven.” To Joseph’s opponents, the prospect of merging church and state in America meant a frightening, and unacceptable, repudiation of a cornerstone of the constitution.