A Smoot Book

smoot.jpgKathleen Flake of Vanderbilt divinity school has just published what looks like a very interesting book with UNC press. She traces out the history of the Reed Smoot hearings, arguing that they were a pivotal event in defining the role of religion in American public life.

Reed Smoot was an monogamist Apostle who was elected to the Senate at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, many Mormons continued to be polygamists from pre-Manifesto plural marriages. In addition, there had been a large number of secret, post-Manifesto plural marriages. These marriages, along with accusations that the Church controlled Utah politics led to a challenge to the seating of Mr. Smoot. The hearings were a protracted ordeal for Smoot and the Church, and eventually President Joseph F. Smith was called to testify before the Senate committee. Smoot was eventually seated and served into the 1930s.

For many years the Mormon branch in Washington D.C. met in Reed Smoot’s living room. According to one story that I have heard, for a brief period J. Reuben Clark, who was working in the Theodore Roosevelt administration and was one of the few Mormons in DC who was not a Smoot protege, stopped attending church because he couldn’t stand Smoot.

6 comments for “A Smoot Book

  1. Thanks for alerting us to the book. I chuckled at the Clark/Smoot story. Particularly having just listened to Boyd K. Packer’s talk Saturday night regarding the legal career of Clark. Maybe I’m just a bad bad person, but I quite frankly enjoy the stories about the church leader snits of yore. Just puts the whole enterprise in a much more human frame. (Plus…as we all know…snits happen…)

  2. Nathan,

    I don’t know about the Clark/Smoot story. As I recall, there was an interesting article in BYU studies years ago about the conflict among the Brethren over the League of Nations debate in the US Senate. It appears all of the Twelve and the First Presidency were for the League, with three well-known exceptions: David O. Mckay, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Reed Smoot (who as Senator, helped lead the Anti-League fight). During this time Clark was a very vocal opponent of the league also, and if I remember Smoot and Clark worked closely together. I wonder, if the conflict between them was real, if it occurred after this time frame?

  3. I have not yet read the book. Thanks for the suggestion. Another topic for discussion (maybe someone should start a thread): If all goes the way of gay marriage, the door is open for polygamy once again. If it is reinstituted, how many Reed Smoots do we have out there? How many Brigham Youngs?

  4. A lot of these issues are discussed in Mormonism in Transition as well. That book is quite interesting even if its prose is often a little boring. (i.e. the book isn’t exactly engaging reading) But the stuff on Smoot and political bitterness there was quite interesting.

  5. This sounds like a great read, especially given the author’s background as noted on the Vanderbilt Divinity School site. Here’s a take on Mormon history that Nate should approve of as moving from LDS themes to mainstream relevance: using Protestant treatment of Mormons as a mirror back on American Protestant religious culture and values.

    This parallels modern scholarship on witchcraft persecutions, trials, and executions, which are now used as a mirror to view the anxieties of the pious Christians who ran the campaigns. If they weren’t really burning witches (actually in America they were generally hanged), then what were they doing? Likewise, once it’s clear that 19th century Mormons weren’t the devilish heathens they were portrayed to be by the media and institutions of the day, then what were those perpetuating and employing those images really doing? So perhaps they were learning how to be religiously tolerant. God moves in mysterious ways.

    Say, if one of the Big Nine wanted to start a “T&S Book of the Month” feature, this seems like a great first choice. Be a great hook to snag authors as guest bloggers, too.

  6. I read this as a dissertation and very highly recommend it. It’s a great read (even as a dissertation!) and makes important arguments. She very effectively links the Smoot trial to American political and cultural history. She also had a few excellent chapters on how the Church responded to the trial–the Church needed to replace the hole in its identity left by the excision of polygamy. So Church leaders increasingly emphasized the founding events of the Restoration, focusing attention on the First Vision, buying and dedicating the Joseph Smith Memorial Monument in Vermont, etc.

    Just to give a preview, here’s Flake’s conclusion: “The Smoot hearing’s solution to the Mormon Problem has lasted for a hundred years. It endures because, like most litigation settlements, none of the parties got everything they wanted, but they got enough that they could live with the result. The LDS Church obtained protected status, but lost plural marriage; the Protestants preserved their doctrine of marriage, but had to co-exist with Mormonism; and the nation obtained Mormon obedience to federal sovereignty, but accepted the church’s ‘good’ monopolistic tendencies. These compromises reveal the new century’s turn to political, rather than coercive, methods of social control and its accommodation of religious plurality in the form of federated denominationalism, rather than assimilationist harmony. More significantly, these compromises reveal a negotiation of religious identity and authority that successfully articulated the terms for extending religious liberty to an increasingly non-Protestant and non-Christian citizenry. And, of course, they made it possible for Mr. Smoot to stay in Washington.”

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