This video discusses what polygamy looked like in the 19th Century in Utah, why the practice was stopped and why its ending presented new challenges for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (otherwise known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church).
On this video, I’m going to be talking about polygamy, part 2. I was going to do the endings of polygamy and the afterlife, but as I put together the material there, I had quite a bit for the afterlife. And I didn’t want to really breeze through it quickly, so decided to do a part 3, which will be the next video I put out, and cover that specifically. So this is about the ending(s) plural, and I’ll get to that in a minute, of polygamy.
First of all, let’s talk about some of the stats with polygamy. When the saints were in Utah, at the height of the practice of polygamy, if you include everyone, the men, the women, and the children together, the stats at the height was about 50% of the population in 1857, which was known as The Reformation Period, when they were really focused on this. By 1870, it was down to about 25-30%. Over the entire time span that they were in Utah, until the manifesto, statisticians have estimated around 15-20% of the population.
This varied widely by different towns as well. Porterville was 60%, it was one of the highest. Coalville was one of the lowest at about 6%, as an example. Also, if you take a look at the picture on the screen, this is often when you think about polygamists, you’ll think of a huge number of wives, for example, Brigham Young here. But this was not the typical polygamist in Utah. In fact, 2/3 of those that were practicing polygamy, the men had two wives. Another 20% had three wives. Really, only one in ten had more than three wives in the practice of polygamy.
Also, they had very easy divorce laws. It was the easiest in the entire United States. Very liberal laws. If you remember, when they were in Illinois, I talked about this in the last video. Extremely difficult to get a divorce. Most on the frontier would not go through the legal steps because of the challenges. And basically go by behavior in the community to have a divorce. So very liberal. And in fact, 10% of the polygamists wives did actually divorce. They felt a lot of freedom to change. Many of them would actually enter another polygamist relationship when they get divorced. The divorce rate of monogamist was at 1%. Polygamist at 10%. Kind of interesting.
Also, to give you an idea on the numbers, when I talked about in the last video about Jacob 2 as one of the reasons for polygamy, to raise up seed unto the Lord. And if you look, it was interesting in the Face to Face devotional that Elder Cook had as they launched the new church history publication Saints from the Nauvoo Temple, they had some people there from the church history department. Matt Grow said that the church history department has done a recent study that found that as of today, 20% of the members of the church came as a result of the practice of polygamy. I found that stunning. In fact, I was curious. I would love to see a stat of what this was 50 or 60 years ago, before the global expansion of the church and the dramatic number of converts the last half century. In fact, it was probably at 40, maybe even 50%. So I would say, it worked for that purpose specifically.
Okay. So, who practiced polygamy? If you will look at this slide from the Gospel Topics Essay on LDS.org on plural marriage, it says, “During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God. Not all, however, were expected to live it. Indeed, this system of marriage could not have been universal due to the ratio of men to women. Church leaders viewed plural marriage as a command to the Church generally, while recognizing that individuals who did not enter the practice could still stand approved of God. Women were free to choose their spouses, whether to enter into a polygamous or monogamous union, or whether to marry at all. Some men entered plural marriage because they were asked to do so by church leaders, while others initiated the process themselves. All were required to obtain the approval of church leaders before entering a plural marriage.” A very key part of the revelation, that it was controlled through priesthood keys.
My fourth great-grandpa was one of the original bishops here in the Salt Lake valley. He was asked to practice polygamy, and declined. He did not want to do it. His son was one of those asked to help settle the frontier down in southern Utah. Kanarraville was where he was, and he did take on a second wife as he went down there in practice. And he was a bishop in the Kanarraville area down there. So, different things happened there along the way.
Let’s talk about the laws that came about, and why polygamy manifesto came in 1890. What led up to that. So first of all, in 1856, the Republican party, partially part of their platform was to take on slavery and polygamy. They called it the twin relics of barbarism. And that was part of the first shot at polygamy. Then some laws that came about. If you look at the screen here, in 1862, Congress passed the Moral Anti-bigamy Act, which made practicing polygamy a felony. However, the law was full of loopholes and didn’t hold any weight in the Latter-Day Saint dominated Utah courts.
So, in 1874, the government resolved that judicial loophole with the Poland Act. This law stated that all polygamy cases would be tried in federal courts, with federally appointed judges. This was the Latter-day Saint judges or juries couldn’t just dismiss the cases. Along the way, the church members were still practicing polygamy, and practicing civil disobedience in a sense, but they believed it was part of their First Amendment rights, the freedom of religion, to practice your religion.
So in 1879, the church had challenged this in Supreme Court. It was held up as constitutional. And then in 1882, because the last act, you had to prove that a marriage happened. Essentially, witnesses, which was again very challenging. So in 1882, they started to put some teeth in this. The Edmunds Act made unlawful cohabitation a crime, and anyone who broke the law could be in prison for six months. Unlawful cohabitation was a much easier judicial standard to prove than bigamy or polygamy, because prosecutors didn’t have to provide evidence of a marriage.
So then the big one was the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. And at this point, in 1885 to 1889, most of the apostles, stake presidents, they were either in hiding or in prison. It was an extremely challenging time, what was beginning to happen, and this specific act was really what was the final nail in the coffin of polygamy. This act accomplished three things. Number one, it disenfranchised, took the vote away from all the women in Utah, and polygamous men. That was a big deal. Utah was actually the second state to allow voting. Wyoming was the first, in 1869. Utah was in 1870. In fact, many that were against polygamy thought that women would rise up if they gave them the vote. In fact, they did just the opposite of that. They rallied around polygamy. But they took that away. Two, they froze the assets of the Church in excess of $50,000. Basically bankrupting the Church and crippling it’s missionary efforts. And third, it declared all children of plural marriages to be illegitimate in the eyes of the government.
This was then challenged in the Supreme Court in 1890. It was held up to be constitutional. That is what led to Wilford Woodruff praying heavily about the Manifesto. The issuing of the Manifesto. This was extremely challenging, but he had a vision of where the church would end up with this. And the Lord even said to talk to the people, the Latter-Day Saints, and share with them this question. With 60 million people against us, we are going to lose everything. All the temples, all of the men, the leaders of the church, everyone will be imprisoned, and polygamy will be stopped in the end, or we can stop it now through a Manifesto, and be able to keep all these things. And that was how the Lord asked Wilford Woodruff essentially to share this with the church. Very interesting.
The actual Manifesto was similar to a press release the way it is. It had some ambiguity. It didn’t really have a manual with it how to go about this. And what about if you were already in polygamous relationships. And listen to the last sentence of this. Wilford Woodruff, President Woodruff, “And now I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-Day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” So some Saints viewed this as a political expediency that helped Utah to become a state, but they didn’t feel like, necessarily, maybe this was still God’s law. It trumped the law of the land. Some still practiced it. It went down significantly, and a lot of the marriages that happened were down in Mexico during this time period. But some did still happen.
It is interesting to see what Wilford Woodruff … there were some excerpts in the Manifesto that they put. This is actually in their canonized scriptures here, some excerpts from three addresses by Wilford Woodruff. And this is where we get that famous line that many have memorized from Wilford Woodruff. He says, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.” And I think Wilford Woodruff felt like he really needed to say this now, with this big, big change on deck there.
And if you look on the screen here, something that he did publish as part of the excerpts here. He says, “I should have let all the temples go out of our hands. I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of Heaven commanded me to do what I did do. And when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write.” So, as we go on, what then happens is very challenging situations, politically. The first Senator that was elected was B.H. Roberts, to the Senate, and we had tremendous problems there. He actually was not seated. There was 7 million signatures in our country to protest B.H. Roberts being seated as a Senator, even though we were a state, because he was a polygamist. And he did take on one wife after the Manifesto was executed. So it was a big furor in the country back then. That was in 1898.
1902, Reed Smoot is elected Senator, and he is a monogamist, but after what happened with Reed Smoot and many countrymen throughout the United States not believing the Church as far as them not practicing polygamy now, they had four years of hearings with Reed Smoot. And it was just brutal, gut-wrenching. Joseph F. Smith, the prophet at that time in 1904, came and testified before Congress. After that, he said that he was going to put out a second Manifesto. This was a watershed moment for the Church. This is where, really, the true deadline, if you will for practicing polygamy came about here.
If you look on the screen, this is from the Gospel Topics Essay on plural marriage. “In this legal setting, President Smith sought to protect the Church while stating the truth. His testimony conveyed a distinction Church leaders had long understood. The manifesto removed the divine command for the Church collectively to sustain and defend plural marriage. It had not, up to this time, prohibited individuals from continuing to practice or perform plural marriage as a matter of religious conscience.
During his Senate testimony, President Smith promised publicly to clarify the Church’s position about plural marriage. At the April 1904 general conference, President Smith issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, attaching penalties to entering into plural marriage. If any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage, he will be deemed in transgression against the Church, and will be liable to be dealt with according to the rules and regulations thereof, and excommunicated therefrom. This statement had been approved by the leading councils of the Church and was unanimously sustained at the conference as authoritative and binding on the Church.
The Second Manifesto was a watershed event. For the first time, Church members were put on notice that new plural marriages stood unapproved by God and the Church.” This was a very big deal. Two of the Twelve were actually dropped for performing plural marriages. One of them was actually excommunicated, the other disfellowshipped for performing plural marriages after this Second Manifesto.
I didn’t actually get a chance. I was going to put together a little visual. I love how Brian Hales at a Fair Mormon conference had a great visual just showing this timeline of polygamy practiced in the Church. So if you can envision this, from 1834 to 1852, polygamy was permitted in the Church. From 1852 in Utah, to 1890, polygamy was actually commanded. You can go back to, it wasn’t commanded for everyone to practice, but it was commanded on the church level there. From 1890 to 1904, polygamy was again permitted. And if you think about it, the Lord is so merciful. This was gut wrenching. Very challenging. Wait until I talk about that in the next video, about this Abrahamic sacrifice. And we will be required to do this in the afterlife necessarily.
And so, you think about how structurally challenging, and culturally in society, to do something like this. The Lord allowed it to phase in, and to phase out, and I think that’s very merciful. Now, the thing I wanted to finish with on this was polygamists today. And where they trace their roots back to some critical events during this time frame here. In 1886, supposedly, John Taylor had a special meeting with a group of 13. It was eight hours long. It was on September 27, 1886. In this meeting, supposedly, he said he had a vision that polygamy was to carry on and continue on forward. Even outside the Church, if it had to be, to continue forward. And he even set apart, supposedly, five people to ensure that this was able to carry on. Even if it had to go outside the Church. This was the key crux that they lean back to, is that these keys went outside the church structure on here.
There are some real challenges to this. In the book Persistence of Polygamy, if you look at the screen here, I actually just took a screenshot of this page. I thought it was fascinating. If you look at these 13 people that were at that meeting, the five in the middle there that’s kind of the grayed out box there, those were the five that were set apart. And let’s look at their behavior. The actual behavior.
How many of these men took upon themselves plural wives after the Manifesto? It’s all zeros. None of them. If you go past the Second Manifesto, none of them took on a second wife except for one, Lorin Woolley. And if you look, who reported that there was this special meeting that took place? There may have been a meeting. There may have even been a revelation for John Taylor to continue forward and rally around practicing polygamy at that time in 1886. But look at the date, 1912. This is 26 years after the event, and he was the one that took on a wife after the Second Manifesto there. Very interesting. None of the others. There’s one other, it was 43 years later, Daniel Bateman talked about this meeting that John Taylor had.
But there’s a much more critical measure here that I would say, and it’s following the living prophet. If you think about it, this principle here. And I love what Dallin H. Oaks said in this BYU Devotional in June of 1992. “The most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.”
This continued to be a challenge for several decades. In 1933, Heber J. Grant actually issued a Third or Final Manifesto, as some call it. Very strong wording. Actually, it required a loyalty pledge for those who were viewed as potentially practicing polygamy. If they did not sign this loyalty pledge, they were excommunicated. This is actually where the Fundamentalist groups got their start, the two big groups. The AUB, the Apolistic United Brethren, and then FLDS today. And there’s estimate maybe 30 to 60 thousand people still practicing today in those two groups. So that’s where they tie back to. But what a great principal for us. The keys are with the living prophet.
I hope this video was helpful, and I look forward to the next one about practicing polygamy in the afterlife.
See Polygamy – The Beginnings Video for related resources
Additional Gospel Topics Essays:
Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah: https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-mar…
The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage https://www.lds.org/topics/the-manife…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.