(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.