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Dictating Politics: The Election of 1912

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 10, 2009

One of the oft-expressed late 19th century/early 20th century charges about the Church’s “un-American” nature centered on the Church’s involvement in politics. When the man who spoke for God, the argument went, directed you to vote in a given way, the pressure to protect your eternal salvation was too great for mortal man to resist.

My standard answer is that nobody claiming such a thing could possibly know much about Mormons or Mormon history. If we did everything we were told to do, why do we have to be told the same things at every General Conference? Why don’t we have a higher volume of fast offerings, perfect home teaching numbers, and Sunday lessons that always follow the manual?

But it is true that in times past church leaders seldom hesitated to express their political opinions, and maybe sometimes they really did have an effect on political outcomes.

Witness the U.S. presidential election of 1912.

That campaign pitted incumbent William Howard Taft (Republican) against former president Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive/“Bull Moose” third party, after he failed to gain the Republican nomination) and future president Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). Most Mormons were then Democrats, largely because the Republican Party had aggressively prosecuted polygamists, disfranchised all Mormon women and most Mormon men, and confiscated most of the Church’s property after dissolving the Church as a legal entity in the 19th century. Most Mormons would remain Democrats for another generation, before heading down the path that makes Utah the reddest state in the Union today.

LDS president Joseph F. Smith and other leading Mormons were, however, Republicans – chiefly, I think, because of their views on business, although that may be too simplistic a conclusion. Joseph F. Smith was also editor of The Improvement Era, and as editor he published an editorial or two for every issue. His editorial for October, 1912, was this:

The Presidential Election

The forthcoming presidential election is one of profound importance, and opens to the student a wide field for the study of applied political economy, as well as for leading social questions that are before the nation to be solved.

No reasonable citizen who has investigated the political situation, with a view to learning the true status of the claims set forth by the various political parties, can in any way justly find fault with the present administration. President William H. Taft has met the just needs of the people and the economic demands of the country with steadfastness and wisdom. In the treatment of the great questions that have come before the nation, he has risen to the occasion and applied such conservative legal remedies as have won him true admiration from patriotic citizens of all parties.

The extremely delicate situation with Mexico has been handled by him in a way to establish confidence in his ability, and notwithstanding the criticism of his action, in this matter and in that of the Central American republics, time will doubtless prove that his policy is best. Most people do not understand what intervention in Mexico would have meant when it was most advocated. American colonists, in large numbers, were distributed over various scattered sections of that country, and had not the situation been handled as carefully as it was, war would inevitably have been the result. War would have meant the destruction of railways and perhaps the massacre of many Americans in the interior. It would take a long time for soldiers to reach points where they could be a protection to the colonists, in view of the great stretches of cruel desert which would have to be traversed. The recognition of the rebels, besides making war almost inevitable, would have given them a legal standing. At present they are looked upon as mere citizens in arms, and the Mexican government may be held responsible for their depredations, which might not have been the case, had they been recognized. Everything considered, the administration has dealt properly with this very delicate situation. The colonists who were driven out were well treated by our government, being provided in their extremity in great kindness, with food and means.

The only charge of any consequence that the opponents of President Taft bring against him is that he has been and is a tool of the “Interests,” which means, doubtless, that he unduly favors “big business,” or trusts. His administration has proved the contrary, and the careful student will find that he has done as much to regulate the trusts as was ever done by any other incumbent of the presidential chair, and he has done it legally. He believes strictly in the judicial application of the law in these cases, and as firmly as any one in the need of just and fair laws to deal with the important question. It is a perplexing problem, which not even the experts know just how to handle, and which can not be solved by a mere change of presidents. President Taft believes in finding out what is necessary, and then in applying the law as a remedy without resort to unconstitutional means, to lawlessness and anarchy. This has been his policy, and what he has accomplished has been effective without being revolutionary and illegal.

At no time has the country been more prosperous than now, and as far as politics may affect prosperity, the people of the country have no occasion to complain at the administration, on his matter. So that, on the whole, whatever may happen through the elections in November, whatever may be the final outcome of the people’s choice, it is clear that President William H. Taft has made a good president, and his administration has been a success. Should the people call him once again to the presidential chair, it is not likely that they will regret it, but, on the contrary, will find their action wise, sensible and sound.

– Joseph F. Smith

Wilson, the Democrat, was elected to the first of his two terms.

Taft, the Republican, won Democratic Utah’s electoral vote – one of only two states (the other being Vermont) to go for Taft.

Hmmm.



20 Comments »

  1. Perhaps I’m wrong, but doesn’t this editorial contradict statements made by JFS during the Smoot hearings where he asserted the Church does not interfere in political affairs?

    Comment by Steve C. — August 10, 2009 @ 8:09 am

  2. It did, by non-Mormon standards of the time, and probably by the standards of most of us today — in my opinion.

    But I think from what I’ve read that JFS didn’t see this as interfering, because he was only expressing his personal opinion and not telling anybody else that in order to be a good Mormon they had to vote in a given way.

    That may strike some of us as disingenuous, but I’m willig to give him the benefit of the doubt: in earlier elections church leaders had very explicitly told members that their duty was to vote for their brethren. Outlining why you like a given candidate the way JFS did here seems very mild compared to the earlier habits, so may not have been intended by JFS as dictation.

    In my opinion.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2009 @ 8:25 am

  3. So, what you’re saying is that this is an example of someone of high import who is expressing his personal opinion, but not necessarily speaking FOR the Church? I would actually agree, and think that’s probably a fair assumption.

    Comment by Hunter — August 10, 2009 @ 8:48 am

  4. Wise guys need not comment.

    [Edited: This does not apply to Mark B., who is requested to smart off at his pleasure.]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  5. Wise guys need not comment.

    Boy, am I glad that Ardis let me off the hook on this one!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 10, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  6. During the 1930’s and 40’s editorials in the Deseret News regulary endorsed Republican candidates running against Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was an open secret that these editorials were written by J. Ruben Clark , counselor in the first presidency and represented the views of President Heber J. Grant. However LDS voters ignored this counsel and FDR carried Utah in all four presidential elections in which he was a candiadate.(For documentation of this see D. Michael Quinn’s biography of Clark published by Signature books.)

    Comment by John Willis — August 10, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  7. The endorsement of a candidate in a newspaper editorial hardly amounts to “counsel”.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 10, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  8. Heber J Grant urged Church members NOT to repeal prohibition, but they did anyway, providing the tie-breaking vote to allow liquor to again be legally sold.

    In 2003, the Church urged Idaho mormons to vote down the lottery as a form of gambling, but the bill passed (narrowly) because this counsel was ignored. The following conference (April 2003) President Hinckley repeated the story of Prohibition and urged more loyalty from members. Nobody listened to that, either.

    Today, we have Mitt Romney and Harry Reid. Political opposites, but both Mormons in good standing.

    I personally wish the Church would be more politically active. They won’t be, though, becasue of tax laws.

    Comment by Clark — August 10, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  9. The Church has often taken official position on proposals to enact gambling laws, including parimutuel betting in Utah. It also often has official positions on alcohol bills as well, although notably it did not oppose a recent relaxation in Utah. And of course it often takes official positions on (homosexual) marriage bills / propositions.

    The Church also has a very specific policy against endorsing particular candidates or parties. That is one of the things that is a red flag to the IRS as well.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 10, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  10. Of course the Deseret News editorial section often takes positions on all sorts of things the Church has no official policy on. They appear these days to have an editorial position by staff journalist consensus policy, which often results in editorial positions that are somewhat left of center. The Deseret News rarely (if ever) endorses specific candidates though. Propositions are another story.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 10, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  11. Mark, I think that’s how JFS saw what he was doing in 1912. A newspaper’s editorial board can can a stand on a candidate or issue; he was publishing his stand as editor of the monthly magazine. I really think he didn’t see what he was doing as anything more than that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  12. Yes, I agree that’s how JFS saw what he was doing in 1912. His experience of having to testify at the Smoot Senate hearings about how Church members were free to vote their consciences had to have stuck with JFS. Whether he felt it his prerogative to dictate to Church members or not, he had to have known what *that* would have looked like to others/outsiders. In that sense, then, I have to think that this editorial was just that, an editorial.

    Thanks for this, Ardis.

    Comment by Hunter — August 10, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  13. The endorsement of a candidate in a newspaper editorial hardly amounts to “counsel”.

    Ezra Taft Benson might have something to say about that…

    Comment by queuno — August 10, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  14. Interesting, Ardis. I recall discussing in Brian Cannon’s Utah history course that there were direct confrontations between JFS and BHR over political matters. The details are fuzzy, but I seem to remember JFS dropping the “I’m the prophet and I receive revelation so you’d better follow” card, which Roberts, the good Democrat, refused to do. Do you know the details better than me?

    Comment by David G. — August 10, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

  15. I don’t know the occasion you’re talking about, David. I’d guess it was closer to the 1895 election than 1912 (except that JFS wasn’t the prophet then).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2009 @ 6:15 am

  16. Read Truman Madsen’s biography of B.H. Roberts. The church in 1895 under Wilford Woodruff issued what is known as the political manifesto. General Authorities were required to get permission from the President of the Church to run for political office(This is still in effect Ezra Taft Benson had to get permission from President Mckay to accept the position as secretary of agriculture during the Eisenhower administration. In 1968 Benson wanted to run as the vice presidential candidate of George Wallace, President Mckay said no. Wise decisions in both cases I think.)

    Back to B.H.Roberts , he saw the political manifesto as a means by which the Republican Church leadership could keep Democratic Church leaders, like himself from running for public office. He was not completely unjustifed in thinking this. Moses Thatcher of the Quorum of the 12 left the quorum, or was pushed out because of conflict over this issue. Fortunately for the church and Roberts things did not get that far with him. He did run for congress in in 1896 and lost and won in 1898, he was never able to take his seat as he was a practicing polygamist and the house refused to seat him. The church did not spring to his defense as it did in 1904 when Reed Smoot a member of the quorum of the 12 was elected to the Senate. Of course Smoot was a monogamist.

    It is true that there was conflict and bad feeling between J.F. Smith and B.H. Roberts over political issues. Unlike Thatcher ,he was able to swallow his pride and stay in the quorum of the 70 and continue to make outstanding contributions to the Church,

    Comment by John Willis — August 11, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  17. Thanks, John, that must be what I’m remembering.

    Comment by David G. — August 11, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  18. See, this is what I DO like about the internet. The opportunity to find out all these “small history moments” that I had no idea existed.

    Ok, now here’s my embarrassing question for the week…is the Deseret News owned by the church? I have never seen a Deseret News paper in my life and don’t live anywhere near where it would be distributed….so I don’t know. Thanks for not making fun of me! Unless you do.

    Comment by floridagirl — August 11, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

  19. No making fun of you! No reason why you should know this —

    The Deseret News is owned by the Church, and has been since it was founded in 1850. Church leaders are still involved in major editorial decisions, but I don’t know to what extent they’re involved in routine work, except for the Church News. That is published as a section of the Deseret News but is edited and run almost like a weekly version of the Ensign.

    Mormon Times, another section of the Deseret News, is just another routine section like the sports section that caters to one segment of the News’s audience, and is not controlled by the Church.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  20. Wow! Okay, I’ve heard of Church News, of course, and Mormon Times, but didn’t know they came out of the Deseret News. Cool, thanks.

    Comment by floridagirl — August 11, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

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