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Junius and Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assassination of the First Mormon Prophet
by Fred R. Foister, Robert S. Wicks
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
8/4/2005 6:01:20 PM
It would be too obvious for me to say that we are all complex beings. We all come into our experiences with so much baggage, so many influences swirling around us. And we carry with us our past like just so much excess baggage. I had a friend who liked to say, "If everyone knew everything about my life, thecy would likely forgive me more often than they do."

This is especially true of public figures, those whose every act, every word and every motive are so closely scrutinized by others. Joseph Smith was such a figure. Trying to understand this complex personality requires more than a one-dimensional paean of praise or a simplistic dismissal. To better grasp who and what he was, the student needs to consider him as both actor and acted-upon.

America in the early 1800's was a hotbed of political, religious and social change. "Junius and Joseph" studies the life of the Prophet as it was affected by the volatile political climate of his times. In particular, it presents the thesis that the martyrdom of Joseph Smith can be directly tied to his political influences and ambitions, especially his run for the Presidency.

The authors begin with a fine survey of the major political parties -- the Democrats and the Whigs. A brief table comparing their views aids the reader in understanding their differences; the text enlarges on this, making much of the passionate argumentation that typified the times. Because the Mormons were growing at a healthy rate, and thus constituting an ever-larger segment of the voting population, parties and candidates attempted to win Joseph Smith over to their side, understanding that the Mormon people would likely follow their Prophet's lead into the voting booth.

As the story progresses, we find many leaders of the Church becoming involved in the campaign. It will seem a bit odd to Mormon moderns to see such overt involvement in politics, such plain-speaking advocates for a particular candidacy. The authors make clear that this candidate had aims far higher than the White House:

Without question, the martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith was one of the most significant transitional moments in the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the oft-repeated claim that Joseph Smith was killed for his religion is true, contrary to popular Mormon belief he was not a victim of "persecuted innocence." Joseph's attempt to establish a Mormon theocratic state in America, described in his own words as a theodemocracy -- "where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness" -- was inextricably tied to his belief that he was called to be God's instrument and fulfill the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel. This visionary path, which led him to run for the U.S. presidency, brought him into direct conflict with American republican political ideals, and ultimately resulted in his assassination. (p. 275)

In other words, Joseph, and his supporters, viewed his candidacy as part of the larger agenda of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. His friends were pleased and supportive, but his foes were enraged, and set in motion a series of events that would lead to Joseph's death.

The publication in 1844 of "General Smith's Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States" set forth Joseph's views on government and public policy, and in a way provided a via media between the two major parties. But his higher goals were no secret to the electorate, and the positioning of the fiery Sidney Rigdon as his Vice President signaled to his enemies a coming theocracy, should Smith be elected.

"Junius and Joseph" is a terrific read, providing a richly detailed picture of Joseph Smith, prophet, leader and politician. And it tells a story of a Church not willing to "go along" in order to "get along." There is a vitality to the book, indeed to the Mormon movement, that is impressive and sometimes startling.

"Junius and Joseph" is highly recommended, both as history and as yet another chronicle of a fascinating man, Joseph Smith, Jr.

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Jeff Needle
Association for Mormon Letters