B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith

FPR would like to thank Christopher Carroll Smith for this guest post. Chris is an emerging Mormon Studies scholar out of Claremont Graduate University, in the tradition of Jan Shipps.

B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy, is better known for his efforts as an apologist than as a politician, but this is a man who was regarded by some of his contemporaries as the most prominent Democratic orator in the state of Utah. Roberts, in fact, was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1898, but the House refused to seat him because he was a practicing polygamist. Roberts also played an important role in shaping the state constitution when Utah was admitted to the Union.

In addition to his influence, Roberts was significant for his sheer unconventionality. He earned ecclesiastical censure on more than one occasion for openly opposing the brethren’s use of ecclesiastical influence to advance the Republican cause. Roberts regarded such behavior as nothing short of “damnable,” and he wasn’t afraid to say so in public editorials. In his mind, the principles of the Democratic party were “self-existent;” “eternal as God is, and . . . no more to be created by man than gravitation.”

So with that in mind, I’d like to briefly summarize a few of Roberts’s political positions, which I think provide a fascinating counterpoint to the political talking points we usually associate with the Mormon faithful. (The following summary is based on D. Craig Mikkelsen, “The Politics of B. H. Roberts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9, no. 2 [Summer 1974]: 25-43.)

Economic Justice

A major early issue for Roberts was the limitation of corporate power. “One great evil that threatens our land and which promises to overthrow the institutions of our country more than any other danger,” he wrote, “is that of corporate power, and unless a limit be placed upon the lines of business in which these corporations may engage, there is no end to the evil that may result from the building up of these mighty corporations.” Roberts wanted the state constitution to include anti-monopoly provisions and a ban on state subsidies of private enterprise, “warning that otherwise legislators would be incessantly courted by men begging public aid to build private fortunes.”

Later, in the early 1930s, Roberts embraced the doctrine of socialism: “a new economic policy, for a new age, to take the place of the capitalistic system and its spirit, wherein shall exist more equality and more justice than in the age now passing; a policy wherein there will be a more consistent division of the profits of the conjoint products of capital and labor than heretofore; where the wealth produced by that conjoint effort shall not forever flow into the possession of the ‘one,’ while the ninety and nine’ have but empty hands!” In other words, we are the 99%.

Legal Alcohol

Roberts was a staunch opponent of any effort to legislatively prohibit alcohol. In his view, prohibition compromised free agency. “There is no identity between the L.D.S. Church’s Word of Wisdom and what is known as Prohibition,” he wrote. “The former rests upon persuasion. … The other, State Prohibition, should be enforced with fines, imprisonment and often it has proven to be at the cost of life.” If the Church turned the enforcement of sobriety over to the state, it would “grossly depart from the high moral and spiritual grounds upon which its supplanted Word of Wisdom has been placed by the Almighty.”

In addition to compromising agency, prohibition also compromised respect for the law. Because they are easily evaded, such statutes “teach a community to disregard law,” which is “a greater evil even than the evil you attempt to crush by law.” In these comments, made prior to the passage of Prohibition at the national level, Roberts showed extraordinary foresight. History would bear him out, as America’s cities found themselves torn by gang violence and other crime linked to the illicit trade in alcohol.

Peace through Internationalism and Disarmament

Roberts regarded World War I as “the most righteous and holy of wars,” because he was confident that it would result in the suppression of nationalism and the dawn of the age of peace prophesied by Isaiah. In 1918, Roberts traveled around Utah preaching in favor of joining the League of Nations, while J. Reuben Clark and Reed Smoot traveled around preaching the opposite. When the nation eventually voted not to join the League, Roberts felt it had defied the will of God. In his view, it was “the duty of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to put forth every effort within their power to further the probability of the limitation of armaments among the nations of the earth.”

Figurehead for the Mormon Left?

I think what I find most striking about Roberts’s views on each of these issues is that they were so deeply and profoundly informed by his religious principles. Ordinarily we associate progressive politics with secularism, but there have, of course, been efforts over the years to build a “Christian left” on the foundation of a “social gospel”. Roberts, I think, points the way toward a social gospel with a uniquely Mormon tenor, and the potential for a Left as conscientiously Mormon as Cleon Skousen’s Right.

Tell me how wrong I am in the comments!

24 Replies to “B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith”

  1. My one political qualm with B.H. is he opposed suffrage. [Edited] Other than that, he makes some great points.

  2. Yeah, that’s true. In his defense, part of the reason he opposed women’s suffrage was that he feared it would be an obstacle to the ratification of Utah statehood. He also viewed the Brethren’s support for suffrage as cynically motivated, since it would double the power of the voting bloc the Brethren controlled. But he also totally bought into the usual stuff about how women’s place is in the home, and they shouldn’t be sullying their delicate virtue by participating in politics, etc.

  3. Christopher Smith,

    Thanks you very much for this. B.H. sounds like my kind of liberal. I particularly love that he was an internationalist. Though he also shared with Wilson a blind spot when it came to women’s sufferage.

    Can Roberts serve as a counter to the likes of Skousen and Benson? I have given up on that front.

  4. I have always admired B.H Roberts on an intellectual, political and spiritual level.

    I agree that his opposition to Women’s Suffarage from the perspective of 2012 is his most disturbing position.

    There is an interesting story about how President Kimball got his first name.

    President Kimball’s father Andrew and B.H Roberts were good friends They had worked together
    when Andrew was President in the Indian Mission in Oklahoma and B.H Roberts was on the council of the 70.

    Both B.H. Roberts and Andrew Kimball were delgates to the Utah Consitiutional Convention of 1895.
    Andrew Kimball and his wife were expecting a child while the convention was in session. Andrew had planned to name the child Roberts if he was a boy( this was in the days before ultra sound)

    B.H. Roberts gave an impassioned speech against Women’s Suffarage which even his opponents admitted was a great speech.

    When President Kimball was born his mother informed Andrew Kimball that there was no way that her son would be named after such a male chauvinist as B.H. Roberts. Andrew wisely defered to his wife and the 12th President of the Church was named Spencer instead of Roberts.

    This story is told in both the biolography of Spencer W, Kimball and the recently published biography of Andrew both by president kimball’s son and grandson.

  5. Interesting how Roberts opposed the prohibition of alcohol because of compulsion, but didn’t see the appropriation and redistribution of wealth through socialism to be based on compulsion as well. How does one square that circle?

    1. Tom,

      Thinkers from Rousseau to Thomas Paine to John Stuart Mill to John Rawls have viewed economic well-being and social equality as a condition of individual liberty. From what Christopher wrote, it appears that Robert’s socialism was in the form of a critique of capitalist cruelty. Think Grapes of Wrath.

  6. B. H. Roberts was not an apostle. He was a member of the First Council of the Seventy, a general authority, but not a member of the twelve.

  7. Tom, I don’t think Roberts was opposed to all coercion on principle. Rather, he was opposed to coercively imposing on the whole society something that the Lord had established as a voluntary test of obedience and marker of Mormon identity.

    I am not a socialist and would not go as far down the redistributive road as Roberts wanted to go, but American political theory (i.e. social contract theory) generally recognizes that a degree of coercion is legitimate if it achieves a “public good” that outweighs the loss of individual liberty. As James Wilson put it, a citizen will will “gain more by the limitation of other men’s freedom, than he can lose by the dimunition of his own.” I think Roberts would say that because of the difficulty of enforcing liquor laws, there is no public good to be gained by them. By contrast, he felt socialism would bring about a tremendous public good in the form of equality and economic justice.

  8. Mark: Yikes! You’re right! Good catch. I don’t have editing privileges but maybe Cheryl can make that correction.

  9. On economics, the first paragraph could be out of any modern conservative platform and not look out of place. Anti-monopoly policies, limiting public aid to all private business less the legislature hand out gobs of pork and preferential laws are pretty standard fare on the right. The limits on corporations are not in the legal right agenda, but the economic realities have forced many companies to split or sell off parts in order to gain focus. The invisible hand is doing some of this. The second paragraph is way to the left and unlike his prohibition warnings, it has not shown “extraordinary foresight” (other than the 99% shtick).

    The prohibition and international policy parts have both modern conservative and liberal advocates. These are still debated as policy options today.

  10. It is to be funny — or very, very sad. In my reading of the BoM, I find more sympathy for the poor, and more demand to help them than is found in today’s right wing. And yet, my T___ P____ friends at church staunchly proclaim that the BoM supports their politics. I don’t really think that modern American politics were a major concern of either Saint Paul or Saint Alma. To try and force scripture, written thousands of years ago, to say something in support of a person’s current political view is to place that political view above the gospel. And we see a lot of that from Mormons to Methodists. There is another internet posting about Joseph Smith the Socialist, which is closer to the truth than a good many want to know. The plain fact is that the first generation of Church leaders were predominately born working men (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff). The second generation was clerical/office workers (Heber Grant). The third generation was professional and executive, as well as men who had grown up in the church bureaucracy (Gordon Hinckley, Thomas Monson). The change in social and economic status necessarily is reflected in their assumptions. What the assumptions are of a Latter-day saint who has made millions off of questionable schemes (at least, if I were to do them, I would have to question whether my own religion was Mormonism or Mammonism) is something I cannot even begin to contemplate. (And I, personally, put much of the blame on the “Gang of Three” — Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce McConkie, and Ezra Taft Benson — for the lurch to the right of the political spectrum so far as the “Mormon mindset” is concerned. And, while there are many things I do not appreciate regarding Harry Reid’s positions, I imagine Brother Reid feels rather lonely being pelted by those who pay more attention to Pope Limbaugh, Cardinal Savage, and Abbess Coulter than to President Monson or Elder Oakes.)

  11. With regard to the “lurch to the right”, a lot of that happened during the Roberts era. When the Church dissolved the “People’s Party” after the Manifesto, Mormons began sorting into the national political parties. Most of them, it seems, joined the Democrats. Republican John Henry Smith had to be sent out to stump to show you could be a Mormon and a Democrat. But the situation almost completely reversed within a couple decades due to the overt Republican advocacy of President Smith, Reed Smoot, and others.

  12. Sorry, I meant to say “Republican John Henry Smith had to be sent out to stump to show you could be a Mormon and a Republican.”

  13. Orson F. Whitney were good griends and both served as General Authorities. Both were Democrats and the leaders in the debate over sufferage in the constitutional convention. Elder Whitney was married to Reed Smoots sister. The likely agreed on most issues politically yet on thi issue the were polar opposits. Nonetheless they were united in the on other issues as General Authorities. I think that is a powerful message about disagreeing with our political opponents and yet maintaining mutual love and respect. It is quite amusing to read Whitney’s and Robert’s autobiographies and read how they each viewed the sufferage debate. Not surprisingly they both thought they had won the debate. Robert’s quotes the Tribune – “Robert’s annihilates the suffragists. . . Whitney disposed of . . . .” Likewise, Whitney quotes the Herald – “Robert’s courage was turned to ridicule. Whitney held the convention. . . .”)

  14. With regards to the Word of Wisdom it probably also reflects the view in the 19th century that is was something you should do but didn’t necessarily have huge ramifications for society if you didn’t. Thus there were quite a few who didn’t follow it. As I recall B. H. Roberts himself struggled with alcohol at times in his life that perhaps influenced his views.

  15. B.H. Roberts, like many in this thread, was a brilliant liberal thinker. Like many in this thread, B.H. Roberts confused politics with religion.

  16. The idea that politics is a separate sphere of discourse from religion is a relatively recent one in Mormon history. After all, this is the religion that founded an independent theocratic kingdom in the West. Not that I have a problem with keeping the two separate, mind you. But there’s nothing self-evident about the claim that religion is apolitical. In the Mormon case, they basically had to be depoliticized at the end of an American musket. In other words, the boundary between religion and politics is one that the American people have created and maintained through force of will rather than logical necessity.

  17. As a life-long member, it almost saddens me to think that there are members who are not content to simply be split into political factions in the public sphere, but now desire to split us into political factions in the secular sphere. Is there really, when all is said and done, a “Roberts/Reid” wing of the Church? Or a “Skousen/Benson” wing of the Church? Or are we all not Latter-day Saints? I suppose I can comfort myself with the thought that men are men; they will believe politically what they want to believe and find a way to justify those beliefs through their theology (because for every Skousen thought which he claimed was backed by theology, Reid has made similar proclamations– Most recently his declaration “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it”). At the end of the day, we all sit in the same chapel, take the same sacrament, and worship the same God.

  18. I love the B.H.Roberts quote. Thank you.
    I always wonder which Book of Mormon or Bible the people read, when they say that taxation is stealing and all redistribution is wrong. “They’re taking my money and giving to lazy slobs”.
    Because anyone who’s poor, unemployed or ill, is just a lazy slob who’d be allright, if they’d just get off their arses and get going.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *