Mormon polygamy after the manifesto

Mormon polygamy after the manifesto

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Unlike the situation at Nauvoo, however, the Church president neither authorized nor encouraged such denials once the Mormons settled in Utah. Brigham Young told a meeting of the Utah territorial legislature in February 1851: “Some Deny in the States that we have more wives than one I never Deny it I am perfectly willing that the people at Washington should know that I have more than one wife & they are pure before the Lord and are approved of in his sight.”64 Nevertheless, not until August 1852 did President Young officially end the secrecy (and the need for denials) by announcing to the world that the Latter-day Saints believed in and practiced “Celestial Marriage.”


At this point, plural marriage entered a new dimension of its ambiguous history. Although denials of polygamous practice were no longer necessary and although Brigham Young was in the forefront of an effort to provide institutional and social support for plural marriage within Utah, he actually fostered an ambiguity concerning polygamy that was to last throughout the rest of his leadership of the Church.

The most public evidence of that ambiguity during Brigham Young�s presidency involved the 1835 Article on Marriage. In 1852 the Church authorities published the full text of the revelation authorizing polygamy in the Deseret News, LDS Millennial Star, and in other periodicals and pamphlets, but the newly announced revelation was not added to editions of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876. Instead, the 1835 Article on Marriage (which denied polygamy and defined the Church as strictly monogamous) was printed in four English language editions of the Doctrine and Covenants published in England between 1852 and 1869 by Mormon apostles who were practicing polygamists. It would not have been a difficult matter to have dropped the article from these editions, even if there was reluctance to print the 1843 revelation on the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage within the European editions of the Doctrine and Covenants.

In addition to doctrinal ambiguity during the nineteenth century about whether practicing polygamy was necessary for a man to be exalted in the celestial kingdom,65 Church leaders during Brigham Young�s presidency sent out mixed messages about the permanence of the practice of plural marriage. In 1855, Counselor Heber C. Kimball publicly announced, “The principle of plurality of wives never will be done away,” but three years later Brigham Young was so exasperated by the number of applications for divorce among polygamous marriages that he privately announced that he “did not feel disposed to do any [polygamous] sealing just now.”66 President Young ended this temporary suspension of polygamy within a short time, but at April conference of 1861 he stated: “I would say, if the Lord should reveal that it is his will to go so far as to become a Shaking Quaker, Amen to it, and let the sexes have no connection. If so far as for a man to have but one wife, let it be so. The word and will of the Lord is what I want�the will and mind of God.”67 Yet four years later, he said, “As for polygamy, or any other doctrine the Lord has revealed, it is not for me to change, alter, or renounce it; my business is to obey when the Lord commands, and this is the duty of all mankind.”68

Shortly after Congress outlawed polygamy in 1862, there were apparently appeals from friendly non-Mormons for the Church to voluntarily surrender the practice of polygamy without government coercion. Brigham Young responded in June 1866: “But suppose that this Church should give up this holy order of marriage, then would the devil, and all who are in league with him against the cause of God, rejoice that they had prevailed upon the Saints to refuse to obey one of the revelations and commandments of God to them.”

He then affirmed that such a surrender would be followed by a demand to give up all other distinctive doctrines and practices of the LDS Church.69 Nevertheless, two months later, Brigham Young said: “If it is wrong for a man to have more than one wife at a time, the Lord will reveal it by and by, and he will put it away that it will not be known in the Church.”70 As the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought the prospect of an increased non-Mormon population in Utah, Apostle George Q. Cannon replied to those who wondered if the Church would surrender the practice of plural marriage: “God has revealed it, He must sustain it, we cannot; we cannot bear it off, He must,” and Apostle Wilford Woodruff reaffirmed, “If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right.”71 Brigham Young demonstrated his resistance to the Morrill Act by fathering five more polygamous children and marrying six more wives after 1862.72

In the early 1870s, at the same time he and other Church leaders were affirming that it was not necessary for a man to be a polygamist to be exalted eternally, Brigham Young was also encouraging private and public discussion of the possibility that the practice of “this most holy principle” could be stopped altogether by another revelation, by special circumstances, or by administrative decision of the Church president. In May 1871, President Young told the congregation at the Salt Lake Tabernacle that if Congress would pass a law compelling every man in the United States to marry honorably, “we would abandon polygamy,” and in June of that year he preached:

“If it is right, reasonable and proper and the Lord permits a man to take a half a dozen wives, take them; but if the Lord says let them alone, let them alone. How long? Until we go down to the grave, if the Lord demand it.”73

After Brigham Young was indicted for adultery in September 1871,74 these public statements were more significantly echoed in the private discussions of the Salt Lake School of the Prophets, attended by the General Authorities and all prominent Church leaders in the Salt Lake Valley. In December 1871, Daniel H. Wells, second counselor in the First Presidency, introduced the subject by stating, “It is possible that we as a people may be denied the principle of a plurality of wives�hereafter, for not honoring it thus far…. If we do not honor this great principle, God will surely take it from us.” At a subsequent meeting of the School that month, Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., said that he personally could not give up the practice of plural marriage, “unless Prest. Young was to take the responsibility upon himself, by counseling us to lay it aside for the time being,” following which Counselor Wells read a letter from President Brigham Young that “there was no danger of us having to surrender any portion of our religion�but as to Polygamy, if anything ever caused that principle to be withheld from us, it will be in consequence of the God of Heaven being displeased with many who have gone into it.”75

To some, these statements about not surrendering but withholding the practice of plural marriage seemed to be a calculated prelude to the 1872 constitutional effort for Utah statehood, which included a proposed state constitution that invited Congress to establish its own terms for admission of Utah.76 But George Q. Cannon, who chaired the committee that adopted the constitutional provision, privately gave the reassurance “that no man of the First Presidency or Twelve Apostles has ever had any idea of giving up the doctrine of celestial marriage, or its practice,” but significantly observed that they “certainly have never made such idea, if they have had it, public.”77 Yet even after the failure of the 1872 statehood effort, Brigham Young affirmed that if every marriageable man would marry, “we would not be under the necessity, perhaps, of taking more than one wife.”78

For twenty years of his presidency, Brigham Young made and apparently authorized others to make at least tentative suggestions that under certain circumstances the practice of plural marriage could be suspended or stopped altogether with God�s sanction. Apostle John Henry Smith (who was a bishop during this time and did not marry a plural wife until the year of Brigham Young�s death) observed: “Prest. Young once proposed that we marry but one wife.”79 Many Mormons may have come to similar conclusions.


Young�s successor as senior apostle and Church president from 1877 to 1887 was John Taylor, renowned for his unflinching defiance of federal pressure to end polygamy. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law in 1879, John Taylor told the October general conference that Congress had committed a “shameless infraction of the Constitution of the United States,” which the Supreme Court had confirmed but that “no legislative enactment, nor judicial rulings” would stop the Latter-day Saints from following their conscience in obeying God�s command to practice plural marriage.80 In 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds Law which provided up to five years� imprisonment and a $500 fine for entering into polygamy, six months� imprisonment and $300 fine for the resulting unlawful cohabitation, and which disfranchised polygamists. President Taylor responded with a sermon in which he asked, “Are we going to suffer a surrender of this point?” and then he answered, “No, never! No, never!”81 He made his resistance to what was now the Constitutional law of the land more emphatic in October 1882 by announcing a revelation of God which stated: “You may appoint Seymour B. Young [a monogamist] to fill up the vacancy in the presiding quorum of Seventies, if he will conform to my law; for it is not meet that men who will not abide my law shall preside over my Priesthood.”82 As federal pressure increased to arrest polygamists and otherwise suppress Mormon polygamy, John Taylor responded with greater defiance: at a special priesthood meeting at April conference of 1884 he asked for all monogamists serving in ward bishoprics or stake presidencies either to make preparations to marry a plural wife or to offer their resignations from Church office, and he even called out the names of monogamous stake presidents.83 In his last public discourse on 1 February 1885, John Taylor reminded his Salt Lake City audience of the federal efforts to suppress polygamy, and rhetorically asked if he should disobey God in order to support the government. His answer: “No, Never! No, NEVER! NO, NEVER!”84 President Taylor left the stand and went into permanent exile to avoid arrest by federal officers.

For the next two and a half years, John Taylor demonstrated continued resistance to compromise while he was “on the underground” in various hiding places in Utah. In July 1885, he suggested that due to the federal anti-polygamy raid, the American flags on all Church properties be lowered to half-mast for Independence Day, which outraged the non-Mormons of Salt Lake City and nearly caused a riot in the city.85 After eight months in hiding, John Taylor and his first counselor, George Q. Cannon, issued a First Presidency letter at October 1885 general conference: “Well�meaning friends of ours have said that our refusal to renounce the principle of celestial marriage invites destruction. They warn and implore us to yield.” They reported their response: “We did not reveal celestial marriage. We cannot withdraw or renounce it.”86 Four months later, Cannon was arrested by a U.S. marshal, remaining free prior to trial on a $45,000 bail bond, which President Taylor had Cannon forfeit so that he could return to hiding.87

During this 1884-86 period there were numerous appeals by prominent Mormons and friendly non-Mormons for President Taylor to issue a statement or new revelation that would set aside the practice of plural marriage.88 Burdened by his own exile and the sufferings of other Church members, John Taylor “asked the Lord if it would not be right under the circumstances to discontinue plural marriages,” in response to which President Taylor received “the word of the Lord to him in which the Lord said that plural marriage was one of His eternal laws and that He had established it, that man had not done so and that He would sustain and uphold his saints in carrying it out.”89 Presently available documents of 1885-86 are silent about this revelation, but much later documentation and commentary identified this revelation as having been received by John Taylor on 27 September 1886.90

Such a revelation on this date would explain the dramatic change in John Taylor�s personal circumstances and resistance to federal laws against polygamy. Until 1886, John Taylor�s public and private defense against the U.S. government was the argument that he had married his fifteen wives prior to the 1862 Morrill Act, that his last polygamous child had been born in 1881 and therefore all his polygamous children were legitimized by the provisions of the Edmunds Act of 1882, that he had sought to comply with the 1882 Edmunds Act prohibition of unlawful cohabitation by living separately from his plural wives (the youngest of whom was forty-five years old in 1882), “and has entirely separated himself so far as bed is concerned.”91 Yet less than three months after the recording of the 1886 revelation, seventy-eight-year-old John Taylor married as a plural wife twenty-six-year-old Josephine Roueche on 19 December 1886. The ceremony was performed by her father, a high priest, and witnessed by George Q. Cannon and one of the “Underground” guards, Charles H. Wilcken. At the end of 1886, President Taylor had chosen for the first time in his life to specifically violate federal laws on polygamy and unlawful cohabitation, and he lived with his new bride at the Roueche home in Kaysville, Utah, the remaining seven months of his life.92

If anything, John Taylor�s public resistance against compromising the practice of polygamy during his presidency was exceeded by the other General Authorities. The second-ranking apostle, Wilford Woodruff, dictated a revelation in January 1880 (accepted as the “word of the Lord” by John Taylor and the Quorum of the Twelve the following April) which stated in part: “And I say again wo unto that Nation or house or people who seek to hinder my People from obeying the Patriarchal Law of Abraham which leadeth to a Celestial Glory . . .for whosoever doeth those things shall be damned.” A year later Wilford Woodruff told the Latter-day Saints in two published sermons that “if we were to give up polygamy to-day,” they would have to give up revelation, prophets, apostles, temple ordinances, and the Church itself.93 At October 1884 general conference, George Q. Cannon said that the appeal for a new revelation to “lay polygamy aside” was in vain because such a revelation would be useless “unless indeed the people should apostatize.”94

During the year President Taylor went into hiding, Church periodicals bombarded the Latter-day Saints with the message that stopping the practice of plural marriage was impossible. In April 1885, the Deseret Evening News editorialized concerning “the demand that plural marriage relationship be abolished,” and stated, “Were the Church to do that as an entirety God would reject the Saints as a body. The authority of the Priesthood would be withdrawn . . . and the Lord would raise up another people of greater valor and stability.”95 The next month, Counselor George Q. Cannon published two editorials in the Juvenile Instructor in which he acknowledged that some people suggested that “we do not ask you to give up your belief in this doctrine; we merely ask you to suspend for the time being your practice of it,” to which he replied that “I look upon such a suggestion as from the devil,” that doing such a thing would demonstrate utter apostasy, and merit the vengeance of God.96 In June 1885, the Deseret Evening News lashed out against those who used quotations from the Doctrine and Covenants (presently Section 124:49-50) “in favor of the renunciation or temporary suspension of the law of celestial marriage,” and the editorial said that these were “the shallow pretexts of semi-apostates” who were twisting the Doctrine and Covenants quotations out of context, and that this “revelation does not apply even remotely to the present situation.”97 At least as significant as these public repudiations of suspending the practice of plural marriage was George Q. Cannon�s declaration in November 1885 to George L. Miller, an emissary from the Cleveland administration, that even if the First Presidency issued such a statement, the Latter-day Saints would not accept it, “and if they did, and we were to repudiate this principle our Church would cease to be the Church of God, and the ligaments that now bind it together would be severed.”98

Nevertheless, despite the almost universal historical view that John Taylor refused to compromise the practice of plural marriage, he actually promoted an undercurrent of compromise throughout his entire presidency. Although he gave encouragement, revelation, and an ultimatum for presiding officers of the Church to be polygamists, more than a third of President Taylor�s appointments as General Authorities were monogamists, including two of his sons: William W. Taylor (who waited four years after his appointment before marrying a plural wife) and John W. Taylor (who did not marry a plural wife until after his father�s death).99 The degree to which John Taylor was willing to compromise his own public ultimatums as well as the published revelation of 1882 that required presiding officers to be polygamists is indicated by his refusal to grant permission for plural marriages to John W., to John Q. Cannon, son of George Q. and a member of the Presiding Bishopric, and to Bishop Orson F. Whitney. He undoubtedly did this to protect the men from the jeopardy of arrest. Even after this refusal contributed to John Q. Cannon�s excommunication for committing adultery with his long-intended plural wife, John Taylor did not relax this selective suspension of plural marriage for the other two, even though plural marriages continued to be performed from 1885 onward in the Logan Temple and Salt Lake Endowment House.100

Although historians have examined John Taylor�s progression from opposing the inclusion of a prohibition of polygamy in Utah�s proposed 1887 Constitution to allowing such a provision, they have underestimated his enthusiasm for that compromise.101 On 15 June 1887, George Q. Cannon presented to President Taylor the constitutional prohibitions of polygamy which had been secretly drafted for the proposed Utah constitution by the Cleveland administration in Washington:

Subsequently President George Q. Cannon stated to him that there were two points which troubled some of the brethren, who had tender consciences, and probably large numbers of our people would think upon these points and would like to be relieved respecting them, by knowing the will of the Lord upon them. The first is, “Will we offend our God by declaring that to be a misdemeanor in our brethren, which He views as a virtue and has commanded them to practice?” Second: “Will we displease Him if as jurors we frame indictments and render verdicts against our brethren as criminals for obeying the law which He has commanded them to observe?” President Taylor said: “There is no necessity for the brethren to be too particular or scrupulous in such matters.”102

These elements of John Taylor�s conduct with regard to the practice of plural marriage and its possible suspension require a reassessment of his reputation for refusing to compromise the practice and a reconsideration of some widespread assumptions about the significance of the 1880, 1882, and 1886 revelations about “the Principle.”

Part 4