For much of the 19th century, a significant number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage—the marriage of one man to more than one woman. The beginning and end of the practice were directed by revelation through God’s prophets. The initial command to practice plural marriage came through Joseph Smith, the founding prophet and President of the Church. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which led to the end of plural marriage in the Church.
The end of plural marriage required great faith and sometimes complicated, painful—and intensely personal—decisions on the part of individual members and Church leaders. Like the beginning of plural marriage in the Church, the end of the practice was a process rather than a single event. Revelation came “line upon line, precept upon precept.”1
For half a century, beginning in the early 1840s, Church members viewed plural marriage as a commandment from God, an imperative that helped “raise up” a righteous posterity unto the Lord.2 Though not all Church members were expected to enter into plural marriage, those who did so believed they would be blessed for their participation. Between the 1850s and the 1880s, many Latter-day Saints lived in plural families as husbands, wives, or children.3
In many parts of the world, polygamy was socially acceptable and legally permissible. But in the United States, most people thought that the practice was morally wrong. These objections led to legislative efforts to end polygamy. Beginning in 1862, the U.S. government passed a series of laws designed to force Latter-day Saints to relinquish plural marriage.4
In the face of these measures, Latter-day Saints maintained that plural marriage was a religious principle protected under the U.S. Constitution. The Church mounted a vigorous legal defense all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court ruled against the Latter-day Saints: religious belief was protected by law, religious practice was not. According to the court’s opinion, marriage was a civil contract regulated by the state. Monogamy was the only form of marriage sanctioned by the state. “Polygamy,” the court explained, “has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe.”5
Latter-day Saints sincerely desired to be loyal citizens of the United States, which they considered a divinely founded nation. But they also accepted plural marriage as a commandment from God and believed the court was unjustly depriving them of their right to follow God’s commands.
Confronted with these contradictory allegiances, Church leaders encouraged members to obey God rather than man. Many Latter-day Saints embarked on a course of civil disobedience during the 1880s by continuing to live in plural marriage and to enter into new plural marriages.6 The federal government responded by enacting ever more punishing legislation.
Between 1850 and 1896, Utah was a territory of the U.S. government, which meant that federal officials in Washington, D.C., exercised great control over local matters. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which made unlawful cohabitation (interpreted as a man living with more than one wife) punishable by six months of imprisonment and a $300 fine. In 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act to punish the Church itself, not just its members. The act dissolved the corporation of the Church and directed that all Church property over $50,000 be forfeited to the government.
This government opposition strengthened the Saints’ resolve to resist what they deemed to be unjust laws. Polygamous men went into hiding, sometimes for years at a time, moving from house to house and staying with friends and relatives. Others assumed aliases and moved to out-of-the-way places in southern Utah, Arizona, Canada, and Mexico.7 Many escaped prosecution; many others, when arrested, pled guilty and submitted to fines and imprisonment.
This antipolygamy campaign created great disruption in Mormon communities. The departure of husbands left wives and children to tend farms and businesses, causing incomes to drop and economic recession to set in. The campaign also strained families. 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.8
Despite countless difficulties, many Latter-day Saints were convinced that the antipolygamy campaign was useful in accomplishing God’s purposes. They testified that God was humbling and purifying His covenant people as He had done in ages past. Myron Tanner, a bishop in Provo, Utah, felt that “the hand of oppression laid on the parents, is doing more to convince our Children of the truth of Mormonism than anything else could have done.”9 Incarceration for “conscience’ sake” proved edifying for many. George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, emerged from his five months in the Utah penitentiary rejuvenated. “My cell has seemed a heavenly place, and I feel that angels have been there,” he wrote.10
The Church completed and dedicated two temples during the antipolygamy campaign, a remarkable achievement.11 But as federal pressure intensified, many essential aspects of Church government were severely curtailed, and civil disobedience looked increasingly untenable as a long-term solution. Between 1885 and 1889, most Apostles and stake presidents were in hiding or in prison. After federal agents began seizing Church property in accordance with the Edmunds-Tucker legislation, management of the Church became more difficult.12
After two decades of seeking either to negotiate a change in the law or avoid its disastrous consequences, Church leaders began to investigate alternative responses. In 1885 and 1886 they established settlements in Mexico and Canada, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law, where polygamous families could live peaceably. Hoping that a moderation in their position would lead to a reduction in hostilities, Church leaders advised plural husbands to live openly with only one of their wives, and advocated that plural marriage not be taught publicly. In 1889, Church authorities prohibited the performance of new plural marriages in Utah.13
Church leaders prayerfully sought guidance from the Lord and struggled to understand what they should do. Both President John Taylor and President Wilford Woodruff felt the Lord directing them to stay the course and not renounce plural marriage.14
This inspiration came when paths for legal redress were still open. The last of the paths closed in May 1890, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, allowing the confiscation of Church property to proceed. President Woodruff saw that the Church’s temples and its ordinances were now at risk. Burdened by this threat, he prayed intensely over the matter. “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation,” he later said, “exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice,” referring to plural marriage. “All the temples [would] go out of our hands.” God “has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it.”15
On September 25, 1890, President Woodruff wrote in his journal that he was “under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church.” He stated, “After Praying to the Lord & feeling inspired by his spirit I have issued … [a] Proclamation.”16 This proclamation, now published in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 1, was released to the public on September 25 and became known as the Manifesto.17
The Manifesto was carefully worded to address the immediate conflict with the U.S. government. “We are not teaching polygamy, or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice,” President Woodruff said. “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.”18
The members of the Quorum of the Twelve varied in their reactions to the Manifesto. Franklin D. Richards was sure it was “the work of the Lord.” Francis M. Lyman said that “he had endorsed the Manifesto fully when he first heard it.”19 Not all the Twelve accepted the document immediately. John W. Taylor said he did “not yet feel quite right about it” at first.20 John Henry Smith candidly admitted that “the Manifesto had disturbed his feelings very much” and that he was still “somewhat at sea” regarding it.21 Within a week, however, all members of the Twelve voted to sustain the Manifesto.
The Manifesto was formally presented to the Church at the semiannual general conference held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1890. On Monday, October 6, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, stood at the pulpit and read the Articles of Faith, which included the line that Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” These articles were sustained by uplifted hand. Whitney then read the Manifesto, and Lorenzo Snow, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, moved that the document be accepted as “authoritative and binding.” The assembly was then asked to vote on this motion. The Deseret News reported that the vote was “unanimous”; most voted in favor, though some abstained from voting.22
Rank-and-file Latter-day Saints accepted the Manifesto with various degrees of reservation. Many were not ready for plural marriage to come to an end. General Relief Society president Zina D. H. Young, writing in her journal on the day the Manifesto was presented to the Church, captured the anguish of the moment: “Today the hearts of all were tried but looked to God and submitted.”23 The Manifesto prompted uncertainty about the future of some relationships. Eugenia Washburn Larsen, fearing the worst, reported feeling “dense darkness” when she imagined herself and other wives and children being “turned adrift” by husbands.24 Other plural wives, however, reacted to the Manifesto with “great relief.”25
Latter-day Saints believe that the Lord reveals His will “line upon line; here a little, there a little.”26 Church members living in 1890 generally believed that the Manifesto was the “work of the Lord,” in Franklin D. Richards’s words. But the full implications of the Manifesto were not apparent at first; its scope had to be worked out, and authorities differed on how best to proceed. “We have been led to our present position by degrees,” Apostle Heber J. Grant explained.27 Over time and through effort to receive continuing revelation, Church members saw “by degrees” how to interpret the Manifesto going forward.
At first, many Church leaders believed the Manifesto merely “suspended” plural marriage for an indefinite time.28 Having lived, taught, and suffered for plural marriage for so long, it was difficult to imagine a world without it. George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, likened the Manifesto to the Lord’s reprieve from the command to build temples in Missouri in the 1830s after the Saints were expelled from the state. In a sermon given immediately after the Manifesto was sustained at general conference, Cannon quoted a passage of scripture in which the Lord excuses those who diligently seek to carry out a commandment from Him, only to be prevented by their enemies: “Behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.”29
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.30 In closed-door meetings with local leaders, the First Presidency condemned men who left their wives by using the Manifesto as an excuse. “I did not, could not and would not promise that you would desert your wives and children,” President Woodruff told the men. “This you cannot do in honor.”31
Believing that the covenants they 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.32 Continued cohabitation exposed those couples to the threat of prosecution, just as it did before the Manifesto. But these threats were markedly diminished after 1890. The Manifesto marked a new relationship with the federal government and the nation: prosecution of polygamists declined, plural wives came out of hiding and assumed their married names, and husbands interacted more freely with their families, especially after U.S. president Benjamin Harrison granted general amnesty to Mormon polygamists in 1893.33 Three years later, Utah became a state with a constitution that banned polygamy.
The Manifesto declared President Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States. It said nothing about the laws of other nations. Ever since the opening of colonies in Mexico and Canada, Church leaders had performed plural marriages in those countries, and after October 1890, plural marriages continued to be quietly performed there.34 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. Under exceptional circumstances, a smaller number of new plural marriages were performed in the United States between 1890 and 1904, though whether the marriages were authorized to have been performed within the states is unclear.35
The precise number of new plural marriages performed during these years, inside and outside the United States, is unknown. Sealing records kept during this period typically did not indicate whether a sealing was monogamous or plural, making an exhaustive calculation difficult. A rough sense of scale, however, can be seen in a chronological ledger of marriages and sealings kept by Church scribes. Between the late 1880s and the early 1900s, during a time when temples were few and travel to them was long and arduous, Latter-day Saint couples who lived far away from temples were permitted to be sealed in marriage outside them.
The ledger of “marriages and sealings performed outside the temple,” which is not comprehensive, lists 315 marriages performed between October 17, 1890, and September 8, 1903.36 Of the 315 marriages recorded in the ledger, research indicates that 25 (7.9%) were plural marriages and 290 were monogamous marriages (92.1%). Almost all the monogamous marriages recorded were performed in Arizona or Mexico. Of the 25 plural marriages, 18 took place in Mexico, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Utah, and 1 each in Colorado and on a boat on the Pacific Ocean. Overall, the record shows that plural marriage was a declining practice and that Church leaders were acting in good conscience to abide by the terms of the Manifesto as they understood them.37
The exact process by which these marriages were approved remains unclear. For a time, post-Manifesto plural marriages required the approval of a member of the First Presidency. There is no definitive evidence, however, that the decisions were made by the First Presidency as a whole; President Woodruff, for example, typically referred requests to allow new plural marriages to President Cannon for his personal consideration.38 By the late 1890s, at least some of the men who had authority to perform sealings apparently considered themselves free to either accept or reject requests at their own discretion, independent of the First Presidency. Apostle Heber J. Grant, for example, reported that while visiting Mormon settlements in Mexico in 1900, he received 10 applications in a single day requesting plural marriages. He declined them all. “I confess,” he told a friend, “that it has always gone against my grain to have any violations of documents [i.e. the Manifesto] of this kind.”39
At first, the performance of new plural marriages after the Manifesto was largely unknown to people outside the Church. When discovered, these marriages troubled many Americans, especially after President George Q. Cannon stated in an 1899 interview with the New York Herald that new plural marriages might be performed in Canada and Mexico.40 After the election of B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy, to the U.S. Congress, it became known that Roberts had three wives, one of whom he married after the Manifesto. A petition of 7 million signatures demanded that Roberts not be seated. Congress complied, and Roberts was barred from his office.41
The exclusion of B. H. Roberts opened Mormon marital practices to renewed scrutiny. Church President Lorenzo Snow issued a statement clarifying that new plural marriages had ceased in the Church and that the Manifesto extended to all parts of the world, counsel he repeated in private. Even so, a small number of new plural marriages continued to be performed, probably without President Snow’s knowledge or approval. After Joseph F. Smith became Church President in 1901, a small number of new plural marriages were also performed during the early years of his administration.42
The Church’s role in these marriages became a subject of intense debate after Reed Smoot, an Apostle, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1903. Although Smoot was a monogamist, his apostleship put his loyalty to the country under scrutiny. How could Smoot both uphold the laws of the Church, some of whose officers had performed, consented to, or participated in new plural marriages, and uphold the laws of the land, which made plural marriage illegal? For four years legislators debated this question in lengthy public hearings.
The Senate called on many witnesses to testify. Church President Joseph F. Smith took the stand in the Senate chamber in March 1904. When asked, he defended his family relationships, telling the committee that he had cohabited with his wives and fathered children with them since 1890. He said it would be dishonorable of him to break the sacred covenants he had made with his wives and with God. When questioned about new plural marriages performed since 1890, President Smith carefully distinguished between actions sanctioned by the Church and ratified in Church councils and conferences, and the actions undertaken by individual members of the Church. “There never has been a plural marriage by the consent or sanction or knowledge or approval of the church since the manifesto,” he testified.43
In this legal setting, President Smith sought to protect the Church while stating the truth. His testimony conveyed a distinction Church leaders had long understood: the Manifesto removed the divine command for the Church collectively to sustain and defend plural marriage; it had not, up to this time, prohibited individuals from continuing to practice or perform plural marriage as a matter of religious conscience.
The time was right for a change in this understanding. A majority of Mormon marriages had always been monogamous, and a shift toward monogamy as the only approved form had long been underway. In 1889, a lifelong monogamist was called to the Quorum of the Twelve; after 1897, every new Apostle called into the Twelve, with one exception, was a monogamist at the time of his appointment.44 Beginning in the 1890s, as Church leaders urged members to remain in their native lands and “build Zion” in those places rather than immigrate to Utah as in previous years, it became important for them to abide the laws mandating monogamy.
During his Senate testimony, President Smith promised publicly to clarify the Church’s position about plural marriage. At the April 1904 general conference, President Smith issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, attaching penalties to entering into plural marriage: “If any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage he will be deemed in transgression against the Church and will be liable to be dealt with according to the rules and regulations thereof and excommunicated therefrom.”45 This statement had been approved by the leading councils of the Church and was unanimously sustained at the conference as authoritative and binding on the Church.46
The Second Manifesto was a watershed event. For the first time, Church members were put on notice that new plural marriages stood unapproved by God and the Church. The Second Manifesto expanded the reach and scope of the first. “When [the Manifesto] was given,” Elder Francis M. Lyman, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, explained, “it simply gave notice to the Saints that they need not enter plural marriage any longer, but the action taken at the conference held in Salt Lake City on the 6th day of April 1904 [the Second Manifesto] made that manifesto prohibitory.”47
Church leaders acted to communicate the seriousness of this declaration to leaders and members at all levels. President Lyman sent letters to each member of the Quorum of the Twelve, by direction of the First Presidency, advising them that the Second Manifesto would be “strictly enforced.”48 Contrary to direction, two Apostles, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, continued to perform and encourage new plural marriages after the Second Manifesto. They were eventually dropped from the quorum.49 Taylor was later excommunicated from the Church after he insisted on his right to continue to perform plural marriages. Cowley was restricted from using his priesthood and later admitted that he had been “wholly in error.”50
Some couples who entered into plural marriage between 1890 and 1904 separated after the Second Manifesto, but many others quietly cohabited into the 1930s and beyond.51 Church members who rejected the Second Manifesto and continued to publicly advocate plural marriage or undertake new plural marriages were summoned to Church disciplinary councils. Some who were excommunicated coalesced into independent movements and are sometimes called fundamentalists. These groups are not affiliated with or supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since the administration of Joseph F. Smith, 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 disciplinary councils.
Marriage between one man and one woman is God’s standard for marriage, unless He declares otherwise, which He did through His prophet, Joseph Smith. The Manifesto marked the beginning of the return to monogamy, which is the standard of the Church today.52 Speaking at general conference soon after the Manifesto was given, President George Q. Cannon reflected on the revelatory process that brought the Manifesto about: “The Presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk,” he 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,” Cannon said, speaking of the First Presidency, “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.”53
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.