The Smoot Hearings

This famous set of hearings into whether Utah's newly elected senator, a Mormon apostle, should be seated in the U.S. Senate, led over time to a profound shift in America's perception of Mormonism.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

The [Senator Reed] Smoot trial. It was a huge deal. It's like Watergate.

As the 20th century dawned, both the nation and the Mormon Church knew they still had a Mormon problem.

In 1903 a man arrives in Washington named Reed Smoot. He is a Mormon apostle, and he's been elected to the [U.S.] Senate. Simultaneous with his election, the Protestant leadership, many of the business leaders and some of the non-Mormon political leaders, have filed a petition with Congress saying he is not fit to hold a seat in the national legislature because he represents a lawless organization.

That moment -- Smoot's arrival in Washington and the complaint that was filed by the Protestants against Smoot in the Senate -- provides the occasion for the working out of the Mormon problem. Where the Army had failed to solve it, where criminal statutes had failed to change Mormon behavior and solve the Mormon problem, this political trial does. And it was a huge trial.

[The trial] lasted for four years, with breaks of course. It involved over 100 witnesses, a 3,500-page transcript to the hearing. It was as big publicly as anything we've seen in our own day -- Watergate, Iran-Contra. It captured the public's attention on a variety of very dramatic issues -- church and state, sex, religious power, the secrecy of Mormon temples, sacramental religion. ... You couldn't be in America during these years and not know about the Smoot hearings.

What was at stake in the Smoot hearings?

The stakes were high for all the parties. For the government, they needed to get what was now not simply a church but a state -- Utah is now a state, since 1896 -- they need to get the state in line and get it to obey the law. It's a power struggle, as it's always been between the government and the Mormon Church; it's being played out in the Senate hearing.

For the Mormons the stakes are even higher probably. They are being ghettoized; they are not able to get their message outside of the Rocky Mountain West. In New York the mayor issued a regulation that prohibited Mormons from proselytizing in the street. The Southern region outbreaks of violence were fairly common. ...

In Europe governments were refusing to admit missionaries to the country. They were also refusing to allow their own citizens to emigrate to Utah; they were refusing to allow Mormon congregations to be formed or Mormons to worship. In fact, in 1901, when Joseph F. Smith becomes president of the Mormon Church, he says to his congregation, he says in his first speech: "We've got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they're doing God a service to kill us."

Now, again, they're not so much concerned at this point about being believed; they're concerned about being heard, because their reputation is so bad that good people won't give them the time of day. ... And if people won't hear that message, they might as well just pack up and go home.

Now, the Protestants bring their own concern. Polygamy is still abhorrent to them, not only a danger to home and hearth, but that danger itself undermines democracy. It is a threat to the United States government that the home is, in their terms, dissipated by this family practice. It gets to a particularly high pitch for the Protestants because they are feeling the erosion of their own power in the early 20th century. It's what some scholars [called] a time of second disestablishment. And Mormonism hasn't gone away. Protestantism has thrown everything it had at it, and it's still there. They can't get it to go away.

So you see the aggravation and the level of acrimony -- people going on the lecture circuit, wearing Mormon clothes, holding it up to public ridicule, making fun of it; having pseudoscientific lectures about how Mormons who are the offspring of polygamous marriages are deformed, speaking about them in highly racialized [terms]. You've got these cartoons that are extraordinarily aggressive; for example, the president of the Mormon Church portrayed as a convict. He's got a ball and chain on him, a bulbous nose that makes him look like an alcoholic, his eyes drooping as if he was a drunk.

At the end, in 1907, when the Senate voted to seat the senator from Utah, what did the Mormons get?

The strain of the Smoot hearing on the Mormon Church was extraordinary. Every leader of the Mormon Church was subpoenaed to testify in Washington, or "the seat of war," as they called it in their accounts. There were federal agents around the Utah area looking for Smoot's other wife. There were rumors that he had another wife, but he didn't. Their testimony was being published in the local anti-Mormon press. ...

In 1907, after four years of pistol whipping, both on the stand and in the press, you have to ask yourself, did the Mormons get what they wanted? And I would have to say yes. I think the easiest way to measure that is to jump ahead a few years, 1923.

Reed Smoot is now a senior senator, a ranking member of the Senate and the Republican Party, a counselor to the president. President Harding consults him; he is chairman of Senate Finance. He's on the War Reparations Committee, and he's invited to go to Europe, and he uses that occasion to visit with the heads of Europe and to talk to them about his church and to ask them: "Why are you treating my church this way? ... Why don't you let my church's missionaries into your country, and why don't you let us organize churches in your country?" And he's able to say to them, "Oh, we don't practice polygamy anymore; that's gone."

I think the force of that conversation can't be overestimated. And at that point Europe opens up to the Mormon Church, and the internationalization that you see in the next 60 years -- it is the story of 20th-century Mormonism -- begins in the Smoot hearings. …

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

Once the Smoot hearings were concluded, and his seat was then assured, he went from pariah, really, to kingmaker. He gradually became chairman of some important committees in the Senate. It was at his instigation that the Supreme Court building sits where it does now, for instance. So he left an indelible mark on Washington. He also left an indelible mark upon the church, because he wore two hats still. He was U.S. senator, and he was an apostle in the church.

In the early 1920s, he made an important trip to Europe, in particular Scandinavian countries, which initially in the 1850s had been very friendly toward the Mormon missionaries and had grown very hostile. There was the threat that those missions would even be shut down. His persona, visiting those countries, meeting with the national leaders, turned the tide, calmed down the storm and allowed the missionaries in those countries, including my grandfather in Norway, to continue doing what they wanted to do. That was the power that this man gradually accumulated, in part because of his position, in part because of his persona.