Several years ago I reviewed David Sehat’s then-new book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Published in 2011, the book was intended as a corrective to what Sehat characterized as the conventional idea that Americans celebrate an unbroken and unblemished tradition of religious liberty. Demonstrating that America’s record of toleration and freedom isn’t flawless, Sehat chronicled many episodes of religious discrimination during the nineteenth century Although, as many revisionist texts do, Sehat’s book may have overcorrected, he introduced an important new awareness of the historical reality of not only religious persecution, but subtler forms of establishment coercion that existed in the land of the free during the nineteenth century. Mormons were, quite naturally, a constituency of Sehat’s work, though most of his focus was elsewhere. I expressed in that post my opinion that Mormonism presents a natural point of entry for the study of religious freedom in America. Because of their controversial practice of polygamy and their broad assumption of political autonomy, Mormons were at the center of much national debate over the boundaries of religious freedom in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and this something that scholars like Kathleen Flake, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and now Leigh Eric Schmidt have worked on in various ways.  Relatively less has been said, though, about how early Mormons themselves conceived and understood religious liberty. How did this eminently democratic idea, resting on a premise of ideological pluralism, square with Mormon political theology?
The ideology of religious freedom shows up intermittently in the first decade of Mormon thought. Emerging only a generation removed from the giddy nationalism following victory in the War of 1812 and only one or two generations from the Revolution itself, Mormonism had a special consciousness of civil liberty. “It is a love of liberty that inspires my soul,” said Joseph Smith, explaining that “civil and religious liberty [were] diffused into my soul by my grandfathers…while they dandled me on their knees.”  In 1835, when the Church formalized a statement of its political beliefs, it accentuated freedom of religion and conscience, rejecting the right of governments to prescribe the forms or content of religious faith. Government, it said, “should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.”  Social and political conflict with other groups brought urgency and emotion to the emphasis on liberty. Mormons experienced these conflicts as religious persecutions, and they lamented the breach of religious liberties that state and federal governments failed to guarantee for them. This lament became a significant theme of the redress literature. “We are true Americans,” insisted Parley Pratt in his History of the Late Persecutions, “we love our country and its institutions.” It was shameful for Mormons, he said, as fully enfranchised Americans, to have their liberties trampled.  In a momentary show of defiance on the July 4th celebration in Far West in 1838, Mormons reasserted their their patriotism, rights, and liberties with a stridency that precipitated further conflict.
All of these factors anticipated a more extensive, more complete uptake of religious freedom while the Saints were in Nauvoo. Appeals to religious liberty during persecution had arisen from self-interest, but now Joseph Smith went a step further, signaling his willingness embrace the idea in its entirety. In April 1843, for instance, he insisted that he was sacrifice for the religious freedoms of other religionists. “Mormons can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for a Mormon,” he preached to a congregation, and “if it has been demonstrated that I am willing to die for a Mormon[,] I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a presbyterian, a baptist, or any other denomination.” This was necessary because, as this statement was later rendered in the History of the Church, “the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”  Genuine religious freedom, Smith realized, required reciprocity. In 1841 Smith had acted on this recognition by introducing a city ordinance for religious toleration. The law stipulated that Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter Day Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans, and all other Religious Sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this City.” Violators “guilty of ridiculing and abusing, or otherwise depreciating another, in consequence of his religion,” or those who interfered with religious worship, were subject to a hefty fine (as much as $500) or imprisonment (up to six months). 
Despite this, tensions and mixed motives still complicated Mormons embrace of religious freedom. The city ordinance was mostly symbolic—there was no great religious diversity in Nauvoo—and it clearly served Mormons’ interests by protecting them from harassment and their meetings from disruption in their own city. Resentment still brewed among Church members over the treatment they had received over the past decade. Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Baptists would have peace in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said, “only they must be ground in Joe smiths mill.” Smith claimed that in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, he had been subject to the “smut machines” of other denominations. Now those who came to Nauvoo “must go through my smut machine & that is my tongue.”  In addition, despite the fact that religious liberty formed a “cornerstone” of Mormon political theology, it pushed the Saints’ political thought to the breaking point.  Mormon “theodemocracy” was an unstable mixture of democratic and theocratic elements, in which the theocratic largely prevailed. Hence, when the Nauvoo Expositor began its run in 1844, the reaction emphasized was public order, not civil liberty. To fully recognize personal liberties, including religious freedom or freedom of conscience, inevitably meant to accept (at some level) a premise of pluralism, This was something Mormons were far from willing to do. As a result, their acceptance of religious freedom was a qualified one.
Nonetheless, in Nauvoo the principle of religious freedom grew into an article of faith; it found a place, in fact, among those fundamentals of Mormonism articulated by Joseph Smith to editor John Wentworth.  Events in Nauvoo helped to establish and reify a tradition of religious freedom within Mormon thought. This tradition would become more important, more elaborate, and more active during the political conflicts and turmoil over polygamy and political power in the later nineteenth century. It also forms part of the foundation of the LDS Church’s efforts to preserve and advocate for religious freedom today.
 Leigh Eric Schmidt’s recent Tanner Lecture, presented at MHA, explored the indirect relationships between Mormons and American freethinkers in the nineteenth century. Schmidt suggested that religious and civil liberties represent a point where Mormons and freethinkers held a shared interest.
 Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980; rpt., Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 229.
 Declaration of Belief, circa August 1835 [D&C 134], ID 5472; josephsmithpapers.org.
 Parley P. Pratt, Late Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints… (New York, 1840), xi-xiii. See also xix-xx.
 Ehat and Cook, WJS, 229.
 Manuscript History of the Church, C-1:1169, ID 7513, josephsmithpapers.org.
 Ehat and Cook, WJS, 167.
 Patrick Q. Mason, “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State 53, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 367.
 Manuscript History of the Church, C-1:1285, ID 7513, josephsmithpapers.org.