“Plural Marriage after the Manifesto,” Church History Topics
“Plural Marriage after the Manifesto”
For more than half of the 19th century, some Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage under the direction of the President of the Church. The practice had been introduced by revelation to Joseph Smith within a limited circle of close associates and was practiced openly between 1852 and 1890. 1 Church President Wilford Woodruff felt inspired to issue the Manifesto, a statement declaring his “intention to submit to those laws” prohibiting plural marriages and pledging “to use [his] influence with the members of the Church … to have them do likewise.” 2 Like the beginning of plural marriage in the Church, the end of the practice was gradual and incremental, a process filled with difficulties and uncertainties.
The Manifesto declared President Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States, and, once the Manifesto was sustained in general conference, new plural marriages within that jurisdiction largely came to an end. 3 Nevertheless, many practical matters had to be settled. The Manifesto was silent on what existing plural families should do. On their own initiative, some couples separated or divorced as a result of the Manifesto; other husbands stopped cohabiting with all but one of their wives but continued to provide financial and emotional support to all dependents. 4 Believing that the covenants they had made with God and their spouses had to be honored above all else, many husbands, including Church leaders, continued to cohabit with their plural wives and fathered children with them well into the 20th century. 5
A small number of plural marriages continued to be performed in Mexico and Canada under the sanction of some Church leaders. As a rule, these marriages were not promoted by Church leaders and were difficult to get approved. Either one or both of the spouses who entered into these unions typically had to agree to remain in Canada or Mexico. On an exceptional basis, a smaller number of plural marriages were performed within the United States between the years 1890 and 1904. The precise number of new plural marriages performed during these years, inside and outside the United States, is unknown. 6 Sealing records kept during this period typically did not indicate whether a sealing was monogamous or plural, making an exhaustive calculation difficult. 7
The Church’s role in these marriages soon became a subject of intense public debate after Reed Smoot, an Apostle, was elected to the United States Senate in 1903. 8 At the April 1904 general conference, Church President Joseph F. Smith issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, making new plural marriages punishable by excommunication. 9 Since President Smith’s day, Church Presidents have repeatedly emphasized that the Church and its members are no longer authorized to enter into plural marriage and have underscored the sincerity of their words by urging local leaders to bring noncompliant members before Church membership councils.
Saints recounts several important stories relating to the end of the practice of plural marriage by Latter-day Saints, including the “Second Manifesto.” For more information, see “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage.”