Question: Did Joseph Smith run for President because he had delusions of grandeur?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith run for President because he had delusions of grandeur?

There is little evidence that Joseph expected to win his political contest

Critics charge that Joseph Smith's decision to run for President of the United States in 1844 shows him to be either a megalomaniac bent on amassing ever more power, or a fanatic with delusions of grandeur.

Joseph Smith was sincere in his political principles, which seem to have been generally well-received and were well thought out. There is little evidence, however, that Joseph expected to win his political contest. Joseph had ample experience with persecution and hatred throughout his prophetic career; it seems unlikely that he would have expected to overcome such animus and successfully be elected president.

However, there were other goals that were also served with his Presidential campaign, and these seem to have loomed even larger in the minds of Joseph and those he sent as campaigners—chief among these was the strength added to the Church through strengthening distant branches, training future leaders, preaching the gospel, and dispelling prejudice.

Cover of "The Prophet," a magazine published by the Church in New York, 1844. This issue advocates the election of Joseph as President of the United States, with Sidney Rigdon as Vice-President. (From Ensign (September 1973): 21.)

Joseph Smith was clear that he did not put his political beliefs or activities into the prophetic realm

Joseph Smith was clear that he did not put his political beliefs or activities into the prophetic realm. As he said, "The Lord has not given me a revelation concerning politics. I have not asked him for one."[1]

Joseph's reasons for running for president included the following:[2]:148

  1. Joseph wanted to provide the Saints with a political candidate they could support. Rather than "holding their nose" and voting for the "lesser of two evils," or abstaining from participation in the process, Joseph offered himself as an option.
  2. Joseph's candidacy meant that Mormons would support neither Whigs or Democrats; this could help avert anti-Mormon sentiment in Illinois, since the party which did not receive LDS support would have further reason to resent the Mormons, who were numerous enough to hold a "balance of power" in the state.
  3. Joseph hoped to publicize the Saints' grievances regarding their dispossession by the state of Missouri. Other efforts at legal redress had failed, and so Joseph saw the campaign for the Presidency as a means of attracting attention, with hopes that the public's sentiments could be appealed to directly. Prior to running, Joseph asked John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren (the five leading candidates) what their actions would be with respect to the Mormons' Missouri grievances. Two did not reply; the other three would not pledge support in the event of a victory.[3]
  4. Joseph knew that running for President would attract attention. This allowed him to preach his religious and political ideals on the national stage.
  5. Joseph advocated a strong central bank; he doubtless had vivid memories of the problems which arose when reliable banking was not available, especially on the frontier, given the problems with the Kirtland Safety Society.

There were many other benefits which accrued to the Church

There were many other benefits which accrued to the Church:

  • Members of the Quorum of the Twelve were safely out of reach of mob violence at the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. (Wilford Woodruff reported that Joseph told him that he [Woodruff] needed to leave to be protected. Some of the returning Twelve also faced mob attacks on their lives before reaching Nauvoo.)[2]:149, 163–164. The visits of the Twelve to members not at Nauvoo also strengthened these members' commitment to the Church following the death of Joseph. Members might have concluded that Joseph's death meant the end of the Church; having met and known the apostles, they were more confident in the Church's new leadership.[2]:162
  • Campaigning for Joseph strengthened the Church through converts.[2]:149 One author who reviewed the campaigners' diaries noted:
"The electioneers did much more than merely campaign for Joseph Smith: one of the purposes of the candidacy, which becomes obvious from the journals of the campaigners, was to proselytize. By their own accounts, campaigning seemed secondary in comparison to the amount of time they devoted to preaching."[2]:152 And, with Joseph's death, the travelers did not suddenly return home. They continued their work, which would be strange if their departure was primarily geared toward electing Joseph Smith.[2]:156-58
  • Having many traveling messengers who knew Joseph Smith and the gospel well allowed the Church to suppress apostate practices or teachings in areas removed from the Church's center at Nauvoo.[2]:159-61
  • The preaching and campaigning managed "to remove a great deal of prejudice" against the Church.[4] It also impressed many people favorably in the midst of an acrimonious presidential campaign:
...the electioneers did campaign. They held political meetings, and some even had electors appointed for their respective states. The bulk of their campaigning effort involved presenting the Prophet's [platform] to the citizenry of the United States, who on the whole seemed impressed and pleased with this plaform. On the other hand, many of the elders did have difficulty campaigning and were sometimes severely opposed.[2]:152
  • The electioneers were working in their home state, so this gave them the chance to preach to many family members. Some joined the Church, while others merely abandoned the prejudices they had held against their Mormon kin. This is significant, since the Saints were soon to move west, far from these family ties.[5]

The issue of George Miller

Some have pointed to the remarks of George Miller, one of the campaigners, to insist that Joseph really intended his run for the Presidency to permit the establishment of a political Kingdom of God on earth.

Miller was later to join Lyman Wight's Texas break-off "empire," and even later he joined the followers of James Jesse Strang—who claimed to have established the political Kingdom of God on earth—in 1850. As one author has noted,

The course that George Miller followed after Joseph Smith's death, in contrast to that followed by Brigham Young and the Twelve, evidences that Miller probably left the Church, at least partially, over the very issue of the political Kingdom of God. But even more surprising is that George Miller's journal exists only through 1843. What historians have quoted as evidence of Joseph Smith's 'secret' intentions was not written by Miller at the time of Joseph's campaign. It was written in 1855 in a letter from Miller in St. James, Michigan, to his brother, partially to justify Miller and Strang's position. Miller attempted to substantiate that Joseph tried to do what he and Strang were then doing, and so portrayed the Prophet as trying to set up the Kingdom of God with a king in the United States. It seems clear that Miller justified his own position, rather than objectively reflecting on what Joseph had said to him ten years earlier.[6]

Unfortunately for this theory, it ignores Joseph's contemporaneous remarks about his candidacy, and the behavior and journals of those who were involved as electioneers.

Notes

  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:526. Volume 5 link
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Margaret C. Robertson, "The Campaign and the Kingdom: The Activities of the Electioneers in Joseph Smith's Presidential Campaign," Brigham Young University Studies 39 no. 3 (2000).
  3. Arnold K. Garr, "Joseph Smith: Candidate for President of the United States," in Regional Studies in the Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois, edited by H. Dean Garret (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1995), 152. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) GL direct link
  4. Jacob Hamblin, Journals, typescript, Perry Special Collections, 7; cited in Robertson, "Electioneers," 154.
  5. See discussion in Robertson, "Electioneers," 154–156.
  6. Quoted with discussion in Robertson, "Electioneers," 173, note 60.