The Discontinuation of Polygamy
Opponents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church), or even those who are simply curious, tend to have two questions about the discontinuation of polygamy: why did it discontinue, and did it discontinue? Some charge that prophet Wilford Woodruff acted out of political expediency rather than revelation. They charge that polygamy was discontinued so that Utah could reach statehood, and nothing more. Or, they might charge that polygamy didn’t end after 1890, thus, the revelation was a lie and Mormons may still be practicing polygamy.
The reality is both simpler and more complex. In short, the Manifesto of 1890 did not completely end polygamy, but the “Second Manifesto” of 1904 did. In the period between 1890 and 1904, polygamous marriages were still made and solemnized and cohabitation continued. After 1904, this ended. The purpose of this article is to explain the purpose of the manifestos, as well as why compliance with the government was not immediate. The first Manifesto, for example, was political. But it was also inspired of God.
Let’s present some context. From the beginning, and well before the practice of polygamy, Mormons had suffered bitter persecution for their beliefs. They had been driven from state to state. Utah territory was the first place they had been able to settle with any permanence. But, although they were not (quite) driven out for it, polygamy caused a national uproar that would not end.
Congressional Acts and Raids
The Morrill Act of 1862 banned polygamy and bigamy in the U.S. territories and also targeted the property of the Church with the clause that no religious corporation could have holdings totaling more than fifty thousand in value. The Congressmen would later assure the Catholic Church that the ruling did not apply to them: the LDS Church was the sole target. Still, the Morrill Act itself was not enforced yet—no one would be arrested or charged for polygamy. Not yet. But the implications were terrible. An 1860 congressional committee had declared that “It is competent for Congress to declare any act criminal which is not sanctioned or authorized by the provisions of the Constitution.” Essentially, religious beliefs were protected under the First Amendment. Practices, if not in the Constitution, were not, whether they caused any harm or not. The rhetoric of the time was more virulent than the law. Congressmen admitted openly that they intended to remove Mormonism from Utah.
And it would get worse. The Poland Act of 1874 would make the prosecution of polygamy more feasible. In 1879, Brigham Young’s secretary, George Reynold, was successfully tried for polygamy.
Then came the Edmunds Act of 1882. This made “cohabitating with more than one woman” a crime, which was somewhat ironic, considering that many people kept mistresses at this time. (The keeping of mistresses was, of course, not prosecuted.) People who believed in polygamy could not try polygamists. More seriously, polygamists and their spouses couldn’t hold any office in any territory, or even vote. Without the ability of Mormons to vote, anti-Mormons filled territorial seats and took control of the educational system.
In the mid-1880s, dozens of federal marshals swept down on Idaho and Utah in what would later be called “the Raid.” Their purpose was the arrest and prosecution of polygamists as polygamists. By 1886, every Mormon settlement in the U.S. had been invaded by these federal marshals. They broke into homes in the middle of the night, questioned children about their parents, and used a network of informants to determine who was a polygamist . . . or who might be, which, in many cases, was considered good enough. Some Mormon men fled to Canada or Mexico to escape capture, but many did not. At least one was killed in the process of arrest.
The definition of cohabitation was also dangerously loose. The burden of proof was on the defendant. Their wives could not be supported at all, even if they lived in separate houses. The separation had to be complete, which was, in effect, abandonment.
The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 added some further legislation against the Mormons. For example, their territorial militia was abolished, fornication and adultery became actually illegal (since polygamy was seen as either or both, or similar enough), and children born to polygamist fathers couldn’t inherit from them.
The courts were abusing their power even without additional legislation. Some judges would try polygamists for cohabitation based on, say, year (every year lived with two wives instead of one represented a separate case), for the purpose of holding polygamists indefinitely, although this practice was eventually struck down. When the Edmunds-Tucker Act allowed spouses to testify against their husbands, some courts tried to force the women to testify, illegal as this was.
The Mormons would find that to be tried was to be convicted. And there were many trials. From 1871 to 1896, there were 2,500 criminal cases in the records of the Utah courts and 95 percent of these trials were held for “sexual crimes” such as fornication and adultery. Significantly, it was mostly (if not only) polygamists who were tried for fornication or adultery—no one was much troubled with those men who had mistresses, for example. Even so, not even in the New England of the Puritans were sexual matters enforced so heavily.
Wilford Woodruff and the First Manifesto
Wilford Woodruff became President of the Mormon Church after former President, John Taylor, died while in hiding. Twice (once in 1887, once in 1888), Woodruff asked the Quorum if it would be best to discontinue polygamy in accordance with the law for the physical (or temporal) salvation of the Church. In both cases, they decided that the word of the Lord only could determine whether the practice of polygamy ceased. President Woodruff would inquire of the Lord after the second time and receive a revelation not to end the practice. The Church couldn’t change its practices due to social and legal pressures.
In May of 1890, a bill was introduced to Congress that would bar all Latter-day Saints from holding office or voting, whether they practiced polygamy or not. By mid-May, the government was insisting that the Church renounce polygamy officially. Since the Supreme Court had ruled the Edmunds-Tucker constitutional, the government could take all the Church’s property—even the temples. The government had previously promised not to take these, but this promise would not be kept.
Since temples are essential to salvation in Mormon belief, this was a serious blow. At the same time, the Utah Commission reported that Mormon leaders were still solemnizing plural marriages. The leaders of the Church believed that they were being accused of performing these plural marriages in Utah (which they were no longer—they had stopped in 1889). Indeed, John Taylor had decreased the overall amount of plural marriages performed, and Wilford Woodruff had likewise kept the numbers low. The Church was on the verge of destruction nonetheless. Thus, some Church leaders wanted to make an official statement that polygamous marriages were no longer performed in Utah.
Wilford Woodruff went to the Lord. In response, he was given a vision by revelation exactly what would take place if plural marriage did not cease. He was shown that the Church would suffer the
“confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve [Apostles] and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead” (Official Declaration—1, Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto).
As Wilford Woodruff entered his office the morning of 24 September 1890, he told Bishop John R. Winder and President George Q. Cannon that he had not slept much the night before. He had been “struggling all night with the Lord about what should be done under the existing circumstances of the Church.” The Manifesto was the result. The Church leaders approved it with some slight changes. It was released to the nation’s newspapers the next day. The first week in October, Utah’s territorial delegate, John T. Caine, informed the First Presidency of the refusal of the U.S. Government to recognize the Manifesto unless it was formally accepted by the Church’s General Conference.
General Conference convened Saturday morning 4 October 1890. The Manifesto was read to the Saints in attendance and received unanimous support. President Cannon then spoke and laid before the congregation the position of the Church concerning the doctrine of plural marriage. He explained that the membership had accepted the doctrine as it was given through revelation from the Lord, and had suffered much in trying to live it. Every possible legal process had been pursued to the government in order to protect it and guarantee the rights of the Saints. Still, the government had withdrawn more and more of their rights, causing even more suffering. Even with all the pressure from government leaders, they had obeyed the law of God until He sent a revelation directing that the practice of plural marriage be stopped. He concluded by stating that the Manifesto was from God and that it was supported by the General Authorities of the Church. He directed the Saints to go to the Lord in prayer to receive from Him a confirmation of this for themselves.
President Woodruff closed the conference with this testimony:
I want to say to all Israel that the step which I have taken in issuing this manifesto has not been done without earnest prayer before the Lord. I am about to go into the Spirit World (he was of advanced age)….I expect to meet the face of my Heavenly Father….I have done my duty, and the nation of which we form a part must be responsible for that which has been done in relation to this principle. I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty (Millennial Star, 24 Nov 1990).
Relations with the U.S. Government improved and raids ceased. It was generally understood that husbands would not be required to reject their current wives or children. It was true that polygamy was severely restricted, especially in the territory, but the practice would continue for a number of years. Although cohabitation was forbidden, this also continued.
In 1894 President Grover Cleveland added to the general pardon of men, not practicing polygamy since 1890, by issuing a more general amnesty. In 1893 Church property was returned. The quest for Utah statehood was renewed. Two political parties were disbanded—the Mormon-oriented People’s Party, and the anti-Mormon Liberal Party. The goal was to bring Utah politics more in line with the national political system. Mormons tended to be Democrats, because the Republican leaders were mostly responsible for the recent persecution of the Church. To create a political balance, however, Latter-day Saints were encouraged by their leaders to join both parties. In 1894-95 Utah created a viable state constitution disallowing the practice of polygamy. On January 4, 1896, Utah became a state.
In 1896, the Church issued a political manifesto guaranteeing the separation of church and state, and the Church’s intention not to encroach upon the political rights of any citizens.
The Second Manifesto and the End of Polygamy
Under Joseph F. Smith, Mormon polygamy would end for certain. The Reed Smoot Senate hearing would bring government pressure on the Church again. Reed Smoot had not been able to take his seat in the Senate, because the Mormons were still perceived to be practicing polygamy. The prophet turned to the Lord.
Then came the Second Manifesto in 1904. This pointed out that the Church, itself, had not sanctioned the new marriages (technically correct) and that the punishment for further practice would be excommunication. Unfortunately, two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, were not in harmony with their fellow leaders regarding the scope and meaning of the original Manifesto, nor were they able to agree with the second pronouncement issued by President Smith. Following the Smoot hearings, these two apostles submitted their resignation from the Quorum. It was known that they had performed plural marriages since the first manifesto had been issued. Their resignation did much to symbolize that plural marriage had indeed ended. Six years later, John W. Taylor was excommunicated for taking a plural wife after his resignation from the Twelve. Elder Cowley, though never reinstated to the Quorum of the Twelve, nevertheless remained faithful to the Church.
This second manifesto stood as doctrine. The Lord had ended polygamy.
Today, polygamy is not practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and those who do practice it are excommunicated. So it has been for over one hundred years. Today’s practitioners of polygamy are not members of the Church. During the 1990’s one polygamous group registered the name of its church as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This group calls itself ”Mormon,” leading to much confusion, and causing the real Mormon Church to have to defend itself in the press.
For a much more thorough treatment, visit: Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication