Editor’s note: This essay by Greg Guma is from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movement, a new study of the state’s evolution and influence slated for release in 2012. To find out more, visit The Vermont Way.
Of the major religions – other than Muslim – people in the United States are least comfortable with the prospect of a Mormon president. Even evangelical Christians, a core constituency for many a Republican hopeful, tend to see the Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints as a secretive, potentially heretical cult.
There are a number of Mormon political heavy-weights these days, but Mitt Romney’s ties to the Church are among the deepest. A fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors were involved from the mid-1850s, he is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts’ temple. Still, he isn’t the first leading Mormon to seek the presidency. That honor goes to founder Joseph Smith, a Vermont native who struck out for the west in revival days.
The enthusiasm of 19th century revival movements was contagious. Part of an evangelical surge known as the Second Great Awakening, many centered on Christian prophecies of impending doom. The prophecies faded but the righteous attitude and enthusiasm gave energy to diverse movements, from abolition to temperance and opposition to Masonic influence.
Smith was born in Sharon, on Dec. 23, 1805, and he moved from Vermont to New York before founding the Church in 1831. He began by announcing that an angel had given him a book of golden plates inscribed with a religious history of ancient peoples. Once “translated” by Smith their contents became The Book of Mormon.
Believers flocked to the new religion, but hostile neighbors forced Smith and his followers to keep moving, first to Ohio and then Missouri and Illinois. In Missouri the tensions broke into outright war. Hostile Missourians thought the Mormons were planning an insurrection and the governor said they should be “exterminated” or driven out.
Smith next led them to Illinois, where they built a town on some Mississippi River swampland. There Smith became the mayor of a town he named Nauvoo and commanded an impressive militia.
He announced for president as candidate of the National Reform Party in early 1844. It was a long shot, since former President Andrew Jackson was engineering the nomination of Tennessee farmer, lawyer and political “dark horse” James Polk. The Whigs were backing Henry Clay, and the big issue was expansion – specifically the takeover of Texas and Oregon.
Smith’s party had emerged from the National Reform Association, a coalition of unionists, locofocos (a radical Democratic faction combining unionists and libertarians) and the Workingman’s Party, united in their concern about depression and “social degradation of the laborer.” What especially attracted Smith, however, was the Party’s policy focus – homesteading rights. National Reformers wanted legislation allowing workers and others to acquire public lands free of charge, state laws exempting farm land from seizure to collect debts, and restrictions on ownership of large swathes by the wealthy. Their slogan was “Vote the Land Free.”
Unfortunately, like many candidates before and since, Smith had some personal baggage. In his case it came in the form of romantic overtures he had made to the wife of a convert, William Law, a Canadian who quit the Church and publicly attacked the Mormon practice of polygamy in a newsletter.
“We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms,” wrote Law. Accompanied by the Nauvoo city marshal, Smith responded by destroying his accuser’s printing press. The governor charged him with inciting a riot and had him jailed.
On June 27, 1844, while Smith was drinking wine with his brother and some friends in a spacious cell in Carthage, Ill., a mob surrounded the building. The prophet had a gun, a six shot “pepper-box” pistol, but a gang with blackened faces charged into his cell and opened fire, immediately killing his brother and the others. Smith almost escaped out the window. With shots coming at him from behind and below he plummeted two stories to the ground and then died.
Five men were tried for his murder. All were acquitted. But the Mormonism soon recovered when a new prophet emerged – a 43-year-old former housepainter and carpenter from Vermont named Brigham Young.
Thirty-seven years later Chester Arthur succeeded where Smith had fallen short, becoming the first president from Vermont upon the assassination of President James Garfield. But Arthur was no Mormon and public attitudes had turned less tolerant in the intervening years.
In his first Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 6, 1881, Arthur called Mormon polygamy an “odious crime” and a “barbarous system,” urging legislation to stop its spread. By then Mormons were well established in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Western Territories. Attacks on polygamy peppered Arthur’s speeches throughout his presidency.