27 August 2012

Joseph Smith's Failed Presidential Campaign

Mitt Romney is not the first Mormon to run for president. Towards the end of his life, Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS church, declared his candidacy. To say that he was an interesting candidate would be an understatement. Here, from Richard and Joan Ostling's fascinating book, Mormon America, is an account.

First [Joseph Smith] declared himself a candidate for president of the United States. Shortly thereafter he organized the secret Council of Fifty to plan an ambitious political future, and he had that body anoint him as “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth.” He petitioned Congress for authorization to raise and lead a 100,000-man army, personally loyal and answerable only to him, that would subdue the western territories from Texas to Oregon. [The prophet Joseph Smith maintained a militia of 3,000 to 4,000 men under arms, at a time when the full U.S. Army had only 8,500 soldiers.] He proposed that anyone who would “attempt to hinder or molest the said Joseph Smith” in this design was to be liable to two years’ imprisonment. Congress did not oblige. …
The next step, on April 11, was to have the Council ordain Smith as “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth.” According to excommunicated LDS historian D. Michael Quinn, what occurred that day was clearly different from the second anointing ordinance that elevated a man to be a “King and Priest” in heaven. Flanders noted that when Smith declared, “I am above the kingdoms of this world, for I have no laws,” he was speaking apocalyptically rather than politically. But Smith did believe by 1844 that the “government of God” must eventually replace the governments of the world, including that of the United States. … 
Smith kept most of his plans for a new world order secret, but four days after receiving kingship he told the non-Mormon press about his dream of “theo-democracy,” whatever that might mean. …
It would have been interesting to watch the 24/7 news channels cover Smith’s campaign. As he was making his run for president, he was getting opposition from within the church over one of his more controversial policies.
Law was loyal to Smith’s older conceptions of God and unalterably opposed to plural marriage. Publicly the polygamy doctrine was denied, but Smith and other high church officials were practicing it in secret. [Some of the more serious attempts to count Joseph Smith’s wives have arrived at estimates of 33, 48, 28, and 84 wives. By one estimate, he was thought to have wed between 28 and 33 wives, ten of them under twenty and ten already married to other men.] Rumors spread, and dissension spread as well. Through 1843 the Smiths and Laws met together regularly for private prayer. Their disagreement over plural marriage became increasingly acrimonious. Smith arranged for spies to report to him on the activities of Law and Law’s close associate Robert D. Foster. On January 3, Law confronted Smith, the Nauvoo police, and a former Danite named Daniel Carn, charging that they were plotting to kill him. Carn defended the Danites and criticized Law for opposing plural marriage. Two days later Law again met with Smith and the Nauvoo police, reporting that he and three other dissidents felt they were in mortal danger. Smith denied the charge and three days later released Law as second counselor. The issue was personal as well: there is evidence that at some point Smith propositioned the wives of both Law and Foster.

Smith would likely have been an much more memorable president than James Polk, the man who did win the campaign of 1844. But instead, Smith was assassinated in June of 1844, months before the election, deferring revelation of a theo-democracy to some future time.

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