First major 19th century legal tussle over Mormon polygamy occurred in England

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). Most of us are aware of the many challenges, legally and legislatively, to the Mormon practice of polygamy in the U.S. during the 19th century. Fewer people are aware that polygamy was addressed by an English court in 1866. In the winter 1982 edition of Brigham Young University Studies, historian Kenneth Cannon II, in “A Strange Encounter: The English Courts and Mormon Polygamy,” provides an interesting overview of Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee, a divorce case which led to a precedent that survived in England for more than a century.

The plaintiff, John Hyde Jr., is a fascinating person. Although barely an historical footnote today in Mormon history, Hyde was an 1848 British convert to Mormonism, — age 15 — who served a mission to France three years later, In 1853 he traveled to Utah, was rebaptized (a not uncommon occurrence,) “and married Lavinia Hawkins, to whom he had been betrothed while they both lived in England,” writes Cannon.

Not much later, Hyde received his Mormon endowments. Frankly, over the next few years, little is known about Hyde’s life. According to Lynn Watkins Jorgensen, who wrote “John Hyde Jr., Mormon Renegade,” for the Journal of Mormon History, Volume 17, Hyde and his wife, Lavinia, had one child. The family suffered financially, with Hyde earning little sums teaching school and dabbling in merchandising. According to Cannon, Hyde contacted LDS Apostle Orson Pratt, informing him he had lost his faith. Perhaps as a remedy for his doubts, Hyde was called on an 1856 mission to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Surprisingly, Cannon notes, Hyde accepted.

It seems, though, that the mission acceptance was not sincere. Once Hyde arrived in Hawaii, he established himself as an active opponent to Mormonism, preaching against the Mormon missionary efforts. He shortly returned to the U.S. and continued proselyting against Mormonism. It would be fascinating to learn the catalyst for his change of heart with Mormonism. By all accounts, he was a far better opponent of Mormonism than he had ever been as an LDS missionary. In 1857, Hyde wrote and published “Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs.” The book, which can be read online today, is a particularly harsh attack on the church. It’s best known as being the earliest book to reveal the secret — sacred to Mormons — LDS endowment ceremony. Hyde also wrote articles against Mormonism for newspapers, including the New York Herald. His published suggestions on dealing with the Mormons included establishing martial law in Utah, invading Utah, putting a bounty on the head of Brigham Young and deporting polygamists. Hyde described Mormons as “thieves, villains and murderers,” according to Watkins Jorgensen.

Even before his book was published, Hyde was excommunicated by the LDS Church. Mormon Apostle Heber C. Kimball also publicly divorced Hyde from his wife, Lavinia, who had remained faithful to the church. It was not unusual for LDS leaders to “divorce” married couples from the pulpit or by declaration. As Cannon notes, in 1899 the Utah Supreme Court would rule these “divorce decrees” as invalid.

After Hyde failed to convince his wife to leave Mormonism and join him in England, he settled in England, working as a newspaper editor, and a minister of Swedenborgian beliefs, a Christian sect that followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian who claimed to have witnessed many near-death experiences. According to Watkins Jorgensen’s article, Hyde also wrote an unpublished novel, heavily biographical, that claimed to be an expose of a family, in which lovely young women who joined the LDS Church and traveled to Utah were forced into polygamous marriage with Brigham Young, John Taylor and Heber C. Kimball.

In 1866, Hyde made a decision to sue — in British court — his former wife, now remarried in Utah and named Lavinia Woodmansee, for divorce, charging her with adultery. Why Hyde chose to seek a divorce is still puzzling. The journalist in me thinks Hyde, who had a record of vociferously tub-thumping anti-Mormonism, was seeking the publicity that would accompany such a high-profile lawsuit. Cannon offers the possibility that Hyde reasonably surmised that his divorce from Lavinia was not binding. Watkins Jorgensen speculates that he may have remained hurt from his failure to convince his former wife to leave Mormonism. In any event, Hyde wanted, and expected I’m sure, a formal dissolution of his marriage. He would be surprised at the eventual outcome.

As Cannon relates, during the divorce trial, Hyde told the judge, Sir James O. Wilde, of his life with Mormonism, his changing opinions, and related the history of his marriage, which he testified had been monogamous. A witness for Hyde, former Mormon Frederick Piercy, once married to his ex-wife’s sister, supported Hyde’s claim that he had never engaged in polygamy.

(I digress here to provide an example — courtesy of Cannon’s article — of the intense London press coverage of Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee. “On 22 March of that year The [London] Times related: ‘It is a strange fact that no case should have arisen on the validity of Mormon marriages before that of ‘Hyde v. Hyde,” which came before the Divorce Court in January last. So many young women have been tempted or entrapped into abandoning English homes for the half or third part of a husband at the Salt Lake City, and have since found reason to rue their infatuation that we can only explain the entire absence of precedents on the subject by supposing that few are happy enough to retrace their steps across the wastes that divide the Mormon paradise from Christendom.”)

It’s not surprising, nor unreasonable, for 19th century courts or newspapers, or other organizations to view polygamy as criminal sexual immorality, rather than accede to the LDS doctrinal belief of earthly marriages and children leading to greater heavenly glory after death. Mormon doctrine, while widely available then on friendly presses, were not often read by anyone other than the faithful. The resolution of Hyde’s case, though, was convoluted and ultimately, unsatisfactory to Hyde. Judge Wilde was as disgusted by polygamy as anyone else, so much so that he refused to acknowledge any marriage in Utah as being valid, despite Hyde’s barrister’s careful arguments that any monogamist marriage, in Utah or elsewhere, should be legal in England. Judge Wilde disagreed. As Cannon writes, “Wilde decided that the central question of the case was not whether Hyde was in fact a polygamist; rather, it was whether polygamy was recognized in Utah where the marriage had taken place.” As a result, Judge Wilde considered Hyde’s marriage as “potentially polygamous.” Because Hyde’s marriage clashed with Christian values, Judge Wilde ruled that it was not recognized in England and therefore was not eligible for a divorce ruling.

The decision, Cannon noted, hampered any couple married in a polygamous nation for scores of years. It left Hyde in an unenviable situation, “denied matrimonial relief by the English court,” writes Cannon. Although England considered his marriage not worthy of a divorce decree, Judge Wilde had made it clear that his decision did not “decide upon the rights of succession or legitimacy which it might be proper to accord to the issue of polygamous unions, nor upon the rights or obligations in relation to third persons which people living under the sanction of such unions may have created for themselves.”

As Cannon sums up the case, “Hyde was left in a kind of marital limbo. The marriage could not be dissolved in England and had probably not been legally dissolved in Utah. … He was married technically yet could not get a divorce in England despite his wife’s second marriage.”

Hyde, lived only seven years after his attempt at divorce, dying in 1876 at age 43. According to Watkins Jorgensen, he lived a respectable life as a Swedenborgian minister in England, writing “several books and pamphlets” on the subject. Lavinia Hawkins Hyde Woodmansee died on April 28, 1910.


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7 Responses to First major 19th century legal tussle over Mormon polygamy occurred in England

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Seems to me if the judge declared his marriage invalid, that’s a de facto divorce after all, at least in England.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      No, it wasn’t. The decision refused to take a position on the legitimacy of the marriage outside of England. It merely stated that England would not regard it as compatible with its particular Christian definition of marriage.

  2. The same god who told Joseph Smith to introduce polygamy was the same who told him to preach a different gospel than Paul preached in the Apostolic letters. Joseph Smith was not right on either one of these.

  3. Dan Maloy says:

    Why all the contention over Mormon polygamy?, something that ended over 100 yrs ago. As a Christian I have never understood all the hypocritical hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over this. The King James version of the Bible is EXTREMELY clear that the prophet Abraham as well as King David (yes, the guy that killed Goliath) both practiced polygamy that (shock!) was sanctioned by God. Shouldn’t we, as God’s children do what God commands us to do? How is it right and moral for us to have God yield to OUR demands? If God commands us to practice polygmay, is it not right to do it? If God commands us to stop practicing polygamy, is it not right to do that, too? Was Abraham wrong and full of sin in being willing to offer his only son, Isaac, to God as a blood sacrifice? Wasn’t Abraham’s heart full of ‘murder’? Of course not. What God commands is ALWAYS right. To think anything else is rubbish. Anti-Mormons can claim what they want til the cows come home, but early Latter-day Saints didn’t practice polygamy for sexual lust, but to care for the widowed and fatherless as well as to build up the kingdom of God. Period. If modern-day Christians don’t like the fact that Mormons practiced polygamy over 100 yrs ago maybe their ancestors shouldn’t have killed so many Mormon men in the 1800′s. ‘downtown dave’ can say what he wants about Joseph Smith but that doesn’t make it true. As for me, dave….”praise to the man who communed with Jehova!”

    • Lasvegasrichard says:

      I’m afraid your Mormon history needs some serious polishing . The reasoning you have for polygamy in Abraham and then David’s time is exactly the opposite for Mormons in BY’s time . Show us some of this widowed and fatherless vs sexual gratification starting with JS . Abraham , David , and Solomon on the other hand could reasonably make the other claims . Still trying to figure out where this mans endowment was performed in that time frame .

  4. Eric says:

    Easy on the kool aid Danny boy.

  5. Pingback: Polygamy Timeline | Exploring Mormonism

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