Polygamy's Odyssey

A brief history of the Mormon tenet

Joseph Smith, a 24-year-old New York farmer, founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830. Relying heavily on Old Testament teachings, Smith introduced polygamy to fellow "Saints" in 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois. A year later, Smith was assassinated in Carthage, Illinois.

Polygamy became a fundamental tenet of the Mormon Church in 1852 under the direction of Brigham Young, a polygamist who in 1847 led the Mormons into what is now Salt Lake City.

Young warned that Mormons risked their salvation by refusing to accept polygamy.

The early Mormon Church believed that God ordered man to practice plural marriage through an Old Testament commandment to Abraham to take his handmaid, Hagar, as a second wife, after his first wife, Sarah, was unable to bear a child.

Polygamy, however, met with widespread public disapproval and, along with slavery, vehement opposition from the federal government.

Repeated attempts by the Utah territory to become a state beginning in 1849 were rejected by Congress, largely over concerns about polygamy.

In 1858, President James Buchanan dispatched the military to remove Young as territorial governor. Four years later, Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriages in U.S. territories. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill.

In 1874, Young's personal secretary, a polygamist named George Reynolds, volunteered to become a defendant in a federal case to determine the constitutionality of the Morrill Act. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Reynolds' conviction for bigamy in 1879.

The court ruled that to excuse Reynolds' polygamy on the basis of religion would be to "make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land. . . . Government could only exist in name under such circumstance."

The Mormon Church continued its defiance of the Supreme Court decision. Church apostle Wilford Woodruff declared in January 1880 that he had received a revelation while on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff that whoever tries to stop the church from practicing the "Patriarchal Law of Abraham" shall "be damned."

Congress stepped up pressure in 1882 when it passed the Edmunds Act, which made polygamy a felony, and unlawful cohabitation a misdemeanor.

By 1887, Mormon Church leaders were telling members that polygamous marriages could be conducted as spiritual unions rather than civil marriages and that ceremonies could be conducted in Mexico.

The next year, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act that threatened to destroy the Mormon Church. The law called for the dis-incorporation of the church and the seizure of church property worth more than $50,000.

Despite the immediate confiscation of $800,000 worth of Mormon Church property, Mormon leadership continued to hold fast to polygamy.

But in April 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Edmunds-Tucker law, increasing the threat that the Mormon Church would be dissolved. Meanwhile, arrests of polygamists had topped 1,300. Many church leaders, including Woodruff, had gone into hiding.

Not only was the church threatened, it was clear that Congress would not grant Utah statehood until the Mormon leaders abandoned polygamy.

It was under such duress that Woodruff, by then president of the church, issued a September 24, 1890, press release that had not been formally approved by Church authorities. It urged Mormons "to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land."

Woodruff, who until this moment had been an ardent supporter of plural marriage, also believed that the world was going to end in 1890. Thus, some historians note, his gesture to give up future plural marriages didn't mean much.

In addition, his statement failed to address the status of existing plural marriages. The statement, which became known as the Woodruff Manifesto, was approved by Church leaders on October 3, 1890.

In an editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune declared the "manifesto was not intended to be accepted as a command by the President of the Church, but as a little bit of harmless dodging to deceive the people of the East."

It certainly was not welcomed by polygamous Mormons in the West. Many vowed to continue the plural marriages, no matter what laws were enacted by federal and state governments. The renegades pointed to a revelation four years earlier received by Woodruff's predecessor, John Taylor, as justification.

Taylor reportedly claimed that on September 27, 1886, God and the late Joseph Smith appeared before him, and God commanded that the only way man can "enter into my glory" is by doing "the works of Abraham."

After Taylor was levitated 18 inches off the ground and filled with a bright light, he awarded the power to conduct plural marriages to a handful of men, wrote one of the sanctified gentlemen, Lorin C. Woolley.

Despite the Woodruff Manifesto and Utah gaining statehood in 1896, plural marriages continued under the direction of Woolley and others.

In 1929, seven polygamist leaders met in Salt Lake City and formed a Priesthood Council led by Woolley. The group declared itself superior to the Mormon Church: "This organization [receives] its direction and authority direct from God, while the Church is a quasi-Democracy, all things in it being done by common consent," council member Joseph Musser stated.

Meanwhile, the Mormon Church began excommunicating Mormons practicing polygamy -- including Woolley and members of the Priesthood Council. Ironically, the excommunications occurred even though some mainstream Mormon Church leaders continued living in and entering into plural marriages. Among them was Heber J. Grant, who pleaded guilty to polygamy in 1899 in Utah and paid a $100 fine. Grant later served as president of the Mormon Church until his death in 1945.

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