A Prophet for President

Imagine that when you check the news tomorrow morning you see that Russell M. Nelson has announced that he is running for the office of the President of the United States.  Now imagine that later the same day, you receive a call from your bishop, and he extends a calling to you to serve as a missionary—specifically for the purpose of campaigning for President Nelson across the country.  What would your thoughts be?  How would you react?

While the idea might seem a bit farfetched today, there was a time when Joseph Smith did start a campaign to become President of the United States and used missionaries to campaign for him.  Derek Sainsbury spent years working to uncover the details of Joseph Smith’s campaign and the 600-plus political missionaries who answered the call to canvass the nation, resulting in the book Storming the Nation: The Unknown Contributions of Joseph Smith’s Political Missionaries (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2020). Sainsbury recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for a 10 questions interview and shared many interesting insights from his research.  What follows here is a brief summary of the interview with quotes and commentary, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here.  It’s a fascinating glimpse into an oft-overlooked part of our history and how it impacted the Church for years to come.

In the interview, Sainsbury explained a bit about why Joseph Smith ran for president.  He said:

Really it is the coming together of two different revelatory strands that both originate in Joseph Smith’s understanding of Zion.

The Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph reveal that Zion was to be the New Jerusalem built in Jackson County, Missouri. It was more than just contemporary Christianity, though. It was truly all-encompassing society and lifestyle. There were religious, political, social, and economic components, requirements, and outcomes.

Additionally, there is this doctrine of “gathering” where they emigrate to one place to establish Zion. Properly instituted then, Zion would be independent, self-reliant if you will, like the City of Enoch, from the rest of society and prepared for the Second Coming of Christ.

These ideologies put the Saints at odds with their neighbors in Jacksonian America, resulting in repeated conflicts and attempts to get the government of the United States to help, with disappointing results in seeking help.  The Saints were encouraged then (as they are today) to “vote for ‘good,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘wise’ people because when the ‘wicked’ rule the people become oppressed,” but still found they received very little help.  As a result, “in 1844 when conflict seems to be brewing again, Joseph decides to run for president to protect all citizens’ rights.”

In addition, Joseph Smith began to develop a political ideology about the Kingdom of God.  Sainsbury explains that:

At the same time, especially from 1842 until his death, Joseph is receiving revelation on the biblical meaning of becoming “kings and priests” to God. This is the other revelatory strand meant to create the governing arm of Zion.

He starts talking about government by aristarchy which means, “government by good or excellent men.” He combines that with talk of merging God and democracy in what he calls “theodemocracy.”

In fact, the first aristarchic theodemocracy institution he creates is the Nauvoo Relief Society. Soon after that he introduces the temple endowment which in part relates to this idea of kings and priests and heavenly governance. His sermons and actions tie together more and more religious and political salvation.

Ultimately, it leads to the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth—or the Council of Fifty. … They decide the best way to introduce Zion’s aristarchic theodemocracy is for Joseph Smith to become president.

This governing arm of Zion provided the other major impetus for Joseph Smith’s bid for the presidency.

To help spread the word of his bid for the presidency, church members were called on political missions to campaign for the Prophet.  Sainsbury notes that: “Historians believed Joseph sent out 300-plus missionaries, but in my extensive research, I’ve found there were over 600!”  He feels that “most [Saints today] have no idea Joseph ran for president, and almost none know their ancestors campaigned for him.”  He assembled a list of the missionaries that he posted online, so I took a moment to look through it and was surprised to find that one of my own ancestors (Lewis Robbins) was among the electioneers that he discovered during his research.  Anyway, the electioneers were important because “in Jacksonian America, candidates did not campaign for themselves, it was seen as too self-promotional. So candidates would dispatch electioneers to do the campaigning for them.”  Their message, in this case, was unique: “There is a prophet again on earth. His name is Joseph Smith. God has restored his church through him. He is also running for president to save us from corrupt government. Here are his ideas for the nation.”  Those ideas, published in a pamphlet called General Joseph Smith’s Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States, were distributed by the thousands through the efforts of the electioneers.

The results were mixed and likely wouldn’t have resulted in success for Joseph Smith, though his assassination in 1844 cut the campaign short.  According to Derek Sainsbury, “Their reception was mixed, but often people liked the political ideas, but not so much Joseph, believing in all the negative press about him.”  Even though “Joseph and the Council of Fifty believed the Lord would be with the missionaries, giving them power to convert and convince many to the Church and Joseph’s candidacy,” Sainsbury said that “barring the divine intervention they were looking for, he had only a miniscule chance of winning.”  Any discussion of outcomes is hypothetical, however, since Joseph Smith became “the first presidential candidate in American history to be assassinated.”  Due to that assassination and the fact that the History of the Church used throughout the 20th century was compiled and edited by B. H. Roberts at a time when the Church wanted to integrate into American society, the campaign was downplayed and has been largely forgotten.

What is interesting is that while the campaign was cut short, the political missionaries involved in the campaign went on to have a disproportionate effect in administering the Church afterwards.  Sainsbury stated:

Not only do a disproportionate number of them follow Brigham Young in the succession crisis after the assassination, but a very disproportionate number of them become the second echelon of church leadership.

It makes sense when you consider that they were the true believers in Joseph’s vision of Zion, they had sacrificed for it, held shared trauma from Joseph’s murder, and had been out working with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

That vision of Zion, as described by Sainsbury, included “temple ordinances, plural marriage, and establishing a aristarchic theodemocracy.”  When the members of the Church loyal to the Quorum of the Twelve moved out to the Great Basin region, they used Joseph Smith’s vision of Zion as a template.  Since the electioneers had already been wedded to these ideals on the campaign trail, they were the go-to corpus of individuals to use as the “workhorses of the Great Basin Kingdom.”  Sainsbury summarized it this way:

As the church established this aristarchic, theodemocratic Zion in the Great Basin, they excel. They become many of the leaders Brigham Young and church leadership call as the aristarchy. They become the religious, social, political, and economic leaders in communities all over the Basin.

Hence, the campaign had a legacy separate from the original goal of electing Joseph Smith as president of the United States of America.

Kurt Manwaring’s 10 questions interview with Derek Sainsbury is very interesting and worth the read.  For more details than I shared in this post about Sainsbury’s journey towards writing the book, the impact of the Church publishing the Council of Fifty minutes on the volume, a bit on Nancy Naomi Tracy (the only female electioneer), some fun speculation about the results of the campaign if Joseph Smith had survived, and more on the topics covered in this post, follow the link here.

7 comments for “A Prophet for President

  1. There aren’t a lot of posts that make me think: I didn’t know that, but this time I have to say: I did not know that. I mean, of course I knew Joseph Smith ran for president, but I had no idea about the missionary effort and the lasting effects.

  2. I felt the same way reading the interview. I knew about the campaign but hadn’t known or thought about any lingering effects from it on the people involved.

  3. We had a discussion on a previous blog about whether we should use politics to bring about Zion. It appears Joseph thought so. He was also very invested in voting for people of integrity.
    Would he have voted for Trump?

  4. That’s a very good question Geoff, and not very easy to guess. Whatever Joseph Smith’s political ideology, his most pressing concern was survival for the Saints and himself. So, if Trump offered protection or help to the Saints, Joseph would probably have voted for him. That leads to another point of conjecture-how would Trump have treated the Mormons if he had lived in that time? Given how unpopular Latter Day Saints were, I find it doubtful that Trump would have been any more willing to help them than the politicians of Joseph Smith’s day were, and if that were the case, then he would have been seen as just another unhelpful politician and Joseph Smith would have run against him as a rival. All conjecture, though.

  5. This was very interesting reading. I want to read the book. Thanks for a stimulating post!

    Joseph Smith had soured on the political parties of the time. One of the main reasons was the failure of his appeal to President Van Buren to intervene against the mistreatment of Mormons in Missouri. Van Buren reportedly turned Joseph down, saying that although his cause was just, if he intervened to help the Saints, he would lose the state of Missouri in the 1840 election. Election expediency had triumphed over principle.

    As Chad Nielsen has pointed out, Joseph’s over-riding concern was to help protect the Saints. Mormons had initially been welcomed to Illinois, but the welcome soon wore thin, and the external political environment became threatening. Non-Mormon neighbors became hostile because of the creation of Nauvoo, with its Charter making it a virtually independent city within Illinois. The Nauvoo Legion also raised concerns, as well as the habit of block voting by Mormons, with the potential to swing the outcome of state elections.

    All of which, IMO, influenced Joseph’s decision to run for President—which decision only reinforced the hostility of Non-Mormon neighbors. Mormons, as a visibly “other” group, were viewed with suspicion, no matter what they did.

    As to whether Joseph would have voted for Trump. This in my mind begs the question. Van Buren lost his bid for re-election to William Henry Harrison, the “hero” of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison is now reviled for his massacres of Native Americans, but that was actually popular during his time. So the 1840 election had less than stellar candidates. Sound familiar?

    Lest we think that our present politics are uniquely bad, I recommend watching Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln.” America’s greatest President guided the Amendment abolishing slavery to passage, but he had to use every corrupt and under-handed method at his disposal.

    Anyone who likes sausage and the law should not watch either being made (Oliver Wendell Holmes). I think this is why modern Church leaders generally stay out if politics.

  6. Whoa. As predicted in the OP, I thought I had no ancestral electioneers, and then Chad drops the name of Nancy Tracy. I’ve read her biography, and it doesn’t mention this. She was, as the post might predict, the first RS president and later first Primary President in Marriott (west of Ogden) when those organizations were set up in Utah.

  7. Chad, thanks for the great review of the “10 Questions” article. I hope you find the book interesting and inspiring!

    The Other Clark, Nancy did indeed electioneer with her husband Moses. In fact, her story in pivotal in the wrapping up of the electioneers’ story. I am presenting a paper at the Utah State Historical Conference in September about Nancy’s life, particularly as it relates to her electioneering mission.

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