Mormon Polygamy – A Brief History

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Morrill Act of 1862

Like slavery, polygamy (a man marrying more than one wife) became a moral question that the whole nation wrestled with. It was the single biggest obstacle preventing Utah from obtaining statehood. In 1862 the Morrill Act was passed by Congress. It prohibited polygamy in the territories and was signed by Lincoln. The nation was fighting the Civil War at the time, so the act was not actively enforced until some years later.

Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continued to practice polygamy because they believed that since the practice was an integral part of their religion, they were protected by the Bill of Rights. Brigham Young was president of the church during this time. His personal secretary, George Reynolds a polygamist himself, agreed to be tried as a test case. In 1879 Reynolds faced the Supreme Court. Polygamy lost. The court upheld the Morrill Act.

Edmunds Act of 1882

Church leaders stubbornly held on to polygamy and in 1882 the Edmunds Act was passed which strengthened the Morrill Act. It made polygamy a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $500 fine. Unlawful cohabitation, which was easier to prove since it only required the evidence that a couple had lived together rather than evidence that a secret marriage ceremony had taken place, was designated a misdemeanor. Cohabitation was punishable by six month imprisonment and a $300 fine. It also disenfranchised polygamists, barring them from holding public office, buying property, voting, or serving on juries.

The federal marshals, referred to by Mormons as “peeping Toms,” did their best to catch “plyggies” and “cohabs” but the “underground” was strong. The underground consisted of sympathetic Mormons who rendered assistance to polygamist fugitives.

Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887

In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed which further strengthened the anti-polygamy laws by requiring plural wives to testify against their husbands. This compelled not only the husbands to hide, but also many wives were forced to leave their children with relatives or in the care of the first (legal) wife while they fled the law.

Canadian and Mexican Colonies

Some polygamists sought a new life in expatriate colonies in Mexico and Canada. Although polygamy was illegal in both countries, Mexico allowed polygamist families to live together. Many families went to live south of the border until they were compelled to return to the United States for protection from the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1912.

Manifesto of 1890

Conflicts with the United States government became intolerable. Statehood for Utah was at stake. Knuckling under pressure, church president Wilford Woodruff, himself a polygamist, declared that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could no longer endorse polygamy. The Manifesto issued 25 September 1890 and later endorsed by a sustaining vote of the membership at the general conference on 6 October 1890, officially ended polygamy thereby “releasing the congregation from an unpopular doctrine that caused its believers more grief and harassment than any other aspect of the religion”. In a single instant “hundreds of Mormon marriages were thereby dissolved, thousands of children bastardized, and innumerable hearts broken”. Only those plural marriages entered into before the Morrill Act of 1862 were allowed to remain legal.

How common was the practice and how many wives did most men have?

Though polygamy is one of the things Mormons are famous for, most Mormon men were monogamous. The number of polygamist homes varied depending upon the enthusiasm of the local church elders in promoting the practice. In 1880, 40 percent of St. George, Utah homes were polygamous, compared to 10 percent in Rockville, 67 percent in Orderville, and only 5 percent in South Webber. Also, it should be noted that according to a demographic study of 6,000 families, “of the 1,784 polygamist men in the group, 66.3 percent married only two wives, 21.2 percent married three, 6.7 percent married four, and a scant 5.8 percent married five or more women”.

Second president of the Mormon Church and leader of the Mormon migration to Utah, Brigham Young (1801-1887), was a notable polygamist who far exceeded the statistical averages. He married 55 women.