For the few that might not be familiar with post-Manifesto polygamy, a very brief overview might be in order. Today members of the Church look at the 1890 Manifesto as the revelation that ended polygamy. However, Wilford Woodruff and those around him, although they may have believed the Manifesto (or at least the idea of issuing the Manifesto) to be inspired, they definitely saw it as a political document meant to save the Church in the short-term. It was not issued to declare the conclusive end to polygamy. And in fact, polygamy continued to be sanctioned and practiced at the highest levels of the Church until at least 1904. Apostles such as George Teasdale, Abraham Cannon, John W. Taylor, and Matthias Cowley took additional wives during this period, while they and other apostles continued to seal men and women in plural unions.
I’ll only briefly say that this history of new plural marriages might at first look ominous, and as evidence of lies and deceit on the part of Church leaders. It is true leaders were not always as forthright, candid, or perhaps as honest as they could have been when it came to the subject of post-Manifesto polygamy. However, I believe a more sensitive, albeit complex, view is in order. The many facets of this view cannot be enumerated here, but suffice it to say, I believe it is possible to judge Church leaders as righteous, honest men, despite the dilemma of post-1890 plural marriages.
So with that all-too lengthy introduction, I come to the lingering legacy of post-Manifesto polygamy. I’ve only begun now to appreciate the huge, in fact, enormous impact these marriages have had on Mormonism and how we are today.
First and foremost, post-Manifesto polygamy forced an answer to the “Mormon problem” as it was called. It came in the form of the Smoot hearings — perhaps the most important recognition given to the Church that they could be considered a part of American culture and society. In fact, I would argue that the outcome of the Smoot hearings was more important than granting Utah statehood. Kathleen Flake, in her new book and in her dissertation, has argued quite convincingly that the Smoot hearings created the compromise between the Church and the government that allowed the Church to continue. As testimony in the trial quickly indicated, polygamy was still very much alive in Utah, much to the dismay of the rest of the country. The Church finally gave up polygamy, and even sacrificed two of its own, John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, as evidence of their willingness to obey the law. This, I believe, is the beginning of the respect and admiration the Church has grown to have in the 21st century.
Quite ironically, we are almost the exact opposite of what we were 100 years ago. Then we were fighting against a constitutional amendment defining marriage, now we support such an amendment. Then we were arguing for a broader approach to marriage, now we are perhaps the most representative group of the nuclear family. Then, we were separate, despised, and looked upon as a threat. Today, we are respected, and are seen as an important ally to those wanting to preserve the status quo. Then, we were hardly patriotic; we reviled the government and looked upon their treatment of us as injustice of the worst kind. Today, we are counted among the most patriotic; our Boy Scout troops proudly place flags on the lawns of Church members every holiday. We stand as one of the very few Churches to support war in Iraq, even as most others spoke out against it. I would argue the change began with the death of post-Manifesto polygamy.
Second, post-Manifesto polygamy single-handedly contributed to the many fundamentalist schisms that exist today and that still force the Church to confront its polygamous heritage. Polygamy after 1890 was practiced among knowing winks and nods, among double-speak and an environment where one thing was said to outsiders, another to insiders, and still another to those in leadership positions. Because of this environment, fundamentalists today still argue that the Church never intended to abandon polygamy, but that some leaders were simply not strong enough to resist the pressures of the world. The legacy of post-Manifesto polygamy gives them tremendous ammunition in their fight to convince us of the legitimacy of their claims.
These fundamentalists continue to be a thorn in the Church’s side to this day, causing embarrassment and reminding the world that Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy. They’ve forced us into a very uncomfortable position — one in which we have to say polygamy was inspired (otherwise there are some very unpleasant implications for Joseph Smith), yet we also have to confess our own lack of desire to practice it, and we are ambiguous about its future in the Church.
Third, although the practice of saying one thing to outsiders and another to insiders had been practiced in the Church before, it reached its height during the years following the Manifesto. Today, the Church continues to exhibit such a practice. President Hinckley has gone on national television and conducted interviews with high profile magazines, announcing to the world that the Latter-day Saints don’t believe in some of the doctrines that make us most unique. Then he returns and while speaking in General Conference, with a smile and while getting a big laugh, announces that he knows the doctrine of the Church just as well as anybody. From my perspective the message was clear: We’re going to tell them certain things to move the work of the Lord forward, but don’t you all worry about it.
Finally, I believe post-Manifesto polygamy has helped contribute to an environment of shared secrecy and of circling the wagons. Many, many Church members descend from such marriages. Yet they normally keep it quiet. For a Church that prides itself on ancestry and our rich past, those whose grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were part of post-Manifesto unions are normally silent. We keep our secrets in the Mormon Church — we don’t let the skeleton out of the closet. Post-Manifesto polygamy, ironically, is one of those great secrets.