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256 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 32 illus., 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

$49.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2831-9

$18.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5501-4

Published: Spring 2004

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The Politics of American Religious Identity
The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle

by Kathleen Flake

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Two questions frame the story told in this book. The first is an enduring one for religious studies: How do religious communities change over time and retain a sense of sameness with their originating vision? The other question has to do with the First Amendment as an agent of religious change: What are the political terms by which diverse religions are brought within America's constitutional order? Specifically, given the historically Protestant shape of that order, how do non-Protestant religions obtain the benefits of it, namely, religious freedom? The investigative hearing catalyzed by the election of Mormon apostle Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate in 1903 serves here as case study for both questions. The crisis his election created for both church and state illuminates the broader phenomena of religious adaptation and religious liberty in pluralistic societies. Moreover, the U.S. Senate's resolution of the crisis articulated the political terms by which increasingly diverse religions would be recognized and accommodated in America for the remainder of the century.

This book attempts also to fill a gap in American religious studies and history. 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 (L.D.S. Church). 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. It is as if there were two Latter-day Saint churches, not one. Making sense of this anomaly is fundamental to answering the theoretical questions raised above. What happened in both the nation and the church to permit political acceptance of Mormonism after so many years of mutual antipathy, even religious violence? This book argues that the Smoot hearing casts in high relief a number of changes to Protestantism, Mormonism, and the U.S. Senate that made settlement possible and paradoxically reveal the continuity of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormonism.

Between 1903 and 1907, a broad coalition of American Protestant churches, acting directly through their ministers and indirectly through various reform agencies, sought to expel Utah's new senator on the grounds that his ecclesiastical position made him a conspirator in the L.D.S. Church's continuing violation of the nation's antipolygamy laws. In the Smoot hearing, as in every other Mormon conflict of the previous century, the Protestants were the chief combatants. As Jan Shipps has documented in her statistical analysis of publications about Mormonism between 1860 and 1960, "If the author could definitely be identified as Protestant, whether religious leader or not, the article was seven times more likely to be negative."[1] Though they no doubt objected to polygamy, Catholics and Jews seldom participated in the Smoot protest as identifiable religious groups, appearing in only a very few instances as signatories on citizen petitions. Their dilemma was summarized by Senator Isidor Rayner of Maryland, who explained to Smoot's personal secretary that "the reason he voted against the Senator was that he is a Jew, and he felt that the Christian people of his State would have felt that he took advantage of his position to slap the Christian religion if he had voted for the Senator's retention."[2] The Smoot protest was essentially a Protestant endeavor. Fittingly, then, those who formulated the protest against Smoot were referred to as "protestants" (lower cased) in the hearing record. Because "protestants" accurately reflects the nature of the religious interests at stake, as well as the record itself, the term will be used here, too.

The protestors of Smoot's election represented all the varieties of American Protestantism, some of whom would have considered themselves marginalized by the five historic denominations (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and Methodist) that constituted the so-called Protestant Establishment. This book does not do justice to that diversity, largely because Protestant differences were elided by common concerns about Mormonism. I agree with Laurence Moore's observation that American religious history, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is best explained in terms of innovations upon traditional Christianity, or what the frustrated colonial Anglican Richard Woodmason called "schism shops."[3] With respect to the history of American church and state, however, a generalized Protestant ethic has had an undeniably unique importance. This is so, in part, because certain issues rallied Protestant schismatics to join with their more traditional neighbors, forgetting confessional differences in support of a common project to build a "Christian America."[4]

Mormons did not, nor were they invited to, participate in the effort to reform American social institutions. Indeed, they were at best the objects of reform and at worst deemed incapable of reform. For nineteenth-century Americans, including church history scholar Phillip Schaff, there was an "'irreconcilable antagonism of the American nationality with the pseudo-Christian, polygamists, deceitful, rapacious, and rebellious Mormonism.'"[5] Though rightly stripped of its normative indictment, Schaff's finding in historic Mormonism an extraordinary degree of otherness remains the scholarly consensus. "The Mormons attracted attention as a useful counterimage," according to one modern analysis, "a glaring example of what America was not and should not be."[6] Because of this, the term "Mormon" is heavily freighted with both historical and theological baggage. Signaling as it does the antebellum biblical culture's reaction against the young sect's canonization of the Book of Mormon, the term was a negative epithet. During the period discussed here, "Mormon" retained its extremely pejorative connotation. "Mormonism," said the New York American in 1904, "is a repulsive anachronism, a dangerous plague spot, a gross offense to the nation's moral sense."[7] Today, the L.D.S. Church objects to the use of "Mormon" as a denominator, preferring that its entire name be used in order to avoid any inference that the church is not Christian.[8] With due respect to these concerns, this historical study uses the term to convey the historic animus at play in the Senate hearing, not to comment on the theological claims of either group. Therefore, as with the protesting protestants, the use of "Mormon" here is meant to reflect as nearly as possible the attitudes and speech habits of both the protagonists and the antagonists of the Smoot hearing.

Several factors contributed to the L.D.S. Church's bad reputation, and they are discussed in the chapters that follow. For now, the observation must suffice that aside from the fear they inspired by successfully dominating the mountain West as a political domain, the Latter-day Saints attracted the hostility that belongs to the foil, that dramatic persona whose very likeness exaggerates opposition to its difference. Organized in 1830 and rooted in New England restorationism and frontier utopianism, Mormonism had early and always attracted the negative attention of its fellow citizens, but no more so than when it claimed the right to restore Old Testament polygamy. Rumors of it contributed to the mob violence that chased Mormons from the Ohio Valley to the banks of the Mississippi and, finally, to the isolated Great Basin on the far side of the Rockies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans were so aggravated by Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices that a sixth of the antebellum U.S. Army was stationed in the foothills overlooking Salt Lake City to police the Mormon kingdom. After the Civil War, a series of antipolygamy statutes criminalized the church's marital practices and sent more than a thousand of its members to federal prisons, as well as disincorporating their church and confiscating its property. After several failed attempts, statehood was granted the Utah territory in 1896, largely based on the church's 1890 promise to abandon its unique marital practice.[9] When the Smoot hearing showed that the Mormons had continued to practice polygamy, the national debate on Mormonism was reinvigorated and performed on the public stage of the U.S. Senate.

The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, "secret oaths," open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics.[10] The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day's admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills eleven feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.

Notwithstanding the news coverage dedicated to the trial, there was nothing new to report. Or more accurately, the only news was that the Mormons had not changed. After following the hearing for a year and a half, Illinois senator Shelby Cullom concluded, "Mormonism is the same menace to this country as it was from the beginning."[11] Indeed, the basic facts of the case were so familiar that over the years they had been reduced to the label, "the Mormon Problem."[12] Only in hindsight is the real news of the Smoot hearing appreciable: politics had succeeded where war and criminal penalties had failed. The Senate solved the nation's Mormon Problem and in doing so settled for a century the conflict of laws—religious and secular—implicit in the religion clauses of the First Amendment.[13]

America's problem with the Latter-day Saints was not simply or even primarily a matter of unlawful action, but of conflicting authority. The Latter-day Saints appealed to the law of their god, given through modern prophets, to justify their resistance to the law of the land. When Latter-day Saint morality, effected by a priestly order, confronted American morality, effected by a Protestant legal establishment, the philosophical underpinnings of the First Amendment were made explicit, and conflict arose between the nation with the soul of a church and the church with the soul of a nation. 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.

By the early twentieth 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 difference existed between one's duty to church and to state. This confidence would falter at the end of the twentieth century and be replaced by protest that religious morality had become marginalized and organized religion suppressed by a secular and hostile government.[14] During the first decades of the twentieth century, however, Protestants were conscious only of the problem posed by nonconformists to America's dominant moral order.

The Progressive Era is universally described as a time of extraordinary change, though rarely is religion admitted to this political and cultural assessment. The few histories that consider Progressive Era religion generally limit their analysis to Protestantism. Such studies agree that during the first decade of the twentieth century, the theological concerns of the late nineteenth century—evolution, historical criticism, and comparative religious studies—were just beginning to break out of the seminary and enter popular pulpit and culture. Liberal and conservative labels would soon measure institutionwide breeches, but not quite yet. It was a period when Protestant denominations were, as William Hutchison says, challenged but not threatened.[15] The challenges are axiomatic to historians: science, immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and the new national market with its oligarchical impulses. My intention is not to minimize these developments in the narrative of American religious history, but to add to them the challenge of the religious margins. Mormonism was only one of several non-Protestant and marginalized Protestant communities that sought and obtained some measure of legitimacy, if not respectability, during the twentieth century. Such new legitimacy was, I argue, the result of the Progressive Era's broader political understanding of religious liberty and narrower reading of permissible establishment.

Most simply stated, I argue that the U.S. Senate's solution to the nation's Mormon Problem was a compromise that required the Mormons to conform their kingdom to that most Protestant form of religion, the denomination, with its definitive values of obedience to law, loyalty to the nation, and creedal tolerance. In return, the Senate gave the Latter-day Saints the benefit they sought by sending a representative to the Senate, namely, that form of religious citizenship that provided them protection, at home and abroad, for the propagation of their faith. Each of the ways in which the Mormons satisfied the criteria of First Amendment "citizenship" is enumerated in chapters that follow. The short version of the story is that, first, Mormon abandonment—in deed in 1906, not merely word in 1890—of polygamy vouchsafed the church's subordination to the state. Second, the church demonstrated by both benevolent actions and military enlistment that it created loyal citizens who could contribute to the nation's common good. The third criterion of tolerance—or the privatizing of its truth claims in deference to those of others—was limited to the political arena. The Senate was satisfied by the implementation of a more democratic process in Utah government and, on the eve of the Smoot hearing, the announcement by the church that it was not a political institution with political objectives. More confident in its capacity to regulate rather than eradicate concentrations of power, the Progressive Era Senate would not ask for more. Thus, the Senate's solution required the protestants to abandon their demand that Mormonism be excluded from First Amendment guarantees and to settle for federal enforcement of monogamous marriage.

Why the Senate succeeded where the army and criminal statute failed had as much to do with Progressive Era changes in the nature of Protestant and Senate power as it did with Mormon obedience, loyalty, and tolerance. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Protestants had less power to leverage the instruments of state in support of their religious goals. Thus, the demands placed on the Mormons by the state could be less absolute and less overtly religious than in previous battles. As for the Senate, the Progressive Era ushered in a dynamic that would characterize government for the remainder of the twentieth century: the exercise of federal regulatory power to ensure procedural fairness, not substantive morality. By the time Smoot arrived to take a seat in the Senate, the U.S. government had new confidence in its ability to manage formal concentrations of power by means other than military might. The prime example of this is, of course, antitrust legislation and related court cases beginning in 1890. These were the years when the role of government began to change from enforcing a particular moral order to ensuring that competition was fair among the various concentrations of power, whether they be political parties, economic enterprises, or religious communities.[16]

The Latter-day Saints benefited from these developments, but not unreservedly so. The changes required of the church in return for state protection created a crisis within the church, even as they solved the church's external problems with the state. Polygamy or "plural marriage," as the Latter-day Saints originally denominated their marriage practice, was considered divine revelation, not personal proclivity; it was primarily a sacramental, not romantic, attachment. Moreover, the Latter-day Saints' experience of fighting for the right to practice their belief had further identified plural marriage as central to the church's biblical restorationism. Any change in the practice had to be balanced by measures to shore up the confidence of the faithful in their church's authority to mediate eternal truth. Hence, the religious studies question that frames this study: How did church leaders make such radical changes in doctrine and practice without losing their members' confidence in the church's continuity with its originating vision?

It is axiomatic that religious communities are not exempt from the human condition; they must adapt to their circumstances or die. Change over time is, however, a particular crisis for those who seek to transcend time. Indeed, it is doubtful that religious identity can survive the awareness of certain kinds of change. Formed in response to a sense of immediate divine call, which aggrandized the expectation of imperviousness to time, and yet originating in a literate era, which inevitably documented their changes over time, the Latter-day Saints were especially susceptible to an awareness of the conflict between time and eternity, history and faith. And at no time had they felt the conflict more keenly than during the Smoot hearing, when their divine law of plural marriage was subordinated to the antipolygamist law of the land.

Thus, like most explanations of Mormonism's entry into modern American culture, mine, too, finds the Latter-day Saints' abandonment of polygamy to be pivotal. Unlike others, I place the pivot after 1890 and, consequently, do not explain twentieth-century Mormonism solely in terms of capitulation to the force of antipolygamy law. Rather, this book argues that politics, not law, finally solved the nation's problem with Mormon polygamy and did so in 1907 as part of a negotiation of interests, not a one-sided capitulation. The Senate would arbitrate Protestant-Mormon differences in a very public political trial. Consequently, the solution would be found in a forum that—unlike warfare or criminal indictment—by its very nature assumed complexity and sought to preserve the deepest interests of the greatest number of parties. The truism is true: politics is the art of compromise. None of the Smoot hearing combatants were completely victorious. Federal lawmakers did not eradicate Mormon political and economic power; the Protestant establishment had to modify its design for a Christian America; and the Latter-day Saints subordinated themselves to the state.

Thus, this study concludes by asking whether the antagonists got the benefit of their bargain. The short answer is a qualified yes. The Senate both solved its Mormon Problem and articulated, for the foreseeable future, the means by which new and diverse religious communities would be constitutionally ordered and free. As for the Protestant reformers, they achieved their primary goal of imposing monogamy upon the Mormons. Ironically, the Protestants spent the rest of the century edging toward accepting a wider variety of consensual relationships among adults, while the Mormons moved in the opposite direction to become aggressive defenders of the traditional family structure. The benefit of the bargain to the Latter-day Saints was longer lasting. Reed Smoot's intervention on behalf of the L.D.S. Church during his thirty-year senatorial career enabled the church to thrive domestically and follow the American flag abroad, making it, in the early twenty-first century, America's fifth largest denomination and an international church of several million members.

Thirty years after the hearing, an observer could marvel that "the Church which was the great scandal of all right-thinking men, is now one of the bulwarks of righteousness, being simply a more romantic version of American evangelical religion."[17] Today, a century after the hearing, Mormon Americanness is such a given to both its critics and advocates that its nineteenth-century scandalousness is largely forgotten, as is the Smoot hearing itself. It is even ignored by the Latter-day Saints, for whom it brought new forms of political power and a measure of social acceptance.[18] Such forgetting and selective representation is a measure of the change that the hearings catalyzed, not only for the Mormons, but also for the Protestant establishment that had opposed them for decades and for the federal government that had long regarded them as a hostile foreign power in the West. The purge of these differences by political trial required an evolution of American and Mormon identity, the accomplishment of which obscures what was and why it is no longer. Ultimately, the Smoot hearing was the forge in which the Latter-day Saints, the Protestants, and their senators hammered out a twentieth-century model for church-state relations, shaping for a new generation of Americans what it meant to be free and religious. Mormonism's transition during the Smoot hearings from un-American to American, from dangerous infidel to peculiar church, is not its story alone, but the story of the changing relation of churches to the state in the early twentieth century.

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