Since the 1830s, Latter-day Saints have regularly participated in government and held public office. During the nineteenth century, the Church as an institution was heavily involved in electoral politics at the state, territorial, and national level. Church leaders during this time period held offices, endorsed parties and platforms, lobbied government officials and diplomats, and organized rallies.1 Beginning in the 1890s, Church leaders began to scale back their participation in political office. By the late 20th century, the Church had adopted a position of political neutrality toward elections. According to policy, the Church did not endorse or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms, and its buildings and membership lists were prohibited for partisan political uses. Individual Latter-day Saints, however, were encouraged to participate in the political process as voters, candidates, and elected officials.2 The Church’s position of political neutrality was heavily influenced by the Church’s engagement with politics in the United States.
The Church’s first encounters with government occurred within the democratic system of the United States. As violence against Latter-day Saints intensified in the 1830s, the Lord urged the Saints in a revelation to use legal recourse for redress and protection.3 Joseph Smith led an effort to petition the United States federal government for redress in 1839, but after Congress referred the matter back to the same state officials who had expelled the Saints from Missouri, Joseph looked to elections to build a coalition of support. Some candidates saw the Saints as a voting bloc and campaigned in their relatively large frontier city of Nauvoo, Illinois.4 Concerned that elected officials could not be relied upon to protect the interests of the Saints, Joseph convened a Council of Fifty to explore relocating the Saints and to consider the possibility of a theocratic government. He also launched his own campaign for president of the United States.5
In Utah Territory, pioneer Latter-day Saints participated in municipal and territorial delegation elections.6 Because the Saints formed an overwhelming majority of citizens in Utah, they dominated most elections. Brigham Young and other Church leaders frequently endorsed candidates and sometimes sought and held political office. Most Latter-day Saint politicians ran for city or county offices unopposed. But as the non–Latter-day Saint population in Utah expanded through immigration and industry, the Saints found they had to balance their theocratic ideals with the reality of local politics. Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Godbeite residents organized the Liberal Party in 1870 to challenge the Latter-day Saint bloc.7 The national Republican Party’s strong opposition to polygamy persuaded most Latter-day Saints in Utah at the time to align with the Democratic Party. But as the Liberal Party grew in influence, several prominent Saints founded the People’s Party to support causes important to Church members.8 For the next two decades, People’s Party candidates won virtually all of their contests and controlled nearly every seat in the territorial legislature.
Federal legislation against plural marriage and the growing non–Latter-day Saint population led People’s Party leaders to disband in order to build relationships with national coalitions, lobby for Utah’s statehood, and eventually elect Church members to Congress. In 1891 the First Presidency and People’s Party leaders agreed to dissolve the party and urged their members to “divide about evenly between the [national Democratic and Republican] parties.”9 Several Apostles joined the Democratic Party, but after another Apostle was defeated as a Republican candidate, leaders like President Wilford Woodruff and George Q. Cannon started to worry that old divisions might resurface. Cannon and other prominent leaders announced they would affiliate with the Republican Party, but they recommended bipartisanship among Church members.10
After Utah was granted statehood in 1896, the First Presidency and other General Authorities announced the “Political Rule of the Church” (also called the “Political Manifesto”). This policy required any General Authority pursuing public office to obtain approval from the First Presidency.11 Moses Thatcher, an Apostle who had served on several boards of trade in Utah and contemplated running for political office, refused to sign the document. For this and other reasons he was eventually dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve. Thatcher retained his membership in the Church and later supported the policy.12
In the years following the Political Manifesto, two General Authorities were elected to Congress with permission from the President of the Church: B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy in 1898 and Reed Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1903. Roberts was elected to the House of Representatives but was denied his seat after a House debate regarding his practice of plural marriage. Smoot was elected to the Senate but also faced a Congressional debate over retaining his seat. Church leaders, including President Joseph F. Smith, testified in Senate hearings in favor of Smoot’s service. After three years of committee investigations into Smoot’s eligibility, the Senate failed to remove him from office, and Smoot served in the Senate until 1933.
Church leaders recognized the importance of the separation of Church and state outlined in the U.S. Constitution. But some political matters overlapped with the Church’s mission, teachings, and interests. To maintain a voice in the public sphere, Church leaders after about 1900 emphasized a distinction between politics and morality. Political issues were left to individual conscience; moral issues included those that directly impinged on Church doctrine or practices. From time to time, Church leaders spoke out on moral issues. For example, in 1933 President Heber J. Grant urged Utah voters against repealing the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which had prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor.13
The international growth of the Church posed new challenges in administering the Church in a variety of political contexts. As Church leaders worked to gain official recognition in various nations, they emphasized their neutrality and encouraged Church members to be law-abiding citizens and participate in local government where possible.
General Church leaders have continued to limit their involvement in elections. Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961, was the last person to hold public office while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve or First Presidency. Church Presidents also continued to speak out on ballot measures or other political questions of moral concern, both in the United States and other countries. In 1980 the First Presidency issued a more specific statement of neutrality to local leaders and the general membership that remains the standard today.14