Fighting the Principle: Part the First

In the summer of 1886, Charles Ora Card was in trouble.  Riding the train with the U.S. Marshall headed to prison after being caught in the company of his wife, he was facing some months in the Utah Penitentiary at the very least.  With this in mind he sought the only thing he could, escape.  Card jumped from the train and escaped.  A short while later, ahead of the law he fled to Canada.  What was Card’s great crime?  He had been living with more than one woman as his wife, his polygamy was against the law and he was forced to flee, hide, or serve prison time.[1]

In the 1880s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[2] was caught in what it perceived as a death struggle over its belief in the practice of plural marriage, more commonly called polygamy, with anti-polygamists led by three Vermont politicians, in an age of Robber Barons, Nativism and Populism believed that they were reconstructing Mormons Utah to purify the United States of a monopolist, morally corrupt, and alien force.   Vermont politicians had an inordinately large role in the attacks against the Utah based Church.  In this essay I will argue that historians have overlooked the importance of Vermont Senator George F. Edmunds who was one of the most successful politicians in presenting and achieving anti-polygamist aims.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from 1852 until 1890 openly declared that marriage between a man and more than one woman, polygyny, was a sacrament of their faith.  These marriages were called plural marriage by Mormons, often also known as “the Principle”, or polygamy by their opponents.  For the purposes of this essay it will use both of these terms rather than the more correct polygyny.  Mormons considered plural marriage a sacrament because various leaders within the faith explained that it was a key tenant to reach the highest place in heaven.  Many for that reason felt that it was an important principle.  It is estimated that nearly 43% of Mormons in Utah took were members of polygamist families at its height.[3] 

The origins of the principle begin during the leadership of Joseph Smith, the first plural marriage is thought to have occurred no later than 1833 with Smith being married to Fanny Alger.  However, the majority of the church leadership would not participate or know about the principle until well after 1843 when Smith asked many of his closest advisors to also adhere to the principle.[4]  While most of the Mormon population knew about the practice by 1847, the official announcement came in 1852. In 1890 polygamy was disavowed publically by the church in what was called, the Manifesto.  However, many of the leaders in the faith continued the practice in secret until at least 1906.[5]     

The first historical examinations of Polygamy were generally approached by those who were documenting the oral and written history of recent polygamists, they were generally written by scholars who were not historians. Many Mormon academics, Leonard Arrington, David Bitton, Eugene England and others, felt that their needed to be a much more academic examination of the history of Mormonism.  This was mirrored by scholars outside the faith such as Jan Shipps who examined the faith from a religious studies view.  They helped to found a school called New Mormon History which grew out of the 1960s New Left school which was very skeptical of previous views of history. In the 1971 Gustive Larson published The “Americanization” of Utah, one of the first books by a New Mormon historian which talked about the context of the political and legal battle over polygamy. The book put in context the larger battle to recreate Utah much as they had tried to accomplish in the South after the Civil War.  It is still often cited by succeeding historians building on the work started by Larson.[6]

Later historians, changed over time, from general histories, such as Mormon Polygamy: A History written by Richard Van Wagoner, to micro histories such as Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.   Another important contribution was made by Sarah Barringer Gordon who examined the history of the raids against Mormon polygamists and the role of the Supreme Court played in justifying these extreme measures. Much of the new history is hard to classify in schools.  While there might be a Feminist school, examining the role of women in polygamous relationships both at home and in the court battles and political advocacy, there are few other schools. Of all of those examining this period none have really examined the role Edmunds played in politically attacking polygamy or why his arguments appear to be more successful than others, for the most part he is only discussed generally only in passing.  One aspect that has become obvious is that most of the current writings on the subject are being done by women, and of the general coverage it is almost exclusively being done by Mormon academics.[7]

As plural marriage became public, those who resided in other parts of the United States became revolted over the practice.  In the campaign of 1856 the new Republican Party said it would bring down the twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy.   After the perceived conquering of one of the relics the eyes of Americans turned to the other relic.   By 1877 the end of the Reconstruction in the South ended the control the federal government.  The failure of the Republicans to enforce the 14th amendment, the civil rights amendment, for freed blacks in the south allowed for the reestablishment of the White majority in the South.  So Republicans and other moral activists began to focus on, as historian Sarah Barringer Gordon called it, the Second Reconstruction.  Republicans took politically safe aim at the less divisive second relic, this time the focus would instead be on Utah Territory and polygamy. The Republicans were led by Vermont’s Senators and Congressmen in the attack against the LDS Church.  George F. Edmunds, Luke P. Poland, and James Morrill were all instrumental figures in creating the legislation which attacked plural marriage. [8] 

Kimball Young, a sociologist, first examined the reasons for why moral crusaders were so willing to attack polygamy.  For example, his opinion as expressed in Isn’t One Wife Enough, his groundbreaking work on Mormon polygamy, was that anti-polygamists were, “Do gooders [who] are anxiety-ridden individuals who are worried about the condition of the world largely based on their own wishful thinking.”[9]  He immediately saw the psychology of their ideas as a condition where they wanted to cover their own sexual guilt by attacking others, perceived, moral turpitude.[10] 

While Young’s evaluations sixty years later seem to be overly harsh, and possibly biased, there is some truth to them. The moral considerations of the anti-polygamists were tied to a concept of purifying the whole body of the United States by attacking its most aggrieved parts, moral crusaders attacked alcohol, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and foreigners as being part of the social ills in America.  Mormon polygamy fit most of these same goals as it was conceived as being too loose with sex, marriage, divorce and to a lesser extent female independence to be trusted by the whole. So one could see how, from their conception of moral absolutes, their effort to stamp it out would work to push all of these deviant tendencies back across all parts of the United States.[11]

Edmunds, unlike most of moral reformers, was not as strident, his stand point on debates in the day were generally focused on what was achievable, and how best to influence a situation without going beyond certain points.  His push back against polygamy was not an absolute attack but something of a trial and error method.  Realizing the failure of the Morrill Act he wanted to examine the best ways to effectively bring polygamy to an end.   The New York Times at the retirement of Edmunds noted that he was one of the few senators willing to try and understand laws.  He sought to actually know what was in them and how they would be used.  For the Mormon Church it meant that he knew exactly what would be needed to force them legally into line.[12]

Contrasting Edmunds measured approach were others not so coy or considered in their analysis, their goal was to remake Utah as a place which would be acceptable to the majority of Americans.  Historians in recent years have focused on the end of the reconstruction period as one where the South and North re-united under the power of the new White Republic.  Amid this re-unification were religious forces who were working to bring each side back to talking with one another.  Northern men like Presbyterian Dwight Moody wanted to remove the past.  Or southern Presbyterian Minister William Plumer who in the 1860s was seen as a racist became an integral part of reuniting the South and North. These evangelical forces which were so valuable to white re-union became important in creating a force to put pressure on the problems, as they saw them, facing the United States.  They turned the Gospel into a force in reuniting the North and South.[13] 

These Protestant forces helped to create an ideal of white superiority, and responsibility.   Part of this change in focus was an increasing hostility to immigrants, non-whites, and social deviancy.  Generally this meant that Jews, Chinese, Asians and others were considered fair game for criticism.  American desire to create a “proper” image for the country and to drive out those forces, whether ethnic, racial or religious that did not conform to the norm.  The Mormons were prime targets, with their multiple wives and supposed tendency to violence, in part due to the prosecution of Mormons who massacred 125 men, women and children at Mountain Meadows in Southern Utah.[14] 

As part of this portrayal New York Times depict the Mormons as un-American and considered European converts as, “rude half animal people.”  They were clearly trying to show Mormons as strangers and not fellow Americans:

The two foremost men in the Mormon establishment – President [John] Taylor and George Q. Cannon – are of alien birth.  No census of the Mormon following, showing the original nationality of each follower, has ever been published.  But it is tolerably certain that such a census would prove that the nationality of the Mormons is divided, numerically considered, into something like this relative representation: Scandinavian, English, Welsh, American.[15] 


By removing the American citizenship of many of the Latter-day Saints, and claiming them as mostly stupid or gullible immigrants, also by asserting that their leaders were aliens, it made it easier to attack Mormons as outsiders.  It allowed the Times, for example, to argue for heavy restrictions against polygamy, based on the need to achieve a middle ground over those who wanted military intervention or those who wanted to leave things as they were.[16]


[1] Charles O. Card, The Diaries of Charles Ora Card: The Canadian Years 1886-1903, Donald G. Geoffrey and Brigham Y. Card Eds., (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press), 1993, 2-5. 

[2] For the purposes of this paper the Church itself will be referred to as the LDS church and its members generally as Mormons.

[3] Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 2001, 101.

[4] Richard S. Von Wagner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books), 1989, 5-6, 50-56

[5] D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 18, No. 1, (Spring 1985): 11-12.

[6] Stephen J. Fleming, “Becoming the American Religion: The Place of Mormonism in the Development of American Religious Historiography,” Mormon Historical Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2003, 10-14.

[7] One example from the feminist school is the work done by Joan Smyth Iversen ,who studied the role of polygamous women in Woman’s Suffrage movements.

[8] Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 2002, 151-153.

[9] Kimball Young, Isn’t One Wife Enough? (1954; Reprint, Westport, Cn: Greenwood Press), 1970, 302

[10] Young 301-302

[11] Gordon, 174-178

[12] “George F. Edmunds,” New York Times, April 10 1891.

[13] Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865 – 1898, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 2005, 120 – 136.

[14] Gordon, 126-127

[15] Editorial, “The State of Mormondom,” New York Times, April 12, 1881.

[16] Editorial, “Polygamy in Danger,” New York Times, February 21, 1882

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