After the newly-founded religion of the Latter Day Saints, under the leadership of Brigham Young (successor to the martyred Joseph Smith), moved to Utah, it presented the federal government with some problems, as soon as the United States had acquired the area from Mexico. Young and other Mormon leaders announced a revelation from God – Mormon men were strongly encouraged (to put it mildly) to marry multiple wives. Joseph Smith had been doing this in private but starting around 1852 the revelation was out in the open.
Mormon theologians and polemicists made clear that their “principle” – polygamy – was far superior to monogamy. The great patriarchs in the Old Testament had done it with God’s approval. Polygamous unions supposedly produced healthy children. Men with many wives were not tempted, like monogamists, to frequent prostitutes or engage in fornication or adultery, thus polygamy was an answer to these social ills.
Opponents of Mormon polygamy – whom historian Stephen Prothero calls “conservatives” although the critics included prominent feminists – denounced polygamy as barbarous, oppressive to women, and a practice which had harmed civilization in other continents.
At first the federal government’s solution to the Mormon question was to make Brigham Young the governor of Utah. After all, Utah was a federal territory, most of its settlers were Mormons, and they’d obey Young.
There was another consideration. To be sure, polygamy was problematic, but should Congress be telling the people of the territories what domestic institutions they should have? Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies said no – thinking of course of slavery. But polygamy was a domestic institution, too, so if Congress started banning it, people might get ideas about banning territorial slavery, also.
Indeed, the Republican platform in 1856 said Congress should ban polygamy and slavery in the territories, calling the two institutions “twin relics of barbarism.”
Democrat James Buchanan defeated the Republican candidate, on a platform of keeping Congress from meddling in the question of territorial slavery. Buchanan did meddle with the Mormons just a little bit in Utah, to the extent of deciding that Utah wasn’t the Papal States, and the religious leader shouldn’t double as the head of the civil government. So Buchanan fired Young as civil governor and replaced him with a non-Mormon.
Mormons referred to non-Mormons as “Gentiles,” and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. Rather than submit to the Gentile governor, the Mormons launched a guerrilla war, but the rebellion was put down with the help of U. S. general Albert Sydney Johnston.
OK, so General Johnston and a bunch of other people waged a Civil War, and for our purposes the result was that most of the Southerners left Congress, leaving a Republican majority which passed laws against both slavery and polygamy, the twin relics, in the federal territories. The Morrill Act of 1862 prescribed punishments for polygamists, but was rarely enforced. President Lincoln, though he signed the law, suggested leaving the polygamists alone, telling a folksy tale about a farmer plowing around a stump which was too big for him to remove. Or maybe Lincoln told the story about the salesman and the farmers’ three daughters – who cares what joke he told, Mormon-majority juries didn’t convict people under the law even if the local officials cared enough to prosecute.
Still, the Mormon leadership wanted a test case to show the polygamy was part of their religious freedom, protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. So they got a guy named Reynolds to get prosecuted and to appeal his conviction to the U. S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in Reynolds’ case, decided that Congress could ban polygamy in federal territories. There was no First Amendment right to engage in such a practice – polygamy was a blot on civilization. The true meaning of the First Amendment was spelled out in President Thomas’ Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists – the First Amendment erected “a wall of separation between Church & State.” The phrase (which isn’t in the Constitution) is fairly controversial, but for the Mormons the bottom line was that polygamy was on the state’s side of the wall, not religion’s side.
Now it was time to put some teeth in the anti-polygamy laws. It was the 1880s, and Congress wasn’t down with Mormons marrying multiple ladies. So Congress tightened the screws in 1882 and again in 1887. Prosecuting polygamists – both for their multiple marriages and for “unlawfully cohabiting” with their surplus wives – was made easier through keeping polygamists off the juries. Gentile juries began convicting Mormon patriarchs, and the federal pen started looking crowded.
Plus Congress took the vote away from many polygamists, and seized the property of the Mormon church for its defiance of the polygamy law. Some polygamists went underground, trying to evade detection from the sex police. Others went to the recently-established Mormon colonies in Mexico. While I don’t think Mexican law allowed polygamy, there wasn’t the same level of legal repression as in the United States.
The Mormon leaders thought enough was enough. It was time for Utah to be its own state, so that under the Constitution, it would no longer be subject to federal morals laws. The Mormon leadership began a campaign to persuade the public that the whole polygamy thing was exaggerated, and that the Mormons were turning away from the practice. This wasn’t strictly true, but the Mormons had found some new friends, wealthy railway companies and railroad promoters, who were willing to spread the wealth around among newspapers and Congress members to create a favorable climate of opinion for the Mormons. If Utah ended up as a state, these railway interests expected that the government would be dominated by grateful Mormons, happy to pay back their benefactors.
To help with the public-relations campaign, boss Mormon Wilford Woodruff issued a declaration in 1890 suggesting that he would hereafter urge his flock to adhere to the federal antipolygamy laws and not to contract new polygamous marriages.
The new declaration basically indicated a new determination to keep the polygamy on the down low. Men who already had multiple wives (married before 1890) would not be hassled by the church for continuing to cohabit. If men wanted extra wives after 1890, they could go to one of the Mexican settlements – there was nothing in United States law against being a polygamist in Mexico (or keeping extra wives there).
The Mormons and their allies could now claim (with some truthiness) to have gone beyond polygamy. Another step was necessary. Hitherto, the political parties in Utah had been divided between the (Mormon) People’s Party and the (Gentile) Liberal Party. The Mormon leadership decided to make Utah competitive between Democrats and Republicans, dangling before the two major parties the prospect of Senators, Congressmen, and electoral votes. It was a delicate operation, since the traditional Republican support of anti-polygamy laws made Mormons Democratic by inclination – and the leadership wanted a politically-competitive state which neither party could write off or take for granted. So the leaders sent the word out that those of the faithful who hadn’t already become Democrats should become Republicans, thus setting up the needed balance.
These various underhanded tactics worked – Congress agreed in 1894 that if Utah adopted an anti-polygamy state constitution, it could become a state in 1896. The voters complied, and the state of Utah entered the Union in 1896. Polygamy was a crime on the books, but that was a state law, and the state law wasn’t enforced with the same vigor as the old federal anti-polygamy law had been. The railroad interests were disappointed that they didn’t get the keys to the state treasury – they thought they deserved at least that much at the hands of the new Mormon-dominated government in exchange for advocating statehood. But the deed was done.
Then something happened to bring the whole polygamy issue back into unwelcome public attention.
In 1903, the Utah Legislature chose the Republican Reed Smoot for U. S. Senate. Smoot was a successful, hardworking businessman, and a monogamist. He was also one of Mormonism’s 12 Apostles – part of the top leadership of the Mormon Church, and it soon transpired that not all of the church leadership shared Smoot’s personal preference for monogamy.
The Senate provisionally gave Smoot a seat, then its Committee on Privileges and Elections held hearings on Smoot’s qualifications. The issue at hand was whether the top Mormon leadership, of which Smoot was a member, encouraged polygamy.
During about three years of hearings, it transpired that the top Mormon leadership was riddled with polygamy. President Joseph F. Smith – the boss Mormon – had several wives. The practice was still widespread.
This was a problem because it was the Progressive era, and reforming society was the “in” thing once again. While the progressives were not so deluded and mad with power lust as to think they could simply pass morals legislation to supersede the laws of the states, there were rumblings about an anti-polygamy amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The Mormon leadership decided that it was time for the other shoe to drop. In 1890 they’d put their polygamous practices on the down-low, no longer advertising them. Now in the early 20th century they stopped polygamy for real.
Fortunately, previous Mormon criticisms of monogamy turned out to be exaggerated. When they became monogamists, Mormon men didn’t rush off en masse to the brothels. To this day, Mormon family life, while subject to imperfections and scandals like anything human, has compared favorably with family life in other communities.
Congress had banned the immigration of polygamists in 1891. In the Progressive era, they banned the advocates of polygamy from immigrating. This caused diplomatic tension with the Ottoman Empire, which was indignant at the idea that Muslims – even monogamist Muslims – might be kept out of the United States merely for believing that the Muslim faith says about polygamy sometimes being OK. In practice, there was no Muslim ban, and only those who actually called for the introduction of polygamy into the U. S. were hit with the ban. In 1990, Congress decided that advocates of polygamy could immigrate here, just so long as they weren’t polygamists themselves.
By this time, all of this had grown irrelevant to mainstream Mormonism, though one still hears of the splinter Mormon sects.
As far as the mainstream Mormons are concerned – that is, most adherents to the religion – a contemporary Mormon apologist summed up polygamy this way: “here are the facts: yes we did and no we don’t.”
As to Reed Smoot, we will meet him again, but for now let me mention the possibly-true story about Senator Boies Penrose, who allegedly said he preferred a polygamist who didn’t polyg to a monogamist who didn’t monag.
Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
C. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Charles S. Peterson and Brian Q. Cannon, The Awkward State of Utah: Coming of Age in the Nation, 1896-1945. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015.
Stephen Prothero, “The Mormon Question,” in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). New York: HarperOne, 2016, pp. 99-137.
Thomas Cottam Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938.
Claire A. Smearman, “Second Wives’ Club: Mapping the Impact of Polygamy in U.S. Immigration Law,” Berkeley Journal of International Law
Volume 27, Issue 2, Article 3 (2009).