The Prophet Joseph Smith was an indefatigable advocate and champion of religious freedom — along with its absolute centricity in a democratic government.
That was the message affirmed by Elder Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Sister Ruth L. Renlund, on Tuesday, June 15, in their joint keynote address at the Brigham Young University Law School’s 2021 Religious Freedom Annual Review.
The theme of this year’s review is “Religion’s Role in Overcoming Divides and Strengthening American Democracy.”
A variety of presenters during the two-day event are expected to address questions on how religion can help overcome divides and strengthen democracy in the United States.
The Renlunds’ prerecorded remarks centered on how Joseph Smith — a one-time candidate for his country’s presidency — contributed to strengthening American democracy by calling for reforms to ensure liberty and justice for all.
(In preparation for Tuesday’s presentation, they relied heavily on The Joseph Smith Papers, including the upcoming “Documents, Volume 14” — and, said Elder Renlund, “the excellent historical context provided by Church historians.”)
“The history surrounding the founding of the United States is simultaneously inspiring and infuriating,” said Sister Renlund, a former trial lawyer. “From our present perspective, we can see both the promise of the lofty goals and the results of the omissions and compromises that were made in drafting the U.S. Constitution.
“The freedoms promised to all were not available to all. The liberties claimed for all were not enforced for all. And the security promised to all was not protected for all.”
Counted among those who struggled to practice their religious beliefs without interference were the early Latter-day Saints and their leader, Joseph Smith.
“Time after time, when Joseph Smith called on government officials to enforce enumerated constitutional rights for him and his fellow Saints, he was turned away,” said Elder Renlund, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “His interest in religious freedom was not theoretical; 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.”
Despite such challenges, Church membership continued to increase. And wherever the Saints settled, persecution and unlawful arrests followed, added Elder Renlund. In one infamous instance, U.S. President Martin Van Buren responded to Joseph’s petition for redress with the dismissal: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.”
As frustrations mounted, Church leaders encouraged the Prophet Joseph to run for president of the United States.
“On the 29th of January 1844, Joseph announced his candidacy in that year’s presidential election,” said Sister Renlund. “His campaign was part of a larger effort to pursue legal avenues that might result in the protection of the Church and its members.”
Elder Renlund noted that Joseph Smith reluctantly entered politics. He had hoped to focus his efforts entirely on the spiritual welfare of the Church.
In a 12-page pamphlet highlighting his views of government powers and policies, Joseph Smith articulated his frustrations with Van Buren’s dereliction of duty to protect the constitutional rights of the American people — along with calls for reform in divisive matters such as minority rights, the national banking system, the criminal justice system, the abolition of slavery and territorial expansion.
The Prophet also proposed that the president of the United States be constitutionally allowed to dispatch the Army to suppress mobs in individual states without first receiving a request from the state’s governor.
“Joseph’s proposal would remove any real or perceived barriers to enforcing minority rights that were threatened by mobs, state militia or government officials,” said Sister Renlund. “The lack of such a provision in the Constitution is the reason that Van Buren gave for being unable to help the Saints.”
Joseph’s proposals for economic reform called for establishment of a national bank with local branches overseen by elected officers, added Elder Renlund. “He stated that such a network of banks would ensure a dependable national currency and would ease financial difficulties caused by irregularities and frequent shortages of currency throughout the country.”
The banking collapse in the 1830s affected many Latter-day Saints. Such financial instabilities — coupled with allegations of corruption — prompted urgency for reform.
Another key element of Joseph’s platform was a demand for social reform and the overhaul of the American criminal justice system.
“He called for a drastic decrease in the number of men and women incarcerated in prisons and penitentiaries,” said Sister Renlund. “This suggests that Joseph viewed the system that sentenced men and women to prison as flawed and as administering justice unevenly based on the economic status of the accused.”
The Prophet’s own experience of being arrested and jailed on various occasions likely gave him a clear view of the unfairness inherent in the prison system.
“Joseph advocated for treating people with dignity and sincerely believed people were capable of learning and changing,” said Elder Renlund. “He had little economic status in life, and his imprisonments deepened his compassion for others in his situation.
“He had sympathy, too, for those arrested according to the debtor laws of the day. His father was once arrested for a $14 debt, that is today a $400 debt. His writing suggests that he believed the United States could and should be better.”
The final major piece of Joseph Smith’s campaign platform called for the end of slavery. He spoke on the matter with absolute clarity: “Break off the shackles from the poor black man and hire him to labor like other human beings; for an hour of virtuous liberty on earth, is worth an eternity of bondage! … Restore freedom! Break down slavery!”
For Joseph Smith, slavery was far more than a political issue, said Sister Renlund. It was a matter of right versus wrong. “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.”
The Prophet’s campaign pamphlet was well received by the Saints — but responses outside the Church were often negative.
“Hounded by mobs throughout the campaign, Joseph was ultimately killed by one while under state government protection, the first presidential candidate to be assassinated,” said Elder Renlund.
Despite the tragic end of his campaign, the prophet-candidate successfully fortified American democracy.
“Joseph’s assassination 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,” said Sister Renlund. “Underlying Joseph’s thinking on democracy in the United States was his firmly held belief that constitutional rights, freedom of religion and universal freedom should be available to all, including those in minority groups. His very approach to democracy is one that is still being debated and examined today.”
The reforms advocated by Joseph Smith “were so forward thinking,” she added.
His proposal for banking reform, for example, was essentially enacted 20 years later. And slavery was abolished 20 years after Joseph’s campaign following the horrors of the Civil War. “As a country,” she said, “we are still debating how we achieve the promises of the United States Constitution for all.”
Joseph Smith, added Elder Renlund, supported the participation of the democratic process of “those who might vote contrary to what even he would have wanted.” The Prophet took a “principled stand” that all qualified voters should be encouraged to cast their ballots — “especially minorities, religious or other.”
Joseph Smith wanted the democratic process to work for everyone.
“Then, as now, Latter-day Saints wanted American democratic rights promised in the Constitution to be more than a myth,” said Elder Renlund. “As a leading evangelical theologian recently stated, the Latter-day Saints in the United States ‘just want a place at the American table.’
“Joseph’s run for the American presidency and his subsequent death highlights the need for the vigorous protection of democratic rights in the nation.”