Image adapted from Wikicommons by DhLeaks44 / CC BY-SA 4.0

“REVIEW: Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, The Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom by Spencer W. McBride”

Peter Wosnik

Now a world-wide faith with over 16 million adherents, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as Mormonism) began as a small, radical religious movement in western New York in 1830. Mormons embraced a new American scripture (The Book of Mormon), belief in the return of spiritual gifts, and the revelations of their leader and prophet Joseph Smith. As is common for many new religious movements, the Mormons did not sit well with the established order. Indeed, they sparked conflict and encountered violence in virtually every place they settled. Those conflicts inevitably brought Mormons — and, importantly, Joseph Smith himself — into contact with the antebellum American criminal legal system. 

Spencer W. McBride’s Joseph for President: the Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom (Oxford, 2021) tells the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s unlikely and short-lived presidential run of 1844, which took place shortly before his assassination that same year. McBride, a professional historian at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, displays a strong command of the voluminous primary source documents, and makes the case for the relevance of Smith’s and the Mormons’ story to the larger story of contested religious freedom in American history. McBride explores the question of why Joseph Smith, a religious and cultural outsider with virtually no chance of winning, launched a presidential campaign. McBride argues that Smith’s presidential run should be seen as a desperate attempt to gain religious freedom for his community and for other oppressed religious minorities of the day, rather than as an example of megalomania and religious excess. 

McBride recounts the riveting and tragic history of the Latter-day Saint movement in both Missouri and Illinois and the religious oppression they faced. While the Mormons at first congregated in New York and Ohio, they believed that they were commanded by God to build a religious community (what they called “Zion”) in Independence, Missouri, and began to immigrate there beginning in 1831. By 1833, the Mormons began to face resistance and eventually violence from local Missouri residents. As the Mormons grew more powerful, so did opposition to their presence in Missouri. McBride cites racial, political, economic, and religious factors as causes of the Missourians’ unease. “Stacked upon each other” McBride writes, “these concerns were like kindling awaiting a match” (15). McBride does well in explaining the tensions at play, but he neglects to mention  the Mormons’ theocratic leanings — their penchant to merge church and state — which  surely frightened the Missourians. 

In McBride’s telling, the spark came when the local Mormon press in Independence published an article implying that newly-freed slaves could settle with the Mormons. In response, the non-Mormon citizens of Jackson County held public meetings where they demanded that the Mormons leave the county within 5 months (On January 1, 1834). When the Mormons refused to do so, mob violence erupted. A mob destroyed the Mormon printing press and razed the building it was housed in, tarred and feathered the local Mormon leader Edward Partridge, and committed other acts of violence until the Mormons finally agreed to leave the county. When Joseph Smith heard the news, he counseled his people not to leave the county and to stand their ground. McBride summarizes what happened next: 

“The response was an eruption of violence. Over the course of several weeks, vigilantes in Missouri descended on the Mormon settlements, where they captured and whipped several men and shot at many others. Bursting into Mormon homes, they raped young women and forced some of the women’s mothers to watch. Outnumbered nearly two to one, the Mormons ultimately surrendered” (16-17).

Unfortunately, this was only the first, but far from the bloodiest, conflict for the Mormons in Missouri. By 1838, many Mormons had emigrated to Missouri from Ohio and had bought lands outside of Caldwell County — a county created by the legislature for the Mormons to live in. The resulting conflict is known as the Mormon War. The Mormon War started on an election day of August 6, 1838 when a group of angry citizens tried to prevent the Mormons from voting and a brawl broke out. This resulted in both sides eventually arming and developing their own vigilante militias. 

McBride writes that “In language that stands out within the deeply tragic history of religious persecution in the United States, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs  issued an executive order to his militia officers on October 27, 1838, stating that ‘The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace — their outrages are beyond all description’” (18). Just days after the order, Joseph Smith and several other Mormon leaders were arrested and jailed on a range of charges that included treason. The violence eventually drove the Mormons from the State of Missouri altogether. 

The Mormons fled and eventually settled in what became Nauvoo, Illinois with hopes that they would have protection there. McBride details the ways in which the Mormons both tried to obtain redress for the wrongs that had been committed against them in Missouri and tried to establish legal protections in Nauvoo. 

After escaping incarceration in Missouri, Joseph Smith went to Washington D.C. to seek redress directly with President Martin Van Buren on November 29, 1839. To Smith’s disappointment, Van Buren told Smith and his companion Elias Higbee that he could do nothing to help them because it would in essence put him at odds with the whole State of Missouri, which he could not afford politically (20). Undeterred, Smith and Higbee sought out members of Congress, some of whom were sympathetic to the Mormons’ plight. The Mormons’ efforts in Washington, however, were ultimately unsuccessful — the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the issue but decided there was nothing they could do. McBride contends that many American leaders of the time disingenuously used  the political and legal doctrine of state’s rights as a screen to oppress unwanted minority groups and deny them their rights. While McBride is correct in assuming the convenient appeal to state’s rights was often used to oppress minorities, he does not acknowledge the federal government’s legitimate lack of power in individual state affairs prior to the incorporation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in the twentieth century. (McBride does acknowledge this fact in his references to the work of David Sehat in the book’s conclusion, but it does not make it into the body of his argument.) 

Back in Nauvoo after having failed at obtaining national redress, Smith intentionally worked to create an unprecedented city charter with broad powers designed to protect the Mormon people and their prophet. The Nauvoo city charter, among other things, allowed for its own militia and the powers of a magistrate to issue writs of habeas corpus, which could invalidate foreign arrest warrants. These latter controversial powers were especially important to the Mormons as Joseph Smith was wanted in Missouri for  treason. Their inclusion in the charter paid off multiple times for the Mormons, as Missouri tried and failed to extradite Joseph Smith multiple times. Nauvoo and Smith were not free from problems however, as circumstances both within and without the young church began to worsen. McBride explains that the citizens of Nauvoo, who had initially supported the Mormons, began to grow nervous at Smith’s growing consolidation of secular power within Nauvoo. Their feelings towards Smith worsened when dissenters within the Mormon faith began to disclose that certain members of the church hierarchy, including Smith himself, had been secretly practicing polygamy. These problems were contemporaneous with Joseph’s short-lived independent run for the presidency, which was cut short by Smith’s violent death at the hands of a mob in the jail at Carthage, Illinois. 

Smith had escaped violence before by controversially relying on writs of habeas corpus and the broad powers of the Nauvoo charter. But after losing the support of Thomas Ford1Governor Ford chastised Smith for his involvement as mayor in the city council’s destruction of a local press called the Nauvoo Expositor. Ford did not believe the city council had the power to destroy the press but rather thought that the issue should have been handled through the courts, even if the press were libelous (See 189-190)., Illinois’s governor at the time, Smith turned himself in for charges he faced in Carthage. McBride argues that the historical record shows Smith knew he was walking into serious danger by facing up to charges in a hostile county. Smith was ultimately charged with the non-bailable offense of treason. Due to their inability to make bail, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith were trapped and no match for the angry mob that came and took their lives on June 27, 1844. 

McBride’s monograph is important in part, because it demonstrates how difficult it was for unpopular religious minorities to protect themselves in antebellum America. Moreover, it also demonstrates how difficult it was for harmed minorities, like the Mormons, to obtain redress from states as opposed to the federal government. As someone who knew this from painful experience, Joseph Smith sought to obtain and consolidate power — and eventually run for president — as a multi-pronged strategy to try to protect his people. While all of this is true, McBride minimizes the role that the Mormons themselves played in creating and fomenting conflict with their neighbors. McBride’s analysis also fails to consider the double-edged nature of the lack of federal intervention in state and local conflicts. While the Mormons certainly suffered from a restrained, limited federal government, they also used the very same majoritarian possibilities to build communities that merged church and state in ways that would not be possible in the twenty-first century. Incorporation of the first amendment involved enforcing not only the free exercise clause but also the establishment clause against state and local governments. Joseph Smith for President succeeds in telling the compelling story of the Mormon struggle for religious liberty that has remained unknown to many. The book reminds readers of this dark chapter in American history, and will hopefully impress upon them the importance of federal protections of religious minorities today. ♦

Peter Wosnik is the owner and founder of Wosnik Law, LLC, which is a trial-based law firm serving the Metro Atlanta area. Wosnik is a graduate of Emory University School of Law (Juris Doctor) and Candler School of Theology (Master of Theological Studies) where he received the Savage-Levey scholarship in law and religion.

Recommended Citation

Wosnik, Peter. “Review of Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, The Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom’ by Spencer W. McBride”. Canopy Forum, December 5, 2022.