Discursive Division Becomes Cultural Schism: Smoot Hearings
Brad: We rounded out our last conversation by noting the difficulty that any Mormon at this time faced in trying to reliably pin down an agreed upon meaning from public statements regarding plural marriage. Is there still polygamy in Mormonism? WHo knows? And the manifestos aren’t clarifying anything, really. We talk about one group, about one strategy for reading the Manifesto, which is reading it not at face value; but there’s an entire other group of Mormons out there—and these, of course, are simplistic, over-generalized divisions—but you’re going to have plenty of Mormons who are going to take it at face value, to accept it as accurately reflecting the will and mind of God. We are no longer meant to practice plural marriage.
Daymon: And of course as long as they read it that way, they’ll have no shortage of anecdotal evidence to look at and say, “See, this proves that this is what it means.” They can point to this new manifesto, to this newer manifesto, to talks and sermons which make it pretty clear, that is, if you don’t have an Undergrounder’s capacity for inverting the meaning of words, that we don’t practice polygamy.
Brad: The same speech, the same words, the same little bits of discourse can be reasonably read and interpreted with opposite meanings and practical implications by these two different Mormon communities.
Daymon: Yes. It can be read as a warning about excommunication, or an encouragement toward exaltation. These both exist side-by-side, simultaneously within what we would describe as Mormon culture or Mormonism, up until at least 1910 and maybe in some parts of the American West up through the 1920s or 30s.
Brad: In the first couple decades after the 1890 Manifesto, there’s really no clear division. It’s not as if you can take one group and their reading and say, “They’re wrong, they’re fundamentalists, they’re a break-off group.” They’re all Mormons. They’re all part of the same Church, of the same community, at least in a certain sense, though a fragmenting community. There’s this key division that works itself out on the ground level of culture.
Daymon: And this is another ironic part of the story. When Joseph F. Smith issues his second manifesto in 1904-05, this is again taken as encouragement by some and discouragement by others. There’s really no possible way that by issuing public statements the leaders are going to be able to control polygamy, either to keep it going, or to stop it. It’s really running on its own rails at this point. This is an aspect of culture that I had a particular interest in trying to reconstruct in my analysis.
Brad: The inability to assert control will not be for lack of effort. In addition to issuing manifestos and making public statements of condemnation, Church leaders are going to deploy new, more aggressive strategies. The new approaches come in response to a kind of national PR disaster, in the form of the Smoot Hearings. Reed Smoot is elected to the US Senate in 1903, and the Senate refuses to grant him a seat on the grounds, basically, that he’s a Mormon. This refusal is directly tied to polygamy, to rumors and evidence that it’s still going on, that there are new marriages being authorized and performed, that Church leaders are lying about it and can’t be trusted, that Mormons are untrustworthy, that Smoot is bound by oaths of loyalty to the Church that will interfere with his oath of loyalty to the Constitution. There are any number of reasons why Smoot is not to be trusted, at least from the perspective of an already suspicious outsider in Washington.
From an inside perspective, Smoot is a monogamist, he’s one of the apostles who comes down on the side of getting rid of polygamy and distancing the Church from associations with it, of excommunicating polygamist Church members—he’s anti-polygamist in a certain sense. Still, from the perspective of people in the Senate, all Mormons are painted with the same brush. Smoot is called to testify in Washington several times. President Smith is also called to testify. On his way out, Smith is confident, even excited. He’s going to have his testimony written into the records of the US government, where it will stand for all time. But the actual testimony is really a disaster.
Daymon: There’s some good recent work that’s been done on this. There’s a University of Utah student named Jonathan Moyer who just finished a dissertation on this subject. Really interesting work on the politicking that surrounded the hearings, their impact on the Republican Party, on the operations of the First Presidency. Smoot really uses his sort of strange status as a senator without a seat and an apostle without a testimony and somehow manages to gain an immense amount of power in both spheres, Church and State. And of course D. Michael Quinn’s work is really the starting point for all these types of questions involving the manifestoes and polygamy. My interest, however, is really, How does this thing run on its own from a cultural perspective? What effect does the Hearing have at the level of Mormon culture?
What you have here in various mass media, the sermon, the newspaper, the rumor, is the public circulation of the debacle. Smoot is on the front page of newspapers, local and national, and they make a great deal of hay out of the fact that the Mormon President testifies that, for example, he receives some vague kind of inspiration but no revelation, that he’s living a lifestyle in contradiction with the laws of his own Church, that he can’t remember the names of all his wives and children. This leads to a flurry of letters from rank-and-file Mormons to apostles and to President Smith himself, asking, What exactly is the Church’s position here? This is a really interesting phenomenon, that people would write private letters trying to clarify what is going on in the public sphere. And some of the people who write letters might eventually find themselves pulled aside at a stake conference by a visiting general authority and maybe invited to take a plural wife. Or they might be told, Why don’t you go and talk to so-and-so. And so-and-so directs them to bring their prospective plural wife and meet secretly with the stake patriarch. So polygamy continues, and no matter how many statements get made or arguments go on in the Quorum of the Twelve, it’s very difficult to convince people like John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley that polygamy really is finished and that Mormons will no longer be practicing it.
Brad: And as a consequence of the PR nightmare of President Smith’s testimony that is causing so much embarrassment for the Church and for Smoot, the Senate ends up informally demanding a pound of flesh. And the First Presidency and Quorum decide to take dramatic, if symbolic action, to signal their commitment to ending polygamy. Once again, this is a signal that cuts in both interpretive directions.
Daymon: Yes. They remove Taylor and Cowley from the Quorum of the Apostles, but they’re not excommunicated, they’re not stripped of their priesthood, they’re not even stripped of their apostleship. They’re still regarded as apostles, just not members of the central governing body. And this is taken by most observers as a transparent bending of the knee and confessing of the tongue that, at least publicly, they’re going to submit to the will of the American people and their representatives in Congress.
Brad: But it’s taken by this smaller group, old-school polygamists and Undergrounders who are discretely, and with the help of some of the apostles in question, initiated into a kind of new Underground—it’s taken by this community as meaning, “Well, this is just a public charade. Clearly these guys still have their priesthood, they still have their authority, they still have their apostleship, their status as special witnesses, their power to seal. They’re still authorized to authorize plural marriages.”
Daymon: And most people probably understood it as an unfortunate necessity, if not a charade. But a lot of people weren’t aware of the rumors of Taylor and Cowley secretly performing plural marriages. So the official story is that they are removed from the Quorum because they are out of harmony with their brethren. This naturally leads to all kinds of speculation and rumors, and the simple story is that they refused to go and testify in Washington, help out their fellow apostle, poor old Elder Smoot.
Brad: They wouldn’t go before Congress and bow a knee.
Daymon: Right. But if you’ve heard the rumors about Taylor performing plural marriages and taking additional plural wives, rumors which at this point are pretty well verified, you’re going to give a completely different reading of this entire chain of events. So even though the intended effect of expelling them from the Quorum is to curtail polygamy, it actually creates a sort of resurgence of secret polygamy among those who are, wink-wink, in the know.
The Schism At Last: Polygamist Hearings
Brad: So the apostles who at this point are really committed to getting rid of polygamy once and for all, they develop a new strategy, a strategy for actively and aggressively going after polygamists, and in particular for going after individuals who are continuing to authorize and perform the new sealings. So they begin to employ in 1909 what we call euphemistically—“courts of love.” Today, there are high councils in every stake that conduct these things, and it’s a standard form of Church discipline. At the time, it was just a group of apostles conducting these hearings. And what they would do is, based on a rumor, usually a pretty well-founded rumor that someone had taken a new plural wife since the second manifesto, they’d bring this person in and start to ask him questions.
Daymon: Francis Lyman is really spearheading the initiative, and Heber J. Grant is a very active participant—for him it’s a matter of public respectability, and it’s related to his business interests and the need to put a stamp of respectability on Mormonism to get his interests on a firmer financial footing and to reduce his debts. So in 1909 they start to pull in these old patriarchs. They’re trying to establish a kind of chain, to call people in one by one, and try to compel people to disclose co-conspirators, to name names.
Brad: The courts weren’t really about getting convictions, about finding some old man who had taken a plural wife and excommunicating him. They were about finding some old man who had taken a plural wife and threatening him with excommunication as a way of getting him to reveal the name of either the sealer or, better yet, if possible, of the apostle—the “rogue” apostle—who authorized the new marriage.
Daymon: And this is another great irony. If they were really just interested in excommunicating polygamists, they could have done that easily. But they would instead threaten excommunication and then say, “Well, if you name a few names, we might be willing to relax justice a bit and show forth some mercy, maybe we’ll just disfellowship you, let you stay in the Church, keep your priesthood.” They would engage in these kinds of negotiations with these basically rank-and-file Mormons. Few of them had any really significant callings or positions. A few were sealers or stake presidents, mostly they were just temple workers.
Brad: But what they’re really trying to do is get them to turn state’s evidence.
Daymon: Of course, if you’re trotted before these apostles, who’ve all taken oaths, who are the representatives of the Lord, who hold the keys of His Kingdom, and you yourself have spent the past decade or so of your life secretly living an Underground kind of lifestyle—
Brad: —and believing all the while that these apostles are secretly approving and encouraging what you’re doing—
Daymon: If not themselves actually living the same way your are. So what would you do when dragged in front of them? Most of them thought that it was a test of their loyalty.
Brad: These hearings play out almost like an Abbot and Costello routine. There’s an almost comical, though admittedly tragic, kind of communication breakdown. If, for example, Heber J. Grant is just ruthlessly grilling you with questions, demanding that you disclose names, you think that your loyalty is being tested, that you are being tested, and the harder he pushes, the more certain you are that it’s all a test.
Daymon: So of course you aren’t going to say anything.
Brad: Maybe you’ll even say, “I think I’m being tested here.” And Grant will say, “You aren’t being tested, just give us the name!” And you just think all the more that you’re being tested.
Daymon: So the defendant will present himself as prepared to die in defense of this sacred oath he has made to protect this sealer, that he would never, never reveal his name. They took these oaths as seriously as people take the Endowment prohibitions. So it would take many, many meetings with these guys before would finally be convinced—usually it would take excommunication or some other serious punishment to get these guys to finally name a name. And then the apostles might find out that he had named the wrong name, that he had brought in some individual that had nothing to do with the sealing in question. Or they would name the names of dead apostles.
Brad: Like Wilford Woodruff, Jr.
Daymon: Or Merrill, some of these former apostles who were obviously polygamists but now dead. And by this time you also had new apostles like David O. McKay, part of this crop of very intelligent, very ambitious…
Daymon: Yes. McKay comes across as remarkably humane in the minutes of these hearings. And one of the things he does is to say, “Well, what if I just mention some names? You can just signal without actually using words to disclose their identities. Then you wouldn’t be violating your oath that you would never speak the name of this person.” So they could, e.g., scratch their ear or something if the questioner got the name right. But, of course, this probing of the mind is taken by the defendant as a test of his loyalty.
Brad: And there’s another almost cinematic, comical quality to some of the hearings. It’s entirely possible that you, as the person being questioned, have the name of an apostle in your head that you’re refusing to disclose, who authorized the marriage—it’s entirely possible that the apostle asking you there in the hearing to reveal the name is the selfsame apostle whose name you are protecting.
Daymon: Or maybe he’s sitting next to the apostle doing the questioning. So it wasn’t as if you could just whisper the name or signal the identity of the apostle without obviously and quite directly violating one of these oaths you had taken and considered sacred. Maybe in one of the hearings one of the apostles like Lyman or Grant is really pressing pretty hard, and Ivins will step in with, “Well, we really don’t need to answer that question right now, why don’t we take a break“; a kind of good cop thing. And the during the break Ivins would pull the guy aside and talk to him privately.
So it was this very, very complicated and, in some ways, darkly humorous historical sequence of events that will eventually lead, inexorably, to a clearer and more forceful rejection of polygamy and polygamists. It’s really just entirely too complicated for a church that is trying to embrace mass-audience texts as its principle format for organizing its religion.
Summary and Looking Forward
Brad: So, to recapitulate, I think there are two take away points from the discussion so far. The first is very general and we’ve already discussed it quite extensively, but it’s the notion that the Underground and the shift away from plural marriage is accompanied and really underpinned by a more fundamental shift, a shift of Mormonism away from the realm of social relationships and into the realm of the mind. It’s hard to overstate how critical this shift is to all these other questions we’re discussing. We’re really talking about laying the key groundwork for modern Mormonism, the modern Church, and for Correlation.
Daymon: What exists and goes on in the mind can get you sent to jail, can keep you out of jail…
Brad: Can get you sent to heaven.
Daymon: Right, by the time of these hearings, these courts of love, the widespread argument is that your mental status can vault you into heaven, if you just believe in polygamy.
Brad: The second point is that by the time of these hearings, these courts, around 1910, the same strategies that were once deployed two decades earlier to resist the surveillance power and punitive authority of the federal government are now being deployed by members of the Church against the leaders of the Church.
Daymon: So the division within Mormonism is coming into much clearer view at this point. There’s a clear division about who is the real Mormon. And it’s clear that a certain segment is going to visibly occupy the public sphere and offer their reading of what really makes a Mormon a Mormon. And so this link between the increasing embrace of and movement into the realm of the public mind for one group of Mormons becomes, by 1910, a central feature of one branch.
Brad: And it should be noted that when we speak of two groups or two Mormon communities, at this point, the real distinction is not between who believes what or who practices what. It’s a distinction that involves more fundamental relationships and ideologies that are grounded in language and language use.
Daymon: And that deeper, more fundamental distinction is what will ultimately drive the fragmentation of the pioneer Mormonism of the nineteenth century into, really, two completely new kinds of religious groups. They’ll both call themselves Mormons, but they’ll both be different, not only from each other, but from the Mormonism of 1900 and certainly the Mormonism of the 1880s.
Brad: On the one hand, you’ll have a group that will refer to themselves as mainstream Mormons, and mainstream here will have two meanings. Mainstream in the sense that they’re not “weird” Mormons, and in that they’re a part of the broader American mainstream. So you’ll have this new phenomenon of mainstream Mormons, and you’ll have the self-styled fundamentalist Mormons.
Daymon: And they will both claim, with some good reason, to be the legitimate inheritors of Joseph Smith’s legacy.
Brad: And once the division is clearly irreconcilable for both parties, they each begin to construct or reconstruct a historical narrative of how they got from the 1880s to the present.
Daymon: And this is why these linguistic points must be kept at the forefront of the historical conversation. Each group increasingly relies upon the same notions of language that pushed them into these separate and distinct cultural spaces in the first place. Notions of secrecy or transparency, about the inherently deceptive or sincere nature of public statements, about the possibility of firmly fixing and controlling the meaning of something, the relationship of language to mind, etc. They really begin to use these competing linguistic and communicative frameworks to write their own history from this point backwards. That process will figure centrally into our conversations about Correlation and Fundamentalism, both of which kind of emerge alongside and in a dialectical relationship with each other.
Brad: Whether you’re a mainstream Mormon and that history runs through a particular vision of John Taylor to Wilford Woodruff and all the way up to President Grant, or you’re a fundamentalist Mormon whose history runs through a rather different vision of Taylor and in a very different direction, through different individuals and across different social histories, in either case, you develop inside a cultural strategy for squaring your narrative with both the history that you have access to and with the social reality of your historical present.
Daymon: And, as we’ve seen in this discussion, the really slippery part is that none of these documents—certainly not the ones that carry the greatest significance—speak for themselves. They’re always subject to the usually valid but very different interpretations of the folks that are constructing these histories. There are separate logics that govern how these texts and documents are to be interpreted. And for each group, that logic also furnishes them with a measure of recruitment potential. So each can now begin to tell the story—where they came from and why they and they only carry the legitimate brand of Mormonism. They can now each convince people not only that if you believe a story, then that makes you into a true believer, a true Mormon who knows, deep down, the Truth—in a seamless line of historical continuity that culminates with You; but also that you ground this faith in a view of language that also undergirds either the story that the fundamentalists tell, or the story that is going to be told by Correlation. And it’s a story, not just about past prophets, plural marriage and the like, but about You.
Part 4, coming soon, will feature a court-of-love showdown for the ages. Stay tuned.