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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Very First Mormon Presidential Candidate

Here’s a piece of trivia worth knowing: The first Mormon to run for U.S. President was none other than the founding prophet of Mormonism himself: Joseph Smith, Jr.

While it may have sounded like a stretch when then-Republican Party nominee George Bush named Christ as his favorite political philosopher without explaining what sort of ideas Jesus offered about governance and public policy, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could hark back with complete authenticity to the political philosophy of Joseph Smith — indeed, Mormonism is the only world religion whose founder ran for U.S. Ppresident.

Of course, Romney will likely do nothing of the sort. Not only does the candidate himself appear personally irked by questions about his faith but also his campaign has tried to deflect the religious issue. Any decision on Romney’s part not to name Joseph Smith as his favorite political philosopher is probably a wise one; ReligionWriter’s scan of the historical record on the Smith’s short-lived candidacy reveals themes Romney would probably like to gloss over.

For one thing, Smith’s five-month-long, second-tier run for the presidency in 1844 (which ended when Smith was assassinated in June of that year) bore the hallmark of the mini-Mormon civilization Smith had created at that time in Nauvoo, Ill. — it blurred the boundaries of church and state.

As journalists Richard and Joan Ostling write in their newly revised Mormon America, the charter for the Mormon settlement in western Illinois “provided no effective separation of powers.” Smith served as mayor of Nauvoo, in addition to being “head lawmaker and judge,” not to mention the prophetic religious head of the 12,000-strong Mormon community in Nauvoo (whose Hebreo-Mormon name should not be confused with the fictional Star Wars world of Naboo.)

Just so, Smith’s campaign was a cross between political and spiritual evangelism. Three months after he declared his candidacy, he called for volunteer “electioneers” to campaign for him, and more than 340 stepped up the challenge. “Campaigning seemed secondary in comparison to the amount of time they spent preaching,” writes former BYU undergrad Margaret C. Robertson, who surveyed and analyzed the electioneer’s journals.

But Smith did lay out a national platform (Views of the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States,) in which he called for “abolition…; prison reform; unity as a nation; a national bank; the annexation of Texas, California, and Oregon; and the expansion of federal power,” as Robertson writes.

More controversial than his specific policy proposals, however, was Smith’s call for “theodemocracy,” a kind of national political system that would — like the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo — blend theocracy and democracy. Said Smith in April, 1844: “There is not a nation or a dynasty now occupying the earth which acknowledges Almighty God as their lawgiver.”

Smith’s religio-political vision was not an easy sell: his electioneers, who depended on the charity of others for their own sustenance, faced not only “hunger, fatigue and illness” on the campaign trail, but also bodily threats; some electioneers recorded being pelted with tobacco, whipped or even tarred and feathered, according to Robertson. And of course Smith himself died at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob that stormed his prison cell, where he was kept after being accused of treason for destroying a rival’s printing press.

Does Romney, in his private moments, find inspiration in Smith’s ill-fated candidacy? At the very least, he can take comfort in the fact that he has not yet been tarred and feathered.

In researching this post, ReligionWriter would like to acknowledge and thank BYU Studies, an academic journal at Brigham Young University that hosts a free, searchable database of articles on Mormonism and LDS history.

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  1. […] The very first Mormon presidential candidate, of course, was the founding prophet of the LDS church, Joseph Smith. Were Smith’s political […]

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