One by one they were hauled before a hostile Congress. Patriotism, politics and integrity were on trial. The unfolding drama captivated political cartoonists, satirists and a cynical media.
The Reed Smoot hearings, conducted 100 years ago, were the Sept. 11 commission, Watergate and the McCarthy interrogations rolled into one. The proceedings pitted Mormons against other Christians, Republicans against Democrats, East against the West. And when they had ended, the hearings -- they lasted four years -- gave Utah a place at the nation's political table.
Yet the episode is relatively unknown to many Mormons, let alone other Americans. A new book by Vanderbilt University historian Kathleen Flake could change that.
Flake underscores the "extraordinary work that the church itself did to navigate the new world in which it found itself," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a historian and University of Pennsylvania law professor who writes extensively about polygamy.
"All kinds of outsiders force the rest of the country to think and rethink and re-re-think what religion means and what they're going to do about it," says Gordon. "We'll never have Reed Smoot again, but questions of American religious identity are in our face every day."
It was the beginning of a new century and the country thought it had solved "the Mormon Problem." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had promised to give up polygamy in exchange for statehood.
But the promise did nothing to curb Mormons' devotion to their church, its leaders and its principles. Plural marriages continued, albeit somewhat secretly. Mormons almost exclusively patronized Mormon-owned businesses. Despite Washington's efforts to criminalize polygamy, disenfranchise the church and imprison its leaders, the church's status, power and economic support were as strong as ever.
Something had to be done.
In 1900, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to let LDS leader and polygamist B.H. Roberts take the seat to which he had been elected. So when Apostle Smoot was elected to the Senate in 1903, the nation's Protestant majority expected the same outcome. Outraged Christians gathered more than 3 million signatures on a petition against seating Smoot and the Senate launched an investigation into every aspect of Mormon belief and practice.
The first witness took the stand on March 2, 1904.
Name? "Joseph F. Smith." Place of residence? "Salt Lake City." Title? "President of the church."
To the chief prosecutor, Smith was underplaying the power he held over the LDS faithful.
"Are you prophet, seer and revelator?" he demanded to know.
Smith said he "supposed he was."
No matter what he had replied, Smith would later write, "it would have been construed as blasphemy" by a skeptical nation.
Hundreds of witnesses and 3,500 pages of testimony later, Smoot -- a monogamist -- got his Senate seat, which he held for 30 years. The LDS Church finally abandoned polygamy and Utah was a political player.
"Politics had succeeded where the army and police powers had failed," says Flake. "Politics is the art of compromise and the Smoot hearing was a political trial. Everybody got something and everybody gave up something and the 'Mormon Problem' went away."
But what the church gave up went to the core of its identity.
It seemed to dishonor those who sacrificed so much for polygamy, threatened schism among church leadership and called into question the prophetic legacy of founder Joseph Smith, says Flake, author of the just published The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
In the process, the LDS Church had to retool for the new century, she says. And that was the genius of "Joseph F.," as he was known fondly within the church.
Flake's thesis reaches far beyond the LDS Church and its history, says Jan Shipps, one of the premier historians of Mormonism.
"The outcome of the Smoot hearings did something that was new in American religion," says Shipps.
It said any church can privately hold any beliefs it wants to, but in public it must respect the faith claims of other churches.
Catholics and Jews would have to go through a similar adaptation, where their loyalty to the country was challenged, Shipps says, and today Islam is learning how to co-exist in America. "As long as it recognizes the legitimacy of other religious organizations, it's OK. But it can't act politically like it's the only true religion."
Setting the stage: The Smoot hearings erupted on the national scene during a fluid political time. Teddy Roosevelt and the Republicans had wrested the White House away from the Democrats. They were looking for ways to shore up their power base and turned their eyes to the West, where new votes could be found.
"It was feared the Mormon vote could make the difference in national politics," says Flake. "While some in Congress argued the LDS Church had too much power, others sought to exploit that power."
Meanwhile, many Protestants, determined to build a "Christian America," were continuing their campaign against what they saw as Mormon counter-culturalism. Latter-day Saints resisted the market economy with a communal ethic. They rejected democratic politics for theocratic politics. Their concept of family was more tribal than nuclear. They took secret oaths in their temples, which were closed to outsiders.
"Mormonism," said the New York American in 1904, "is a repulsive anachronism, a dangerous plague spot, a gross offense to the nation's moral sense."
As the Smoot hearings opened, curious onlookers packed into the Senate committee rooms and filled the galleries, anxious to get a glimpse of those misguided Mormons. Journalists, satirists and cartoonists had fun lampooning the 65-year-old bearded prophet, with his five wives and 48 children. As he testified each day, Smith wore a lapel pin with a portrait of his father, Hyrum Smith, who had been murdered with Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail in 1844.
Joseph F. "embodied the conflict of authority between a nation with the soul of a church and a church with the soul of a nation," Flake says.
Reinventing Mormon Identity: In Smith's inaugural sermon as prophet in 1901, he told the Saints that the "slanderous reports" were affecting the church's ability to be heard. For the Latter-day Saints this was not only a problem of reputation, but a problem of purpose, Flake says.
The U.S. government and other nations began to restrict the church's proselytizing efforts, denying or terminating missionary visas, refusing to license LDS congregations and keeping LDS converts from emigrating to United States.
The Smoot hearings, not unlike the 2002 Winter Olympics, brought scrutiny to the LDS Church, but also an opportunity to make the church more mainstream. So when the prosecutor asked if he received "revelations," Smith replied that he received "guidance" from God, "the same as any other member of the church."
When word got back to Salt Lake City (the Salt Lake Tribune, then anti-Mormon, published full transcripts of the proceedings), his answer troubled many faithful Mormons who believed that the prophet got revelation, not just inspiration.
For them, it was revelation that launched plural marriage, which some LDS leaders authorized and even performed well after church President Wilford Woodruff's 1890 "Manifesto" that the church intended to obey federal anti-polygamy laws. Four apostles had taken additional wives after that.
Though Joseph F. Smith agreed to discipline post-Manifesto polygamists, after so many years of promises the church's word was no longer good enough. Some kind of proof was needed. It came with the church-invited resignations of two of their most popular apostles -- Matthias F. Cowley and John W. Taylor -- who had become symbols to the nation of post-Manifesto polygamy.
Few of the faith's 12 apostles wanted to see that happen, but gradually they became convinced they had no choice, Flake says. "These attacks on the church's reputation could not continue. Neither could Joseph F. Smith's testimony be made a lie."
Shaken by the hearings, Smith and his brethren decided to fortify the church and their own connection to its origins by celebrating the centennial of the Joseph Smith's birth in 1805.
They traveled to Vermont to erect a monument to Smith and began to use his "First Vision" -- a visit by God and Jesus to the boy Joseph in a grove of trees -- as a mainstay of church curriculum. That served to redirect members' focus to the church's early years and to downplay the later revelation on plural marriage.
Gordon says that emphasis allowed the LDS Church to maintain its religious authority, to move forward into the 21st century and thrive.
Comparing the battle over the Mormon identity to the Civil War, Gordon says, "It's one thing to think about the surrender at Appomatox. It's another thing to figure out how to reintegrate the Southern states after the war. That's about winning the peace."