My first formal political activity was as a fourth grader in 1968, working for the election of Richard Nixon and to defeat “liquor by the drink,” Utah’s hottest local issue that year.
My assignment was to work after school and through the evening of Election Day, running lists from poll workers at Sandy’s Alta View Elementary to a neighbor, who distributed names to workers who in turn telephoned Republicans who had not yet voted, urging them to get to the polls. We won. I was sure then that my contribution made all the difference.
I registered to vote on my 18th birthday, as soon as I was eligible, after the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age. I registered as a Republican, of course. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. “Republican” was as much a part of my identity as “Mormon,” “library card holder” and “Utahn” (despite having moved elsewhere by then).
“Republican” remained my identity for years — despite growing unease with right-wing talk radio and National Rifle Association entanglements and post-9/11 issues. Finally, during the second George W. Bush administration, I did what I should have done many years earlier: I changed my registration to “independent.” I do not expect to give loyalty to any political party ever again.
That transition was hard. So hard. So much harder than it should have been. It meant more than a slowly growing political consciousness. It was a clear break with my family and what I thought was my heritage. It felt like a break with my Latter-day Saint faith, and with congregants whose comments assumed everyone in the room was a die-hard Republican, and with the ward member who hissed the name “Barack Husssssein Obama” over the pulpit as if the then-Illinois senator were evil personified.
That political break might have been easier had I been more familiar with the political history of Utah and the Latter-day Saints.
Politics in early Utah
In the early days of the Utah Territory, politics was extremely local, since residents of U.S. territories could not vote in national elections. Utahns could not elect their own governors, or most other territorial officers. We could send a nonvoting delegate to Congress, but that delegate was merely a lobbyist advocating Utah’s interests to the House and Senate. We could elect our own Territorial Legislature, but its laws had to be approved by Congress.
Utah’s non-Mormon sector grew rapidly after the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, and those new arrivals found themselves at odds with existing political and economic systems. To strengthen their political organization, non-Mormon Utahns organized the Liberal Party in 1870; Latter-day Saints quickly countered by establishing the People’s Party. Neither party had a national presence: Non- and anti-Mormons affiliated with other parties in other territories; the People’s Party extended to Latter-day Saint settlements in Idaho and Arizona but exercised power only insofar as the voting bloc could win concessions from others.
It’s safe to say that in 1880s Utah, a man’s political identification with the People’s Party was as strong as his religious identification as a Latter-day Saint. And while not all non-Mormons were anti-Mormons, the anti-Mormon Liberal Party, working with national interests to control Utah power and wealth, was the most visible opposition to Mormonism.
Something had to change if Utah were ever to be admitted as a state. Even the beginning of the end of polygamy with the issuance by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of “the Manifesto” in 1890 was not enough. Both national parties, Republican and Democratic, wanted to know what support they could depend on from a new state in Utah.
Liberals seemed solidly in the Republican camp no matter the party name.
Some Latter-day Saint leaders openly supported the Republicans as the national party in the best position to grant political favors in exchange for Utahns’ support — but many, perhaps most, of the rank-and-file members of the faith favored the Democrats, in part because it had been chiefly Republicans who had most recently imposed draconian measures in Utah, forcing so many men into exile, and impoverishing the territory and its people.
The debate over where the people of the People’s Party would go, should that party be dissolved, became a leading question in May 1891 immediately after the friendly visit to Utah of President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican.
The myth of partisan callings from the pulpit
That such a debate could be settled merely by telling Latter-day Saints to follow their own preferences between Republican and Democrat seems too, well, ordinary. Surely the faith’s leaders made that decision for their flock? And surely that decision must have been imposed on them. The oft-repeated tale has it that leaders stood before congregations and ordered those seated to the right to become Republicans, and those seated to the left to become Democrats?
There is no substantial contemporary evidence — no unambiguous mention in ward minutes, no reporting of such divisions in local newspapers — to confirm that legend, which is, frankly, insulting to the intelligence and self-determination of any people. It also contradicts the documentary evidence that Latter-day Saints were, with few exceptions, encouraged to follow their own political leanings:
Records such as the George Q. Cannon journal (freely available online) show that leaders like Cannon discussed the political landscape with a great many visitors who called for any reason at the Gardo House (church President Wilford Woodruff’s official residence and office). Some, like Latter-day Saint apostle John Henry Smith, an enthusiastic Republican, were encouraged to proceed with their efforts to organize Republican clubs in Utah. Others, like John T. Caine, Utah’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, generally known in Washington to have Democratic leanings, were welcome to join that party. Apostle Franklin D. Richards, who leaned Democratic, was, however, encouraged not to declare his party preference for the time being — as chairman of the People’s Party, his immediately joining either party could have unfair influence upon the members of the People’s Party.
The People’s Party dissolved in June 1891, its former members joining the Republicans or Democrats, according to their preference. From that point, through most of the 20th century, Utah’s Democrats and Democratic positions have sometimes been ascendant, while Republicans took leadership at other eras and on other topics.
Now, in June 2023, the faith’s governing First Presidency again feels the need to advise Latter-day Saints in the United States to consider their political affiliations in the best interest of little-d democracy. Just as in 1891, the top church leaders do not direct the flock to lend support to or withhold support from any particular party. As in the past, they urge voters to carefully study candidates and issues, and to cast their votes according to that study. What is different now is the warning that voting by “tradition” or straight-party support “is a threat to democracy.”
It may be difficult for many to follow that counsel — to vote, at least occasionally, against what they have long felt to be their identity. I know that. It was hard for me. Those who do accept that counsel will face opposition from family, neighbors, church members and others who matter to them. Democracy is worth that hardship. Those hard choices are our heritage.
Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.
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