After First Manifesto, LDS internal debate over polygamy raged for a generation

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post click here.) In Official Declaration No. 1, found in the LDS scripture “Doctrine and Covenants,” then-Prophet Wilford W. Woodruff says, “…  I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” (Read) It’s taught today that the 1890 Manifesto ended polygamy within the LDS Church. That, however, is a pleasant fantasy. The debate over polygamy raged within the LDS Church’s hierarchy for another generation, and polygamous marriages were conducted, and sanctioned, within the church. The polygamy debate wasn’t settled until well into the 20th century, when two prominent apostles were harshly disciplined for not ceasing the practice.

The 1890 Manifesto was necessary as a means to end the federal government’s efforts to harm the church. In fact, for a while the church did not have control of its own funds, and it’s third prophet, John Taylor, had spent much of his tenure in hiding. As historian Kenneth L. Cannon notes in his excellent Sunstone article of 1983, a majority of the 12 Apostles, including President Woodruff, intended polygamy to continue. What the First Manifesto meant to most LDS Church leaders through much of the 1890s was that the primacy of United States law took precedence over the church’s mandate to have plural marriage. To Woodruff and others, particularly his First Counselor George Q. Cannon, polygamy could continue outside the United States.

An example of post-First Manifesto plural marriage at the highest degree of the church hierarchy involves LDS Apostle Abraham H. Cannon, a son of George Q. Cannon. Abraham Cannon, already a polygamist, married at least one more plural wife in the mid-1890s, and probably two. One of his marriages, to Lillian Hamlin in 1896, was followed shortly by his death. Nevertheless, Lillian managed to conceive, bearing a daughter named Marba, which is Abram spelled backwards. In an interesting footnote, Lillian, a future teacher at the Brigham Young Academy, would marry and become a polygamous wife to Lewis M. Cannon, one of Abraham’s cousins. (This information is gleaned from the introduction to the published diaries of Abraham Cannon, which is fascinating reading. Abraham Cannon was a remarkable man, who in his relatively short life was an energetic apostle, hustling church duties with journalism responsibilities, business dealings, both personal and church, and maintaining relationships with his plural families with the threat of federal arrest and prosecution always around.)

So, as Kenneth Cannon writes, from 1890 to 1898, a significant majority of Apostles and members of the First Presidency had “an active part in post-Manifesto polygamy.” Plural marriages, those allowed, were usually conducted in Mexico or Canada. One reason for the perpetuity of the practice was, as mentioned, that a majority of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles still supported polygamy as a church practice. Cannon cites this as one reason that plural marriage increased during the tenure of LDS Prophet Lorenzo Snow from September 1898 to October 1901, even though Snow, Woodruff’s successor, opposed continuing polygamy. As Cannon writes, “… President Snow privately expressed the same sentiments to Apostle Brigham Young Jr., stating he had never given his consent for plural marriage and adding ‘God has removed this privilege from the people.’”

When Joseph F. Smith assumed responsibilities as LDS leader in 1901, he maintained an approval for some polygamous marriages. That was not a surprise, as Smith had not been a vocal opponent of polygamy. Nevertheless, Joseph F. Smith is the LDS Church leader who essentially enforced a ban on polygamy, and made its practice an offense that would lead to excommunication.  On April 6, 1904, at LDS General Conference, President Smith said the following:

Inasmuch as there are numerous reports in circulation that plural marriages have been entered into, contrary to the official declaration of President Woodruff of September 24, 1890, commonly called the manifesto, which was issued by President Woodruff, and adopted by the Church at its general conference, October 6, 1890, which forbade any marriages violative of the law of the land, I, Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hereby affirm and declare that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanction, consent, or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“And I hereby announce that all such marriages are prohibited, and 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.”

This Second Manifesto was also published in the church’s official publication of that time, “The Improvement Era.” (read) Even this manifesto did not come close to ending internal debate over the legitimacy of polygamy. It continued through the decade, with its two strongest adherents being apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley. They led a faction that interpreted the Second Manifesto, as the First Manifesto, as only respecting U.S. law.

Nevertheless, polygamy’s days were numbered within the LDS Church. By 1911 both Taylor and Cowley were not only dropped from the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, but Cowley was disfellowshipped, which means he lost his LDS priesthood standing, and Taylor excommunicated, which is the maximum church punishment. (In 1936 Cowley’s priesthood was re-established. He died in 1940. In 1965, long after his death, Taylor was re-baptized posthumously and had his priesthood standing restored.)

So, what led to the eventual crackdown of polygamy in the LDS Church? As Kenneth Cannon notes in his article, attrition played a role. During the first decade of the 20th century, apostles who supported polygamy died, and Smith chose as replacements opponents of polygamy. By the end of the decade, the LDS Church hierarchy was strongly anti-polygamy.

But there was a bigger reason for President Joseph F. Smith to end polygamy. As Kenneth Cannon relates, LDS Apostle Reed Smoot, a monogamist, had been selected as U.S. senator from Utah. Polygamy threatened Smoot’s assumption of the Senate seat, which was considered of vital importance to Smith and other LDS leaders. Smoot was asking Smith and others to unseat Cowley and Taylor, and by mid-1906 they were gone from the Quorum. By 1907, and the death of apostle George Teasdale, there were no polygamy advocates left in the hierarchy.

Smoot’s ascension to the U.S. Senate was of such importance that President Joseph F. Smith, speaking to the U.S. Senate, provided testimony he must have known to be false, claiming that since the Woodruff Manifesto, “… there has never been, to my knowledge, a plural marriage performed with the understanding, instruction, connivance, counsel, or permission of the presiding authorities of the church, in any shape or form; and I know whereof I speak, gentlemen, in relation to that matter.” Such testimony, although skeptically received, helped Smoot survive efforts to deny him his senatorial seat. He would serve in the U.S. Senate until 1933.

In retrospect, it would have been impossible for polygamy, a practice entrenched in the Mormon church for nearly half-a-century, to have been instantly ended in 1890. It required a generation for attrition, changing times and church priorities to finally eradicate the principle.


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13 Responses to After First Manifesto, LDS internal debate over polygamy raged for a generation

  1. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Interesting, too–surprising, even–is the vitriol that past LDS Church leaders directed at monogamy, which (much like same-sex relations today) was blamed for the decline of civilization and loss of virtue.

    E.g., “…the one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people.”
    - Prophet John Taylor, Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 227

    But therein also lies good news. Feeling old, Doug? Take thee another wife. For “a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man.”

    Perhaps, like objections to interracial marriage and monogamy, Mormon doctrinal objections to equal rights for gays will require “a generation for attrition, changing times and church priorities to finally eradicate the principle.” And the claim that the principle would be eternal and unchanged will be rationalized, twisted, denied, or ignored.

  2. Bob Becker says:

    Re: Cowley. Shouldn’t date priesthood re-established be 1936 not 1836? Typo?

  3. Kusarigama says:

    Gregory. I do beleive that what you are saying is strictly wishful thinking.

  4. “And I hereby announce that all such marriages are prohibited, and 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.”

    Brigham Young said you are damned if you deny polygamy.
    “Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p. 266). Also, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 269).

    Which is it? Are you damned as a result of not supporting more that one wife? Or are you excommunicated for supporting more than one wife?

    • DougH says:

      Jacob 2:

      27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

      28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

      29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

      30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

      God’s take on polygamy seems to vary from an outright ban, to toleration, to almost commandment, depending on the situation.

      • First of all, what you quote above is not from the Bible.

        Second of all:

        Brigham Young said his discourses are as good as Scripture.
        “I say now, when they [my discourses] are copied and approved by me they are as good Scripture as is couched in this Bible . . . ” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 264; see also p. 95).

        Bringham Young claimed what he said was as good as Scripture.

        So, Bringham Young was lying, or he made a grave mistake. If he was wrong on polygamy, what else was he wrong on?

        • DougH says:

          First, of course I quoted from the Book of Mormon, the issue is LDS view of polygamy.

          As for Brigham Young, you don’t want to get too excited about his statements, his standard mode of expression seems to have involved copious amounts of exclamation points. How seriously he took his own infallibility in practice is demonstrated by the fact that he got into an extended theological debate with at least three of his apostles, lost, and not only did they continue to act as apostles but one of them was his successor.

          • How serious are you about Bringham Young? He was the second prophet of the Mormon religion, wasn’t he? For a person to say that his words are the same as God’s is pretty lofty.

          • Poqui says:

            @Downtown Dave – It is not uncommon for the “living” Church of Christ to evolve and grow, hence the term “living” as opposed to “dead.” Brigham Young’s words were superseded by a successor. The living prophet has the last word over a dead one. This is the pattern that is found in the Bible.

  5. V says:

    I always find this hand wringing over polygamy a little silly. Of course it took some time for the practice to end; there were real people with real families involved. The Word of Wisdom was not officially Church policy until many years after its inception, but I don’t see a lot of hand wringing or doubting if the Church is true over that.

    And as to the comparison to homosexuality and same sex marriage, well, if you can figure out “secret option #3″ to allow same sex marriage and homosexuality to be not a sin in this life, but somehow not in force in the eternities, then you’ve got a start. Essentially, both Manifestos are “Secret Option #3s.” Polygamy is a tenet of Mormon Doctrine; that’s why it was fought for for so long and so hard. Most members could not see how the Church could remain true to its doctrine and abandon the practice. They were right. I find “Secret Option #3″ nothing short of a miracle (and to me a testament to the truthfulness of the Church) because it allows the doctrine to stand, while altering its practice in this life.

  6. Neal Cassidy says:

    @Poqui If the LDS president is a living seer and revelator and receives messages from God why would his words be superseded by a successor? Who was wrong in his proclamations? God, who speaks to the prophet or the prophet who relays the word of God?

  7. Lasvegasrichard says:

    All I see is a whole lot of lying for The Lord . Either that or God is a chronic liar . Who would any sane person believe ?

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