Joseph Smith’s Politics, part 1

By November 15, 2011

Friend of the blog Mark Ashurst-McGee has agreed to share with us his 2010 AHA paper, which provides an overview of the arguments in Mark’s award-winning dissertation on Joseph Smith’s political thought. For those who don’t know Mark’s work, you should stop what you’re doing and start catching up now. He’s currently working as an editor on the Joseph Smith Papers. I’ve broken the paper into two parts. For full documentation, see the dissertation, “Zion Rising: Joseph Smith’s Early Social and Political Thought” (ASU, 2008) –DG

I would like to speak to the fundamental impulse within Mormonism to withdraw from the wider society into a sectarian “Zion”–as Joseph Smith called it–as well as the paradoxical necessity of political involvement to protect this separatist project.

As founding prophet and president of a new church–now known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–Joseph Smith sent missionaries throughout the English Atlantic world inviting all who would listen to leave worldly Babylon behind. His missionary force called on individuals not only to embrace the gospel through baptism and confirmation but to migrate to the Mormon center of “gathering.” Converts were to leave behind not just their inner sins and worldly habits but their lands and improvements, family and friends, churches and communities. The Latter-day Saints were to move to the western reaches of the United States and build the new society of Zion.

Smith’s disengagement from America is perplexing given the patriotic tenor of the times. He was born within a quarter century of the Revolutionary War, in which both of his grandfathers had served. He grew to manhood in the period of nationalism following the War of 1812. But for Smith and his family, as for many other Americans, the hopes and dreams of the new republic went unfulfilled. Smith considered America’s revolution and founding to be acts of providence, but he also believed that the republic’s golden age had come and gone. Peace and harmony were giving way to contention and strife between religious denominations, socioeconomic classes, and political parties. His Book of Mormon, published in 1830, identified the American Indians as a branch of the House of Israel to whom God had given the Americas as a promised land. The book also foretold that in the last days these American Israelites would reclaim the continent as sovereign territorial domain. Smith’s further revelations charged his followers to awaken the Indians to their true identity, join with them, and help them build the New Jerusalem in the New World. The Indians would then begin reclaiming the Americas for Israel beginning at this capital city. Zion, the holy land of the western hemisphere, would grow in size and power without aggression as the contention in America and the other nations of the world escalated into violence, warfare, destruction, and collapse. The Zion of Joseph Smith’s mind was essentially Mormon and exclusivist in its government rule by the Mormon priesthood, but Zion had a cosmopolitan and inclusivist aspect as well: It would welcome converts from every “nation, kindred, tongue, and people”–regardless of race or class–and would also welcome the unconverted who fled to Zion seeking refuge from the wars of nations.

Mormonism’s genesis illustrates clearly that not all Americans shared the optimism of the early republic. Most early American reformers, while seeing serious problems in American society, believed fervently in their ability to provide the necessary legal remedies or institutional support to solve the nation’s problems. Even abolitionists, feminists, and others who perceived flaws deep within American society optimistically pursued their crusade to save the nation. In contrast, Shakers, Harmonists, and other separatists abandoned the endeavor of general reform and turned to internal projects. More pessimistic than these separatist groups, who created pockets of sacred community within America, Joseph Smith called upon his followers to leave America behind and help him establish a new nation in the western borderlands. The early mission of the Latter-day Saints to leave America and join the Indians shows the depth of their alienation. It serves as a potent illustration of the profound discontent experienced by many in the social turbulence following America’s political, economic, and religious revolutions.

In 1831, a year after organizing the “Church of Christ” in New York, Joseph Smith led a small group of church members to the western edge of the United States. From a cluster of settlements in Jackson County, Missouri, the Saints attempted to affect a communion with the Indians living in the reservations just across the border. When their efforts failed, they pressed forward to establish Zion themselves. The early settlers of Jackson County watched with concern, then with fear and loathing, as the Mormon community grew in size and strength. After two years of Mormon migration, the early settlers could see that the demographic balance of power was about to shift. Then, in the summer of 1833, the Mormon newspaper published the Missouri statutes regarding free blacks along with a word of caution regarding immigration. The prospect of free black Mormons moving into Jackson County was more than the early settlers would bear. They saw the Mormons constructing a citizenry that was entirely incompatible with their own. Vigilantes destroyed the Mormon print shop that had published the paper and demanded that the Mormons leave. By the end of the year they had driven the Saints from the county with whips and rifles.

The magnitude of their losses in land and improvements–and their inability to recover their lands on their own–compelled Smith and the Saints to engage with America on its own political terms. In December 1833, Smith delivered a revelation to his people in which God commanded them to seek redress from government and “redeem” Zion. The revelation explained the means of this redemption by using Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, in which a widow pled her case before a judge and continually wearied him with her complaints until he finally avenged her of the wrongs she had suffered–not out of a sense of justice but to relieve himself of her pestering. The Saints were to weary the government in a similar manner. Before, the Mormons had gone to great lengths to distance themselves from worldly government. Now they mounted an aggressive campaign to win political favor for their cause. Their effort to resuscitate the separatist Zion project ironically required them to accommodate themselves to the broader political landscape.

While the appeal for help forced the Saints to abandon their theocratic posturing, in their fear of further persecution and in their appeals to American government the Mormons turned away from their former interest in the nation’s most oppressed peoples. Like white laborers and immigrants, when they claimed the privileges of American citizenship they played by the rules of the dominant political culture of white manhood suffrage. So long as they maintained a presence in Missouri, the Mormons went out of their way to distance themselves from the broad cause of anti-slavery. The mission to join with the Indians faded even further into the future.

An even more crucial point regarding the revelation on Zion’s redemption was that it introduced a process of appeal that ultimately led back to God. If rejected in the courts, the Saints were to take their case higher: “let them importune at the feet of the Judge and if he heed them not let them importune at the feet of the Governor and if the Governor heed them not let them importune at the feet of the President and if the President heed them not then will the Lord arise . . . and in his fury vex the nation.” The revelation placed the immediate burden of redeeming Zion on the Saints and committed them to engage with the government at the local, state, and even national level. And yet, at the same time, the trajectory of appeal traced out in the revelation suggested that in the end only God would avenge them. The effort to reclaim their lands was a tenuous reengagement with America.

The pivotal revelation on Zion’s redemption became as important in Smith’s outlook as the revelations that had brought Zion into being. It would frame his efforts and his understanding of events for the rest of his life. The first step toward redeeming Zion was to seek redress through the local courts. In response to earlier incidents of vandalism, the Saints had already attempted to enter complaints with officers of the Jackson County court–many of whom had signed the vigilante circular calling for an expulsion posse. As the Jackson court had earlier refused to take their complaints, the Saints filed their complaints at the local circuit court. When the circuit court came to Jackson in February 1834, Mormon witnesses reentered the county with the state attorney general and an escort of 250 state militia. However, after the attorney general read the hostile climate he dropped the state’s Mormon cases. He explained to the Saints that it was useless to try them before a jury of Jackson citizens. Mormon civil cases, though granted venue in neighboring Ray County, fared little better.

To be continued…

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Conference/Presentation Reports Cultural History Intellectual History


  1. So great to see this. Mark is doing tremendous work, and more people need to know about it.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 15, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  2. Wowzer. Great stuff, guys.

    Comment by Steve Evans — November 15, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

  3. I know that I am getting ahead of things, and it is in Nauvoo, which isn’t treated in Mark’s thesis, but I am interested in JS’s expansion of Zion to encompass American, with members only gathering temporarily to the temple before returning home. Was this an assimilation into the political structure of the US–a shift from sectarian to reformer?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 15, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  4. J. Mark will talk about that in part 2.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 15, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  5. It’s a fine dissertation. Thanks for putting this together.

    Comment by WVS — November 16, 2011 @ 1:39 am

  6. […] Joseph Smith's Politics, partSteve Fleming: Joseph Smith's Politics, partJ. Stapley: Joseph Smith's Politics, partSteve Evans: […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Joseph Smith’s Politics, part 2 — November 16, 2011 @ 8:01 am

  7. One of the saddest things in Mormon history is the failure of this move of Joseph. Wouldn’t it have been great had Mormons been on the forefront of civil rights, bringing the slaves and blacks into a new community where they could have full rights? And integrating them into the community of God?

    Instead after Joseph’s death we get a pull back (well, OK, arguably before that due to opposition over our abolitionism) and then by the time of Utah you have a lot of people more sympathetic to southern views in all this. (Which still staggers my mind given how southerners at the time viewed Mormons)

    Comment by Clark — November 19, 2011 @ 2:36 pm


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