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A century ago: The LDS Church and constitutional amendments

Published June 11, 2006 12:00 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One hundred years ago, congressional movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., were debating a constitutional amendment prohibiting the Mormon practice of polygamy. This chapter of the debate was spawned in part by the election of LDS Church Apostle Reed Smoot in January 1903 to the United States Senate.

Smoot's unique juxtaposition as both a Mormon apostle and an elected U.S. senator ignited a firestorm of protests and anger throughout the country. Smoot's most vociferous critics were Christian religious leaders, Christian church groups, national women's organizations and anti-Mormon senators playing politics with the issue.



The national outrage was fomented primarily by the erroneous allegation that Smoot himself was a polygamist.

For 40 years prior to achieving statehood in 1896, Utah's relationship with the federal government had been acrimonious. Beginning with the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, the federal government used punitive legislation to stamp out polygamy. The most devastating, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, effectively forced The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to abandon the practice of plural marriage.

Despite these actions, skepticism of the church members' probity vis--vis polygamy persisted in the United States and Washington. Formal Senate hearings against Smoot began in March 1904 and concluded in June 1906. These hearings represented the federal government's last jab at the Mormon practice of polygamy. This last effort against Smoot proved unsuccessful and he was allowed to retain his Senate seat and served there for 30 years.

A few days following Smoot's election in 1903, the Deseret News reported the following: "Congressman Jenkins of Wisconsin today introduce[d] the following amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 'No person shall willfully and knowingly contract a second marriage while the first marriage is still subsisting and undissolved. Any person who shall willfully and knowingly contract a second marriage shall never hereafter hold, occupy or enjoy any office of honor or profit under the United States.'" (Deseret News, Jan. 31, 1903).

Arriving in Washington under a cloud of controversy in March of 1903, Smoot was allowed to take his Senate seat.

Over the first few years of his Senate term, Smoot was apprised of the many congressional efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning polygamy. Attempts to drum up support for this amendment occurred periodically between the years 1903 and 1906.

The amendment gained the support of many Washington politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt, though it should be said that Roosevelt was Smoot's greatest supporter in Washington.

With numerous laws criminalizing polygamy already on the books, Smoot adamantly opposed such a constitutional amendment and once stated, "I have taken the position that I am opposed to any more constitutional amendments, and as a citizen of Utah, I am particularly opposed to an amendment that is directed against my people and my state. I have suggested that the best way to reach this question is to pass a national marriage law, and I have assured the Senators that I will support any measure, no matter how strict or what penalties it imposes, [with] provisions for the punishment of fornication, adultery, incest, unlawful cohabitation, and kindred offences. I hardly think that we need worry much about this constitutional amendment proposition." (Reed Smoot to Joseph F. Smith, April 9, 1904.)

The president of the LDS Church during the Smoot hearings was Joseph F. Smith, who was the first witness at the Smoot hearings. Smith ardently opposed the constitutional amendment and also stated, "I say let the national solons amend the Constitution, to punish and insult and degrade this little handful of men who are rapidly passing away, and when they shall see the magnitude of their acts compared with the insignificance of the cause, they and their historians will laugh at their folly, and write them down asses in the broadest sense." (Joseph F. Smith to Reed Smoot, April 9, 1904.)

Despite the strenuous grass-root efforts of the religious groups of Smoot's time, no constitutional amendment came to fruition. One hundred years have elapsed, and though circumstances are markedly different, with judicial activism and gay marriage thrusting the current issue to the forefront, a constitutional amendment on marriage is once again debated in Washington, this time to define marriage as involving only one man and one woman, and thus to outlaw same-sex unions.

Many similarities exist between these two time periods, some of which include the following: One argument for the amendments was to protect the nuclear family. U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Theodore Roosevelt supported the amendment, Christian coalitions across the country mobilized to lobby for the amendment, U.S. senators in both periods were peppered with letters from concerned churchgoers who urged passage of the amendment, a majority of Americans supported the marriage amendment, and senators used the amendment to benefit politically.

A striking difference between the two amendment debates, and specifically germane to Utahns, is that the LDS Church in 2006 joined forces with national religious groups, who once opposed them, to support a constitutional amendment. LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson was invited and traveled to Washington to participate in the press conference supporting the amendment. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, an active Mormon, sponsored the Senate bill.

In support of the marriage bill, the LDS Church over the past few weeks officially urged its members during church meetings to lobby U.S. senators directly to influence their vote for the amendment.

By opposing the constitutional amendment 100 years ago, the church found itself on the winning end of that debate. A century has elapsed, and a constitutional amendment debate was revived, but, as before, the amendment died on the political vine.

The marriage amendment did not get the two-thirds Senate vote it needed. Sen. Smoot and President Smith's foregoing words echo as the LDS Church finds itself in new territory - on the losing end of a marriage amendment debate.

Paradoxically, when the Senate began its debate on the issue Monday, an active member of the LDS Church, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, in his partisan fashion, gave a blistering speech against the amendment, questioning the necessity for such an amendment as well as declaring unequivocally that he would vote against it.

In this ironic twist, Senate Minority Leader Reid's amendment position smacked against his church's current position, though it reflected the church's historical position of 100 years previous.

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Michael Paulos is an MBA graduate student at the University of Texas. He is the author of a forthcoming documentary history on the Reed Smoot hearings.

 

 

 

 

 

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