Joseph Smith’s Politics, part 2

By November 16, 2011

 Continued from part 1

The Saints soon shifted the focus of their attention to government at the state level. Acting on perceived signals from the governor’s office of his willingness to provide them with a militia escort to reoccupy their lands–but not to protect them once there–Joseph Smith raised a security force. In the summer of 1834, over two hundred Mormon men gathered from Kirtland and other eastern congregations to march to Missouri. However, news of the Mormon army reached Missouri before the army itself. Seized with war hysteria, the Jackson citizenry prepared to hold the county or die fighting. Smith aborted the venture when his army reached Zion’s exiles in neighboring Clay County and learned that state support for the reoccupation had evaporated. Several months later, however, the state legislature found a new solution to the “Mormon problem” in the creation of Caldwell County. It was commonly understood that Caldwell had been set aside for Mormon settlement.

New conflict erupted in 1838 when the Mormons settlers filled Caldwell and began spilling into neighboring counties. When vigilante activity began in Daviess County, the Saints called on Governor Lilburn Boggs to protect them. Boggs dispatched state militia, which disbanded and dispersed the vigilantes. When vigilantes attacked in Carroll County, the Saints’ appeals for help were denied and they had to abandon their colony there. Then vigilante activity resumed in Daviess County, and the Saints decided they would have to defend themselves. In response to a preemptive strike they made in Daviess and another engagement on the border between Caldwell and Ray counties, Governor Boggs declared the Mormons enemies of the state and ordered the state militia to drive them out of Missouri. Clearly the Saints had satisfied the injunction in the redemption revelation to weary the governor.

From the dungeon of a Missouri jailhouse, Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints–who had resettled in Illinois and Iowa–and instructed them to begin counting the costs of the Missouri expulsion in lands lost and confiscated chattel property. Using the language of the revelation on Zion’s redemption, he informed the Saints it was now time to focus their efforts on the national level. After escaping from his guards and rejoining the Saints, Smith gathered up all the documentation he could and took it to the nation’s capital to present to President Martin Van Buren and the 26th congress. He hoped that the federal government would intervene to restore the Saints to their land or remunerate them for their losses. In December 1839, when Smith arrived in the city, he called on the President at the White House. Upon hearing his case, Van Buren reportedly replied, “what can I do” I can do nothing for you,”if I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole State of Missouri.” Following Constitutional interpretation–and especially as a states’ rights Democrat–Van Buren was unwilling to interfere in Missouri’s domestic affairs. But Smith viewed his reaction in a campaign context as well. In another version of the incident, Van Buren was reported to have said, “your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you . . . If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.”

While Van Buren’s unwillingness to help the Saints almost closed the door on the presidential stage of appeal outlined in the redemption revelation, the context of the impending election opened the door wide again–for if Van Buren would not help them perhaps William Henry Harrison and the Whigs would. As the party of moral activism, the Whigs were more likely to interfere in domestic matters. With their Democratic patronage uncompensated, the Saints shifted their allegiance to the Whig party and voted for Harrison. Although Van Buren took both Missouri and Illinois, he did not retake the White House. But then neither did Harrison, except for a few weeks of terminal illness. Smith–unsatisfied with the “pseudo whig democrat reign” of John Tyler–waited for the next election. In the meantime, ongoing immigration made the Saints a demographic force to be reckoned with in Illinois. They became deeply involved in politics at the county and state levels. From the state legislature, they obtained a charter for their city Nauvoo granting broad powers of political autonomy. The new city council quickly passed a law protecting religious freedom for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Smith soon became the mayor.

As the 1844 election approached, Smith and other leaders sent letters asking the various candidates what they would do for the Mormon people if elected. Those who responded offered no assurance of help. The purpose of the inquiry was to find the candidate most likely to do something about their redress petitions, but the responses they received ruled out the viability of support even before the election. However, the Saints had not exhausted all of their options in pursuing the divine mandate to appeal to the national executive; if none of the candidates in the field were willing to take up their cause, the Saints could field their own candidate. Joseph Smith prepared to run for president himself. Once an alienated separatist, he had become a petitioner to the government and then a candidate for its highest office. His immediate sights were now set on Washington, not New Jerusalem. The campaign was another huge step for the Saints toward participation in American political culture. Smith converted his entire missionary force into campaign workers and sent his chief lieutenants into the field to manage their efforts. Reaching out to Catholics and other minorities, he attempted to build a “coalition of the oppressed.” Drawn into public dialogue, Smith constructed a platform that weighed in on contemporary issues ranging from banking and commerce to the question of Texas annexation.

Smith’s platform centered, however, on civil rights and the federal protection they deserved. Though with the interests of his own people foremost in his mind, he focused his critique on slavery and the American prison system–advocating universal emancipation from both. In politics, as in religion, Smith’s views were far from orthodox. Smith’s political thought derived not from a deep study of classical theory but from his idiosyncratic religious worldview and from the existential experience of oppression. Smith knew firsthand the dark side of democracy and the dilemma it posed for American public life. Beyond serving as a Moses to his own people, Smith now offered a prophetic critique of the government to the nation at large. Attacking states rights, he explicitly advocated federal protection of the freedoms articulated in the Constitution.

Though more deeply engaged in American politics than ever, Smith had also placed himself and his people on the brink of fulfilling the commandment to seek government redress at the national level and thereby justifying them in taking their case back to God. And so, in the middle of his campaign for the American presidency, Smith also organized a secret Mormon government and made contingency plans to move his people once again and build a newer Zion in a farther west.

Around the same time, the Mormons in Nauvoo grew to constitute a majority of the Hancock County population. Their bloc vote now determined who would attain office. Smith’s bid for the American presidency, however unlikely, only further incensed those in western Illinois who despised the concentrated religious and political power he wielded. Conflict with the area’s early settlers, similar to that which had occurred in the counties of western Missouri, eventually led to Smith’s murder. A lynch mob gunned him down in June 1844 while he was being held prisoner in the Hancock County jailhouse. It was largely due to Smith’s assassination that the Mormon leadership determined they had fulfilled their obligations in appealing to the government.

As persecution and violence continued to grow, the Saints once again disengaged from American politics and set their sights on finding a place apart where they could live independently and peacefully. Again they looked to the far west, but this time beyond the reach of American territorial claims. Following the example of the Republic of Texas, they hoped to carve out a piece of northern Mexican territory for themselves. After the Mormons left the states, but before they reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake, America declared war on its neighbor to the west. A year after the Mormons reached their new home, the treaty ending the war placed them once again within American territory. For the moment, however, their new land was no more American than it had been Mexican. The Great Basin was Indian country. Brigham Young took up again Joseph Smith’s Zion project.

And so it was that Smith’s political ideas were not without consequence. His dream of independence and isolation affected the lives of tens of thousands of converts who migrated to the Mormon stronghold in the intermountain west. There they would struggle against the United States for another half century before submitting to its sovereignty.

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


  1. This is terrific stuff. I highly recommend Mark’s dissertation, which significantly advances our understandings of Joseph Smith’s, and by extension early Mormonism’s, political thought. Mark, you need to find time in your schedule to get this out as a book! In the meantime, I’m drawing heavily on Mark’s research in my own work on the relationship between “the kingdom and the nation,” which (shameless plug) I’ll be presenting on at AAR this Saturday.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — November 16, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  2. I’ll echo Patrick. It’s a crime that this brilliance isn’t in published form yet.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 16, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  3. I’ll echo Patrick and Ben. If these bits are even the slightest indication, this really needs to be published in book form.

    Comment by JB — November 16, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Thanks for posting this, Mark. If a full-length book project is out of the question at the moment, I hope some of your ideas appear in article-form soon.

    Also, I’m wondering if you could comment on how your ideas relate to Klaus Hansen’s argument that Mormons were “anti-evangelicals.” While I don’t recall all of the specifics of his argument, it seems like he argues that Mormons didn’t like revivals and were also less likely to promote reform. I also don’t recall if you deal with this in the dissertation, so I apologize if you do.

    Comment by David G. — November 17, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Thanks David and everyone. Parts of my dissertation are forthcoming in the Journal of Mormon History and in a few other venues.

    As for revivals: Joseph Smith, himself, didn’t seem to like the revivals. He attended, as he recounts it, as many as he could. He certainly cared about some of the content. But, as he also recounted, he could not feel and shout like the rest. To the contrary, the revivals see to have upset him–concerning him for the welfare of his soul without providing the relief. And what he perceived as a disharmony of doctrines confused and upset him.

    Regarding reform: I think I basically agree with Hansen in chapter 8. The Mormons believe strongly in reform but only through conversion and living the covenant. They are not cooperating in the effort to reform the nation. I’ll give one quick example: There was a temperance society in Kirtland. The Mormons did not participate. They had their own revelation on a code of health.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 17, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

  6. Mark, this is really great stuff. Thanks for contributing your thoughts here, and I look forward to seeing more of your research in print.

    I wonder, though, about the claim that JS “didn’t seem to like the revivals.” While it’s clear that he was bothered by the partisan nature of them (that is, he disliked that they turned “priest against priest, and convert against convert”), there’s a lot to suggest he did in fact value them: for one, he kept on returning to attend them. I don’t think that his despair that he could not feel and shout like the rest should be read as a rejection of revivals, but rather as a lament of his own inability to experience what they promised he would—an experience that did eventually occur (like so many other revival attendees) while he prayed in seclusion. What you describe as “upset[ting] him” was exactly what the revivals were intended to do; to convict the individual of his/her sins and to seek forgiveness. In that sense, the revivals worked for JS, though obviously with some additional baggage the revivalist preachers hadn’t intended.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  7. Thanks Chris, good point, but although the revival may have ultimately worked (or backfired?), I doubt the “additional baggage” didn’t do anything to make him further value them.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 17, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  8. Wasn’t much of the anti-revival feeling among some Mormons due to a perception of them tending to elevate false gifts of the spirit? I think a case could be made that as the Church progressed and there arose a centralization or at least regulation of spiritual gifts that this would entail a deep distrust of revivals. Revivals simply were much more anarchistic.

    Which isn’t to deny other factors, but I think that Mormonism moved towards centralization with each decade adding more until we come to correlation. Within Evangelicalism you have the opposite tendency with much more focus on democracy and the individual being their own authority. (Thus the Priesthood of all believers)

    Comment by Clark — November 19, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  9. I’m going to shoot from the hip here and say that spiritual gifts in Mormon evangelization were performative. That is to say, it seems to me, that missionaries would often speak in tongues or heal people in conjunction with preaching. Then converts would hold separate meetings where glossolalia or healing might be present.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 19, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  10. Some have pointed to the hosannah shout as an illustration of how Mormonism promoted and yet harnessed enthusiasm.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 19, 2011 @ 4:46 pm


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