The Lingering Legacy of Post-Manifesto Polygamy

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.


  1. “Instead, we get disingenuous verbal muddling that doesn’t fool anybody anymore, but does manage to confuse most Mormons who want to have their polygamous cake but pretend like they order from a monogamous modern-day menu.”

    Too many metaphors. Don’t understand. What cake? Which menu?

  2. “what cake?”

    Nate, it’s a polygamous cake. Didn’t you read the post? I’m sure you can picture in your mind a polygamous cake.

    Now, the menu is monogamous, but apparently secretly envies the polygamous cake. Is there a cake/menu relationship going on? Who can say?

    I think what Dave’s getting at is that the current legacy of polygamy in the Church is a confusing issue, made more confusing by the pride with which currently-monogamous leaders speak of their polygamous ancestors. The idea of a clean break from the past practice is made more difficult by our efforts to hold on to polygamy in a cultural and doctrinal sense. That wasn’t so hard to tell from Dave’s post, was it?

  3. all i can do is claim ignorance. great solution to my counter-factual though aaron. i rather like it; and wish i would hear it more often instead of folks talking like the LDS church “caved” to govt pressure. However, it doesn’t answer how the Church/history would look like if God had decided to continue the practice.

  4. I actually do think polygamy is more than a largely academic problem. Here’s my reasoning:

    It’s clearly a big enough problem to the Church that they repeatedly correct news media reports that label polygamists as “fundamentalist Mormons.” If you go to the “Mistakes in the News” section right now, the most recent correction is one on polygamy. Elsewhere on their website, they continue to downplay or minimize polygamy.

    So whether or not the impact of polygamy on conversions is real or not, the Church seems to think it is. They at least are worried about the perception.

    Second, to this day people still wonder if Mormons are polygamists. I met a guy recently who asked me if I was one. I suspect this is due both to our polygamous past, but also due to fundamentalists in the news, such as Tom Green. People see a news headline about a Mormon fundamentalist and they don’t differentiate.

    Lastly, I think polygamy is still a dilemma for Church members. I’ve talked to many women who really agonize and worry about it – to this day! They still hear people advocating the return of polygamy and it makes them very uncomfortable. I also think members don’t know what to do with polygamy – on the one hand, they’re embarrassed by it, but on the other, they accept that it was an inspired commandment.

    As for my comments on President Hinckley’s public vs. Church comments, rereading my post I realized I came across as far more harsh than I intended. I don’t fault him for it – it’s a natural thing I think we all do. I don’t mean to suggest he’s somehow dishonest or duplicitous.

  5. Julie in Austin says:

    I was thinking about *way*-post manifesto polygamy yesterday while reading Camilla Kimball’s biography. If I understand correctly, her father took a second wife in the early 1900’s, which was ‘OK’ because they were in Mexico. Then, the three lived in Arizona, until the 1950s, when the first wife died. There were two houses, and he went back and forth each week. Admittedly, the book was a little vague on the details, but the above is the impression that I got: a non-contested (by govt or church) poly. union until the 50’s, hardly under the radar since the son-in-law was a member of the Q12 by that point!

    Anyone know more about these unions? Did the Church tolerate/ignore/permit poly. living until the partners died, or was there an effort to separate families?

    Thanks for remedying my ignorance here.


  6. Interesting post! I first became aware of these polygamous relationships growing up in So. Alberta, where a great deal of pride still remains that saints were able to ‘keep the faith’ long after their Utah brethren had fallen before the government. I believe similar experiences occurred in Mexico, as Greg Call has shared personal anecdotes thereto.

    John, let me ask you: what is the modern impact of post-Manifesto polygamy? Many (including myself) view polygamy as a largely academic problem — do you think otherwise?

    Also, as a side note, while I don’t agree with your characterization of Pres. Hinckley’s public vs. Church personas, I can see what you’re talking about (though the link to polygamy is a bit of a stretch, in my mind). I guess I view his responses not as falsity in any way so much as refocusing Church priorities. He is not the first Prophet to steer the public away from ideas no longer considered ‘central’. Isn’t it within his purview to do so?

  7. John, I agree that polygamy is more than just an academic or historical issue. I think I could write ten pages on the question, “Just what exactly is the legacy of polygamy?”

    I think if the Twelve (okay, the Fifteen) were all monogamists with strictly monogamist ancestors rather than monogamists many of whom have thoroughly polygamist ancestry, we would get a clear break with both the practice and the principle. Instead, we get disingenuous verbal muddling that doesn’t fool anybody anymore, but does manage to confuse most Mormons who want to have their polygamous cake but pretend like they order from a monogamous modern-day menu.

  8. Julie, after about 1910 my ignorance of polygamy quadruples, but here’s what little I do know.

    I don’t think the Church made attempts to break up families. They would excommunicate people, that’s true, but I don’t think they ever wanted families broken up. Heber J. Grant actually lived with his second wife until his death. But in his case his first wife had died. Overall, I think the Church did what it could to cater to families of post-Manifesto polygamists.

    After 1904-06, it didn’t take long for the Church to do an about-face and start going after polygamists. J. Reuben Clark in particular was famous for his police contacts that would spy on Church members who were suspected polygamists. That’s actually how Richard R. Lyman, an apostle at the time, was caught having an affair. When the Brethren were confronted with it, they decided the only way to know for sure was to catch Lyman in the act. Clark’s police contacts were used and they went to the woman’s home where they broke down the door so two apostles could run in and catch Lyman. At first, some suspected Lyman of being a polygamist, as I understand it.

  9. Aaron Brown says:


    Your post raises some strange issues. You consider it “faithless” to believe that failure to abandon polygamy would have “destroyed” the Church. You believe this because “faith” demands belief in Joseph Smith’s claim that “nothing would stop the Church.” But why is it not permissible to believe (from a position of faith) that the reason the Church “cannot be stopped” is that God will not allow this to happen — and that one of the ways he ensures this won’t happen is to tell his Church to capitulate to the U.S. governement so that it won’t happen?

    I guess I’m not seeing why acknowledgment of the real threat to the Church’s existence is incompatible with “faith” in Joseph Smith’s claim.

    Aaron B

  10. Not to mention a couple of polygamists among the Fifteen, too, like Dallin Oaks.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    When asked if I practice polygamy, I always say: “Well, I’m not an official polygamist, but I sometimes “practice” polygamy on the weekends with any number of anonymous potential wives. Maybe one of these days I’ll quit practicing and become the real thing.”

    Then again, I was asked the other day by someone in support staff if Mormons were allowed to go to amusement parks (after all, amusement parks are “fun,” and Mormons aren’t allowed to do anything else that’s “fun”). I replied, “Of course not! Don’t you know what Jesus said about roller-coasters?!!”

    Sometimes humor is the best response to silly questions.

    Aaron B

  12. While a counter-factual, I think it would have been interesting for God not to have backed down on the polygamy issue. Since the consensus (of what I consider fairly faithless) is that failure to abandon polygamy would have ‘destroyed’ the church…

    despite Joseph Smith’s statements re: nothing would stop the Church from prospering.

    maybe Orson Scott Card can do a series on what would have happened; i.e. Deseret becoming its own state, etc.

    Note: this has nothing to do with my personal views on polygamy, and everything to wondering how serious we take the No Unhallowed Hand shall stope the progress of the Church statements.

  13. While there is public confusion about mormons and polygamy, I’ve never met anyone who thought I was a polygamist. I’ve had plenty of people ask in (in jest) about my many wives, but everyone seems to understand that it’s a thing of the past (except for wackos).

  14. Aaron Brown says:

    Your interpretation of Hinkley’s television comments is a common one, and one that I sometimes make myself. However, I wonder if there aren’t any other less pernicious interpretations? I was planning to blog on this question shortly (it’s an issue between myself, the missionaries, and Father Hans at the moment), so I’ll leave it at that.

    Fawn Brodie’s most memorable observation in _No Man Knows My History_ was that “Joseph Smith dared to found a religion in the age of printing.” That is, it is one thing to start a religion in an age where your origins will become obscure as the years pass; it is quite another when everything about your movement can be written down and recorded from Day 1.

    I am not endorsing Brodie’s secular assumptions, but I do think her observation is relevant to the point you are raising. You say “We keep our secrets in the Mormon Church – we donÂ’t let the skeleton out of the closet.” But the problem is that we CAN’T keep the skeletons in the closet, because they’re all written down for anyone to read. Even if you put to one side the moral questionableness of some of the claims of certain LDS leaders, there is still the basic practical conundrum: How do you downplay or disavow portions of the past that are so easily discoverable and assessable in the present?

    Aaron B

%d bloggers like this: