History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
Confronting the Skeletons
A characteristic of almost any institution’s handling of its experience and traditions is the effort to sanitize certain aspects of its history. We tidy up the record. We put shiny new shoes on feet of clay and fashionable clothes upon skeletons which will not stay forgotten in the closet of the past.
We Latter-day Saints do so in interesting ways. I have never seen a pictorial representation of the first vision in which Joseph Smith was wearing a frayed or dirty shirt, in which he had uncombed hair, or in which there was dirt on his bare feet. I am mildly intrigued by the fact that, despite our doctrinal understanding that the suffering of the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane caused him to bleed profusely, no pictures of scenes associated with the betrayal show his garments stained with blood. These trivial details—white and clean images—illustrate what we commonly do in the process of representing ideally the things which are important to us.
These are small matters, easy to dismiss. However, when we deal with embarrassing or difficult episodes, the sanitizing takes on more significance, especially if people begin depending on the sanitized version to protect their values and commitments.
Two illustrations of the sanitizing process in Mormon history are the traditional treatments of the Mountain Meadows massacre and of plural marriage.
The Mountain Meadows massacre is difficult to idealize. The most utilitarian approach, institutionally speaking, is to forget about [p.90] it, and the Mormon people have tried hard to do so. In recent times, historians with their musty documents—primarily an historian named Juanita Brooks—have helped us to confront an embarrassing, tragic episode in our collective past. The process has been beneficial.
The Mountain Meadows massacre occurred in southwestern Utah, west of Cedar City on 11 September 1857. The Fancher party, about 137 California-bound immigrants (mostly from Arkansas, some from Missouri), were attacked by a group of white settlers and Indians in such a fashion that only seventeen young children survived. Units of the local militia were involved along with Paiute Indians more or less indigenous to the area. The whites were Latter-day Saints.
A myth quickly developed, for obvious reasons. It went so far in the direction of falsehood that in 1890, when Hubert Howe Bancroft published his History of Utah (San Francisco: The History Company, 1890), relying almost exclusively on Utah Mormon sources, he wrote: “This horrible crime … was the crime of an individual, the crime of a fanatic of the worst stamp, one who was a member of the ‘Mormon Church,’ but of whose intentions the Church knew nothing, and whose bloody acts, the members of the Church, high and low, regard with as much abhorrence as any out of the Church” (p.544).
The course of myth development had by then placed the blame for this tragic action upon one man, John D. Lee, whom I learned as a boy to regard as a renegade. I knew nothing else about him except that ultimately he paid with his life for his crime.
What changed in the half-century after Bancroft? Very little. Many editions of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1950) expressed the institutional version of the crime. This is the way it stood when I began teaching history at BYU: “It was the deed of enraged Indians aided by a number of white men, who took vengeance into their hands for wrongs committed by a few of the emigrants who were pronounced enemies of both whites and Indians.… For several years the facts relating to the tragedy were unknown, but gradually the truth leaked out and an investigation was made of the affair. John D. Lee was excommunicated from the Church with the injunction from President Young that under no circumstances should he ever be admitted as a member again. Action was also taken against others as the truth [p.91] became known. In later years Lee was convicted of the crime and paid the penalty with his life.… Others who were implicated fled from the territory and died fugitives. While they thus evaded the justice which earthly tribunals might inflict, they still await the trial for their crimes before a Higher Court where justice never fails” (pp. 510, 516-17). Lee is the only individual named in this account.
It is now clear that institutional self-interest had created a scapegoat and minimized the entire affair. The horror of Mountain Meadows had been hidden in a myth-closet, as family skeletons are often concealed.
How does one recover this bit of the past “as it really happened”? Juanita Brooks showed how in her book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, which came out in 1950 from Stanford University Press and in 1962 in a revised edition from the University of Oklahoma Press. It is still the primary reference.
Brooks’s documentation is a fine example of historical detective work. She went to the records of people who were around at the time, insofar as they could be found. One can understand that those directly involved did not write extensive memoirs. Helpful on many topics and particularly on this are the diaries of John D. Lee, which Brooks found and published. The first of the two published volumes provides some circumstantial evidence, but the events at Mountain Meadows are not recorded. Later, under the impetus of a feeling of betrayal and the immediate prospect of execution, Lee described the event in a confessional volume which is also helpful. Using these and other sources listed in her extensive bibliographies, Brooks wrote a full-length biography of Lee, John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1962), which establishes that he was not “a fanatic of the worst stamp” but an important builder of pioneer Utah.
In looking at what happened from an historian’s perspective, I acknowledge my indebtedness to Juanita Brooks, whom I heard describe the massacre at the site some years ago. What she did, and what I think the historical reconstruction of any mythologized past event should do, is to help us see more accurately what happened and even more importantly to help us understand why.
We are dealing with people like ourselves, people who do not change very much from one generation to another in terms of capacity to be excited, to be depressed, to become fighting mad, or to rise [p.92] to heroic achievements. The Mormons of southern Utah in 1857 were as capable as we of high aspirations and abysmal shortfalls.
One of the background factors which helps to explain the massacre is the strong millennialism then influencing the Latter-day Saints. They felt that the time was very short, that the prophesied apocalypse was very near, and that the forces of God and the forces of evil were locked in combat. This expectation tended to convert many worldly contacts into “we-they” confrontations.
A second factor is the early Mormon response to persecution—of which there had been plenty, some brutal. Most of it was no more justified than other instances of religious persecution, past or present. The LDS response was not, in every instance, to follow the admonition, “If a man smite thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” A remarkable expression of the contrary reaction is found in Sidney Rigdon’s famous 4th of July sermon, delivered shortly before the Saints were driven from Missouri under an exterminating order from the governor of the state. At the time Rigdon was a counselor in the First Presidency. Here is Rigdon’s language: “But from this day and this hour we will suffer it no more. We take God and all the holy angels to witness, this day, that we warn all men, in the name of Jesus Christ to come on us no more for ever, for from this hour we will bear it no more; our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity; the man, or the set of men who attempt it, do it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us, it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them until the last drop of their blood is spilled; or else they will have to exterminate us, for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses and their own families and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.”1
It is arguable, and church historian B. H. Roberts does so, that Rigdon’s rhetoric got the best of him. One thing which historians learn, however, is that people act upon what they believe to be the case, not upon what a calm, clinical, after-the-fact analysis shows the case to be. As in Missouri, so in southern Utah nineteen years later, some Latter-day Saints responded to provocation in ways less than praiseworthy.2
Another factor operating in 1857 was the recent Mormon Reformation, a time of revitalization in which the Saints had been called to recommit to their covenants and had been reminded of the great blessings the Lord had promised for the impending millennial day.[p.93] The emotional content of their testimonies had been rekindled through rebaptism, reconfirmation, and sometimes electrifying exhortations.
Now they were in the opening stages of the Utah War. At the very time the Mountain Meadows massacre occurred, Captain Stewart Van Vliet was three hundred miles north in Salt Lake City, trying to negotiate for supplies for the United States Army which was coming west with a new territorial governor. Van Vliet was told by Governor Brigham Young that the army would not be welcome, would not be supplied, and should not enter Utah. The people of the various settlements were instructed not to sell supplies to the emigrants, as had been their money-making custom in recent years, but to conserve them for the crisis to come. They were also admonished to maintain the good will of the Indians, lest these native Americans join the government forces in opposition.
All of these factors affected the Mormon settlers who confronted the Fancher company.
The historian will also take into account the nature of the emigrants. The Fancher party was a mixture of stable and unstable characters, some of whom were Missourians who apparently did not hesitate to voice their negative opinions of the Mormons. The Fancher party was the first group in 1857 to take the southern route to California. Not meeting the warm welcome they had evidently expected, some of the travelers responded in ways that merely served to provoke the white and red populations of central and southern Utah. The company stopped at Mountain Meadows to let their livestock rest before crossing arid Nevada and southern California. By the time the company arrived in southern Utah, local Indians were eager to run off the emigrants’ cattle and do other mischief; the Fancher party was uneasy.
The local Mormons were, of course, watching the course of events, anxious not to become the odd party in a three-sided confrontation. Consultation among secular and religious figures from Cedar City and surrounding communities involved Colonel William H. Dame, the commander of the Nauvoo Legion (the territorial militia), Isaac C. Haight, the stake president, and Bishop Phillip Klingensmith. John D. Lee, the man designated to teach farming to the Indians, was not present in these first discussions.
On Monday, 7 September, the local Paiutes appeared ready to attack the camp, and they wanted their Mormon friends to help [p.94] them. James Haslam was assigned to ride to Salt Lake City and get Brigham Young’s advice. He made the round trip in six days, but by then it was two days too late to implement Young’s instructions to let the emigrants pass.
The Indians attacked, inflicting and receiving some casualties. The emigrants then attempted to send out a party to get help from Cedar City. This three-man party was attacked as it tried to get away from the camp and one member was killed. White men were with the Indians when this occurred. Now the question in Cedar City was, “What if the two men who fled back into the camp (and were later killed by Indians as they tried to escape to California) had reported that there were whites as well as Indians besieging the camp?” A critical discussion in which John D. Lee participated concluded that action could not wait. The emigrants must not be permitted to go.
The scheme was carried out the next morning—Friday, 11 September. Lee and two other members of the Nauvoo Legion went into the Fancher camp under a flag of truce and persuaded them to ground their arms and accept an escort into Cedar City. The children were put into a wagon which was led out first. The women and several wounded men were put into a wagon that moved out second. Each of the emigrant men then walked out, unarmed and accompanied by an armed member of the legion. Lee gave the signal and Indians fell upon the second wagon, killing the women and the wounded. Each of the militia men was supposed to shoot the man he was guarding or get out of the way and let the Indians do it. Within a few minutes the deed was done. Only seventeen of the younger children remained, ultimately to be sent back to relatives in Arkansas about a year and a half later.
One of the most revealing episodes in this whole affair is described in Brooks’s account: “On the same Sunday morning, September 13, John D. Lee, with a large band of Indians loaded with loot from the massacre, arrived back at Fort Harmony. Entering the gates, they rode around the center of the fort, their tinware jangling and the bundles of clothing tied awkwardly; they rode around once and stopped while the Indians gave their whoop of victory, and Lee declared loudly, ‘Thanks be to the Lord God of Israel, who has this day delivered our enemies into our hands'” (p. 139).
This was not the comment of a rabid fanatic, acting alone. John D. Lee was an adopted son of Brigham Young. He had sixteen [p.95] wives and was a member of the church in good standing. He became, after the event, a branch president in Fort Harmony and served in that capacity for several years.
The Mountain Meadows massacre was a community mistake, made under stress. It led the participants to take an oath of secrecy that none would ever tell of his or anyone else’s part. It was a conspiracy which came to be shared by the larger LDS community as awareness of the event gradually spread.
What followed? In 1859 Klingensmith and Haight were released from their church positions. By then Judge John Cradlebaugh, one of the new federal officials, was trying to get someone prosecuted, it having become common knowledge that the Indians had not acted alone. In 1861 Brigham Young finally visited the site. Apostle Wilford Woodruff recorded his reaction: “We visited the Mountain Meadow Monument put up at the burial place of 120 persons killed by Indians in 1857. The pile of stone was about 12 feet high, but beginning to tumble down. A wooden cross was placed on top with the following words: Vengeance is mine and I will repay saith the Lord. President Young said it should be Vengeance is mine and I have taken a little.”3
In 1864 John D. Lee was persuaded to resign as branch president, and six years later he and Isaac Haight were excommunicated. Klingensmith disaffected from the church and later became a witness against Lee. In 1874 Haight was reinstated to church membership, while Lee, who had been advised to hide, was at Lonely Dell—now Lee’s Ferry—on the Colorado River. Shortly thereafter he came up to southern Utah, was arrested, had two trials, and was executed at Mountain Meadows in 1877.
The first edition of Juanita Brooks’s book, as previously noted, was published in 1950. When the second edition appeared twelve years later, it contained this interesting addendum: “For more than a hundred years, the families of John D. Lee have borne the opprobrium of the massacre alone. For that reason, they have welcomed every effort to probe the question; certainly no truth could be worse than the stories to which they were subjected. Now they have special cause to rejoice, for on April 20, 1961, the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met in joint council, and: ‘It was the action of the Council after considering all the facts available that authorization be given for the [p.96] reinstatement to membership and former blessings to John D. Lee'” (p. 223).
At least in this instance, setting the historical record straight resulted in righting an historic injustice, because if one of the participants merited excommunication, so did many.
By no means the least disconcerting thing about the de-mythologizing of this tragic affair is the demonstration that initially there was a cover-up. At first no one knew anything. Then as bits and pieces began to be discovered by Judge Cradlebaugh and others who were trying to attach blame to Brigham Young, from an institutional point of view it became a matter of damage control. It is virtually impossible to see what happened to John D. Lee in other terms than that “it is better that one man should perish.…” No one but Lee was ever tried. Once he had paid the price, the matter was just dropped. Federal anti-polygamy legislation was entering the enforcement stage, and the menace of polygamic theocracy displaced the massacre as the major concern of federal officials.
Let us turn now to the de-mythologizing of plural marriage.4
For a long time after we Mormons abandoned polygamy and decided, in connection with that retreat, to minimize conflict with the world, we played down this aspect of our institutional history. I was a collegian when I learned for the first time that the current president of the church, Heber J. Grant, had been a polygamist. The discovery did not shake my faith, but it did surprise me.
The historical myths prevalent at the time I represented the church in the mission field (1939-41) went something like this:
It is true that at one time 2 to 3 percent of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy. They practiced it because a surplus of women needed to be provided for in a frontier environment. At the time there was no law against it. When such a law was passed, because Mormons believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law, the practice was discontinued.
From the historian’s perspective, that abbreviated version is wrong on all counts.
Consider first the extent of plural marriage. Contemporary estimates and some of the best reconstructions based on census and genealogical data suggest that at least 20 percent (and probably more)[p.97] of the general Mormon population were members of polygamous families—as fathers, mothers, and/or children—at the time and in the areas where plural marriage was practiced. Nels Anderson years ago counted heads in the St. George area; more recently Ben Bennion has made a more sophisticated analysis of census and church records from Dixie and other Utah locations, finding the incidence as high as 50 percent in places.5 Thus if at least one-fourth to one-fifth of the total Mormon population was in polygamous family units, then that was the extent of plural marriage, not 2-3 percent.
To say next that husbands comprised only about 3 percent of the Mormon polygamous population may not stretch the truth quite so much, but it gives a false impression nonetheless. For if one notes that the incidence of plural marriage increases as one moves up the hierarchy toward the positions at the top, it becomes clear that this was no “fringe” activity. Indeed, participating in “the principle” was virtually a requirement for being a General Authority in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. It was regarded by most participants as obligatory.
Again, if one bears in mind that during the 1880s the church overwhelmingly supported a program of civil disobedience—of defiance or evasion of the laws against plural marriage—the importance of the institution is clear. It was important enough to sacrifice for, important enough to keep Utah from statehood for thirty years after the population was sufficient for admission. There were other considerations, but plural marriage was the most conspicuous and significant single factor which kept Utah out of the Union until 1896.
Consider now the origin of plural marriage. There are questions and problems in broad areas of religion for which documents do not provide answers. Nevertheless, getting into the documents helps to bring people together on the kinds of church-related truth which documents can establish. Historians have established to almost everyone’s satisfaction that plural marriage did begin with Joseph Smith and was not Brigham Young’s invention. In 1982, at a meeting of the John Whitmer Historical Society, the historian of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints acknowledged Joseph Smith’s initiating role, reversing a position which was for many years a central RLDS tenet.6 There remains a small controversy about whether Smith may have decided before his death that this doctrinal innovation was so troublesome that it should be abandoned. Some [p.98] people now take that position, as the founders of the RLDS church did for some years after the death of the prophet.
The origin of plural marriage goes back to the Ohio period, when the concept apparently engaged Joseph Smith’s attention in connection with the revising work he was doing on the Old Testament. It was sufficiently discussed to give rise by 1835 to an item which used to be in the Doctrine and Covenants—a statement on marriage denying that Latter-day Saints had anything to do with notions of polygamy. There is persuasive evidence that Joseph Smith took Fanny Alger as his first plural wife in Kirtland about 1835.7
In Nauvoo the private teaching began—or was resumed—and marriages were performed in secret in connection with the new doctrines and ordinances associated with the temple. Both teaching and practice began within an inner circle of the prophet’s associates before the written revelation now known as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants was read to the Nauvoo high council and a few others in 1843. The document was produced primarily “to convince Emma,” who only intermittently came to terms with plural marriage. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, writing in Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1984, pp. 266, 272, 307, 309), suggest that she probably never knew the extent of her husband’s involvement in the practice. Later she flatly denied that he had any. By the time her son, Joseph III, came into the leadership of the Reorganized church, he took the same position. Whether that was based on his mother’s testimony or a transformation in his own thinking is impossible to determine.
By the time of the prophet’s death, a number of leading men and women were in polygamous unions. Many men and women who came to accept this “celestial law” did so after severe struggles. The innovation came not without pain, even as—a half century later—it departed not without pain. Some church leaders rejected the doctrine, and this was one of the factors which led to the Nauvoo Expositor and the events at Carthage.
Before the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846, many temple ordinances were performed, many sealings took place, and many polygamous marriages were contracted. At Winter Quarters the practice of plural marriage was more open. By the time the pioneers reached Utah, it was sufficiently public to become an object of remark among non-Mormons passing through. Criticism by non-Mormon judges, [p.99] journalists, and others prompted the announcement and first public defense of the doctrine and practice in 1852.
The earlier public denials of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and others stemmed, in my view, from the same expedient considerations that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre cover-up. How else can one account for a man like future LDS church president John Taylor, who had several wives in the Great Basin, saying in France as late as 1850 that the Latter-day Saints did not practice or believe in polygamy? In a proselyting situation, which is essentially a “we-they” situation, one looks for “they” people who are amenable to becoming “we” people. It is a battle against the Devil. One might square his own conscience by reasoning: What we are doing—celestial marriage—is not what the legal prohibitions have in mind or what people mean when they ask about it. If they knew what we know, they would not object to what we are doing. Since they do not, we have to deal with them in terms of their own baser values and understandings.
Let us consider next the “why” question—the arguments advanced to explain and justify plural marriage.8
The argument most commonly used in the mythologized, apologetic version is that in a frontier community women need somebody to look after them, and where a surplus of women exists, polygamy is a practical way of doing so. It rests the Mormon commitment to plural marriage on pragmatic social grounds.
This argument was not used when polygamy was going on.
It would have been totally irrelevant to the Ohio and Illinois periods of church development, where economic support was not a factor in plural relationships. It was not entirely relevant later on, since in the pioneer west Latter-day Saint women contributed substantially to their own keep. Their husbands were often absent on missions or other church calls, and they looked after themselves and their children, sometimes with help from relatives and church sources. The Victorian image of the dependent wife, helpless without a breadwinner, does not fit most polygamous families—or monogamous families, for that matter—of nineteenth-century Mormonism, so it is not surprising that the social support argument was not used.
When Orson Pratt gave the first full-fledged sermon explaining and justifying the doctrine, he presented themes which were amplified over the years by many LDS writers and speakers. These arguments treated plural marriage as an aspect of celestial, eternal marriage, [p.100] intended to provide a worthy husband for every worthy woman. In this context there was a surplus of women in early Mormonism, even though no territorial census ever showed a surplus of females in Utah. In more than one sermon Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others reproached some of the young priesthood holders for not “squaring their shoulders” and doing their duty by marrying “the daughters of Zion.” Then—as now—there were apparently more women worthy of exaltation than partners for them.
A frequently mentioned contemporary justification for plural marriage started with the question which led Joseph Smith to become interested in the first place: Why did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs of the Old Testament have polygamous families if monogamy is the Lord’s way? Joseph Smith came to the understanding, as he stated, that these men were blessed because of their righteousness and that the patriarchal order was approved of God anciently and would be part of the restoration.
Some of the theological implications of celestial marriage which were taught and applied in the Nauvoo period were de-emphasized or discontinued later. These included the adopting and sealing of rank-and-file members into the families of leaders of the church, as John D. Lee was sealed to Brigham Young. They also included the sealing of deceased single women to such leaders. Wilford Woodruff’s journal details how, on his seventieth birthday, he was accompanied through the new St. George Temple by 154 women, young and old, who received the endowment as proxies for 130 of his deceased wives and twenty-four “near relatives” who were being “added to this list of wives.”9
As set forth in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, entry into plural marriage is discretionary, rather than mandatory, for a holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood. If he elects to do so, then assent by his wife, or wives, is obligatory; Emma Smith’s particular duty is spelled out in detail. From a privilege initially restricted to those who enjoyed the confidence of the prophet, it soon became, however, an obligation—almost a commandment—for members who were judged worthy to accept it. As outside opposition developed, entering into polygamy or taking additional wives became a way of validating one’s testimony or of establishing one’s fitness for prominent church offices. As more than one Utah territorial delegate pointed out in arguing against anti-polygamy legislation, the passing of laws [p.101] would stimulate rather than discourage the practice. There is evidence of upsurges in the number of plural marriages at such times, at least until the mid-1880s.
Consider next the circumstances surrounding the discontinuance of plural marriage. It was a protracted, painful process.
Public opposition to Mormon polygamy began as early as 1835. It continued intermittently and then incessantly, reaching a crescendo in the 1880s. Neither the Woodruff Manifesto prohibiting polygamy nor the statehood of Utah brought it to an end. On the contrary, between 1903 and 1907 there was an extended attempt to prevent Apostle Reed Smoot from being seated in the United States Senate on the grounds that he was a polygamist (which he was not) and that he belonged to an organization which was still secretly encouraging polygamy. When that effort failed, the hue and cry gradually died down, but when I was a missionary a generation later it was still a weapon in the anti-Mormon arsenal.
With regard to the legal status of polygamy, in the states where most of the Mormons lived up to 1847, it would have been perceived as a violation of the law. Ohio and Illinois both had laws against bigamy. When Congress undertook to deal with the subject in 1862, it passed an anti-bigamy act. To the Latter-day Saints there were substantial differences between bigamy and plural marriage, but as they were to discover later, the courts were not prepared to recognize these differences.
In Utah territory the first legal impediment to plural marriage was the Morrill Act of 1862. It was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, six years after the first Republican presidential platform called on Congress to prohibit in the territories “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” (For people in our own generation who have come to regard being a Republican as one of the primary attributes of a good Latter-day Saint, it may be humbling to recall that between 1856 and 1896, the Republicans were far more zealous in crusading against our religion than their Democratic counterparts. Many of the Democrats came from the South, where all proposals to reconstruct the customs, lifestyle, and politics of local communities were resisted.)
Once an antipolygamy law was on the books, the position of the Latter-day Saints was that it was unconstitutional, inhibiting that free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Article of the Bill of [p.102] Rights. That position was maintained until 1875, when George Reynolds, President Young’s secretary, agreed to be the guinea pig in a test case. (Brigham Young died while the case was in the courts, still convinced in his own mind, I believe, that the Constitution would protect his people in this exercise of their faith.)
In 1879 a unanimous Supreme Court held that the Mormon view was wrong. The judges ruled that the Bill of Rights protects freedom of religious belief but not religious practice. One cannot, the court said, use religion as a justification for something that the law could prohibit if it were not done under that cloak. In India, for example, the ritual burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands was commonplace until the British undertook to prohibit it; surely they were right in so doing. Since polygamy was antithetical to nineteenth-century Western civilization, Congress had the right to prohibit it, and the claim of religion did not protect it.
One may speculate on what might have been the fate of the Reynolds case if it had come to the court a hundred years later, but the court, like the court of American public opinion, was then of a single mind. During the next ten or twelve years, the Supreme Court upheld a whole series of measures which Congress and some territorial legislatures adopted to make Mormon polygamists and their church give up this un-American practice. The territory of Idaho went so far as to prohibit all Mormons from voting, with no judicial objection. In 1890 Congress debated a similar measure for Utah; it would bar Latter-day Saints from voting on the ground that they belonged to a conspiratorial organization which was subverting the laws.
Between 1879, when the Supreme Court stripped the Saints of their constitutional defense, and 1890, when the Woodruff Manifesto formally discontinued new plural marriages, what happened? Did it take eleven long years for the court’s message to reach Utah and trigger the response mandated by the Eleventh Article of Faith? On the contrary, the position which the church took was one of civil disobedience. Standing with Joshua of old, President John Taylor declared that he and his house would obey the law of God. He went to his grave in 1887 as a fugitive from the law, not having moved from that position. Following his counsel, about 1,300 Latter-day Saints were convicted of unlawful cohabitation or other polygamy-related offenses, and most of them did time in the territorial penitentiary. Some 12,000 Mormon men and women were disfranchised because they were [p.103] polygamists, and all the Mormon women lost the franchise which they had exercised since 1870.10
Almost every LDS family with a pioneer heritage has some cherished tales of “the Underground,” where avoidance of the law was an enterprise enlisting the talents—and conspiratorial silence—of young and old. Wilford Woodruff, writing to one of his wives from a hiding place near St. George, advised, “If the marshals come, tell them nothing but the truth, and no more of that than is necessary.” People do such things when they confront a crisis of conscience.
The price of civil disobedience was high, and changes in perception and differences in opinion appeared among the Saints as the 1880s took their heavy toll. Some polygamists settled for a fine in exchange for a guilty plea and pledge to obey the law in the future. Others, including members of the church hierarchy, began exploring to see if Utah could somehow achieve statehood and if the government would settle for an end to plural marriages without requiring termination of the relationships already in existence. The territorial judges were saying, without Supreme Court objection, that the only acceptable form of compliance was denying the existence of such bonds. It was not enough to avoid sexual association with the women or even to stop supporting them. Public renunciation was required, at least during the mid-1880s when the judicial crusade was being pursued with greatest fervor.
Under the last of the federal laws, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, the property of the LDS church was forfeited to the U.S. government to be used for the public schools of the territory, and a dozen other pressures and penalties were brought to bear. Efforts finally reached the critical point in 1890. The president of the church—recording in his diary that he felt, after prayer and inspiration, impelled to act for the preservation of the church—issued the Woodruff Manifesto on 25 September. It announced his intention to comply with the law against plural marrying and counseled the church to follow his example. It is a strangely packaged revelation, hardly an unequivocal commitment to “obey, honor and sustain the law of the land.” But it was accepted in the General Conference which followed as binding upon the church, and it was the watershed event insofar as this church-state tug-of-war was concerned.11
The actual discontinuance of plural marriage was as painful as the initiation had been. Between 1890 and 1904, when another church [p.104] president, Joseph F. Smith, issued another manifesto, there was an ambiguous period in which people were not sure how much was being given up and whether the change applied only to Utah or to the United States. Ultimately two apostles were disfellowshipped and one of them was excommunicated for reluctance to surrender on polygamy. A son of John Taylor, Apostle John W. Taylor, was a particularly notable example of that resistance.12
I do not know when the last polygamous marriage which was accepted as legitimate by the Mormon leadership took place. After 1904 excommunication was the normal penalty for plural marrying, but there were some exceptions. Plural partnerships continued within the church fold for a half century. The children of such unions are found in prestigious Mormon groups today. They remind us that the reality of LDS plural marriage was far different from the apologetic myth which evolved to divert attention from this distinctive heritage of a people who have preferred in the twentieth century to be noticed for other peculiarities.
This look at two skeletons in the closet of Mormon history reminds us that the past is full of actions which the participants and/or their descendants wish had not happened. If they remain forgotten, they present no problems. If they are rediscovered, how shall we handle them?
It is risky and in the long run counterproductive to substitute myth for historical truth. This is so with personal and family history as well as institutional chronicles. My personal advice to those who confront sensitive information in researching family history is that you do not change any of the genealogical information but that you write the personal narrative with your audience in mind. Don’t gild the lily but don’t spotlight the swamp. The policy I have proposed to families who have commissioned biographies is that I will tell the truth and nothing but the truth but not necessarily the whole truth. This pragmatic formula works best if the difficult facts are peripheral rather than central to understanding the story. Many sponsored biographies have never been published because authors and sponsors differed on how much truth was necessary.
Preserve the documents you find. Think of the loss when Sidney Rigdon’s relatives destroyed his 1,500-page biographical manuscript.13 If you do not want the documents seen now, libraries [p.105] and archives will gladly keep them where moth and rust cannot corrupt and historians cannot dig until some later time.
Institutions and movements, like the people who comprise them, have a capacity for selectively embellishing, revising, and forgetting aspects of their experience. The myths and half-truths which result are understandable but vulnerable and potentially injurious. However, the exploration of the closets of the historic past, like the investigation of other fields of knowledge referred to in the 88th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, presents no unmanageable threat to those who agree with Dr. Henry Eyring when he says in The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), “In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is” (p. 43).[p.107]
4. Mormon plural marriage is generating a body of serious literature, much of it focusing on the beginning and the ending of the practice. A useful survey, with extensive notes and a large but uncritical bibliography, is Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986). My own contributions to the subject are “The Twin Relic: A Study of Mormon Polygamy and the Campaign by the Government of the United States for Its Abolition, 1852-1890,” M.A. thesis, Texas Christian University, 1939; “The Mormon Question, 1850-1865: A Study in Politics and Public Opinion,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1948; “The Political Reconstruction of Utah Territory,” Pacific Historical Review 27 (May 1958), 2:111-26; and “The Legislative Antipolygamy Campaign,” Brigham Young University Studies 27 (Fall 1987), 4:109-21.
5. Nels Anderson, Desert Saints: The Mormon Frontier in Utah (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942), 390-419; Lowell “Ben” Bennion, “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: ‘Dixie’ versus Davis Stake,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 27-42.
8. See David J. Whittaker, “Early Mormon Polygamy Defenses,” Journal of Mormon History II (1984): 43-63; Whittaker, “The Bone in the Throat: Orson Pratt and the Public Announcement of Plural Marriage,” Western Historical Quarterly 18:3 (July 1987): 293-314.