This is the third and final post on B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice and Demise (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007). The simple story of the end of LDS polygamy is that it ended in 1890 with the Manifesto. The not-so-simple story involves a Second Manifesto in 1904, which raises the obvious question, “If the First Manifesto ended polygamy, why the need for a Second Manifesto?” The First Manifesto did not end the officially sanctioned LDS practice of polygamy. In fact, it took twenty years to fully execute that momentous institutional change of course.
While most are familiar with the increasingly aggressive federal legislation during the 1880s that eventually forced LDS President Wilford Woodruff to act, the Utah Commission also played an active role in attempting to force change on the Church. The 1890 report of the Commission was sent to Washington on August 22, 1890, alarming LDS leaders. Hardy comments, “Contrary to what churchmen had told the public, the report alleged that more than forty polygamous sealings had occurred in the previous year. To bring an end to such relationships, the commissioners urged that Congress impose additional punishments, including disenfranchisement. A measure of this kind had already been enacted in Idaho and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court” (p. 342). I will quote just a short paragraph from the report.
A large proportion of the twelve apostles and the high dignitaries of the church are polygamists, and all are reputed to be open believers in the doctrine. Indeed, it is believed that no one can be promoted to office in the church unless he professes a belief in it as a fundamental doctrine ….” (p. 343; ellipsis in original)
That last line makes me wonder whether one can be promoted to high office in the Church of 2015 without supporting polygamy as a fundamental (if non-practiced) doctrine. Maybe not that much has changed.
The Manifesto of 1890
So it came to pass that President Woodruff acted. As he recorded in his journal, “I arived at a point in the History of my life as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whare I am under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church” (p. 344, unredacted). Hardy notes, “the Manifesto appears to be overwhelmingly the work of the church president himself” (p. 344). In the document that became known as the Manifesto, sent to Washington via a press release, Woodruff recognized federal law prohibiting plural marriage and states (the text here is taken from Woodruff’s journal), “I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws and to use my influence with members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise …. And I now publicly declair that my advice to the Latter Day Saints is to refrain from Contracting any Marriage forbidden by the Law of the land” (p. 347, unredacted).
These statements appear to state the intention of Woodruff and, presumably, other LDS leaders to stop performing plural marriages and to prohibit other Latter-day Saints from doing so, at least with the approval of the Church. The course of post-Manifesto LDS polygamy shows otherwise. Hardy thinks the Manifesto “gave the impression of being little more than private opinion publicly expressed” (p. 348). Indeed, public reaction and comment to the Manifesto was all over the map, with official commentary printed in the Deseret News denying it was a revelation and local anti-Mormons suggesting the Manifesto was intended to fool the rest of the nation.
This mixed reaction to the Manifesto prompted a couple of responses. First, in subsequent court proceedings in Utah, Pres. Woodruff provided clairfying remarks, perhaps even going farther in his clarifications than intended. As one contemporary Mormon living in Southern Utah recorded in his journal about Woodruff’s statements in that proceeding: “Among other replies Pres Woodruff declared that the doctrine of Plural Marriage was not taught nor entered into and it was his intention to obey the Laws of the US regarding Polygamy and he counseled the saints to do so, and if any man entered into Polygamy it would be contrary to his views expressed in the Manifesto and would be liable to be excommunicated from the Church. This announcement by him as Pres. of the Church has caused an uneasy feeling among the People …” (p. 354).
Further, to bolster the statements he made in the Manifesto, Woodruff in 1891 publicly declared that it was a revelation. To a stake conference in Logan, he declared, “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. … I should have let all the temples go out of of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do, and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write” (p. 356).
In the wake of the Manifesto came a general amnesty for Mormon polygamists in 1893 and, in 1896, Utah statehood. The following decade brought the election of LDS apostle Reed Smoot to the US Senate, the embarrassing Senate hearings about whether he could take his seat, the Second Manifesto in 1904, and later the resignations of apostles Taylor and Cowley from the Quorum of the Twelve. The last actions, coupled with disciplinary actions taken from that point forward against members who pursued new polygamous unions, made it clear the Church had definitively turned away from the practice. Given the extent to which the Church and its leadership were committed to the practice before 1890, it is not surprising it took twenty years to effect the change in direction.
Any Latter-day Saint reading this post should also read the essay now available at LDS.org, “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage.” Of the three detailed polygamy essays now posted at LDS.org (paralleling the three posts in this series), this last essay does the best job of presenting contemporaneous LDS views and covering the historical details without engaging in questionable justifications and apologetic arguments. Ironically, and despite how it was presented to outsiders, the essay essentially admits that the Manifesto of 1890 was neither intended nor implemented to end the officially sanctioned LDS practice of polygamy. As the essay acknowledges, “The Manifesto [of 1890] marked the beginning of the return to monogamy, which is the standard of the Church today.” The real change came in 1904, when LDS leaders finally committed to terminating the practice (or at least ceasing to perform new plural marriages) within the Church: “The Second Manifesto was a watershed event.”
LDS polygamy went from being a secret practice by a small group of insiders close to Joseph, to a publicly acknowledged widespread practice among the general membership of the Church, then back to a nonpublic unacknowledged practice, and finally to an underground practice that was eventually pushed entirely out of the mainstream LDS Church. Taking the long view, polygamy is still with us: while the Church studiously avoids the practice (by quickly excommunicating any Latter-day Saint involved with polygamy), the Church still affirms the doctrine and retains in its scriptures the revelation of July 1843. The recent polygamy essays at LDS.org have, if nothing else, legitimized the substantive public discussion within the Church of the doctrine and practice of LDS polygamy. We are obviously at the beginning, not the end, of that discussion.
Coming up next week: a review of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015) by Brian and Laura Hales.