Why would Joseph Smith run for the United States presidency in the 1844 election? Surely, he was a most improbable candidate. Surely, as the prophet who ushered in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, built cities that he hoped could become Zion, and saw church membership grow to some 25,000 during his lifetime, he had enough to do. His responsibilities were already staggering.

As the leader of a demonstrably vilified and persecuted group, his chances of success were certainly slim.

The answer to that compelling question is analyzed in Spencer W. McBride’s new book Joseph Smith for President. This thoroughly researched, richly detailed and lively book opensan eloquent door to the past, both to why Joseph Smith would make such an unlikely move and to the deep-set problems surrounding religious freedom in the nation that had penned it into the First Amendment.

Those who have not studied the Missouri persecutions closely may have only the vaguest idea of the degree of violence, cruelty and danger foisted upon the Saints, not just by mobsters who hated them, but by all the force of the state, willing to put its mechanisms of power to bear on persecuting and even seeking to eliminate a minority group.

When we see the persecution of the Missouri period in film or hear about it in talks, we can lightly brush over it with a few strokes. The Latter-day Saints were driven from their homes, and then driven again, and from the comfort of our homes we acknowledge that it was so sad, but we do not participate in the terror.

It was much more than so sad. Before the municipal court in Nauvoo in 1843, Hyrum Smith gave a sworn statement about the persecutions, and the details he supplies are chilling. We know that at least 19 were massacred at Haun’s Mill. What is less well-known is that it was not random mobsters, but, a division of the state militia, some two hundred strong, that executed these people, “official” bullets whizzing through the woods to cut them down as children were playing on what had been a peaceful afternoon. Just the day before, Nehemiah Comstock, who led this militia had assured protection to the people of Haun’s Mill. The next day, now with the governor’s extermination order in force, he had full opportunity and a seal of approval under the law to act on his prejudices and hatred and gun down an innocent people.

Hyrum said, “One Mr. Carey had his brains knocked out by the breech of a gun, and he lay bleeding several hours, but his family were not permitted to approach him, nor anyone else allowed to administer relief to him whilst he lay upon the ground in the agonies of death. Mr. Carey had just arrived in the country, from the state of Ohio, only a few hours previous to the arrival of the army.”

Rape, murder, destroying fields and animals to drive Latter-day Saints to the brink of starvation was all a part of the scene.  Lucy Mack Smith said of the three-thousand strong state militia who came to Far West, “My son-in-law Mr. McLeary went out with some others to meet the mob and ascertain what their business was. They gave the messengers to understand that they would soon commence an indiscriminate butchery of men, women, and children, that their orders were to convert Far West into a human slaughter pen and never quit it while there was a lisping babe or a decrepit old woman.”

Of course, Joseph would seek how to protect his people against such violent hostility. The state not only did not protect them. it instigated it. In that effort to protect the people, testimonies were taken, redress petitions drawn up, with the hope that the federal government could intervene and be of help. Surely there was a way to stop this brutality.

Joseph came to learn that their best efforts to find protection or protect themselves, as a hated minority, was of no avail. On November 19, 1839, Joseph met with President Martin Van Buren, hoping for help, and he received a classic, self-serving reply. One version of that is “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” With the election coming, he did not want to lose the vote of Missouri, by siding with the Latter-day Saints. Despite his sell out for the cause of justice, Van Buren lost both in Missouri and in the nation in the 1840 election.

Next, the Latter-day Saint’s redress petition went to Congress. When it came to the Senate floor, Senator Lewis Linn, a Democrat from Missouri not only opposed it, but declared that “A sovereign State seemed about to be put on trial.” The Saints’ petition next found its place in the Senate Judiciary committee, which did not take up the horrible injustice or merits of the issue, but instead discussed if they had any jurisdiction in the matter.

After two weeks, they decided that they didn’t and the official report said, “The wrongs complained of are not alleged to be committed by any officers of the United States, the Mormons should apply to the justice and magnanimity of the State of Missouri—an appeal which the committee feel justified in believing will never be made in vain the injured or oppressed.”

In other words, Congress referred the Latter-day Saints for protection and redress to the very people who had issued an extermination order upon them and still had it in place. This was not just insulting, but an evidence of how little protection they could hope for in any situation going forward. Many of the people who built Nauvoo had already been expelled from their homes, two, three and even four times, and knew their vulnerability to lose everything including their lives.

The next four years, Joseph and the Saints sent petitions to Congress in vain. Where could they look for any security? As Americans, how had the words of the Founding be so completely abandoned for them? Joseph, who knew that the Constitution was inspired of God certainly saw the nation as being in decline from its divine origins.

To protect the Latter-day Saints from destruction, Joseph and the leaders in Nauvoo, sought a charter for their city, which they obtained, that outlined powers of government. The mayor had executive power and the city council was granted legislative duties. The charter had provisions for creating a municipal court. When the charter was granted, they thought “Those days of darkness and gloom have gone by.”

McBride notes, “His experience as a leader of a religious minority group had impressed upon Smith the importance of the freedom of conscience and a strong sense that such freedom must be protected and fostered by governments.

“To Smith, religious freedom was more than a theoretical acknowledgement of the right of men and women to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. Real religious freedom required the religious majority to defend—and even facilitate—the worship of others.”

This was bold and advanced thinking for the time. The current in the nation was different–and it wouldn’t be long until the people of Illinois would turn against the Latter-day Saints as well. McBride notes, “Men in the state had long prided themselves on their ability to suppress unwanted minority groups in order to gain or maintain land and power….Illinoians wishing to rise to power in the young state knew that the quickest and surest way to make names for themselves was to excel in violently putting down unwanted minority groups.”

This notion was not merely implied in the nation. “As early as 1812, John C. Calhoun, then a member of the United States House of Representatives, warned about the growth of fanaticism in the form of religious superstition. Unorthodox beliefs would lead to a ’fearful retrograde in civilization’ and ‘dreadful declension toward barbarism.’…If the general public and elected officials in the federal governments saw the Mormons as religious fanatics, they might deem the Missouri [and later Illinois] persecutions as a justified—even necessary—expulsion of a threat to American society,” noted McBride.

He notes, “While conversations about religious intolerance in the present-day United States have long been framed as secular versus religious, the country’s history reveals systems of religious discrimination designed, installed, and maintained by members of religious majorities.

“In the case of the Catholics—and the Mormons—in nineteenth-century America, the discrimination and violent persecution they experienced was often condoned, and at other times instigated, by Christians who deemed the groups too different from mainline Protestantism—too fanatical—to deserve their constitutionally protected rights of conscience. To many Americans in this religious majority, defending religious freedom meant defending their own rights to worship—freedom for certain types of Protestants, but certainly not for all Americans.”

As time passed in Nauvoo, McBride notes, “While the increasingly powerful Mormons and their increasingly hostile neighbors fought over the rights and duties required in a democratic society, one thing was abundantly clear to Smith: the prospect of mob violence was now a clear and present threat. The safeguards that city and church leadership had installed against its return were stressed, desperate for reinforcement. The Mormons’ city, their rights—and maybe even their lives were at stake.”

By November 1843, the Latter-day Saints were facing opposition from both the Democrats and the Whigs, and in their own Hancock County, a political party that called themselves the Anti-Mormons had organized to expel them from the state. Certainly, one of the major issues was the fear of the growing power of Latter-day Saints politically and a sense that their religion was a threat, a fearful undermining of their religious sensibilities.

Five well-experienced and seasoned politicians were running for president in the 1844 election: Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass and Richard Johnson. The Latter-day Saint leaders decided to send letters to all five candidates asking them to address the question of how they stand by the constitutional law of the United States to fully protect minorities like the Latter-day Saints from persecution. They wanted to know what federal guarantees were possible in this land where the Bill of Rights did not yet impact the states. Joseph certainly saw states’ rights as mob rights.

Two, Van Buren and Johnson, chose to ignore the letters, and the three who wrote back obviously had no intention of dealing with the persecution of the Saints. Calhoun and Cass sounded the same words in refusing to give help to the Mormons if they were elected, basically saying it wasn’t a case for the federal government.  Henry Clay said that he had “sympathized in their sufferings under injustice”, but he insisted on going into the presidency “free and unfettered, with no guarantees but such as are to be drawn from my whole life, character and conduct.”

Joseph Smith wrote back, “Your answer to my inquiry…has been under consideration since last November, in the fond expectation, that you would give…to the country, a manifesto of your views of the best method and means which would secure to the people, the whole people, the most freedom, the most happiness, the most union, the most wealth, the most fame, the most glory at home, and the most honor abroad, at the least expense; but I have waited in vain.”

Joseph lumped Henry Clay in with all governmental leaders “who rather than act to protect the citizenship rights of the Mormons already living in the United States, had suggested they relocate to the Oregon Territory.”

It seemed the only option left was to run for president. Smith had not anticipated taking this on this role, “but the role was thrust upon him in his desperation to combat a system that fostered religious intolerance, and at times, violent persecution. This desperation brought him to contribute to the growing movement toward popular constitutionalism in the country, arguing passionately for the adaptation of the Constitution to the needs of the citizenry,” McBride said.

The story of Joseph’s run, the nation’s response to him as a candidate, and the tragic end in assassination is woven through McBride’s book making compelling reading and, for me, adding to my admiration of Joseph’s supreme efforts and costly sacrifice to protect the Latter-day Saints.

He was living in a political system that could not or would not protect the Latter-day Saints from extraordinary persecution—or even raise the sympathy of the majority of citizens. Later, when another unwanted group—abolitionists—moved into slave-holding Missouri, there was an excuse for the same treatment.

McBride said, “Missouri officials—including a sitting United States Senator—had turned the word ‘Mormon’ into a verb. They had used a mixture of militia and mob violence to drive out the Mormons—and they got away with it. Knowing that the federal government would not intervene emboldened the state and allowed their expulsion of the Mormons to serve as a blue-print for the treatment of other unwanted groups. They would simply ‘Mormonize’ them. In this instance, ‘the states rights doctrines’ really had fed mobs.”

He summed up: “So, when we talk about the political obstacles to universal religious freedom in nineteenth-century America—as well as in the present—we are not merely talking about a list of overly discriminatory laws or public policies of philosophies of government. We are also talking about the way Americans use seemingly neutral policies to enact and maintain discrimination against minority groups. Some do so out of ignorance, unaware of the way their political devotion is abridging the rights of some of their fellow citizens. Some may do so to defend inaction, as a way of claiming that their hands are tied. Still other may use these laws as a thin veil covering their prejudice against one religious minority group or another.

“Joseph Smith ran for president because he recognized this problem. He fought religious bigotry, but he knew that the fight was against more than just religious bigots. The fight was also against the systems of governance that empowered and ultimately protected such bigotry. Through his candidacy Smith promoted the idea that, as important as rooting out prejudice and misunderstanding was to his cause, Americans would never experience true universal religious freedom until they could also address the flaws in their laws and government that maintained such systemic inequality.”