“Antipolygamy Legislation,” Church History Topics
At a special conference in August 1852, Church leaders for the first time acknowledged publicly that many Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory practiced what they called plural marriage, the marriage of one man to more than one woman, often called polygamy.1 The public announcement confirmed widespread rumors and provoked shock and outrage among many Americans.
Politicians set to work to put an end to the practice. Latter-day Saints argued that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected plural marriage by upholding the privilege of “the free exercise” of religion.2 Newspaper reporters and novelists stirred antipolygamy sentiment with exaggerated tales of enslaved and abused Mormon women.3
In 1856 the Republican Party added to its platform the abolition of the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy.4 Six years later, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Act for the Suppression of Polygamy, a law punishing bigamy (defined as marrying while an undivorced spouse was still living) with a fine and five years in prison. The American Civil War preoccupied most Americans for the next several years, however, and the new law went largely unenforced. Latter-day Saints continued to contend that antipolygamy laws violated their religious rights.
Congress passed the Poland Act in 1874, which strengthened enforcement of the Morrill Act by giving federal judges jurisdiction over antipolygamy prosecution in Utah and allowing these judges to select jurors. In 1879 the First Presidency of the Church helped bring the case of polygamous Latter-day Saint George Reynolds to the United States Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of antipolygamy legislation. Many Saints expressed confidence that the court would uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. But the court ruled against Reynolds, declaring that although the First Amendment protected religious belief, it did not protect religious practice.5
Many Latter-day Saints acted in civil disobedience, holding that their practice of plural marriage followed a commandment from God. Through new legislation, the federal government intensified its resistance: the Edmunds Act of 1882 punished unlawful cohabitation with a fine or six months imprisonment, among other things; and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 increased penalties against people living in plural marriages and against the Church itself, took the right to vote away from women in Utah, and disenfranchised the Church of its properties over $50,000.6
During the 1880s United States marshals increased their efforts to enforce antipolygamy laws. Families pursued by federal authorities commonly referred to this period of active enforcement as “the raid” and found shelter in the “underground,” a network of safe houses that helped those targeted by the law to evade arrest.
The raid created great disruption both for families that practiced polygamy and for the broader Utah community. Many husbands were imprisoned or forced to live in exile, leaving their wives and children to tend farms and businesses. Economic recession set in throughout the whole territory. New plural wives had to live apart from their husbands, their confidential marriages known only to a few. Pregnant women often chose to go into hiding, at times in remote locales, rather than risk being subpoenaed to testify in court against their husbands. Children lived in fear that their families would be broken up or that they would be forced to testify against their parents. Some children went into hiding and lived under assumed names. Others went without seeing their parents or relatives for months. Many families moved to Canada or Mexico to stay together.7
The raid also impeded the administration of the Church. Between 1885 and 1889, most Apostles, stake presidents, and other Church leaders were in hiding or in prison, and many aspects of Church government were severely curtailed. The Manifesto issued by Wilford Woodruff in 1890 effectively ended these challenges and eventually led to the end of plural marriage.8