Yesterday, my father, who is a currator at the Church Museum in Salt Lake City, asked me to respond to an email that he had recieved from a young man that he had met through his work who was investigating the Church. The young man had heard his LDS girl friend declare that Mormons believe that one should always obey the law, but the young man had heard something about Mormon resistence to polygamy in the 19th century and thought that Mormons had taught that Mormon law always trumped Gentile law. What follows is the email that I wrote to him:
My father forwarded to me your message. The issue of how Mormons have coped with conflicts between their religious convictions and the law is enormously complicated and no simple formulation will adequately capture that meaning. Essentially, in the 19th century Mormons tended to take the position that they would obey all legitimate and constitutional laws, but that certain formally valid laws, ie laws passed by congress and the president, were illegitimate and need not be obeyed. The most striking example is the Mormon reaction to the anti-polygamy laws passed by Congress, beginning in 1862. Mormons took the position that the laws violated their right to practice their religion and refused to obey the laws. For nearly fifteen years the federal government made no real effort to enforce the laws. When they finally did, the Mormons took a case to the Supreme Court, which held that the laws did not violate the first amendment. The Mormons believed that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the constitution, and continued to resist federal law enforcement — mainly by going in to hiding or through civil disobedience, ie by disobeying the law and then going to prison. The federal government responded with massive force: huge amounts of Mormon property — including the sacred Mormon temples — were confiscated by the federal government, literally thousands of Mormons were sent to prison, Mormon women were denied the right to vote, all Mormon polygamists were denied the right to vote, all Mormons in Idaho were denied the right to vote (this law was upheld by the Supreme Court in a case called Davis v. Beason), etc. etc. Eventually, the Mormons had no choice but to submit to federal law or be destroyed. Beginning in 1890 the Church began a long and torturous set of negotiations with the federal government that ended about 15 years later with the complete abandonment of polygamy, the admission of Utah as a state, the return of confiscated Mormon property, a Presidential pardon of Mormons for past violations of the law, and full political equality for Mormons. For a good history of this whole process I would suggest Ed Firmage & Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts, Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question, and Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, probably in that order.
The relationship between Mormon law and federal law in territorial Utah is very complicated as well. When the Mormons settled in Utah it was outside of the territory of the United States, in the Mexican province of Upper California. Practically speaking, the closest Mexican legal authority was hundreds of miles away in Santa Fe, so there wasn’t really any law in Utah in 1847. The Mormons responded by creating their own government. Originally this took the form of a local ecclesiastical organization known as the High Council. In 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded Upper California (essentially the present day states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and California) to the United States. The Mormons responded by organizing “The State of Deseret.” They wrote a constitution (more or less copied from the then Illinois constitution), held elections, and petitioned the U.S. Congress to join the Union as a state. Congress denied the petition but didn’t really do anything else. The result is that for several years (until 1850) there was no federal action of any kind for Utah. The area — it wasn’t even formally organized as a territory — was left in legal limbo. The Mormons continued to operate the state of Deseret as the de facto government. There were two reasons for this. First, they had no choice. There was no other government around, including the federal government. Second, they wanted to be admitted as a state. Their goal was to mirror Texas’s model, which was to create a government in fact that the Congress would then recognize as legitimate and admit as a state. This didn’t really work. In 1850, Congress organized the territory of Utah by basically co-opting the state of Deseret, complete with Brigham Young as governor. They did send out some federal officials to act as judges. These folks alienated the local Mormons, who refused to use their courts, acted in menacing ways, and generally made their (the judges’) lives unpleasant. The judges left, and gave the federal government exaggerated accounts of a Mormon rebellion against federal authority. President Buchanan responded, at least in part for cynical political reasons — the Mormons made a nice diversion from the battles over slavery that were threatening to rip the Union apart –by sending the bulk of the federal army to Utah to subdue the Mormons. Brigham Young and the Mormons first heard about this when Mormons on the plains reported that the U.S. Army was marching to Utah with orders to subdue or destroy the Mormons. The Mormons thought that they were going to witness a replay of the earlier persecutions against them in Missouri, only on a much vaster scale. Eventually, there was a negotiated settlement. The U.S. Army entered Utah, Brigham Young resigned as governor, and a gentile — but a largely friendly one to the Mormons — became governor. Thereafter, Utah was run the same way that most territories were run. There was a territorial legislature elected by the local people that could pass laws just like a state legislature. A federally appointed governor had a veto power, just like a state governor. The key difference was that Congress had the authority to revoke territorial laws (Congress cannot revoke state laws) and Congress had much greater authority to pass laws directly relating to affairs in the territory (although the scope of Congress’s power over the territories was hugely controversial and was ultimately one of the disputes leading to the Civil War).
You may have heard about the so-called “Ghost Government of Deseret.” This is not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. After the organization of Utah territory, the Mormons kept petitioning Congress for admission as a state. These petitions would take the form of a law (actually a resolution) passed by the territorial legislature, signed by the Governor and then conveyed to the Congress by him. The Mormon dominated territorial legislature (elected by the local people, who were overwhelmingly Mormon) passed a petition for statehood. The unelected, federally appointed governor refused to sign it or pass it along to the Congress on the grounds that the Mormons were unfit to be full American citizens, mainly on account of polygamy and Mormon political cohesiveness. The Mormons — especially Brigham Young — were understandably pissed off by this. The responded with hard ball tactics. They re-organized the defunct State of Deseret. It had a legislature that consisted of all of the people who were in the actual territorial legislature, as well as a Governor — Brigham Young — and other officers chosen by the “state” legislature. The idea was to circumvent the territorial governor by presenting Congress with a fait accompli, an already functioning state government that Congress would be forced to acknowledge. Again, the Mormons were loosely modeling themselves on the Texas experience. The “Ghost Government of Deseret,” however, only really existed on paper. The legislature of the territorial government and the legislature of the “State of Deseret” were composed of the same people and passed identical laws. Brigham Young, as “governor”, would give speeches to the “state” legislature, but other than that it never functioned as anything other than a political ploy. It remained in operation for several years, partly out of the hope that the political winds in Congress would change, and partly out of Mormon stubbornness and frustration. They found it difficult to see territories such as Oregon or Nevada admitted as states, despite that the fact that Utah had been settled longer and — at least in the case of Nevada — had a much larger population. Eventually the ghost government of the State of Deseret quietly shut down when it became clear that it was not going to work as a ploy for statehood. Other than this, legally speaking Utah operated much like another territory. It was basically self-governing, except when Congress chose to repeal or modify its laws, which Congress did with increasing frequency after 1862. In addition to the books by Firmage & Mangrum, Gordon, and Flake above, if you are interested in this period, I would suggest Dale Morgan’s The State of Deseret, and Leonard Arrington’s biography of Brigham Young.
OK, I am sure now that this is too long and more information than you really wanted, but I did want to convey to you some sense of how difficult it is going to be understand Mormon legal history with phrases like “Mormons always obey the law” or “Mormon law always trumped Gentile law.” Neither of these statements are true. Today, I think that by and large the Church teaches that one must obey the law. However, unlike in the 19th century, the Church is not faced with laws aimed at the destruction of the Mormon community, its practices, or the institutional Church. I suspect that faced with such extreme laws, the Church would once again revert to it’s past commitment to following a “higher law” in the face of conflicts with human law, a doctrine that continues to exist in Mormon scripture, particularly section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Fortunately, modern Mormons and the modern Church do not face legal attacks that have anything like the intensity of the 19th century attacks on Mormonism. Furthermore, I think that the memory of the brutality and intensity of those attacks continues among Church leaders. Having been the target of overwhelming legal attacks in the past, the contemporary prophets are eager to spare contemporary Mormons such persecution, especially since most Mormons live as tiny religious minorities in their countries, many of which do not have strong traditions of religious liberty. Hence, the current emphasis on obeying and sustaining the law.
I hope that this helps you.