Just finished Kathleen Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2004). The long title pretty much explains the whole book: Reed Smoot, a Mormon Apostle, was elected in 1903 to represent Utah in the US Senate, but a groundswell of opposition from women's groups and Protestant clergy led the Senate to refer the whole matter to its Committee on Privileges and Elections. The Committee then spent four years holding hearings as part of its "investigation" into Smoot, which was, in fact, largely a political attack on the Church as an institution. In the end, it failed, and Smoot took his seat, serving until 1933 and going on to become one of the most powerful and respected members of the Senate. The author uses the book and the Smoot hearings to investigate not the LDS Church but American religion in general during this period. In particular, the book uses the politics of the Smoot hearings to illustrate and highlight the change from 19th-century moral reform movements to 20th-century secular politics dominated by politicians who supported governmental neutrality over Protestant moralizing. God moves in mysterious ways: He used Smoot, TR, and the Republican Party to get the Protestants out of politics and Utah into the Union. Amen and amen.
The preceding paragraph summarizes most of the book, but don't let it cheat you out of a good read. You'll come away with new admiration for Reed Smoot, an upright, sober, hard-working, monogamous Mormon businessman who weathered the storm, waiting out President Roosevelt (who eventually endorsed Smoot), the Senate (which eventually voted to seat him), and the Apostles (who finally, in 1906, came around to expelling John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, two apostles publicly known to have performed post-Manifesto plural marriages). Smoot was the right man at the right time, and once he was seated, the Mormon Problem was settled for good (except for the Protestant clergy, but no one was listening to them anymore).
You'll also learn something about Joseph F. Smith ("remember the F."). He wanted Reed Smoot to be one of Utah's Senators because he wanted an official LDS presence in Washington DC. It was a calculated risk, but it forced the Mormon Problem into a forum where it could be settled once and for all. We lost in Missouri; we lost in Illinois; we lost at the US Supreme Court; but in 1904-07 we won with TR and we won in the Senate, and that was the end of the Mormon Problem.
And you'll learn about Brigadier General Richard W. Young, grandson of Brigham Young and a graduate of both West Point and Columbia Law School. His dedicated service in the Spanish-American War, as well as that of hundreds of LDS soldiers and sailors serving in the US military, made a strong showing at the Senate hearings.
Old Places, New Story
Chapter 5, "Re-Placing Memory," is of particular interest to LDS readers. It does a nice job of explaining Joseph F. Smith's overhaul of the LDS self-image in the wake of the demise of polygamy. In losing polygamy, Mormons lost not just an established doctrine, a central doctrine, but also the LDS patriarchal narrative which tied the LDS community and its senior leadership back through Brigham Young and the pioneer generation to Joseph Smith and the restoration generation. They lost their narrative and they lost their story.
Joseph F. Smith turned to other threads in LDS history to fashion a new LDS story. He used the 100-year anniversary of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s birth to make a cross-country trek with a company of LDS dignitaries to Vermont and publicly dedicate the Joseph Smith Birthplace Monument in December 1905. [In the book, the photo on p. 113 erroneously labels it the "Joseph F. Smith Monument."] Returning to Joseph Smith's roots marked off "the Joseph Smith story," his prophetic calling, and the related themes of revelation and apostolic authority as the focus of the re-visioned LDS story. Flake summarizes: "Joseph F. Smith's efforts to adapt the church to the Progressive Era's demand for change demonstrate clearly that the ideals of revealed knowledge and restored authority constitute the creative and untouchable core of Latter-day Saint belief and identity" (p. 117).
Flake points out that on the way back to Salt Lake City the group visited Palmyra, the Sacred Grove, and Kirtland. They didn't go to Missouri or Nauvoo. That symbolized the intentionally pared-down 20th-century vision pursued by Joseph F. Smith and his successors. It was a rejection of the kingdom vision and the start of the worldwide church.
In August 1906 Smith became the first sitting president to tour the church's European missions. In the course of his travels he encouraged members in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and England not to come to America but to stay and build the church in their own countries. (p. 136.)
Look, this is an outstanding book that you should read if you get the chance. It's a nice complement to Solemn Covenant, which covers the same period with a focus on Utah, LDS leaders, and polygamy. Flake's book focuses on Washington, Smoot, and politics. Read them both and you're covered coast to coast.
[Note: T&S posted an interview with Kathleen Flake last year. Highly recommended.]