The First Mormon Presidential Candidate

Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. called himself prophet and White House hopeful.


Dec. 6, 2007 — -- 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."

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."

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."

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."

In that context it's interesting to note that Smith's campaign in 1844 sought to end slavery.

Smith's solution was gradualist -- to purchase the freedom of slaves with funds amassed by the reduction in the size of Congress, pay for members of Congress and the sale of public lands.

He "was not an abolitionist in the strictest sense," wrote Margaret Robertson in her Brigham Young University study of Smith's campaign.

"He felt slavery was not right and saw the need to abolish slavery to preserve the nation. But he also realized the need to save the economy of the South." He "refused to take the extreme abolitionist point."

These and other views were published in Smith's campaign book.

Fourteen years after Smith translated the metal pages he said he discovered and published the Book of Mormon in 1830 came the publication of his presidential treatise, "General Smith's Views of the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States," (an image of which can be seen HERE from Brigham Young University's archives).

In his campaign book, Smith outlined a six-point platform: gradually ending slavery; reducing the size of Congress by at least two-thirds; re-establishing a national bank; annexing Texas, California and Oregon; prison reform; and a position near and dear to Mormons at the time -- empowering the federal government to protect the liberties of minorities from "mobocracy."

Referring specifically to Gov. Lilburn Boggs, who had used his state militia to evict Mormons from his home state of Missouri in 1838, Smith wanted to ensure federal civil rights protections even if a governor himself were "a mobber."

Though Smith enjoyed support among his followers, his support for polygamy, starting in 1841, as well as other church issues, had begun to alienate some supporters.

A rival newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, questioned whether Smith could serve as a federal and local official at the same time. "We see that our friend the Neighbor, advocates the claims of Gen. Joseph Smith for the presidency; we also see from the records of the grand Jury of Hancock Co. at their recent term, that the general is a candidate to represent the branch of the state government at Alton [prison]. We would respectfully suggest to the Neighbor, whether the two offices are not incompatible with each other."

Smith had an interesting concept of the First Amendment, one that might make Romney's attitude towards the Boston Globe seem downright friendly. Working with the Nauvoo City Council, Smith had the Expositor's printing press seized and every copy of the newspaper he could find burned.

He wrote a letter in the Neighbor accusing the rival newspaper of plotting "the destruction of the institutions of this city, both civil and religious… to rid the city of a paper so filthy and pestilential as this become the duty of every good citizen who loves good order and morality."

The controversy, combined as it was with other questions about Smith's leadership and charges brought against him by the government, soon spiraled out of control. Smith was killed by an angry mob on June 25, 1844.

But many of his electioneers spread throughout the country to campaign for him continued on their journeys. Referring to Smith as a "martyr," they now talked up his religion, not his White House hopes.