Joseph Smith’s abolitionist presidential campaign provides Latter-day Saints with a rich legacy of promoting democratic freedoms for all, including racial and religious minorities, a church apostle and a BYU law school fellow said Tuesday.

His murder — Joseph Smith was the first presidential candidate in U.S. history to be assassinated — “demonstrated the point of his campaign, that democratic rights for people to practice their religion had been completely ignored, and it cost him his life,” Sister Ruth Lybbert Renlund said.

She spoke at the Religious Freedom Annual Review at the BYU law school’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, where she is a senior fellow. She was joined in her keynote presentation by her husband, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

The Renlunds said Joseph Smith, the prophet-founder of the church, was a champion of religious rights and democratic principles who was ahead of his time and made major contributions to American democracy.

Some of the positions he took during his 1844 presidential campaign — the abolition of slavery, economic reform and criminal justice reform — came about in future decades via Civil War, Congressional action, Supreme Court decision and Constitutional amendment, they said.

Sister Ruth Lybbert Renlund and Elder Dale G. Renlund sit and talk during a virtual presentation at BYU.
Sister Ruth Lybbert Renlund and Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discuss Joseph Smith’s contributions to American democracy during a video presentation for BYU’s virtual Religious Freedom Annual Review on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. | Screen capture

As the United States again debates voter laws and rights today, the Renlunds noted that Joseph Smith lived during an era when women, Blacks and others could not vote and mobs terrorized religious minority voters.

Democratic process

“Joseph supported the participation in the democratic process of those who might vote contrary to what even he would have wanted,” Elder Renlund said. “He took a principled stand (that) anyone who qualifies, under law, to participate should be encouraged to do so, especially minorities, religious or other.”

Sister Renlund said the founding and early development of the United States “is simultaneously inspiring and infuriating” because the promise of the Constitution’s lofty ideals were undermined by omissions and compromises.

“The freedoms promised to all were not available to all,” she said. “The liberties claimed for all were not enforced for all. And the security promised to all was not protected for all.”

Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints were victims of those omissions.

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He was revolted at the prospect of entering politics, but his campaign was part of his effort to pursue legal remedies to protect the church and its members after national leaders told him they would not intervene when state governments and mobs acted against the Latter-day Saints with violence and threats of violence.

“His interest in religious freedom was not theoretical,” Elder Renlund said. “It was a repeatedly lived experience. He had been directed by Heaven to restore the church of Christ. Without the rights to freely exercise their religion, to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress, church members were prevented from physically gathering and establishing roots in a geographical location of their choosing due to repeated forced evacuations.”

He believed the federal government should guarantee and protect the Constitutional rights of freedom of religion and universal freedom for all, including minority groups, Sister Renlund said.

Joseph led the Latter-day Saints out of Missouri to Illinois six years earlier after Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order for Latter-day Saints “to be exterminated or driven from the state.”

He proposed constitutional reforms in his presidential platform because under the federal system at the time, he wrote, “the governor himself may be the mobber and, instead of being punished, as he should for murder and treason, he may destroy the very lives, rights, and property he should protect.”

“Joseph’s proposal would remove any real or perceived barriers to enforcing minority rights that were threatened by mobs, state militia or government officials,” Sister Renlund said.

The reforms

The Renlunds detailed three specific reforms in Joseph Smith’s platform — the abolition of slavery, economic reform through the establishment of a national bank, which happened 20 years later; an overhaul of the criminal justice system that would reduce incarcerations, engage prisoners in public works projects and provide them with education.

“Break off the shackles from the poor black man and hire him to labor like other human beings ... Restore freedom! Break down slavery!” his campaign pamphlet said.

An image of the cover of the pamphlet Joseph Smith published of his political views for his 1844 U.S. presidential campaign.
The campaign pamphlet published by Joseph Smith for his run for the U.S. presidency in 1844. He was the general of the Nauvoo Legion militia at the time. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“In many ways, slavery was the issue of the day, but for Joseph, it was also a matter of right versus wrong,” Sister Renlund said. “He understood from restored doctrine that all the human family are God’s spirit children. He believed in the dignity and equal rights of all humankind and he was in sympathy with them for their rights were trampled upon, just as his had been.”

Joseph’s positions were unusual and rooted in his beliefs in religious freedom.

“Joseph viewed democratic rights through the lens of religious freedom,” Sister Renlund said. “It was not that democratic rights emanated from religious freedom, rather that the abrogation of religious freedom was a marker for undemocratic government.”

He also advocated for those rights for all people.

“Joseph was unique in his day for his insistence that not only should the Latter-day Saints’ religious rights be protected, but that this protection should be extended to all,” Sister Renlund said.

He met with U.S. President Martin Van Buren and other politicians in Washington, D.C., to press his position the Constitution required action to ensure religious freedom.

“He did what we are encouraged to do today to protect our democratic rights,” Sister Renlund said, “to participate in the process, write to elected leaders, run for office and speak up, among other things. Our history as a nation demonstrates that unless citizens demand that government protect democratic rights, these rights can be ignored or unequally applied, especially for minorities.”

Mobs hounded Joseph throughout the campaign, Elder Renlund said. One finally killed him in June 1844, six months into his campaign, while he was under state government protection.

James K. Polk, a slaveholder, defeated Henry Clay to win the 1844 election.

“Joseph’s run for the American presidency and his subsequent death” the apostle added, “highlight the need for the vigorous protection of democratic rights in the nation.”

The Renlund’s presentation can be viewed at iclrs.org.

The conference continues Wednesday with presentations that include former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham and former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Thomas B. Griffith, who will discuss President Dallin H. Oaks’ April 2021 general conference talk, “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution.”

Other presentations will include a panel on civil religion, nationalism and patriotism and a roundup of recent Supreme Court cases.