The First Mormon Presidential Candidate

Mitt Romney is the most recent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to seek the office of president.

But the first Mormon to seek the White House was also the first Mormon -- Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church, whose 1844 presidential campaign is historically notable not only because it was the first one in which the candidate was assassinated.

Smith's campaign 163 years ago was quite a bit different than Romney's, of course. In Romney's highly anticipated address Thursday about the role of faith in America, he only mentioned Mormonism by name once, and he invoked Abraham Lincoln's concept of "America's 'political religion' -- the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution."

First Mormon to Seek White House

Smith directly pushed what he called "theodemocracy," the blending of religious belief and democracy. And his campaign was rooted entirely within the church that he founded; at the April 1844 LDS general conference, 244 church elders heeded the call to volunteer for Smith's campaign.

Hundreds of Mormons traveled the United States to spread the word not just of Smith's prophesies but his candidacy; many of them met with angry mobs and violence.

"There is not a nation or a dynasty now occupying the Earth which acknowledges almighty God as their lawgiver," Smith told the Neighbor newspaper in Nauvoo, Ill., where he and his church brethren were then headquartered.

"I go emphatically, virtuously, and humanely, for a theodemocracy, where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness."

Announcing his candidacy Jan. 29, 1844, Smith told his supporters, "Tell the people we have had Whig and Democrat presidents long enough. We want a president of the United States."

Megalomaniacal Madness

To Smith's detractors, his presidential run could only be seen within the context of his megalomaniacal madness. Mormon historians, however, argue that Smith was trying to stand for his principles, argue publicly for civil liberties for Mormons and publicize the church.

According to "The Prophet and the Presidency: Mormonism and Politics in Joseph Smith's 1844 Presidential campaign," a 2000 study of Smith's campaign by Timothy Wood in the Illinois State Historical Society, Smith's supporters even had their own catchy cheer:

"Kinderhook, Kass, Kalhoun, nor Klay/Kan never surely win the day./But if you want to know who Kan/You'll find in General Smith the man."

Claimed to See God and Jesus

Smith's presidential run came approximately 25 years after he claimed to have first seen God and Jesus in Palmyra, N.Y., 21 years after he said he was visited by the resurrected prophet Moroni, and 17 years after he announced his discovery of a long-buried book about the Lord's dealings with early Israelite inhabitants of the Americas.

Questions about Smith's teachings remain hotly contested well into the 21st century. Just this week, Romney faced questions about the role of African-Americans in the Mormon Church.

Blacks have long been derided as an inferior people in some Mormon teachings, and it wasn't until 1978 that black men were permitted to become Mormon priests. The South Carolina state co-chair of the Fred Thompson for president campaign, Cyndi Mosteller, this week told The Palmetto Scoop Web site that voters will question "the Church's history, and almost theology, on the issue of race -- particularly the black race."

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