When National and Faith Leaders Meet

The first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to meet with an American president was Joseph Smith, in 1839. Smith traveled to the nation’s capital to meet with President Martin Van Buren.

Since Joseph Smith, several Mormon leaders have met with U.S. presidents, in Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City. The tenor of these relationships has evolved over time — from civil to respectfully pragmatic to, in some cases, genuinely warm. Misunderstanding and sometimes mistrust likely fueled the atmosphere during early visits, from Smith and Van Buren’s into the 20th century. Mormons were seen as outside the national and religious mainstreams by many Americans, and meetings were probably underpinned by the uncertainty of where the Latter-day Saints fit in the social mosaic — or even if they fit at all. It wasn’t until Mormon apostle Reed Smoot tried to take his seat in the Senate after his election in 1903, amidst a whirlwind of opposition, that those in the capital may have started to see Latter-day Saints as wanting to be part of the national political process.

A half century later, presidents began to include more Mormons in that process, in senior positions in government. Dwight Eisenhower appointed Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson to be his secretary of agriculture, before Benson became the Church’s 13th president. Two members of Richard Nixon’s cabinet were Mormon: David Kennedy, secretary of the treasury; and former Michigan governor George Romney, secretary of housing and urban development. Ronald Reagan’s treasurer in the early 1980s was Latter-day Saint Angela Marie “Bay” Buchanan. Former Utah governor Mike Leavitt currently serves in President Bush’s administration as health and human services secretary. 

Beyond these professional relationships, other presidents have interacted with Mormon leaders. Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are among some of the presidents who have met or, in some instances, developed long-term friendships with Latter-day Saint leaders over the last 50 years. Five presidents have invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing at inaugurations.

Visits to Salt Lake City by the current president of the United States and his recognition of the contributions of former Latter-day Saint leader Gordon B. Hinckley are indicators that Mormons are part of the religious and social landscapes of America. Governments need good citizens who contribute to communities and the nation at large, and Latter-day Saints have a track record of doing that here and elsewhere. From the perspective of many Latter-day Saints, the status quo serves as a reminder that times —and attitudes — have certainly changed.

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