Mormon Polygamy after Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto

Mormon Polygamy after Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto

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Another year passed before the First Presidency, though without a conference vote, officially and authoritatively defined the full scope of the Manifesto in a manner exactly the opposite of President Woodruff�s assurances in September-October 1890. Although the First Presidency prior to the Manifesto had imposed and then rescinded various kinds of restrictions on performing plural marriages outside the United States, the understanding of the First Presidency and apostles in September-October 1890 was that the Manifesto prohibited new polygamy only in the United States. The First Presidency�s secretary, George F. Gibbs, later wrote: “President Woodruff�s manifesto of 1890 abandoning the practice of polygamy was not intended to apply to Mexico, and did not, as the Church was not dealing with the Mexican government, but only with our own government; and for the further reason that the Mexican government extended the hand of welcome to Mormon polygamists.”170 As regards continued sexual cohabitation and child-bearing in polygamous marriages entered into before the Manifesto, a meeting of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and all stake presidencies on 7 October 1890 clearly indicated the scope of the Manifesto in that respect: “President Woodruff drew the attention of the brethren to the fact that the Manifesto did not affect our present family relations, but it simply stated that all plural marriages had ceased.”171

Nevertheless, federal officials demanded that the Manifesto include unlawful cohabitation before they would return the Church�s confiscated property, and the First Presidency acquiesced in 1891 by publicly defining sexual cohabitation with pre-Manifesto wives as contrary to the Manifesto and the rules of the Church. In June 1891, Presidents Woodruff and Cannon gave an interview that was reprinted in three editions of the Deseret News:

Would you or any officer of the church authorize a polygamous marriage or countenance the practice of unlawful cohabitation?

Again we have to say we can only speak for ourselves, and say that we would not authorize any such marriage or any practice violative of the law.172

In response to this published interview, one Latter-day Saint wrote that plural wives and their husbands “feel that they are measurably deserted by the brethren as judged by the public utterances and published utterances of those in authority.”173

As the First Presidency met on 20 August 1891 with the Church lawyers and some of the apostles to discuss the upcoming court appearance before the Master in Chancery to regain the confiscated Church properties:

President Woodruff, expressing himself in this connection, said he foresaw what was coming upon us; that our temples were in danger, and the work for the dead liable to be stopped, and he believed he would have lived to have witnessed the hand of the government extended to crush us; but the Lord did not intend that Zion should be crushed, and He averted the blow by inspiring me to write and issue the manifesto, and it certainly has had the effect of doing it so far.

Then President Woodruff responded directly to the pointed disagreement between his counselors on this occasion as to whether the Manifesto was a revelation: “Brethren, you may call it inspiration or revelation, or what you please; as for me, I am satisfied it is from the Lord.”174

Two weeks after having the general conference of the Church resustain the Manifesto on 6 October 1891, President Wilford Woodruff took the witness stand in the confiscation case. He made the following statements under oath which were reprinted in three editions of the Deseret News:

A. Any person entering into plural marriage after that date [24 September 1890], would be liable to become excommunicated from the church.

Q. In the concluding portion of your statement [the Manifesto] . . . Do you understand that the language was to be expanded and to include the further statement of living or associating in plural marriage by those already in the status? A. Yes, sir; I intended the proclamation to cover the ground, to keep the laws�to obey the law myself, and expected the people to obey the law.

. . .

Q. Was the manifesto intended to apply to the church everywhere? A. Yes, sir.

Q. In every nation and every country? A. Yes, sir; as far as I had a knowledge in the matter.

Q. In places outside of the United States as well as within the United States? A. Yes, sir; we are given no liberties for entering into that anywhere�entering into that principle.

. . .

Q. Your attention was called to the fact, that nothing is said in this manifesto about the dissolution of the existing polygamous relations. I want to ask you, President Woodruff, whether in your advice to the church officials, and the people of the church, you have advised them, that your intention was�and that their requirement of the church was, that the polygamous relations already formed before that [Manifesto] should not be continued, that is, there should be no association with plural wives; in other words, that unlawful cohabitation, as it is named, and spoken of, should also stop, as well, as future polygamous marriages? A. Yes, sir; that has been the intention.

These answers of President Woodruff were echoed on the witness stand by his two counselors in the First Presidency and by Lorenzo Snow, president of the Quorum of the Twelve. President Woodruff restated and defended his court testimony in stake conferences later that month, and said: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation what would take place if we did not stop this practice.” The official publications of the Church reprinted both the court testimony and the conference talks.175

Moreover, the First Presidency�s Office Journal recorded on 21 October 1891 that President Woodruff stated “that the manifesto was just as authoritative and binding as though it had been given in the form of �Thus saith the Lord,� and that its affecting unlawful cohabitation cases was but the logical sequence of its scope and intent regarding polygamous marriages, as the laws of the land forbid both, and that therefore, although he at the time did not perceive the far-reaching effect it would have, no other ground could be taken than that which he had taken and be consistent with the position the manifesto had placed us in.”176 Thus, by October 1891, the First Presidency and the President of the Quorum of the Twelve had proclaimed under oath in court, at stake conferences of the Church, in private, and through the official organs of the Church that the 1890 Manifesto prohibited new plural marriages and sexual cohabitation with pre-Manifesto plural wives anywhere in the world, and that violators of this interpretation of the Manifesto were liable to be excommunicated.

This fulfilled all the expectations of the most stringent government officials and other opponents of Mormon polygamy, but it put Church leaders and polygamous families in an impossible situation. Polygamous husbands and wives prior to the Manifesto had made sacred covenants with each other and God to multiply and replenish the earth, and the 1891 official interpretation of the Manifesto required them to break those covenants either through total abstinence or by divorce. The result was that most pre-1890 polygamists and every polygamous General Authority continued to cohabit with their plural wives of childbearing age.177 The 1891 inclusion of polygamous cohabitation in the meaning of the Manifesto also doomed the effort to halt new polygamous marriages; the ultimate meaning of the 1891 testimony was that it was no more a violation of publicly defined Church policy to enter into new polygamous marriages than it was to continue the plural marriages established before the Manifesto. Therefore, the general knowledge that most polygamists were continuing to cohabit with their pre-Manifesto plural wives and to father new polygamous children was a continual encouragement for entering into new polygamy on the part of men whose wives were childless, or for couples who had been engaged to marry polygamously on the eve of the Manifesto, or for Mormons who were simply responding to two generations of emphasis on fulfilling “the Principle.”


But at this point, let us turn the traditional question on its head and ask: Were there any new polygamous marriages after the Manifesto that did not necessarily involve Church authority? Yes, there were six types of such unions.

The first type was civil marriage to a new wife where the legal wife was either dead or divorced, but where at least one pre-existing plural marriage of the man was still in force. This was the most frequently chosen method of entering a post-Manifesto plural marriage without necessarily seeking Church authority for permission or performance of the ordinance, and the popularity of this method was due to its legal invulnerability. Under criminal law, such an additional marriage was untouchable because the law did not recognize the validity of any polygamous marriage; therefore pre-existing, continuing polygamous marriages could not be a legal impediment to a civil marriage with a new wife. After this new civil marriage, the polygamist was no more vulnerable to arrest than he had been for cohabiting with his plural wife or wives before marrying another wife civilly. Utah civil marriage laws also sheltered such arrangements from prying eyes: it was possible for residents of one county to obtain a marriage license in a different county and have the civil ceremony performed in a third county.

Although this legal method of acquiring an additional wife after the Manifesto did not require Church authority, it became a matter of discussion in Church circles as scrupulous Mormons sometimes applied to the First Presidency or other Church officers for permission. At a family party of Brigham Young�s children and their spouses in May 1892:

Bro. George Q. Cannon submitted a question to be decided by the company. It was as follows. A man aged 60 had married in poligamy a woman five years older than he was afterwards his first wife had died but according to the laws of the land and the Manifesto issued by the Pr. of our church he could not live with his 2nd wife without marrying her over again. Now the question is would it be best to marry his old wife that could bear him no children or get him a younger wife that could raise a family. Some decided in favor of the old wife, and some for the younger wife.178 This may have been a hypothetical case for Counselor Cannon in 1892, but two years later the entire First Presidency decided in favor of “a younger wife” in a similar case. When the plural wife of Panguitch Stake President Jesse W. Crosby complained to President Woodruff about her husband�s plan to obtain a new wife in this way, the First Presidency not only approved the new marriage in April 1894 but also asked the current plural wife to give her husband written permission to marry the new wife civilly, which he did and subsequently fathered children by both the pre-Manifesto and post-Manifesto plural wives.179 Nevertheless, in January 1895, when the full Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed a similar application, they concluded “to advise against it,” and the Oneida Stake High Council released David Jensen as an alternate high councilman in 1898 because “of his recent marriage with another wife by the law of the land.”180 Still, such active Latter-day Saints as Bishop Robert Morris and Patriarch Lorin Farr continued to make such marriages. When a grand jury investigated Bishop Morris�s marriage to his new wife as a possible case of post-1890 polygamy, the Deseret Evening News dryly noted that county records showed that she was the legal wife; and two years after pioneer Lorin Farr married a new wife in the Salt Lake Temple in this manner, he introduced his two previous plural wives to Theodore Roosevelt during the president�s visit to Ogden in 1903.181

The second type was civil marriage to a new wife after the legal wife was civilly divorced, but the man continued to cohabit with his divorced wife as well as his new legal wife. Men who did this justified their action on the basis that a civil divorce did not cancel the first marriage sealing covenants for time and eternity with the attendant requirement to multiply and replenish the earth. Acquiring a new plural wife in this manner did not require permission of Church authority but maintaining one�s standing in the Church did, once these marital relationships became known. Those who kept their Church standing most successfully under these circumstances had obtained advance approval. David Cazier�s autobiography noted: “I took my case before the high council [at Nephi, Utah] in regards to giving Eliza a sham divorce and marrying Sarah Ann and they gave their consent.” The Juab (Utah) Stake High Council Minutes of October 1892 corroborate that Cazier asked for permission: “Bro W A C Bryan moved that it be the sense of this Council that Bro David Cazier is fully justified in taking unto himself a wife and that in so doing he will have the blessings and best wishes of the Council. Carried unanimously,” and Cazier remained a member of the high council for nineteen more years.182 What local leaders might allow was different from what the Church president could specifically condone.

When a Latter-day Saint in 1897 asked similar permission, President Woodruff replied, “I do not know anything about such things as sham divorces” and warned the man that such an action would probably result in his imprisonment.183 Six years later, another man was disfellowshipped in Sanpete County after he divorced his first wife, legally married another woman, and then fathered a child by the divorced wife.184

The third type was the traditional form of bigamy: civil marriage to a new wife where the legal wife was still alive and undivorced. In most cases, the second civil marriage occurred outside the state where the first wife lived, and the husbands apparently asked no questions of Church leaders before taking the step. On the other hand, Samuel S. Newton may have obtained (or thought he obtained) permission for such a marriage. In December 1900, his stake president recorded talking with “Bro. Samuel Newton, who desired to know how he could get a plural wife. I told him I could not tell him! [which was ironic, because the stake president knew of his own son�s plural marriage in Salt Lake City four months earlier] He was hard to convince that it would not be done, when he was told by me to call on the Presidency of the Church, if he did not believe me and let them tell him.” It is unknown what the First Presidency told him, but less than two months later Newton crossed the border to marry his new wife civilly in Wyoming, was sealed to her a week later in the Logan Temple, and then moved to the Mormon settlements in Canada where he continued to be an active Church worker.185 Thomas Chamberlain III claimed that Marriner W. Merrill, a temple president and apostle, counseled him in 1902 to marry a new wife civilly while his estranged wife remained in Idaho, and then to move to the Canadian settlements. Merrill denied this, but Church authorities had sufficient confidence in Chamberlain�s statement to dismiss a later complaint by the legal wife and make him first a bishop and then a member of a stake high council.186

The fourth type was a variation on the traditional form of bigamy: in it a man remained legally married, cohabited with his legal wife, and then used a pseudonym to enter civil marriage with an additional wife. The obvious subterfuge made the man almost defenseless against either Church or state, as indicated when Henry M. McCune was first imprisoned in 1896 and then excommunicated in 1897 for such a marriage.187 That same year, Simeon A. Hunsaker used the surname “Hansel” to marry an added wife civilly to whom he was sealed a week later in the Logan Temple, but he received no more than a severe public reprimand because he claimed that when he asked how he could marry a new wife President Woodruff told him in a private interview “that anyone who wished to take a woman through the temple must have a license or marriage certificate.”188 And as a resident of the Mexican colonies after the Second Manifesto of 1904, Don Moroni LeBaron married a new wife civilly in Texas in November 1904 under the pseudonym “Marona Lebron,” and apparently experienced no difficulty in his subsequent Church career in Arizona, although the Salt Lake Tribune published the fact of the marriage.189

The fifth means of marrying a plural wife after the Manifesto without Church authority (at least in the traditional sense) involved a man and woman making solemn covenants of marriage without a ceremony being performed. The earliest known precedent for this in Mormonism occurred at Nauvoo in December 1845, when Apostle Willard Richards recorded:

At 10. P.M. took Alice L. . . . . . . h [sic, Longstroth] by the [shorthand: hand] of our own free will and avow mutually acknowledge each other husband & wife, in a covenant not to be broken in time or Eternity for time & for all Eternity, to all intents & purposes as though the seal of the covenant had been placed upon us. for time & all Eternity & called upon God. & all the Holy angels-& Sarah Long-th. to witness the same.190

Apostle Richards had received other plural wives prior to this time in ceremonies performed by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and it is not presently clear why he chose on this occasion to marry by solemn covenant without an officiator only a week before the Nauvoo Temple opened for sealing of marriages, but the Manifesto of 1890 encouraged other men to think of this method of polygamy. In the Salt Lake Stake, Charles Barrell, a high priest, entered into such a solemn covenant with a new wife about 1892 by whom he fathered a child, and senior president of the stake seventy�s quorum Enoch B. Tripp did likewise about 1897, but the high council excommunicated both men “for desecrating one of the most sacred ordinances or rites of the Holy Priesthood, and for adultery.”191

Despite the shocked response of many to this means of obtaining a plural wife, the First Presidency had already approved the solemn covenant method of post-Manifesto polygamy in principle. On 5 April 1894, George Q. Cannon told the temple meeting of the Presidency and apostles, “I believe in concubinage, or some plan whereby men and women can live together under sacred ordinances and vows until they can be married,” to which President Woodruff responded, “If men enter into some practice of this character to raise a righteous posterity, they will be justified in it.”192 Cannon advised some men to sidestep the Manifesto in this way to have posterity they were otherwise unable to have by their legal wife,193 and it is possible that he gave this advice directly to John P. Rothlisberger of Arizona during visits Cannon made to that territory in 1890-92. In any event, Rothlisberger�s first wife was childless, and he entered into what his family calls a “common law” marriage with her sister about the same time as George Q. Cannon�s visits to the stakes in that area, fathered ten children by this second wife, and remained an active seventy in the St. Johns Stake.194

The last type of post-Manifesto polygamous marriage contracted without Church authorization was a marriage entered into by Latter-day Saints who claimed an authority independent of the Church. The only example of this during the 1890-1904 period was Israel A. J. Dennis who taught that the LDS Church erred in issuing the Manifesto. He claimed that an angel gave him authority to organize the “Church of the First Born” on 7 March 1895 and to introduce a sealing ceremony among his followers, which Dennis described as “a very simple ceremony, by which the parties entered into a covenant one with the other.” He authorized his counselor Newark S. Dawson to marry again while he himself took two plural wives in the same manner, beginning 6 April 1895, the anniversary of the LDS Church�s founding. When Dennis was arrested and tried for adultery in 1896, he and his new wife (who was still legally married to another man) denied “having ever had criminal relations,” and they were acquitted by the jury, but by then Dennis�s schismatic polygamous organization had disintegrated.195

Nevertheless, only 10 percent of the new polygamous marriages formed from the announcement of the Manifesto through the end of 1904 fit into these six categories of polygamy that did not require LDS Church authority. Ninety percent of new polygamous marriages contracted from September 1890 through December 1904 directly involved Church authority. Because this subject is so complex, we will begin with a chronological overview of the involvement of Church authority in new plural marriages after the Manifesto.

From the publication of the Manifesto until November 1890, the First Presidency authorized seven residents of the United States to go to Mexico to be married there. All but one of the couples remained in the Mexican colonies. After approximately six months during which no new polygamy was authorized anywhere, two marriages were performed in 1891 for residents of the Mexican colonies upon verbal authorization transmitted to the resident apostle there, and two other plural marriages were performed for Mexican colonists, possibly without specific authorization from Salt Lake City. In July 1892, the First Presidency authorized a couple of marriages to be performed in Mexico and Canada, but without such authorization a couple more plural marriages were also contracted by subterfuge in the Utah temples. In 1893, the Presidency authorized only one U.S. resident to visit Mexico for a plural marriage ceremony, and only one was performed there for a local resident. In 1894, the First Presidency committed themselves to the position that there were circumstances under which plural marriages would not only be permitted but also encouraged, and by the authority of the Presidency, one plural marriage occurred in Canada, six in Mexico, and two in Utah temples. That pattern continued about the same in 1895 and 1896. Plural marriages had ceased for six months in Mexico even for residents of the newly created Juarez Stake until two apostles visited the colonies early in 1897 and performed plural marriages for two residents. During the last six months of 1897 the First Presidency authorized seven U.S. residents to visit Mexico for plural marriage ceremonies and also authorized two ceremonies to occur aboard ship.

During 1898, mounting pressures for polygamy resulted in an expansion of orderly avenues for performing new plural marriages. The First Presidency authorized nine more U.S. residents to visit the Juarez Stake for their polygamous ceremonies, but visiting apostles were the only ones who would perform plural marriages for residents of the Mexican colonies who were becoming impatient that their stake president would perform plural ceremonies only for visitors who had letters from the First Presidency, not for them. Toward the end of the year, the First Presidency instructed the Juarez Stake president to perform plural marriages for worthy residents of the stake without obtaining specific authorization from the First Presidency for individual cases. Although lower-ranking Church members continued to travel from Utah with letters from the Presidency for their plural marriages to be performed in Mexico, during 1898 the First Presidency established still another avenue for plural marriages to be performed by an apostle in the United States for higher-ranking Mormons.

During 1899 a confused state of affairs emerged concerning Church authorities and new plural marriages, a confusion which continued for the next five years. Plural marriages were being performed in Mexico and in various places in the United States, but because anti-Mormons began publishing accusations of these violations of the Manifesto, Church authorities began excommunicating a few new polygamists. The Church president stopped plural marriages in Mexico in 1899 but turned a blind eye to those still occurring in Utah and Idaho.

As an extension of the confusion of the previous year, in January 1900 the Church president made a public denial that either new polygamous marriages or polygamous cohabitation had his or the Church�s sanction. In the quarterly meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve that began the day after this announcement, nearly all the apostles expressed opposition to the publicly announced position of the Church president. Later in the year, a split developed within the First Presidency itself because of the President�s refusal to authorize the Juarez Stake president to continue to perform plural marriages in Mexico, and one of the counselors in the First Presidency personally authorized the performance of a plural marriage in Mexico for a man whom the Church president had specifically refused. The counselor also commissioned a patriarch in the Juarez Stake to perform plural marriages for the residents of the Mexican colonies without the knowledge or authorization of the Church president.

In 1901, the Church president continued to refuse to authorize the Juarez Stake president to perform plural marriages in Mexico, but marriages continued there anyway because of the separate avenue established by his counselor. All the while, Latter-day Saints of prominent Church position continued to enter into polygamy in Utah on the basis of still another authorized avenue. The Church president compounded the confusion by authorizing several apostles individually to marry plural wives at the same time he refused to give the apostles generally that permission. The public and private messages on new plural marriages had become so muddy by 1901 that prominent Church authorities became opponents or advocates of new plural marriages sincerely believing that they had First Presidency authorization for their contradictory positions. Other Church authorities, even at the highest levels, were confused about the rumors of new plural marriages and ambivalent in their own feelings about the correctness of such unions. On 11 September 1901, the Deseret Evening News branded as “groundless” and “utterly false” the statement of a Protestant minister that “one of the Apostles had recently taken an additional wife,” when in fact four apostles had married plural wives so far that year.

In 1902, the Church president authorized the Juarez Stake president to resume performing plural marriages for Mexican colonists, who were also having their polygamous unions solemnized by the stake patriarch and visiting apostles. But the First Presidency prepared no recommends to authorize plural marriages in Mexico for U.S. residents who continued to have their polygamous ceremonies performed in the United States rather than in Mexico.

The year 1903 was the climax of post-Manifesto polygamy with Church authority. Anti-Mormon newspapers were accusing Mormons of new plural marriages, a young man voted in Salt Lake stake conference against sustaining a prominent post-1890 polygamist, a grand jury in Salt Lake City convened to investigate this new polygamy, and the U.S. Senate received a protest to investigate these charges. Yet at the same time, apostles were performing new polygamous marriages in the United States and Mexico, where both the stake patriarch and president were also officiating for residents of the Juarez Stake. The stake president had, furthermore, been authorized by the First Presidency to perform plural marriages for U.S. residents with the necessary letter from Salt Lake City. In addition, for the first time since the establishment of the Canadian settlement of Mormons, the Church president authorized local Church authority to perform plural marriages there for Canadian Mormons.

In 1904, with the investigation of the Church and new plural marriages by the U.S. Senate, Church authority and new plural marriages went into a rapid decline. The Second Manifesto ended some avenues of Church authority for new plural marriages that year, but not others.

Part 7