Smoot hearings

The Reed Smoot hearings (Smoot hearings or Smoot Case) were a series of Congressional hearings on whether the United States Senate should seat U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, who was elected by the Utah legislature in 1903.[1] In addition to being a senator, Smoot was also an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), one of the highest positions in that church. The hearings began in 1904 and continued until 1907, when the Senate voted to exclude him. The vote fell short of a two-thirds majority needed to expel a member and he retained his seat.

The premise of the controversy surrounding Smoot's seating in the Senate was claimed to be about the church's practice of polygamy, which the church claimed to have officially abandoned in 1890; as the hearings revealed, however, the practice continued unofficially well into the 20th century. For example, the President and Prophet of the LDS Church Joseph F. Smith cohabitated with his many wives (all of whom he married before 1890) and fathered eleven children after 1890. New plural marriages did end by 1909, but the practice continued until the polygamists died off. Smoot himself only had one wife.

The attorney who represented those protesting Smoot's admittance to the Senate, Robert W. Tayler, explained in his summation that polygamy was irrelevant and the real danger was Mormon belief in revelation. Although it has been claimed that polygamy was largely responsible for deep animosity between the LDS Church and the United States, in reality, it became a cause celebre to help unite Republicans against Democrats. Earlier, when it was well known that Brigham Young was a polygamist, the US President appointed him twice as territorial governor and the Senate ratified the appointment. Much of the American Protestant establishment viewed the LDS Church with distrust. The establishment was also skeptical of Utah politics, which before gaining statehood in 1896 had at times been a theocracy (theodemocracy) and in the early 20th century was still heavily dominated and influenced by the LDS Church.


Prior to being called as an apostle of the LDS Church, Smoot had run for a Senate position, but withdrew before the election. After becoming an apostle in 1900, he received the approval of church president Joseph F. Smith to run again in 1902 as a Republican. The need for this permission was a result of the LDS Church's "Political Manifesto" issued in October 1895, which instituted a policy which required general authorities of the church to be granted approval from the First Presidency to run for political office.[2] In January 1903, the Utah legislature elected Smoot with 46 votes, compared to his Democratic competitor, who won 16.


Within days of his election, controversy brewed as Smoot was charged with being "one of a self-perpetuating body of fifteen men who, constituting the ruling authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or 'Mormon' Church, claim, and by their followers are accorded the right to claim, supreme authority, divinely sanctioned, to shape the belief and control the conduct of those under them in all matters whatsoever, civil and religious, temporal and spiritual."[3]

When Senator Smoot arrived in Washington, D.C., in late February 1903, he was met with protests and charges that he was a polygamist, charges he could easily disprove. Unlike B. H. Roberts, who upon election to the House of Representatives was not allowed to sit while hearings took place, Smoot was allowed to be seated.

Among the public, old charges of Danites, the Mountain Meadows massacre, and Brigham Young's plural wives were discussed.

In January 1904, Senator Smoot prepared a rebuttal to these criticisms with the help of several non-Mormon lawyers. The actual hearings began in March. LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith took the witness stand and was interrogated for three days. Apostles Matthias F. Cowley and John W. Taylor did not show up after being subpoenaed. Apostle Marriner W. Merrill ignored one subpoena and died soon after being subpoenaed a second time.[4] Taylor fled to Canada. Other witnesses included James E. Talmage; Francis M. Lyman, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Andrew Jenson, church historian; B. H. Roberts; and Moses Thatcher, who had been dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve in 1896.

According to historian Kathleen Flake:

The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, "secret oaths," open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics.[10] The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day's admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.[5]

After years of hearings, the remaining charges of the opposition included:

  • That church leaders were still practicing plural marriage. Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley were still performing plural marriages in Mexico and Canada, though Taylor was later excommunicated for the practice.
  • That the church was exerting too much influence on Utah politics.
  • That members were required to take oaths in the temples to seek revenge on the United States. (See Oath of vengeance)
  • That members believed revelation was higher than the laws of the land.

The defense included:[6]

  • "Reed Smoot possesses all the qualifications prescribed by the Constitution to make him eligible to a seat in the Senate, and the regularity of his election by the legislature of the State of Utah is not questioned in any manner."
  • "Aside from his connection with the Mormon Church, so far as his private character is concerned, it is, according to all witnesses, irreproachable, for all who testify on the subject agree or concede that he has led and is leading an upright life..."
  • "So far as mere belief and membership in the Mormon Church are concerned, he is fully within his rights and privileges under the guaranty of religious freedom given by the Constitution of the United States..."
  • In relation to the oath, the testimony is "thereby shown to be limited in amount, vague and indefinite in character, and utterly unreliable, because of the disreputable and untrustworthy character of the witnesses."

Of note, Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho fought viciously against Smoot. His intensity caused some to believe that Smoot was as powerful as Dubois claimed. Dubois' ally, Senator Julius C. Burrows of Michigan, made the following statement, speaking of the history of Mormon polygamy: Template:Cquote

One supporter was Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania. Addressing the subject of polygamy, Penrose reportedly glared at one or more of his Senate colleagues who had a reputation for philandering and said, "As for me, I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn't polyg than a monogamist who doesn't monag."[7]

On February 20, 1907, the issue came to a conclusion as a vote was held in the Senate. Smoot won, and he remained a senator for 26 more years.


President Joseph F. Smith on April 6, 1904, issued a "Second Manifesto," which reaffirmed the first regarding polygamy. He also declared any church officer who performed a plural marriage, as well as the offending couple, would be excommunicated. He clarified that the policy applied worldwide, not just in North America. Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, resigned in October 1905 following the manifesto. This change to the Twelve was made public in April 1906, when George F. Richards, Orson F. Whitney, and David O. McKay were added to the quorum.

See also



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  • "Testimony of President Joseph F. Smith of the Mormon Church and Senator Reed Smoot." Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Company, 1905.
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