Reviews – The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings

Mormon Church on TrialJournal of Mormon History, Val Hemming
Michael Paulos has crafted a hefty, well-edited, and abundantly annotated abridgment of the original four-volume transcriptions (3,432 pages) of hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections hearings, held 1904-06, originally titled: Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the Matter of the Protests against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from the State of Utah, to Hold His Seat. This important abridged document, published, with the assistance of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, by Signature Books, is a worthy addition to an ever-growing and substantial body of scholarship examining the emergence and evolution of Mormonism into twentieth- and twenty-first-century American religious cultures. Some issues examined during the Smoot hearings—such as religious authority and the nature of revelation—seem particularly relevant to contemporary students and scholars concerned with the recent religious and political debates provoked by the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney.

Paulos introduces his abridgment and his reasons for undertaking this rather challenging task:

The Smoot hearings impacted the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose doctrines and practices—not Smoot—emerged as the real focus of the hearings. In many ways, the controversy came to represent what historians today have termed the “transition” period of LDS development, when the church began to shed its rural, insular past and enter the larger mainstream of American religious culture. The present one-volume abridgement of the official record is an attempt to spotlight this important collision between the United States and Mormonism at the dawn of the twentieth century (vii).

Paulos reports that, in his view, the most critical testimonies heard during the hearings were those of President Joseph F. Smith and Senator/Apostle Reed Smoot. He adds: “Where I included testimony from other witnesses, their statements usually appeared within the context of the topics raised in the examination of the other two witnesses. I have tried, where appropriate, to balance testimony favorable to the LDS Church with testimony that was not” (ix).

The book is well organized. The table of contents doubles as a useful chronology of the sequential appearances of dozens of witnesses interviewed from mid-January 1904 through April 1906. The committee finally voted on the question of Smoot’s retaining his seat n June 10, 1906—in the negative: seven against Smoot and five for him. Majority and minority reports were then submitted to the body of the Senate. Finally, on February 20, 1907, the long drama ended when the full Senate voted forty-three for and twenty-four against unseating him, thus failing to achieve the necessary two-thirds for the unseating. Smoot therefore retained his seat; but it was hardly an endorsement. Harvard S. Heath’s1 helpful introduction places the outcomes of the hearings in historical context:

Even though it was an equivocal vote of confidence for Smoot, it nevertheless confirmed his right to represent the state of Utah. Of greatest significance was that, for the first time in its history, the LDS Church had achieved political legitimacy. This should not be misinterpreted as a social and cultural acceptance or an indication that American opinion had been magically transformed overnight. That process had only begun, but it was a process the Smoot hearings had accelerated. The church desperately needed a victory in this case to gain the respect and stature it needed to be recognized as a bonafide member of American society. Throughout the next two decades, church leaders would look back to the hearings as a crucial turning point in the church’s acceptance nationally and later internationally (xix).

Paulos provides brief biographies of the seventeen senators who served on the committee, followed by a detailed “Smoot Hearings Chronology” covering January 26, 1903, through February 20, 1907. This daily and hourly chronology includes the names of the senators and attorneys present and the witnesses who testified during each session. This chronology is a useful map for reference as one negotiates the 692 pages of the abridged transcripts. Included are fourteen pages of photographs, caricatures, and political cartoons putting faces on some of the major participants and mirroring the intense partisanship of the hearings (285-98). The book is then divided into seven sections reflecting the hearings’ protracted timetables.

The abridgment contains more than a hundred pages of testimony by Joseph F. Smith (19-142, 177-84). Further along, the reader meets other prominent Mormon witnesses including Francis M. Lyman, Andrew Jenson, Hyrum M. Smith, Brigham H. Roberts, Angus M. Cannon, George Reynolds, George H. Brimhall, John Henry Smith, Charles Penrose, Richard W. Young, James E. Talmage (474-510), and of course, Reed Smoot (525-78). These witnesses, and those for the prosecution, describe political conditions in Utah, explain Mormon theocracy, expose (or refuse to discuss) Mormon temple rituals, recount the recitation of oaths and covenants as portions of the temple ceremony, discuss church compliance with the 1890 Woodruff Manifesto, and recount evidence for the continued cohabitation with plural wives by Mormon polygamists.

The transcript is punctuated with questions and comments from the committee chairman, Senator Julius Caesar Burrows (R-Michigan) and other committee members including Fred Thomas Dubois, an ardent anti-Mormon (D-Idaho), Joseph Weldon Bailey (D-Texas), Albert Jeremiah Beveridge (R-Indiana), William Paul Dillingham (R-Vermont), Joseph Benson Foraker (R-Ohio), Lee Slater Overman (D-North Carolina), Edmund Winston Pettus (D-Alabama), and others. Most of the examination for the prosecution was conducted by the pugnacious Robert W. Tayler (a previous four-term U.S. Representative for Ohio (“for the Protestants”), and John G. Carlisle (a former Democratic U.S. Senator from Kentucky and Secretary of the Treasury under Grover Cleveland). Two able non-Mormon attorneys—Augustus S. Worthington and Waldemar Van Cott—were retained for Smoot’s defense.

After Smoot answered the formal complaint on January 4, 1904, Joseph F. Smith testified for five consecutive days (March 1-7) and then returned briefly on March 9 to complete his testimony. One is struck when reading the transcript by the brevity and noncommittal nature of Smith’s responses. For page after page, Smith’s terse responses are two or three words long and often simply yes and no answers. He chose to provide his interrogator, Mr. Tayler, with as little declarative information as possible. Still, during his testimony Smith startled the committee with his declaration that he had continued to cohabit with all of his five plural wives since the 1890 Manifesto, and by them had fathered a total of eleven post-Manifesto children. He acknowledged that his continued cohabitation was his own choice, not the church’s, and that he and only he was culpable for choosing to break the law. In response to a question from Senator Beveridge, he responded: “I wish to assert that the church has obeyed the law of the land, and that it has kept its pledges with this Government; but I have not, as an individual, and have taken that chance myself” (93). Smith therefore took the position that the LDS Church had kept faith with its commitment to the government, but that he, an individual who happened to be church president (and doubtless other individuals), had chosen to follow what to them was a higher law. Smith, later charged in Utah on the basis of this admission, was fined the maximum permitted by law.

Smoot’s interrogators, once assured that he had only one wife, repeatedly probed potential conflicts between his religious commitments—oaths and covenants—and his ability to properly serve the people of the United States. Typical is the exchange between Smoot and defense attorney Worthington:

Mr. Worthinton. Let me now in conclusion ask you the same question that I asked Dr. [James E.] Talmage the other day. Suppose that some measure were pending before the Senate here upon which you are called to vote, and the church through its president or in some other way should direct you to vote in a certain way; what would you do?

Senator Smoot. I would vote just the way that I thought was best for the interests of this country (532).

The lengthy testimony selected by Paulos reveals the antipathy and deep mistrust that anti-Mormon petitioners and most of the Senate committee held toward Mormons and their church. It confirms that the LDS Church was more on trial than Senator Smoot. Probed repeatedly was the church’s, and its hierarchy’s, averred failure or duplicity in keeping post-Manifesto agreements to stop plural marriages and end polygamous cohabitation as a condition to returning the church’s escheated properties and permitting Utah statehood. As later investigation has demonstrated, their unease was well founded.2

The Mormon Church on Trial will be useful for students of twentieth-century Mormonism who need to understand the nature of the Smoot hearings, the personalities of many of the actors in the post-Manifesto drama, and the social and political climate in which the hearings were held. However, one must ask how much bias was brought to the abridgment? Those of us who have never read the complete transcript must trust Paulos’s judgment, since even this hefty tome contains just over 20 percent of the total transcript. That said, one is more confident of his judgment after reading his recently published “Senator George Sutherland: Reed Smoot’s Defender,” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Summer 2007): 81-118.

1See also Harvard S. Heath, “Reed Smoot: First Modern Mormon” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1990); Heath, In the World : The Diaries of Reed Smoot (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997); Heath, “The Reed Smoot Hearings: A Quest for Legitimacy,” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Summer 2007): 1-80.

2For example, see D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985): 9-105; B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); and B. Carmon Hardy, ed., Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origin, Practice, and Demise, vol. 9 of the Kingdom in the West series (Norman, Okla.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007).

John Whitmer Historical Journal, Matthew C. Godfrey
Plural marriage has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles and television news shows in the past few months, largely because of a raid against a polygamous community in Texas and that state’s confiscation of children living in that community. In addition, the LDS Church, whose members no longer practice plural marriage, recently issued a statement against gay marriage, stating that such a practice violated the sanctity of the home. Against this backdrop, the publication of the transcripts of the Reed Smoot hearings is both ironic and timely. In the early 1900s, Reed Smoot, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was elected senator from Utah, but the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections held hearings as to whether or not Smoot was fit to sit in the Senate. The hearings mostly revolved around the Mormon past practice of polygamy and the continuation and propagation of polygamy by high church leaders, even after the issuance of the Manifesto in 1890. In large part, the hearings were held because Protestant leaders and women’s organizations charged that polygamy was a threat to the sanctity of the home.

Over the course of three years (1902-06), the committee called numerous witnesses before it to discover whether Smoot was part of a body that encouraged civil disobedience to laws outlawing polygamy, whether he was a leader of a church that dominated temporal affairs in Utah and Idaho, and whether he had taken an oath of vengeance against the United States (in the LDS temple ceremony) for the murder of Joseph Smith. Witnesses included LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith, who stunned many in the Mormon community by claiming that he had never received a revelation; B. H. Roberts, who had clashed with other LDS authorities over politics; and James E. Talmage, future apostle, who provided elucidation on the doctrine of polygamy and the constitution of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Disaffected and excommunicated Mormons also testified, as did non-Mormons. Conspicuous in their absence were apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, who had allegedly performed plural marriages after Wilford Woodruff’s issuance of the Manifesto, and Heber J. Grant, who created a firestorm when he, in the eyes of many observers, flaunted his status as a polygamist in a public address at the University of Utah. Grant then left the United States to serve as president of the LDS Church’s European Mission (perhaps, as some claimed, to avoid prosecution). Church members generally condemned the proceedings as persecution directed against them for their religious beliefs, a position bolstered by anti-Mormon viewpoints held by such committee members as Chairman Julius Burrows from Michigan and Fred Dubois from Idaho.

In The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings, Michael Harold Paulos provides a wonderful service to the scholarly community by giving an edited version of the transcripts. Originally constituting 3,432 pages, Paulos condenses the Reed Smoot transcripts into 688 pages and includes explanatory footnotes and contemporary perspectives on the hearings from sources such as the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Smoot’s personal correspondence, and the writings of Carl Badger, Smoot’s secretary. The book also includes an introduction by Smoot scholar Harvard Heath, who provides historic context to the hearings, and an epilogue penned by Franklin S. Richards, who served as the church’s legal counsel through the hearings. These perspectives provide interesting insights into the issues explored by the Committee on Privileges and Elections. Paulos’s footnotes, coupled with the testimony from the hearings, give the reader the impression that while LDS Church leaders and longtime members had a difficult time eliminating polygamy from the church, many younger members, such as Badger, considered the practice reprehensible and were glad to see it go. Likewise, the hearings and the additional information provided by Paulos show the difficulties the church faced in the early 1900s as it began to become more integrated into the United States—politically, economically, and socially.

Although Paulos provides good information, it is not always entirely clear which parts of the transcript were eliminated from his edited version and why. He explains that the abridgement focuses on the testimony of Joseph F. Smith and Reed Smoot, and that testimony from other witnesses is “within the context of the topics raised in [their] examination.” Paulos also states that he included testimony used by counsel for both sides in their closing arguments. Yet, as Paulos’s editorial policy is not completely clear, more explanation of what was left out and why would benefit the reader. The work also could have used a comprehensive list of who testified in the hearings and perhaps a clearer overview of just what the major topics of examination were. For example, the committee was interested in the church’s domination of temporal affairs, but the only testimony on this topic included in the edited transcripts is that of Charles A. Smurthwaite. Smurthwaite claimed that Joseph F. Smith had deliberately tried to eliminate Smurthwaite’s fledgling salt business because it competed with the Inland Crystal Salt Company in which Smith and the LDS Church held an interest. Perhaps no other witness testified as to the church’s alleged economic domination, but since that was a pressing topic in the early 1900s, the lack of testimony regarding economics seems surprising and needs some explanation.

For the most part, Paulos has produced a work that is both important to the larger scholarship of Mormon history and an interesting read. Those interested in Mormonism at the turn of the twentieth century now have a readily accessible source to turn to for firsthand information on issues important to both the United States and the LDS Church as the two became more entwined. For this fact alone, Paulos should be commended. His ability to provide interesting details illuminating these issues and the testimony given in the hearings is just another reason why this volume is significant.

Association for Mormon Letters, Jeffrey Needle
The 2008 Presidential campaign is in full swing. Democrats can’t decide between Hillary and Barack; Republicans are up in the air about Rudy’s honesty and likeableness, and still wonder about Mitt’s Mormonism. This will be an exciting year, no? Someone will be sitting in the Oval Office in 2009. Will Mitt Mormon go to Washington? (Apologies to Jimmy Stewart …) Who knows?

Ask any Latter-day Saint about Mormons running for President, and I’ll guess few will remember that Joseph Smith, Jr., launched such a campaign in 1844, the year of his death. And even before Joseph’s run, Mormons had had an interesting relationship with civil government and with those who hold the power to guide our nation.

It is often helpful to gain the perspective of history, a view of how LDS candidates, and even elected officials, have been treated by the majority who neither understand, nor sympathize with, the complex system known as Mormonism. With this volume, we are given a solid opportunity to gain this perspective.

When Reed Smoot was elected to national office in the early 1900’s, there was an uproar in Congress. They didn’t want to seat the Senator-elect — a rare event in the halls of the U.S. Senate. The reason? Smoot was an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A glimpse at a timeline of Mormon history will make some of this a bit clearer. Polygamy, a practice that was “abandoned” in 1890, was, as we all know, quietly continued until the mid 1910’s when it was definitively abandoned by the Church. Although Smoot had not practiced plural marriage, there remained a distrust of Mormonism among many Americans. Members of the Church had not fully assimilated into American society as yet.

What followed was a series of hearings and, in the view of some, inquisitions, spanning the years 1904-1906. Transcripts of the hearings, more than 3,500 pages in length, document this extraordinary event in American, and Mormon, history. Many of Mormonism’s brightest lights were put on the witness stand and grilled about Mormonism’s eccentric (in their view) ideas and practices.

Paulos has condensed this record into about 700 pages of transcripts from the hearings. Included are testimonies from Joseph F. Smith, B. H. Roberts, and many others. Point for point, item for item, leaders of the Church defended, as best they could, the beliefs, and the very existence, of the Church they loved and served.

I will admit that I haven’t read every word of this book. One can scan from page to page and latch on to discussions of interest to the reader. Without meaning any disrespect, I found Joseph F. Smith to be, well, Clintonian in some respects. Yes, the questions were sometimes leading, and often assumed a response that was not forthcoming. But it seems that leaders of the Church fully understood how sensitive these hearings were–how the outcome of these exchanges would affect not just Senator Smoot’s election, but also how the rest of the nation would come to understand an emerging American religion.

The exchange with George Reynolds, who you will remember was imprisoned for a short time for his practice of plural marriage, is a fascinating example of how Americans viewed the 1890 Manifesto, and how some members of the Church, immersed in Plural Marriage, managed to play dodge ball with the law. Reynolds is best known for his involvement in polygamy persecution. Others were involved only tangentially, as believing members of the Church. But the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, the body conducting the hearings, was determined to place not just Reed Smoot, but the entire Mormon hierarchy, on trial.

(I was disappointed that the editor neglected to list the religious affiliations of the members of this Committee. I would have enjoyed knowing their various heritages.)

The editor begins each section with a quote from media covering the hearings. It was interesting to get the point of view, say, of the Deseret News, as the hearings progressed. The transcripts are also abundantly footnoted to enhance the reading and fill in details of the story.

Also included are 14 pages of photos, including some of the wonderful editorial cartoons of the era. I will admit to being a real softie when it comes to these drawings. They say so much about the subject of the satire, and gives a sense of the times that mere words can never offer.

One can hardly miss the fact that Mitt Romney has been subjected to the same kinds of questioning that have faced nearly every Mormon candidate for public office. One member of the press actually asked Mitt if he believed the Garden of Eden was in Missouri! I don’t know how Romney could have responded to this. He should have known that such questions would be coming.

But this book isn’t about Mitt Romney, and in many ways, it isn’t much about Reed Smoot. The apostle seems to melt into the background of the larger agenda of the Senate Committee–a dissection of the Mormon religion, a broad unease about seating a man whose religion had long been an isolated and, in some minds, an anti-American cult–as it grinds its way through the process.

There is much to be profited from reading this book. A hefty price-tag may discourage some. But, in the end, one does not judge a book by its poundage or its typestyle. Instead, we must look at the permanence of its importance, the thoroughness of its treatment of its topic. “The Mormon Church on Trial” passes all these tests.

Please consider obtaining this book when it is released. We cannot undervalue the use of history in understanding the present. And, amazingly, 100 years later, the questions asked of the witnesses sound amazingly like what Romney is being asked today. Perhaps someone will do Mitt a favor and send him a copy.

As president, he said, he would “put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”

Salt Lake City Weekly, Dallas Robbins
After Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race, many people gave a sigh of relief that we would not have to possibly endure years of Mormon jokes delivered on late night television. But a century earlier, Reed Smoot–an LDS Apostle who was elected to the U. S. Senate–caused an even greater media controversy. Congress refused to let Smoot take his seat–because, as everyone knew, Mormons were weird. Soon after, Congress did what they do best: held hearings to determine how weird they really were.

The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings is the first scholarly examination of this moment in American history. Testimonies by LDS leaders were brought before Congress, ultimately uncovering skeletons in the LDS Church and Utah politics.

The major skeleton exposed was the continued practice of polygamy, 14 years after it “officially” ended in 1890. So Congress did what they do even better, investigate people’s “sexual relations,” because, as everyone knew, a man having sex with more than one woman was weird. These revelations resulted in the church’s stronger policy against polygamists, including two apostles who “resigned” and were later disciplined.

Michael Harold Paulos’s edited transcripts explore a watershed moment in national politics when the LDS Church finally gave up part of its 19th-century identity and was brought kicking and screaming into the modern age.

Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
When Reed Smoot, an LDS apostle, was elected to the U. S. Senate as a Republican from Utah in 1903, he immediately fell into a quagmire. After, when another Mormon, B. H. Roberts, had been chosen for Congress in 1899, the political uproar was so great that he was denied his seat.

But there was an important difference: Roberts was a polygamist while Smoot was a monogamist, and the issue that surrounded each man was allegedly that of polygamy. Even though Utah Mormons today lean toward the Republican Party, the Republicans in Smoot’s day were dead set against “the twin relics, slavery and polygamy.”

The result was a long and bruising hearing led by Senate Republicans to expose Smoot as a secret polygamist, and thus send him home on the coattails of Roberts. The Senate failed in its carefully orchestrated effort, and Reed Smoot not only survived politically, he was a very powerful senator for 30 years.

For anyone attracted to Mormon history, the Smoot hearings represented a gold mine of testimony–42 witnesses in 17 days–for and against his admission to the Senate. The documentation of the hearings has always seemed insurmountable with 3,432 pages recorded. Yet Michael Paulos, a young financial analyst who maintains a vigorous side interest in history, has produced a condensation that is slightly more than 700 pages.

His book, The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings, is not only carefully edited but deftly annotated, making this historic, political, and religious episode accessible and fascinating to the general public. Even as a BYU student, Paulos had become enamored of the Smoot hearings, although he found it difficult to understand them either from written history or from college classes.

So in 2001, he began his own research into the Smoot case, reading up on its background and collecting his own copy of the transcripts, working most evenings and Saturdays. “I’m a political junkie, and I love Mormon history,” said Paulos during a phone interview from his home in San Antonio, “so the Smoot case seemed the perfect intersection of both. I was fascinated.”

He found that the testimonies of Reed Smoot, LDS President Joseph F. Smith and Apostle James E. Talmage propelled Mormonism into the public square much as Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy did for modern Mormonism. “Smoot is part one, Romney is par two,” Paulos said. The parallels between Smoot and Romney are pure serendipity.”

Paulos found reading the transcripts of the hearings to be “tedious and painstaking” but his business acumen allowed him to use comfortably 25 spreadsheets to keep it all straight. “The biggest challenge,” Paulos said, “was to get it from hard copy to electronic text. I had to be careful to catch all the mistakes. I didn’t want my work to be merely an abridgement of the hearings. I wanted to provide ‘behind-the-scenes information,’ and it worked out very well.”

Family and friendship connections facilitated Paulos’s acquisition of materials from both the Smoot and Badger families. Carl Badger was private secretary to Smoot during the hearings, and he kept a very helpful journal. Paulos was able to get primary documents directly from the Badger family.

Paulos discovered that Smoot was “a savvy businessman even before he was a politician,” but his “lack of religious knowledge was surprising and not what you’d expect of a general authority. On the stand, he testified he had been through the temple only once, and it didn’t make much of an impact on him.”

That was important since several senators had heard that Mormons took secret oaths, perhaps against the government of the United States, inside the temple. Because Smoot had been an apostle only three years, President Smith and Talmage filled in the gaps of his LDS knowledge.

Paulos said Smith was “the most influential witness” while Talmage was “the smartest, most intellectual witness. He talked about the minutia of doctrines.”

When Smith seemed to indicate that the process of revelation was rare to him personally, it surprised many people. Paulos believes that Smith “was a cagey witness and played the political game when he testified, using spin” as politicians do.

“A lot of the senators who voted in favor of Smoot said the hearings were ridiculous,” Paulos said, “because ‘we were examining the Mormon Church rather than Smoot.’”

Actually, Smoot’s “wet-behind-the-ears” image might have helped him win his case, and there was no evidence that he had ever advocated or practiced polygamy. In Paulos’s view, the politicians failed to find “their smoking gun.”

Paulos has provided a fine historical treatise on one of the most interesting episodes in both Mormon history and American political history. His book is invaluable for understanding Mormons as they emerged as a stable force in the 19th century.

Utah Historical Quarterly, Thomas G. Alexander
The four volumes of transcripts of the hearings before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on the right of Senator Reed Smoot of Utah to retain his seat came to my attention nearly fifty years ago and again while researching for various works including Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (1986). The Mormon Church on Trial offers an abridgement of some of the most important testimony and statements.

The book begins with valuable introductory material. An editor’s preface precedes an introduction by Harvard Heath that places Smoot’s career in context and considers the importance of the hearings and the surrounding political events. The editor then lists the members of the senate committee and offers a chronology of the protest, hearings, and eventual senate vote. Transcripts of the hearings and the closing statement follow. The text ends with a statement by Franklin S. Richards, principal attorney for the LDS Church, and an index.

Footnotes and headnotes throughout the text add valuable comments. These include insightful documents from Smoot, Carl Badger, other observers, newspapers, and citations from knowledgeable historians. Nevertheless, I found as superfluous the editor’s comments that J. Reuben Clark had marked particular sections in his copy of the hearings.

The hearings are significant. Following Smoot’s 1903 election, a group of prominent anti-Mormon clergy, business people, and lawyers protested. They charged that Smoot and the other LDS general authorities continued to promote illegal polygamy and polygamous cohabitation and that Smoot had taken oaths inconsistent with his obligations as a senator.

These charges were so general that the committee justified investigating virtually all aspects of the recent social, economic, and political history of the LDS Church. Moreover, the rules of evidence in judicial proceedings did not apply. Witnesses testified to unsubstantiated fabrication and hearsay, and the committee gave such testimony as much credence as verifiable evidence. The committee’s general counsel, Robert W. Tayler, and chair, Julius Caesar Burrows, made certain all of it appeared in the record.

Smoot’s attorneys Waldemar Van Cott and Augustus S. Worthington tried to confine the investigation to evidence that would prove him personally unfit for office. The wide-ranging investigation and the admission of hearsay and fabrication made their mission impossible.

Even credible testimony hurt Smoot’s case. Credible witnesses showed that the church leadership on the general and local level had interfered in political, economic, and social affairs far beyond what most Americans thought acceptable. Most significantly, friendly witnesses like President Joseph F. Smith testified that Mormons continued illegal polygamous cohabitation.

In addition, credible testimony showed that new plural marriages had taken place since the Manifesto. Several of those who had entered in or performed such marriages were simply too old or infirm to travel to Washington to testify. Two members of the Twelve, however, who had encouraged, participated in, and performed such marriages—John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley—were relatively young, and they could have testified. Instead, they avoided the service of summons and declined to appear voluntarily. By doing so, they hurt Smoot’s case, perhaps as much as if they had testified.

Given the lax rules of evidence and the pervasive prejudice against Smoot and the Mormons, it seems a miracle that he survived at all. Even though the evidence showed that Smoot, himself, had done nothing illegal, the committee voted to recommend his expulsion, and a majority of the senate agreed. Since, however, Smoot had already taken his seat, expulsion required a two-thirds majority; and the opponents lost by five votes. Politics undoubtedly played a significant role in his victory.

Sadly, anyone who follows current events will recognize that virulent anti-Mormon prejudice persists today, more than a century after the hearings.

The Midwest Book Review, James A. Cox
Originally published along with other government business in four volumes spanning over three thousand pages, The Mormon Church on Trial is an abridged, annotated, one-volume collection designed to make the Reed Smoot hearings (1904-06) accessible to readers of all backgrounds. The Reed Smoot hearings were a turning point in this history of the Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons). Reed Smoot was the first Mormon to be elected to the U.S. Senate; his election proved that Mormons could be enticed to abandon the Democratic Party and vote for the (widely hated) Republicans. Smoot himself was a modernist, seeking to bring his faith into the American mainstream with more emphasis on business and less on theology. In turn-of-the-century Utah, he was also unusual in that he was a monogamist. The Senate committeee hearings were held to block Senator-elect Smoot from his position—hearings that were to unearth many a skeleton in the closets of Utah politics and the Mormon Church. Among the many ecclesiastical leaders subpoenaed to testify were Joseph F. Smith, then president and prophet of the Mormon Church. Perhaps the most far-reaching fallout of the hearings was the renewed pressure on the church to abandon polygamy and take action against any of its members who entered into a new polygamous marriage regardless of their rank. An excellent primary souce of American history, made thoroughly readable due to the extensive annotations (including even a few political cartoons of the era), enthusiastically recommended for public and college libraries.

Ogden Standard Examiner Doug Gibson

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.