Mormon polygamy denied but still practiced by D. Michael Quinn

Mormon polygamy denied but still practiced by D. Michael Quinn

part 1

Were new plural marriages actually performed after the 1890 Manifesto? In 1907, the First Presidency announced, “When all the circumstances are weighed, the wonder is, not that there have been sporadic cases of plural marriage, but that such cases have been so few.”13 In 1922, Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that “some plural marriages had been entered into contrary to the announcement of President Woodruff, and also a statement made by President Lorenzo Snow.”14 Assistant Church Historian B. H. Roberts wrote in the Church�s centennial history that “the injunction of said Manifesto had not been strictly adhered to even by some high officials of the Church of Latter-day Saints and people misled by them.”15

Who performed and entered into these new plural marriages from 1890 to 1904? “A few over-zealous individuals” according to the First Presidency statement of 1907; “a few misguided members of the Church,” according to the First Presidency statement of 1933;16 “devoted but misled members of the Church,” according to Apostle John A. Widtsoe in 1951;17 “some high officials of the Church” according to B. H. Roberts�s centennial history which later identified them as Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley who were dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve in 1906 because they were out of harmony with the First Presidency concerning the Manifesto;18 “a few Church authorities,” according to historians Allen and Leonard in 1976;19 some “diehards” according to historians Arrington and Bitton in 1979;20 “some who held the sealing power. The most prominent among those was John W. Taylor of the Twelve,” according to the Secretary to the First Presidency in 1984.21

What were the geographic dimensions of the 1890 Manifesto? In 1922, Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley resigned from the Quorum of the Twelve because they “maintained that the manifesto applied to the United States only. However, the attitude of the Church was that it applied to the entire world,” and in 1930 Assistant Church Historian Roberts wrote that by 1891 “the prohibition of polygamy was to be universal, as well in foreign countries as in the United States�the decrees against its practice were effective in all the countries of the world.”22 But in 1947, President George Albert Smith told the general conference that since September 1890, “there have been no plural marriages solemnized in violation of the laws of this land by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”23 That statement was amplified in 1955 when the Church�s Deseret Book Company published a book endorsed by an apostle, wherein the author stated: “For several years after the Manifesto was issued, however, members of the Church in Mexico and Canada were allowed to practice plural marriages, but later it was discontinued throughout the Church.”24 In 1968, a Sunday School manual stated, “A few were married after 1890 in Mexico, Canada and the high seas�outside the jurisdiction of the United States. It was not until 1904, under the leadership of President Joseph F. Smith, that plural marriage was banned finally and completely, everywhere in the world, by the Church.”25 Church President Spencer W. Kimball approved his biography in 1977 which stated, “There was little or no stigma on polygamy entered into in Mexico after the Manifesto.” Under this view, plural marriages performed outside the United States, for example in Mexico or Canada, were immune from the proscriptions of the Manifesto.26

How many new plural marriages were performed between 1890 and 1904? The anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune estimated in 1910 that there were “about two thousand,” which was echoed by the schismatic Mormon Fundamentalists forty years later.27 On the other hand, until recently, the official and semiofficial publications of the Church simply rephrased the First Presidency 1907 statement that there were “few” new plural marriage from 1890 to 1904.28 Historians Arrington and Bitton increased that estimate based on reasearch done in 1983 by lawyer-historian Kenneth L. Cannon II who created an annual statistical chart of 150 polygamous marriages from 1890 to 1904 which apparently caused a dramatic shift in the official presentation of numbers.29 In 1984 it was restated that “a comparatively large number of polygamous marriages had been performed after the Manifesto.”30

And finally, to what extent were new plural marriages performed from 1890 to 1904 with Church authority? Aside from denials of the First Presidency already cited, the Deseret Evening News editorialized in 1911, “There is absolutely no truth in the allegation that plural marriages have been entered into with [the] sanction of the Church since the manifesto.”31 Apostle John A. Widtsoe wrote in 1936, “Since that day [6 October 1890] no plural marriage has been performed with the sanction or authority of the Church,” BYU historian Gustive O. Larson wrote in 1958 that “While Presidents Woodruff, Snow, and Smith maintained monogamous integrity of the Church, plural marriages were being performed secretly by two members of the Apostles� Quorum,” Counselor Stephen L Richards wrote in 1961, “Since that time [1890], entering into plural marriage has been construed to be an offense against the laws of the Church,” Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley wrote in 1969, “Since that time [September 1890] the Church has neither practiced nor sanctioned such marriage,” Apostle Mark E. Petersen wrote in 1974 that “the Manifesto put an end to all legal plural marriages,” historians Allen and Leonard wrote in 1976 that the performance of new plural marriages outside of Utah from 1890 to 1904 “was without official sanction from the First Presidency,” and historians Arrington and Bitton reaffirmed in 1979 that these plural marriages were “without the sanction of church authority.”32 Significantly, the schismatic Mormon polygamists accept at face value all of these statements, and use them in connection with evidence of the performance of new plural marriages after 1890 as an argument justifying the continued performance of polygamy to the present:

By this action of President John Taylor [in 1886], which it must be assumed was taken in accordance with instructions from the Lord, additional machinery for the continuance of the Celestial order of marriage was set up…. It had been entered into by members of the Priesthood wholly apart and independent of the Church…. It was under this authority conferred under the hands of John Taylor that Anthony W. Ivins exercised the sealing powers in Mexico, after the Church adopted the Manifesto. It was by this authority that John Henry Smith, John W. Taylor, Abraham Owen Woodruff and others joined people in the Patriarchal order of marriage after the issuance of the Manifesto; and it was by the same authority that Abraham H. Cannon, a member of the quorum of the Twelve, entered into Plural marriage, after the Manifesto. The Church neither approved nor disapproved these several actions.33

With due respect to the sincerity of all the above interpretations and assertions about post-Manifesto plural marriages, none of them accurately describes the situation as it existed in the past and is revealed in available documents. Even detailed and scholarly studies of new plural marriages from 1890 to 1904 provide important insights at the same time they repeat inaccuracies of fact and misconceptions of the complexity involved in the subject.34 Contrary to the confident Deseret News editorials of 1890, the Manifesto inherited ambiguity, was created in ambiguity, and produced ambiguity.


The 1890-1904 period is only the middle section in a complex history of plural marriage among the Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present. Understanding this history is complicated by the illegality of plural marriage, by the resulting secrecy connected with its practice, by the fact that polygamy has been the center of a sectarian battleground throughout Mormonism�s history, and finally by the problem of the meaning and application of “truth” in Mormon theology and practice as they relate to plural marriage. Although my primary emphasis here is on the 1890-1904 period, dimensions of the Manifesto that have been overlooked or only partially recognized emerge only by reviewing earlier sections of my complete study.

With the exception of a fifteen-year period during Brigham Young�s presidency, the solemnizing of plural marriages and the resulting polygamous cohabitation among the Mormons have always been illegal wherever and whenever practiced. In Illinois, Joseph Smith and trusted associates performed dozens of polygamous marriages during the 1840s and cohabited with their wives who were pregnant with polygamous children as early as 1843.35 An 1833 Illinois state law provided two years� imprisonment and a $1000 fine for the married man who married another woman and one year�s imprisonment and a $500 fine for the unmarried woman who knowingly entered into a marriage ceremony with an already married man. Illinois statutes defined the resulting sexual cohabitation in such an unlawful union as a continuing offense, with six months in prison and a $200 fine for the first offense that “shall be sufficiently proved by circumstances which raise the presumption of cohabitation and unlawful intimacy; and for a second offense, such man or woman shall be severally punished twice as much as the former punishment, and for the third offense, treble, and thus increasing the punishment for each succeeding offense.”36 Better known is the fact that the Congressional Morrill Act of 1862 outlawed bigamy in U.S. territories, ending the quasi-legality enjoyed by Mormon polygamous unions in Utah and other territories since the departure of the Mormons from Illinois in 1846. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law constitutional in 1879, all new polygamous marriages in Utah and surrounding territories were in violation of both Congressional and Constitutional law. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution and statutory law had already extended the jurisdiction of federal law (and therefore all anti-polygamy laws) to any persons and activities aboard U.S. vessels traveling on the high seas.37 But new polygamous marriage ceremonies continued to be performed under the direction of the First Presidency.

Not long after these U.S. Laws were enacted, polygamy and polygamous cohabitation became illegal in both Canadian and Utah law. Polygamy had been illegal in the western territories of Canada since 1878, and the prohibition was specifically reaffirmed in a new statute after the Mormons established settlements in what�s now Alberta.38 A Utah territorial statute of 1892 outlawing polygamy and polygamous cohabitation was reaffirmed in the Utah Constitution of 1895 and in state statute of 1898.39

Although most people have a general awareness of these legal prohibitions, a persistent myth among Mormons maintains that polygamy and polygamous cohabitation were not in violation of the laws of Mexico, where the First Presidency established a polygamous refuge in 1885. On the contrary, since 1884 Mexican federal statutes (which were adopted in the states of Chihuahua, Sonar, and Oaxaca where Mormon colonies were established) prohibited marriage between persons where one partner was already legitimately married, defined children of such a union as “spurious,” and also refused to recognize as legitimate any marriage performed outside Mexico unless it was “valid according to the laws of the country in which it was celebrated.”40

Church leaders were aware of this situation from the beginning of the Mormon colonies in Mexico, as indicated by John W. Young�s letter from Washington, D.C., in May 1885 to Apostles Brigham Young, Jr., and Moses Thatcher who were in Mexico City to negotiate with government officials or the establishment of the colonies in northern Mexico. Young warned them that he had been advised by a member of the Mexican Congress not to raise the question of the polygamous marriages of the Mormons who would be entering Mexico “as there was a very plain congressional law [in Mexico] on the subject.”41 In practical terms, Mexican officials agreed to turn a blind eye to polygamous Mormons, as indicated in May 1885 when the two apostles asked the federal Minister of Public Works, Don Carlos Pacheco: “If a man came into this country with more than one wife and used prudence would he be interfered with? Not unless the wife complained, was the answer.”42 Five months later the new Mormon colonists got a scare when authorities of the state of Chihuahua, who apparently had not received the message from the Federal District in Mexico City, “Seemed to be determined not to allow Polygamy in the state of Chihuahua.”43 Four months after Wilford Woodruff announced the Manifesto, editions of the Deseret News published Apostle Brigham Young�s denial that the Mormons had established a polygamous refuge in Mexico: “The Mormons are a law-abiding people; they have found stringent laws in Mexico, prohibiting the practice of polygamy, which laws they have respected and obeyed in every particular”; and as Utah neared statehood in 1895, the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune reminded the Mormons that there was nowhere in North America where they could legally practice polygamy.44

Because polygamy and polygamous cohabitation were illegal everywhere the Mormons might have chosen to go, secrecy characterized these relationships from the beginning. The best statement of that problem was given by Stake President Nephi L. Morris as he was about to excommunicate a man in 1911 for marrying plural wives the previous year:

As a people, we have been in an awkward position for a long time. The practice of plural marriage was indulged in secretly almost from the commencement of the history of this Church. The civil laws enacted against it were evaded, in order that brethren might do what they thought was the Lord�s will. The Church has now declared definitely against further plural marriages, wherever they may occur. Those who act contrary to that declaration must suffer the consequences.45

This firm though sympathetic statement was fraught with irony as a preface to excommunicating a recent violator of the Manifesto. Morris�s own sister had entered plural marriage in Salt Lake City in 1901 with a member of the Church�s Sunday School General Board and had already given birth to three children.

As a further complication, polygamy has been the focal point of a four-way sectarian battle that has had several phases throughout Mormon history. At certain times, LDS Church leaders have been willing to violate the law to promote plural marriages, but they have at the same time struggled to defend the institution of the Church against the attacks of anti-Mormons who knew about or suspected the clandestine polygamy. Anti-Mormons for their part have often had little, if any, direct evidence about polygamous practices and therefore have not only depended upon but have also embellished the rumors surrounding the practice. The RLDS Church defined an official position that not only opposed polygamy among the Mormons of Utah but also denied that Joseph Smith ever encouraged or authorized polygamy in Illinois. Lastly, when LDS Church authorities conscientiously prohibited new plural marriages, some Mormons were willing to challenge Church authority in order to continue the practice. It is a commonplace saying that the first casualty when war comes is truth,46 but amid the sectarian warfare involving Mormon polygamy, truth has often simply been a negotiable commodity.

The illegality, secrecy, and self-protection of the individual and the institution all contributed toward the final complication in the history of polygamy among the Mormons: the meaning and application of “truth.” In an 1833 revelation dictated by Joseph Smith, the Lord said: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself….” (D&C 93: 30). None of the official or semi-official commentaries on Joseph Smith�s revelations has pointed out the strong implication of these words that truth ultimately is relative, rather than absolute. But Joseph Smith�s own teachings in connection with polygamy in 1842 explicitly denied that there were ethical absolutes: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, �Thou shalt not kill;� at another time He said �Thou shalt utterly destroy.� This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted�by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”47 Forty years later, Apostle Abraham H. Cannon gave some instructions about polygamy that indicated one dimension of this question: “It is good to always tell the truth, but not always to tell the whole of what we know.”48

If failure of full disclosure were the only manifestation of relative truth in the history of Mormon polygamy, the problem would be comparatively simple. But the situation has been compounded by Mormons giving specialized meaning to language that has a different (if not opposite) denotation in conventional usage and by instances of emphatic statements about historical events or circumstances which can be verified as contrary to the allegations. In 1886, a Deseret Evening News editorial presented a particularly significant argument in favor of a specialized approach to truth with regard to polygamy, and B. H. Roberts further popularized the argument in a biography of John Taylor published in 1892. Stating that the secret practice of polygamy was the context, both publications argued that if apostles (and by implication, any Latter-day Saints) were under a divine command or covenant of secrecy which one of the apostles violated by telling others, that those who maintained the sacred covenant of secrecy would be justified in, even obligated to, denouncing the disclosures as false.49


The first significant and long-lasting manifestation of this problem in the history of Mormon polygamy occurred in 1835 when an official statement on marriage was included as Section 101 in the first printing of the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of Joseph Smith�s revelatory writings and statements. Verse 4 states, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have but one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”50 In later years several members of the Church who were prominent in the 1830s would affirm that prior to the canonization of this statement, Joseph Smith had already dictated a revelation authorizing plural marriage, had secretly explained that polygamy would one day become a practice of the Church, and had himself married his first plural wife.51 This article on marriage became the focal point for a number of polygamy denials during the next fifteen years.

Within a year after Joseph Smith began marrying plural wives himself and performing such ceremonies for others at Nauvoo, Illinois, these practices first were counterfeited and then publicly exposed by one of his counselors, John C. Bennett. On 1 August 1842, Apostle Parley P. Pratt published a rebuttal as an editorial: “But for the information of those who may be assailed by those foolish tales about the two wives [p. 73, “that God had given a revelation that men might have two wives”], we would say that no such principle ever existed among the Latter-day Saints, and never will,” yet Pratt�s autobiography later stated that Joseph Smith disclosed to him the revelation on celestial marriage in January 1840.52 Two months later twelve men and nineteen women signed affidavits that stated in part, “we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.”

The signers included Apostle John Taylor and Apostle Wilford Woodruff (who had already been taught the doctrine of polygamy by Joseph Smith), Bishop Newel K. Whitney (who had performed a plural marriage ceremony the previous July for his own daughter and Joseph Smith in accordance with a revelation dictated by the Prophet on the occasion), Elizabeth Ann Whitney (who witnessed the plural ceremony), Sarah M. Cleveland (who had become Joseph Smith�s plural wife early in 1842), and Eliza R. Snow (who also married him on 29 June 1842).53

Almost exactly a year later, Joseph Smith, who had performed a ceremony for William Clayton and a plural wife who was now pregnant, reassured Clayton: “just keep her at home and brook it and if they raise trouble about it and bring you before me I will give you an awful scourging & probably cut you off from the church and then I will baptize you & set you ahead as good as ever.”54 At a meeting of the Nauvoo City Council in January 1844, Joseph Smith “spoke on spiritual wife System, and explained, The man who promises to keep a secret and does not keep it he is a liar, and not to be trusted,” and a month later he and Hyrum Smith announced that they had excommunicated an elder for “preaching Polygamy, and other false and corrupt doctrines.”55 The previous summer, Hyrum married three plural wives and read to the Nauvoo Stake High Council the revelation on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage and plurality of wives, which (according to William Clayton�s diary) went by the code name “Priesthood,” yet in March 1844, Hyrum Smith wrote that the claim “that a man having a certain priesthood, may have as many wives as he pleases.. . [is] . . . false doctrine, for there is no such doctrine taught; neither is there any such thing practiced here”; and in June 1844 Hyrum told the Nauvoo City Council and published his affirmation that the revelation he had read to the high council “had no reference to the present time.”56 Although he had married more than thirty plural wives by May 1844, Joseph Smith told a Nauvoo congregation that he was accused of “having seven wives, when I can only find one.” A month later the Prophet wrote a letter to two of his plural wives instructing them to join him as he fled Nauvoo.57 These denials never convinced the anti-Mormons, but they caused a good deal of confusion for many Latter-day Saints and ultimately provided the ammunition for more than a century of argument between the polygamous Mormons of Utah and the monogamist reorganized Church. The conventional LDS historical explanation for these denials was that those involved were technically denying only any association with the corrupt “spiritual wifery” taught and practiced by John C. Bennett at Nauvoo in 1841-42, and therefore traditional Mormon apologists have followed the argument of Joseph F. Smith in 1886: “These seeming denials themselves are specific proofs of the existence of the true coin, the counterfeit of which they denounced.”58 The anti-polygamous Reorganized Church, however, accepted the statements at face value because they in fact went beyond denying association with Bennett�s “spiritual wifery” to denying the practice of polygamy or any other form of marriage other than that contained in the 1835 Article on Marriage.59

Some elements of these Nauvoo denials obviously did not square with the historically verifiable practice of plural marriage during Joseph Smith�s lifetime. In an effort to counter the Reorganized Church�s use of these Nauvoo denials, Joseph Fielding Smith, an assistant in the Church Historian�s Office since 1901, asserted in 1905:

“I have copied the following from the Prophet�s manuscript record of Oct.5, 1843, and know it is genuine” and then quoted Joseph Smith�s diary that he alleged concluded, “. . . and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time unless the Lord directs otherwise.” The handwritten Nauvoo diary of Joseph Smith for 5, October 1843 actually ends: “No men shall have but one wife.”60

Even after the Mormons left Illinois in 1846 for territories where polygamy was not in legal jeopardy, these denials continued. In January 1850, the LDS Millennial Star in England printed a reply to anti-Mormons, which stated in part:

12th Lie�Joseph Smith taught a system of polygamy.

12th Refutation�The Revelations given through Joseph Smith, state the following . . . “We believe that one man should have one wife.”

Doctrine and Covenants, page 331.61

The editor of the Star at this time was Apostle Orson Pratt, who had temporarily left the Church in 1842 because his wife claimed that Joseph Smith had proposed spiritual marriage to her; subsequently converted to polygamy, Pratt, at the time of this 1850 denial, had already married four plural wives and fathered two polygamous children.62 Nine months later, Apostle John Taylor published a pamphlet of a debate he had in France, which included the statement: “We are accused here of polygamy, and actions the most indelicate, obscene, and disgusting…. These things are too outrageous to admit of belief.” He answered his opponents by reading the 1835 Article on Marriage.

By this date in 1850, John Taylor had married twelve polygamous wives who had already borne him eight children.63

Part 3