Post-Manifesto, Church Sanctioned Mormon Polygamists

Post-Manifesto, Church Sanctioned Mormon Polygamists

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After leaving Canada, Joseph F. Smith and his party traveled to Wyoming. While in the Big Horn Stake, he listened to John W. Taylor defend polygamy in a public sermon on 14 September 1903, after which Matthias F. Cowley performed a polygamous marriage for Stake President Byron Sessions. When asked later about that marriage, Cowley said that he “had the idea that President Smith was not opposed to these marriages if it could be done without trouble with the government.”336 President Smith had so thoroughly communicated his sentiment in favor of post-Manifesto polygamy to his secretary George F. Gibbs, that after Heber J. Grant was called to preside over the mission in Liverpool, England, in October 1903, “Your secty. gave me to understand that I was a fool, having no sons and with the great city of Liverpool in which to hide a wife, if I did not get one. I had just come home from a mission and took it for granted he knew what he was talking about.” George F. Gibbs also proposed polygamous marriage to a woman in 1903. She responded by asking whether the Manifesto was “just a gesture,” and the First Presidency secretary replied, “Marvelous that you can see so far.”337 Heber J. Grant later wrote that Apostle Abraham Owen Woodruff performed plural marriages in Mexico in November 1903 because Woodruff “was under the impression that President Joseph F. Smith sanctioned those marriages”; and, on 31 January 1904, when Ivins performed the last plural marriage in Mexico for a visiting U.S. resident, it was for John A. Silver, a business associate of President Smith who likely gave him the necessary recommend.338

Joseph F. Smith continued the familiar pattern of denying publicly what was happening privately throughout these years. More significantly he was keeping his own counselors and half of the apostles in the dark about what he and the other half were doing to promote new polygamous marriages. At the temple meeting of 17 April 1902, Counselor Lund recorded, “Polygamy was referred to and Pres Smith said he must follow the example of Pres. Snow and not give any permission to such marriages.” Apostle Clawson added the phrase, “within the United States” in his diary, but even if President Smith said those words, that solved only half of the problem of what he was actually allowing despite the denial.339 In 1902, when members of the BYU board of trustees complained that the institution�s president Benjamin Cluff had actually succeeded in marrying a new plural wife, Joseph F. Smith (who had authorized the ceremony) “said that such a thing could not be, with the sanction of the church, and that if Cluff had done it he had done something he had no authority to do.”340 At the Salt Lake Temple fast and testimony meeting of 25 May 1902, President Smith testified to the truth of plural marriage but added, “at the present time there was no opportunity for any person to practice this principle.”341 More comprehensively, at a meeting on 5 June 1902 of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (half of whom had married new plural wives or had performed such marriages for others): “Pres. Smith denied that any plural marriages were taking place to his knowledge in the church either in U.S. or any other country. It is thoroughly understood and has been for years that no one is authorised to perform any such marriages.”342 On 19 February 1903, President Smith told the temple meeting that rumors expressed by Kanab Stake members that plural marriages were being solemnized under the sanction of the Presidency were “foundationless.” At this time, the post-Manifesto plural wife of Kanab�s stake counselor-patriarch Thomas Chamberlain was secluded in the house of President Smith�s wife Julina, but the Church President told the Quorum of Twelve that he was sending two apostles to Orderville to “endeavor to correct any wrong impression in the minds of the people.” The two he sent were Matthias F. Cowley (who had performed the Chamberlain plural marriage in Salt Lake City) and George Teasdale (whose own post-1890 polygamous marriage had been repeatedly described in the newspapers). When the Presidency and apostles discussed rumors of new polygamous marriages exactly nine months later, “President Smith told the brethren pointedly that he had not given his consent to anyone to solemnize plural marriages; that he did not know of any such cases, and if members of our Church have entered into such alliances, they have done it upon their own responsibility and without his approval or sanction, and they must therefore abide the consequences.”343

More than any other Church president after the 1890 Manifesto, Joseph F. Smith divided the Church against itself and apostle against brother apostle over the question of new polygamous marriages. He did it with the best of intent�to preserve “the Principle” as well as to protect the institution of the Church by filling official minutes of quorum meetings with repudiations of what he was actually allowing individual Church officers to do with his authorization and blessing as Church president. This allowed plausible denial to the Church�s enemies, but the policy created double definitions of authority, sanction, permission, knowledge, validity, loyalty, and truth�a wind that would begin to reap the whirlwind in 1904.

Against the advice of all of the Twelve Apostles (except Reed Smoot) and of national Republican leaders,344 Joseph F. Smith, an ardent Republican, encouraged Apostle Smoot to run for the U.S. Senate, which resulted in his election and in a protest filed by the Salt Lake Ministerial Association with the U.S. Senate against Smoot�s eligibility. Among the charges were that an apostle should not be a senator because:

This body of officials, of whom Senator-elect Smoot is one, also practice or connive at and encourage the practice of polygamy and polygamous cohabitation….

At least three of the apostles have entered new polygamous relations since the manifesto of Wilford Woodruff…. That other polygamous relationships have, since statehood, been consummated within the church is just as certain, and in a monogamous community could easily be proven.345

The Senate admitted Smoot but voted to conduct hearings to determine his eligibility to retain his position.

On 25 February, Joseph F. Smith received the legal summons to testify, and became the first witness before the U.S. Senate Committee on Elections on 2 March 1904. Accompanying him on the train from Utah to Washington were two post-Manifesto polygamists who had been subpoenaed to testify.

One had been married in the Logan Temple and the other had been married in Mexico.346

Under oath before the Senate, Joseph F. Smith led future witnesses by example. He volunteered that he had cohabited with his wives and that they had borne him eleven children since the Manifesto, even though he said that the Manifesto “was a revelation to me.” Upon this point the following exchange then occurred:

Senator OVERMAN. If that is a revelation [requiring an end to unlawful cohabitation], are you not violating the laws of God?

Mr. SMITH. I have admitted that, Mr. Senator, a great many times here.347

Concerning the Evans Bill of 1901, he testified that he told only the Church attorney, no one else, that he favored it, and that he took no further interest in it.348 Upon being questioned several times about whether there had been any plural marriages after the 1890 Manifesto, Joseph F. Smith testified: “I know of no marriages occurring after the final decision of the Supreme Court of the United States on that question…. and from that time till today there has never been, to my knowledge, a plural marriage performed in accordance with the understanding, instruction, connivance, counsel, or permission of the presiding authorities of the church, or of the church, in any shape or form,” and when asked if he had performed or knew of any post-Manifesto plural marriages:

Mr. SMITH. No, sir; I never have.

The CHAIRMAN. Either in Mexico or�

Mr. SMITH. Nowhere on earth, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. Do you know of any such.

Mr. SMITH. No, sir; I do not.

He also testified that he had never heard an apostle publicly advocate or defend plural marriage since the Manifesto.349 Concerning the Abraham H. Cannon plural marriage in 1896, President Smith testified that he did not know when Cannon married Lillian Hamlin, that he did not marry them, that he did not know she was engaged to marry Cannon�s deceased brother, that he had never talked with George Q. Cannon about Abram�s marrying Lillian, and that none of the current apostles had married plural wives since the Manifesto.350

Testimony in the Smoot Case was fundamentally different from the First Presidency�s testimony before the Master in Chancery in 1891. The emphasis of the questions and their answers in 1891 was on intent and future policy. The Smoot investigation focused on specifics of past activities within the Church by its officers and members. It was one thing in 1891 to blur statements of intent under oath; it was quite another in 1904 to deny the past. To tell less or more than the “whole truth” before the Senate Committee invited a perjury conviction punishable with up to five years� imprisonment.351 To refuse to answer questions invited a conviction for contempt of Congress, which could result in a year�s imprisonment but which had not been imposed for ten years.352 Yet to refuse to answer certain questions or to tell the truth in 1904 invited worse consequences for the LDS Church including Reed Smoot�s expulsion from the U.S. Senate, a Constitutional amendment against polygamy, disincorporation of the Church, disfranchisement of all Mormons, and criminal indictments of half of the General Authorities and hundreds of Latter-day Saints for polygamy. Joseph F. Smith set a pattern for all other witnesses in the Smoot investigation by exposing himself to public ridicule and to criminal prosecution for unlawful cohabitation by telling the truth about his personal marital relations, but at the same time risking a perjury indictment by concealing any evidence detrimental to the Church as an institution or to any individual (including himself) who acted in his capacity as a Church official in promoting post-Manifesto polygamy. As President Smith told another prospective witness in the Smoot case, “We should consider the interests of the Church rather than our own.”353

After President Smith returned to Utah, Senator Smoot wrote two of his political subordinates there that the national press and leaders were more shocked at President Smith�s admission about unlawful cohabitation and his intention to continue it than they were at “the fact of a few cases of new polygamous marriages.” He expressed the hope that at the approaching April conference President Smith would issue an official statement advising the Latter-day Saints to cease their polygamous cohabitation and his intentions to cease his own.354 Smoot expected his lieutenants to communicate with President Smith; but on 29 March, one reported that his letter “was rubbing the fur the wrong way” and that President Smith “sets forth that enough manifestoes have been already issued, and you cannot expect more at the present state of feeling.”355 By 5 April, the Church president had changed his mind and called a meeting of the First Presidency and apostles to discuss “the wisdom of saying something to pacify the country,” after which he told a meeting of stake and ward priesthood leaders to be “as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves.”356

On 6 April 1904, Joseph F. Smith presented his official statement for the vote of the general conference. A polygamist confidant of both President Smith and Senator Smoot told the Senator�s secretary that the “Second Manifesto” had a hidden meaning: “The new manifesto modifies that of 1890 by eliminating unlawful cohabitation. Unlawful cohabitation now has the sanction of the Church, though the people did not know what they were doing in adopting it.”357 Despite the Second Manifesto�s unqualified denial of post-Manifesto polygamy, the circumstances of its ratification by the general conference also sent another message to those who were already aware of what had been happening on and off for more than thirteen years.

Although President Smith wrote Reed Smoot that the conference action regarding the declaration was “spontaneous,” President of Seventy Seymour B. Young�s diary stated that those who seconded the motion to sustain the Second Manifesto did so “per arrangement.” Among these seconds were Seymour B. Young (who had performed two plural marriages in Mexico under Joseph F. Smith�s direction), Anthony W. Ivins (who had performed dozens of plural marriages in Mexico by First Presidency authorization), Angus M. Cannon (who had assented to the First Presidency�s suggestion in 1894 that his daughter marry polygamously Apostle Abraham H. Cannon, and who knew that his three sons married polygamously in Salt Lake City in 1900 and 1901), Jesse N. Smith (who had given his daughter permission to marry polygamously in Salt Lake City in 1904), and Moses W. Taylor (brother of post-1890 polygamists John W. Taylor and Frank Y. Taylor).358 By the way he orchestrated the sustaining of the Second Manifesto, Joseph F. Smith sent unspoken but public reassurance to those who had conscientiously entered plural marriage after the Manifesto. It is not surprising that some Latter-day Saints interpreted the covert message of 6 April 1904 as applying to future polygamous marriages, the reverse of the document�s overt statements, and therefore regarded the Second Manifesto as no more restrictive of new polygamy than the first. Even when he told Anthony W. Ivins that the 1904 declaration applied to Mexico, President Smith qualified it by saying “for the time being” and “for the present.”359

Having published the new manifesto with the ratifying vote of the April conference, Joseph F. Smith next had to respond to the continuous demands of U.S. senators, the Church attorney, and Reed Smoot for the Church president to assist in bringing “absentee apostles” to testify in the Smoot hearings at Washington relative to continued polygamous activities.360 During his own testimony before the Senate Committee on 9 March 1904, he agreed to give Apostles Taylor, Teasdale, and Cowley “as much instruction” as he could “that we [the committee] want them as soon as we can get them.”361 President Smith complained in a letter to Reed Smoot on 20 March that his various letters and telegrams to the absent apostles had not been answered, and then on 9 April he wrote the same message to Senator Smoot, to Senate Committee Chairman Julius C. Burrows on 15 April, and to Church Attorney Franklin S. Richards on 16 April 1904: Apostles Merrill and Teasdale were too ill to travel to Washington, and Apostles Taylor and Cowley had written their absolute refusal to appear before the Senate Committee; President Smith explained to Burrows: “As this is a political matter, and not a religious duty devolving upon them or me, I am powerless to exert more than moral suasion in the premises.”362 Showing the same firmness with which he publicly issued the Second Manifesto, Joseph F. Smith throughout 1904 maintained that despite his best efforts, the subpoenaed apostles were either too ill or too recalcitrant to testify in the Smoot investigation.

It is far more probable, however, that the Church president did not want the Senate to question anyone who had married and fathered children by post-Manifesto plural wives. The Deseret News had reported at the end of February 1904 that the committee intended to subpoena Apostle Abraham Owen Woodruff. Although the Senate had not done so, President Smith told Apostle Woodruff midway through April conference, “You would not be a good witness,” advised him to “stay in retirement” to avoid a subpoena in Utah, and to prepare immediately to preside over the LDS mission in Germany. He left Salt Lake City in the middle of general conference, and went to Colonia Juarez to be with his plural wife who was about to bear her first child. Five days after he presented the second Manifesto, Joseph F. Smith instructed California Mission President Joseph E. Robinson to move his two post-Manifesto plural wives and their children from Salt Lake City to Mexico to avoid a subpoena.363

A plural wife of John W. Taylor later provided the background to the letters her husband and Apostle Cowley sent to Joseph F. Smith about refusing to testify before the Senate Committee. “He received two contradictory letters in the mail, for him to sign and return. One said he would go to Washington, the other said he would not go to Washington. Nellie cried: �John, you don�t intend to place yourself in a trap by signing both those letters, do you?� He pointed at the signature of President Joseph F. Smith and said, �I will do what my Prophet orders me to do.�”364 President Smith used the letter for each man he felt the circumstances of April 1904 required.

Although Apostle Merrill may have been physically unable to travel to Washington, President Smith sent George Teasdale to Mexico to avoid testifying. The apostle chafed at this forced exile, and President Smith relented enough to have George F. Gibbs notify Teasdale in August 1904 that he and Apostle Cowley could leave Mexico and speak at three stake conferences in Arizona, provided that the local stake authorities did not publish any reference to their visit in the Deseret News or local papers and that they provide no information on their itinerary. This letter from the First Presidency�s office concluded: “And in fact it will be up to you to see to it that you get back to Juarez without offending the righteous sensibilities of the righteous people of this the greatest nation on the top of the earth.”365

Once he released the letters of Taylor and Cowley refusing to testify before the Senate Committee, President Smith spent the rest of 1904 resisting efforts to impose Church punishment upon the two apostles. This demand first appeared when he showed the letters of refusal to Franklin S. Richards, the Church attorney, on 15 April 1904: “Richards urged upon Prest. Smith to not present J. W. Taylor�s or Cowley�s name to Conference, to make any explanation he desired, and if they did not come and take the full responsibility of their conduct . . . to cut them off of the Quorum, and if necessary, to excommunicate them.”366 Richards felt that he was being asked to defend an impossible position, and his letter to Joseph F. Smith of 28 April 1904 stated his own frustration: “It seems almost impossible to make people understand how these things can take place among the apostles and you have no knowledge of them. We do the best we can to make the Senators and others appreciate the fact that your position is one of sincerity in the matter.”367 When he returned to Salt Lake City on 16 May 1904, Richards personally appealed to the First Presidency to discipline Taylor and Cowley and have Reed Smoot resign to stop the Senate investigation, but “this Pres. Smith feels should not be done unless the Church is put in jeopardy.”368

A week later, Smoot�s personal attorney, Waldemar VanCott, made a counter-proposal that John W. Taylor should at least “come forward and shoulder the responsibility of his own doings,” and in June, President Smith quoted that demand to a meeting of the apostles and Presidency.369 Nevertheless, Apostles Taylor and Cowley were sustained as usual at October 1904 general conference. By the meeting of the First Presidency with the Church attorney on 6 December, they had all decided that “the brethren ought to give themselves up to the Marshal,” and Joseph F. Smith told Richards that “if there was anything in the Church which the Lord desired removed, he hoped he would remove it.”370 When Apostle John Henry Smith suggested punishment for the apostles or other post-Manifesto polygamists, “Joseph F. had shut him up saying: �I want you to understand that there is but one man on earth who holds these powers�; meaning that he was alone responsible for their control and use,” yet in the last First Presidency meeting of 1904, Smoot�s non-Mormon lawyer, A. S. Worthington, argued forcefully for Church action against all post-Manifesto polygamists.371

Repeated demands for some kind of action against Taylor and Cowley ultimately pushed the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve into an agonizing series of meetings in October 1905 at which no official minutes were kept. At their conclusion, Taylor and Cowley signed resignations from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They were not immediately made public, and everyone but Reed Smoot regarded them as contingencies of last resort.372 When he pressured the president in December 1905 to publicly announce the resignations or at least allow Smoot to discuss them with Republican leaders, the First Presidency secretary wrote a pointed reply:

And I feel to say to you, at this early consideration of the subject, that if you will cast aside for ever all thought of making a sacrifice of zoanthropia [Taylor is written above] whimper [Cowley is written above] you will begin to see your way brighten, for such a thing cannot be done simply in hope of avoiding drastic legislation, nor for the purpose of convincing friends that ziamet [President is written above] is honest…. it will be up to us to do the sacrificing business or stand the consequences.

But let me tell you, the sacrifice is already made, and I know it; and its your business now to look about you and find the ram; and I can promise you that if you will go to work in this spirit you will find the ram, and then victory will be yours.373

Gibbs�s reference to sacrifice meant the 1904 abandonment of new plural marriages. On 4 May 1904, President Smith allowed Francis M. Lyman, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, to send a letter on First Presidency stationery urging the apostles “in your private conversations and counsels” to avoid any “infractions of the law in regard to plural marriage.”374 But this instruction to the apostles was expressed in the “advice” phrasing of the 1890 Manifesto and did not specify that plural marriages were forbidden under any circumstance anywhere in the world. Several apostles in good conscience felt that they had continued liberty to perform and enter into new polygamous marriages despite the 1904 declaration. When Apostle Lyman informed the temple meeting in June that a man had traveled to Mexico with the intent of marrying another wife despite the April statement, the entire First Presidency wrote Anthony W. Ivins at Colonia Juarez on 9 June 1904 “to put your foot on it, giving the parties to understand that President Woodruff�s Manifesto is in effect.”375 Not until 22 October 1904, did the First Presidency send a letter to John W. Taylor in Canada and to George Teasdale in Mexico informing them of the decision of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on 26 September to withdraw the authority that “President Woodruff and President Snow, each in his time, authorized some of the Apostles, and perhaps others to perform sealings for time and eternity” in places other than the temples.376

This was the Abrahamic ram in the thicket of which the First Presidency secretary spoke; but like the decision of the First Presidency in June 1890 to end polygamy, it was impossible to impress non-Mormons with the unannounced sacrifice of something that the Presidency had always denied they were doing anyway. The hierarchy had taken a series of unpremeditated steps that external pressures allowed to end in only one outcome: the announcement of the resignations of Taylor and Cowley for being out of harmony regarding post-Manifesto polygamy and the appointment of their successors in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 9 April 1906. When Anthony W. Ivins had learned about the resignations signed in October 1905 he wrote his cousin Heber J. Grant, “It might be all right if it were going to deceive anyone except ourselves. We will be the only ones fooled.”377 The published statements about post-Manifesto polygamy that began this paper demonstrate the general truth of this assessment by a man who was in a better position than most to understand the relationship of Church authority and new plural marriages from 1890 to 1904.


If there is any comfort in the form of self-deception epitomized by dropping John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley from the Quorum of the Twelve, it is that, officially but privately, succeeding First Presidencies have been willing to acknowledge post-Manifesto plural marriages. In 1934, President Heber J. Grant wrote: “I have never felt to hold anything against any person who was married by Owen Woodruff or John W. Taylor prior to John W. having lost his standing in the Church.” And a year after his cousin-counselor Anthony Ivins died, President Grant reassured one inquirer, “I have not the slightest doubt that President Ivins performed the sealing uniting your husband�s father and mother in polygamy in Mexico before this pronouncement of President Joseph F. Smith.”378 In March of 1944, the entire First Presidency (including David O. McKay, who replaced Matthias F. Cowley in the Quorum of Twelve) wrote Anthony W. Ivins�s son: “The attitude of the Church toward those men and women who, in accordance with the advice given them by some General Authorities then in �good standing�, entered into plural relationships in the interim between 1890 and 1904, is well known by both members and nonmembers of the Church.”379 When a woman questioned whether her parents were really sealed when they were married in polygamy in 1902 by Matthias F. Cowley, President McKay and his counselors replied in 1960, “It is our understanding, and we have so answered others, that these marriages performed under the circumstances in this sister�s letter to you were real sealings.”380 And perhaps the most candid of all was Church President Spencer W. Kimball�s statement about the post-Manifesto polygamous marriage of an aunt in the United States: “It was about 1902. I don�t know just when the Manifesto was made operative in all the world, including Canada and Mexico, but Aunt Fannie was married before the late President Joseph F. Smith �locked the gate.�”381 That kind of candor must be a comfort to the 50,000 or more living descendants of the men who married polygamously with Church authority from 1890 through 1904.382 Apostles Taylor and Cowley may have been scapegoats to satisfy anti-Mormons and to protect the Church, but the descendants of authorized post-Manifesto polygamists have suffered from the Church�s effort to maintain consistency by branding these marriages as unauthorized.

For millions of the rest of us, believing Latter-day Saints who have no post-Manifesto polygamous heritage (or no polygamous ancestry at all), there is still an inescapable melancholy involved in confronting the polygamous heritage of our faith. Regardless of our personal views about polygamy itself, we are obliged to recognize that its practice at times required men we revere as prophets, seers, and revelators to say and do things that do not strictly conform to our definitions of veracity and consistency. The resulting situation caused significant segments of the Mormon Church to function in “cognitive dissonance” for prolonged periods of time.383 We can ignore that past; we can even deny it; but we cannot escape its intrusion upon our faithful history.

Having explored that past for many years as a historian, I maintain even more firmly the position of faith with which I began: Jesus the Christ restored the Church with all its authority, exalting doctrines, and ordinances to the earth through living prophets. These prophets, better men than I am, have faced more difficult challenges than I ever will and have struggled more unselfishly to do God�s will than I ever have. Aside from my reverence for them as prophets and empathy for them as human beings, my perspective as a historian does not place me in a position to judge these prophets, seers, and revelators. It does place me under an obligation to try to understand them in their terms and circumstances, not mine. History is what we are able to discover of the past; historical fantasy is what we wish had occurred.

And history is on-going. The First Presidency and its activities do not tell the complete story of Church authority and 1890-1904 polygamy. The activities and experiences of other Church officials are crucial to understand how and why new polygamy continued to influence so many people after the Manifesto. From apostle to patriarch, their combined stories deserve as much attention as the First Presidency has received in this study.

Moreover, the saga of new plural marriages among the Mormons continued after 1904. It does not take a very close reading of the First Presidency letter of October 1904 to realize that it rescinded only authorizations given by Presidents Woodruff and Snow to seal marriages out of the temple and did not mention any similar authorizations given by Joseph F. Smith. And so the ambiguity persisted, enough to allow certain General Authorities in the next three years to make no fewer than ten exceptions to what was now almost a universal ban on new polygamy. Still, within a few years after 1904, men like Judson Tolman, Samuel Eastman, John W. Woolley, and others would perform and enter into scores of new plural marriages without claiming authorization from the Church president. But that story remains to be told.

President Hinckley claims that polygamy did not take place before coming west or after 1890 (even though he has read this essay).

Full length books on the topic:
Mormon Polygamy: A History
Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith
No Man Knows My History
Joseph Smith III
The History of the Saints
In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith