prisoners, State Penitentiary, 1888
When establishing the LDS Church, Joseph Smith recorded numerous revelations
he claimed to receive, often in answer to questions about the Bible, which
are now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, part of the LDS canon.
In answer to his question as to why many of the Old Testament leaders had
more than one wife, Smith received what is now known as Section 132. Although
the revelation was not recorded until 1843, Smith may have received it in
the 1830s and married his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, in 1835. Polygamy
was not openly practiced in the Mormon Church until 1852 when Orson Pratt,
an apostle, made a public speech defending it as a tenet of the church.
From 1852 until 1890, Mormon Church leaders preached and encouraged members,
especially those in leadership positions, to marry additional wives.
A majority of the Latter-day Saints never lived the principle. The number
of families involved varied by community; for example, 30 percent in St.
George in 1870 and 40 percent in 1880 practiced polygamy, while only 5 percent
in South Weber practiced the principle in 1880. Rather than the harems often
suggested in non-Mormon sources, most Mormon husbands married only two wives.
The wives usually lived in separate homes and had direct responsibility
for their children. Where the wives lived near each other, the husbands
usually visited each wife on a daily or weekly basis. While there were the
expected troubles between wives and families, polygamy was usually not the
only cause, although it certainly could cause greater tension. Since polygamy
was openly practiced for only a short time by Mormons, there were no established
rules about how family members should relate to each other. Instead, each
family adapted to their particular circumstances.
Reactions from outside the church to statements about polygamy were immediate
and negative. In 1854 the Republican party termed polygamy and slavery the
"twin relics of barbarism." In 1862 the United States Congress
passed the Morrill Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories,
disincorporated the Mormon Church, and restricted the church's ownership
of property. The nation was in the midst of the Civil War, however, and
the law was not enforced. In 1867 the Utah Territorial Legislature asked
Congress to repeal the Morrill Act. Instead of doing that, the House Judiciary
Committee asked why the law was not being enforced, and the Cullom Bill,
an attempt to strengthen the Morrill Act, was introduced. Although it did
not pass, most of its provisions later became law. Out of a number of other
bills introduced during the 1870s against polygamy, only the Poland Act
passed, in 1874. It gave district courts all civil and criminal jurisdiction
and limited the probate courts to matters of estate settlement, guardianship,
The Mormons continued to practice polygamy despite these laws, since they
believed that the practice were protected by the freedom of religion clause
in the Bill of Rights. To test the constitutionality of the laws, George
Reynolds, Brigham Young's private secretary, agreed to be tried. In 1879
the case reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the Morrill Act: "Laws
are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere
with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices."
In 1882 Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which was actually a series of
amendments to the Morrill Act. It restated that polygamy was a felony punishable
by five years of imprisonment and a $500 fine. Unlawful cohabitation, which
was easier to establish because the prosecution had to prove only that the
couple had lived together rather than that a marriage ceremony had taken
place, remained a misdemeanor punishable by six months imprisonment and
a $300 fine. Convicted polygamists were disenfranchised and were ineligible
to hold political office. Those who practiced polygamy were disqualified
from jury service, and those who professed a belief in it could not serve
in a polygamy case. All registration and election officers in Utah Territory
were dismissed, and a board of five commissioners was appointed to direct
Because the Edmunds Act was unsuccessful in controlling polygamy in Utah,
in 1884 Congress debated legislation to plug the loopholes. Finally, in
1887, the "hodge-podge" Edmunds-Tucker Bill passed. It required
plural wives to testify against their husbands, dissolved the Perpetual
Emigrating Fund Company (a loan institution that helped members of the church
come to Utah from Europe), abolished the Nauvoo Legion militia, and provided
a mechanism for acquiring the property of the church, which already was
disincorporated by the Morrill Act. The Cullom-Struble Bill with even stricter
measures was debated in 1889, but the Mormon Church helped to prevent its
passage by promising to do away with polygamy.
All of these pressures had an impact on the church, even though they did
not compel the Latter-day Saints to abolish polygamy. Church leaders as
well as many of its members went into hiding--on the "underground"
as it was called--either to avoid arrest or to avoid having to testify.
Mormon Church President John Taylor died while in hiding. His successor,
Wilford Woodruff, initially supported the continued practice of polygamy;
however, as pressure increased, he began to change the church's policy.
On 26 September 1890 he issued a press release, the Manifesto, which read,
"I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain
from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land." The
Manifesto was approved at the church's general conference on 6 October 1890.
Rather than resolving the polygamy question, however, according to one historian:
"For both the hierarchy and the general membership of the LDS Church,
the Manifesto inaugurated an ambiguous era in the practice of plural marriage
rivaled only by the status of polygamy during the lifetime of Joseph Smith."
Woodruff's public and private statements contradicted whether the Manifesto
applied to existing marriages. As a result of the Manifesto, some men left
plural wives; others interpreted it as applying only to new marriages. All
polygamous general authorities (church leaders including the First Presidency,
Council of the Twelve Apostles, church patriarch, First Council of Seventy,
and Presiding Bishopric) continued to cohabit with their wives. Based on
impressionistic evidence in family histories and genealogical records, it
appears that "most" polygamists followed the general authorities'
"In Memoriam Brigham Young," Puck, 1877
Neither did all new plural marriages end in 1890. Although technically against
the law in Mexico and Canada, polygamous marriages were performed in both
countries. Mormon plural families openly practiced polygamy in Mexico; the
Canadian government allowed Mormon men to have only one wife in the country,
so some men had a legal wife in the United States and one in Canada. In
addition, a few plural marriages were performed in the United States.
During the Senate investigation in 1904 concerning the seating of Senator-elect
Reed Smoot, a monogamist but a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,
Mormon Church President Joseph F. Smith presented what historians have called
the "Second Manifesto" on 7 April 1904. It included provisions
for the church to take action against those who continued to perform plural
marriages and marry plural wives. Matthias Cowley and John W. Taylor, both
apostles, continued to be involved in performing or advocating new plural
marriages after 1904, and, as a result, Cowley was disfellowshipped and
Taylor excommunicated from the church. In 1909 a committee of apostles met
to investigate post-Manifesto polygamy, and by 1910 the church had a new
policy. Those involved in plural marriages after 1904 were excommunicated;
and those married between 1890 and 1904 were not to have church callings
where other members would have to sustain them. Although the Mormon Church
officially prohibited new plural marriages after 1904, many plural husbands
and wives continued to cohabit until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s.
Fundamentalist groups who believe that the church discontinued polygamy
only because of government pressure continued the practice. As they were
discovered by the LDS Church, they were excommunicated. Some of these polygamists
have appointed leaders and continue to live in groups, including those in
Colorado City (formerly Short Creek), Arizona, and Hilldale, Utah. Others,
such as Royston Potter, practice polygamy but have no affiliation with an
See: Daniel W. Bachman, "New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins
of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage," Journal of Mormon History
5 (1978); Lowell Bennion, "The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in
1880: `Dixie' versus Davis Stake," Journal of Mormon History
11 (1984); Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle
(1987); Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal
Experiences of the Nineteenth Century (1981); B. Carmon Hardy and Victor
Jorgenson, "The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History,"
Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980); B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn
Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (1991); Stanley S. Ivins, "Notes
on Mormon Polygamy." Utah Historical Quarterly 35 (Fall 1967);
Larry Logue, "A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town,"
Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984); D. Michael Quinn, "LDS
Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904," Dialogue:
A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985); Richard S. Van Wagoner,
Mormon Polygamy: A History (1986); Kimball Young, Isn't One Wife
Jessie L. Embry