Reed Smoot Hearings: A Review and What it Says About Today

Nick Literskibooks, Culture, doubt, faith, history, Mormon, politics 18 Comments

Smoot.jpgTitle: The Mormon Church On Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings
Editor: Michael Harold Paulos
Publisher: Signature Books

Reviewed by Nicholas S. Literski

For decades, talk of the Reed Smoot Hearings has conjured up claims of religious persecution, duplicitous testimony, and shocking admissions.  Intimidated by the multiple volumes of original source material, would-be historians have settled for short excerpts and whispered rumors.  That day has passed, and we have Michael Harold Paulos to thank for it.

Condensing thousands of pages of testimony into a single volume presents tremendous challenges.  Editorial bias, consciously or not, continually threatens to interfere with an honest, balanced impression of the whole.  I’ll admit I was initially concerned when I read that Paulos attempted to “balance testimony favorable to the LDS church with testimony that was not.”  In spite of Signature Books’ solid track record in documentary history, I worried that Paulos might distort the overall tenor of the hearings by forcing a “balance” that did not exist in the original.  My fear, however, was entirely misplaced.

Under Paulos’ skilled editorial hand, the Smoot Hearings emerge as a human drama with profound implications for the present day.  In the glare of a media spotlight, senators grappled with what they perceived as an almost alien culture in their midst.  While some appear to act with genuine malice, others simply seem perplexed by a religion with structure and worldview so different from their own.  In particular, the committee seemed at a loss to understand the Mormon balance between priesthood authority and individual autonomy—a topic that engenders heated discussions even between today’s LDS adherents. 

At the same time, Mormon leaders fought against what they perceived as an open persecution of their faith.  Even where Mormon testimony seems inconsistent with known historical data, the reader can’t help but feel compassion for these men.  One cannot escape the conclusion that Paulos named this volume well; the hearings constituted a senate inquiry on the LDS church, rather than on Reed Smoot’s fitness for office.  At least a few senators emerge as clear enemies of Mormonism, determined to “expose” the latter as a danger to the nation. 

It would have been tempting for an editor to simply present a condensed transcript of the hearings, perhaps with brief biographical entries.  In some cases, editors go to the opposite extreme, providing annotations of the obvious.  Paulos, however, strikes a remarkable balance.  His biographical annotations provide vital background on the participants, while remaining concise.  The real success of this volume, however, lies in Paulos’ inclusion of newspapers, correspondence and journal entries that give contemporary reaction and context to the hearings.  Such “behind the scenes” information proves invaluable in transforming mere transcripts into an engrossing narrative.  In particular, contemporaneous entries from Carl Badger (Smoot’s young secretary) open readers’ eyes.  Badger, in many ways, is the star of this book, as readers follow his own journey through both religious indignation and challenged faith. 

I expected this book to inform me regarding the Smoot hearings.  To that extent, my expectations were certainly met.  I gained something more important from this book, however.  Thanks to Paulos’ editorial achievement, I gained a greater appreciation for these early 20th century church leaders, as well as many of the senators involved.  I gained a greater understanding of the pressures for change that have existed in the LDS church since its inception.  Paulos has given documentary history a distinctly human face, one that entices us to ponder the present in light of the past.  For that, both he and Signature Books must be warmly congratulated.

While that concludes my “official review,” I’d like to encourage a discussion of what the Reed Smoot hearings have to say about the LDS church today.  How is the situation similar or different for modern LDS politicians?  How are outside attacks handled today, compared to 100 years ago?  What about the influence of younger generations and/or newer converts, in changes to the LDS church?

Comments 18

  1. Nick, how does this volume compare in terms of content (and quality) to Kathleen Flake’s book, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle? I’ve been wanting to read a book about the Smoot hearings, but with so many books vying for my attention I only have time for one.

  2. Matt, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Kathleen Flake’s book on the subject. Personally, I’m one who gravitates toward primary source material, so I find this volume attractive for that reason. Clearly, however, the Flake book has been tremendously well received.

  3. Matt: Flake’s book is a narrative history, as opposed to Paulos’ reproduction of documents. It really depends on if you’d rather read a single narrative that contextualizes the hearings in turn of the century America, or get at the raw documents (with some of Paulos’ annotations). Also, Flake’s volume seeks to answer wider questions than simply what happened at the hearings. First, she’s interested in an important question asked by scholars of religion: How do religious communities change over time and retain a sense of sameness with their originating vision? Mormonism was, in Tom Alexander’s phrasing, in a time of transition, where we were moving away from an isolationist, theocratic, and polygamist past into a time period of openness and mainstreaming. So Flake wants to know how the hearings illustrate how we passed through this rupture while maintaining a connection with the past. Second, she asks about the political terms by which diverse religions are brought within the American constitutional order. From America’s founding, our nation has self-identified as Protestant. Flake wants to know how Protestants during this period were willing to expand this self-identity to include “others.” In my opinion, Flake’s book is one of the most important works written on any period of Mormon history, so I’d say it’s worth taking a look at. But I’ve also heard good things about Paulos’ work, so it really depends on what you’re looking for.

  4. #2 Stephen:
    One thing I really liked is the comparisons several witnesses made between their obligation not to describe the endowment, and masonic obligations not to divulge masonic ceremonies. I’ve seen other journal entries from apostles of the time period, making similar arguments, so this is useful to me, as you might imagine.

    One real gem happens to show up on the footnotes. Carl Badger’s various diary entries and letters make it clear that the hearings were sometimes very disturbing to him. He sees polygamy as a big embarassment, as a part of the rising generation of Mormons. At times, he’s feeling persecuted. At times, he’s feeling like his own leaders are being less than honest. On one occasion, he’s obviously having at least a small crisis of faith. He asks the LDS church attorney, Franklin D. Richards, why he should stay in the LDS church, when he has so many views that are entirely opposed. Richards basically counsels him to overlook these things for the good that is in the LDS church, and to consider that it’s kinder to family, etc., for him to remain committed. It’s quite reminiscent of some recent comments by Richard Bushman and others. When I read Badger’s struggles, I could see that things really aren’t that different, 100 years later.

  5. Great review Nick. I am impressed by your perceptive analysis. I agree that this is a major work that will benefit students of Mormon history. Signature has had an incredible run on producing great books of late.

    Matt, I have read Kathleen’s book and would recommend you read her book before tackling Paulos’. As David G. points out Flake gives the reader a historical setting for the major theological and idealogical changes that occurred during this period of transition. For me, having this background gave me an entirely different perspective on Paulos’ book and an appreciation for Joseph F. Smith’s testimony. This is not to say Paulos’ book is difficult to understand. It is the opposite as Nick’s review points out, Paulos’ gives essential notes that give the reader background and inside information that is both educational and enlightening.

    I would like to comment on Nick’s last paragraph. I think you ask important questions about today. One of the issues that I have found interesting since Romney’s bid for the Presidency is the perception that the church has secrets. The temple and our theology both come to mind. Outsiders continue to ask questions about secrecy and I think rightly so. One example is when GBH made the famous comment on Larry King and then came back to Utah at conference and said “oh don’t worry about that, we know all about that”. To the outsider it looks like we are hiding something. The Smoot hearings are full of this concern by outsiders. It seems to still be an issue.

  6. Thanks for the informative review. I was looking to buy this book and now I will based on your review of it. Did the author cut you in the on the proceeds?

  7. LOL! No, I’m afraid I haven’t managed to supplement my income that way. Besides, author royalties on a history book just aren’t a way to get rich. 😉

    I just like to give credit where credit is due, and encourage good, solid historical writing. Believe me, I’ve written truly condemnatory reviews too, one of which was published in the FARMS Review of Books!

  8. Great review Nick, Congrats. (when you going back to church?)

    I’ve ordered this from Amazon but because it will take some 2 months for the book to reach me, I’d like to ask you quickly: Were those senators who opposed the church mostly from one party? or from the same area ie southern states? Or was it bipartisan?

  9. Nick

    Kind review! It’s tricky for a new author to know what the right amount of footnotes and what the reader will find interesting. I’ve noticed over the years that it is easier for Ron (our managing editor) to cut footnotes from a manuscript, rather than go hunting for them after the fact. Mike worked hard and had some really interesting appendices and notes that simply didn’t make the final cut.

    As a side note, I’ve donated a very early draft of this project to the University of Utah special collections. One interesting appendix that was cut from the final book was a list of all the code words and their translation used by church leaders in their correspondence. I’m sure some researcher will enjoy this effort by Mike.


    Tom Kimball

  10. I agree — Signature’s on a roll. I just picked up The William E. McLellin Papers 1854-1880 — another documentary volume (I’ve only barely started in on it) — and it’s clear I’m going to have to get the Smoot hearings book as well.

  11. Very interesting, Tom!
    If there’s anything I would have recommended to improve this volume, it would have been to include the full transcripts on an accompanying cd. Perhaps the same thing could have been done with the appendices you mention.

  12. Nick

    Tell you what, when the book goes out-of-print after the first printing due to the failure of our marketing department to capitalize on a great project. I’ll just post the hearings on our Signature Books Library website.

    I just finished Matters of Conscience by McMurrin and Jackson and I’m working on A Wilderness of Faith at the moment. Twenty-one free books with footnotes to date.


  13. I am Carl Badger’s great grandson and have always been proud of Carl’s connection to Senator Smoot, but very ignorant about the substance of what they did– I just knew Carl was a respected aide, and that with his Washington connections my grandfather and his 4 brothers were educated gratis at Annapolis or West Point, all fought and one died in WWII, and that Carl ran unsuccessfully for governor of Utah, and was a successful attorney until his untimely death at I believe 65.

    He was related to an early hero of the church, Rodney Badger, sherriff of Great Salt Lake County, who was swept away by icy water on the Weber River trying to save the family of an idiot who insisted on fording with his wife and six kids despite Rodney’s warnings that their wagon was too light to make it.

    Carl was an avid outdoorsman, and threw annual parties he called “Mudpie parties,” for which he published an agenda and gave assigned roles to everybody, no matter how young. He built a little pink china cabinet for my mother which we still have. He at one point owned a huge piece of land near downtown SLC which he sold in about 1924 for the “princely” sum of $85,000 to my grandfather’s lifelong chagrin. He bought one of the first automobiles ever seen in Utah.

    All of his children were LDS and successful; my grandfather Ashby became a wealthy oil executive and apparently one of the toughest, most difficult negotiators the unions ever encountered.

    I have a book of Carl’s journals which I have not yet read and am going to attack now that I have read the material above.

    I have also just ordered Mr. Poulos’ book based on the review and comments made.

    What I really want to understand has nothing to do with the LDS Church– in this past election and current economic crisis I keep hearing that the tariffs on imported goods that Senator Smoot (and presumably Carl) pushed for, and accompanying retaliation by other countries, led almost directly to the Depression, and I want to understand better what Smoot and Badger and their allies were thinking at the time. Do you have any sources you recommend?

  14. One can download all four volumes of the original Proceedings in pdf format from the internet by doing a google search for Proceedings Reed Smoot volume 1, 2, 3, 4

  15. One can download the original Proceedings in their entirety by doing a google search for “Proceedings Reed Smoot volume 1, 2, 3, 4”

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