From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Heath, Harvard S.
Before seating senator-elect Reed Smoot, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the U.S. Senate conducted lengthy hearings into his alleged involvement in plural marriage and into the policy and government of the Church. Few events have had greater impact on the Church and its public image than the highly publicized Smoot Hearings of 1903-1907.
The 1890s had seen the Church pass through some of its most challenging times, including the tumultuous political fight for Utah statehood following the manifesto of 1890 (officially curtailing new plural marriages) and presidential amnesty for Church officers who had practiced polygamy, initiating the process of accommodation and acculturation to mainstream America. Euphoria, however, was short-lived.
The election to the U.S. Senate of Reed Smoot, a highly visible Church leader, unleashed intense anti-Mormon sentiment, which had subsided after statehood. Within a year of his election, more than 3,100 petitions arrived in Washington, D.C., protesting his seating and creating a furor that forced the Senate to examine the case. The prosecution focused on two issues: Smoot's alleged polygamy and his expected allegiance to the Church and its ruling hierarchy, which, it was claimed, would make it impossible for him to execute his oath as a United States senator. Although the proceedings focused on senator-elect Smoot, it soon became apparent that it was the Church that was on trial.
The case opened with Church leaders subpoenaed to testify as to the power the Church exerted over its members in general and over General Authorities in particular. Investigators probed into past and present polygamous relationships of leaders and lay members alike. They raised questions on points of doctrine that affected how Church members and their leaders interacted with American society at large.
Some of the testimony revealed situations and circumstances that put the Church in an unfavorable light. President Joseph F. Smith received especially harsh treatment in cross-examination. Some members of the Quorum of the Twelve refused to testify, which increased the hostility of senators already concerned about the Church's motives and conduct. Faced with intense pressure, Church leaders accepted the resignations of apostles Matthias Cowley and John W. Taylor, who were rumored to have performed plural marriages after the Manifesto. To further evidence good faith, in the annual April conference of 1904 President Smith issued a "Second Manifesto" that added ecclesiastical teeth to the Manifesto of 1890. Excommunication would now follow for those who refused to relinquish the practice of plural marriage.
Despite some damaging testimony, Senator Smoot gradually won support for three reasons. First, his character was found to be above reproach, and charges against him and the Church proved groundless. Second, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was sympathetic to Smoot's position; his motivation was partly personal but also political, as Senator Smoot and a Republican Utah were important to him. Third, the defense convinced a majority of senators that Smoot's apostleship would not impair his ability to put the oath of the senator first in executing his responsibilities.
The victory for Elder-Senator Smoot was a victory for the Church, providing the political legitimacy it had been seeking since 1850. It also launched a thirty-year career in the Senate that saw Senator Smoot reach the pinnacle of political success as one of the two or three most powerful senators in America during the 1920s. Perhaps more than any other individual, Reed Smoot molded and shaped the positive national image the Church was to enjoy throughout the twentieth century.
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890 -1930. Chicago, 1986.
Heath, Harvard. "Reed Smoot: The First Modern Mormon." Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1990.
Merrill, Milton R. Reed Smoot: Apostle in Politics. Logan, Utah, 1990.
United States Senate, Committee on Privileges and Elections. In the Matter of the Protests Against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, A Senator from the State of Utah to Hold His Seat, 4 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904-1906.
HARVARD S. HEATH