Fighting the Principle: Part the Second

Those who shaped the battle with the polygamists, generally, were those who saw the government and their Christian lifestyle as one and the same.  They perceived Mormons as trying to upset the social order with their form of marriage.  Many of the anti-polygamists saw themselves as crusaders fighting a religious battle against heathen, Mormons.  In the 1880s they would take this religious language farther by calling the pursuit and arrests of Mormon Polygamist a Crusade.[1]

            The first major challenge to plural marriage came as a result of one of the first prosecutions of a Mormon under the Morrill anti-bigamy act of 1862.   The main party in the case was George Reynolds, who the leaders of the church wanted to be the test case.  The feeling amongst the LDS church leadership was that Reynolds would be able to challenge the law, under the grounds of the rights of the local government to determine the law in cases of marriage.  Reynolds first was tried in 1874, only to see the case thrown out on a technicality.  So once again he was “arrested” and tried, this time in 1875.  The Church appealed the case to the Supreme Court.  They decided to hear the case in 1878.[2]

            The Reynolds case was seen as a very critical one by both sides.  The Supreme Court looked at the ruling as nothing more or less than a first amendment case.  They ruled almost exclusively along those lines.  Chief Justice Morrison Waite describing polygamy said, “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.”[3]  Once again by constructing Mormons as outsiders it made it easier to isolate their deviancy.  The court ruled in favour of the prosecution, deciding that religious actions were not protected under the first amendment, so the Mormon polygamists could believe in the principle all they wanted but they had to obey the law.  When the court ruled on this case in 1879 it seemed the Mormons would have to back down if they wanted to obey the laws of the land.  Instead the church leadership and most of its adherents decided to continue openly disobeying the Morrill Act.[4]

            At it became obvious that the Mormon Church was not going to obey the laws of the land Edmunds decided that something had to be done.  The flaw in the Morrill law from the anti-polygamist point of view was that it focused on conviction for polygamy.  It was incredibly difficult to prove someone was a polygamist because the church claimed it held no records of marriage and none of the participants would testify that they were living as plural wives.  This left the prosecution with little to go on.  Aside from Reynolds, during the period between 1879 and 1882 no other Mormon polygamists were convicted.  To a lawyer like Edmunds that must have been a galling result.[5]

            A staunch supporter for the reconstruction in Utah, Edmunds was an important player in the 1874 Poland Act which restricted the power of Utah probate judges, which were usual Mormon controlled, in favour of the federal courts which were appointed by Federal Government and generally populated by non-Mormons. The reason for this change was that probate courts would rule in favour of the polygamist defendant, a federal court would be less willing to do so.[6]

Edmunds after the Reynolds case began to see the Morrill Act as a dead letter, he felt strongly that the best weapon in the battle was to change the definition whereby a conviction could be made.  Instead of arresting and trying to prove polygamy, he sought a reduced definition which would convict someone for simply cohabitating with more than one woman.  Cohabitation under this legal definition would be not just living with more than one woman but having sex with more than one of them as well.  Now instead of having to prove multiple marriages had taken place all that was needed was evidence of cohabitation and usually children from more than one woman.[7]   For anti-polygamists Edmunds was considered a godsend, his work in the Senate led to a movement in 1882 to send him thank you letters for the work on the passage of the Edmunds Act.[8]

After the beginning of the enforcement of the Edmunds Act, Mormons living in Utah, like Mary Louise Walker Morris, daily activities were broken up with stories of Mormon brushes with the legal system.  Morris writes on May 18, 1883, “Sister Bell Harris was put in the Penitentiary today for not telling whos [sic] Wife she was.”[9]  The battles with the legal system led some of the wives to choose between perjury and imprisonment for their husbands.  Legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon argued, it was a terrible price to pay while keeping their homes.[10]

Men convicted under these new laws they were just as willing to flout the law.  Rudger Clawson for example, when brought in front the court, explained that when it came between following the laws of the land or laws of God there was no contest.  It would earn him four years in prison and an eight hundred dollar fine for his conviction.[11]  Clawson who would later become a part of the leadership of the church would become very frustrated with his treatment as a prisoner.  In a letter to President Grover Cleveland he pointed out that murderers had been pardoned, while he was left to serve his full sentence, he was required to give up his support of plural marriage and obey the law, while the murderers gave no such assurance.[12]

The question remains, why Mormons were so emboldened to go against the laws of the land at the peril of their economic, physical, and domestic well being. Historians Marvin Hill and Dan Erickson may have the best answer.  Erickson argues that many Mormons believed strongly that the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur in 1891, because Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed a prophecy in which God told him, “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.”[13]   The Mormons, under massive persecution and threatened from every corner viewed those troubles in the 1880s as a sign of the times, meaning the end of the world.  Holding this belief it helped them to suffer through trials they faced.[14]

Edmunds understood the history of what the Mormons were trying to accomplish.  He knew that if Mormons could gain statehood they would be protected from prosecution.  Unlike other moral reformers he was not as concerned with polygamy as the Church control of the levers of power.  In Harper’s Magazine in January of 1882 he explained in full detail his objections to Utah receiving statehood and why he felt they needed to be limited.  He attacked Mormons, not on theology, but on political grounds attacking their control of all levels of the territorial government.  His stance, that without gaining control of Utah, the Federal government could not force the Mormons to bend to the common will outside the state.  He felt, “If we really mean to exterminate polygamy in Utah, it can easily be done by lawful and just means, and without doing an injury even (but rather a good) to all morally innocent persons involved in the practice, and their children.”[15]

Countering Edmunds logic and legal mind was Emmeline B. Wells, the leader of the Mormon suffrage movement and editor of the Woman’s Exponent. She was a powerful writer, and an able organizer, who often was called to leadership roles within the church.  However, her independence was tempered somewhat by her loneliness, as with some who were wives in plural marriage, at times, she had a hard and difficult life.  Even with these problems however Wells led the response to those, like Senator Edmunds, who wanted to end the Principle.  Her vigorous work with the Woman’s Exponent and relationship with some of the leaders of the American suffrage movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, was incredibly important for the public face of the church.[16]

Wells sought to defend Mormons against the accusations of non-Mormons who described them living in bondage, or in harems, or as Edmunds argued were innocents being dragged into barbarity, Exponent:

How mistaken the world are, when they represent Mormon women in bondage to men. There is no greater freedom than the Gospel gives to woman. And it is this that makes Mormon women conscious of their power. They have suffered and become strong; experience has matured them, and given them a higher order of attainment than a mere mental education. Have not the enemies of this people caused suffering enough to women and children? Have not the hardships already endured in times past, the recital of which has often brought tears from the eyes of strangers, given you sufficient evidence that you cannot eradicate from this people the principles for which they have endured so much? Let them alone; if they are wrong, time will eventually show them the error; if they are right how vain are your efforts.[17]

            According to Professor Joan Smyth Iverson, Utah anti-polygamists also worked on leaders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association headed by Susan B. Anthony to try and stem the burgeoning alliance between the organization and the Mormon women.  The Utah anti-polygamists declared themselves supporters of suffrage everywhere but Utah.  These same women sought to create an alliance with reformers like Edmunds.  Edmunds by contrast sought to consolidate their support by speaking to their groups or by writing letters to be read at their conventions.  By 1887 these anti- polygamists women felt they won the battle as the Edmund Tucker Act ended the woman’s right to vote in the Utah territory, which for some suffragettes was seen as a victory.[18] 

            LDS leaders felt they were secure in their own belief that they were not going against the constitution, no matter what laws and courts said.  These leaders believed they had answered most of the accusations of the anti-polygamists who believed that women were being conned into being plural wives and forced into staying with these husbands.  Moreover they were trying to gain sympathy by allowing the media to play up the imprisonment of their leaders and others following polygamy.  However, just as the Mormons had not listened to the seriousness of the rulings and laws brought against them by their opponents, the other side did not care if the facts did not meet the reality. So as Edmunds and others in the Senate and Congress looked for new ways to enforce the removal of Polygamy they saw that their older moral ideas would not work.  Edmunds saw this early on, he was convinced that he had to break up the power structure of the church by taking away their political rights. In an era of Robber Barons and monopolists Edmunds considered the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the biggest Robber Baron of them all.[19]

Senator George Edmunds was a well known and powerful politician.  In the 1880s his power reached its peak when he was called to be the vice-president of the Senate.  So the public fight against an unpopular people had its advantages.  Edmunds had been a candidate for the Republican nominee for President at the 1880 convention which after a vicious political battle elected James A. Garfield. Edmunds would once again be a candidate in 1884 losing to James Blaine.  Edmunds was considered a part of the reformist camp that wanted to change the political patronage system.  Edmunds though never a part of the “Mudwumps,” Republicans who switched during the 1884 election to supporting Grover Cleveland, most of the supporters he had during the nomination fight were members.  His last great piece of legislation he sponsored before his retirement in 1891 was the Edmunds-Tucker Act.[20]  


[1] Charles A. Cannon, “The Awesome Power of Sex: The Polemical Campaign against Mormon Polygamy,” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 43, No. 1. (Feb., 1974), 61-63.

[2] Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon and Richard O. Cowan, Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, (Salt Lake City. UT: Deseret Book Company), 2000, 1016-1017.

[3] Reynolds v. U.S. 98 U.S. 145 (1878), 164.

[4] Melvin L. Bashore, “Behind Adobe Walls and Iron Bars: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary Library,”
Libraries & Culture, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Summer 2003):  236-237

[5] Gordon, 154.

[6] John Kincaid, “Extinguishing the Twin Relics of Barbaric Multiculturalism – Slavery and Polygamy – From American Federalism,” The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 33, No. 1, (Winter, 2003): 84-85.

[7] Katherine M. Daynes, More Wives Than One:Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 2001, 47-50 .

[8] “Honoring Edmunds,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 1882.

[9] Mary Lois Walker Morris, Before the Manifesto: The Life Writings of Mary Lois Walker Morris, Edited by Melissa Lambert Milewski, (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press), 2007, 368.

[10] Gordon, 161-164

[11] Rudger Clawson, Prisoner For Polygamy: The Memoirs and Letters of Rudger Clawson at the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, 1884-87, Edited by Stan Larson, (Urbana: Unversity of Illinois Press), 1993, 41-42.

[12] Clawson, 144.

[13] Doctrine and Covenants, 130: 15.

[14] Dan Erickson, “Joseph Smith’s 1891 Millennial Prophesy,” The Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Fall 1996), 5-7.

[15] George F. Edmunds, “Political Aspects of Mormonism,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, (Jan. 1882), 285-288.

[16] Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of The Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company), 1982, 296-299.

[17] Emmeline B. Wells, “Reveries of a Woman,” Woman’s Exponent, Vol. 5, No. 23, May 1, 1877, 180.

[18] Smyth Iverson, 9-12

[19] Gordon, 202-203

[20] Allan Peskin, “Who Were the Stalwarts? Who Were Their Rivals? Republican Factions in the Gilded Age,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 4. (Winter, 1984-1985), 708. 


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