To celebrate Constitution Day, Americans often proclaim their reverence for their nation’s founding document. But to play contrarian, I thought I would highlight some of its discontents.
Mormons today are recognized as some of the most patriotic citizens. And rightfully so: part of their canon of scripture includes God claiming he had “established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” LDS leaders in recent decades have nearly sacralized the document, some saying it is kin to scripture. As part of the Utah region’s merging with American conservative culture, members of the Mormon faith are as committed to the idea of Constitution as much as any other red-blooded patriot.
But that has not always been the case. In fact, the Mormons are one of the few groups in American history who sought to explicitly replace the Constitution with something new.
The year was 1844, and the place was Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons were facing increasing pressure, both internally and externally, from those who believed they were too divergent from acceptable political boundaries. They failed, non-Mormons argued, to assimilate into America’s democratic culture. In response, Joseph Smith and his closest advisors tried any possible mechanism at their disposal. They petitioned federal congress; they explored fragile legal maneuvers; proclaimed Smith’s own presidential candidacy; they organized a clandestine government-in-embryo; and, on April 18th, they debated a new political constitution that would replace America’s fallen polity.
This new constitution took a long time to be written. On March 11th, at the first official gathering for the Council of Fifty, a theocratic political structure organized in Smith’s final year, they resolved “to draft a constitution which should be perfect, and embrace those principles which the constitution of the United States lacked.” A newly-formed committee worked feverishly to meet the demand. The task was harder than they expected. Committee members continually requested more time at the council’s weekly gatherings. It was one thing to critique the Constitution, and another to replace it. At one point William Phelps, a spokesman for the committee, stated “that inasmuch as we have a lawgiver appointed of heaven[,] he was anxious that the committee could have his assistance to prepare the document.” Couldn’t the prophet just reveal the text for a perfected government? Smith demurred, and the committee worked on.
They finally brought a draft of at least a the first portion on April 18th. “We, the people of the Kingdom of God,” it started. The first three words reflected the document they sought to replace, but the following clause represented the revelatory authority upon which their government was to be based. Indeed, their primary critique of the American government was that it lacked “the voice of Jehovah.” Their revised version was bereft of specifics but emphatic on principle: governments were only successful when they were based on God’s authority. No other government “acknowledge[d] the creator of the Universe as their Priest, Lawgiver, King and sovereign,” and they were therefore bound to fail. Besides the extensive condemnation of the world’s apostate empires, the Mormon constitution featured three articles: the first declared God the ruler of all mankind, the second reaffirmed the authority of God’s prophet and priesthood, and the third dictated the necessity of righteous judges who “shall condemn the guilty, and let the innocent go free!” The particulars for governance were absent, but the principles were overwhelming.
But, alas, even that inchoate constitution would not be enough. Unsatisfied with the drafted text, Smith explained that any written constitution would be too rigid to contain the word of God and leadership of his prophets. A week later he dictated a revelation that declared, “ye [the council] are my constitution, and I am your god, and ye are my spokesmen.” God’s kingdom would be governed by priesthood leadership rather than formulated text. Changing circumstances were too fleeting and constant to be met by a single text. Ironically, given modern Mormonism’s conservative bent, Joseph Smith’s political theology held no room for a static originalism. One of the constitution’s authors, Parley Pratt, later said he willing burnt up their feeble attempt. An entire month’s work went up in smoke.
The saints weren’t the only people in American history who critiqued the Constitution for failing to embody God’s word. Evangelicals during the founding period contested it as a “godless constitution.” Both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates claimed the Constitution failed to enshrine god-given rights. When the Confederate States of America was formed, its authors corrected their former government’s wrongs by directly inserting God into their new constitution’s first sentence. On the Union side, petitioners requested Abraham Lincoln to add a “God amendment” to their governing text. There have always been attempts to make the “godless constitution” a little more godly.
But even if popular interpretations of the Constitution, including those from modern-day Mormons, have continuously been tinged with a religious hue, the text itself remains a testament to a particularly secular state. Its origins was part of a revolutionary age that removed governance away from the religious realm and toward a more civic basis for natural rights. Its introduction of religious pluralism and rejection of religious establishment provided the foundations for both a deeply devotional culture, with religious affiliation rates that outpace those in Europe, as well as a profoundly profane political structure. The Constitution has withstood numerous attempts to sacralize it as a divine document, including that by the Mormons in 1844, only to remain resolute in 2017. While clear and present threats indeed surround it in our own day, one can take hope in the challenges that have circled it before.
Joseph Smith was earnest when he believed the Constitution required the presence of the “voice of Jehovah”; however, it appears that America’s vibrant religiosity is dependent upon its absence.
[Some of this text and parts of its context come from my work-in-progress, Democracy’s Discontents: A Story of Politics, Polygamy, and Power in Mormon Nauvoo. I wrote more about the Council of Fifty in this essay. For more on the Mormon constitution, see Nathan Oman’s article in this essay collection. The constitution itself is found in the Council of Fifty minutes, published in this volume.]