Date of Award

Fall 2023

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Religion, MA


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Matthew Bowman

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Tammi Schneider

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2023 Mitch Nelson


19th century, antebellum, Constitution, Joseph Smith, Religious Freedom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Subject Categories

American Studies | Religion


As the founder of the most persecuted denomination of the nineteenth century in the United States, Joseph Smith desperately yearned for religious freedom. I argue that Joseph Smith understood religious freedom as a theological doctrine given by God to help individuals, communities, and nations discover how to balance order and diversity. Rather than being a product of democratic government, he viewed religious freedom as the necessary foundation for a just government and society. Therefore, maintaining religious freedom would preserve the governing system, not the other way around. For Joseph, religious freedom was incrementally discovered in a process of identity formation that developed over time. I claim that Joseph Smith saw a discrepancy in the actualization of religious freedom in society. He believed religious freedom was experienced as a religious reality, while government leaders and citizens interpreted it as a political right granted by law. Joseph saw the Constitution as the central agent that both created this gap and had the potential to resolve it. On one hand, the Constitution was divinely inspired and implied the equality of religious action. On the other hand, it fell short of guaranteeing the ideals it espoused by not providing an enforcement mechanism. Therefore, I will show in this thesis that Joseph’s understanding of the Constitution and religious freedom changed over time, leading to a shift in strategies to correct them. First, Joseph entirely depended on the Constitution as the arbiter of religious freedom. Then he established a model of the Constitution as a living document that fulfilled its purpose only as it developed and improved over time. Finally, Joseph reframed democracy within a theistic framework to unite all people in the same religio-political cause.