Church History
Reed Smoot Hearings

“Reed Smoot Hearings,” Church History Topics

“Reed Smoot Hearings”

Reed Smoot Hearings

Reed Smoot was elected to the United States Senate in 1903 while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Protests against Smoot’s election by Americans who were still suspicious about the Church’s practice of plural marriage prompted a series of hearings over four years to determine whether Smoot should remain in office. The hearings generated widespread debate about the beliefs, practices, and inner workings of the Church as more than a hundred witnesses testified before the Senate about nearly “every peculiarity” of Smoot’s religious life. 1

In 1895 the First Presidency had issued a “Political Manifesto” requiring their approval before General Authorities could run for political office. 2 Smoot received permission from the First Presidency in 1902 to run for the United States Senate and was elected by the Utah state legislature the following year. 3 The Salt Lake Ministerial Association and several Protestant churches and moral reform groups petitioned the president and Congress of the United States to deny Smoot his seat in the Senate. The protests alleged that although Church President Wilford Woodruff had announced the end of the Church’s support for plural marriage, members of the Quorum of the Twelve and other Church leaders continued the practice and that Smoot was therefore guilty of breaking antipolygamy laws. 4

At first, the protests labeled Smoot a polygamist, which he was not. But they quickly turned to accusations that Smoot lacked sufficient loyalty to country due to his status as an Apostle in the Church. Although the Utah legislature had legally certified the election and granted Smoot his seat, the Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections decided to conduct public hearings, which began in February 1904. 5 A number of senators, including Julius Caesar Burrows, the committee’s chairman, stated their intention to use this political moment to put not Smoot but the Church on trial. 6

During the hearings, the committee heard from dozens of witnesses, including several prominent Church leaders. Among these were several members of the Quorum of the Twelve and Church President Joseph F. Smith. For three days, committee members interrogated President Smith over the issue of the separation between church and state. They questioned him on whether Latter-day Saints could be trusted to uphold the law regardless of revelation. Many newspapers made a spectacle out of the exchange. They depicted committee chair Julius Caesar Burrows as a stern investigator bent on ensuring that Church leaders “obey the law” and President Smith as a polygamist trying to subvert the government. 7 President Smith assured the committee that he directed Latter-day Saints to honor the law and reiterated his belief in the personal right to religious conscience. He also promised to make a public statement to clarify the Church’s position on plural marriage. The following month at general conference he issued a “Second Manifesto,” which declared that any officer or member of the Church who should solemnize or enter into a plural marriage would be excommunicated. 8

Despite being at the center of this tumultuous public debate, Smoot retained his seat by a full Senate vote in 1907 and served for another 26 years. 9 During his political career, he orchestrated diplomatic meetings between Church leaders and government officials of the United States and Europe. His apostolic and political work improved relations for the Church internationally, particularly in securing visas for American missionaries to serve abroad after World War I. While the hearings did not succeed in denying Smoot a career in the Senate, they did shape the relationship between the Church and the United States government. The Church began to reshape its political involvement while the government moved away from applying religious tests to Latter-day Saint politicians. 10

Related Topics: American Legal and Political Institutions, Antipolygamy Legislation, Manifesto, Political Neutrality


  1. Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 2–13. See also Topic: American Legal and Political Institutions.

  2. See Topic: Political Neutrality.

  3. Senators in Utah were not elected by popular vote at the time but by the state legislature.

  4. Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 13. See also Topics: Antipolygamy Legislation, Manifesto.

  5. Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 22, 34–35.

  6. Harvard S. Heath, “The Reed Smoot Hearings: A Quest for Legitimacy,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 33, no. 2 (Summer 2007), 25–26.

  7. Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 63.

  8. Michael H. Paulos, “Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith’s Testimony,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 34, no. 4 (2008), 181–225; see also “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics Essays,

  9. Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 145, 176.

  10. Flake, Politics of American Religious Identity, 158, 172–76.