LDS Restorationist movement, including the Mormon Churches
Polygyny during the later 19th century
Relations between the LDS Church and the U.S. federal government after 1855:
The following is a timeline of events leading up to the suspension of new
polygynous marriages by the LDS Church in 1890. It is important to realize that
the other LDS Restorationist churches -- the ones left behind in the mid-West
after Brigham Young and his followers moved to Utah by -- never engaged in
polygyny. During this interval, many attempts were made
to achieve statehood for the territory of Utah. All were unsuccessful --
largely because of their marriage policies:
1856: The recently formed Republican Party called, in
its national platform, for the abolition of the "Twin Relics of
Barbarism, Slavery and Polygamy." 1
1862: The LDS Church's
practice of polygyny was criminalized by the federal Morrill
Anti-Bigamy Law which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law on
1862-JUL-8. There were actually two unrelated federal laws often referred
to as the "Morrill Act;" the other deals with land grants for
universities. 2 The
anti-bigamy Morrill Act It made bigamy a federal offense and
assigned a punishment of up to five years in jail and a $500 fine. The
law also annulled all acts passed by the Territory of Utah's
Legislative Assembly "pertaining to polygamy and spiritual
marriage." Finally, in a direct attack on the LDS church, the law
placed an upper limit of $50,000 on the real estate holdings that any
one religious or charitable organization could hold in any U.S. territory.
Any holdings over that amount were to be forfeited to the government. "The law,
however, was not enforced in the Utah territory because Mormons
controlled the judicial system. ...Probate courts functioning as local
tribunals had jurisdiction over most criminal offenses, and federal
indictments for polygamy could not be obtained from grand juries
composed of Mormons. ...Thus, despite Congress's efforts, the Mormon
Church still exercised considerable control in the [Utah] territory."
1874: In a test case, George Reynolds, Brigham Young's
secretary, volunteered to be charged under the Morrill Act. The Church
had claimed that the federal government had no jurisdiction to regulate
marriage and other internal church practices. They also claimed that the
act was a violation of Mormons' First Amendment rights.
He was found guilty, given a two year jail sentence, and ordered to pay
a $500 fine.
1879: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Reynold's
conviction. They declared
that the Morrill Act was constitutional, that the government had a right
to enforce marital standards, and that polygyny was a barbarous
1880: LDS leader Wilford Woodruff submitted a revelation he
had received from God to church
president John Taylor and the Twelve Apostles. God promised retaliation against anyone who seeks "...to
hinder my People from obeying the Patriarchal Law of Abraham...your
enemies shall not prevail over you." 1 (This religious law authorized plural marriages.)
1882: The federal Edmunds Act
amended the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law of 1862 to make it more punitive. It canceled the citizenship rights of polygamous Mormons.
They were no longer allowed to vote, run for public office, or serve on a
1887: Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal that "...scores
of the Leading Men of the Church [are] in prison and the Presidency and
Twelve & many others in Exile for obeying the Law of God." The
federal government passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act as a supplement
to the Edmunds Law. This authorized the government to disincorporate the Church and to
confiscate its assets.
1889: Wilford Woodruff, now president of the LDS, received a revelation
from Jesus Christ who promised that he would protect the church's practice of
polygamy from attacks by the federal government.
1890: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government
could deny the right to vote or hold office to all Mormons who practiced
the Law of Abraham, or who merely believed in plural marriage. Later in
the year, they ruled that the Edmunds-Tucker Act was
constitutional, and that the federal government could repeal the LDS church
charter and dissolve the church. The situation had reached a critical
point in the Utah territory.
When the federal government announced that they would start to seize the
temples, the LDS Church decided to obey the federal law. At that time, the Church
announced that they had received a revelation from God that changed church beliefs and practices.
The fourth president of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto
(called the "Great Accommodation") on 1890-SEP-24. It
theoretically suspended the solemnization of new plural marriages for an
wrote, in part,
"And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is
to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land."
During the next thirteen and a half years,
"... members of the First Presidency individually or as a unit
published twenty-four denials that any new plural marriages were being
performed. The climax of that series of little manifestoes was the 'Second
Manifesto' on plural marriage sustained by a vote of a general conference."
According to Mormonism Research Ministry:
"Members who were intent on living the principle did so by having their
marriages solemnized in Mexico and Canada as well as off shore on ships.
Leaders encouraged such relationships. When the news of this duplicity began
to enrage American sensibilities, the LDS Church was eventually compelled to
issue another declaration of policy, the Manifesto of 1904, signed by
then-president Joseph F. Smith, who was a practicing polygamist. From this
point on, the LDS Church began to seriously punish, via excommunication,
those who continued to live in polygamous relationships. 5
President Joseph F. Smith issued a statement on 1904-APR-6
that stated, in part:
"Inasmuch as there are numerous reports in circulation that plural
marriages have been entered into contrary to the official declaration of
President Woodruff, of September 24, 1890, commonly called the Manifesto. ... I,
Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
hereby affirm and declare that no such marriages have been solemnized with the
sanction, consent or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
In spite of the denials, a few such marriages were apparently sealed outside
the U.S. as late as
1910 for trusted leaders of the Church .
U.S. President Cleveland issued a statehood proclamation for Utah on
1896-JAN-04, six years after the manifesto was declared. Although no new
polygamous marriages were conducted after the 1920's, existing plural marriages
continued to receive strong support from the Church.
According to a letter published in the Salt Lake Tribune:
weddings (or sealings, as we call them) are still performed in Mormon
temples around the world today. These sealings unite living members of the
church to deceased members in a 'spiritual' polygyny that the church
teaches will become actual in the next life. For faithful LDS, in a very
real sense it [polygamous marriages] never left."5
Some Mormons rejected the "Great Accommodation." They felt that
plural marriages were a fundamental part of the LDS Church's culture and were an important
practice, ordered by God. Some small Mormon splinter groups formed at that time
to preserve polygyny. All were
excommunicated from the LDS Church. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is the largest of these. It is still in
existence in the U.S. and Canada. Its members still practiced polygyny with
minimal to no interference from state, provincial or federal governments until 2008,
when the State of Texas raided their YFZ (Yearning For
Zion) ranch near Eldorado TX and took 416 children into custody.
B. Carmon Hardy, "Solemn Covenant: The Mormon polygamous passage,"
University of Illinois Press, (1992). This book concentrates on the post-manifesto era from 1890 to 1910. Read
reviews or order this book