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# POLYGAMY , PROPHETS , AND PREVARICATION : FREQUENTLY AND RARELY A SKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE INITIATION , PRACTICE , AND CESSATION OF PLURAL MARRIAGE IN THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER - DAY SAINTS

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POLYGAMY, PROPHETS, AND PREVARICATION:
ABOUT THE INITIATION, PRACTICE, AND CESSATION
OF PLURAL MARRIAGE IN THE CHURCH OF
JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
by Gregory L. Smith, M.D.
Introduction ................................................................... 2
Wilford Woodruff’s Pre-Manifesto
Polygamy is Non-Christian .......................................... 3
Writing the Manifesto .............................................. 34
Polygamy was Illegal ..................................................... 3
Principles of Church Government and the
Civil Disobedience in Context ..................................... 3
Manifesto ................................................................. 35
Doctrine and Covenants 134 and Civil
Wilford Woodruff’s Post-Manifesto
Disobedience ................................................................ 6
Court Decisions and Civil Disobedience ..................... 7
False Analogy with the “Gay Marriage” Debate .......... 9
Joseph F. Smith’s Administration ............................ 40
Don’t Die On Every Hill ............................................ 10
After the Second Manifesto ..................................... 42
Polygamy and Lying ................................................... 10
Lying About Polygamy during the Nauvoo Era ......... 11
Polygamy as Lasciviousness ....................................... 44
Didn’t Joseph Deceive Church Members? .............. 11
Secrecy, Polygamy, and Threats of Violence
Implementation Problems .......................................... 46
against the Saints ..................................................... 13
Nineteenth Century Variations on a Theme ............... 46
Lying and Biblical Prophets .................................... 14
What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place
Lying for the Lord? .................................................. 15
Like This? ................................................................... 47
Lying About Polygamy in Utah, Prior to 1890 ........... 16
Polygamy and Depression .......................................... 48
Conditions Preceding the Manifesto of 1890 .......... 17
Hiding History ............................................................. 49
How Critics Viewed Mormons Prior to the
Final Thoughts—What was the Purpose of
Manifesto of 1890 .................................................... 19
Plural Marriage? ......................................................... 51
The Morrill Act ........................................................ 21
Obedience ................................................................... 51
Post Civil War Measures: The Reynolds Case ........ 23
“Raise Up Seed” ......................................................... 51
The Edmunds Act .................................................... 24
Sociological ................................................................ 52
Assault on Due Process ........................................... 25
Abrahamic Test .................................................. 52
Indeﬁnite Punishment ....................................27
Extension of Legal Problems beyond Utah ...28
The Edmunds-Tucker Act ..............................28
Notes .................................................................. 56
Legal Summary ..............................................31
Lying About Polygamy after the 1890
Manifesto ..........................................................32
The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research

2
Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication
INTRODUCTION
4. Lascivious. This attack charges that Joseph Smith
Perhaps no practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of
(and possibly his successors) pursued plural
Latter-day Saints proved more volatile and divisive than
marriage for purely base motivations. Such a charge
plural marriage, or “polygamy.” First revealed to Joseph
is usually accompanied by appeals to the above
Smith in the early 1830s, it was implemented in at least a
criticisms, to imply that Joseph and his successors’
few relationships by the mid-1830s and more widely dur-
conduct was questionable on many grounds, and
ing the Nauvoo period of the 1840s, though secrecy still
therefore is best explained by their sexual appetite
surrounded its practice.
rather than sincere religious conviction.
1 Publicly announced in 1852, it
served as a focal point for legislators, social reformers,
5. Implementation. This attack is often an adjunct
and anti-Mormon agitators throughout the latter half of the
to others; some of the supposed or real negative
nineteenth century.
consequences of polygamy are enumerated with the
argument that such consequences are evidence that
Despite a vigorous campaign in the courts, the members
the practice was not divinely commanded.
of the Church were unsuccessful in having plural marriage
6. Hiding history. Closely related to criticism 3,
tolerated—indeed, it was outlawed and such laws were
this is normally an attack on the modern Church
upheld as constitutional. The Manifesto of 1890, together
with the “Second Manifesto” of April 1904, put an end
the “friendly and helpful” critic. Since the critic
to polygamy in the Church. Though polygamy currently
has provided information of which the reader was
plays little role in most discussions of LDS theology and is
previously unaware, the claim is then made that the
forbidden to any member on pain of excommunication, it
Church has been “hiding” the truth, or “lying” to its
continues to be a live issue for some. As in the nineteenth
unsuspecting members. Thus the critic can resurrect
century, “the Principle” continues to attract the fascina-
the polygamous past to attack the Church in the
tion, amusement, distaste, or scorn of general society. It
present.
also serves as a target for enemies of the gospel of Jesus
Christ, Joseph Smith, and the Church he established.
An understanding of polygamy has not always been helped
by the tendency of some LDS authors to gloss over many
Attacks upon Joseph Smith and the Church regarding po- of the very real difﬁculties associated with this period in
lygamy have generally taken one or more of the following Church history, though this tendency is not as exaggerated
forms:
as some suppose.
1. Irreligious. Popular among sectarian critics, this It is my contention that the discovery and dissemination of
attack appeals to western sensibilities which favor historical materials at variance with the standard or “folk”
monogamy, and argues that polygamy is inconsistent understanding of polygamy common in the twentieth and
with biblical Christianity or (ironically) the Book twenty-ﬁrst century Church is no threat to a faithful ap-
of Mormon itself. Even some secular histories preciation of polygamy as a divinely mandated practice
occasionally fall victim to this tendency.2
during the formative years of the Church. Indeed, I do not
think that it is the “additional information” that causes
2. Illegal. This criticism asserts that the Church and problems for faithful Latter-day Saints who are sincerely
its members participated in polygamy despite such troubled by what the historical record tells us. Rather, it
relationships generally being illegal under state and/ is the persistent—and often unmet—need for still more
or federal law. It is argued that the Church thereby information and context, which some authors have been
abandoned its commitment to “obeying, honoring, unable or unwilling to provide. The sole “danger” which
and sustaining the law.”3
historical information poses to members or sincere inves-
3. Lying. According to this criticism, Joseph Smith tigators occurs only if they stop their research too soon.
and his successors made repeated public statements Church critics are quite happy to lead their marks part of
in which they hid or openly denied the practice of the way, only to abandon them when the story is just get-
polygamy, despite knowledge to the contrary. It is ting good.
argued that this “dishonesty” is morally dubious and
inconsistent with the principles which the Church This paper is a modest attempt to address these concerns
claims to espouse.
within the context of the available historical sources.4 I do
not proceed in strict historical order, but have rather cho-

Gregory L. Smith
3
sen the six-pronged thematic approach outlined above (the There is extensive, unequivocal evidence that polygamous
themes consistently followed in criticisms of the Church), relationships were condoned under various circumstanc-
but I don’t consider the ﬁrst complaint of “irreligion,” es by biblical prophets, despite how uncomfortable this
except in passing, since this concern has been addressed might make a modern Christian. Elder Orson Pratt was
elsewhere.5
widely viewed as the victor in a three-day debate on this
very point with Reverend John P. Newman, Chaplain of
Initially I’ll focus on seeing the Church and its members’ the U.S. Senate, in 1870.7
actions in the context of civil disobedience from a his-
torical, theological, and moral perspective. I’ll then con- Even were there no such precedents, LDS theology has
sider the perspective of Church members who understood no problem accepting and implementing novel command-
themselves to be defendants in a war of religious—and ments, since the Saints believe in continuing revelation. I
perhaps physical—extermination waged by religious and will not belabor the matter here, since ample resources are
legislative enemies. I’ll review some of the legal and polit- available.
ical history that contributed to this perception, and which
ers and members, especially in the period following the POLYGAMY WAS ILLEGAL
Manifesto of 1890.
Critics charge that the Church and its members partici-
pated in polygamy in violation of both state and federal
I will then discuss the problems and ﬂaws with the view laws. It is therefore argued that the Church abandoned its
that polygamy was motivated by inappropriate sexual mo- commitment to “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the
tives on the part of Joseph Smith or those who came after law.”8 Critics, however, make such arguments without a
him.
full understanding of the legal considerations of the day
and without understanding how civil disobedience plays
Attacks on the character of the early polygamists are often into the picture.
followed by related criticisms of the day-to-day practice
of polygamy. I will therefore address these arguments, and
focus on claims that Joseph Smith’s stature as an “infalli- Civil Disobedience in Context
ble” prophet led others to embrace polygamy against their Polygamy was certainly declared illegal during the Utah-
better judgment, and that polygamy caused depression in era anti-polygamy crusade, and arguably illegal under the
Mormon women.
Illinois anti-bigamy statutes. This is hardly new informa-
tion, and Church members and their critics knew it.9 Mod-
I’ll conclude by demonstrating that there is ample evi- ern members of the Church generally miss the signiﬁcance
dence that the Church does little to “protect” its members of this fact, however: the practice of polygamy was a clear
from learning “the truth” about polygamy.
case of civil disobedience.
A few closing thoughts will then provide some perspective
The decision to defy the [anti-polygamy laws] was a
on the role that plural marriage played—both sociologi-
painful exception to an otherwise ﬁrm commitment
cally and spiritually—in the maturation of the Church. I
to the rule of law and order. Signiﬁcantly, however,
have come to see polygamy as a vital, even indispensable,
in choosing to defy the law, the Latter-day Saints
part of the Restoration, practiced at the behest of the Lord
were actually following in an American tradition of
and ultimately discontinued through proper priesthood au-
civil disobedience. On various previous occasions,
thorization.
including the years before the Revolutionary War,
Americans had found certain laws offensive to their
P
fundamental values and had decided openly to vio-
OLYGAMY IS NON-CHRISTIAN
late them.…Even though declared constitutional,
The criticism that polygamy is irreligious appeals to west-
the law was still repugnant to all [the Saints’] val-
ern sensibilities which favor monogamy, and argues that
ues, and they were willing to face harassment, exile,
polygamy is inconsistent with biblical Christianity or
or imprisonment rather than bow to its demands.10
(ironically) the Book of Mormon itself.
Modern writers are sometimes careless or overly broad
This is a weak attack at best, and replies—devotional, in their terminology, leading some Church members to
apologetic, and scholarly—have been made to the claim.6 associate “civil disobedience” with general lawlessness
www.fairlds.org

4
Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication
and hooliganism, such as the 1965 Watts riots mentioned retain its moral force, and criminal disobedience,15 which
by BYU president Ernest Wilkinson.11 This connotation involved violence, and with which he wished nothing to
clouds our appreciation, however, of a vital tool for lead- do. The Saints would likely have agreed with him when
ing a moral life under any government, and our under- he said:
standing of the Church’s decision in its historical context.
Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen.
The most eloquent and impressive advocate of civil dis-
He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man.
obedience was probably Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi
Civil disobedience is never followed by anarchy.
(1869-1948). Gandhi drew on Henry David Thoreau’s
Criminal disobedience can lead to it. Every state
1849 work, Resistance to Civil Government (sometimes
puts down criminal disobedience by force. It per-
titled Civil Disobedience) in which Thoreau articulated
ishes if it does not.16
the moral basis for civil disobedience:
The historical record is clear that the First Presidency con-
Can there not be a government in which the ma-
sidered the matter in just this light:
jorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but
conscience?—in which majorities decide only those
Our enemies during the past half year have not
questions to which the rule of expediency is appli-
slackened their activity in the work of persecution.
cable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the
If there has been any difference, it has been pur-
least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?
sued with greater vindictiveness and more ﬂagrant
Why has every man a conscience then? I think that
disregard of law and justice than at any time pre-
we should be men ﬁrst, and subjects afterward. It
vious. Those who have been compelled to endure
is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so
the penalties inﬂicted upon them have submitted,
much as for the right. The only obligation which I
in nearly every instance, with a cheerful equanim-
have a right to assume is to do at any time what I
ity and fortitude that must have won the admiration
think right.12
of heaven and of all just men. That which has been
accomplished furnishes but little cause for gratiﬁca-
Simply put, the state is not sovereign in matters of con-
tion to those who have been engaged in the inhu-
science. Every person owes a duty to his highest beliefs
man task of persecuting a people for the practice of
and aspirations, which duty trumps anything the state
their religion. There have been but few persons in
might insist upon. To argue or believe otherwise is to ac-
all who have been tried and convicted who have felt
cept the fascist fallacy—that the state is ultimately sov-
sufﬁciently terriﬁed at the prospect of punishment
ereign and of greater importance than the individual, and
to express a willingness to accept the rulings of the
that rights do not exist in any “inalienable” sense, but are
court instead of the law of God, as the guide for
merely conferred (and can be taken away) by the state.13
their consciences.17
Fundamental to the ethos of civil disobedience is a readi- Thus, the members and leaders were well aware that their
ness to accept the state’s penalty if one is convicted. One actions violated civil law. Those who violate the law may
cannot choose to violate the law and also demand escape be “compelled to endure the penalties,” but better this than
from the eventual penalty; one is rather choosing to follow to “accept the rulings of the court instead of the law of
one’s convictions despite the potential punishment. Said God as the guide for their consciences.”
Gandhi:
At this point, the critic or concerned member might object
This religious struggle does not involve hurting
that the Church claims to discourage disobedience to the
even a hair of anyone. We shall teach the Govern-
civil law. This is certainly the case, and with good scrip-
ment a lesson by suffering hardships ourselves…
tural reasons:
We shall violate the…law to such an extent that we
shall be prepared to suffer whatever the penalty we
19 For verily I say unto you, my law shall be kept
may have to face-be it imprisonment, ﬂogging or
on this land.
any other.14
20 Let no man think he is ruler; but let God rule
him that judgeth, according to the counsel of his
Gandhi made a clear distinction between civil disobedi-
ence, which he insisted must remain strictly non-violent to

Gregory L. Smith
5
own will, or, in other words, him that counseleth or
The ﬁrst principle for the Church is to do what God com-
sitteth upon the judgment seat.
mands them to do—that is the highest moral duty. The
21 Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that
state may not demand that citizens place its demands
keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the
higher than their own conscience.
laws of the land.18
5 And that law of the land which is constitutional,
This is not, as some have presumed, a blanket agreement
supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining
to support any law of any type. Rather, it is a general prin-
rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is
ciple to be observed, to which only God may command
justiﬁable before me.
an exception. Members of the Church did not understand
6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your breth-
“the laws of the land” to mean any and all statutes that
ren of my church, in befriending that law which is
might be passed by government. Rather, they understood
the constitutional law of the land…
the “laws of the land” to mean constitutional principles, as
President John Taylor explained:
Thus, the constitutional law of the United States is en-
dorsed by God, since central to such law is the protection
It is said in the Doctrine and Covenants, that he that
of religious conscience and practice. God grants the sus-
keepeth the laws of God, hath no need to break the
taining of law; the law does not “grant” the right of obey-
laws of the land [58:21]. It is further explained in
ing God, since this right is inalienable and the common
section 98, what is meant in relation to this… That
possession of all mankind.
is taking this nation as an example, all laws that are
proper and correct, and all obligations entered into
7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is
which are not violative of the constitution should
more or less than this, cometh of evil…
be kept inviolate. But if they are violative of the
constitution, then the compact between the rulers
Law which violates the higher moral duty of obeying God
and the ruled is broken and the obligation ceases to
is evil, and not sanctioned by God. This has a deeply theo-
be binding.19
logical rationale, as a later section illustrates:
Make no mistake—God’s law “shall be kept,” by His fol-
77 According to the laws and constitution of the
lowers, though this usually does not require using extra-
people, which I have suffered to be established, and
legal tactics, as Elder Boyd K. Packer observed:
should be maintained for the rights and protection
of all ﬂesh, according to just and holy principles;
Because the laws of man, by and large, do not raise
moral issues, we are taught to honor, sustain, and
78 That every man may act in doctrine and prin-
obey the law (see A of F 1:12), and that “he that
ciple pertaining to futurity, according to the moral
keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the
agency which I have given unto him, that every
laws of the land” (D&C 58:21)… Suppose a law
man may be accountable for his own sins in the day
decreed that all children would be taken from their
of judgment.21
parents and raised by the state. Such a law would be
wicked but probably could be enforced. Such things
The goal of divinely sanctioned civil law is to allow the
have been done before.20
free exercise of conscience, so that men and women may
be judged by their unfettered exercise of their moral agen-
It is difﬁcult to imagine that Elder Packer or the Church cy—and thus the state may not arrogate to itself the place
would countenance obedience to a law putting all chil- of that moral sense.
dren in the care of the state, despite the twelfth Article of
Faith! Doctrine and Covenants 98 spells out the speciﬁcs Gandhi emphasized that generally, strict obedience was
in greater detail, as President Taylor indicated:
necessary for the potential civil disobedient, saying that
he is
4 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the
laws of the land, it is my will that my people should
nothing if not instinctively law-abiding, and it is his
observe to do all things whatsoever I command
law-abiding nature which exacts from him implicit
them.
www.fairlds.org

6
Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication
obedience to the highest law, that is the voice of
also completely compatible with civil disobedience under
conscience which overrides all other laws.22
some circumstances.
President John Taylor made it clear that a defense of this
1 We believe that governments were instituted of
principle was a positive moral duty for the Saints:
God for the beneﬁt of man; and that he holds men
accountable for their acts in relation to them, both
Besides the preaching of the Gospel, we have an-
in making laws and administering them, for the
other mission, namely, the perpetuation of the free
good and safety of society.
agency of man and the maintenance of liberty,
freedom, and the rights of man. There are certain
Thus, the ﬁrst principle is that God will hold us account-
principles that belong to humanity outside of the
able in our behavior toward civil authority. Members of
Constitution, outside of the laws, outside of all the
the Church are not exempt from civil law, and must an-
enactments and plans of man, among which is the
swer both to the civil law and to God for their conduct. In
right to live; God gave us the right and not man; no
the same spirit, those who make laws and enforce them
government gave it to us, and no government has a
will likewise be judged by God.
right to take it away from us.23
2 We believe that no government can exist in peace,
After quoting Doctrine and Covenants 58:21-22 and 98:4-
except such laws are framed and held inviolate as
6, Elder James E. Talmage explained:
will secure to each individual the free exercise of
conscience, the right and control of property, and
A question has many times been asked of the Church
the protection of life.
and of its individual members, to this effect: In the
case of a conﬂict between the requirements made
Secondly, the civil government must not just defend free-
by the revealed word of God, and those imposed by
dom of conscience, but the free exercise of conscience
the secular law, which of these authorities would
must be inviolate. In the Reynolds decision on polygamy,
the members of the Church be bound to obey? In
the U.S. Supreme Court declared that all religious belief
answer, the words of Christ may be applied—it is
was protected by the ﬁrst amendment, but that no religious
the duty of the people to render unto Caesar the
practice was protected. Thus, one could believe anything
things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things
one wanted, but one couldn’t do anything about it with
that are God’s…Pending the overruling by Provi-
constitutional safety. (The Reynolds decision is discussed
dence in favor of religious liberty, it is the duty of
in the next section of this paper.)
the saints to submit themselves to the laws of their
country.24
4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and
that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for
Thus, God may clearly endorse, in issues of religious
the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions
liberty, disobedience to a secular authority. As a general
prompt them to infringe upon the rights and lib-
principle, however, submission to that authority is com-
erties of others; but we do not believe that human
manded when religious practice is not at issue. One does
law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of
not seek occasion to violate the law, but one cannot aban-
worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate
don principle. “What do you do?” asked President Taylor.
forms for public or private devotion; that the civil
“Observe the laws as much as you can. Bear with these
magistrate should restrain crime, but never control
indignities as much as you can.”25 President Woodruff put
conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress
the matter to the Saints in just these terms: “Now, which
the freedom of the soul.
shall we obey, God or Congress? For it is God and Con-
gress for it.” With a loud voice the assembly answered: Religious belief and practice are to be left strictly alone;
“We will obey God.”26
only those whose beliefs infringe upon the rights and prac-
tice of others should be charged under civil law.
Doctrine and Covenants 134 and Civil Disobedi-
ence
5 We believe that all men are bound to sustain and
uphold the respective governments in which they
The Church’s canonized statement on its relationship to
reside, while protected in their inherent and inalien-
civil government, found in Doctrine and Covenants 134, is
able rights by the laws of such governments; and

Gregory L. Smith
7
that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every
Religious societies should help assure the punishment of
citizen thus protected, and should be punished ac-
those who break “good laws”—this requires, of course,
cordingly; and that all governments have a right to
the potential for “bad laws.” In context, such laws clearly
enact such laws as in their own judgments are best
include laws which restrict or restrain religious practice,
calculated to secure the public interest; at the same
which religious societies may not be morally compelled
time, however, holding sacred the freedom of con-
to help enforce.
science.
In summary, as a legal scholar noted:
As long as citizens have such civil protection for their ex-
ercise of conscience, they are to honor the law. Of great
Whenever the state illegitimately proscribes reli-
signiﬁcance is the proviso that believers must be “protect-
gious belief or protected conduct, Mormon theology
ed in their inherent and inalienable rights”—if such laws
speaks of moral, religious, and, in some instances,
are mere window dressing, or are applied in an inconsis-
constitutional rights of its members to either civilly
tent fashion to a given people, then governments are not
disobey or conscientiously refuse compliance with
entitled to support in those areas, because this is the pre-
the laws of man. The declaration [in D&C 134]…is
cise purpose for which government is instituted.
not merely a descriptive statement of political reali-
ties. The parallels in wording and implication with
This anticipates the Nuremburg Principle—no one can be
the Declaration of Independence are not purely co-
morally required to abrogate their commitment to duty or
incidental.27
truth simply because the civil law declares otherwise, nor
can one appeal to civil law as justiﬁcation for violating a
moral code.
Court Decisions and Civil Disobedience
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the laws
7 We believe that rulers, states, and governments
against the Mormons were constitutional. But, this does
have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the
not imply that the Church was somehow “wrong” to resist
protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their
these laws. In the ﬁrst place, the Saints insisted that their
religious belief; but we do not believe that they have
civil disobedience was based upon divine revelation. Any
a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privi-
moral citizen’s ﬁrst duty is to his highest convictions and
lege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as
moral sense; it is not to the state. In the second place, a
a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and
court ruling does not make a decision morally correct, nor
such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor
“constitutional” in the sense that the Saints understood the
conspiracy.
term, in which religious liberty always ﬁgured large.
This is a repetition of the idea—government exists, theo- Legal history is replete with examples in which an action
logically, in large measure to protect the free exercise of once declared constitutional or legal was later reversed.
religious belief. Government has no right to restrict such For example, the Dred Scott opinion of 1857 found that
practice, unless those practices threaten the government or a black man was a “being…of an inferior order, and alto-
the rights of others.
gether unﬁt to associate with the white race…and so far
inferior [that he] had no rights which the white man was
A key point is that “regard and reverence” be “shown to bound to respect.”28
the laws”—religious societies should respect the laws.
But, respect for the law has no moral force to compel a “Constitutional,” for the Saints, is not a mere legal con-
change in behavior or belief that violates one’s religious struct, in which something becomes moral and proper (or
convictions (unless such convictions threaten the rights of immoral or improper) simply because an organ of the state
others).
declares it so. Rather, it is shorthand for a law consistent
with the commandments of God regarding moral agency.
8 We believe that the commission of crime should
To argue otherwise is to accept the position that the state
be punished according to the nature of the of-
is ultimately more important than God or individual con-
fense…all men should step forward and use their
science.
ability in bringing offenders against good laws to
punishment.
This raises a key issue: if the Supreme Court decisions
were not “constitutional” in the sense understood by the
www.fairlds.org

8
Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication
Saints, why did Wilford Woodruff issue the Manifesto
the ordinances therein, both for the living and the
which purported to abandon the practice of polygamy?
dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency
and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church,
As already discussed, civil disobedience presupposes a
and the conﬁscation of personal property of the
number of principles. A key concept is that one may ethi-
people (all of which of themselves would stop the
cally disobey civil authority, but one must be prepared
practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have
to accept the consequences of disobedience should they
through our adherence to this principle to cease the
come.
practice and submit to the law, and through doing
so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home,
The Mormons were generally aware of the laws which
so that they can instruct the people and attend to the
forbade them to practice polygamy or cohabitate; they
duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples
were also aware of the legal penalties for disobedience.
in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend
Their willingness to disobey also required a willingness to
to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living
accept the consequences. This is an important principle—
civil disobedience runs the risk of general lawlessness if
other citizens see that the law may be disobeyed without The Saints continued to maintain that the practice of po-
risk of consequence.29 The moral and political power of lygamy was divinely mandated and part of their religion.
civil disobedience derives from the willingness of some However, they were generally unwilling to continue their
to risk civil penalties, rather than violate their conscience. policy of overt, public civil disobedience and risk the
This may have the effect of mobilizing public opinion in harsher consequences that would ensue under the Ed-
their favor; it will ensure that the state cannot trump con- munds-Tucker Act and related statutes. They were forced
science.
to abandon either their public practice of plural marriage,
or accept the seizure of Church assets, the cessation of
The Saints were willing to suffer greatly for their faith— temple/sealing work, and the public practice of plural mar-
the civil penalties they endured under the anti-polygamy riage. They chose the option which did the least violence
statutes were likely less onerous than the illegal rape, mur- to their beliefs—for most, this was to abandon attempts to
der, and dispossession which they had already endured in live plural marriage publicly.
Missouri and Illinois. But the Saints were unwilling to ac-
cept the loss of more of their faith over a part of it. Said It has been argued that the Church should have only used
the Manifesto of 1890:
legal means—as opposed to civil disobedience—to chal-
lenge the anti-polygamy laws. This claim ignores the
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress
Saints’ belief that God had commanded them to institute
forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been
the practice, and that they therefore did not need anyone
pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort,
else’s blessing. Waiting would again have required them
I hereby declare my intention to submit to those
to put secular authority over their own conscience.
laws, and to use my inﬂuence with the members of
the Church over which I preside to have them do
Secondly, some Saints seemed to believe that the govern-
likewise.30
ment was willing to allow some benign non-enforcement
of the law. Under this view, the government would pass the
The Manifesto nowhere concedes that the laws are con- laws to satisfy those who were critical of polygamy, but
stitutional in the sense understood by the Saints; it merely would not enforce the laws vigorously. When President
admits the uncontroversial fact that the courts had so de- Abraham Lincoln signed the ﬁrst anti-polygamy legisla-
clared them. President Woodruff simply expressed a will- tion in 1862, he reportedly told Thomas B.H. Stenhouse,
ingness to discourage the practice of civil disobedience on an LDS messenger from Salt Lake City, “You go back
this topic. He later explained his rationale:
and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will
let him alone.”32 This policy of non-interference gave the
The question is this: Which is the wisest course for
Saints everything they really wanted—the right to practice
the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to at-
their religion—and so they were likely unwilling to attract
tempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of
unwanted attention by protesting a law that was not being
the nation against it and the opposition of sixty mil-
enforced.33
lions of people, and at the cost of the conﬁscation
and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all

Gregory L. Smith
9
Thirdly, from a legal perspective, it is often impossible In the case of polygamy, the Church never asked that their
to challenge an unjust law until one is charged under it. marital arrangements be condoned or legally recognized
Since the United States Congress was extremely unlikely by the state. Nor did they ask for others to endorse their
to entertain any appeals from the Mormons on the subject, religion or lifestyle. They did not ask for legal beneﬁts
legislative options were out. Joseph Smith’s decision to to accrue to their spouses, who were not legally “wives”
run for President of the United States—often offered by in a civil sense. They asked only to be left alone, to be
critics as evidence of megalomania—was actually a sound permitted their exercise of the rights of citizenship, and to
approach to this problem, and one of the only remaining be free from unlawful persecution. And, indeed, there was
legal avenues for redress of various injustices. It gave the a period of détente following Abraham Lincoln’s pledge
Saints a legal chance (though a small one) to inﬂuence the to leave Brigham Young and the Mormons alone if they
actions of the executive and legislative branches.
would leave him alone.
The courts were therefore the only venue in which the The Church does not dispute the civic right of those
Church might prevail—but, they had to be charged with who wish to privately engage in homosexual acts to do
violating the law before legal proceedings could begin and so, though it considers such behavior unwise and sinful.
appeals made to the Supreme Court. During the American Nowhere in America are gays and lesbians systemically
Civil Rights movement, the NAACP made a calculated denied the right to vote, or the right to own property and
decision to violate the South’s bus seating laws, knowing enjoy it unmolested. Unlike the nineteenth-century Mor-
they could be charged under the segregationist statutes. mons, the twenty-ﬁrst-century homosexual community
Being thus charged would then allow blacks to seek re- is generally free to enjoy sexual relations privately with
dress in the courts.
any other consenting adult without being disenfranchised,
jailed, or stalked by government agents. (Antiquated laws
Despite their decision to use civil disobedience, the Saints which remain exceptions to this rule seem destined for the
also used more traditional democratic processes such as scrap heap, if enforced at all, given the recent Supreme
petitions to government leaders and the use of Congres- Court decision overturning Texas’ sodomy laws.37 Not in-
sional lobbyists to argue their position.34
signiﬁcantly, the Supreme Court’s decision did not require
a redeﬁnition of marriage to redress the grievances of the
Cautioned Gandhi:
homosexual plaintiffs.) Homosexuals wishing to establish
committed, exclusive relationships have no obstacle what-
Disobedience to be civil must be sincere, respect-
ever to doing so, any more than heterosexual couples who
ful, restrained, never deﬁant, must be based upon
live together out of wedlock.
some well-understood principle, must not be capri-
cious and, above all, must have no ill-will or hatred
“Marriage rights,” by contrast, are a request for societal
behind it.35
endorsement and support of such relationships. Society
might well legitimately choose to refuse to endorse gay
Clearly, the Saints met all these criteria. Only sincere marriage—or polygamous ones—and refrain from pro-
conviction could have moved these New Englanders to viding societal support to such relationships. This is an
implement polygamy. The principle upon which they entirely different matter from forbidding others to exer-
stood—religious liberty—was clearly dear to their hearts, cise their personal and religious convictions and tastes
for they had repeatedly suffered enormous privations on privately, and harassing them with legislatures and courts.
that ground. And, Church leaders repeatedly expressed Practicing homosexuals already have the privileges which
their willingness to negotiate with the United States and the Mormons sought in vain.
support its constitutional forms.36
Polygamy opponents or gay marriage advocates sometimes
False Analogy with the “Gay Marriage” Debate
argue that at least gay marriages are consensual, adult rela-
tionships, while polygamous practices often involved the
Some have found it ironic and even inconsistent for the coercion of women or marriage of the under-aged. This
present-day Church to oppose legalizing “gay marriage” difference, they argue, means that polygamy ought to be
given its endorsement of polygamy in the past. However, banned. It should be appreciated, however, that problems
this objection confuses two very separate issues.
such as coercion, betrayal of trust, or ‘statutory rape’ are
not problems unique to polygamy, homosexuality, or any
other form of intimate relationship. There are already legal
www.fairlds.org

10
Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication
options available for controlling these ills. When they oc- critical or private, as Lawrence v. Texas found: “intimate,
cur in monogamous societies we do not ban monogamy, adult consensual conduct…[is] part of the liberty protected
but punish the speciﬁc crime.
by the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amend-
ment’s due process protections.”41 Do we really want the
Don’t Die On Every Hill
state in the bedrooms of its citizens? If two women want
to share the same man and call it a marriage, why should
The choice to invoke civil disobedience is always a com- we prosecute them when the same man could pick up a
plex one. One might fairly ask why the institutional Church different woman every night for a week, and no one at
chose to resist U.S. laws so strenuously in the nineteenth the attorney general’s ofﬁce would blink twice? Neither
century, while the twenty-ﬁrst century Church does not case can demand social support for or approval of their
openly disobey the law in some of the world’s more op- lifestyle (a point which “gay marriage” advocates rarely
pressive nations. It is even implied that the “right” to prac- acknowledge, much less address), but why should one be
tice polygamy is a relatively trivial one, not worthy of the harassed and jailed while the other is left strictly alone?
John Stuart Mill, in his classic work on civil liberty, even
The simple answer is that the Saints considered the com- used the “Mormonites” as an example. Mill considered
mandment to practice plural marriage divine and inviola- the Church to be “the product of palpable imposture,”42
ble. However, as we have seen, civil disobedience presup- and yet he pointed out that
poses that the protestor is willing, in principle, to accept
the civil penalty if it should come. For example, if death is
Other countries are not asked to recognize such [po-
the penalty for a religious practice, one might decide that
lygamous] unions, or release any portion of their in-
civil disobedience has too high a cost for too little gain.
habitants from their own laws on the score of Mor-
This is an important point, which is explored in detail in
monite opinions. But when the [Mormons] have
the next section, but explains why open civil disobedience
conceded to the hostile sentiments of others, far
was not pursued as a policy until the Saints were some-
more than could justly be demanded [by being driv-
what protected by geographical distance and isolation.
en out]; when they have left the countries to which
their doctrines were unacceptable, and established
The decision to obey any law must rest with the con-
themselves in a remote corner of the earth, which
science. If a key liberty is abridged, it makes little differ-
they have been the ﬁrst to render habitable to human
ence how many other freedoms exist. For example, the
beings; it is difﬁcult to see on what principles but
prophet Daniel was counselor to the king of Babylon, and
those of tyranny they can be prevented from living
probably had more personal freedom than the vast major-
there under what laws they please, provided they
ity of humanity at the time.38 Yet, a single law—being for-
commit no aggression on other nations, and allow
bidden to pray to his God for one month—was sufﬁcient
perfect freedom of departure to those who are dis-
violation of his conscience that he was not willing to say,
satisﬁed with their ways… So long as the sufferers
“Oh well, I’m free in so many other ways. This infringe-
by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other
ment of my freedom is an acceptable price to pay.”39 I am
communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely
not the ﬁrst to see the parallels—President John Taylor
unconnected with them ought to step in and require
noted that “Daniel had a political trap set for him, as we
that a condition of things with which all who are
directly interested appear to be satisﬁed, should be
put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some
Mormon polygamy was a decidedly religious institution.
thousands of miles distant, who have no part or con-
The next section details the degree to which anti-polyg-
cern in it.43
amy statutes were in fact an attack on the Church as an
institution, demonstrating that the issue was never primar-
ily about polygamy per se, but about the state’s effort to POLYGAMY AND LYING
control the religious practice of a minority.
Critics charge that Joseph Smith and his successors made
repeated public statements in which they hid or frankly
But, beyond the religious dimensions, most would dispute denied the practice of polygamy, despite knowledge to the
the claim that the right for two adults to have consensual contrary. It is argued that this dishonesty is morally du-
sexual and/or family relations unmolested by the state is bious and inconsistent with the Church’s purported prin-
a “trivial” human rights issue. There is little that is more ciples.

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