In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in a ceremony at the White House.
"Millions of Americans reserve a special respect for Gordon B. Hinckley, who still works every day as President of the Mormon Church, and who, on this very day, turns 94 years old," President Bush said as he bestowed the nation's highest civil honor on the LDS leader, according to LDS.org.
"Mr. Hinckley is the grandson of Mormon pioneers and has given devoted service to his church since 1935. He’s always shown the heart of a servant and the gifts of a leader. Through his discipline and faithfulness, he has proven a worthy successor to the many fine leaders before him. His church has given him its highest position of trust, and today this wise and patriotic man receives his country’s highest civil honor."
The moment was a highlight in the history of interaction between leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the presidents of the United States.
Relations between the LDS Church and the White House haven't always been so agreeable, especially during the early days of the Restoration. But with time, membership growth and a longterm display of civil/patriotic service by church members, a mutual respect has blossomed.
Here are 11 interesting facts about LDS Church leaders and U.S. presidents, primarily sourced in Michael K. Winder's 2007 book, "Presidents and Prophets."
Andrew Jackson’s cane
LDS Church President George Albert Smith never met U.S. President Andrew Jackson, but he did own the former president's cane.
"One of the treasures of pioneer Utah was a cane made from the hickory grove at Andrew Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, that Jackson gave to Thomas Kane, a friend of the Mormons," Winder wrote. "Col. Kane later gave this to John Smith, the first stake president in the Salt Lake Valley, who passed it to his son, Apostle George A. Smith, who gave it to his son, Apostle John Henry Smith, who gave it to his son, Church President George Albert Smith."
Martin Van Buren
The first face-to-face meeting between a prophet and a president took place in 1839 when Joseph Smith met with Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States.
Joseph Smith was not impressed, Winder wrote.
After the Mormons were forced out of Missouri, the Prophet turned to the federal government for justice. From 1839 to 1844, Joseph Smith met with and appealed to President Van Buren and other leaders for help several times, but received no support.
"Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," Van Buren told Smith in 1840. "If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri."
Smith later said in a newspaper interview that Van Buren "was not as fit as my dog, for the chair of the state; for my dog will make an effort to protect his abused and insulted master, while the present chief magistrate will not so much as lift a finger to relieve an oppressed and persecuted community of freeman."
When the Prophet launched his campaign for the presidency in 1844, one of his promises was to restore the greatness of America, which "began to decline under the withering touch of Martin Van Buren."
Polk and Fillmore
James K. Polk was the first president to be considered a friend of the Latter-day Saints. He commissioned the Mormon Battalion in 1846. The following year his wife, first lady Sarah Polk, contributed to a benefit dinner for church members trying to raise money in Washington, D.C., for Mormon pioneers hoping to go west, according to "Presidents and Prophets."
Millard Fillmore allowed Utah to become a territory and appointed Brigham Young as governor. He also appropriated funds for a territorial library. He was honored by the territorial legislature when Fillmore was named the new territorial capital in Millard County.
In 1857, President James Buchanan sent Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and his troops to Utah to quash a rumored Mormon rebellion. Brigham Young sent men to slow the army down and the scuffle became known as the Utah War.
Around the same time, President Buchanan was in negotiations with Russia to purchase Alaska. According to Winder's research, Buchanan "plotted in vain with the Russian government to buy Alaska and banish the Mormons there," Winder wrote.
Interestingly, a man named Walter Murray Gibson also approached Buchanan about relocating the Mormons to the island of New Guinea. Buchanan thought the idea was too expensive, impractical and dismissed it, Winder wrote.
It's possible that future president Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith met in Illinois in 1839, although Lincoln certainly crossed paths with church leaders in the years that followed as Lincoln assisted the Mormons in securing the Nauvoo Charter, according to the book.
Old ledgers from the Library of Congress also show that Lincoln checked out a copy of the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint literature in 1861. He retained the Book of Mormon for eight months and returned it in July 1862, Winder wrote.
Ulysses S. Grant
In October 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant became the first U.S. President to visit Utah. He was introduced to Brigham Young by George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency.
"President Grant, this is the first time I have ever seen a president of my country," Young said.
When Grant died in 1885, 29-year-old Heber J. Grant was in Manhattan and witnessed the four-mile-long procession from a window above the street. He also saw Brigham Young's grandson, Richard, a West Point graduate and major in the U.S. Army, riding on horseback.
President James Garfield grew up near Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s. He attended school near the Kirtland Temple and was acquainted with LDS Church leaders Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt. His cousin was John F. Boynton, one of the original Twelve Apostles.
"This background gave Garfield some sympathies for the Saints, and yet he was strongly against polygamy and vocalized in his inaugural address that the eradication of plural marriage would be pursued vigorously," Winder wrote.
After being sworn into office, Garfield became the only president to ever use the phrase "Mormon Church" in an inaugural address, Winder noted.
While visiting Utah in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to speak in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. He complimented the Mormons for settling in the desert and transforming it into a beautiful place.
"You took a territory which at the outset was called after the desert, and you literally — not figuratively — you literally made the wilderness blossom as the rose," the president said from the pulpit. "The fundamental element in building up Utah has been the work of the citizens of Utah."
After Roosevelt died, apostle/senator Reed Smoot was one of a few friends invited to a private funeral. They sang the president's favorite hymn, "How Firm a Foundation."
"I believe that Roosevelt felt we were right," LDS Church President Heber J. Grant later said of Roosevelt. "I think he was nearer converted to the truth than any man who ever occupied the presidential chair."
Harding and Hoover
Smoot was also a close friend of President Warren Harding, who occupied the White House in the early 1920s.
"Of the half-dozen presidents that Smoot was acquainted with, few had the close relationship with him as did Warren Gamaliel Harding. This positive personal relationship would result in President Harding meeting with various apostles and even with President Heber J. Grant," Winder wrote. "It also would result in numerous discussions about the church, a gift of a Book of Mormon and the president asking Elder Smoot to come to the White House to give the first lady a priesthood blessing. Harding would also visit the Saints in Utah on the western trip that ended with his fatal heart attack in San Francisco."
Years later, Smoot became a close friend of President Herbert Hoover. When Smoot remarried after the death of his first wife, he had to cancel a honeymoon in order to return to Washington, D.C. President Hoover insisted the newlyweds stay at the White House, which included a wedding breakfast on the south porch.
Many know that LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson served in the cabinet of President Dwight D. Eisenhower for eight years while also serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As a result, President Eisenhower attended family home evenings, listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, observed prayers in meetings and had other experiences that made him more familiar with the church and its members, including President David O. McKay.
President McKay was one of a few guests invited to a dinner with President Eisenhower in May 1955. According to Winder's book, President Eisenhower wrote that President McKay "was the life of the party."
FDR to Obama
According to the book, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to his friend Winston Churchhill and his wife regarding genealogy and the Mormons. The president had read in the Deseret News that he was a distant cousin of Churchill.
"I have a very high opinion of the Mormons — for they are excellent citizens," FDR wrote.
In recent years it's become a tradition for LDS Church leaders to present the president with his family history. That's what President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve did in 2009 when they visited President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, according to the Deseret News. The visit marked the 14th such meeting of a U.S. president and an LDS Church president in the White House.
President Hinckley met there twice with President Bush (2001, 2004), and prior to that he presented President Bill Clinton with a copy of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," in 1995.
President Hinckley also had a cordial friendship with President Ronald Reagan, who he once led on a tour of the Ogden Area Welfare Service Center in 1982.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon never invited church leaders to the nation's capital, but both visited with general authorities at church headquarters in Utah on several occasions.
President John F. Kennedy visited Utah five times, with his last trip coming in September 1963, about two months before he was assassinated in Dallas. He said the following words while speaking in the Tabernacle on that last occasion.
"Let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country," President Kennedy said. "As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back."
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