Latter Day Saint polygamy in the late 19th century

Possibly as early as the 1830s, followers of the Latter Day Saint movement (also known as Mormonism), were practicing the doctrine of polygamy or "plural marriage". After the death of church founder Joseph Smith, Jr., the doctrine was officially announced in Utah by Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1852, attributed posthumously to Smith, and the practice of polygamy began among Mormons at large, principally in Utah where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had relocated after the Illinois Mormon War.

In the years after the church began practicing polygamy, it drew intense scrutiny and criticism from the United States government. This criticism led to the Mormon War, and eventually the abandonment of the practice under the leadership of Wilford Woodruff who issued the 1890 Manifesto.

Official Sanction by the LDS Church

The Mormon doctrine of plural wives was officially announced by one of the Twelve Apostles Orson Pratt and LDS President Brigham Young in a special conference of the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assembled in the Mormon Tabernacle on 28 August 1852, and reprinted in the "Deseret News Extra" the following day. [cite article | title = Minutes of conference : a special conference of the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assembled in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, August 28th, 1852, 10 o'clock, a.m., pursuant to public notice | publisher = Deseret News Extra | date = 14 September 1852 | page = 14 | url = ] The announcement came nine years after the purported original revelation by Joseph Smith, and five years after the Mormon Exodus to Utah following Smith's death in Illinois. Young was unable to produce the original document and declared that Smith's widow Emma Smith had burned it. ["Millennial Star Supplement", Volume 15, page 30] To this Emma Smith replied that she had never seen such a document, and added concerning the story that she had destroyed the original: "It is false in all its parts, made out of whole cloth, without any foundation in truth." ["Church History", Volume 3, page 352]

Controversy and opposition by the United States government

Early tension and the Utah War (1852-1858)

Polygamy was roundly condemned by virtually all sections of the American public. During the Presidential Election of 1856 a key plank of the newly-formed Republican Party's platform was a pledge "to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery". [ [ GOP Convention of 1856 in Philadelphia] from the Independence Hall Association website]

Further tension grew due to the relationship between "Gentile" federal appointees and the Utah territorial leadership. The territory's Organic Act held that the governor, federal judges, and other important territorial positions were to be filled by appointees chosen by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, but without any reference to the will of Utah's population. Many of these federally appointed officers were appalled by the practice of polygamy and the Mormon belief system in general, and would harangue the Mormons for their "lack of morality" in public addresses. This already tense situation was further exacerbated by a period of intense religious revival starting in late 1856 dubbed the "Mormon Reformation."

The issue of polygamy among the Latter Day Saints in Utah was one of the contributing factors that lead to the Utah War, in which the President of the United States dispatched an army to Utah to quell a perceived rebellion. In the midst of the American Civil War, Republican majorities in congress were able to pass legislation meant to curb the Mormon practice of polygamy. One such act was the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which was signed into law on July 8, 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln. The act banned plural marriage and limited church and non-profit ownership in any territory of the United States to $50,000. [ [ Statutes at Large, 37th Congress, 2nd Session] , page 501. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: US Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875. The Library of Congress. Accessed 18 May 2006.] The act targeted the Mormon church ownership in the Utah territory. The measure had no funds allocated for enforcement, and thus it was not rigorously enforced against Mormons in Utah Territory. The Mormons, believing that the law unconstitutionally deprived them of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion, chose to ignore this law at this time.

Aftermath and further legislation (1858-1890)

In the following years, several bills aimed at strengthening the anti-bigamy laws failed to pass the United States Congress. These included the Wade, Cragin, and Cullom bills which had their origin in the territory of Utah and were initiated by men who were bitterly opposed to the Mormon establishment. The Wade Bill initiated in 1866 would have destroyed local government if it had passed. Three years later the Cragin Bill was proposed, but within a few days it was substituted by the Cullom Bill, which was more radical than the Wade or Cragin bills. Members of the church worked for the defeat of the bill, including women of the church who held mass meetings throughout the territory in January 1870 in opposition to the bill. [Harvnb|Smith|1974|p=444]

Finally, the Poland Act (18 Stat. 253) of 1874 was passed which sought to facilitate prosecutions under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by eliminating the control members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) exerted over the justice system of Utah Territory. Sponsored by Senator Luke P. Poland of Vermont, the Act redefined the jurisdiction of Utah courts by giving the United States district courts exclusive jurisdiction in Utah Territory over all civil and criminal cases. The Act also eliminated the territorial marshal and attorney, giving their duties to a U.S. Marshal and a U.S. Attorney. The Act also altered petit and grand jury empaneling rules to keep polygamists off juries. By removing Latter-day Saints from positions of authority in the Utah justice system, the Act was intended to allow for successful prosecutions of Mormon polygamists.

Immediately, under the act, the United States attorney tried to bring leading church officials to trial. These efforts culminated in the sentencing of George Reynolds to two years hard labor in prison and a fine of five hundred dollars for his practice of polygamy. In 1876 the Utah Territorial Supreme Court upheld the sentence. His 1878 "Reynolds v. United States" appeal reached the United States Supreme Court, and in January 1879 that body ruled the anti-polygamy legislation constitutional and upheld Reynold’s prison sentence (it struck down the fine and hard labor portions). Reynolds was released from prison in January 1881, having served eighteen months of his original sentence. [Harvnb|Van Orden|1986|pp=53, 57–62, 71, 76–77, 80–86, 103, 108]

In February of 1882, George Q. Cannon, a prominent leader in the church, was denied a non-voting seat in the House of Representatives due to his polygamous relations. This revived the issue in national politics. One month later, the Edmunds Act was passed, amending the Morrill Act by declaring polygamy a felony, revoking the polygamists right to vote, making them ineligible for jury service, and prohibiting them from holding political office. These restrictions were enforced regardless of whether an individual was actually practicing polygamy, or merely believed in the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage without actually participating in it. All elected offices in the Utah Territory were vacated, an election board was formed to issue certificates to those who both denied polygamy and did not practice it, and new elections were held territory-wide.

Finally, the Edmunds–Tucker Act of 1887 touched all the issues at dispute between the United States Congress and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The act disincorporated both the Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund on the grounds that they fostered polygamy. The act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine of from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years. It dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over a limit of $50,000.

In July of the same year, the U.S. Attorney General filed suit to seize the church and all of its assets. The act was enforced by the U.S. marshal and a host of deputies. The act:

*Dissolved the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, with assets to be used for public schools in the Territory. [Harvnb|Sears|2001|p=581]
*Required an anti-polygamy oath for prospective voters, jurors and public officials.
*Annulled Territorial laws allowing illegitimate children to inherit.
*Required civil marriage licenses (to aid in the prosecution of polygamy).
*Abrogated the common law spousal privilege to require wives to testify against their husbands [ [ Utah History Encyclopedia ] ]
*Disfranchised women (who had been enfranchised by the Territorial legislature in 1870).
* Replaced local judges (including the previously powerful Probate Court judges) with federally appointed judges.
* Removed local control in school textbook choice.Fact|date=March 2008

In 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the seizure of Church property under the Edmunds-Tucker Act in "The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States".

The church was losing control of the territorial government, and many members and leaders were being actively pursued as fugitives. Without being able to appear publicly, the leadership was left to navigate underground. Teaching new marriage and family arrangements where the principles that could not be openly discussed, compounded the problems. Those authorized to teach the doctrine had always stressed the strict covenants, obligations and responsibilities associated with it.

Following the aforementioned passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, the Church found it difficult to operate as a viable institution. Among other things, this legislation disincorporated the Church, confiscated its properties, and even threatened seizure of its temples.

Life under polygamy

Unhappiness associated with plural marriages

Critics of polygamy in the early LDS church claim that plural marriages often produced extreme unhappiness in some wives. [Harvnb|Tanner|1979|pp=226-228] LDS historian Todd Compton, in his book "In Sacred Loneliness", described many instances where some wives in polygamous marriages were unhappy with polygamy. [Harvnb|Compton|1997]

Church apologists note that many women were very satisfied with polygamous marriages,Fact|date=July 2008 and individuals such as Zina Huntington—a wife of Brigham Young—went on speaking tours as part of the suffrage movement touting the joys and benefits of plural marriage.Fact|date=July 2008

Plural marriage used to justify immoral behavior with young girls

Richard Abanes claims that church leaders sometimes used polygamy to take advantage of young girls for immoral purposes. [Harvnb|Abanes|2003|p=294] LDS historian George D. Smith studied 153 men who took plural wives in the early years of the Mormon Church, and found that two of the girls were thirteen years old, 13 girls were fourteen years old, 21 were fifteen years old, and 53 were sixteen years old. [“Nauvoo Polygamists", George D. Smith, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1994, p. ix] LDS historian Todd Compton documented that Joseph Smith married several girls of age 13 or 14. [Harvnb|Compton|1997] Historian Stanly Hirshon documented cases of girls aged 10 and 11 being married to old men. [Harvnb|Hirshon|1969|pp=126-127]

Brigham Young himself attempted to stamp out the practice of men being sealed to excessively young girls. In 1857, he stated "I shall not seal the people as I have done. Old Father Alread brought three young girls 12 & 13 years old. I would not seal them to him. They would not be equally yoked together...Many get their endowments who are not worthy and this is the way that devils are made." [Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 5:58.]

hortage of wives caused by plural marriage

Richard Abanes points out that polygamy may have caused a shortage of brides in the early LDS community, [Harvnb|Abanes|2003|pp=297] citing quotes by church leader Heber C. Kimball who said (addressing departing missionaries):

Brethren, I want you to understand that it is not to be as it has been heretofore. The brother missionaries have been in the habit of picking out the prettiest women for themselves before they get here, and bringing on the ugly ones for us; hereafter you have to bring them all here before taking any of them, and let us all have a fair shake. [Harvnb|Hirshon|1969|pp=129-130]
On another occasion, he said "You are sent out as shepherds to gather sheep together; and remember that they are not your sheep ... do not make selections before they are brought home and put into the fold." [Journal of Discourses; August 28, 1852; vol. 6, p256.]

The precise number who participated in plural marriage is not known, but studies indicate a maximum of 20-25% of LDS adults were members of polygamist households. One third of the women of marriageable age and nearly all of the church leadership were involved in the practice. [Encyclopedia of Mormonism. MacMillan(1992) p. 1095]

Coercion and deception related to plural marriage

Critics of polygamy in the early LDS church have documented several cases where deception and coercion were used to induce marriage, [Harvnb|Ostling|1999|pp=60-63] for example citing the case of Joseph Smith who warned some potential spouses of eternal damnation if they did not consent to be his wife. [Harvnb|Compton|1997] In 1893, married LDS church member John D. Miles traveled to England and proposed to Caroline Owens, assuring her that he was not polygamous. She returned to Utah and participated in a wedding, only to find out after the ceremony that Miles was already married. She ran away, but Miles hunted her down and raped her. She eventually escaped, and filed a lawsuit against Miles that reached the Supreme Court and became a significant case in polygamy case law. [Harvnb|Gage|1972] Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, claimed that Young coerced her to marry him by threatening financial ruin of her brother. [Harvnb|Young|1875|pp=440-454]

Church apologists claim out that these were isolated cases, and the vast majority of wives consented willingly to plural marriage.Fact|date=July 2008


Critics of polygamy in the early LDS church claim that polygamy was used to justify marriage of close relatives that would otherwise be considered immoral. [Harvnb|Young|1875|pp=306-319] [Harvnb|Abanes|2003|pp=297] In 1843, Joseph Smith's diary records the marriage of John Bernhisel to his sister, Maria. [Harvnb|Faulring|1987|p=424] In 1886, Lorenzo Snow said that brothers and sisters should be able to get married. ["Journal of Mormon History", 1992, p. 106] former LDS church member and prominent critic Fanny Stenhouse wrote in 1875:

It would be quite impossible, with any regard to propriety, to relate all the horrible results of this disgraceful system.... Marriages have been contracted between the nearest of relatives; and old men tottering on the brink of the grave have been united to little girls scarcely in their teens; while unnatural alliances of every description, which in any other community would be regarded with disgust and abhorrence, are here entered into in the name of God. [Harvnb|Stenhouse|1875]

The end of Polygamy in the LDS church

1890 Manifesto

In April 1889, Woodruff, then president of the church, began privately refusing the permission that was required to contract new plural marriages. [Harvnb|Van Wagoner|1989|p=135] In October 1889, Woodruff publicly admitted that he was no longer approving new polygamous marriages, and in answer to a reporter's question of what the LDS Church's attitude was toward the law against polygamy, Woodruff stated, "we mean to obey it. We have no thought of evading it or ignoring it." ["Salt Lake Herald", 1889-10-27, quoted in Harvnb|Van Wagoner|1989|p=136] Because it had been Mormon practice for over 25 years to either evade or ignore anti-polygamy laws, Woodruff's statement was a signal that a change in church policy was developing. [Harvnb|Smith|2005|pp=62-63]

By September 1890, federal officials were preparing to seize the church’s four temples and the U.S. Congress had debated whether to extend the 1882 Edmunds Act so that "all" Mormons would be disenfranchised, not just those practicing plural marriage.Fact|date=October 2007 The Supreme Court had already ruled in "Davis v. Beason" [ussc|133|333|1890.] that a law in Idaho Territory which disenfranchised individuals who practiced or believed in plural marriage was constitutional. [Harvnb|Smith|2005|pp=63-64]

Woodruff would later recount that on the night of September 23, 1890, he received a revelation from Jesus Christ that the church should cease the practice of plural marriage.Remaraks of Wilford Woodruff at Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, 1891-11-01; repoted at Wilford Woodruff, "Remarks", "Deseret Weekly" (Salt Lake City, Utah) 1891-11-14; excerpts reprinted in LDS Church, [ "Official Declaration—1"] , "Doctrine and Covenants".] Woodruff announced the Manifesto on September 25 by publishing it in the church-owned "Deseret Weekly" in Salt Lake City. [Wilford Woodruff, "Official Declaration", "Deseret Weekly" (Salt Lake City) 41:476 (1890-09-25).] On October 6, 1890, during the 60th Semiannual General Conference of the church, the Manifesto was formally accepted by the church membership.

The Manifesto was the end of official church authorization for the creation of new plural marriages that violated local laws. It had no effect on the status of already existing plural marriages, and plural marriages continued to be performed in locations where it was believed to be legal. As Woodruff explained at the general conference where the Manifesto was accepted by the church, " [t] his Manifesto only refers to future marriages, and does not affect past conditions. I did not, I could not, and would not promise that you would desert your wives and children. This you cannot do in honor." [Diary entry of Marriner W. Merrill, 1890-10-06 (LDS Church archives), cited in Harvnb|Hardy|1992|p=141] Despite Woodruff's explanation, some church leaders and members who were polygamous did begin to live with only one wife. [Lorenzo Snow, who would succeed Woodruff as president of the church, was one such leader.] However, the majority of Mormon polygamists continued to cohabit with their plural wives in violation of the Edmunds-Tucker Act. [Kenneth L. Cannon II, "Beyond the Manifesto: Polygamous Cohabitation among LDS General Authorities after 1890", "Utah Historical Quarterly" 46:24 (1978).]

Aftermath, The Smoot Hearings, and the Second Manifesto

Within six years of the announcement of the 1890 Manifesto, Utah had become a state and federal prosecution of Mormon polygamists subsided.

D. Michael Quinn and other Mormon historians have documented that some church apostles covertly sanctioned plural marriages after the Manifesto. This practice was especially prevalent in Mexico and Canada because of an erroneous belief that such marriages were legal in those jurisdictions. [Numerous marriages also were performed in international waters on the high seas.] However, a significant minority were performed in Utah and other western American states and territories. The estimates of the number of post-Manifesto plural marriages performed range from scores to thousands, with the actual figure probably close to 250. [Harvnb|Hardy|1992|pp=167–335 and appendix II] Today, the LDS Church officially acknowledges that although the Manifesto "officially ceased" the practice of plural marriage in the church, "the ending of the practice after the Manifesto was ... gradual." [LDS Church, [ Gospel Topics: Polygamy (Plural Marriage)] (accessed 2007-10-12).]

However, Congress still refused to seat representatives-elect who were polygamists, including B.H. Roberts.Fact|date=October 2007

Rumors of post-Manifesto marriages surfaced and were examined in detail during a series of congressional hearings on whether the United States Senate should seat Mormon Apostle and known polygamist Reed Smoot, who was elected by the Utah legislature in 1903.Harvnb|United States Congress|1905] The hearings began in 1904 and continued until 1907, when the Senate finally voted to seat him. During the hearings, Smoot was given a provisional seat on the Senate and was allowed to vote. During the hearings, United States Senator Julius C. Burrows, from Michigan, made the following statement: cquote|In order to induce his followers more readily to accept this infamous doctrine, Brigham Young himself invoked the name of Joseph Smith, the Martyr, whom many sincerely believed to be a true prophet, and ascribed to him the reception of a revelation from the Almighty in 1843, commanding the Saints to take unto themselves a multiplicity of wives, limited in number only by the measures of their desires...Such the mythical story palmed off on a deluded people. ["Congressional Record", December 13, 1906]

In response to the hearings, church president Joseph F. Smith issued a "Second Manifesto" in 1904 which reaffirmed the church's opposition to the creation of new plural marriages and threatened excommunication for Latter-day Saints who continued to enter into or solemnize new plural marriages.

Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley each resigned from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles due to disagreement with the church’s position on plural marriage. [Victor W. Jorgensen and B. Carmon Hardy, "The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History", "Utah Historical Quarterly" 48:4 (1980).] Plural marriage continues to be grounds for excommunication from the LDS Church. [LDS Church (2006). "Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics". (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) pp. 105–115.] The cessation of plural marriage within LDS Church gave rise to the Mormon fundamentalist movement.cite web | title = A Response from the Author | author = Jon Krakauer | authorlink = Jon Krakauer | accessdate = 2008-07-08| url = | quote = The leaders of the modern LDS Church deem the history of their religion to be sacred, and have long endeavored to retain tight proprietary control over how that history is presented to the world. Indeed, LDS leaders have explicitly stated that they believe accounts of Mormon history should be, above all else, "faith promoting"—that is to say, accounts of Mormon history should be celebratory rather than critical, and should downplay, omit, or deny sensitive or unsavory aspects of that history. … According to the eminent Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn, "The tragic reality is that there have been occasions when Church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past, but have offered to the Saints instead a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials." As I wrote in "Under the Banner of Heaven", Dr. Quinn argued that a "so-called 'faith-promoting' Church history which conceals controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past actually undermines the faith of Latter-day Saints who eventually learn about the problems from other sources. One of the most painful demonstrations of that fact has been the continued spread of unauthorized polygamy among the Latter-day Saints during the last seventy-five years, despite the concerted efforts of Church leaders to stop it." Quinn pointed out that after officially renouncing the doctrine of plural marriage in 1890, the highest leaders in fact continued to sanction polygamy, covertly, for many years. And this casuistry, he insisted, has driven many Mormons into the embrace of fundamentalism. ]

Fundamentalist reactions to the end of polygamy

The shift in doctrine regarding polygamy by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave rise to several sects of Mormon fundamentalism including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and others.

Polygamy in the 20th Century



authorlink=Richard Abanes
title=One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church
publisher=Thunder's Mouth Press

authorlink=Todd Compton
publisher=Signature Books
place=Salt Lake City, UT
first = Scott H.
title=An American Prophet's Record
first=Matilda Joslyn
title=Woman, Church, and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman Through the Christian Ages, With Reminiscences of the Matriarchate
first=B. Carmon
title=Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage
publisher=Urbana: University of Illinois Press
first=Stanley P.
title=The Lion of the Lord
publisher=Alfred A. Knopf
first=Richard and Joan
authorlink=Richard Ostling
title = Mormon America
publisher=Harper Collins
first=L. Rex
title=Punishing the Saints for Their "Peculiar Institution": Congress on the Constitutional Dilemmas
version=Utah L. Rev.
first=Stephen Eliot
title=“The ‘Mormon Question’ Revisited: Anti-polygamy Laws and the Free Exercise Clause” (LL.M. thesis)
publisher=Harvard Law School
first=Joseph Fielding
title=Essentials in Church History
location=Salt Lake City
publisher=Deseret Book Co.
title=Tell it All: A Woman's Life in Polygamy
publisher=Kessinger Publishing
first=Jerald and Sandra
authorlink=Jerald and Sandra Tanner
title=The Changing World of Mormonism
publisher=Moody Press
title = Testimony of Important Witnesses as Given in the Proceedings Before the Reed Smoot Hearings
author = United States Congress
year = 1905
publisher = Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Company
location = Salt Lake City
url =
last=Van Orden
first=Bruce A.
title=“George Reynolds: Secretary, Sacrificial Lamb, and Seventy” Ph.D. diss.
publisher=Brigham Young University
last=Van Wagoner
first=Richard S.
title=Mormon Polygamy: A History
place=Salt Lake City, Utah
publisher=Signature Books
first=Anne Eliza
authorlink=Ann Eliza Young
title=Wife No. 19, or the story of a life in bondage. Being a complete exposé of Mormonism, and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy
place=Hartford, Conn.
publisher=Dustin, Oilman & Co.
; Ayer Co Publishing ISBN 0-405-04488-7 (Hardcover, 1978); Kessinger Publishing, LLC ISBN 0-7661-4048-2 (Paperback, 2003).
first=Anne Eliza
authorlink=Ann Eliza Young
title=Wife No. 19
place=Hartford, Conn.
publisher=Kensinger Publishing, LLC

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