The doctrine and practice of plural marriage, publicly announced in 1852 to be an integral part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint doctrine, probably generated more opposition than any other factor in nineteenth-century Mormon experience. After years of determined resistance to governmental pressure to end the practice, including test cases in the federal courts, hopes waned of receiving a favorable outcome. The most crucial development was the Davis v. Beason decision in 1890 in which the United States Supreme Court upheld an Idaho law denying the vote to non-polygamist church members who simply believed in the doctrine of plural marriage. Thereafter, opponents promptly aimed at legislation, through the Cullom-Struble Bill, to apply this disfranchisement nationwide.
This law was on its way to passage when powerful Republican party leader James G. Blaine intervened to at least postpone it, with the stipulation that church leaders alter their stance on plural marriage. There was some indirect communication between Blaine and a former congressional friend, George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the presidency of the LDS Church, through the latter's politically active son, Frank J. Cannon. Soon after this, another son, Abraham H. Cannon, examined a document drafted by Blaine; the dedicated young polygamist described it as "a virtual renunciation of plural marriage," which, he confessed, caused his feelings to revolt at such a prospect.
In late June 1890 the First Presidency quietly announced a resolution prohibiting further plural marriages. This applied "even in Mexico, unless the contracting parties, or at least the female," resolved to remain in that country after the wedding. This was a most significant change in policy, particularly in relation to the subsequent Woodruff Manifesto, making the latter action basically a public announcement of a previously implemented policy. And that was the way some contemporary church officials regarded it.
Throughout the remainder of the summer, the new church policy continued to prohibit plural marriages within the United States and to severely discourage them even beyond the national borders. However, this was not announced publicly, and thus federal officials such as the Utah Commission, charged with eradicating polygamy, assumed and reported further plural marriages. Though such reports were considered false by some church authorities, they were expected to lead to further negative repercussions unless countered in some way, perhaps by public disclosure of the new prohibition on new plural marriages.
Of far greater concern was the interest of some federal officials in discovering a means of seizing control of the four temples then existing in Utah. Logan Temple president Marriner W. Merrill noted after a conversation with Church President Wilford Woodruff that the contemplated public announcement appeared to be "the only way to retain the possession of our temples and continue the ordinance work for the living and dead which was considered of more importance than continuing the practice of plural marriage for the present."
Thus, there were severe pressures on Woodruff; but he had previously withstood such from both within and outside the church. However, as he and George Q. Cannon later explained, this time was different in that the church leader felt what he considered to be divine inspiration to so act. The document was drafted, undoubtedly with assistance from other church writers, and sent by telegram to Utah delegate to Congress, John T. Caine, to disseminate among the congressmen and to the newspapers in the East. The Manifesto denied most of the allegations of recent plural marriages and affirmed the church president's intention to influence fellow members to obey the law of the land.
When the general authorities assembled soon thereafter, they discussed the Manifesto and their views of its application. Several specifically affirmed their intention to continue to live with their plural wives and have children by them, using their wits to avoid prosecution for such actions. And Woodruff's other counselor, Joseph F. Smith, wrote to one of his plural wives at the time to assure her that the Manifesto did not affect them at all, but rather simply prevented those who had neglected to enter the practice from being able to do so.
It is clear from President Woodruff's subsequent actions that he intended his announcement to persuade government officials to ease the harshness of their prosecutions and punishments of those who had more than one wife. He was particularly concerned about rights and status of the plural wives and their children. But no improvement in these conditions was immediately forthcoming, prompting still further concessions. These included the advice to avoid, at least for the present, the very appearance of cohabiting with plural wives. But the church leaders also encouraged the brethren involved to maintain their commitments of financial support of such wives and families. The entire situation placed many in difficult circumstances and would lead to considerable misunderstandings and ambiguity in the ensuing years. A more definitive prohibition of plural marriages was necessarily issued in 1906.
In subsequent years, the 1890 Wilford Woodruff Manifesto, the motion offered by Lorenzo Snow and sustained at General Conference on 6 October 1890, along with excerpts from three addresses by Wilford Woodruff given between 1890 and 1893 on the Manifesto, have been included in the Doctrine and Covenants--one of the four volumes of LDS holy scripture. Mormons who have not accepted the Manifesto as a binding revelation and who openly advocate the practice of polygamy have been subject to church disciplinary action. A number of individuals have affiliated with groups known collectively as "Fundamentalist Mormons" for their continued belief in polygamy.
See: Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (1986); Michael D. Quinn, "LDS Church Authority and the New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring, 1985); Richard S. Van Wagner, Mormon Polygamy, a History (1986); and B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (1992).
Edward Leo Lyman