The church with a soul of a nation versus the nation with the soul of a church: Book review of “Politics of American Religious Identity”

I believe I picked up Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, from a Goodreads recommendation based on my LDS history bookshelf. A fascinating read in one of the most well-known, yet simultaneously forgotten, turning points in the Latter-Day Saint faith tradition. Have you ever heard of Reed Smoot before? If you’re from Utah, perhaps you have heard of someone with the last name Smoot. If you are historically savvy, you may recognize his name from the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act which is sometimes blamed for partially precipitating the Great Depression. And I do believe the the seating of Senator Smoot was mentioned in a one-liner in my high school US history textbook.


The best pictures in the book are the political cartoons.  Pictured here is Reed Smoot.



But what is all the fuss about? The key is the shift, the change in Mormonism that was precipitated by the Senate hearing of whether Senator Reed Smoot, duly elected as a US Senator, should retain his seat. Mormonism in the 19th century was a very different animal: the books introduction contrasts the two: “Defined by polygamous family structure, utopian communal economy, and rebellious theocratic government, nineteenth century Mormonism seems to have little relation, except by contrast, to the twenty-first century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, the church’s present reputation, for good or ill, appears to be based on a reverse set of identity markers: idealization of the nuclear family, unapologetic capitalism, and patriotic republicanism.” The Manifesto, issued by President Wilford Woodruff, while officially ending the practice of polygamy in 1890, did not stop the sealing of new polygamous marriages in the Church; a policy of ignorance was implemented, in which apostles and other church leaders would perform marriages without official Church consent. The election of an LDS apostle to the US Senate precipitated an investigation into not only the apostles private life, but Church affairs as a whole, forcing the Church to finally make good on its commitments 15 years previously. Not known to many members today, President Joseph F. Smith even made an appearance before the Senate to testify. The two main characters in this story are the young, slick and monogomous Reed Smoot, and the older, wiser, and polygamous church President Joseph F. Both are fascinating characters, and you learn what was at stake in the proceedings for both of them.

The book is a fairly quick read– six chapters and an epilogue– covering a period of approximately four years (1903-1907). The book was originally written in the form of a PhD dissertation, the topic being suggested by the wonderful Greg Prince. Prince authored another Mormon history favorite of mine David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism documenting another fateful transition period for the Church. The connection between the two are the two apostles forced to resign for sealing post-Manifesto polygamous marriages, Matthew Cowley John W. Taylor, during Joseph F.’s presidency, one of which left an open spot for David O. McKay. As a Mormon reader, it is fascinating to find out some of the whys in Church culture, including the initial welcoming of Mormons into the Republican fold, the almost prudish attitude towards sexual behavior, and the origins of the use of the Joseph Smith story as a fundamental narrative. The book also confronts a difficult topic for Mormons, one that we have in general relegated to the dust heap of history: polygamy and all its implications. Back in the day, polygamy was something members proudly wore, despite the negative reactions of society. We were considered sexual deviants. Today, the Church condemns any who practice polygamy as exemplified by former Church president Gordon B. Hinckey’s statement: “There is no such thing as a Mormon Fundamentalist. It is a contradiction to use the two words together… the Church teaches that marriage must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage.” Back in the day, the abandonment of plural marriage was soul-shaking to members, as it was central to their identity. It took Joseph F. and his fellow Church leaders much effort to re-instill the confidence of the members. The book documents that as well.


Mormon polygamy when the federal government cracked down.



I was also interested in some parallels to the LGBT movement within the Church today. Even as Joseph F. defended polygamy before the Senate, even he had to admit that polygamy would fade out over time, and that Mormonism would be defined by the next generation of Mormons who found polygamy abhorrent. While I don’t anticipate a change in doctrine, I do think that the next generation of Mormons today have in general a warmer and welcoming attitude to the LGBT community. Interesting building those connections.

One clever phrase that captures the essence of the entire book was “the church with the soul of a nation and the nation with the soul of a church.” The Mormon church didn’t fit neatly into the American definition of a denomination; the LDS Church wasn’t just abstract theological beliefs, but your way of life; the Church did have its hands in politics and business. We were intent on building the kingdom of God, and Americans found that threatening and very un-American. On the other hand, the nation, while trying to maintain an air of neutrality, clearly was moralizing, trying to impose Protestant ideals on minority groups not limited to Mormons.

I highly recommend this book. It will give you a great look into an overlooked topic in US and Mormon history, while also informing and broadening your own perspectives on Mormons in particular and religion in general.

As always, a few quotes worth mentioning:

The Mormon Problem: The Mormon Problem made it obvious that, by not establishing any religion, the Constitution had subordinated every religion’s authority over believers to the state’s authority over citizens.

Protestants had enjoyed the privilege of writing the law: By the early 20th century, the limits imposed by the American constitutional order upon all churches, not merely the iconoclastic ones, had yet to be felt by the religious majority. More specifically, because Protestants had always enjoyed the liberty that comes from writing the law, they were confident that no differences existed between one’s duty to church and to state. This confidence would falter at the end of the 20th century and be replaced by the protest that religious morality had become marginalized and organized religion suppressed by a secular and hostile government.

The accusation that Mormonism is not a religion: There were, indeed, two organizational (as opposed to creedal) reasons for the stubborn antagonism between the Latter-Day Saints and the rest of America. First, the Latter-Day Saints preferred theocracy to democracy, and, hence, did not accept the major premise upon which Protestantism had crafted religious liberty in America. They did not subordinate their church to the nation-state, and they conflated their local state with their church. Second, their theology dictated their morality. This, too, was a reversal of the American Protestant denominational form that based its religious commitments on morality– or “the nature of the Christian life”– instead of theological creed. The moral commitments of American Protestantism gave its churches common cause, notwithstanding creedal differences. Indeed, this shared sense of right religion undergirded the condemnation of Mormonism as not a religion but an “immoral and quasi-criminal conspiracy.

A difficult question from Senator Hoar: “I want to go a little farther. Suppose you should receive a divine revelation, communicated to and sustained by your church, commanding your people tomorrow to do something forbidden by the law of the land. Which would it be their duty to obey?” Joseph F.’s answer: “They would be at liberty to obey just which they pleased.”

The persecution complex: “‘We are a persecuted people’ continued to create emotional reactions which kept the gulf which divided Mormons and Gentiles dangerously deep… The average Mormon watned to dress in his temple garments, pay his tithing, go on his mission, raise his family and center his loyalties in his church, and let the rest of the world go by save as he went out among the ‘gentiles’ on his mission.” as quoted by Claton Rice, Presbytarian missionary to Utah.

Don’t associate with outsiders: Isolated by geography and religious conviction, the Latter-day Saints had developed a closed community with an ethic of self-reliance that made them appear selfishly interested only in their own welfare. Of course, their goodwill toward the nation was further dampened by the nation’s treatment of them. Regardless, while they may have been generous and helpful in their personal relationships with outsiders, the Latter-day Saints did not have a sense of shared purpose with other American churches and they certainly did not like the idea of a Protestant Christian America.

Joseph F.’s comment that made members uncomfortable: “I have never said I had a revelation except so far as God had shown to me that so-called Mormonism is God’s divine truth; that is all.” From the point of view of the protestors and the senators sympathetic to their case, if Smith claimed to be a prophet, then be claimed also God’s power and could exercise that power over his followers in opposition to civil authority. Since Smith’s goal was to show the contrary, he consistently minimized his role in church government.

Joseph F.’s task: The Smooth hearing would, indeed, “abolish Mormonism without war” unless Joseph F. Smith could convince the faithful that the church was remaining the same even as it changed.


An unflattering portraint of Church President Joseph F. Smith.



How Mormonism can change: Modern Mormonism’s capacity to adapt to its social environment has been explained in terms of its belief in continuing revelation. Revelation is not of itself sufficient to legitimize change, however. Removing a part of religious conviction, even by revelation, can easily remove the whole of it, as well as the confidence in the revelatory process itself. This is especially true where the part is thoroughly integrated into the whole, as was plural marriage for the Latter-day Saints… Smith’s task was formidable. He had to remove his people’s faith in one revelation without undermining their confidence in all revelation, as well as the revelator, namely, Joseph Smith and himself as Smith’s prophetic successor.

The box that contains Mormonism: These three elements– a foundational restoration of Christ’s church from apostasy, a base of continuing revelation from heaven, and an assertion of Joseph Smith’s revelatory power and divine authority bestowed to those that follow– were the core elements of Latter-Day Saint doctrine and continued to frame the church’s identity within twentieth-century American denominationalism. In place of its nineteenth-century emphasis on theocratic and familial kingdom-building, the LDS Church was prepared by crisis to return to less grandiose but still large claims regarding restoration of the primitive church, divine sponsorship, and living prophets. These principles constituted the generative, and hence, nonnegotiable core of Mormonism.

Nonnegotiable tenets: Notions of restored truth, authority, and order, based in models both of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament apostolic witness, constitute the creative model out of which the LDS church has adapted itself over time. Moreover, they define the outside limit of what may be changed. They comprise both the boundary and content of Latter-day Saint identity in a sense of separateness from non-Mormons and sameness of being Mormon. Everything else is relatively fungible, making the Church extraordinarily adaptable and identifiable at the same time.

Did you know that the First Vision wasn’t a big deal to early members?: Many factors contributed to the relative lack of interest in the First Vision by believers and nonbelievers… “the weight of evidence would suggest that it [the First Vision] was not a matter of common knowledge, even among church members, in the earliest years of Mormon history.”… This oversight continued until 1883 when the First Vision was first employed to teach the Latter-day Saint doctrine of deity. Even here, however, Allen can only characterize the 1883 sermon as having “implied” that a major purpose of the vision was to “restore a true knowledge of God.” While appreciation for Smith’s First Vision continued to grow in the last decade of the nineteenth century, not until the early twentieth century did it move to the fore of Latter-day Saint self-representation. As Allen’s research makes apparent, the turning point in the status of the First Vision occurred during the administration of Joseph F. Smith and was contemporaneous with the Smoot hearing and its immediate aftermath… In the First Vision, Joseph F. Smith had found a marker of Latter-Day Saint identity whose pedigree was as great as– and would be made greater than– that of plural marriage for the twentieth-century Latter-Day Saints.

From social action to theological belief: Significantly, however, the First Vision changed the arena of confrontation over differences from social action to theological belief, a necessity created not only by the experience of persecution, but by the Supreme Court law. In Reynolds v. U.S., the Court made clear that the Constitution protected only differences in religious thought, not religiously motivated actions that compete with social mores.

Richard Bushman: “What distinguished Mormonism in the nineteenth century was not so much the Gospel Mormons taught… but what they believed had happened– to Joseph Smith, to Book of Mormon characters, and to Moses and Enoch… Mormonism was history, not philosophy.”

Senator Bois Penrose: “I think the Senate should prefer a polygamist who doesn’t ‘polyg’ to a monogamist who doesn’t ‘monog.'”

Senator Hopkins: “If we are to charge a member of a Christian church with all the crimes that have been committed in its name, where is the Christian gentleman in this body who would be safe in his seat?”

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