East Idaho’s first visit from a presidential candidate and one faith’s rocky history with US leaders
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 6, 2021. We are reposting it in honor of President’s Day.
IDAHO FALLS – More than a century ago in the year 1901, William McKinley became the third U.S. president to be assassinated.
The year before was an election year and Theodore Roosevelt, who had been serving as McKinley’s vice president, was vying for the presidency. While on the campaign trail in the fall of 1900, the presidential hopeful made a stop in Rexburg. It was here that Roosevelt got acquainted with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Ben E. Rich, who had returned home for a break while serving as president of the Southern States Mission, introduced him to the audience with great eloquence and even declared that Roosevelt would be the next president of the United States,” Mike Winder writes in his 2007 book, “Presidents & Prophets: The Story of America’s Presidents and the LDS Church.”
Rich’s words later proved prophetic when Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th president the following year. (McKinley was assassinated on Sept. 6, 1901, six months into his second term. Inauguration day was in March at that time and Roosevelt was sworn into office eight days later.)
Impressed with Rich’s introduction, Roosevelt invited Rich to accompany him on his trip from Idaho Falls to Utah, where they spent many hours discussing the church and its doctrine. Rich even gave Roosevelt a copy of the Book of Mormon.
“In the early morning hours, when Rich left Roosevelt’s private (rail) car, Roosevelt thanked him and said he had ‘never listened to a more interesting account of a great people and a great religion,'” writes Winder.
Roosevelt’s visit to Rexburg was a historic occasion in more ways than one. Not only was it the first known time an elected federal official made a stop in eastern Idaho (Idaho officially became a state on July 3, 1890, after becoming a territory on March 4, 1863), it was also the first time a Republican candidate for president held the Latter-day Saints in such high esteem.
Roosevelt went on to serve two terms as president and became a great supporter of the church. In 1903, he was instrumental in helping Latter-day Saint Apostle Reed Smoot secure a seat as a U.S. senator.
The church has a long and turbulent history with each of America’s commanders-in-chief, all of which are highlighted in Winder’s book. The church was officially organized on April 6, 1830, more than 40 years after the signing of the Constitution.
It is known today for being politically neutral in presidential elections, but its leaders have always encouraged members to vote and be involved in the political process. Throughout the 19th century, church members were frequently persecuted, and Latter-day Saint leaders often endorsed candidates who were sympathetic to their cause.
Winder, a lifelong member of the church who is serving his third term as a Republican representative in the Utah Legislature, tells EastIdahoNews.com it was Democratic presidents who regarded the Latter-day Saints most favorably in those early days.
“The church, at the time, felt enormous gratitude toward the Democratic Party because that was the (party) that signed (Utah) into statehood. The Republican party was formed in the 1850s to ‘abolish the twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy’ (the latter of which many church members practiced until it was abolished in 1890),” Winder says. “Since the mid-20th century, the church has tried to be more politically neutral. That’s served the church’s purposes better.”
There have been three additional presidents since the release of “Presidents & Prophets.” President George W. Bush’s interactions with the church are the last to be highlighted. Winder is hoping to include details about Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden’s relationship with Latter-day Saints in an updated edition of the book.
Winder’s latest book, “Favorite Scriptures of 100 American Leaders,” was published in 2019.
Winder spoke with EastIdahoNews.com about his book, faith and political career. Listen to the entire conversation in the video player above.