Although polygamy is no longer practiced in the Church, no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice. It was first announced by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842. Many of those close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement. However, it was not publicly taught until 1852.
In the families that practiced polygamy, each wife, with her children, occupied a separate house, or, if the wives lived in the same house, as was sometimes the case, in separate quarters. No distinction was made between either of the wives or the children. The husband provided for each family, was responsible for the education of the children, and gave both the children and their mothers the same advantages he would have given to his family under a monogamous relationship. If it was thought he could not do this, he was not permitted to enter into plural marriage.
While the practice was extremely limited—only a small minority of the families were involved—it was the kind of thing of which enemies of the Church could easily take advantage.
Reaction against the doctrine developed throughout the country, and it entered into the presidential campaign of 1860. When Lincoln was asked what he proposed to do about the Mormons, he replied, “Let them alone.” 1 In 1862 Con-gress passed an anti-polygamy law, but it was aimed at plural marriages and not polygamous relations. Ten years later the Congress passed a bill prohibiting polygamy. It was considered unconstitutional by many people in the nation, and generally by the Mormons. A test case was brought into the courts of Utah and carried through the Supreme Court of the United States, resulting in a decision adverse to the Mormons. In the midst of this difficulty, John Taylor succeeded to the Presidency of the Church. The years that followed were truly years of endurance.
“Champion of Liberty”
Elder Taylor was a native of England, where he had been a lay Methodist preacher. He emigrated to Canada about 1832, and heard the restored gospel preached for the first time four years later. When he joined the Church, his bold spirit, educated mind, and ready tongue made of him an outstanding advocate of the cause. He served as a missionary in Canada, in his native England, and in France.
This man selected as his motto, “The kingdom of God or nothing.” 2 He once remarked: “I do not believe in a religion that cannot have all my affections … but I believe in a religion that I can live for, or die for. …
“I would rather have God for my friend than all other influences and powers.” 3 In this spirit he defended the Church with such vigor that his friends in the Church called him “the Champion of Liberty.” He it was who was wounded when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed in Carthage Jail.
As the senior member of the Council of Twelve Apostles, he succeeded Brigham Young as President of the Church. It was during his administration that Church members were again made to feel the bitter hand of persecution. In 1882 the Edmunds Act was passed by Congress, making polygamy punishable by fine or imprisonment—usually imprisonment. No man who had more than one wife could act as a juror in any Utah court. In Idaho, those who were members of the Church were disfranchised. No one who admitted belief in polygamy could become a citizen.
President Taylor foresaw these difficulties. In April, 1882, he counseled the Saints: “Let us treat it [the Edmunds Act] the same as we did this morning in coming through the snow-storm—put up our coat collars … and wait till the storm subsides. …
“… There will be a storm in the United States after awhile; and I want our brethren to prepare themselves for it. At the last conference … I advised all who were in debt to take advantage of the prosperous times and pay their debts; so that they might not be in bondage to anyone, and when the storm came they might be prepared to meet it.” 4
The storm broke in full fury five years later. In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act gave added power to the judges who tried polygamy cases. This act also disincorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was ordered by the Supreme Court to wind up its affairs and turn its property over to the nation.
The law was administered with extreme harshness. Thousands of Church members were disfranchised. A thousand men were imprisoned because they had plural families. Homes were broken. The election machinery was taken from the hands of the people.
Under these conditions John Taylor died on July 25, 1887. He was succeeded by Wilford Woodruff.
A Manifesto to the People
To undertake the responsibility of Church leadership under such circumstances was no small task. Colonies of Latter-day Saints were now scattered from Canada to Mexico. Active missionary work was carried on throughout the United States, in the British Isles, in most of the nations of Europe, and in the islands of the Pacific. In spite of determined opposition, however, many converts to the faith were made in all of these missions. And yet the Church in Utah was dispossessed of its property, and most of its leaders were in prison or were facing prosecution. Under these conditions Wilford Woodruff undertook the responsibility of leadership. He was eighty years of age at the time.
Fortunately, he had been well trained to take up the reins of leadership, having joined the Church only three years after its organization. He had marched from Ohio to Missouri to aid his brethren when they were driven from Jackson County, and he had passed through the Missouri persecutions. As we have previously seen, he was a powerful missionary in England, where he had brought more than two thousand converts into the Church.
He had gone west as one of the pioneer company, and Brigham Young was in his wagon when he made the prophetic statement concerning the Salt Lake Valley, “This is the right place.” He had participated in most of the significant events connected with the building of the territory since that time.
But now, most progress had ceased under the heavy hand of law enforcement, and President Woodruff was responsible for finding a way out of the difficulty. As he struggled with the problem, he turned to the scriptures for direction.
In a revelation given to the Church in 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith had declared as the word of the Lord, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.” 5 Another fundamental teaching of the Church which also applied is the twelfth article of faith of the organization. It reads, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
What was to be done under the circumstances? The practice had come by revelation.
And it came to an end by the same means. After earnest prayer before the Lord, President Woodruff issued on October 6, 1890, what is known in Church history as the “Manifesto.” It declared an end to the practice of entering into plural marriage. Since that time the Church has neither practiced nor sanctioned entering into such marriages.
The End of an Era
On April 6, 1893, the great temple in Salt Lake City was declared completed, and the building was dedicated to God as his holy house. Prior to its dedication, nonmembers of the Church were invited to go through the building, and its various facilities were explained to them. Since its dedication, only members of the Church in good standing have been permitted to enter.
It was fitting that Wilford Woodruff should have lived to offer the dedicatory prayer. Forty-six years earlier he had driven the stake to mark the location of the building. For forty years he had watched its construction. Its dedication was one of the great events in the history of the area.
Before his death in September 1898, President Woodruff was to participate in another significant event. Although the residents of the territory had applied for statehood in 1849, this boon had been denied because of anti-Mormon agitation throughout the nation. But on January 4, 1896, Utah was ad-mitted to the Union as a state. In ceremonies incident to the occasion, President Woodruff was asked to offer the prayer. The prayer is indicative of the man’s vision:
“Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth, thou who art the God of nations and the Father of the spirits of all men, we humbly bow before Thee on this great occasion …
“When we gaze upon these fertile valleys with their abundant products of field and garden … their pleasant homes and prosperous inhabitants … and contrast these with the barren and silent wastes which greeted the eyes of the pioneers when they first looked upon these dry sage lands less than half a century ago, our souls are filled with wonder and with praise! …
“And now, when the efforts of several decades to secure the priceless boon of perfect political liberty … have at length been crowned with glorious success, we feel that to thee, our father and our God, we are indebted for this inestimable blessing. …
“We pray Thee to bless the president of the United States and his cabinet, that they may be inspired to conduct the affairs of this great nation in wisdom, justice and equity, that its rights may be maintained at home and abroad and that all its citizens may enjoy the privileges of free men. … And may the privileges of free government be extended to every land and clime, until tyranny and oppression shall be broken down to rise no more, until all nations shall unite for the common good, that war may cease, that the voice of strife may be hushed, that universal brotherhood may prevail, and Thou, O God, shall be honored everywhere as the Everlasting Father and the King of peace!” 6
1. CHC 5:70.
2. See Journal of Discourses, 6:18–27. The phrase was first used by Brigham Young in a letter to a Colonel Alexander, dated 16 October 1857. The text of the letter can be found in the Millennial Star 20 (30 Jan. 1858): 75–76.
3. In B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons Co., 1892), p. 423.
4. The Life of John Taylor, pp. 360–61.
5. D&C 124:49.
6. Salt Lake Herald, 7 Jan. 1896, p. 1.