Book review: ‘Presidents and Prophets’

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes you think: “why hasn’t this book ever been written before, and why didn’t I write this book?” “President and Prophets” is one of those books.

Author Michael K. Winder is one of those young LDS people who seem to be everywhere at once. He is a member of the West Valley City Council, the VP of Winder Farms and a former CES instructor. He has written a big, engaging book that covers each U.S. president’s exposure (or lack of exposure to the Church). The book is filled with great photographs and drawings and will make a perfect coffee table addition for the holidays.

Here are some of the things I learned in this book:

–Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both admired Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and publicly extolled the seventh U.S. president, even though Jackson did nothing to help the Saints during the persecution in Missouri.
–Fellow Democrat Martin Van Buren treated the Saints even worse than I had thought. Politicians in Illinois and Missouri saw him as an active opponent of the Mormons and tried to get him to run again in 1844, promising support if he would wipe out the Mormons. Joseph Smith had nothing but disdain for Van Buren, calling him “His Majesty” and said: “to come directly to the point, he is so much a fop or a fool…we could find no place to put truth into him.” Joseph Smith also compared him to a dog but said dogs at least had loyalty to their masters. After his second unsuccessful meeting with Van Buren, Joseph Smith said, “may he never be elected again to any office of trust or power,” and after one term as president, Van Buren was ousted as the Democratic candidate and never held a prominent position again. Van Buren was so despised by the first generation of Saints that Wilford Woodruff purposefully left him off the list of presidents for whom he did temple work at the Saint George temple. Van Buren’s temple work was completed 76 years after the U.S. president’s death.
–Most presidents from Pierce in 1853 until McKinley in 1897 treated the Latter-day Saints with disdain or active hostility. One notable exception was Lincoln, who was preoccupied by the Civil War and mostly decided to leave the Utah Saints alone. Winder points out that Lincoln and Joseph Smith met and Lincoln said the prophet “is an admirer of mine.” Lincoln checked out the Book of Mormon from the Library of Congress (the author even includes a copy of the page from the Library of Congress ledger!) and read several books on the Saints. Lincoln signed the first antipolygamy law in 1862, but avoided enforcing it.
–Once polygamy was ended, hostility toward the Church immediately subsided. It is remarkable to compare the attitude of many presidents, who in effect declared war on the Church, to that of McKinley, who began to seek the Church as a political ally.
–Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to openly associate himself with the Church and praise the virtues of the members. He was the first U.S. president to speak in the Tabernacle, and in 1911, he wrote a letter, published by “Collier’s,” refuting anti-Mormon charges. Many Church leaders saw Roosevelt as the president most receptive to the restored Gospel, and Elder Reed Smoot, who was a friend of TR’s, did TR’s temple work in 1925.
–Presidents from Roosevelt to the present day have been mostly friendly to the Church. The author argues that in the last 60 years or so Republican presidents have for the most part had better relations with the Church that Democrats. This may have something to do with President Grant’s disdain for FDR, which I discuss here.
But I should be clear: modern Democratic presidents have also been mostly friendly to the Church and certainly respectful of the prophets. LBJ, for example, treated President McKay as if he were his own father, consulted with him often and said, “I always feel better after I have been in his (President McKay’s) presence.”
–The author argues that President Reagan “had the most positive relationship with the Church of any American President to date.” Reagan appointed many Mormons to high-level positions, visited Utah regularly, loved the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and read and quoted from the Book of Mormon upon occasion.

There are literally hundreds of other tidbits in this book. Anybody interested in politics and/or history will find this book fascinating. I heartily recommend it.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Presidents and Prophets’

  1. This book is on my list of books to acquire. Great review, Geoff. I am anxious to read it myself.

  2. Very interesting book! Your review also pointed out some interesting things that make me want to learn more. Have you seen the DVD or heard the talk CD of Presidents and Prophets yet? I saw part of the DVD that was on after conference and LOVED it, but would like a review from someone who has seen the whole thing. At any rate, this sounds like a book that many on my list will be getting for Christmas!

  3. I have seen both the DVD and heard the CD. They are both very interesting. Although the DVD is a little cheesy at times, it is very entertaining and informative.

  4. I’m reading this book right now.. the introduction was a little too much for me (sharing his personal fanboyish experience w/ Pres. Bush), but the content of the book has been great so far.

  5. Connor. Skip to the end. You’ll probably like his personal fanboyish experience with former President Carter a lot better.

  6. This book (which I haven’t read) sounds like the old cartoon headline from the Podunk Times “New York City Destroyed by A-Bomb–Local Couple Slightly Wounded”.

    Do we really have to know that some U.S. president met once with some church leader in order to establish our validity as a church? And what about those six presidents who were out of office before the church was established? What was their relationship with any church leader?

  7. Mark B, to each his own, right? This book simply may not be for you. But personally I have always wondered, as I read biographies and history books, “what did TR think of the Mormons, what about Lincoln, did he ever meet Joseph Smith while they both lived in Illinois in the 1840s?” That’s just the way my mind works. If you’re not interested in those types of questions, then definitely don’t buy or read the book, because those are the kind of questions that are answered.

    Personally, my assurance of the validity of the Church comes directly from the Holy Ghost, so this book and any historical knowledge it may give me is simply just to satisfy my curiosity, nothing more. I don’t read all books about the Church to “establish” the Church’s validity on anything, I read them because they might interest me.

    As for your questions regarding the first six presidents, the author mainly talks about the presidents’ views on religion (his take is considerably non-controversial, imho) and how modern-day Saints and leaders tend to see them. He could have easily started the book with Van Buren, and not much would have been lost. If you read the book, skip the first few presidents. :)

  8. Mark B, FWIW, I think I read in a review of the book that Dolly Madison, late in life, either hosted or attended some kind of benefit dinner/concert for refugee Mormons.

  9. Mark B.,those interested in American History will most likely enjoy this book more. It is just a history book and not a doctrinal book by any means. One thing I found fascinating was the focus during Presidential campaigns, political parties, etc. to rid the country of polygamy. It was also interesting to see how the nation’s view of Mormonism evolved over the years. It actually helped me to understand why people sometimes think we are “peculiar” and why Mitt Romney has some people hesitant about his Presidential bid. Granted I love political stuff and American history, so I may have enjoyed the book because of that.

  10. Mark B, I mostly agree with you. Still, it was interesting to see that Lincoln checked out the BoM, TR had a lot of curiosity about the Church and Reagan read the BoM. But, as I said, this book is probably not for you. To each his own.

  11. Geoff,
    Did the book discuss President Clinton’s intervention in Russia about ten years ago. There was some nostalgic minister in Yeltsin’s government while I was a missionary there making threatening comments about foreign missionaries and kicking them out of the country. Clinton, according to reports I’ve read and according to what my mission president at the time told the missionaries, called Yeltsin and threatened to cut off all foreign aid. The irksome minister shut up rather quickly thereafter and eventually resigned.
    Pretty sure the story’s not apocryphal, mainly just wondering if it’s included in this particular volume (which sounds fascinating, by the way).

  12. It was Alexander Lebed, former general, and at the time, National Security Advisor to President Yeltsin, who in June of 1996 said the following:

    “All these Mormons are mold and filth which have come to destroy the state. The state should outlaw them.”

    and

    “I am against anyone teaching us how to live here. I would like to see the Americans’ reaction if Russian Orthodox Old Believers landed in Alabama and started teaching them how to live and what to believe.”

    I don’t know about President Clinton’s involvement, but I believe his firing some months later (in October) had much to do with the suitcase nukes controversy:

    http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/News/Lebedbomb.html

    However, he was a controversial figure with political aspirations of his own, so it could be that he was moved aside for a variety of too-candid opinions. In 2002 he died in a helicopter crash that, not surprisingly, has elicited conspiracy theories.

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