In 1903, a tectonic shift was taking place in the way Latter-day Saints saw themselves and in the way non-Mormons saw Utah and the Mormons. Since the end of public Mormon polygamy in 1890, the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893, Wilford Woodruff’s revelation of 1894, and Utah statehood in 1896, Mormons were gradually, scratchingly, slowly, drifting into the mainstream of American culture, a change largely driven by technological forces. Politically, Mormonism had weathered a terrible storm and paid a large price in terms of self-definition, self-understanding, and theological position.
Captured in the center of all this was the Mormons’ conception of the Divine and their relation to it. The hallmark of, in many ways the textual foundation of, the Mormon theology of the nineteenth century was Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse. While it was not often quoted in extenso it was in the back of the minds of folks like Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow, Wilford Woodruff, Emmiline Blanche Wells, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith. It, and Joseph Smith’s revelation of July 12, 1843 (polygamy–section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants) formed a kind of bedrock for a wandering superstructure of things like spiritual adoption, sealing practice, polygamy, the end of the world, Celestial glory, the Heavenly Family, Adam-God, and you name it. I don’t believe all, or even much of the superstructure was justified by logic, but it was justified by culture, by the necessary reimagination of foundational beliefs through disappointment, time, station, changing expectation, personality, and of course, inspiration in liberal doses.
In 1900, LDS church president Lorenzo Snow announced the appointment of a new apostle, Reed Smoot, to take the place of the long-serving and recently deceased (December 1899) Franklin D. Richards. It was a ground-breaking selection. Smoot was not out of the typical apostolic mold. Born in 1862, Smoot didn’t reach maturity until the “raid” was in full flow, and he never seems to have thought highly of polygamy. Smoot married monogamously in 1884.
Smoot was a Republican by politics, and successful businessman by trade, and he enjoyed the approval of fellow Republican Joseph F. Smith in his endeavors. Utah politics was a heated enterprise in the wake of statehood, and many church leaders held strong publicly stated views on the subject. Smoot and Democrats like B. H. Roberts and Charles Penrose were often at odds in public and private. Moreover, important church leaders like Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, George Q. Cannon, and others, continued to approve polygamous marriages among select Mormons. Smoot disliked this, and he saw polygamous living as a cultural anchor chain that had to be severed.
Smoot ran for a seat in the United States Senate in 1902 and was elected, succeeding Democrat (and another Mormon who disliked polygamy) Joseph Rawlins. Smoot’s election created controversy both in the church hierarchy and the Washington political and religious scene.
Smoot’s election was immediately challenged by a Senate investigation over continuing polygamy among the Latter-day Saints. American Protestant figures also took issue and wrote their Senators to the effect that the Mormons were simply not a part of Christian America and that Smoot, as an LDS apostle, by default approved of and perhaps even practiced polygamy himself (it probably didn’t help that Mormon missionaries were still being told to vet converts to be sure they had firm testimonies of polygamy).
Senate hearings were held and witnesses of all sorts, including President Joseph F. Smith, and apostle Francis M. Lyman were called, and uttered some rather embarrassing statements. Church critics had their say as well.
American Protestants in the nineteenth century saw Utah as a fertile field for conversion to Christ and the saving of oppressed Mormon women in particular. Presbyterians were particularly active in the work, and very cleverly saw a way into the hearts of Latter-day Saints: they started schools for Mormon children, taking advantage of a sore spot among many Mormons who saw their own education systems as lacking in many ways. The Protestant schools did some religious teaching alongside the readin’ and writin’ but for the most part they provided a genuine and mostly appreciated service. Naturally, Utah Protestants saw Mormon doctrines of all sorts as heretical, and Smoot’s election didn’t set well with them, being an apostle, etc.
In 1903, the Utah Presbyterian Teachers Association decided to do their part in waking up the citizenry to the un-Christian views of Mormons, supplying some fodder for their Eastern counterparts. Scandalized by Mormon teachings about God (and Man!) the Association chose to publish, of all things, a version of the King Follett Sermon. The sermon was making a comeback among some Mormon exegetes, and the Association wanted the most shocking text available. King Follett had gone through the editorial mill between 1844 (when Joseph Smith died) and 1856, when a sort of finalized version was composed and approved by church leaders for the history of Joseph Smith (somewhat ironically, church leaders of the early 1900s rejected the sermon as having editorially injected false doctrine and blocked its publication in the History of the Church volumes appearing at the time).
There are quite a number of redactive branchings of Follett, and the Association decided on a rather obscure one: a William W. Phelps edit that appeared in print in Nauvoo in 1845. How they got hold of this somewhat rare version (which they felt was especially authentic) is hard to say, but perhaps its early age was a romantic incentive along with its association with future church president, John Taylor who was press editor in 1845 (the Association mistakenly saw the 1845 version as the first publication and mistakenly took the word of the Phelps/Taylor imprint that King Follett was Smith’s last sermon–a claim that drifted along in Mormonism for some time). In any case, the Association produced a faithful copy of the Phelps redaction in 1903 (Phelps, as may be expected, took a few liberties with his copy-text, but that doesn’t soil the Presbyterian version). The Association writing committee wrote as introduction:
“Students of Mormonism find that it has published no ‘Systematic Theology,’ The four so-called church works are voluminous, yet neither of them sets forth The System. The card statement, Articles of Faith, does not uncover essential Mormonism. As a brief answer to the inquiry ‘Wherein does Mormonism essentially differ from Christianity?’ the following sermon is reprinted; it was delivered by Joseph Smith at Conference, Nauvoo, Illinois, April 6, 1844 [sic]. The following points may be noted among others:
As to Godhead:
It asserts polytheism instead of monotheism.
As to Creation:
It asserts it to be limited instead of absolute; matter, and all spirits being represented as eternal.
As to Revelation:
It sets up the speakers’ so-called revelations as the test of Scripture.
As to Men Being Saviors:
It asserts a ferreting out and saving of spirits gone into the eternal world.
As to Men in the Future State:
It asserts progressive deification—men becoming gods by development.
These teachings, astounding though they be to Bible readers, are the heart of Temple-working Mormonism today, as shown by frequent and extended quotation by ministering elders, by writers in church papers, and by the approved work, ‘New Witness for God,’ by Elder B. H. Roberts. Out of at least six issues of the sermon from Mormon presses, in the first seventeen years, the very first is chosen, that issued by John Taylor, Nauvoo, June, 1844, and entitled ‘Joseph Smith’s Last Sermon;’ it is given verbatim. The Committee.”
Smoot kept his seat by the way. Through some careful dealings with Theodore Roosevelt and various Senators and his insistence on the sacrifice of two apostles to prove the end of polygamy (which didn’t end precisely anyway) he survived a negative committee vote and served in both the Senate and the Quorum of the Twelve together for three decades.
There you go, politics, polygamy, and a little preaching on the side.