By Jana Riess
A response to the conference Mormonism and American Politics on February 3-4, 2012.
We know that Mitt Romney is running for President, but he’s by no means the first Mormon to do so. In fact, the tradition extends all the way to 1844, when Mormon founder Joseph Smith ran. At Columbia University’s conference on Mormonism and American politics, historian Richard Bushman said that far from having a fully fleshed-out platform, Smith ran primarily as a protest candidate.
In one sense Smith’s very candidacy was ironic. He and other early Mormons believed that the end of the world was coming imminently, so why would earthly governments matter at all?
Bushman said that for Smith, it was a matter of justice. He had appealed repeatedly to state and local leaders for redress of wrongs—the Mormons had been driven out of Missouri, losing their property, land, and sometimes even their lives—but no state leaders were willing to help. He took his case to national leaders like Henry Clay and James Calhoun, but also to no avail. So he announced his campaign for the presidency under the name “General Joseph Smith” and disseminated his platform to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and anyone who would listen.
Other than calling for the abolition of slavery, it wasn’t a very detailed platform. Smith called for “harmony” and seemed to believe that if people were treated fairly, and their rights were respected under the law, they would all get along. “His contribution was a prophetic vision, not a blueprint for change,” Bushman explained.
Learning more about Smith’s candidacy reminded of the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show in the backyard!” movies. Smith’s candidacy had a certain youthful exuberance tempered by obvious inexperience. One of the questions that arose in the Q&A pointed to the inexperience part. It’s not at all clear that Smith even got on the ballot in states other than Illinois, or that he cared. His candidacy was about drawing attention to injustice, to Mormons and to slaves, than it was a realistic fight for political power.
Jana Riess is the author of several books, including Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. A version of this post was published by Religion News Service.