10 questions with Derek Sainsbury

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Derek Sainsbury reveals new details about Joseph Smith’s campaign for president of the United States.

Who is Derek Sainsbury?

Derek Sainsbury: Thanks for asking and for doing this interview! I grew up on the west side of Salt Lake Valley in a nominally Latter-day Saint working class family. My parents divorced when I was 12 and as the oldest of 8 that meant I grew up pretty fast. We had to move around a lot and experienced emotional trauma and instability.

My senior year in high school two people changed my life: my seminary teacher, and a cute girl across the hall from my locker. The teacher brought me to Christ, and the girl brought me love. After a while, I decided to serve a Latter-day Saint mission and went to Italy.

When I returned home, I married the girl—my high-school sweetheart Meredith Pettit— earned my bachelor’s in political science, and became a seminary teacher myself. I decided I wanted to do for others what Pete Sundwall did for me. I’ve had a wonderful 26-year career teaching tens of thousands of amazing people. During that time, we had three boys, Briant, Nathan, and Joshua and I have loved watching them grow up. Meredith beat cancer eight times. She is really amazing. I also received a Masters of Public Administration.

As far as history, my dad gave me a love of military history when I was young. By the time I was ten, I had several books on Pearl Harbor and had memorized all the facts. In high school, I had a history teacher named Mrs. Peacock for two years. I was not the best behaved student, yet she really believed in me and I fell in love with history itself. In the back of my head, I made a goal to get a Ph.D. in history. That goal finally came true when I finished my doctorate in 2016 at the University of Utah.

It took 14 years, because of my wife’s health problems and other issues, but I finally finished with the help and encouragement of my dissertation chair Robert Goldberg, who is, by the way, one of the best individuals I’ve ever met.

Introduce Storming the Nation: The Unknown Contributions of Joseph Smith’s Political Missionaries.

Derek Sainsbury: Storming the Nation tells the story of Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, particularly the 600-plus political missionaries (or electioneers) who canvassed the country for him. It analyzes the political principles and persecutions that brought Joseph to decide to run.

Also, it looks at these electioneers and asks:

  • Who were they before the campaign?
  • What did they do and experience during the campaign?
  • How did the assassination of Joseph (a little spoiler there!) help forge them into this cadre of activists for Joseph’s Zion ideal?
  • Who did they become after the campaign?

I spend a decade scouring journals, newspapers, censuses, books, you name it, to learn all I could about this group of missionaries. So, I have this huge database of information. I could have written an 800-page book easily, but I think the current version is more practical and engaging.

My website www.stormingthenation.com is publishing more information over time, including bios on each of the missionaries. I am also posting each day to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram what happened that day in the 1844 campaign. So political and history junkies like me can “live” the campaign as it happens.

What is the backstory for Storming the Nation?

Derek Sainsbury: Storming the Nation came from a quandary I experienced as an undergraduate. I read somewhere—I can’t even remember where—that Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States. I remember thinking, “What? How come I’ve never heard this? Isn’t the church politically neutral?”

Over the years, I read what I could find about it, but honestly there was not much, and none of it really answered my questions. They mostly treated the campaign as an obscure footnote to Mormon history.

So when I started my Ph.D., I did a graduate paper on it and Dr. Goldberg suggested I focus on the political missionaries that were sent out. That paper eventually turned into my dissertation Cadre for the Kingdom: The Political Electioneers of Joseph Smith’s 1844 Presidential Campaign. I spent over a decade researching and writing it.

Historians believed Joseph sent out 300-plus missionaries, but in my extensive research, I’ve found there were over 600! I came to believe the campaign, and the involvement of the political missionaries, needed to be told to a wide audience—particularly because there are tens of thousands (if not more) descendants of these missionaries alive right now.

Most have no idea Joseph ran for president, and almost none know their ancestor campaigned for him. So I spent several years remaking it into a book. I am grateful that the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book partnered to tell these missionaries’ stories.

How did the publication of the Council of Fifty minutes influence the Storming the Nation?

Derek Sainsbury: That’s a great question.

So Joseph created the Council of Fifty in March 1844. It was a confidential council and from the cryptic journal entries we had, we knew they believed themselves to be the political kingdom of God. They were talking about moving to Texas, or Oregon—or even California.

They also seemed to be managing the presidential campaign. When I started this project back in 2003 the minutes were of course still unavailable and had this mythical sense about what was really in them.

I actually asked to see the minutes in 2004 and the historian told me, “We do not know if they even exist,” which just highlights that mystical quality.

I asked again, I think around 2010. This time the answer was, “They do exist, but we do not have access to them.” Then we were all shocked in the Mormon Studies community when the Joseph Smith Papers announced they were going to release them. So at the end of the journey of my book, I had them in my hand!

For my research, the minutes were a vindication. My dissertation argued strongly that the campaign was much more serious than most historians allowed and that the council was primarily focused on the campaign. So when the minutes came out, I read them all in one day and happily realized that I was more right then I knew.

The minutes are very clear. The campaign was serious, they were expending massive resources toward it, and they sincerely believed they could win. So really, the minutes for me only deepened my previous understanding that the campaign was a big deal.

Why did Joseph Smith run for president?

Derek Sainsbury: That’s the question I get the most. That is what the first third of Storming the Nation is about. Really it is the coming together of two different revelatory strands that both originate in Joseph Smith’s understanding of Zion.

The Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph reveal that Zion was to be the New Jerusalem built in Jackson County, Missouri. It was more than just contemporary Christianity, though. It was truly all-encompassing society and lifestyle. There were religious, political, social, and economic components, requirements, and outcomes.

Additionally, there is this doctrine of “gathering” where they emigrate to one place to establish Zion. Properly instituted then, Zion would be independent, self-reliant if you will, like the City of Enoch, from the rest of society and prepared for the Second Coming of Christ.

Of course, new scripture, talk of an actual kingdom of God, insular community-living, and communitarian economics were all in direct conflict with Jacksonian American ideals and reality. So the Saints come into conflict with their neighbors wherever they gathered and on the American frontier in the nineteenth century that meant violence.

When the Saints are thrown out of Jackson County, Joseph receives revelations that they are to petition the government for redress because the Constitution was divinely inspired and set up to defend rights and liberties. Also, they are to vote for “good,” “honest,” and “wise” people because when the “wicked” rule the people become oppressed.

So that’s exactly what Joseph and the Saints try to do for a decade at every level and branch of government, as they are pushed from place to place. Yet, they get very little help, and in 1844 when conflict seems to be brewing again, Joseph decides to run for president to protect all citizens’ rights.

At the same time, especially from 1842 until his death, Joseph is receiving revelation on the biblical meaning of becoming “kings and priests” to God. This is the other revelatory strand meant to create the governing arm of Zion.

He starts talking about government by aristarchy which means, “government by good or excellent men.” He combines that with talk of merging God and democracy in what he calls “theodemocracy.”

In fact, the first aristarchic theodemocracy institution he creates is the Nauvoo Relief Society. Soon after that he introduces the temple endowment which in part relates to this idea of kings and priests and heavenly governance. His sermons and actions tie together more and more religious and political salvation.

Ultimately, it leads to the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth—or the Council of Fifty I mentioned earlier.

They decide the best way to introduce Zion’s aristarchic theodemocracy is for Joseph Smith to become president.

What was the role of Joseph Smith’s political missionaries?

Derek Sainsbury: Their role is pivotal. In Jacksonian America, candidates did not campaign for themselves, it was seen as too self-promotional. So candidates would dispatch electioneers to do the campaigning for them.

Of course, the difference with Joseph’s political missionaries is that they are also offering religious salvation as they campaign.

It really is a singular moment in American history as their message is, “There is a prophet again on earth. His name is Joseph Smith. God has restored his church through him. He is also running for president to save us from corrupt government. Here are his ideas for the nation.”

It sounds so strange when you say it today, and for most people back then as well.

Joseph had his platform printed in a pamphlet called, General Joseph Smith’s Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. The electioneers printed and distributed it by the thousands. They used it teaching in peoples’ homes, in town schoolhouses and halls, in planned religious and political two-day conferences in each state, in old-style multi-day camp meetings, and rallies in some of New York and Boston’s biggest venues.

Church leaders assigned the electioneers to go to back to their home states or at least where they lived before. The hope was they could use familial and social connections to create a groundswell of support. They were also to recruit local Latter-day Saints to become political missionaries as well.

Their reception was mixed, but often people liked the political ideas, but not so much Joseph, believing in all the negative press about him.

Joseph and the Council of Fifty believed the Lord would be with the missionaries, giving them power to convert and convince many to the Church and Joseph’s candidacy. They talked about this in their meetings, in the training meetings they had with the electioneers, and their correspondence with others.

In fact, that is where the name of the book comes from. In one of their letters, they talked about the hundreds (which they hoped soon would be thousands) of missionaries going out. They wrote, “We go for storming the nation.”

Another letter declared, “If God goes with them, who can withstand their influence?”

To me, the missionaries are the story of the campaign. There were so many more than we previously thought, and they are the ones out on the streets actually spreading the message—one that inherently would be unpopular.

Why have so many people never heard this story before?

Derek Sainsbury: That’s another great question and one that bothered me when I first read that Joseph ran for president. There is an obvious reason and another that is just as powerful, but hidden.

The first is that he becomes the first presidential candidate in American history to be assassinated. Just as the campaign was gaining traction nationally, a mob murders Joseph. So the campaign never remains a big story nationally or locally because now Joseph’s dead. In fact, general historians who write about the 1844 presidential election, almost without exception, do not even mention Joseph’s campaign.

So it all but disappears from political history.

Now the electioneers and first generation of Latter-day Saints, they don’t forget the campaign. Many of them write about it in reminiscences—sometimes even 50 years later. They saw the assassination as the rejection not only of the gospel, but of God’s gift of political salvation. Most find political motives at the roots of the conspiracy that killed their prophet and candidate. However, the last of the missionaries and their contemporaries are dying at the same time a major transition is happening in the church.

It is giving up plural marriage and the mixture of church and state to appease the rest of America. But America is not sure if they’re sincere.

In the next decade, B.H. Roberts, a Church general authority, and Reed Smoot, an apostle (and son of an electioneer, by the way), are elected to Congress—but not seated.

Congressional committees investigate both. Smoot’s investigation goes for three years and becomes a national spectacle where they look at everything church leaders are saying and writing with a fine-tooth comb.

Ironically, during this hearing the Church commissions B.H. Roberts to edit and give commentary on the previous released History of the Church. In this environment, Roberts severely downplays (for obvious reasons) Joseph’s campaign, which then becomes the narrative for most Latter-day Saint historians for a century.

Other scholars began to uncover some of the motives and means of the campaign, but their books and articles were not read by most Saints. So really the full story is coming out now with Storming the Nation, and with another guest of yours, Benjamin E. Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo, and Spencer W. McBride’s upcoming When Joseph Smith ran for President.

It is a real renaissance of understanding Smith’s campaign.


Who was Nancy Naomi Tracy?

Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy. Credit: H. Tracy Hall Foundation.

Derek Sainsbury: She is the only female electioneer. She was 16 years old when she married Moses Tracy in 1832. She was very bright, and was already teaching school. Two years later she and her husband joined the Latter-day Saints in 1834.

They survived all the turmoil and persecution of the Saints in both Ohio and Missouri. They started from scratch in Nauvoo like all the other refugees of Missouri.

At the annual conference in April 1844, Moses volunteers to be an electioneer and they assign him to his birth state of New York. Well, Nancy wants to go to for various reasons and she has Moses ask Joseph Smith personally if she can go.

The answer is not only yes, but that she will be a great blessing on his mission.

So she goes.

And I’ll leave the rest of her story to the book. She is important not only because she is the only female electioneer—although obviously that is a very big deal—but also because her life before, during, and after the campaign, gives an excellent illustration of the successes, frustrations, and challenges of the electioneers as a group.

Her role is pivotal to the story the book tells.

What role did the political missionaries play in the Church after the death of Joseph Smith?

Derek Sainsbury: This is a major theme of Storming the Nation. They are devastated. There really is no other word for it when they learn Joseph has been assassinated. They are scattered around the nation offering religious and political salvation—and just like that, it’s over.

This chapter in the book is the most powerful one, I believe, as they sort out what it all means.

The emotions are traumatic and raw.

For most of them what it means is that the United States is hopelessly corrupt and it’s time to leave and create the aristarchic theodemocracy they were campaigning for, and they believed heaven wanted them to establish, as part of Zion.

So, not only do a disproportionate number of them follow Brigham Young in the succession crisis after the assassination, but a very disproportionate number of them become the second echelon of church leadership.

It makes sense when you consider that they were the true believers in Joseph’s vision of Zion, they had sacrificed for it, held shared trauma from Joseph’s murder, and had been out working with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

So as the church established this aristarchic, theodemocratic Zion in the Great Basin, they excel. They become many of the leaders Brigham Young and church leadership call as the aristarchy. They become the religious, social, political, and economic leaders in communities all over the Basin.

So their influence for the next decades is immense.

How did Joseph Smith’s campaign and campaigners influence the creation and maintenance of the Great Basin Kingdom?

Derek Sainsbury: Less than a year after the assassination of Joseph, Brigham Young reconvened the Council of Fifty. They discussed finishing “Joseph’s measures.” That meant all facets of Zion that Joseph knew and had revealed to trusted associates like the apostles and the Council of Fifty. So we are primarily talking about temple ordinances, plural marriage, and establishing a aristarchic theodemocracy.

The campaign message included language about temple outcomes (priests and kings) and certainly was an attempt at theodemocracy. Church leaders and the campaigners were wed to these ideas despite Joseph’s death and the campaign’s collapse. Instead of giving up on the idea, they say, “Well, America, you blew it, a pox on you. We’re out of here.”

In the Great Basin, away from the rest of the United States, they are able to “begin the world anew.” Brigham Young uses “Joseph’s measures” of Zion as the template and, as I mentioned earlier, uses the campaigners disproportionately to fulfill them.

So religious leaders also become political leaders.

For example, a bishop of a small community was also the mayor. Because he was church leader, he would also practice plural marriage, which meant in settling a new community he would also have more land, and, obviously, more economic connections. So these leaders became the workhorses of the Great Basin Kingdom.

When difficulties started up, Brigham Young’s choices to brace against Gentile influence both in Utah Territory and Washington were almost always campaign veterans.

What do you think would have happened to Joseph Smith’s political aspirations if he hadn’t been assassinated?

Derek Sainsbury: That’s the fascinating question for many, especially since the difference in the popular vote of this the election was only one percent. The biggest prize was New York and, while it had been trending Whig for six years, Democrat James K. Polk won—but only by 5,000 votes, most likely because the anti-slavery Liberty Party garnered 15,000 votes in New York (most of whom were formerly Whigs).

Now, Joseph and the electioneers believed they would win outright. However, barring the divine intervention they were looking for, he had only a miniscule chance of winning. Yet, it’s obvious that the electioneers were having success in some places—while creating stiff opposition elsewhere—and they were just getting started. 

Had Joseph lived, I can see two other possible outcomes to just plain defeat. I see them making enough of a wake—real and perceived—so that the Democratic Party cuts some kind of deal for Joseph’s endorsement to protect Illinois, Michigan, and New York, where the Saints would have the most influence. In return, Joseph would get support and protection politically from the Democrats.

The more fascinating outcome deals just with New York.

More missionaries labor in New York than in any other state. So it is possible with more electioneering, they harvest more religious and political conversions. There really are some small constituencies there for them. Maybe when it gets to November, Joseph gets over 5,000 votes and flips New York back to the Whigs, and Henry Clay is elected instead of James Polk.

And who knows what that would have meant for the United States, Joseph, and the Latter-day Saints.

Of course, this is all counterfactual, but fascinating to think about.

Recommended resources

Learn more about politics in the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

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