“The Right Thing,” chapter 40 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 40: “The Right Thing”
B. H. Roberts, one of the seven presidents of the First Council of the Seventy, awoke on the morning of September 26, 1890, expecting to find himself nearly home.1
The northbound train he had been riding was due to arrive in Salt Lake City by ten o’clock that morning. But instead of making good time throughout the night, it had come to a stop somewhere amid the desert scrub of central Utah. A southbound train had derailed a few miles away, and the track was torn up all around it. B. H. and his traveling companions, four members of the Quorum of the Twelve, were stranded.
With little to do but wait, B. H. and apostle John W. Taylor decided to take a walk to the scene of the accident. Upon their arrival, they could see that only the freight cars on the derailed train had been upended. The passenger cars were still intact, so B. H. and John W. began visiting with the stranded travelers.
Inside a passenger car, John W. motioned to B. H. and held out a newspaper. B. H. took the paper and read the headlines with astonishment. President Wilford Woodruff had issued an official statement declaring that he intended to submit to the laws of the land and permit no new plural marriages.2
For a moment, B. H. felt a flash of light course through his body. The words “That is all right” entered his mind and spoke directly to his soul. A sense of peace and understanding lingered briefly. But then, as he reflected on the matter, his analytical mind began to spin, and questions invaded his thoughts.3
He thought of the time he had spent in prison for plural marriage, and the sacrifices his wives had made because of it. What about everything the Saints had suffered for honoring and defending the practice? What of the many sermons preached over the decades supporting it? B. H. believed that God would sustain the Saints through whatever hardships came their way because of the practice. Were they now taking the coward’s way out?4
B. H. and John W. were joined by the other apostles traveling with them. Abraham Cannon, son of George Q. Cannon, did not seem surprised by the news. Francis Lyman was likewise unruffled, explaining that President Woodruff had already been discouraging new plural marriages in the United States. In his opinion, the Manifesto simply made the Church’s position on the topic public. But B. H. could see that apostle John Henry Smith was agitated, just as he and John W. Taylor were.
After speaking with the southbound passengers, B. H. and the apostles walked a short distance north of the accident and caught a new train heading to Salt Lake City. As the train rumbled down the track, talk of the Manifesto dominated the conversation. B. H. felt his distress rising and finally removed himself from the apostles’ company entirely.
As B. H. sat alone in his seat, his thoughts churned. For every reason his companions might give in support of the Manifesto, he felt he could come up with ten more for why the Saints should have held to the principle of plural marriage—even if it brought about the very annihilation of the Church.5
A few days later, on September 30, Heber Grant discussed the Manifesto with other members of the Quorum of the Twelve at a meeting in the Gardo House. Issuing the statement was the right thing for the Church to do, Heber believed, though he was unsure if it would put an end to the Saints’ trials.6
The declaration plainly stated that the Church was no longer “teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice,” but it left some matters unclear to both the Saints and the government.7
In conversation, Heber heard several apostles say that the Manifesto was a temporary measure, suspending plural marriage until the Saints could practice it legally. Lorenzo Snow, the president of the quorum, believed it was a necessary step to earn the goodwill of others. “The Manifesto will turn the hearts of many honest-hearted people to a feeling of friendship and respect for us,” he said. “I can see the good of the Manifesto clearly and am thankful for it.”8
“I am convinced that God was with President Woodruff when he was preparing the Manifesto for publication,” Franklin Richards added. “When the Manifesto was read, I felt that it was the right thing and that it had been given at the right time.”9
The Manifesto still unsettled John W. Taylor, who had been called to the Quorum of the Twelve shortly after Heber. After the death of his father, President John Taylor, John W. had found a purported revelation about marriage among the prophet’s papers. The revelation, dated September 27, 1886, seemed to suggest to John W. that the commandment to practice plural marriage would never be revoked.10
Although the revelation had never been presented to the Quorum of the Twelve or accepted as scripture by the Saints, John W. believed that it was the word of God to his father. Yet he knew revelation was continuing and ongoing, addressing new situations and problems as they arose, and John W. had faith that God had spoken to Wilford as well. “I know that the Lord has given this manifesto to President Woodruff,” he said, “and He can take it away when the time comes, or He can give it again.”11
More apostles shared their feelings about the Manifesto the following day. Like John W. Taylor, John Henry Smith was still struggling to accept it. “I am willing to sustain the president in issuing the Manifesto, although I am a little at sea as to the wisdom of its having been issued,” he said. “My fears are that the Manifesto will do us, as a people, more harm than good.”12
Anthon Lund, the only monogamist in the quorum, disagreed. “I feel that the Manifesto will result in good,” he said. “I give my approval to what has been done.”13
Heber also told the quorum that he was happy with the declaration. “There is not the least reason why such a document should not be issued,” he said. “President Woodruff has simply told the world what we have been doing.”14
The next day, the apostles met with the First Presidency, and each man sustained the Manifesto as the will of God. Afterward, some apostles expressed concern that critics of the Church would be dissatisfied with the document and continue to prosecute men who did not separate from or divorce their plural wives.
“There is no telling what we might have to do in the future,” Wilford said, “but at the present time, I feel that we must be true to our wives.”
For Heber, the prospect of being forced to abandon his plural wives, Augusta and Emily, was unthinkable. “I confess that it would be a great trial to me,” he wrote that day in his journal. “I feel that I could not endorse any such a thing.”15
On October 6, George Q. Cannon arrived at the tabernacle for the third day of the Church’s fall general conference. Soon after the meeting began, he stood and introduced Orson Whitney, bishop of the Salt Lake City Eighteenth Ward, who had been asked to read the Manifesto to the thousands of Saints in attendance.16
While George listened to the statement, he was unsure what he would say if Wilford called on him to speak. Earlier, Wilford had suggested that George might speak, but George had no desire to be the first to address the Saints on the Manifesto. In all his years of public speaking, he had never been asked to do something so difficult.17
The day before, George had given a sermon about the First Presidency and revelation, preparing the Saints for this meeting. “The presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk,” George had said. “They have to take steps just as you take steps. They have to depend upon the revelations of God as they come to them. They cannot see the end from the beginning, as the Lord does.”
“All that we can do,” he had continued, “is to seek the mind and will of God, and when that comes to us, though it may come in contact with every feeling that we have previously entertained, we have no option but to take the step that God points out and to trust to Him.”18
When Orson finished reading the Manifesto, Lorenzo Snow presented it to the Saints for their sustaining vote. Hands went up throughout the auditorium—some decisively, some more reluctantly. Other hands did not go up at all. There did not appear to be any direct opposition, though many Saints’ eyes were wet with tears.19
Wilford then turned to George and invited him to speak. George approached the pulpit with a prayer in his heart, but his mind was blank. As he started to speak, however, his fear left him, and words and ideas came freely. He opened the scriptures to Doctrine and Covenants 124:49, the passage Wilford had alluded to when George first heard him explain the Church’s new position on plural marriage.20
“When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name,” the Lord had declared, “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.”21
After reading the passage aloud, George told the congregation that the Saints had done all in their power to obey God’s commandment. Now the Lord had given them new direction through His prophet. “When God makes known His mind and will,” he said, “I hope that I and all Latter-day Saints will bow in submission to it.”
Knowing some Saints doubted the divine origins of the Manifesto and questioned why the prophet had not issued it sooner to avoid the suffering and persecution of recent years, he counseled them to seek a testimony of the Manifesto for themselves.
“Go to your secret chambers,” he urged them. “Ask God and plead with Him, in the name of Jesus, to give you a testimony as He has given it to us, and I promise you that you will not come away empty nor dissatisfied.”22
After George finished speaking, Wilford approached the pulpit. “The Lord is preparing a people to receive His kingdom and His Church, and to build up His work,” he said. “That, brethren and sisters, is our labor.”
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray,” he continued, reassuring any Saints who questioned the divine origin of the Manifesto. “It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.”
Wilford then blessed the Saints and returned to his seat on the stand.23
Many people in the congregation left the tabernacle that day grateful for the Manifesto and hopeful it would reduce the persecution of the Church. They had felt spiritual strength and peace at the meeting. Other Saints, however, felt unsettled, conflicted, or even betrayed.
Despite its significant challenges, some of which were deeply painful, plural marriage had blessed the lives of many Saints. For two generations, the practice had made marriage available to virtually all who desired it. It allowed many Saints to raise large families of faithful children who became devoted parents, Church members, leaders, and missionaries. It also brought about many marriages between cultures, uniting the Church’s diverse immigrant population.
Furthermore, it had bound the Saints together in a common struggle against persecution and helped them forge an identity as a peculiar, covenant people of God.24 More than two thousand Saints had been charged for polygamy, unlawful cohabitation, or other conduct associated with plural marriage. Around 930 of them had gone to prison for their convictions. Belle Harris, a grandniece of Martin Harris who refused to testify against her husband, had been sent to prison while nursing her infant son. For many Saints, such outrages were sacrifices they had been willing to make as followers of Christ.
B. H. Roberts thought that listening to the Manifesto read from the pulpit was one of the most difficult moments of his life. Though he had no desire to oppose the declaration openly, his earlier assurance that it was right had not returned, and he could not raise his hand to support the statement.25
Relief Society general president Zina Young sustained the Manifesto, but it tried her heart. “We looked to God and submitted,” she wrote that night in her journal.26
Joseph Dean, who had returned from his mission to Samoa a month earlier, was also in the tabernacle that day. He believed the Manifesto was a painful but necessary action. “Many of the Saints seemed stunned and confused and hardly knew how to vote,” he wrote in his journal. “A great many of the sisters wept silently and seemed to feel worse than the brethren.”27
The next morning dawned cold and wet. As rain pattered on rooftops, some Saints wondered how the Manifesto might affect their daily lives. The statement did not offer specific direction on how Saints already involved in plural marriages should proceed. Some plural wives worried they might be abandoned. Others were optimistic, hoping the Manifesto might pacify the government and bring an end to the fear and uncertainty of life on the underground. Many simply decided to remain in hiding until Church leaders explained in more detail how best to adapt the Manifesto to individual circumstances.28
When the news reached Cardston, Canada, it stunned Zina Presendia Card and her neighbors. But soon they realized that the Manifesto was precisely what the Church needed. “We feel our true position is known and appreciated now, as it could not be before the issuing of the Manifesto,” she wrote in a letter to the Woman’s Exponent. “The Saints here as a whole all feel our leaders are carrying on Christ’s work to victory and are one with the Saints in the land of Zion.”29
Later, in the Young Woman’s Journal, Susa Gates cautioned young women not to speak lightly about the Manifesto. Plural marriage had opened covenant marriage and family opportunities for women who otherwise would not have enjoyed them, she reminded them. Now these opportunities would be unavailable.
“You, as young women of Zion, have as much interest in this matter as do your mothers and fathers. See to it that not one word of foolish, silly rejoicing passes your lips for what has been done,” she counseled. “If you speak of it at all, let it be in the most solemn and sacred spirit.”30
In Manassa, when Emily Grant first learned of the Manifesto, she was solemn. But her somber feelings gave way to joy when she felt a witness that the declaration was right. “I seemed to see the first ray of light I have ever seen for us through our difficulties,” she wrote to her husband.31
Around this time, Lorena and Bent Larsen decided to return to Utah after months of struggling to make a living in Colorado. The farmland in Sanford had not been producing well, and Bent found it almost impossible to obtain other work. He now planned to live with his first wife, Julia, and their extended family in Monroe, Utah, while Lorena and her children would live with her brother’s family in a town about a hundred miles away.32
After the Larsens spent days traveling alone through rocky canyons, the starkly beautiful desert town of Moab, Utah, offered a welcome place to rest.
During a previous stop, Bent and Lorena had learned that Church leaders had issued a statement about plural marriage, but they had not heard anything more about it. In Moab, however, they met people who had gone to conference in Salt Lake City. While Lorena remained at the family’s tent, Bent went to learn what he could about the Manifesto.
When Bent returned, he told Lorena that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve had announced that the Church had stopped performing plural marriages and intended to submit to the laws of the nation.
Lorena could not believe what she was hearing. She had embraced plural marriage because she believed that it was God’s will for her and the Saints. The sacrifices she had made to practice the principle had brought her heartache and trial. But they had also challenged her to live on a higher plane, overcome her weaknesses, and love her neighbor. Why would God now ask the Saints to turn away from the practice?
Lorena looked to Bent for comfort, but instead of offering her words of reassurance, he turned and left the tent. “Oh, yes,” she thought. “It is easy for you. You can go home to your other family and be happy with her, while I must be like Hagar, sent away.”33
Darkness flooded Lorena’s mind. “If the Lord and the Church authorities have gone back on that principle,” she thought, “there is nothing to any part of the gospel.”34 She had believed that plural marriage was a doctrine as fixed and immovable as God Himself. If that was not the case, why should she have faith in anything else?
Lorena then thought of her family. What did the Manifesto mean for her and her children? And what did it mean for the other women and children in the same situation? Could they still depend on their husbands and fathers for love and support? Or would they be cast adrift simply for having tried to serve the Lord and keep His commandments?
Lorena collapsed into her bedding. The darkness around her became impenetrable, and she wished the earth would open up and swallow her and her children. Then, suddenly, she felt a powerful presence in the tent. “This is no more unreasonable than the requirement the Lord made of Abraham when He commanded him to offer up his son Isaac,” a voice told Lorena. “When the Lord sees that you are willing to obey in all things, the trial shall be removed.”
A bright light enveloped Lorena’s soul, and she felt peace and happiness. She understood that all would be well.
A short time later, Bent returned to the tent. Lorena told him about the presence that had removed her anguish. “I knew that I could not say a word to comfort you,” Bent confessed, “so I went to a patch of willows and asked the Lord to send a comforter.”35