Return to About Mormons home

Political History

by Roger M. Barrus

LDS involvement in American politics began with the conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons in the 1830s and 1840s that led to the founding of a religious and political community in the Great Basin, organized by the U.S. Congress as Utah Territory. Mormonism emerged as a national political issue in the presidential election of 1856 with the Republican platform's condemnation of the "twin relics of barbarism"—southern slavery and Mormon polygamy. Political involvement continued in the social and political order of the state of Utah where, because of the high number of Latter-day Saints, there is identification between the political community and the dominant religion.

From its inception in western New York in 1830, the LDS Church was politically controversial. The deepest cause of conflict directly or indirectly affecting political relationships between Latter-day Saints and others was the belief in continuing revelation. Non-Mormons viewed the claim of continuing revelation and the social and political forms built on that claim as threats to democratic self-government. While the Book of Mormon was being printed, a mass meeting of Palmyra residents pledged to boycott it. The Prophet Joseph Smith was arrested several times on charges brought, according to his accusers, "to open the eyes and understanding of those who blindly follow" him. When the Church was hardly large enough to "man a farm, or meet a woman with a milk-pail," recalled Sidney Rigdon, non-Mormons were already accusing them of wanting "to upset the Government" (HC 6:289).

The turmoil of the New York period was only a harbinger of intense conflicts to follow. As the practical implications of belief in new revelation and obedience to a new prophet became clear, anti-Mormon opposition intensified. For the Prophet and his followers, divine calling made possible—indeed, morally incumbent—the effort to create a just society, which the revelations called Zion. For non-Mormon neighbors, these efforts constituted challenges that they determined to resist.

Belief in continuing revelation had profound implications for the organization of political society among the Latter-day Saints. The establishment of Zion required the unity of the LDS community in righteousness. The effort brought social, economic, and political innovations, including the gathering of the Saints, consecration and stewardship, the United Order, and plural marriage. In all matters relevant to building Zion, the LDS community looked to the Prophet for guidance, concentrating power, even against his own inclinations, in his hands.

Efforts to establish Zion excited fear and animosity. Made uneasy by ever-increasing numbers of Latter-day Saints and shocked or bemused by their economic and social experiments, many non-Mormons viewed the Saints as alien and hostile, even as a threat to their freedoms as Americans. Because the Church seemed to erase the distinction between church and state—in American liberal political thought an important pillar of liberty—some felt that it portended the rise of religious despotism. The result was recurring political conflict, which time and again threatened the LDS community.

The efforts to build a New Jerusalem in America began in 1831 with the gathering to Ohio and the designation of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri. As Church members built these new communities, differences with neighbors, and resulting tensions, were immediately evident. In Ohio, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were tarred and feathered by a mob. Random acts of violence threatened the young LDS community (see Kirtland, Ohio; Ohio, LDS Communities in).

Matters were still worse in Missouri, where, in 1833, citizens of Jackson County banded together to remove the Latter-day Saints from the county, "peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must" (HC 1:374). They were justified, they claimed, because Mormonism was an evil for which the laws made no provision. Missourians saw these newcomers as "deluded fanatics" or "designing knaves" who claimed "to hold personal communication and converse face to face with the Most High God" and who threatened to take political control of the county (HC 1:375)

By late fall of 1833, the Latter-day Saints had been driven from Jackson County. Most found temporary refuge in Clay County, where they were at first kindly received. Eventually, however, antagonisms developed there as well when it became apparent that Saints would not be going back to their homes and lands in Jackson County. Before violence erupted, Church members abandoned Clay County in 1836 for the newly organized Caldwell County, created by the legislature specifically as a home for Mormons.

By the summer of 1838, trouble had erupted again. In Kirtland, economic failure associated with the Panic of 1837 contributed to dissent. Some criticized Joseph Smith's exercise of authority and charged him with "Popery," or the combining of spiritual authority and temporal power. As tensions escalated, Joseph Smith and most of the faithful left Ohio for Missouri. In Caldwell County, critics within the Church also soon took up the cry, creating such profound consternation that the community forced them out. Dissenters then stirred up non-Mormons who were already fearful of growing LDS strength. In this situation of rising tensions, Sidney Rigdon defiantly declared independence from mob depredations and vowed that the Saints would meet future force with force. All that was required for a violent conflagration was a tiny spark.

Not surprisingly, political rivalry provided the spark. On August 6, 1838, non-Mormons in Daviess County, into which the rapidly increasing LDS population had spilled, attempted to prevent Latter-day Saints from voting at Gallatin, Missouri. A brawl resulted, and exaggerated accounts of the incident soon mobilized armed bands on both sides. After several skirmishes, a pitched battle occurred, with both sides suffering casualties. Following exaggerated reports of this battle, Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered the state militia to treat the Mormons as enemies to be exterminated or driven from the state (see Extermination Order; Missouri Conflict). After Joseph Smith and other leaders were imprisoned, the Latter-day Saints were disarmed and then were forced from Missouri. After months of imprisonment, jailed Church leaders eventually escaped or were released.

Moving to Illinois, the Latter-day Saints built a new city, Nauvoo, along the banks of the Mississippi River. Apparently convinced that there would be no peace as long as Church members were politically at the mercy of non-Mormons, Joseph Smith sought and obtained political power for the new city. In the Nauvoo charter, the Illinois legislature empowered the city to make any ordinances not prohibited by the Constitution of the united states or that of Illinois and to organize a militia with power to execute said laws.

While Nauvoo flourished under the protection of the new city government and its own militia, the Nauvoo Legion, trouble soon developed. Non-Mormons resented Nauvoo's political power, which was based on increasing LDS numbers and on their willingness to vote as a bloc to reward political friends and punish political enemies (see Nauvoo Politics). Bloc voting was both a reflection of the social unity of the LDS community and a defensive reaction to the abuses suffered in Missouri. Yet critics condemned the Saints for "yielding implicit obedience" to a "pretended prophet of the Lord" who, they charged, was a dangerous character entertaining "the most absolute contempt for the laws of man" (HC 6:4-5).

Even within the Church there was again restiveness, for the private introduction of plural marriage and Joseph Smith's increasing political power contributed to dissent. Dissidents established a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, and attacked Joseph Smith for supposed moral imperfections and poor leadership. Declaring the Expositor a public nuisance, the Nauvoo City Council authorized Mayor Joseph Smith to order city police to destroy its press. In the resulting furor, the anti-Mormon Warsaw Signal called on the citizens of Illinois to take direct military action against the Prophet. Others spoke of extermination. With violence clearly a possibility, Joseph Smith allowed himself to be arrested on charges stemming from the Expositor incident and was imprisoned in Carthage, the county seat, where on June 27, 1844, he was murdered by a mob (see Carthage Jail; Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith).

The Prophet's death brought a lull in hostilities, which provided time to complete the Nauvoo Temple and to make preparations to move to a new home in the West. When conflict broke out again in September 1845, Church leaders announced their intention to leave Illinois in the spring. By the summer of 1846, most Latter-day Saints had departed. Those remaining were forced out by an anti-Mormon attack on the city in September 1846.

The Missouri and Illinois cataclysms convinced Brigham Young and other Church leaders that the Latter-day Saints needed not just political power but political autonomy. According to the prevailing constitutional interpretation of states' rights, the federal government was largely prohibited from interfering with a state's domestic institutions (slavery, for example). To obtain such autonomy, Latter-day Saints did not necessarily have to remove themselves from the boundaries of the United States but only from existing states and territories. As the first settlers in a new area, they could possibly obtain the political autonomy necessary for protection within the federal Union.

As the Latter-day Saints embarked on their westward migration, some dreamed of an independent LDS nation, while others envisioned the establishment of a territory or state within the United States. When Church leaders selected the Great Basin as their probable destination, it was legally a remote part of Mexico. The Mormon Battalion contributed, at least marginally, to the effort by which the United States obtained title to the Southwest, including the Great Basin.

The first LDS pioneers entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847. Until late 1848, when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles established themselves in the valley, the settlement was governed by the Salt Lake Stake presidency and high council. President Brigham Young charged these local officials to "observe those principles which have been instituted in the Stakes of Zion for the government of the Church, and to pass such laws and ordinances as shall be necessary for the peace and prosperity of the city for the time being" (Morgan, p. 69). In December 1848, Church leaders petitioned Congress for a territorial organization. Later, they drafted a Constitution for a proposed state of Deseret, with a bill of rights containing a strongly worded guarantee of religious liberty, and applied for admission to the Union. Brigham Young was elected governor of the would-be state.

In Congress, this hoped-for admission became enmeshed in the political maelstrom over slavery in U.S. territories raised by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the Compromise of 1850, Congress organized the Latter-day Saints as the Territory of Utah. The compromise, adopting the principle of popular sovereignty, allowed settlers in the newly acquired territories to decide whether they would have slavery. Utah, attempting to remain aloof from the dispute over slavery, offended both anti- and proslavery congressmen by ignoring the matter in its Constitution.

From the beginning of Utah's territorial period, relations between the LDS community and the federal government were tense. The first non-Mormon territorial officials became embroiled in controversy within days of their arrival and soon returned to the East, spreading inflammatory reports that deeply influenced congressional and public opinion. Later federal appointees were also critical. And the Church deeply agitated public opinion when it officially avowed plural marriage in 1852.

In the presidential election of 1856, the Republican party used public antipolygamy feeling to attack the Democratic party for its stand on slavery in the territories. Democrats in Congress had passed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which, by repealing the Missouri Compromise, removed the last legal restraints on the spread of slavery to U.S. territories and established popular sovereignty as the political principle governing slavery in the territories. The Republican party, intent on restoring the Missouri Compromise by repudiating popular sovereignty, inserted the "twin relics" plank in the 1856 Republican platform in an effort to tar the Democratic party with Mormon polygamy. The point was that if the Democrats truly believed that the citizens of the territories alone had the power to legislate on slavery, logically they must also accept that the citizens of the territories should have the sole power to legislate on matrimony. Polygamy and slavery, according to the author of the "twin relics" plank, "rested precisely on the same Constitutional basis," and so "to make war upon polygamy, and at the same time strengthen the case against slavery as much as possible," he linked them together (Poll, p. 127).

The Republican strategy succeeded. Democratic party leaders concluded that to protect popular sovereignty as it related to slavery, they had to take a firm stand against polygamy. Senator Stephen Douglas, popular sovereignty's chief patron, attacked the Mormons as subversive aliens who recognized the authority of Brigham Young "and the government of which he is the head" above that of the United States. He accused Latter-day Saints of prosecuting "a system of robbery and murders upon American citizens" (see Danites) and called for the application of "the knife" to "this pestiferous, disgusting cancer" of Mormonism, "which is gnawing at the very vitals of the body politic" (CHC 4:221-22). It is possible that embarrassment over the linkage of polygamy and popular sovereignty contributed to U.S. President James Buchanan's decision, on the basis of vague and unsubstantiated reports, to take the extraordinary step of sending an army to Utah in 1857 to enforce federal law (see Utah Expedition). The ostensible purpose of the army was to ensure that the territory accepted the replacement of Brigham Young as governor, but it had also been suggested to Buchanan that he might be able to upstage the commotion over slavery in the territories with the excitement of an anti-Mormon crusade.

A Republican-controlled Congress passed the first antipolygamy legislation in 1862. The Morrill Act outlawed polygamy and overturned certain acts of the Utah legislature, including one incorporating the Church, which shielded the practice of polygamy. The Civil War delayed enforcement, and when the federal government returned to the Utah situation after the war, it found that the act was unenforceable because territorial courts were in LDS hands. To remedy this situation, Congress passed the Poland Act of 1874, transferring control over criminal proceedings—including cases involving polygamy—from local courts to federally appointed officials. This act marked the transformation of the confrontation over plural marriage into a struggle over political power in Utah. The 1882 Edmunds Act prohibited polygamists (including virtually all Church leaders) from voting or holding office. It also established a federally appointed commission to control territorial elections, including voter registration. Utah women were among the first in the nation to vote, and woman suffrage was now also under attack. The most sweeping legislation, the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, required an antipolygamy test oath for voting and holding office, disfranchised women, disbanded the territorial militia, took control of public schools, abolished the Church's perpetual emigrating fund, dissolved the Church as a legal entity, and seized much of its property. In the late 1880s, demands were made in Congress for even more stringent measures.

Latter-day Saints vigorously protested that this legislation violated their constitutionally protected right of the free exercise of religion, and in a series of cases, they challenged the antipolygamy legislation in the courts. Reynolds v. United States was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879. The appeal attacked the Morrill Act for failing to acknowledge the religious motivation behind plural marriage. A unanimous Court held, however, that to allow Latter-day Saints' religious beliefs to excuse them from obeying the law would be to "make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself" (98 U.S. [1879]). The Reynolds decision distinguished between religious opinions and religious practices, leaving the former free while allowing for government regulation of the latter (see Civil Rights; Legal and Judicial History of the Church).

Decisions in later polygamy cases undermined that distinction, allowing for the direct or indirect regulation of religious opinion. The Court upheld the disfranchisement provisions of the Edmunds Act in Murphy v. Ramsey. Congress, according to the Court, was responsible for preparing the territories for statehood and self-government. In Utah this required curbing the political power of polygamists because nothing was more important in the founding of a self-governing commonwealth than "the idea of family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony" (114 U.S. 15 [1885]). The Court in Davis v. Beason upheld an Idaho test oath that disfranchised any member of any organization that taught its members "to commit the crime" of polygamy. According to the Court, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment did not protect individuals in advocating "any form of worship" and "any tenets, however destructive of society," merely by asserting them to be a part of their religious beliefs (133 U.S. 333 [1890]). In The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States, the Supreme Court sustained the disincorporation and escheat provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act. The opinion described the Church corporation as a contumacious organization that, in defiance of the authority of the government, continued to encourage polygamy, "a crime against the laws, and abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world" (136 U.S. 1 [1890]). With plenary authority over the political affairs of territories, Congress had the power to abolish the Church corporation and the government could dispose of its property.

The Poland, Edmunds, and Edmunds-Tucker laws curtailed LDS political power. An all-out attack on plural marriage came in the late 1880s, in what Latter-day Saints called "the Raid." The thrust against the Church struck deeper than the practice of polygamy, however: it struck at the heart of the LDS community and threatened its survival in a world that, since the 1830s, had shown itself hostile. The deeper threat was reflected in the massive economic, social, and political dislocations occasioned by the Raid. Finally, facing even the loss of its temples, in 1890 Church President Wilford Woodruff concluded that "for the temporal salvation of the church" it was necessary to end the practice of plural marriage. In his manifesto of 1890, he announced his intention to submit to the antipolygamy laws and to use his influence to induce Church members to do the same.

The Manifesto was only the beginning of the changes introduced by Church leaders in the 1890s to accommodate the Latter-day Saint community to the social, economic, and political forms of the larger society. They dissolved the local People's party, which had dominated electoral politics in Utah from its organization in the early 1870s, and encouraged members to affiliate with the Republican and Democratic national parties. They supported the development of a public school system. Finally, leaders reduced direct Church involvement in the economic life of the territory by selling off most business interests (see Economic History of the Church; Pioneer Economy). The reward for their willingness to accommodate themselves to the forms of American liberalism came in 1896 with Utah statehood. Latter-day Saints relinquished important elements of the social, economic, and political order that they had established in the Great Basin in exchange for a measure of the political power and autonomy that decades of confrontation and conflict had demonstrated were necessary for their survival as a community.

The modus vivendi that Church leaders worked out with the American political community as the prerequisite for statehood reduced, but by no means ended, direct Church involvement in politics. In the first years after statehood, Church leaders quietly supported and participated in a system of power sharing between Mormons and non-Mormons, Democrats and Republicans. For example, the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate were divided between Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons until the election of 1916, when the Seventeenth Amendment (ratified 1913), providing for direct popular election of senators, removed the matter from the control of party or Church leaders.

Church leaders signaled their intention to curb their own political activity in the so-called Political Manifesto of 1896, which emphasized the importance of the religious duties of Church officers and required them to obtain approval of ecclesiastical superiors before seeking public office. This rule was applied more stringently for Democratic- than Republican-inclined Church officials. Church authorities in the 1890s encouraged the development of the Republican party among Church members, many of whom had avoided the party because of its harsh opposition to plural marriage.

Church leaders since 1896, with only a few exceptions, have avoided taking stands that by either identifying the Church with, or casting the Church in opposition to, either major political party would encourage a religious polarization of the parties. But they have been willing to take an official stand on such issues as public Welfare and the repeal of prohibition in the 1930s, Sunday closing laws in the 1950s, right-to-work laws and liquor by the drink in the 1960s, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, and abortion in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. While the Church by no means inevitably has its way in Utah politics, it is a pervasive influence in the state. Latter-day Saints help shape the political agenda of Utah, in large part determining the issues that are or are not live, and dictating the terms in which issues accepted as live are debated. Generally, the overwhelming majority of all officeholders, both Republican and Democratic, are LDS.

What the Latter-day Saints relinquished in order to secure statehood for Utah indicates what was really at stake in the nineteenth-century political conflicts. Both sides were well aware that the struggle was over more than a "peculiar institution." For Latter-day Saints, plural marriage symbolized obedience to the will of God revealed through latter-day prophets. For anti-Mormons, polygamy symbolized the potential for theocratic control, rooted in the religion's belief in continuing revelation. Territorial governor Caleb West told the Mormons in 1888 that the cause of their woes was their belief that "God governs them immediately, not alone in faith and morals, but in all affairs and relations of life, and that the counsel of the priesthood is the Supreme Voice of God and must be obeyed" (governor to Territorial Assembly, Jan. 9, 1888). The tenet of continuing revelation, an issue since the beginning, largely accounted for the struggles between the Latter-day Saints and the federal government over political power in early Utah. It generated continuing tensions in the politics of Utah, and containing them required the exercise of prudent statesmanship by leaders of both church and state. At the same time, the vitality of Utah as a democratic political community in the early twentieth century was the foundation for the relative peace that Latter-day Saints have enjoyed since then. That such peace remained somewhat precarious was evident when well-organized LDS lobbying efforts in several states against the ERA in the 1970s threatened to reawaken major apprehensions of priesthood influence on LDS voters.

Outside the United States, LDS efforts for legal recognition and freedom of operation under restrictive regimes were remarkably successful by 1990, precisely because Church leaders convinced government leaders that priesthood directives would not promote political activity that confronted constituted authority—would not, in fact, promote political activity in any particular direction. The fact that LDS political behavior both in Utah and in U.S. government service was observably stable and responsible was thus significant for the functioning and expansion of the Church in an international setting.


Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. Urbana and Chicago, 1986.

Firmage, Edwin Brown, and Richard Collin Mangrum. Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Urbana and Chicago, 1988.

Hill, Marvin S. Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism. Salt Lake City, 1989.

Lyman, Edward Leo. Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood. Urbana and Chicago, 1986.

Morgan, Dale L. "The State of Deseret." Utah Historical Quarterly 8 (Apr., July, Oct. 1940):65-239.

Poll, Richard D. "The Mormon Question Enters National Politics, 1850-1856." Utah Historical Quarterly 25 (1957):117-31.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 3, Political History

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons