“Joseph Smith’s Quest to Secure Religious Freedom for All,” Ensign, February 2019
In August 1836, while traveling on Church business, Joseph Smith stood amid the charred ruins of the Catholic Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Two years earlier, a mob, angry about the recent influx of Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States, had destroyed the convent that had housed dozens of Catholic nuns. While government authorities condemned the violence, only one of the 13 accused rioters was convicted, and the Catholics received no financial compensation.1
Joseph undoubtedly recognized parallels between the persecution against the Catholics in Massachusetts and the plight of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri. Nearly three years earlier, in 1833, mob violence had driven more than 1,000 Church members from their homes in Jackson County, and the state and federal governments had refused to adequately address the violation of the Saints’ citizenship rights.2 Even more recently, Joseph had learned that at the end of July 1836, the Saints who had moved to Clay County after the 1833 expulsion were once again being forced to move.3
Questions about the state of American religious freedom almost certainly swirled in Joseph’s head as he stood amid the rubble, which was located just a few city blocks from historic sites commemorating some of the pivotal battles of the American Revolution. In a country whose constitution enshrined the idea of religious freedom, how could Americans tolerate violence against religious minorities? Furthermore, how could Church members effectively advocate a legal and political culture in which the rights of religious minorities were as protected as the rights of the Protestant Christian majority?
Before the Latter-day Saints were expelled from Jackson County, Joseph had shown virtually no inclination to engage with the American political system, but the violent opposition from the Church’s enemies in Missouri left him with little choice. An 1833 revelation directed him and other Church leaders to be as persistent in appealing to government officials as the widow in the biblical parable of the unjust judge:
“Let them importune at the feet of the judge;
“And if he heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the governor;
“And if the governor heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the president;
“And if the president heed them not, then will the Lord arise and come forth out of his hiding place, and in his fury vex the nation.”4
And so Joseph began to publicly advocate that the government and his fellow Americans actively foster a society dedicated to allowing all men and women the freedom to worship—or not worship—God according to the dictates of their own consciences.
Joseph’s visit to the site of the destroyed convent signaled a related development in his approach to religious freedom. He recognized that he and his followers were not the only religious minorities who had been victimized by mobs. Fighting for his own religious freedom and that of his fellow Church members was not enough. If he was to truly champion religious freedom, he would have to do more than insist on the protection of the citizenship rights for those who believed as he did. He needed to take a stand for the rights of all men and women, especially those whose religious beliefs differed from his.
This quest for religious freedom took on a greater urgency in 1838 and 1839 when Joseph was arrested and jailed for six months while nearly 10,000 Church members were expelled from Missouri under the threat of state-sanctioned extermination. Their appeals to judges and the state’s governor proved futile, and millions of dollars’ worth of property was lost as the Saints fled their homes. Once Joseph rejoined the main body of Saints living in Illinois as religious refugees, a general conference of the Church was held in October 1839, from which Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, and Elias Higbee were dispatched to meet with President Martin Van Buren in Washington, D.C., and to petition Congress for redress and reparations for the Saints’ lost property.5 The president denied their request for help, stating that providing such help would harm his reelection bid.6
Yet the president’s refusal further fueled Joseph’s commitment to seek redress from the federal government, and he made it clear to Congress that the way it responded to the violent persecution of the Latter-day Saints would send a clear signal to all Americans of the state of religious freedom in the country. In the Church’s petition submitted to the Senate, Joseph, Sidney, and Elias declared repeatedly that all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, should enjoy full citizenship rights.7 While they had come to the nation’s capital because of the persecution of Church members in Missouri, they were advocating the religious freedom of all people.
After three days of hearings in February 1840, the Senate declined to help Church members reclaim their lost property or receive any compensation for it. Instead, Congress directed the Saints to take their case back to the state government of Missouri.8 Joseph was disheartened and frustrated at the response.9
Over the years that followed, the Church continued to send petitions to Congress, each one ending with disappointment. At one point, Joseph wrote to John C. Calhoun, a prominent senator, to explain how the government’s unwillingness to protect religious minorities not only denied the Saints their religious freedom but also threatened the citizenship rights of other Americans simply because of their religious beliefs. The sustained inaction of Congress, Joseph insisted, would declare that an individual state “can exile you at pleasure, mob you with impunity, confiscate your lands and property, [and] have the legislature sanction it—yea, even murder you as an edict of an emperor, and it does no wrong.”10 Once again, Joseph demonstrated that his fight for his own rights and those of his fellow Church members was part of a deeper struggle for peace and equality in human society.
Amid these petitioning efforts, Joseph made strides toward establishing real religious freedom in his own community. As a member of the city council of Nauvoo, Illinois, he introduced an ordinance that “the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-Day Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects, and denominations, whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this city.”11 This declaration was passed and entailed more than a tolerance for those affiliated with other churches to reside in the city; it proposed religious freedom in its truest form by extending a guarantee of all citizenship rights regardless of one’s religious convictions. As the First Presidency explained, the Latter-day Saints were signaling that they would “claim no privilege but what we feel cheerfully disposed to share with our fellow citizens of every denomination.”12
Joseph demonstrated by his actions that this was more than lofty rhetoric. For example, in the early 1840s, Father John Alleman, a Catholic priest in Fort Madison, Iowa, was desperate to cross the Mississippi River so he could minister to one of his parishioners who was on his deathbed. When Joseph learned that Father Alleman lacked the means to make the trip, he paid Alleman’s fare for a ferry across the river and then loaned him a horse to make the rest of his trip.13 Aiding the religious practices of his Catholic neighbors in no way compromised his own religious convictions. Instead, it demonstrated Joseph’s commitment to allowing all men and women their rights of conscience.
Joseph Smith demonstrated that he could advocate—and even facilitate—the religious worship of others and that doing so neither detracted from his own rights nor signaled a weakness in his own faith. Merely advocating his own religious liberty would not result in universal religious freedom. That would come only if men and women were as ardent in defending the rights of other religious minorities as they were in protecting their own.