Mitt Romney was the first Mormon candidate to win the nomination of a major party for President of the United States, writes Dan Bryan. However, Romney is hardly the first Mormon to take a shot at the Oval Office. The first was none other than Joseph Smith, Jr – the founder and organizer of that religion.
Joseph Smith’s life led him across the United States, with many strange turns along the way.
The Burned-Over District
In those times, the region in western New York was known for its large number of idiosyncratic religious movements. Preachers toured the region holding revivals, which sometimes lasted well into the night. The torchlight of these events helped give the region its nickname of the “Burned-Over” District.
The Golden Plates and the Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith spent his adolescence in this milieu, listening to the different ministers and reading their interpretations of the Bible. Through prayer he sought advice from God on which church he should join, but was told not to join any of them.
In 1823, Joseph Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni, who told him of some golden plates that contained an ancient record of God’s dealings with the American continent. On the fall equinox each year he proceeded to a specific site in Palmyra, New York. In 1827, he was allowed to retrieve the plates.
Over the next three years, Smith translated these plates from ancient Egyptian into the Book of Mormon, and he founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. He proselytized and soon gained a following in New York.
The Kirtland, Ohio Community and Controversy
In 1831, Joseph Smith moved to the town of Kirtland, in northeastern Ohio. Here he won many followers and many enemies. On March 24, 1832 he was tarred and feathered by locals who were annoyed with his beliefs and resentful of his influence in the community. Another man named Sidney Rigdon — who would later become Smith’s running mate in the 1844 election — was also given the same treatment.
At the same time communities were being formed further west. The long-term goal of the Mormon community at that point was to settle at Independence, Missouri — a location which Joseph Smith had deemed to be their “Zion”. Here they would live in anticipation of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
Joseph Smith remained in Ohio until 1838. The last years of his stay were steeped in controversy. After the church came into some financial troubles, Smith and his associates formed the Kirtland Safety Society in early 1837. Unfortunately, the Society failed within a month and debt collectors soon put heavy pressure on the church. Eventually a warrant was issued for the arrest of Joseph Smith on the charge of banking fraud. On the night of January 12, 1838, Smith and Rigdon fled the state and headed to Missouri.
Missouri and the “Mormon Wars”
The position of the Mormons in Missouri was also tenuous. Most non-Mormons saw the group as a cult, and disliked them because they were opponents of slavery. As a fresh arrival to this environment, Rigdon gave in inflammatory July 4th speech which called for a “war of extermination” in the event that Mormons were attacked. The speech was widely reprinted and led the governor of Missouri to declare war on the Mormons.
By that fall, the Mormons were fighting with both the state militia and with vigilantes. There was an ugly incident in Caldwell County, where 18 Mormon settlers were killed. The killers were known, but not prosecuted. Smith himself was court-martialed and imprisoned. While being transferred from a grand jury hearing, he escaped custody and slipped across the state line.
The next stop on the odyssey of Joseph Smith was Illinois. Here he established a large town on the Mississippi River called Nauvoo. Sympathetic (at first) to the Mormons’ troubles in Missouri, the state of Illinois granted this town a large amount of autonomy. Included was habeas corpus power, a university, and a town militia.
By 1842, problems emerged in Illinois as well. Some of Smith’s disgruntled associates began to publish lurid tales of polygamous marriages, which made their way into general knowledge. Smith denied these stories, but historians have concluded that he most likely did have multiple wives in Illinois.
Also in 1842, Smith revealed a broadly-encompassing plan to establish the millennial Kingdom of God on earth. Whether he was speaking of the long-term or not, many non-Mormons interpreted this as a declaration of intent to establish a theocracy in the United States.
Finally, an assassination attempt was made against the governor of Missouri. While the assailant was not apprehended, suspicion fell directly on the Mormon camp, and Smith narrowly escaped extradition back to that state.
At the same time, Nauvoo was one of the largest towns in Illinois, with a militia that matched the size of the state’s own forces. By the start of 1844, the rest of Illinois looked upon this town with a mixture of fear and anger.
The Presidential Campaign
Never one to retrench in the face of opposition, Smith revealed his most ambitious campaign yet — he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
He first had written letters to other likely candidates — such as Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay — to gauge their feelings towards the Mormon community. The responses had been non-committal. Interestingly enough, Smith didn’t write to James K. Polk — eventual winner of the election — who was not a frontrunner in 1843.
As a candidate, Smith established a group of missionaries and sent them out to campaign in every state. One of these men was Brigham Young. They gave speeches on religion and politics and were generally met with curiosity, but it is unclear how much support they gained.
The platform was liberal for the times. It called for an end to slavery, a national bank, prison reform, and a cut to Congressional pay. It also called for a Constitutional Amendment granting power to the President to suppress mobs without the consent of a state’s governor. The last point was no doubt influenced by the Mormons’ persecution in Missouri.
Public opposition hardened after Joseph Smith declared his candidacy. People who had been agitated before the campaign were now enraged. Others who had dropped out of the Mormon community saw him as a man veering towards megalomania.
Opponents of Smith published a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor on June 7, 1844 with lengthy exposés portraying Smith as a polygamist and a supporter of theocracy. Three days later Smith had their printing press destroyed, using his authority as mayor.
Warrants were issued against Smith for inciting a riot (several hundred men had participated in the destruction of the Expositor’s office). On June 18, Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo and called out his 5,000 man militia. This was yet another inflammatory step that further turned non-Mormons against him.
With the charges now escalated to treason, Smith surrendered to Illinois authorities on June 25 and was escorted to a county jail in Carthage. Before any kind of legal proceedings could be initiated, a mob of two hundred men broke into the jail on June 27, 1844 and shot Joseph Smith to death, as depicted in the painting by Danish-born American artist, C.C.A. Christensen.
Ultimately five defendants were tried for the crime, but a jury found them not guilty.
The legacy of Joseph Smith
There are many questions that arise from the final days of Joseph Smith. Why did he surrender when he commanded a 5,000 man militia? Why was that militia not more active in protecting him once he was confined? Why did he not choose to flee the state, as he had done at other points in his life? Did he think he could win the Presidency or was it a tactical maneuver, or a decision borne of hubris?
In any case, Smith’s Presidential campaign set a long string of “firsts” in American history. He was one of the first prominent third party candidates. He was the first Mormon candidate, the first candidate to be assassinated, and perhaps the first candidate to be arrested during their campaign.
Afterwards a few splinter groups settled in various locales, while most of the remaining Mormons migrated to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young. The descendants of this group largely remain there to the present day.
Dan Bryan holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He is the founder and editor of American History USA (www.americanhistoryusa.com)