The title of this post may have already upset some of my Mormon friends. I am fairly certain that a church which believes it is the restoration of true faith would be a little upset with the idea of having to undergo "reformation." Yet that is precisely the central thesis of the book "The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle" by Kathleen Flake. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is seriously interested in the interaction of politics and Mormonism.
Utah became a state in 1896, and not long after, 1900, Reed Smoot was elected to the United States Senate from that state. Smoot was no ordinary person elected to such office. Smoot was a member of the "Quorum of Twelve Apostles," the leading body and second highest office in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he came to Washington to begin to serve, a firestorm was ignited that resulted in a multi-year hearing by a Senate committee concerning Smoot's capability to serve Constitutionally in the office to which he had been elected. The question then was what still seems like the never-ending question to this blog: "Whom does such an individual serve, his church or the nation?" Because the hearing took so long, and Smoot was meanwhile allowed to serve in his office and do so very well, it became apparent early that Smoot was going to be a very good Senator. In essence the hearing put the CJCLDS on trial, not Smoot.
A brief aside – The question, "Is Mitt Romney the Mormon Al Smith or JFK?" has been bandied about on this blog from time-to-time. The Smoot hearings were so public and so vitriolic, that despite the fact they did not concern the office of the Presidency, I would have to argue that Smoot best fits the Smith role, leaving Romney in the Kennedy role. These hearings were so widely discussed in the press that "trial" did indeed occur in the court of public opinion. Now, back to our story.
Clearing the way for statehood, the then prophet/president of the CJCLDS in 1890, Wilford Woodruff, issued "The Manifesto" which renounced polygamy as a religious practice of the church. However, as was demonstrated in the Smoot hearings, the practice continued, albeit somewhat more clandestinely, until, as a part of responding to the Smoot hearings 1901-1905, then CJCLDS president/prophet Joseph F Smith (nephew of LDS founding prophet Joseph Smith) issued a repeating declaration and the Quorum of the Apostles removed two of their own for continuing to perform plural marriages since the Manifesto. Flake's thesis, though she does not use these words, is that the Smoot hearings, where words turned to substance, is the place where the CJCLDS truly reformed, not as is commonly argued, the 1890 Manifesto and subsequent statehood.
[Lowell interjects: For those unfamiliar with the LDS Church, the removal of an apostle from the Quorum of Twelve Apostles is a truly extraordinary event, one that occurred only three times in the 20th century.]
I am using the words "reformed" and "reformation" here very purposefully, despite the potential for offense to my Mormon friends. The creedal Christian Reformation of the 16th century is thought of by most creedal Christians as a theological event. The advent of the printing press and translations of the Bible out of Latin made scripture available to the common man. From this, great thinkers like Luther and Calvin forged a theology not so dependent on the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, and those thoughts caught fire as people could examine their ideas for themselves. Eventually schism resulted and Protestantism was born.
This classic Reformation was far more than a theological and ecclesiastical event; however. It must be remembered that at the time sovereigns were granted their authority to serve their kingdoms by the church. In essence, the church had authority over civil government. As schism developed on the European continent, this fact remained, and sovereigns simply were blessed by the local denomination. In England, however, something very different happened. The formation of the Church of England by Henry the Eighth was a purely political act. Under his reign, the theology of the Church of England varied not at all from that of the RCC; such debate came only after his death. The initial formation of the Church of England was simply Henry establishing himself as the chief political power in the land, not the church. After the reign of Henry the Eighth, the church was subject to the state, not the other way around. When it comes to how the world works on a day-in, day-out basis, this may be the single most important fact the 16th century Reformation.
Flake's thesis in the subject book is that in the actions around and responsive to the Smoot hearings, the CJCLDS placed itself in a position of secondary power to the civil authorities and thus came to conform to the American understanding of what a church is, an understanding that was developed out of the events of the 16th century Reformation. Thus my contention that these events mark the Mormon Reformation.
This idea is terribly important in the current era for two reasons. The first has to do with religion in general. It is widely argued that the roots of current Islamic terrorism lie in the fact that that religion has yet to undergo reformation. This makes sense, for the ideological roots of the terrorism are an effort to reassert Islamic eccesiastical authority over the authority of the state. This argument divides the world into those with reformed religions, that is to say religions that consider themselves secondary powers to the state, and non-reformed religions which view themselves as primary powers – the former can broadly be considered ally and the latter enemy in current global struggles. Under such circumstances it can reasonably be argued that even in a state such as ours, with religious plurality, an individual must participate in a reformed religion, or practice their religion, reformed or unreformed, in a reformed fashion to be eligible to serve the greater public good in elected office.
Which brings me to the second area of importance for this idea, and it is essentially the one discussed above, but in specificity. We have looked here before at what, speaking at the Evangelical Theological Society earlier this year, Hugh Hewitt summarized as the three essential questions Evangelicals have concerning a Mormon for president. (I'm sure Hugh will discuss these objections in detail in his forthcoming book which can be pre-ordered here) The first of those, expressed as an "objection" is:
- Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City will control the White House.
This is obviously not possible of a reformed faith. If a faith has placed itself in a position of secondary authority it would not seek to "control" its adherents in public office.
There is much more to discuss out of this book and the events it chronicles. The arguments against Smoot sound so familiar that I find it almost terrifying. To hear people talk about Romney today it is almost as if nothing happened 100 years ago. I am sorely tempted to jump up and shout "Objection! Asked and answered, your honor." Unfortunately, there is no presiding judge in the court of public opinion. I also think Mormon practice during the interim period between the 1890 Manifesto and the events surrounding the Smoot hearings did much to fuel the conspiratorial suspicions of the general public regarding Mormons. Suspicions which are still held because since, Mormons have in large part stayed out of deep public scrutiny. But this is enough for a single post – certainly more to come.
And so it does, beginning here.
Lowell briefly notes: Despite John's expectations to the contrary, I do not object to calling what happened a "Reformation," as long as we are using the term very broadly. I don't think it's accurate to say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Church") "reformed" in the same sense as the sixteenth and seventeenth century churches to which John refers.
Instead, the Smooth hearings produced a political, not ecclesiastical, solution. As Flake notes:
None of the Smoot hearing combatants were completely victorious. Federal lawmakers did not eradicate Mormon political and economic power; the Protestant establishment had to modify its design for a Christian America; and the Latter-day Saints subordinated themselves to the state.
But all those combatants achieved something as well. The U.S. Senate "both solved its Mormon Problem and articulated, for the foreseeable future, the means by which new and diverse religious communities would be constitutionally ordered and free." The Protestants "achieved their primary goal of imposing monogamy upon the Mormons." And the Mormons got political representation in Washington, D.C., which Reed Smoot exercised effectively for the next 30 years, enabling the Church "to thrive domestically and follow the American flag abroad, making it, in the early twenty-first century, America fifth largest denomination and an international church . . . ."
Stating the proposition perhaps too simply, after the Smoot hearings the Church either decided to become, or found a way to become, part of American society– after a long period of estrangement. I will be following, and commenting on, John's posts on this subject with great interest.
[tags]Reed Smoot, the Manifesto, the Senate, history, Mormons, Al Smith, John F. Kennedy, Utah, statehood, Mormons, Christians, reformation, the Church of England, Henry the Eighth[/tags]