“American Legal and Political Institutions,” Church History Topics
“American Legal and Political Institutions”
The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi observed that Isaiah’s writings could be hard to understand without a knowledge of the geography and history of Jerusalem, his homeland.1 The truths Isaiah taught had universal value but a specific context. Similarly, the early history of the Church occurred in a particular political and geographic context. Understanding this context makes many of the events in early Church history easier to follow.
Joseph Smith Sr., Lucy Mack Smith, and other early Saints had been born as British subjects in the American colonies. During a lengthy War of Independence, the former colonies took the name United States and adopted a democratic form of government. Between 1787 and 1789 representatives from the states met and drafted a Constitution that balanced power between different groups: between the people, the various states, and the new national, or “federal,” government; and between Congress, the president and his cabinet, and the federal courts. The Constitution stipulated that the president and most members of Congress were to be elected, but only men who owned property were permitted to vote at that time. The Constitution restricted the federal government from establishing an official religion or interfering with the free exercise of religion. In general, the federal government was much weaker then than it is in the United States today, with more authority reserved to the states and local communities.
The system of government established in the United States was unusual and widely seen as experimental. Many early members of the Church were born and lived during this time, not long after the founding of the nation. For example, when Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith were married, George Washington was serving as the country’s first president. After he left office, two competing political parties became an increasingly important aspect of American politics. Additionally, significant questions remained about the practical balance of power between the different branches of government, the roles of federal and state governments, and the acceptability of communities bypassing the law to resolve disputes through vigilante action.2 Questions also remained about whether the United States would be able to maintain independence, whether the states would stay united, how the country would relate to other nations, and whether the newly established government could ensure stability for the populace and rights for minority groups in a system shaped by majority rule.
By 1830 when the Church was organized, the political and legal institutions of the United States were still evolving. While the new nation claimed to defend freedom of religion, the early Saints often challenged many Americans’ religious expectations. This seemed especially true when the Saints gathered to one place and began building a community. Their neighbors often worried about the influence so many Latter-day Saints would have on local elections. In many instances, the Saints’ commitment to religious freedom in the face of continual opposition tested the strength of America’s legal and political institutions.
In New York and Ohio, opponents of the Church attempted to use both the courts and vigilante action to harass the Saints.3 In the face of such opposition, the Saints became strong advocates for religious freedom and legal due process for the accused. Even when they were sympathetic to the Saints, however, local law enforcement officials and judges did not always feel authorized to assist them in the face of public opposition.
In Missouri, persecution was particularly intense.4 In 1833, a mob organized by leading local citizens expelled the Saints from Jackson County (an administrative subdivision of a state), where they lived. After Joseph Smith received a revelation in which the Lord stated he “established the constitution of this Land by the hands of wise men,” the Saints began a long quest to petition the government for help to secure their rights.5 They initially appealed to the governor (or chief executive) of the state. However, the Saints had difficulty obtaining fair treatment because most local people, including members of the volunteer militias upon which the state government depended to maintain order, opposed them. The Saints later appealed to U.S. president Martin Van Buren, but fearing he would lose the votes of Missourians, he declined to assist them.
By 1844, Joseph Smith and the Saints had grown frustrated with the inability or unwillingness of the state and federal governments to protect their rights. When the major presidential candidates that year would not promise to defend the Saints’ religious and other freedoms, Joseph Smith campaigned for United States president himself, championing not only religious freedom but also such causes as a gradual abolition of slavery, prison reform, and national expansion on condition of receiving the consent of American Indian groups.6 Before the election, however, Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob after the local militia, which was set to guard the jail where he stayed while awaiting trial, failed to protect him.7
After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the other Apostles led the Saints westward, out of the United States and into what was then Mexican territory. At this time, the U.S. was fighting a war with Mexico, and the area in which the Saints settled soon became a United States territory known as Utah. Unlike states, which were largely self-governing, territories fell under the direct control of the federal government. This meant that territorial officials such as governors and judges were appointed by the president, rather than elected by local citizens.
Tension often existed between the Saints and the federal government. The U.S. president appointed Brigham Young as the first governor of Utah, but he and the Saints clashed with other territorial officials. In 1857 and 1858, war seemed possible between the Saints and the federal government after the president sent an army to Utah to put down a reported rebellion and install a new governor to replace Brigham Young. Tensions rose again after the U.S. government took legislative action to criminalize plural marriage in the 1860s. In the 1870s and 1880s, Mormon women in particular became politically active in protesting antipolygamy laws and were among the first women in the United States and the world to win the right to vote.
Just as the Saints had sought justice from state and federal executives in the wake of the Missouri persecutions, they sought protection from the American court system, arguing that they had a right to continue plural marriage as a religious practice. After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their arguments in 1879, Church members exercised civil disobedience, arguing that obedience to the laws of God was more important than obedience to unjust laws. As the federal government pursued increasingly aggressive actions to punish Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage, Church leaders sought revelation about how to reconcile the demands of their religious practice with the laws of the land. Church President Wilford Woodruff prayed for and received the answer by revelation in 1890, which led the Church to end its practice of plural marriage.
In 1896, Utah became a state, allowing most Latter-day Saint men and women to participate more actively in American civic life. Though some opposition to the Saints’ involvement in politics continued, by 1908, a congressional committee ratified the election of Reed Smoot, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, to the United States Senate. Since that time, Latter-day Saints have participated actively in American politics, both as voters and elected officials. The Church maintains a neutral position in American party politics but reserves the right to make statements on questions of moral import.