Current talk in the media sometimes calls this "The Mormon Moment." A hit musical on Broadway, "The Book of Mormon," has won multiple Tony awards. Posters in busses and on billboards nationwide show pictures of a great variety of people declaring, "I am a Mormon."
Mormons are making headlines -- again. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, and Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, have been running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Though Jon has left the race, his less identifiable Mormonism was as much a part of his persona as Mitt's more tithe-paying traditional look. But this is far from the first time Mormonism and its beliefs have been in the national news. And one of the prime objections of the public to a Mormon in office is "polygamy."
In 1950 my husband completed his Stanford master's thesis on Mormon U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, elected in Utah in 1903. While I vividly remember typing five carbon copies (!) of the 132 pages, I remember even more the riveting details of an investigation that essentially put the Mormon Church on trial before the nation.
Republican Senator Smoot was seated in the Senate in 1903, but powers in Washington were not about to accept the idea of such "mockery of the Constitution," fearing that Smoot was a polygamist and had sworn allegiance to the Mormon Church and against the United States. Not only was Smoot a Mormon, he was in the hierarchy of the Church -- a member of the Twelve Apostles, next to the three in the presidency, and one of the most influential leaders.
For more than three years a subcommittee of the Senate investigated Senator Smoot for the possibility of his being a polygamist. This in spite of the fact that polygamy had been banned by proclamation of the President of the Mormon Church before Utah became a State in 1896. Smoot was not and never had been a polygamist. But suspicion reigned.
In that investigation, Smoot presented his defense; witnesses were called -- even the president of the Mormon Church -- to verify his non-polygamous standing. According to historian Kathleen Flake:
"The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses. The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day's admission and outrage."