The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle


This book’s title does not do justice to its remarkable contents. BYU Studies readers will recognize Reed Smoot’s name and understand his significance, but too many others, even those well informed about U.S. history, will do little better than to link Senator Smoot with a tariff. Kathleen Flake’s excellent monograph illustrates the significance of religion in the Progressive Era and brilliantly puts it into context by linking it to critical themes, including problems with concentration of power and the contested issues of national identity in a time of immigration, imperialism, and reform.

Flake found a fascinating forum to explore these themes in the investigative hearings inspired by Smoot’s 1903 election to the U.S. Senate. The hearings, which started in 1904 and ended in 1907, saw senators, prompted by constituents, investigate the appropriateness of seating an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Flake skillfully uses these events to show that the so-called Mormon Problem had not been resolved in the 1890s but lingered into the twentieth century. According to Flake, the Smoot hearings prompted the Church to forcefully and truly abandon the practice of plural marriage, thereby becoming a true denominational U.S. citizen. As the Church demonstrated its willingness to abide by social and political norms, the Senate, acting as a proxy for U.S. society, softened its moral crusade against the Church.