Mormon plural marriage

Mormon plural marriage

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Although Wilford Woodruff had previously been one of the most vocal opponents of surrendering the practice of plural marriage, almost as soon as he became presiding authority of the Church as senior apostle, he favored further compromise. By 17 September 1887, Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, and Church lawyer LeGrand Young privately expressed themselves as convinced that it was necessary for polygamists to promise the courts to refrain from unlawful cohabitation because they “seem to think it is necessary to do something of this kind in order to convince Congress of the sincerity of our efforts to gain Statehood.”103 But when Wilford Woodruff presented this as a proposal to the rest of the apostles twelve days later, he did so in a noncommittal way as a “document without date or signature but supposed to have come from the Administration at Washington,” to which he added LeGrand Young�s draft of the exact wording polygamists might use in making such a promise before the courts.

Woodruff apparently did not express his earnest support for this proposal to the apostles who voted it down because they were of “the almost unanimous opinion that no latter-day saint could make any such promise and still be true to the covenants he had made with God and his brethren when in the House of God and having wives sealed to him.”104

President Woodruff�s reason for not simply announcing his decision about this proposed polygamy concession and asking for the apostles� sustaining vote was that he was facing a difficult administrative dilemma that seriously limited his leadership. On one hand, several of the apostles (particularly thirty-year old Heber J. Grant) had already told President Woodruff that they regarded him as too old and wanted a younger, more vigorous man as Church president.105 On the other hand, the younger, more vigorous, and eminently qualified man to whom Wilford Woodruff looked as his counselor and strength was George Q. Cannon against whom half of the apostles bore various personal and administrative grudges of such intensity that they effectively blocked the organization of the First Presidency for almost two years following the death of John Taylor. The apostles had already convened on 3 August 1887 for the first of several periodic meetings where they not only severely criticized Cannon but also indicated that they had deep-seated resentments against the former First Presidency for making decisions and setting policy without consulting the apostles. The apostles were so polarized that when Wilford Woodruff specifically proposed organizing the First Presidency in March 1888, four apostles voted against the motion.106 All this frustrated Wilford Woodruff�s desire to organize the First Presidency and choose his counselors, made him hesitant as president of the Quorum to tell the apostles he approved the proposition for which he was ostensibly asking their evaluation but actually seeking their endorsement, and caused him by 1889 to confide to his secretary that “he would about as soon attend a funeral as one of our council meetings.”107

In 1888, Mormon leaders sent out mixed messages about continuing the practice of plural marriage. In February, the Salt Lake Stake President Angus M. Cannon testified that President Woodruff had stopped “for nearly a year” giving recommends for plural marriages in the temple; and yet Cannon married another plural wife in the Salt Lake Endowment House the day before he testified and again five months later. During that year polygamous marriages continued to be performed in the Logan Temple by Marriner W. Merrill, in the Salt Lake Endowment House by Franklin D. Richards, aboard ship by Francis M. Lyman, and in Mexico by Moses Thatcher and Alexander F. Macdonald.108 In April, Wilford Woodruff expressed dismay that some speaker at the general conference had referred to plural marriage, despite a decision by the apostles to avoid such expressions,109 yet at the dedication of the Manti Temple on 17 May 1888, President Woodruff said, “We are not going to stop the practice of plural marriage until the Coming of the Son of Man.”110 Nevertheless, in July the Church�s emissaries in Washington, D.C., obtained the commitment from the U.S. Solicitor that the temples would be safe from confiscation under the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, and in August 1888, Utah�s delegate to the House of Representatives, John T. Caine (who was also an unofficial representative of Church authorities) stated in the House: “Mr. Speaker, there is no longer a possibility of objecting to Mormons on account of polygamy. That is a dead issue. It can not be vitalized …. because it has ceased to exist.”111 Yet when the apostles met before October 1888 conference to discuss the question:

“Shall we repudiate plural marriage to save the half Million dollars the U.S. has seized,” they decided to let the Church lawyers conduct the legal challenges as best they could without an officially announced end of polygamy, “and we retain our honor before men, and our integrity to God.”112

Newspapers reported that the non-Mormon allies of the Church were severely disappointed that the October 1888 conference adjourned with “no further revelation upon the polygamy question. It was fondly hoped . . . that some good angel would speak out commanding the Saints to abandon polygamy at least �for a season,�”113 and the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that under Idaho law all Mormons were disfranchised because the Church president had made no statement abandoning polygamy:

That although the evidence went to indicate that the practice of polygamy or bigamy had neither been advised, counseled nor encouraged within the past two years, yet it was nowhere shown that a like modification had been made in the teachings and doctrines of the general Church in such a way as to reach the whole body of members in that Church…. Such a course might have been expected at the last General Conference, but as no movement of the kind had taken place, it was safe and proper to conclude that nothing of the kind might be anticipated in the near future.114

Rather than acquiescing to non-Mormon expectations of an official pronouncement at October conference validating what the Salt Lake Stake president had said in February and what Utah�s delegate had said in August, the apostles gave the Idaho saints permission to “withdraw from membership” as Latter-day Saints in order to vote, a decision the Quorum regretted within three weeks.115

Almost three months later, on 20 December 1888, Wilford Woodruff, still without an organized First Presidency, asked the apostles to consider a document “said to have come from Washington, but no name or names were given to it,” which was addressed to the Latter-day Saints in Utah and throughout the United States, “asking them to conform their lives to the Laws of Congress,” a document which was supposed to be signed by all the Church leaders when published.116 It is impossible to ignore the parallels between this situation and the circumstances of the September 1887 document that we know Wilford Woodruff wanted approved, even though he did not mention his preference to the apostles who rejected the proposal in 1887. After having his secretary read the 1888 document twice to the Quorum, President Woodruff said, “It is of the greatest importance that we decide by the Spirit what decision to make regarding the same” and, making no comment on the document itself, asked the rest of the apostles to express themselves from youngest to eldest. George Q. Cannon, George Teasdale, and John W. Taylor were absent from the meeting, but all the other apostles rejected the document; and John Henry Smith, Francis M. Lyman, Moses Thatcher, and Joseph F. Smith said that they could not approve such a document without the word of the Lord through Wilford Woodruff, the senior apostle.

After this overwhelming repudiation, Woodruff told the apostles, “Had we yielded to that document every man of us would have been under condemnation before God. The Lord never will give a revelation to abandon plural marriage.” If these had been his views before the apostles rejected the document, it is unlikely that he would have asked them to consider signing it. Even the degree of compromise to which Presidents Taylor and Woodruff had already acquiesced by the end of 1888 was unsatisfactory to the apostles, as indicated in Heber J. Grant�s comment about this meeting: “I thank God sincerely for a stopping point in the plan of yielding & compromising that we have been engaged in, of late.”117President Woodruff�s diary does not state his own feelings about the decision of the apostles to reject what he described as the “Document got up for us to accept to do away with Poligamy,” but almost the last words he spoke to the apostles on this occasion had a tone of defensiveness: “I don�t feel that I owe any apology in presenting this document and I will now withdraw it and I don�t want anything said about it.”118

Wilford Woodruff had kept his own counsel about the prospects of ending plural marriages until the First Presidency was organized in April 1889 with George Q. Cannon as first counselor and Joseph F. Smith as second. Then President Woodruff made his position more explicit. In June he replied to a resident of the Mormon colonies in Mexico who wanted permission to marry a plural wife: “The spirit of the Lord suggests that extreme prudence and precaution should be observed in reference to these matters for the present, and perhaps for some time to come, especially in regard to my own acts in relation thereto.”119 Even though Alexander F. Macdonald of the Mexican Mission had been allowed to perform two plural marriages for U.S. residents in January 1889, one in May, and two in July, President Woodruff obviously extended the “extreme prudence” of his June letter to a ban on all plural marriages in Mexico: Macdonald performed no other plural marriage there through the rest of 1889.120

Wilford Woodruff did not even advise his first counselor of this decision until 9 September 1889. They were asked by the Davis (Utah) Stake president what to do about requests for polygamous marriages: “President Woodruff, in reply, said . . . I feel that it is not proper for any marriages of this kind to be performed in this territory at the present time . . . He intimated, however, that such marriages might be solemnized in Mexico or Canada.” When President Woodruff invited his counselor to respond, George Q. Cannon was stunned:

I made no reply; for I was not fully prepared to endorse these remarks, and therefore thought it better to say nothing…. This is the first time that I have heard President Woodruff express himself so plainly upon this subject, and therefore I was not prepared to fully acquiesce in his expressions; for, to me, it is an exceedingly grave question, and it is the first time that anything of this kind has ever been uttered to my knowledge, by one holding the keys.121

Cannon�s remarks indicate that both he and Wilford Woodruff knew that the public statements in 1888 about the cessation of new plural marriages did not describe reality; plural marriages had continued to be performed in and out of Utah by Church authority. Further, Cannon obviously did not conceive the idea of restricting plural marriage, but in fact resisted every effort, first by John Taylor and now by Wilford Woodruff, to make what Cannon regarded as compromises of “the Principle.” Finally, Cannon�s remarks make clear that it was not until September 1889 that the First Presidency decided not to issue any more recommends for plural marriages in Utah. Consequently, previously signed plural marriage recommends were used in new marriage ceremonies throughout the summer until 22 September 1889 in the Salt Lake Endowment House and until 2 October in the Logan Temple.122

Coincidentally it was on 2 October that Wilford Woodruff called a meeting of the First Presidency and apostles to announce this policy. He explained that he felt it was necessary due to the publicity of the recent arrest of Hans Jesperson, who had married his plural wife in the Salt Lake Endowment House the previous April. George Q. Cannon had overcome the uncertainty he felt when President Woodruff revealed his intentions the previous month and told the other apostles that he “was not in favor of plural marriages being performed in this Territory, but they might be attended to in Mexico or Canada, and thus save our brethren from jeopardy in attending to these matters.” Lorenzo Snow suggested that if this was President Woodruff�s new policy, there should be a public announcement of it, but Snow�s motion was opposed by Counselor Joseph F. Smith and by Apostles Francis M. Lyman and John W. Taylor. In view of the situation then and thereafter, John W. Taylor�s comment at this meeting was prophetic:

This is something that I never expected to hear discussed in this light. I have understood it was policy for the brethren to take wives outside of the United States. You could not publish that you will not give your consent that plural marriages shall be consummated and at the same time have the marriages consummated in Canada or Mexico. I think it will be best policy to let the matter rest without saying anything about it, because if plural marriages are solemnized it will soon be known and we will be considered insincere. I feel to have faith that the Lord will bring something about for our deliverance. If we published anything on this matter it will be impossible for us or the Elders to fully explain to the Saints, and much confusion will ensue.123

Despite this warning and the consensus of the meeting of 2 October 1889, less than two weeks later Wilford Woodruff made the following statements during a newspaper interview:

“I have refused to give any recommendations for the performance of plural marriages since I have been president. I know that President Taylor, my predecessor, also refused. “. . . I am confident,” said the president, “that there have been no more plural marriages since I have been in this position, and yet a case has recently occurred which I will say to you I do not understand at all. It is giving us a good deal of trouble. Perhaps you have heard of it?, The president referred to the Hans Jesperson case . ..”It seems incredible if it is true,” Woodruff said, “It is against all of my instructions. I do not understand it at all. We are looking into it and shall not rest until we get at all the facts. There is no intention on our part to do anything but to obey the law.”124

It should not have been difficult for President Woodruff to discover the facts about the Jesperson plural marriage in the Salt Lake Endowment House in April 1889: Apostle Franklin D. Richards performed the ceremony, which was recorded in the Endowment House sealing record, and the most likely individuals to have signed the recommend were either President Woodruff himself or George Q. Cannon.125 A week later, President Woodruff authorized the destruction of the Salt Lake Endowment House, not, as later claimed in the 1890 Manifesto, because the Jesperson plural marriage was performed there in April 1889, but as a part of a plan to employ hundreds of Mormons who were not residents of Salt Lake City on work projects so that they could register to vote against the anti-Mormon political party in the upcoming Salt Lake City election.126

A month later, the Church attorneys urged that it would help the Church�s cause in the courts by having John W. Young testify under oath that the First Presidency had ruled no plural marriages were to be performed, and “there was some mention made of this being done in Conference and not in the court.” George Q. Cannon vigorously argued against the proposal because it would not persuade the Church�s enemies and would “hurt the feelings and faith of our own people…. I want President Woodruff, if I can have my feelings gratified and if anything is to be said on this subject in this direction, to be able to say, �Thus saith the Lord.� The matter was then dropped.”127 President Woodruff considered the matter alone for several hours that evening and dictated a revelation of 24 November 1889 which stated in part:

Let not my servants who are called to the Presidency of my church, deny my word or my law, which concerns the salvation of the children of men…. Place not your selves in jeopardy to your enemies by promise . . . Let my servants, who officiate as your counselors before the Courts, make their pleadings as they are moved by the Holy Spirit, without any further pledges from the Priesthood, and they shall be justified.

A month later, President Woodruff presented this revelation to the Quorum of the Twelve, who rejoiced in its message. Apostle John Henry Smith wrote, “How happy I am,” Apostle Franklin D. Richards said the reading of the revelation gave “great joy” to the Twelve, and Abraham H. Cannon wrote, “My heart was filled with joy and peace during the entire reading. It sets all doubts at rest concerning the course to pursue.”128

But if anything, the 1889 revelation painted the First Presidency into a corner. It specifically denied Wilford Woodruff�s prayerful request to issue an official statement in court or in a general conference that there were to be no more plural marriages, and inevitably, the General Authorities to whom this revelation had been presented would remember it in responding to future developments.

Events took an increasingly disastrous turn on 3 February 1890, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the section of the Idaho state constitution that disfranchised all Latter-day Saints in Idaho; and on the 10th of the month, the anti-Mormon political party won the Salt Lake City election.129 On the same day the Church lost political control of Salt Lake City, George Q. Cannon�s newspaper interview was published in response to the central question: “Why doesn�t the head of your Church�the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles�issue an official declaration upon the subject. Why don�t you say, as a Church, that polygamy is no longer taught and is not encouraged by the Church?” Of course this was the very announcement the 1889 revelation prohibited the First Presidency from making, but Cannon obviously did not want to tell the newspaper that. Instead, he said that such an announcement would give ammunition to those who claimed that Mormons blindly followed their leaders, and then President Cannon simply stated: “Plural marriages have ceased. Those of us, men and women, who went into polygamy years ago are dying off. A few years will end that issue.”130 Plural marriages had ceased in Utah, but (possibly in response to the revelation of 24 November 1889) the First Presidency had already resumed giving recommends for plural marriages to be performed in Mexico. Alexander F. Macdonald performed twenty-four polygamous marriages there from 1 January through 27 June 1890.131 Meanwhile, George Q. Cannon met on 17 February 1890 with the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Senator Calvin S. Brice, and used similar arguments against Brice�s recommendation for a public announcement of the cessation of plural marriages. Cannon added, “How could any man come out and say that it was not right or that it must be discontinued, and set themselves up in opposition to God.”132 Yet the motivation was increasing for doing something substantial to deflect the federal crusade against polygamy. In April 1890, bills were proposed in the U.S. House and Senate to disfranchise all Latter-day Saints because they belonged to an organization that taught and encouraged polygamy.133

By May 1890, the federal government was pushing the Church further down the road of compromise. On 3 May, the Deseret Evening News editorialized: “The practice of polygamy has been suspended, if not suppressed.”134 This did not impress federal officials who demanded an official statement ending plural marriages, and two weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Edmunds-Tucker Act was constitutional in its provisions to discorporate the Church and confiscate Church properties.135 By mid-May, George Q. Cannon, his son Frank, and other Church emissaries were at the nation�s capital in a desperate effort to persuade the House and Senate Committee on Territories to table the bills that would disfranchise all Mormons. Eight years later, a semi-official history by Orson F. Whitney said that Secretary of State James G. Blaine intervened on the Church�s behalf “with the understanding that something would be done by the Mormons to meet the exigencies of the situation.”136 Blaine did not simply make this assumption, but he also prepared a document “for the leading authorities of the Church to sign in which they make a virtual renunciation of plural marriage,” which Counselor Cannon showed to his son, Apostle Abraham H. Cannon, in mid-June 1890 at New York City.137 George Q. Cannon appreciated Blaine�s good will but, as later events show, ignored Blaine�s proposed document as merely one more piece of unsolicited non-Mormon advice.

When Cannon returned to Salt Lake City later in June, the second counselor in the First Presidency, Joseph F. Smith, warned him that plural marriages being performed in Mexico might become public knowledge because “the last few who had gone down there to meet Brother Macdonald had attracted considerable attention.” That was an understatement. Early in June, ten couples accompanied Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., and his intended polygamous wife to Mexico. According to the son of one of these couples, the excursion was conducted like a gala outing:

He [Young] sent word through the grapevine that if there was any couples up in this area, these stakes, that contemplated marrying into polygamy that they were to catch this train. They went down to Cache Junction. They caught the train there and went to Salt Lake. There was others that went with them. They went down there [to Mexico] and Brigham Young Jr. married another polygamous wife and he had several wives.

The group arrived at the Mexican border on 7 June 1890, and Alexander F. Macdonald performed the polygamous marriages for all eleven couples the same day.138 Whatever concern the First Presidency felt about this report was increased on 20 June when George M. Brown, a polygamist lawyer who had moved to the Mexican colonies to avoid arrest, warned the First Presidency that “international difficulty” could result if U.S. authorities learned of the plural marriages Macdonald was still performing in Mexico for U.S. citizens who were returning to the United States.139

This report confirmed Wilford Woodruff�s reluctance for having allowed (possibly at the urging of his counselors) the new polygamous marriages after he had stopped them in Mexico in June 1889 and in Utah in September 1889. “He has not felt very favorable to marriages being solemnized at all,” George Q. Cannon wrote, “but has consented to some few being performed in Mexico.” President Woodruff had allowed twenty-three recommends to be issued for polygamous marriages in Mexico from December 1889 to the mass marriage of 7 June 1890, after which he had approved only one more marriage which Macdonald performed on 27 June. George Q. Cannon then noted that on the afternoon of 30 June 1890 the First Presidency concluded “for the present” that there would be no plural marriages even in Mexico unless the plural wife remained there.140

The First Presidency undoubtedly felt impelled to make this decision because they had just received the text of the Senate�s new disfranchisement bill. The Deseret Evening News printed it the same afternoon, commenting that it was more likely to be passed in Congress because the bills proposed earlier in the year were too drastic to succeed.141 This decision of 30 June 1890 ended new authorized polygamous marriages throughout the world until the Manifesto-connected events of October 1890.

The next two months were filled with new disasters. On 1 July, the Senate introduced a bill that would bar polygamists or anyone belonging to an organization teaching or promoting polygamy from homesteading in Wyoming; on the 15th, the anti-Mormon political party won the Salt Lake City school trustees election and now had control of secular education in that city; on the 29th the Utah Supreme Court ruled that polygamous children could not inherit from their fathers� estates, and on 5 August the anti-Mormon party won most of the county offices in Salt Lake and Weber Counties.142 Then President Woodruff began to hear rumors that the U.S. government might attempt to confiscate the Church�s three most important and sacred buildings, the Manti, Logan, and St. George temples. Before Brigham Young, Jr., left Salt Lake City for a mission to England on 16 August, he heard President Woodruff exclaim, “We must do something to save our Temples.”143 On 30 August and 1 September came direct confirmation of the government�s intent, despite the agreement in 1888 not to disturb the temples.144 For nine years, Wilford Woodruff had publicly warned that the government would want the Saints to give up all temple ordinances if they gave up the practice of polygamy. Federal officials were now on the verge of confiscating the temples because he would not officially announce the abandonment of polygamy; yet the revelation he dictated in November 1889 specifically instructed: “Place not yourselves in jeopardy to your enemies by promise.” It was a cruel dilemma for an eighty-three-year-old man who valued temples and temple ordinances above anything else, and he hurriedly left Salt Lake City with his counselors on 3 September 1890 for San Francisco to avoid being subpoenaed to testify in the court case.145

Part 5