Roots of polygamy go beyond Utah

The Daily Herald/May 13, 2001
By Donald W. Meyers

Provo -- While polygamy is a prominent fixture in Utah's history and culture, the practice started farther east. Having more than one wife was once a significant part of the practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was one of the reasons Utahhad to wait almost 50 years for statehood.

LDS Church history lists the first mention of the doctrine as 1831, when church founder Joseph Smith said he asked God why Abraham, Jacob and other biblical prophets were justified in having more than one wife.

However, it was not put into practice until 1841, when Smith took his first plural wife, Louisa Beaman, April 5, 1841. At this time, Smith began teaching the doctrine to members of the Quorum of the Twelve when they returned from their missions. The doctrine was not readily embraced at first.

"I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, or of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time," Brigham Young said of his first introduction to the doctrine, as recorded in "Church History In the Fullness of Times," the church's history textbook.

However, Young and the others embraced it and took additional wives. The revelation was committed to writing in 1843, and is part of Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which also deals with the doctrine of celestial marriage, the joining of husband and wife for time and eternity. The doctrine was practiced in secret at first, but the church went public with plural marriage in August 1852, when Elder Orson Pratt announced the doctrine at General Conference.

The announcement led to people denouncing the practice as abusing women. It became part of the fledgling Republican Party's platform when, in the 1856 presidential election, John C. Fremont pledged to abolish the "twin relics of barbarism -- slavery and polygamy."

The first anti-polygamy law, the Morrill Bill, was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The law barred polygamy in the territorial United States, disincorporated the church and limited its ownership of property to $50,000. In 1875, George Reynolds, Brigham Young's personal secretary, was chosen by church leaders to be a test case to try the constitutionality of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Reynolds that the Morrill Bill was constitutional and upheld Reynolds' conviction in 1879.

The next anti-polygamy law was the Edmunds Act of 1882, which defined unlawful cohabitation as supporting more than one woman, eliminating the need to prove a marriage took place. The law also disqualified people who believed in plural marriage from jury duty. The Edmunds-Tucker Act, passed in 1887, required wives to testify against their husbands, and ordered that all marriages be publicly recorded. The law also allowed the government to seize church buildings.

During this time, church leaders and others went "underground" to avoid arrest, and the church established Cardston, Alberta, as a refuge for polygamists. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which stated the church no longer taught plural marriage, nor sanctioned any further marriages contrary to the laws of the land. While historians see the Manifesto as a response to political pressure, the church teaches it was divinely inspired. President Woodruff said God showed him that if it weren't adopted, the church would lose all its temples, and its leaders would go to prison.

While the October 1890 General Conference accepted it unanimously, there were those in the church who did not accept it. Some of those dissenters led the fundamentalist movement, from which sprang the modern practice of polygamy in Utah. Among the fundamentalists are the LeBaron family, the Apostolic United Brethren and Tom Green.

In 1953, the government attempted to crack down on polygamists at Short Creek, Ariz. The raid was considered a public relations disaster, as the Arizona state government was seen as ripping children out of loving homes and putting parents in jail. Congress has since repealed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, but the Reynolds case is still cited as legal justification for outlawing polygamy.

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