Trading Polygamy for Statehood?

09 Oct

Was the Church wimping out in 1890 – did it trade a true principle for statehood?  The Mormon Heretic takes a look at the situation the LDS Church was faced with:

I’d like to get into some of these details leading up to the Manifesto.  (This is a shorter version–more details are found here.)  I talked about the Manifesto previously in the context of whether the prophet would ever lead the church astray.  It should be noted that the church had been fighting federal anti-polygamy legislation for nearly 30 years, so I think it should be noted that the Manifesto banning polygamy in 1890 was not a spur-of-the-moment quick capitulation.  I’ll be taking my quotes from 2 books: Forgotten Kingdom by David Bigler, and Great Basin Kingdom, by Leonard Arrington.It was during the administration of Abraham Lincoln that the first federal anti-polygamy legislation passed Congress, but Lincoln wanted to ignore the issue.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln’s first priority was slavery.  In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which (from Wikipedia)

banned plural marriage and limited church and non-profit ownership in any territory of the United States to $50,000.[1] The act targeted the Mormon church ownership in the Utah territory. The measure had no funds allocated for enforcement, and President Lincoln chose not enforce this law; instead Lincoln gave Brigham Young tacit permission to ignore the Morrill Act in exchange for not becoming involved with the Civil War.[2] General Patrick Edward Connor, commanding officer of the federal forces garrisoned at Fort Douglas, Utah beginning in 1862 was explicitly instructed not to confront the Mormons over this or any other issue.

The footnote at Wikipedia is especially interesting.  Quoting from the book, Firmage, Edwin Brown; Mangrum, Richard Collin (2001), Zion in the courts, University of Illinois Press, p. 139, ISBN 0252069803,,

“Having signed the Morrill Act, Abraham Lincoln reportedly compared the Mormon Church to a log he had encountered as a farmer that was ‘too hard to split, too wet to burn and too heavy to move, so we plow around it. That’s what I intend to do with the Mormons. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.’”

If the church had capitulated at this point, I can understand critics who say that the church traded polygamy for statehood.  The church had been applying for statehood for 40 years when it finally happened, and were always ignored by Congress.  In fact, the state of Utah is less than half the size of the original territory of Deseret.  Congress split the Deseret Territory, and created the territory of Nevada.  Congress continued to take away slices of Utah and added them to Nevada in 1861, 1864, and 1866.  Check out this map.  Nevada even became a state before Utah, even though it was created after Utah.

Utah continued to practice polygamy in defiance of federal law for another 20 years following the Morrill Act.  Congress made several attempts to handle “The Mormon Question”.  Leonard Arrington (former church historian) documents some of these laws on page 357 from his book called Great Basin Kingdom.  (Much more detail is in the book.)

  • The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 – passed.
  • The Wade Act of 1866- failed to pass.  It would have prohibited church officers from solemnizing marriages, would have taxed the church, taken over the Nauvoo Legion, and sent federal officials to take over all government responsibilities, among other things.
  • The Cullom Bill of 1869-70 – passed House but failed Senate.  Plural wives would have been deprived of immunity as witnesses involving their husband.  It would have authorized the President to send army of 25,000 to Utah, and would confiscate all property of any Mormon.
  • The Ashley Bill of 1869 – failed to pass.   Here’s an exact quote:  “The bill provided for “the dismemberment” of Utah by transferring large slices of it to Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado.”
  • The Poland Act of 1874 – passed.  Gave federal attorney general and federal jurisdiction  over criminal, civil and chancery (equity) cases in Utah.
  • The Edmunds Act of 1882 – passed.  Quoting from page 358, the act

put teeth” in the 1862 law and attempted to eliminate the Mormon Church as a power in Utah by vesting the political machinery of the territory in federal non-Mormon appointive officers.  Specifically, the Edmunds Act provided heavy penalties for the practice of polygamy: defined cohabitation with a polygamous wife as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $300, by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or both; declared all persons guilty of polygamy or cohabitation incompetent for jury service; and disfranchised and declared ineligible for public office all persons guilty of polygamy or unlawful cohabitation…all elective offices were declared vacant…persons professing belief in polygamy or cohabitation as a religious principle, whether or not proved guilty of their practice, were ineligible to vote and to hold public office…in the first year of its existence it had excluded some 12,000 men and women from registration and voting.

when, on March 3, 1885, the Supreme Court denied  Clawson’s appeal and upheld the constitutionality of the law, territorial officials commenced the intensive prosecution of Mormon leaders in Utah and elsewhere known as “The Raid.”

Polygamous marriage being difficult to establish in the courts, the most common charge against the Mormons what of unlawful cohabitation, punishable by a $300 fine or six months in jail, or both.

There were 1,004 convictions for unlawful cohabitation under the Edmunds Act between 1884 and 1893, and another 31 for polygamy, but these hardly measure the magnitude of the effect of the Act upon Mormon society.  The period from 1885 to 1890 was marked by intensive “polyg hunts” for “cohabs.”  Officials of the church made a grave decision to fight each and every charge under the law.  Having taken sacred covenants to remain true to their wives “for time and all eternity,” they regarded it as unthinkable that they should desert these women in order to avoid punishment provided in the law of Babylon.  Accordingly, when it became clear early in 1885 that rigorous enforcement and interpretation of the law were to be held constitutional, church leaders–nearly all of whom had one or more plural wives–went “underground.”

…page 360

With almost all leaders of Latter-day Saint communities in prison or in hiding, business establishments were abandoned, or were kept in operation by inexperienced wives and children.  The ownership of the co-operatives drifted into the hands of a few individuals and eventually were converted into private enterprises.  Those United Orders which had survived until this period were discontinued.  There were no further meetings of Zion’s Central Board of Trade.  Almost every business history, in short, shows stagnation; almost every family history records widespread suffering and misery.  Above all, the church, as prime stimulator, financier, and regulator of the Mormon economy, was forced to withdraw from participation in most phases of activity.  The Raid, in other words, was a period of crippled group activity of every type, of decline in cooperative trade and industry–a period when, above all, church economic support was essential but not forthcoming–a period when planning would have saved much, but when planners dared not plan.

A more despairing situation than theirs, at that hour, has never been faced by an American community. Practically every Mormon man of any distinction was in prison, or had just served his term, or had escaped into exile.  Hundreds of Mormon women had left their homes and their children to flee from the officers of the law; many had been behind prison bars for refusing to answer the questions put to them in court; more were concealed, like outlaws, in the houses of friends…Old men were coming out of prison, broken in health.

The Edmunds-Tucker Act

Nevertheless, the Edmunds Law was unable to force a change in the attitude of Latter-day Saint authorities. It was an unwilling cross, but one which the create majority of members seemed prepared to bear rather than yield on what they regarded a religious principle.  Congress therefore moved almost immediately to increase the pressure, and after considering several proposals during a number of sessions, adopted, on February 19, 1887, an amendment to the 1862 law known as the Edmunds-Tucker Act.  Enacted into law without the signature of President Grover Cleveland, this “Anti-Polygamy Act,” as it was entitled, amended the 1862 law to provide as follows:

1.  That the Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, insofar as it had, or pretended to have, any legal existence, was dissolved.  The United States Attorney General was directed to instituted proceedings to accomplish dissolution.

2.  That the Attorney General institute proceedings to forfeit and escheat all property, both real and personal, of the dissolved church corporation held in violation of the 1862 limitation of $50,000, which was reaffirmed.  The property was to be disposed of by the Secretary of the Interior and the proceeds applied to the use and benefit of the district schools of Utah.

The books continues on, with 3 more items, including the abolition of women suffrage.  (Utah was the first or second state to allow women to vote–quite progressive, eh?)  Continuing from page 361,

The Edmunds-Tucker Act was a direct bid to destroy the temporal power of the Mormon Church.  Congressional leaders reasoned that the church would have to yield on the principle of plural marriage or suffer destruction as an organization of power and influence.  Church leaders did not see the matter in this light, however.  They believed (and were supported in this belief by several constitutional lawyers of national reputation) that several features of the Edmunds-Tucker Act were unconstitutional.  They further declared that they could not revoke the principle of polygamy:  Only God could do that; and, if He so decided, He would do so by direct revelation to the church–not by prohibitory national legislation.

The book details how many properties, including the Tithing Office, were placed or sold into private church members and/or stake hands, and hidden as much as possible.  A series of legal battles ensued as federal officials tried to track down church assets.  However, the government did uncover many of these transactions, and took control of the assets.  Arrington goes into great detail about many of these trials.  A trustee was appointed, and he charged enormous fees to maintain records of these properties.  He was removed later, but many of the church properties were squandered as payment for his services.

In January 1889, the church challenged the constitutionality of the confiscated properties, but lost again in the Supreme Court.  From page 375, the majority Supreme Court opinion read,

“Under these circumstances we have no doubt of the power of Congress to do as it did.”

However, the opinion was not unanimous.  Chief Justice Fuller and associate justices Field and Lamar

wrote a short but vigorous dissent based on the States’ Rights doctrine which had reached its farthest in the Dred Scott decision.  Wrote the Chief Justice:

In my opinion, Congress is restrained, nor merely by the limitations expressed in the Constitution, but also by the absence of any grant of power, express or implied in that instrument….  If this property was accumulated for purposes declared illegal, that does not justify its arbitrary disposition by judicial legislation.  In my judgment, its diversion under this Act of Congress is in contravention of specific limitations in the Constitution; unauthorized, expressly or by implication, by any of its provisions; and in disregard of the fundamental principle that the legislative power of the United States, as exercised by the agents of the people of this Republic, is delegated and not inherent.

From page 377,

The second effect of the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Edmunds-Tucker Act was the church “Manifesto” proclaiming an end to the performance of plural marriage.

The Supreme Court decision on May 19, 1890 was nearly the final blow.  David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom page 354 outlines an even more ominous problem.

What made this ruling truly ominous was the appointment two months later of Henry W. Lawrence, a leader of the Godbeite schism, as receiver of church property.  He replaced the moderate former U.S. marshal Frank H. Dyer, who had earlier agreed to keep hands off the church’s temples under the provision of the law that exempted buildings used exclusively for “the worship of God.”  The Utah Supreme Court had approved this determination.  Now Lawrence and U.S. attorney Charles Varian, reappointed in 1889 by President Harrison, made it known they intended to overturn the agreement on the ground that temples in Logan, St. George, and Manti did not qualify for exemption since they were not places of public worship.  If upheld, this move would lead to confiscation of the church’s holiest places, where its most sacred ordinances were performed, including marriages.

Arrington writes in Great Basin Kingdom on page 355 that Church president Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal on Sept 25, 1890,

“I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the president of the Church…where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church.”  On that date, just four months after the fateful decision of the Supreme Court, President Woodruff issued the “Official Declaration” which proclaimed the end of polygamy among the Mormons:

Inasamuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.

In the October 6 session of the general conference of the church, the congregation “unanimously sustained” this declaration as “authoritative and binding.”  Polygamy no longer had official sanction.

Forgotten Kingdom adds additional detail here.  From page 356,

While many treated the manifesto with skepticism, one who took it at face value was the magistrate who had sent more men to prison for violating  the marriage laws than anyone else.  The day after it was sustained, Judge Charles Zane on October 7 said that he would record the church “opposed to polygamy hereafter, unless something happened to change my opinion,” and he began only to fine violators, but not impose prison time.

Arrington, author of Great Basin Kingdom concurs discusses the issue of statehood on page 377,

The Manifesto declaring an end to officially sanctioned plural marriages also enabled the Mormons to achieve the goal of statehood, which had been denied them for over forty years.  Statehood gave them the prospect of getting rid, once and for all, of the unwanted and unfriendly federally appointed governors, judges, marshals, attorneys, and commissioners who had fought against them since 1852.  As part of the “deal” by which this was arranged, church officials are said to have given congressional and administration leaders to understand that they would support a proposition to prohibit forever the practice of polygamy in Utah; that the church would dissolve its Peoples’ Party and divide itself into Republican and Democratic supporters; and that the church would discontinue its alleged fight against Gentile business and relax its own economic efforts….The Raid had finally culminated in the long-sought goal of statehood, but had produced capitulation in many areas of Mormon uniqueness, not the least of which was the decline in the economic power and influence of the church.  The temporal Kingdom, for all practical purposes, was dead–slain by the dragon of Edmunds-Tucker.

So, what do you make of these events?  Did the church wimp out?  Should the church have defended the temples like the Jews did in the days of Nero?  Many Jews died, the temple was taken anyway and hasn’t been rebuilt in 2000 years.

Comments on this article can be read here

1 Comment

Posted by on October 9, 2009 in Marriage


One response to “Trading Polygamy for Statehood?

  1. Katchaturian

    May 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    The end of the 1960s and the 1970s heralded the end of decency as we know it especially in light of polygamy which was outlawed with Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto, and in the 21st century we live such that polygamy is now a bright spot in U.S. history and even today. Cohabitation has drowned Polygamy.


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