News Release

Elder and Sister Renlund Say Joseph Smith Helped Strengthen American Democracy

Insights of Prophet’s life shared at BYU conference

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say the Prophet Joseph Smith helped strengthen democracy in the United States in the 19th century.  

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Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Ruth Lybbert Renlund, were keynote speakers on Tuesday, June 15, at the 2021 Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University. This year’s event was held virtually.  

The Renlunds centered their remarks on how Joseph Smith, as a religious leader, contributed to the strengthening of American democracy.

“We can see both the promise of the lofty goals and the results of the omissions and compromises that were made in drafting the U.S. Constitution. The freedoms promised to all were not available to all,” said Sister Renlund, a senior fellow at BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

In preparing their remarks, Elder Renlund explained that they “relied heavily” on information contained in Volume 14 of “The Joseph Smith Papers,” which is being prepared for publication, and historical context provided by Church historians.

Struggle for Religious Freedom

“The history surrounding the founding of the United States is simultaneously inspiring and infuriating,” Sister Renlund said. “The liberties claimed for all were not enforced for all. And the security promised to all was not protected for all.”

Elder Renlund said that Joseph Smith and early Church members were among the many people who “experienced the contradictions.”

Sister Renlund pointed out that, despite guarantees provided in the U.S. Constitution, the early Saints struggled to practice their religious beliefs without interference.

“Church members were prevented from physically gathering and establishing roots in a geographical location of their choosing due to repeated forced evacuations,” said Elder Renlund. “From New York to Ohio and from Missouri to Illinois, persecution and unlawful arrests followed Joseph Smith and other Church leaders.”

Joseph Smith for President

Once the Latter-day Saints settled in Illinois, their votes were sought as their membership increased to 25,000 in the state.

“Regional and national politics played a significant role in Joseph Smith’s life during the August 1843 election cycle,” Sister Renlund said.

She described how Joseph Smith had written to the five U.S. presidential candidates, asking what they could do to help the Saints remedy the legal wrongs they had suffered. Two did not respond and three said they would not do anything.

“With frustration mounting, leaders of the Church met and encouraged Joseph to run for the United States presidency,” Sister Renlund described.

Elder Renlund said Joseph Smith was not eager to enter the political arena; however, he took a “principled stand” and declared his candidacy on January 29, 1844. The Prophet composed a 12-page pamphlet for the race with the assistance of publisher W.W. Phelps.

Joseph Smith’s political platform outlined a plan to improve the U.S. government and the lives of its citizens.

“It included several proposals for reform, including constitutional, economic and social measures. Specifically mentioned are minority rights, a national bank, the criminal justice system, the abolition of slavery and territorial expansion,” Sister Renlund explained.

She said the Saints suffered terrible losses in the banking collapse of the 1830s, when the Kirtland Safety Society Bank was among hundreds of banks across the country that failed.

Joseph Smith also advocated for prison reform and an end to slavery.

“I think his own experience of being arrested and jailed on various occasions must have given him a clear view of the unfairness inherent in the prison system,” Elder Renlund said.

“His campaign was part of a larger effort to pursue legal avenues that might result in the protection of the Church and its members,” Sister Renlund said.

“Joseph’s campaign was cut short due to his death. His campaign was intended to muster sympathy for the Church’s cause and give the Saints an agreeable candidate in the election,” the apostle explained.

Joseph Smith was the first American presidential candidate to be assassinated.

“Joseph’s assassination demonstrated the point of his campaign — that democratic rights for people to practice their religion had been completely ignored — and it cost him his life. His very approach to democracy is one that is still being debated and examined today,” Sister Renlund said.

“Anyone who qualifies, under law, to participate should be encouraged to do so, especially minorities, religious or other,” Elder Renlund stated.

“I am grateful for the rich legacy in this Church of promoting democratic freedom for all,” Sister Renlund concluded.

Watch the entire keynote address on YouTube. (Remarks begin at 30:23.)

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