Title: 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?