Polygamy during the 19th century in Mormon Churches?

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LDS Restorationist movement, including the Mormon Churches

Polygyny during the later 19th century

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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:

bullet 1856: The recently formed Republican Party called, in its national platform, for the abolition of the "Twin Relics of Barbarism, Slavery and Polygamy." 1
bullet 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." 3
bullet 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.
bullet 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 practice.
bullet 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.)
bullet 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 jury.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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The "Great Accommodation" of 1890:

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 indefinite interval.

Woodruff 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." 4

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 Saints." 4

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 . 6,7

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:

"... polygamous 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.

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  1. Perry Porter, "A Chronology of Federal legislation on Polygamy," 1998-MAR-28, at: http://www.xmission.com/
  2. "Backgrounder on the Morrill Act," infoUSA, U.S. Department of State, at: http://usinfo.state.gov/
  3. "Society of Separationists v. Whitehead," American Atheists, at: http://home.att.net/
  4. D.M. Quinn, "LDS Church authority and new plural marriages, 1890 - 1904," at: http://www.lds-mormon.com/
  5. Bill McKeever, "A Look at Fundamentalist Mormonism," Mormonism Research Ministry, at: http://www.mrm.org/
  6. Richard S. Van Wagoner, "Mormon polygamy: A history," Signature books, (1986) Read reviews or order this book
  7. 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

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Copyright 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-DEC-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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