When the US Put the Mormon Church on Trial

When the US Put the Mormon Church on Trial

Salt Lake City's Temple Square.

SourceBettmann / OZY

Why you should care

Because America has a long history of political witch hunts.

Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.

Like so many hot-button social issues in American history, this turn-of-the century controversy went by a two-word name: the “Mormon Problem.” And, if anything, when the state of Utah, founded and run by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was admitted into the union in 1896, the “Problem” seemed to only get worse, especially for those calling themselves Mormons.

Despite being founded on the principles of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, America in the late 19th century was still a nation in which First Amendment protections meant one thing for the Protestant majority, and something else entirely for minority faiths. And few faiths were more ghettoized and more liable to provoke violence and outrage at that time than Mormonism. “We’ve got a problem,” Joseph F. Smith observed in his first speech as president of the LDS church in 1901. “There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”

Then, in 1903, one man stepped into the middle of this social and religious crucible through a single act — getting himself elected to the U.S. Senate. The subsequent political firestorm unleashed a torrent of religious bigotry, but produced a debate that ultimately moved the nation closer to a truer expression of the religious tolerance and pluralism it was founded upon.

The Senate put Smoot, and the Mormon faith, on trial.

When Utah state legislators elected Reed Smoot by a commanding vote of 46 to 16 (prior to the direct election of U.S. senators) to represent the new state in the U.S. Senate, the successful businessman and former missionary enjoyed an unimpeachable reputation. There was just one problem: Smoot was a high-ranking figure in the LDS church. And so the effort to impeach Smoot began.

At the time, Mormons, as Kathleen Flake observes in The Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, were “at best the objects of reform and at worst incapable of reform.” The LDS church had attracted hostility from wider society for a variety of reasons, from polygamy to its growing consolidation of power in Western states, and by the late 19th century, American authorities were so paranoid about Mormons that one-sixth of the Union’s post–Civil War forces were concentrated in the areas surrounding Salt Lake City. Even after the church and the state of Utah agreed to reform their marital practices, Mormonism was viewed by many as a lawless enterprise, and the question of what is required of a religion to enjoy the protections of the First Amendment was never really broached. “In the 19th century, America was such a Protestant nation,” Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, tells OZY, “that it couldn’t even conceive of the question.”

And so when Mr. Smoot went to Washington, an avalanche of complaints came flooding in, including petitions from Protestant churches, business leaders and organizations arguing that the practices of the LDS church, and Smoot’s allegiance to it, made him unfit for Congress. The Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections was tasked to investigate, and in a marathon ordeal lasting over three years, the Senate put Smoot, and the Mormon faith, on trial.

The lengthy proceeding, which included more than 3,500 pages of testimony from more than 100 witnesses on everything from Mormon family structure to secret rituals, gripped the American public’s attention as spectators packed the galleries and journalists chronicled each day’s events. Federal agents even canvassed Utah looking for Smoot’s second wife. Such inquiries turned up nothing to besmirch the senator, but angry constituent letters poured in by the thousands, and the committee voted narrowly in June 1906 to strip Smoot of his seat, concluding that he could not be loyal to both his church and the United States.

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The Senate Committee debates seating Reed Smoot.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

When the matter went to the full Senate in 1907, however, Republicans there — under pressure from President Teddy Roosevelt to keep Smoot a senator, and a Utah Republican — voted against expelling him from the Senate. Smoot would reward his party for their support, serving in the Senate for 30 years and becoming one of its most influential leaders (Smoot-Hawley Tariff, anyone?), not to mention a powerful ambassador for his church, which would become, by the early 21st century, America’s fifth-largest denomination.

More important than Smoot’s triumph, though, was the path forward that the hearings charted for working through religious differences, and paving a way for other minority religious communities to win acceptance in America — something we are still working out today. For decades, America had deployed its police powers to combat the “Mormon Problem” and failed. The Smoot affair showed that there was another way. “It shows that violence doesn’t work, but political compromise does,” says Flake. “What worked was political negotiation.”

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