Review: The Mormon Church on Trial

Michael Paulos, ed., The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2007). [1]

Paulos and his publisher have chosen a timely moment in American political history to publish relevant and readable extracts from the primary documents of the hearings to determine whether an evangelical protest movement could remove Reed Smoot from his duly elected Senate seat. At a time when a Mormon leads the Senate and another aspires to the American Presidency, issues relating to Mormon exceptionalism and the ability of Mormons and their church to integrate into the broader American society have taken central stage. In some respects, although Harry Reid took his Senate seat without protest, little appears to have changed in the rhetoric of the evangelical establishment. Where a prior generation rejected Smoot on the basis of theocracy and polygamy, a current generation proposes to reject Romney on the basis of theocracy and (his grandfather’s) polygamy, perhaps also complaining about his heretical Christology. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Smoot could not hold office because polygamy resulted in moral depravity, and the Mormon theocracy threatened democracy. Now, the argument runs, Romney should not be elected because the Mormon theocracy would control him. In a strange and degrading turn of events, Romney’s Christology and eschatology now appear also to be taken to threaten national depravity.

Where evangelicalism does not seem to have changed much (at least in its tolerance of alternative religious viewpoints in the public square and corridors of power), the Mormon church appears to have aged reasonably well in this comparison. Gone are the days of senator-apostles and hidden polygamy, the time when decisions within the hierarchy determined candidacies and campaigns. At least by some accounts, our maturation as a church and faith group dates from the intensive period (ca 1904-07) of the Reed Smoot hearings. This period is sufficiently important that Elder Oaks has informally praised the standard scholarly account of this transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries (Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity). For many of us, though, scholarly accounts are calls to find the primary documents ourselves, voices in a nascent dialogue. Until now, the primary documents of the Smoot hearings were an interminable and unnavigable collection of bureaucratic documents.

In this abridged, annotated sourcebook, Paulos (a financial analyst) has provided an excellent service to historians and hobbyists unable to stomach the dreadful tedium of government documents. For those unable to watch CSPAN for more than thirty minutes, the condensation of 3,432 pages into just over 700 is a great blessing. The apparatus is useful and unobtrusive if not ground-breaking. The introduction from Harvard Heath, former BYU archivist and editor of the Smoot diaries, is a useful reminder of the relevant issues, though broader contextualization does require reading Flake’s treatment.

In these hearings documents, stereotypically obnoxious bureaucrats confront stereotypically tight-lipped witnesses in hopes of acquiring inflammatory confessions. Competing agendas hover just beneath the surface of mostly polite discourse. Some witnesses, seceding insiders and angry Utah outsiders, provide a complex witness to life in late nineteenth-century Utah, while church leaders generally attempt to negotiate their attachment to the Constitution and their desire to participate in the life of the nation within the context of their broader and much weightier attachment to the Kingdom of God and the things of eternity. Some Latter-day Saints may feel unsettled by the hard realities of the complex interactions between the leaders of a prior generation, while others will cheer at the quixotic resolution of these past leaders to resist the meddling of outsiders driven by the evangelical establishment. Some will mourn the loss of Elders Taylor and Cowley to the exigencies of the Smoot hearings, a trauma still occasionally felt by their descendants (though Cowley’s son Mathew, himself a church leader, has touchingly portrayed the experience as an Abrahamic test).[2]

This collection is of little relevance for people seeking to understand the spiritual or religious doctrines of the church in 1904, just as modern Senate hearings are of little utility for those seeking an accurate portrayal of the personal and institutional convictions of those interrogated. We will not learn the inmost stirrings of the human heart from the ham-fisted expatiation of politicians. But for students of the intersections between personal and corporate faith and politics, particularly in turn-of-the-century America, these abridged transcripts will prove invaluable. For those interested in understanding how believers of various stripes present themselves to others, an important but little-tracked aspect of religious pluralism, this collection provides important clues and hints. The book is also a fascinating set of data for those still puzzled by the fact that prominent Mormon Democrats Harry Reid, Hugh B. Brown, and James Faust are dramatically outnumbered by Mormon Republicans. I highly recommend the book to researchers and hobbyists focusing on religion and politics, turn-of-the-century Utah religion, as well as those interested in political biography and history. Those seeking devotional or strictly religious insights from Joseph F. Smith and his apostles are unlikely to find that this book meets their needs.

Signature Books has long published collections of documents and papers, an elegant and useful dissemination of information related to Mormonism. I salute this effort and welcome this as one of several publications that ease the life of the researcher and hobbyist while facilitating attempts to understand our roots as Latter-day Saints.

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[1] This is a review of a printer’s proof; I understand the book will be published some time next month. I receive a free copy of the book but no other considerations for this review.
[2] Taylor and Cowley were the best-known of the church leaders engaging in post-Manifesto polygamy. Smoot and the Senators required that the church discipline these men, who failed to show for questioning at the hearings. After much discussion and negotiation, the two were excommunicated as scapegoats for disobeying the Manifesto.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Sam. Nate put up PDF versions of the various volumes of source material. I OCRed them for text searchability, and have enjoyed that resource. I will, however, get this volume for the very reasons you outline.

  2. …let me just also recommend the Sumer 2007 issue of Journal of Mormon History, which includes excellent papers by both Paulos and Heath on the hearings.

  3. Thanks for the review Sam. I’ve met Paulos a couple of times at MHA. He’s a super friendly guy, a bit amateurish in his historical abilities, but I’ve also heard that he’s a workhorse. I look forward to seeing this volume in print.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading it. 700 pages, you say? Er, OK, maybe not …

  5. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the review.

  6. One correction: Cowley was never ex-communicated.

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