Mormon History

The Case of Reed Smoot - 1906

In 1906, the Smoot affair put Mormonism in spotlight

Albert B. Southwick

Sunday, December 16, 2007

On June 1, 1906, The Evening Gazette published an editorial titled: THE CASE OF REED SMOOT. It went on to report that the U. S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections had issued a strong statement on the reasons why Mr. Smoot should not be allowed to serve in the Senate, even though he had been elected to the Senate by the state of Utah four years before.

Mr. Smoot, said the editorial, “Instead of being a representative of the state of Utah, is the delegate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has usurped the functions of government of the state of Utah, thus violating the Constitution of the United States by uniting church and state.

“It is also charged that the Mormon hierarchy, of which Sen. Smoot admits himself to be a member, if it has not deliberately fostered, has at least winked at the practice of polygamy since the admission of Utah as a state, and contrary to the pledge given at that time by the elders of the church.”

The Gazette noted the “general high average of character” of the men who signed the majority report. By contrast, those who signed the minority report, supporting Mr. Smoot, were characterized as “mean and sordid,” a “group of political tricksters” who were “anxious only to promote Republican aims and ends in Utah, which by a bargain with the Mormon Church was turned over to the Republican Party during the height of the free silver excitement.”

The editorial summed up the matter thus: “On the one side is the indignant and conscientious majority, condemning Mormonism and all its works. On the other is a small and select group of political tricksters prating sophistry of a most soothing sort in an attempt to fool the nation as to their real reason for their support of the Mormon delegate.”

The early years of the 20th century was not an easy time for the Mormon religion. Probably most Americans in 1906 shared The Evening Gazette’s view that the Mormons were an untrustworthy lot, with a creed founded on a fraudulent fable and still secretly practicing polygamy despite the Mormon church’s official stand against it. For 50 years and more, Mormonism had been widely regarded as a bizarre, dangerous non-Christian cult with weird notions about the afterlife.

The Mormon faith had had a prickly relationship with federal and state authorities ever since 1830, when Joseph Smith, an uneducated farm boy from Vermont, published The Book of Mormon, which he claimed he had translated from some golden plates inscribed in a foreign language and given to him by an angel, Moroni (Sidney Rigdon). Although Mr. Smith refused to show the plates to anyone else, the Book of Mormon is regarded by Mormons as authoritative as the Old and New Testaments.

Among other teachings, the Book of Mormon asserts that American Indians are descendants of one of Israel’s 10 lost tribes and that worthy Mormons, after death, ascend to a heaven where they are assigned special kingdoms.

Some Christian churches considered Mormon teachings heretical, and when Mr. Smith proclaimed “plural marriage” as part of God’s law, and began to practice polygamy openly, he encountered bitter social, religious and political hostility, even while his doctrines attracted more and more people every year. In 1844, shortly after he announced he was running for the presidency of the United States, he was murdered by a lynch mob in Carthage, Ill.

Brigham Young then became the leader of the Mormons and led them to Utah Territory, where he set up a powerful, almost theocratic regime that repeatedly found itself at odds with federal authorities. The Mormon leaders became convinced that federal troops were planning to invade Utah and overthrow them.

In 1857, Mormon vigilantes attacked an unarmed caravan of California-bound settlers at a place called Mountain Meadows and murdered more than a hundred in cold blood. The Civil War may have saved Utah from invasion by federal forces.

After Mr. Young died in 1877, leaving 56 children and 16 wives behind, Utah applied for statehood. After many controversies, mostly about polygamy, the church in 1890 declared that plural marriage was no longer allowed and Utah was granted statehood five years later.

But the change was not simple. Thousands of Mormon families with two, three or more wives had to adjust their lives and for years charges of polygamy were raised against prominent Mormons. When Brigham Henry Roberts, a member of the Mormon Council of Seventy, was elected to Congress in 1896, he was denied membership because he had three wives. Reed Smoot, elected to the Senate in 1902, was not a polygamist. But, as the editorial in The Evening Gazette made clear, he was still being criticized for clandestinely supporting polygamy and for putting church interests before national interests.

Mr. Smoot was not expelled from the Senate; he served another 24 years. He has gone down in the history books not as the first Mormon elected to the U.S. Senate, but as the co-sponsor of the 1930 Smoot–Hawley tariff law, which raised tariffs on 20,000 imported items and is widely regarded as a colossal blunder that exacerbated the Great Depression of the 1930s. By then, his religion had long ceased to be a factor in American political life. Mitt Romney, now running for president of the United States, does not have to worry about the polygamy issue. Plural marriage has long been banned by the Mormon church and survives only in a few, isolated backwater places. But he still is concerned that his faith may be a problem in the upcoming caucuses and primaries. His clarifying speech earlier this month emphasized his strong commitment to American values, including the separation of church and state, rather than any explication of the doctrinal beliefs of the Mormons. In fact, he used the word “Mormon” only once.

That probably was wise. Religious doctrine should have no place in political debate. Four centuries ago in England, people died over such things as the issue of “transubstantiation” versus “consubstantiation” — whether Christ’s body is present physically or only spiritually in the holy communion. Some heads were chopped off but otherwise nothing was gained from those abstruse arguments. That was a lesson well-learned by the members of the First Congress when they wrote the First Amendment to the new Constitution.

As Mitt Romney knows, there is a lot of history behind his run for president. At some point he probably will be asked whether, if elected, he will take his oath of office on the Bible or the Book of Mormon. It shouldn’t make any difference, but it probably will.


Smoot case fascinating

By Dennis Lythgoe
Deseret Morning News
Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

When Reed Smoot, an LDS apostle, was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Utah in 1903, he immediately fell into a quagmire. After all, when another Mormon, B.H. Roberts, had been chosen for Congress in 1899, the political uproar was so great that he was denied his seat.

But there was an important difference: Roberts was a polygamist while Smoot was a monogamist, and the issue that surrounded each man was allegedly that of polygamy. Even though Utah Mormons today lean toward the Republican Party, the Republicans in Smoot's day were dead set against "the twin relics, slavery and polygamy."

The result was a long and bruising hearing led by Senate Republicans to expose Smoot as a secret polygamist, and thus send him home on the coattails of Roberts. The Senate failed in its carefully orchestrated effort, and Reed Smoot not only survived politically, he was a very powerful senator for 30 years.

For anyone attracted to Mormon history, the Smoot hearings represented a gold mine of testimony — 42 witnesses in 17 days — for and against his admission to the Senate. The documentation of the hearings has always seemed insurmountable with 3,432 pages recorded. Yet Michael Paulos, a young financial analyst who maintains a vigorous side interest in history, has produced a condensation that is slightly more than 700 pages.

His book, "The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings," is not only carefully edited but deftly annotated, making this historic political and religious episode accessible and fascinating to the general public. Even as a BYU student, Paulos had become enamored of the Smoot hearings, although he found it difficult to understand them either from written history or from college classes.

So in 2001, he began his own research into the Smoot case, reading up on its background and collecting his own copy of the transcripts, working mostly evenings and Saturdays. "I'm a political junkie, and I love Mormon history," said Paulos during a phone interview from his home in San Antonio, "so the Smoot case seemed the perfect intersection of both. I was fascinated."

He found that the testimonies of Reed Smoot, LDS President Joseph F. Smith and Apostle James E. Talmage propelled Mormonism into the public square much as Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy did for modern Mormonism. "Smoot is part one, Romney is part two," Paulos said. The parallels between Smoot and Romney are pure serendipity."

Paulos found reading the transcripts of the hearings to be "tedious and painstaking" but his business acumen allowed him to use comfortably 25 spreadsheets to keep it all straight. "The biggest challenge," Paulos said, "was to get it from hard copy to electronic text. I had to be careful to catch all the mistakes. I didn't want my work to be merely an abridgement of the hearings. I wanted to provide 'behind-the-scenes information,' and it worked out very well."

Family and friendship connections facilitated Paulos' acquisition of materials from both the Smoot and Badger families. Carl Badger was private secretary to Smoot during the hearings, and he kept a very helpful journal. Paulos was able to get primary documents directly from the Badger family.

Paulos discovered that Smoot was "a savvy businessman even before he was a politician," but his "lack of religious knowledge was surprising and not what you'd expect of a general authority. On the stand, he testified he had been through the temple only once, and it didn't make much of an impact on him."

That was important since several senators had heard that Mormons took secret oaths, perhaps against the government of the United States, inside the temple. Because Smoot had been an apostle only three years, President Smith and Talmage filled in the gaps of his LDS knowledge.

Paulos said Smith was "the most influential witness" while Talmage was "the smartest, most intellectual witness. He talked about the minutia of doctrines."

When Smith seemed to indicate that the process of revelation was rare to him personally, it surprised many people. Paulos believes that Smith "was a cagey witness and played the political game when he testified, using spin" as politicians do.

"A lot of the senators who voted in favor of Smoot said the hearings were ridiculous," Paulos said, "because 'we were examining the Mormon Church rather than Smoot."'

Actually, Smoot's "wet-behind-the-ears" image might have helped him win his case, and there was no evidence that he had ever advocated or practiced polygamy. In Paulos' view, the politicians failed to find "their smoking gun."

Paulos has provided a fine historical treatise on one of the most interesting episodes in both Mormon history and American political history. His book is invaluable for understanding Mormons as they emerged as a stable force in the 19th century.

Webmaster Note: Since Smoot was a savvy businessman, he had to pretend to be ignorant of Mormon theology to be seated in the United States Senate. A Mormon general authority would never have been ignorant of Mormon pagan theology.