Church History
Matthias F. Cowley

“Matthias F. Cowley,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Matthias F. Cowley,” Church History Topics

Matthias F. Cowley

Matthias Foss Cowley (1858–1940) was born soon after his parents returned to Salt Lake City after fleeing potential threats of violence during the Utah War.1 He grew up in the Salt Lake City 14th Ward, where he served as a ward teacher for the family of Apostle John Taylor and became lifelong friends with Elder Taylor’s son John W. Taylor.2 After his father’s death in 1864, Cowley assisted his stepfather in surveying for the Southern Utah Railroad. During the winter months, Cowley attended the University of Deseret and became an avid student of the Bible. At 19 years of age, he served the first of two missions to the southern United States. Prior to his second departure, Cowley oversaw promotion efforts of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association’s magazine, The Contributor, which took him to many wards and stakes throughout Utah Territory. On the first day the Logan Utah Temple opened for ordinance work in 1884, he was married to Abigail Hyde. Cowley was called and ordained an Apostle in 1897, a year after Utah was adopted as a state and the Church began to transition into a new century.3

Elder Matthias F. Cowley

Elder Matthias F. Cowley in 1898.

Cowley witnessed intense agitation directed toward the Church because of plural marriage. In 1889, he married Luella Smart Parkinson, his first plural wife. Their marriage occurred at a time when federal officials aggressively enforced antipolygamy laws intended to disrupt Latter-day Saint families and disenfranchise the Church.4 One year following Cowley’s marriage to Luella, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, an inspired declaration instructing Latter-day Saints to refrain from entering a plural marriage. Between the 1880s and early 20th century, Church Presidents Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith further worked toward achieving statehood for Utah, improving relations with the United States government, and curtailing the practice of plural marriage.5 In 1899, Cowley married Harriet Bennion, his second plural wife.6 Some Church leaders considered the Manifesto an attempt to appease the government and believed that the “new and everlasting covenant of marriage” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:2) was still appropriate for the faithful. Cowley privately continued to endorse plural marriage and to solemnize new plural marriages.7 During the nationally reported campaign to deny fellow Apostle Reed Smoot an elected seat in the United States Senate, Cowley and others were called to testify about their connections to polygamy. He requested to be excused.

In 1904, as part of a promise that he made during the Smoot hearings, Joseph F. Smith announced what came to be known as the Second Manifesto. This policy declared anyone entering into new plural marriages “in transgression against the Church” and eligible for excommunication.8 The First Presidency thereafter prohibited sealing ordinances from being performed outside of temples, bringing temple marriage ceremonies under the supervision of temple presidents and senior Church leaders. Cowley and fellow Apostle John W. Taylor contravened the new policy. In 1905, Cowley married Lenora Mary Taylor, his third plural wife, in Canada.9 Shortly thereafter, the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve asked Elders Cowley and Taylor to resign from the quorum for being “out of harmony with the Twelve with regard to marrying plural wives themselves and encouraging others to take plural wives.” After Cowley and Taylor resigned, both men continued to endorse plural marriage. In 1910 and 1911, the Quorum of the Twelve inquired into reports that various men in leadership positions in the Church were taking additional wives. When the Apostles learned Cowley had continued to perform and encourage plural marriages, they voted that he be “deprived of the right and Authority to exercise any of the functions of the Priesthood.”10

Despite his initial disagreements over plural marriage, Cowley continued to speak in public venues, proclaim the gospel, and write books favorable to the Church. In 1936, he wrote to the First Presidency hoping to clear his name and confessing, “I have been deceived” and “whenever I have given counsel or taken action contrary to the principles, rules, and regulations of the Church … I have been wholly in error in counsel.”11 He was readmitted to full fellowship and soon called to serve a mission to Europe, where he preached in several historical venues, wrote for the Millennial Star magazine, and gathered genealogical data with his wife Luella and daughter Laura.12 Upon his death four years later from causes incident to age, Cowley was remembered for his “ardent work” as a preacher, writer, and missionary.13

Related Topics: Plural Marriage after the Manifesto, Antipolygamy Legislation, Reed Smoot Hearings, Utah

  1. See Topic: Utah War.

  2. Matthias F. Cowley, “Reminiscences of Prest. John Taylor,” 1925, MS 157, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  3. Edward H. Anderson, “Matthias Foss Cowley,” in Andrew Jenson, ed., Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History, 1901–1936), 1:168–72.

  4. See Topic: Antipolygamy Legislation.

  5. See Topics: Manifesto, Utah; see also Gospel Topics Essays, “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,”

  6. Victor W. Jorgenson and B. Carmon Hardy, “The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 1 (Winter 1980), 14.

  7. Jorgenson and Hardy, “Taylor-Cowley Affair,” 21; see Topic: Reed Smoot Hearings.

  8. See “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage.”

  9. Jorgensen and Hardy, “Taylor-Cowley Affair,” 12–14.

  10. Jorgensen and Hardy, “Taylor-Cowley Affair,” 28–33; Francis M. Lyman, Journal, May 11, 1911, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  11. “Reconciliation: Letters Passing between the First Presidency and Elder Matthias F. Cowley,” Deseret News, Apr. 3, 1936, 3.

  12. Eleanor Knowles, Remembering Laura: A Biography of Laura Cowley Brossard (1978), 66–67.

  13. “Cowley Rites Will Be Friday: Illness Claims Aged Church Leader,” Deseret News, June 17, 1940, 9, 16.