Church History
41 So Long Submerged

“So Long Submerged,” chapter 41 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 41: “So Long Submerged”

Chapter 41

So Long Submerged

judge’s gavel

On the afternoon of February 25, 1891, Jane Richards, the first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, was preparing to speak in Washington, DC, at the first conference of the National Council of Women. For the last two and a half days of the conference, she had enjoyed listening to women from across the United States speak about their efforts in education, charity work, reform, and culture. Now it was time for her address, and the auditorium was full of hundreds of people who had come to hear what the Latter-day Saints had to say.1

For most of its nearly fifty-year history, the Relief Society had focused on attending to the needs of the Saints. Relief Society general president Zina Young felt strongly, however, that the women’s organizations in the Church should work with other groups to promote causes like female suffrage. Participating in the National Council of Women was an opportunity for Relief Society and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association leaders to meet and work with others who shared similar values and goals.2

Jane was selected to go to the conference because Emmeline Wells wanted to send women who were well educated and well informed on women’s issues in Utah. She also wanted to send someone courageous, a quality she believed Jane possessed in abundance.

Joining Jane in Washington were Emmeline, Sarah Kimball, and other women’s leaders in the Church. Before they left, these women were blessed and set apart by an apostle or a member of the First Presidency to represent their organizations.

In contrast with previous visits of prominent Latter-day Saint women to Washington, they were not going to lobby for the Saints. They were going as leaders of women’s organizations who wanted to speak about their work, not only in Utah but also in all the other places where the Relief Society and Y.L.M.I.A. had been established.3

Before Jane and the other delegates from Utah could join the council, a committee had deliberated whether to admit them. Most of the women on the committee recognized the efforts of the Relief Society to promote women’s suffrage, organize women on a national and international scale, and establish good relationships with prominent leaders of the national women’s movement.4 But one woman had objected to their entry, believing they had come to preach polygamy.

Other committee members had come to the Saints’ defense, citing the Manifesto as proof that the Utah delegation could be trusted. In the end, the committee had voted unanimously to welcome the Relief Society and Y.L.M.I.A. into their league.5

When it was Jane’s turn to speak, she kept her remarks brief. She told the assembly that the Relief Society believed in extending love, goodwill, peace, and joy to everyone. She also expressed gratitude for women everywhere who believed similarly.

“We may differ in opinion in some things,” she said, “but our great aim is to do good to all.”6

While in Washington, Jane spoke to many people about the Relief Society and the Saints. She admired the women she met and the work they were doing, and she wished she had five hundred copies of the Manifesto to share with people who had questions about plural marriage. Before returning home, she invited many of her new friends to visit Utah.

If they wanted to get to know the Latter-day Saints, she said, the best thing to do was spend time among them.7

That winter, Emily Grant found it more and more difficult to endure Colorado’s frigid, howling winds alone.8 Since the Church issued the Manifesto, its relationship with the United States government had begun to improve. Officials in Washington, including the president, were no longer interested in taking away the Saints’ voting rights or confiscating the temples. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children of polygamous marriages could once again inherit property.

Yet federal antipolygamy laws remained in force. Marshals were still arresting people for polygamy and unlawful cohabitation, although in smaller numbers.9 If Emily left the relative safety of Manassa, her plural marriage to Heber Grant could become public, putting their family at risk.10

Emily’s father, Daniel Wells, passed away in March 1891. She and her daughters, Dessie and Grace, returned to Salt Lake City for the funeral, and Heber agreed that she should move back to the city. He believed as long as he and Emily kept their marriage private, residing in separate houses and not being seen together in public, the family could live closer together.11

Family and friends wanted to throw a party to celebrate Emily’s return to Salt Lake City, but she preferred to keep out of sight. “I only want a visit with my folks and friends without making myself conspicuous anywhere,” she told Heber.12 She moved in with her mother, a few blocks from Heber, and continued to communicate with him mostly through letters. Such a life was not exactly what Emily wanted, but it was far better than living hundreds of miles away.13

That spring, Emily and Heber’s daughter Dessie turned five. Besides calling herself “Mary Harris” and Heber “Uncle Eli,” Emily had called Dessie “Pattie Harris” to keep her and the family safe from the marshals. Now that their situation had changed for the better, Emily and Heber had largely dropped the pretense and begun using their real names in letters to each other.

On Dessie’s birthday, Emily put her in a new dress, curled her hair, and tied it up with a new blue ribbon. “Now you are getting to be such a big girl,” Emily said. “I am going to tell you a great secret.” She revealed Dessie’s real name and told her that Uncle Eli was actually her father.14

Soon after, Dessie also learned that two of her new friends, Rachel and Lutie, were her sisters, the daughters of their father and his wife Lucy. One day, ten-year-old Lutie arrived at Emily’s home with her yellow pony, Flaxy, hitched up to a little cart. She wanted to take her sisters for a ride. Emily was unsure it was safe to let the girls go, but she relented. Dessie and Grace climbed into the tiny cart, and soon the sisters bounded away.15

Emily was grateful to finally be back at home in Salt Lake City. She disliked hiding her relationship with Heber, and she wished that her family had the freedom to go about the city as they pleased. But she could see the hand of God in her reunion with her husband, and she knew that they were happy in each other’s love.

“The fact that I have stood it at all is remarkable to me,” she wrote, “and I pray for strength to bear my future prospects.”16

That spring, nineteen-year-old John Widtsoe celebrated his graduation from Brigham Young College in Logan. At the commencement ceremony, he received special recognition for his excellence in rhetoric, German, chemistry, algebra, and geometry.17

During his time at the college, John was thrilled whenever he uncovered some new piece of knowledge. The college was still new, and it did not have many books in its library or much equipment in its laboratory. Nor did its faculty have advanced academic degrees, though the teachers were excellent instructors who knew how to simplify a subject and teach it to their students.

The college principal, Joseph Tanner, was a former pupil of Karl Maeser, the famed principal of Brigham Young Academy in Provo who now served as superintendent of more than three dozen Church schools. A former missionary to Europe and the Middle East, Joseph also taught religion classes, instructing John and his fellow students in the plan of salvation and the Restoration of the gospel. Theology became one of John’s favorite subjects. It shaped his character and outlook on life and made him more sensitive to the differences between right and wrong.18

Around the time of graduation, Joseph invited John to join him and a group of young Latter-day Saint scholars enrolling that summer at Harvard University, the oldest and most respected university in the United States. Joseph wanted the scholars to gain a first-class education, which they could then use to improve the quality of instruction in Utah’s schools.19

Harvard was just the kind of place John’s mother, Anna, had always wanted him to attend, and she supported his decision to go there, confident he would excel in his studies. To pay tuition, John took out a loan from a local bank. Five family friends—including Anthon Skanchy, the missionary who baptized Anna in Norway—also provided him with financial aid.

John left for Harvard less than a month after his graduation. A short time later, Anna negotiated a loan on her house, put it up for rent, and moved to Salt Lake City, where she and her younger son, Osborne, could find more work to support the family and pay for John’s schooling.

Anna wrote frequently to John. “You will probably have many little difficulties and will probably face small disappointments at first,” she told him in one letter, “but they can all be of great use to you in the future.”

“God is with you, and He will bless you double what you dare imagine or pray for,” she promised. “Just bow before the Lord in prayer at your appointed time, and whenever you feel like it, and with a grateful and humble heart.”20

In Salt Lake City, Joseph F. Smith continued to live on the underground, even though the threat of arrest and prosecution had diminished. Unlike Heber Grant’s plural marriages, Joseph’s were publicly known, and his position in the First Presidency had long made him a target for federal marshals.

On weekdays, Joseph visited his wives and children after dark and returned to his office in the Gardo House to sleep. On weekends he risked more extended, overnight stays with his family, rotating every weekend between the homes of his five wives.21 To live like a fugitive was discouraging. “Until the Lord relieves me in some way not now seen,” he wrote his aunt Mercy Thompson, “I am doomed to remain in hiding for some time to come.”22

In June 1891, Joseph wrote a letter to the president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, asking for amnesty, or the removal of all criminal charges against him. With goodwill improving between the Church and the United States government, Joseph believed he could receive a pardon.23

By seeking amnesty, Joseph was not promising to forsake his wives, however. The Manifesto had given no direction for how Saints in existing plural marriages should act, but Wilford Woodruff had privately counseled stake presidencies and general authorities on how to interpret its message. “This manifesto only refers to future marriages and does not affect past conditions,” he said. “I did not, could not, and would not promise that you would desert your wives and children. This you cannot do in honor.”24

A few people still chose to end their plural marriages, but most people sought to comply with the Manifesto in less drastic ways. Some men continued as best they could to support their plural families, financially and emotionally, without living with them. Others continued to live with their families as if nothing had changed, even though doing so could subject them to prosecution and imprisonment.

For his part, Joseph chose to continue caring for his family as always, believing that he was complying with the Manifesto while still obeying the law forbidding cohabitation.25

In early September, Joseph learned of a newspaper report announcing that President Harrison had granted him amnesty. He did not want to celebrate or go out in public, however, until he had the documents in hand. “I have been so long submerged under the flood of surging events,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “if I get freedom in any form, I shall be like one raised from the dead, or born again, with new experiences to get and everything to learn anew.”26

The amnesty letter arrived a short time later. Full of gratitude, Joseph hoped his pardon would lead to a general amnesty for all Saints who had entered plural marriage before the Manifesto. But he also knew that such a pardon might not stop the government from bringing new charges against men who continued to live with wives they had married long ago. To be safe, he chose to stay nights at the First Presidency’s office while still teaching his children and supporting his large family. He and his five wives also continued to have more children.27

The Sunday after receiving amnesty, Joseph attended the Salt Lake City Sixteenth Ward Sunday School. He spoke to the children in class and talked afterward with several old friends and acquaintances. Later that day, he attended an afternoon meeting in the tabernacle, where he was called upon to speak.

As Joseph looked out at the Saints, his emotions nearly overwhelmed him. “It has been something over seven years since I last had the privilege of standing before a congregation of the people in this tabernacle,” he said. So much had changed in his absence that he felt like a child who had been away from home for a long time.

He bore witness of the Restoration, testifying that it was the work of the Lord. “I thank God the Eternal Father that I have had this testimony put into my heart and soul,” he declared, “for it gives me light, hope, joy, and consolation that no man can give or take away.”

He also prayed that God would help the Saints do what was right and honorable before the Lord and before the law. “We have to live in the midst of the world as we are,” he said. “We have to make the best of the circumstances in which we are placed. That is what the Lord requires at the hands of the Latter-day Saints.”28

Shortly after Joseph F. Smith received amnesty, Wilford Woodruff declared that it was the mind and will of God that the Saints finish the temple. Workers had placed a roof on the building two years earlier, allowing carpenters and other craftsmen to work year-round. But much labor still remained on the building’s exterior, including the installation of a large statue of an angel on the temple’s tallest central spire. The statue would be sculpted by renowned artist Cyrus Dallin, who had grown up in Utah and received extensive artistic training in the eastern United States and Paris.

In early October, dozens of Church officers agreed to help raise $100,000 for construction, though it would likely cost more to complete the building.29 Around this time, the First Presidency and several apostles also appealed for the return of around $400,000 worth of Church property that the government had confiscated under the Edmunds-Tucker Act.30

Reclaiming the Church’s seized property could relieve the Saints’ financial burden significantly, but it would also require some of the First Presidency and the Twelve to attend a hearing and answer questions from government lawyers about the Church’s commitment to obeying antipolygamy laws.31

In the weeks leading up to the hearing, the Church’s lawyers presented the First Presidency and members of the Twelve with questions government lawyers might ask them. Several apostles worried about how to answer questions about the future of plural marriage in the Church. Was the practice over for good, or was the Manifesto a temporary measure? And how should they answer questions about whether husbands should continue to live with and support their plural wives?

Depending on how they responded, Church leaders ran the risk of losing the good faith of the government and confusing—or even offending—the Saints.32

On the day of the hearing, October 19, 1891, Charles Varian, a lawyer for the United States government, questioned Wilford for several hours.33 His questions were designed to get Wilford to clarify the Church’s stance on plural marriage and the purpose of the Manifesto. Wilford, in turn, sought to answer the lawyers honestly without speaking definitively on the status of existing unions.

After the questioning began, Charles asked Wilford what the Manifesto meant for people already in plural marriages. Were they expected to cease associating with each other as husband and wife?

Wilford did not answer the question directly. “I intended the proclamation to cover the whole ground,” he said, “to obey the laws of the land entirely.” He knew that Saints in plural marriages had made sacred covenants with God, and he could never ask them to violate their marital vows. But each person was individually responsible for obeying the laws of the land according to his or her conscience.34

“Was the sole reason of this declaration because of these laws?” Charles asked, trying to gauge Church leaders’ sincerity in issuing the Manifesto.

“When I was appointed president of the Church I looked this question over,” Wilford replied, “and for a good while became satisfied in my own mind that plural marriage must stop in this Church.”

Wilford then described how the antipolygamy laws punished not only the smaller percentage of Saints who practiced plural marriage but also the tens of thousands of Saints who did not. “It was upon that ground that I issued the Manifesto—I will say by inspiration,” he explained.35

“Why did you not declare this Manifesto to your church as a revelation instead of by way of your personal advice and counsel?” Charles asked.

“My view is that inspiration is revelation,” Wilford replied. “It is from the same source. A man is not always required to say, I think, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

Charles then asked Wilford if the Manifesto was the direct result of the hardships brought upon the Saints by the law.

“The Lord requires, and has required many times, His people to perform a work which they could not carry out where under certain circumstances they were hindered from doing it,” Wilford declared. “It is upon that ground—if I can be understood—that I view the position we are in today.”36

The day after the hearing, the Deseret News and other local newspapers published transcripts of Wilford’s testimony to the court.37 Some people, not grasping the prophet’s guarded efforts to clarify the meaning of the Manifesto, mistakenly interpreted his words to mean that he expected husbands to abandon their plural wives.38

“This announcement by him as president of the Church has caused an uneasy feeling among the people,” recorded one man in St. George, “and some think he has gone back on the revelation on plural marriage and its covenants and obligations.” A few men in the town even used the testimony as an excuse to abandon their plural families.39

In private meetings, Wilford acknowledged the vagueness of his responses, but he insisted that he could not have answered the lawyer’s questions in any other way. He also reiterated to the Twelve that any man who deserted or neglected his wives or children because of the Manifesto was not worthy to be a member of the Church.40

Wilford did not condemn men like Joseph F. Smith and George Q. Cannon who continued to have children with their plural wives. But he also believed that men could obey the law and keep their covenants by living separately from their plural families while still providing for their well-being. Within his own family, Wilford lived with his wife Emma publicly, but he continued to support and care for his other wives, Sarah and Delight, and their children.41

When Wilford learned that some people were wondering if he was leading the Church astray, he decided to speak further on the matter. At a stake conference in Logan, he acknowledged that there were many Saints who were struggling to accept the change. He asked a question: Was it wiser to continue performing plural marriages, regardless of the consequences? Or to live according to the nation’s laws, so that the Saints could enjoy the blessings of the temple and stay out of prison?

“If we did not stop this practice,” he said, “all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice.”

“But I want to say this,” Wilford added. “I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write.”42