Editor’s note: This article was published in conjunction with the birthday of Joseph Smith, first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — he was born on Dec. 23, 1805.
In 1844, Hugh Clark, a Catholic and public school director in Kensington (a neighborhood in Philadelphia), watched as mobs ransacked his home and burned down Catholic churches. Clark had suggested that Bible reading be suspended in schools until Catholics and Protestants could agree on a policy. In 1838, a law had been passed mandating that the King James Bible be a textbook — which the Protestants used, but not the Catholics.
This led violent mobs in spring and summer 1844 to damage and destroy Catholic homes, churches and businesses in Philadelphia. At least 20 people died from the violence.
Joseph Smith’s unlikely presidential campaign that same year took notice of the “Bible Riots,” and Smith wrote to Clark, “The Mormons and the Catholics ... (are) the only two who have suffered from the cruel hand of mobocracy for their religion under the name of foreigners.” Smith offered an alliance to Clark and said “we will help you to secure those privileges which belong to you and break every yoke.”
Derek Sainsbury, a church history professor at Brigham Young University, told the Deseret News this lesser-known story and said Smith’s commitment to religious freedom was “not just words, he’s putting in serious action.”
Smith was also disposed toward religious pluralism.
Early after he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he and others learned Hebrew under the tutelage of a Jewish man named Joshua Seixas. Smith also called Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Hyde on a mission to dedicate the Holy Land — Jerusalem— for the gathering of Israel, praying for those who acted “in behalf of Abraham’s children” to find favor in the eyes of God. Also in the 1840s, Smith befriended a Catholic priest by the name of Father Aleman who needed transportation across the Mississippi River to reach a parishioner who was dying. Smith provided him with a ferry service as well as a carriage so he could reach his destination.
When Joseph Smith launched his presidential bid in 1844, religious freedom was an important political cause motivating his run, but it was also personal. Religious freedom was about protecting those he loved and led.
Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was struck by “(Smith’s) full, robust and very unusual embrace of religious freedom. Or more broadly speaking, freedom of religion, conscience and belief.” Smith was “so outspoken in defending what we have come to view as a fundamental human right.”
He was prepared to die defending other people’s rights, Swett said.
Smith’s first concerns
Smith’s advocacy was shaped by several events in his life, according to multiple religious scholars. The Bible Riots wasn’t the first time Smith had encountered damaging anti-Catholic sentiment. Previously, Smith had visited the ruins of the Charlestown Ursuline Convent in the greater Boston area, which had been destroyed by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834, Sainsbury said.
Joseph Smith Papers historian Spencer McBride described how seeing this destroyed convent impacted Smith. “He visits the ruins of the Ursuline Convent ... and he’s sitting there, reflecting about religious freedom. He’s reflecting on his own people’s plight in Missouri (where the Latter-day Saints were kicked out) ... but he’s also thinking about the plight of the Catholics in the United States. We can see him in this moment begin to really develop his idea of what fighting for religious freedom means.”
Former Assistant Church Historian Richard Turley traced Smith’s attitudes toward religious freedom to his youth. “He was living in a day where the dominant religious power was basically Protestant America. Protestant America did not respond well to Catholicism, there were riots and attacks on Catholics. (Protestants) did not respond well to Latter-day Saints. They did not respond well to Jews. They did not respond well to other religious peoples at the time.”
In this climate, Smith was exploring and expressing what would have been religiously heterodox speech, which Turley said led to “a strong effort on the majority population to shut him down.”
As Smith aged, he had more experiences that influenced his drive to protect religious freedom. Prominent historian Richard Bushman said, “My view is that it didn’t really register much in his mind until the 1833 expulsion from Jackson County. And then, suddenly he saw the Constitution as the bulwark against attacks that he received over and over again.”
In 1833, mobs in Jackson County, Missouri, violently targeted Latter-day Saints and expelled them from the area. Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs called in a militia, intending to utilize it to expel the Saints. Instead, the Saints negotiated an evacuation, forfeiting land and property. At the time, according to Bushman, “(Smith) was expounding the importance of religious freedom, hoping the government would come to his rescue — but they never did.”
Sainsbury cited the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of Latter-day Saint scripture, where Smith received a revelation about the issue — “the Lord talks about the Constitution in protecting the rights of all flesh, freedom of religion for everyone.” He continued, “religious liberty is extending to everyone, not just (certain) groups.”
Others, of course, were also thinking about religious freedom in Smith’s day, but according to Sainsbury, freedom of religion at the time “was basically freedom of religion for Protestants.” While others were advocates, Smith was distinct in his sense that it was there to protect unpopular groups “because their ideas were outside of the Protestant majority. The idea that Joseph Smith is advocating freedom of religion for everyone wasn’t the case for everyone at the time.”
Smith’s government challenges
Smith was influenced by the challenges he faced in making his case to the government. Smith tried in the court system on both the local and state level. But, Turley said, the “court system proved completely ineffectual, even though there were witnesses to the tarring and feathering of Edward Partridge, for example. The court ultimately received defense papers from the people who carried out that attack saying that ‘they did no unnecessary damage.’” Even though the result of that suit was to acknowledge there was wrongdoing, no serious damages were awarded.
Smith attempted to work with Illinois Gov. Daniel Dunklin, who said on July 16, 1836, “All I can say to you is that in this Republic the vox populi is vox Dei”— meaning, “the word of the people is the word of God.” When Smith saw that neither the local or state governments were amenable to his cause, he sought redress at the federal level for what happened in Missouri, including the Missouri Extermination Order, which stated, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies.”
Turley said, “(Smith) moved on to Washington and tried Martin Van Buren. Of course, Martin Van Buren said to him that his cause was just, but he couldn’t do anything for him.” Van Buren reportedly also told Smith that the most he could do was potentially “come in contact with the State of Missouri.” After Smith’s visit to the White House in 1839, Smith continued to write publicly about the issue until he formally launched his own bid for the White House in 1844.
Two years before his run, in 1842, Smith wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Democrat, detailing Latter-day Saint beliefs, known today as the Articles of Faith. One deals directly with religious freedom. “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
Swett discussed this Article of Faith, noting that each article represented a core tenet of belief. She said that even though Smith may have been unusual in the tradition of other contemporary religious leaders, he was in fact following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers, especially James Madison — “an ardent advocate for freedom of conscience and belief.”
Around the same time, Smith also published an editorial in the Times and Seasons, the church’s newspaper, stating that in Nauvoo, the city where Latter-day Saints settled after leaving Missouri, “we have laws for the suppression of vice; for taking up vagrants or disorderly persons; for defamation of character, etc.; and if in our city a Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Latter-day Saint, or Governor Duncan was found transgressing these laws, they would be judged by the laws, and not by their religion.”
Prioritizing religious freedom was also evident in an early ordinance passed by the Nauvoo city council. Smith read the following ordinance, “Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, That the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-Day-Saints, Quakers, Episcopalieans Universalits Unitarians, Mahommedans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration and equal Privilieges in this city.”
As Smith began to raise his voice publicly, he was also speaking and writing about it privately. He recorded in his journal what is now one of his more frequently cited quotes: “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or any other denomination. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul. Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees.”
Swett said, “When he says that he’s inspired by a love of liberty, civil and religious liberty for the whole of the human race, I think that really marks him as quite a remarkable example of someone who robustly and really quite bravely advocated for and defended this fundamental human right at a time when that was not so common.”
Smith wrote every candidate for U.S. president in 1843 to see if they would be allies in protecting religious freedom for Latter-day Saints. The candidates at the time were John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Henry Clay, Richard Mentor Johnson and Martin Van Buren. He asked them in the wake of the Saints’ suffering in Missouri to detail what they would to do to help the Saints.
McBride said three of them responded. “Cass and Calhoun both write back, separate from each other, but their points are essentially the same. They sympathize with the plight of the Latter-day Saints, but it’s their belief that the federal government should not be involved in the affairs of individual states.”
Clay also responded to Smith, McBride said. “He essentially says that he sympathizes with the Latter-day Saints, but he doesn’t want to make any commitments ahead of becoming president.” Even though Van Buren had once met with Smith, he didn’t respond to his letter.
It’s only after failures to see proper redress of the Saints’ grievances in the courts and at the federal level that Smith decided to run for president.
Smith’s presidential run
“Religious freedom was the single issue that drove Joseph Smith into the presidential election of 1844,” McBride said. “But Joseph Smith was not a one-issue candidate. He prepared a robust platform that called for the end of slavery, called for reform to the criminal justice system and the country’s financial system, along with many other things. But the call for religious freedom is why Joseph Smith ran for president.”
Sainsbury said Smith’s decision to run based on religious freedom issues was apparent in his first speech. When Smith began speaking publicly about his campaign in February 1844, he said, “I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on any wise as president of the United States or Candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens.”
Turley said, “I believe Joseph Smith intended to go West with the Saints because he felt the America of his day failed at protecting the civil rights of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Both Turley and McBride underscored how Smith continuously faced opposition to his advocacy in securing religious freedom rights.
Smith’s presidential campaign was short-lived. He was martyred in June 1844. The minutes of the Council of Fifty — a political organization of both members and nonmembers organized by Smith — recorded one of the last things Smith said about religious freedom and civil rights: “There are only two or three things lacking in the Constitution of the United States. If they had said all men born equal, and not only that but they shall have their rights, they shall be free, or the armies of the government should be compelled to enforce those principles of liberty.”
He would soon be incarcerated, then killed by a violent anti-Mormon mob.
Today, Smith is a model for advocacy for pluralism and freedom of conscience and belief, in a world where religious freedom is not always viewed as a basic human right.
Following his example
“I would say that there’s a growing movement in the United States to defend religious freedom internationally,” Swett said. Government restrictions on religion have been near all-time highs, according to Pew Research. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians and other faith groups have all faced recent persecution in various parts of the world.
“There are an increasing number of places in the world where religious freedom is very significantly hampered and in some cases, you know just, egregiously trampled upon,” Swett said. But there are also many ways to get involved.
For example, Swett said, the upcoming International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., “is going to be a phenomenal opportunity for both experts and ... regular folks.”
She called it a chance to learn how to get involved from survivors of religious persecution. For online resources, she recommended people look into the Religious Freedom Institute, International Christian Concern, the Rumi Forum, the Baha’i faith’s website and the Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other resources. Swett herself runs the Tom Lantos Foundation, named after her father, a Holocaust survivor and congressman, and she is a well-known advocate for religious freedom internationally.
She also said that the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom is a great place to start to learn more about religious freedom internationally.
Others pointed to academic centers at Stanford Law School, Notre Dame and Brigham Young University which frequently host educational forums and symposia on religious freedom, as well as the work of the 1st Amendment Partnership and Becket Law, which aims to “protect the expression of all faiths, from A to Z—Anglican to Zoroastrian,” which are known for their domestic advocacy for religious freedom.
Latter-day Saints can begin by simply reflecting on the discrimination and violent persecution that Smith and earlier Saints experienced, McBride said. “Many Latter-day Saints look back at their experience of their religious ancestors and this leads them to sympathize and even empathize with persecuted religious minorities in the present.”
Maintaining that empathy by reflecting on history has an impact in the here and now, McBride said. Sainsbury suggested a helpful guide on protecting religious freedom published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said Smith modeled all of the listed steps during his life.
When asked about what we can learn from Smith, Bushman referenced Smith’s “cosmopolitan outlook.” Smith wasn’t just concerned with the religious freedom of Latter-day Saints, but of all faiths. Bushman said, “We aren’t the only ones who need religious protection, everyone does.”
And Smith understood this.
“We claim no privilege but what we feel cheerfully disposed to share with our fellow citizens of every denomination,” he once said. “... let all those who desire to locate themselves in this place, or vicinity, come, and we will hail them as citizens and friends.”
On Joseph Smith’s birthday, we’d do well to model his message.