More than 100 years ago, Mormons, Smoot Senate hearings titillated the public

To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here

Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, was an apostle and U.S. senator. Too bad that too few of us recall the fierce, almost-four year U.S. Senate battle that resulted before Smoot was fully accepted as a senator. He served until 1933.

The Monica Lewinsky hearings had nothing on the Smoot hearings. The Mormon Church, with its alleged rampant secret polygamy, anti-government rhetoric, lecherous old leaders in white beards, captured the attention of a gossipy nation and crusading publicity-seeking pols. As Mormon historian Michael Harold Paulos points out in several essays, hundreds of political cartoons were published — most of the front page — during the tenure of the Smoot hearings. The then anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune published more than 300. Smoot, Church President Joseph F. Smith, future president Heber J. Grant, and pols of that era, including U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, found themselves caricatured as part of the hearings’ commentary — most often with savage wit.

No topics were off limits. Secret LDS temple ceremonies were discussed on Capitol Hill. The Washington Times, on Dec. 14, 1904, published on its front page a photo of a man wearing Mormon garments and temple garb.

To provide an example of the barbed hearings, here’s an excerpt of testimony between LDS Prophet Joseph F. Smith, who admitted to fathering children with his wives after the Manifesto, from Paulos’ The Journal of Mormon History, essay, “Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith’s Testimony”:

(Senate questioner): “Do you consider it an abandonment of your family to maintain relations with your wives except that of occupying their beds?”

(President Smith) : “I do not wish to be impertinent, but I should like the gentleman to ask any woman, who is a wife, that question …”

The prophet had some wit, as that rejoinder proves. He also drew praise for candor, although it was a selective candor. As Paulos points out, Smith frequently obfuscated and avoided issues. He was a turn-of-the-century Alan Greenspan, often confusing senators. Smith shocked many Utahns when he stated under oath, “I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations.” That untrue statement may be a result of Smith’s long tenure in the LDS Church, fraught with longstanding distrust of federal authority.

Cartoons included references to Sisyphus pushing Mormonism up a hill, a tattooed Smoot covered with LDS liabilities on his body, and a Tribune cartoon that mocked Smith for his lack of candor on revelation. As Paulos explains, the era was a golden time of political cartooning, with most cartoons on page 1A, rather than the editorial pages.

It seemed unlikely for a long while that Smoot would be accepted as a senator, but history records that after the long hearings, he passed Senate muster fairly easily. He owed that win primarily to President Roosevelt, who bucked popular sentiment and backed Smoot, who the president genuinely liked. (Perhaps someone should mention that to talker Glenn Beck, who loves to criticize old “TR.”)

Another factor helping Smoot was that the original charges against him being a senator were lodged by anti-Mormons in Utah, who added one significant false charge — that Smoot was a polygamist. He was not; nor was he a strict LDS theologian. In fact, Smoot was chosen as an apostle and future senator due to his lack of interest in theology compared to politics and public service. In his speech to the U.S. Senate, which Paulos includes in an essay, Smoot is persuasive in both defending Mormonism and promising to separate his politics from his religion. Paulos suggests that current LDS politicians who seek higher office, including Mitt Romney, should emulate Smoot’s frankness. Obviously, that is a critique of Romney’s “religion in the public arena” JFK-esque speech, which failed to sway voters wary of Mormonism in 2008.

In 1904, LDS President Smith issued a second Manifesto against polygamy. It eventually led to the excommunications of apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, who flaunted it. Paulos opines that the Smoot hearings and the Second Manifesto were beginning steps toward the modernization and secular power of today’s LDS Church.

The Smoot hearings cartoons are priceless, provocative mementos of history. Paulos, and colleague Ken Cannon, plan to self-publish a professionally bound 90-page book that will include cartoons on Smoot and the hearings long ago. It will be presented at the 2011 Mormon History Association gathering. Only 100 copies will be made; many will be provided to libraries.

The Standard Works plans to have a copy and share a review with our readers.

This post also ran in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.

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7 Responses to More than 100 years ago, Mormons, Smoot Senate hearings titillated the public

  1. Jake D. says:

    The Reed Smoot hearings are a great insight into post manifesto polygamy. The modern church often uses the 1890 manifesto as evidence of revelation ending polygamy but from the hearings we know that the church, including Joseph F. Smith continued to practice polygamy into the 20th century.

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  5. tom says:

    Another great historical piece Doug, thanks.

    One thing however that puzzles me. You write that President Smith was lying to Congress (and the American People) by saying that he never received revelations. That is a pretty significant accusation considering that lying under oath to congress has always been a pretty serious crime, hasn’t it?

    Can you show us proof for that accusation?

    In fact, with your deep understanding of Church history, perhaps you could do an article on the history of all Church President’s revelating. Stuff like who did it, when they did it and under what circumstances – and who didn’t.

  6. sara9miller says:

    It isn’t right for the government to break up families so they allowed them to continue but not allow anymore marriages. Government free marriage is the issue here. It was wrong for the government to control their religious beliefs. It is wrong for them to not be able to live how they want to. It is interesting that they will go after polygamists that live this lifestyle willingly but adulters are let off the hook and the spouse is actually injured in this case. Lets get government out of marriage and stop letting them control morals that do not hurt others.

  7. Steve says:

    The most charming moment of these hearings was when President Joseph F. Smith claimed not to know who owned the Deseret News.

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