Social And Political Reactions To Polygamy
We are a peculiar people, Elder Bruce R. McConkie once said (McConkie 25).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of a few odd Christian religions.
Many of its practices have created much persecution and political reaction, polygamy
being one of these. It created much social and political persecution of the Mormons.
Most of this persecution had come from anti-polygamist Christians. This is ironic
because the anti-polygamists believed in the Bible, but not polygamy, one of its teachings.
Many of Gods righteous followers in the Old Testament practiced polygamy. Abraham
married Hagar, Sarais handmaiden (Genesis 16:1-3). Jacob was married to Leah,
Rachel, Billah, and Zilpha all at the same time. In the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of
modern revelation used as scripture by the LDS church, it states that in nothing did they
[the Old Testament prophets] sin save in those things they received not of me
[God](132:38). Quickly one sees that God gave those women to the prophets of old
because they were righteous.
So what exactly is the justification and reason for polygamy? Mormons believed
that when a couple or family is sealed in the temple of the Lord by one holding Gods
priesthood keys of sealing, that the bond is not until death do us part, but rather for all
eternity. If this is true, then when a man is widowed and he marries a second wife, he
then has two wives. The Mormons believe that if a man can have multiple wives in
heaven, then the same should be true on Earth. According to the Lords law of marriage,
it is lawful that a man have only one wife at a time unless by revelation the Lord
commands plurality of wives in the new and everlasting covenant (McConkie5770). If a
woman who is sealed in the temple is widowed, she not allowed to be resealed: only a
man is allowed a plurality of spouses.
Before the founding and organizing of the LDS church and introduction of
polygamy, Joseph Smith received bitter persecution. He was tarred and feathered by a
mob, but this was nothing compared to the treatment the saints received when their
practice of polygamy became well known (Arrington JS 26-7). In order to escape the
torture, Joseph Smith led one hundred and fifty or more saints from New York to
Kirtland, Ohio in 1831 (Arrington JS 21). After living in harmony with the native Gentiles
for several years, the town of Kirtland became a prosperous city. In 1843, the local
Gentiles found out that Joseph Smith and many other church members were practicing
polygamy. When questioned, they confessed to the act, but from then on they hid it from
the Gentiles (Newell 66-7). The news spread quickly, and the persecution returned at an
even greater intensity.
Social persecution quickly turned into political persecution. On October 30, 1838,
Governor Lilburn Boggs issued the Extermination Order in which he wrote that the
Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if
necessary, for the public good. (Benton 787) A few days later at Hauns Mill, 17
Mormons were killed and many others, including women and children, were severely
wounded (Benton787). In October 1838, the Missouri state militia was marching toward
the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio:
Anxious to avoid bloodshed, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt,
Lyman White and George Robinson went to negotiate with state officials
under the flag of truce. Instead of treating the group with respect,
however, militia officials seized the group. An order was issued to have
Joseph and the others shot, but Colonel Alexander Doniphan, a secondary
Missouri officer, courageously refused to carry out the order. Instead of
court-martial and execution, the prisoners were taken on November 2 to
Jackson County for Prison and trial.(Arrington JS32)
After spending six months in prison, the group escaped with the help of the jailer
(Arrington JS 32). Joseph then purchased a large amount of land in Jackson county,
Missouri to which the Mormons could flee for safety.
There Smith founded the city of Nauvoo, to which approximately 2,500 Mormons
fled, from Ohio and New York. At first the Mormons were kindly received by the
Missourians who looked upon them as a set of harmless fanatics, very susceptible of being
molded into good and honest citizens (Benton 796). Native Southerners soon found that
the Mormons were against slavery, and therefore began to despise their presence (Benton
797). William and Wilson Law organized a paper called the Nauvoo Expositor, and
printed their first and last paper in which they reinforced the rumors among the Gentiles
that the Mormons practiced polygamy. Anti-Mormon mob violence increased in response.
Smith had the press destroyed and gathered the Nauvoo legion to quell the mob violence
and to protect the city (Benton 797):
For this he was charged with treason and with others, including his brother
Hyrum, incarcerated in Carthage jail under pledge of protection by
Governor Ford. This pledge was not kept. On the afternoon of June 27,
1844, a mob of armed men with blackened faces assaulted the jail and
murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith. John Taylor was severely wounded,
but Willard Richards, their fellow prisoner, escaped unhurt. (Benton 797)
The prophet and president of the church was dead, and for the next three years. The
Mormons were led by the Quorum of the Twelve. Brigham Young, the senior member of
the Twelve, was then appointed by the Twelve and overwhelmingly ratified by the
congregation (Benton797). Under Brigham Young, the Mormons faced their final move.
On September 10, 1845 Young appointed 1,500 men to go to the Great Salt Lake
Valley, and two weeks later an agreement was made with the county and the state officials
in Missouri for a prompt evacuation of Missouri. In the early spring of 1846, several
thousand Mormons evacuated Nauvoo to head for Salt Lake (Arrington BY 55).
The Salt Lake Valley was selected because of its very unattractiveness, with the
hope, therefore, that it would not be coveted by others(Benton 797):
Constitutional conventions of 1856, 1862, 1872, 1882, and 1887
accomplished nothi8ng in the face of the determination of the federal
government to force abolition of polygamy which became the symbol of the
supremacy of United States law over the Mormon way of life. (Benton
Not until 1895 was Utah allowed entrance into the union as a state, because Congress
wanted more non-Mormons in Utah and because they wanted to be sure that polygamy
was finished there (Arrington 343). They eventually received status as a United States
territory under the name of Utah, instead of statehood.
Under their new status as a territory, the Mormons were treated poorly by their
appointed territorial governor and congress. During the 1850s, Associate Justice William
Drummond and the United States Attorney General Jeremiah Black sent claims to
President James Buchanan that the records of the territorial Supreme Court had been
damaged under Brigham Youngs command (Roberts 4:46). After several more reports of
serious treason were reported to Buchanan, he sent in General Albert Sidney Johnston
with several thousand troops and the newly appointed territorial Governor Alfred
Cumming to quell the rebellion and restore peace. Due to severe weather conditions and
guerrilla attacks, in which supplies were taken or destroyed, the army was forced to stay in
Camp Scott near Fort Bridger (Benton 797). In the Spring the troops moved in and found
that the records were intact. In preparation for the federal troops, Young had ordered that
all Mormons in the Great Salt Lake Valley area were to flee south (Roberts 4:444). The
troops returned to Camp Scott and reported to Buchanan that the peace had been restored
(Roberts 4:43). The whole military episode soon became known as Buchanans blunder
and did much to ruin his fortunes politically(Benton798).
After Buchanans blunder, Congress reverted to laws instead of the military to
rid the United States of polygamous Mormons. The first of many anti-Mormon and anti-
polygamy laws was the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. Lincoln approved this bill on
July 8, 1862 which made the practice of polygamy illegal (Roberts 5:7). In 1882 the
Edmunds Law was enacted, providing for imprisonment of those convicted of polygamy
or unlawful cohabitation (Kenney 195). Because of these two laws the Mormons were
subject to extreme persecution (Roberts 5:7); many of the Mormon leaders were forced
to flee their homes to keep from being thrown in prison for a practice basic to their
religious beliefs (Swinton 145):
These laws were questioned because it was thought that they constituted
an infringement upon religious liberty as guaranteed by the constitution. In
1890, however, after the US supreme court had reaffirmed the
constitutionality of the anti-polygamy laws. . . (Benton 799)
On September 24, 1890. In response to the decree of the Supreme Court Wilford
Woodruff issued what became known as the Woodruff Manifesto. It is printed at the
end of every copy of the Doctrine & Covenants. It reads in part as follows:
Inasmuch as Laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural
marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of
last resort. I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to
use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to
have them do likewise. (D&C292)
Although the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer
sanctioned or allowed polygamous marriages in their temples, the practice continued
among rebellious and stubborn members.
Persecution continued because many Gentiles rightly felt that the Mormons were
still practicing polygamy. The Idaho Test Oath was used to disenfranchise those men who
continued to practice polygamy. Gentile women fought to gain suffrage in order to aid the
passage of anti-polygamy laws. Once women were enfranchised they realized it was only
aiding the polygamists and began lobbying for disenfranchising women (Bitton 212-3).
Not all Mormons liked polygamy; many felt it was not an institution of God. At
first, even Joseph Smith dreaded it (Newell 292). Women, especially, did not approve of
it. They fought against it because of its accompanying hardships. Emma Smith, Josephs
wife, was one such Mormon woman. In her journal she writes of the hardships she had to
go through because of polygamy:
Today Lucie Rigdon told me she had heard of another of Josephs wives. I
just cant cope with sharing my husband. (Newell 272).
Men also rejected polygamy. They felt it was a form of justified adultery. Not all Mormons
reacted the same way to polygamy. Some left, and others had their testimonies
strengthened by it.
The Mormons were subject to severe persecution and unjust treatment for
believing that polygamy was morally, spiritually, and legally correct and for upholding the
two percent who practiced it (Robert 6:149). The Mormons were driven across the nation
to escape the persecution but were never successful. Many church historians have felt that
polygamy was practiced in order to make the early and present members stronger by
forcing them to defend their beliefs as Mormons (Roberts 5:294-300).
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University of Utah Press, 1987.
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