Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, had fled to the desert isolation of Utah following the 1844 murder of the church's founder, Joseph Smith. Mormons and non-Mormons faced the 1896 admission of Utah to the Union with some dread as both groups had grown comfortable with the physical distances separating their communities. Non-Mormons, largely uninformed about the cultural and economic institutions of the Mormon church, disliked the way in which it tended to blur business and political distinctions. Outsiders often demonstrated their distrust of the church by expressing repugnance for plural marriage, even though the Mormon church had officially terminated the practice in 1890, after Congress enacted laws making polygamy illegal. Utah's election of Reed Smoot, a prominent Mormon, to the United States Senate sparked a marathon investigation that became the focus for Americans' fear, ignorance, and suspicion of Mormonism.
Statement of the Case
On February 23, 1903, the credentials for Reed Smoot (R-UT) were presented and placed on file. On the same day, a memorial from several Salt Lake City residents asked that Smoot, a well-known and influential Mormon manufacturer and banker, not be permitted to take his seat. The protesters were a small group of businessmen and Protestant ministers who opposed Mormon economic policies in Utah.
On March 5, 1903, Reed Smoot appeared and took his oath of office, under the Senate's policy that a senator whose credentials were in order would be seated and any challenges dealt with afterward. The arrival of the Mormon senator, a member of the church's powerful Quorum of Twelve Apostles, attracted national attention and unleashed a torrent of complaints against him. Petitions with thousands of signatures flooded the Senate from Protestant churches, women's organizations outraged by polygamy, and others influenced by newpaper attacks on Smoot. The protesters charged that the Mormon leadership, including the Quorum of Twelve, held supreme authority over both spiritual and temporal matters for its members and frequently interfered in Utah politics. They also complained that the leaders continued to believe in, encourage, and practice polygamy, even though it was illegal.
The deluge of petitions and resolutions moved the Senate on January 27, 1904, to order an investigation into the hierarchy of the Mormon church. A central issue was whether Smoot, as one of the Quorum of Twelve, had taken a church fealty oath that made him ineligible to sit in the United State Senate. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Response of the Senate
The committee plunged into an investigation that lasted more than two years, gathering testimony that filled five volumes. The scope of the investigation expanded far beyond Smoot and became a full dissection of the structure and machinery of the Mormon church, as well as the temporal and religious concerns of Mormons. Arguments against Smoot centered on three points: he was a member of a church that encouraged polygamy; he had taken a religious oath that disqualified him from the Senate; and he was a member of a religion that united church and state.
The Smoot forces argued that since 1890 the Mormon church had not "controlled or attempted to control elections in Utah," and Smoot had never taken any oath including "an obligation of hostility to the United States," as had been alleged. They also correctly observed that other Mormons—although none holding such high positions in the church—had already been elected to and served in the U.S. Congress. More directly relevant to the matter at hand was the argument that none of the practices of the Mormon church had any bearing on Smoot's constitutional qualifications to be a United States senator.
Despite this significant point, the committee on June 1, 1906, voted 7 to 5 that Smoot was not entitled to his seat. On June 11 a divided committee filed majority and minority reports. The majority recommended that Smoot be removed from office, having concluded that he perceived his first loyalty to be the maintenance of the corporate and spiritual interests of Utah's Mormons. For its part, the minority report contended that testimony before the committee failed to substantiate any of the charges against Smoot. The lengthy proceedings never included personal attacks on the senator, whose character was above reproach.
When the Senate reconvened in December 1906 after its summer recess, the Smoot case took center stage. Privileges and Elections Committee Chairman Julius C. Burrows (R-MI) led the attack against Smoot, tying him and the Mormon church to support for polygamy. Smoot, however, gained some eloquent defenders, among them noted orator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN), one of those signing the committee's minority report. Not only was Smoot not himself a polygamist, Beveridge asserted, but "the evidence shows that, from the first, Reed Smoot has been the leader of the younger, wiser, and more modern element of his Church that oppose that insult to marriage." He then closed with a stirring call for religious tolerance.
On February 20, 1907, the ordeal of Reed Smoot—during which he conducted himself with grace and dignity—finally reached a conclusion. After deciding to require a two-thirds vote to declare Smoot not entitled to his seat, the Senate first voted down a move to expel him, 27 yeas to 43 nays, and then refused by a vote of 28 yeas to 42 nays to deny the Utah senator his right to remain in the Senate.
The investigation into Reed Smoot's right to a Senate seat had in many ways been an American trial of the Mormon Church. In permitting Smoot to retain his seat, the U.S. Senate took a stand in support of religious freedom for all Americans. In practical terms, the staunch support of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt had helped to ensure the margin of victory by encouraging wavering Republican senators to stand firm.
Reed Smoot served in the Senate for thirty years. At his death in 1941, he was third in line for the presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 272-274.