Fighting the Principle: Part the third

When the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 went into effect it was aimed at two things, one of which was the ability of women in polygamous marriages to escape punishment.  The second one was to target the ability of the Church to maintain its financial position.  The act took on the perceived monopoly of the Church by taking away its right to hold property, fund emigration of Mormons from abroad, and took away the last piece of its political power by revoking the rights of Utah women to vote.  It was the harsh hammer, which people like the Utah anti-polygamists, and Edmunds wanted, to finally defeat the Church.[1]

Edmunds was a consistent in his objections to monopolies, in 1910, nearly 20 years after his time in the Senate he saw the lack of action on the enforcement of laws against monopolies as a great mistake by the Federal Government that all parties were guilty of allowing.  The “Sherman” Anti-Trust laws were considered to be one of his great achievements, and it sat un-enforced. As with the Morrill Act, Edmunds was attacking the lack of action as the biggest crime, and that if the law is written it needed to be enforced.[2]

            The LDS Church leaders, under the direction of a new President, Wilford Woodruff, were seeing their plural wives being arrested and charged with fornication.  200 women were arrested, some because they were pregnant, for having children of polygamists.  It turned plural wives into prostitutes under the law.  The second major problem for the church was they were decertified as a corporation and no longer allowed to possess land with a value of over $50,000.  This put in jeopardy all the temples the church had built in Logan, St. George, Manti and the unfinished main one in Salt Lake City all of which were in Utah.  If the church lost its financial resources it would make it impossible for them to carry on their ecclesiastical missions across the world or to help new converts immigrate to Utah.   Woodruff and a majority of the other leaders felt they had few options.  In 1890 the Supreme Court once again ruled against the Church in the Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States. The court upheld the seizure of Church property ending the last hope. At last the Mormons understood that they had to take a different tack than hoping their problems would go away, they had to proactively choose a new path.[3]

            In September of 1890 the Church announced a new policy, called a Manifesto. Woodruff would now use this document to claim that the church would now follow the laws of the land and give up on plural marriage.  As the career of George Edmunds was coming to the end his ten year battle over polygamy appeared to be finally at an end.  The LDS Church also saw that it needed to change its relationship with the Republican Party who had run the federal government of the United States almost exclusively since 1860. The church sought to build a relationship with the Republicans, with firebrand reformers like Edmunds now out of the Senate, and much of the fury dissipated by the Manifesto the Republicans saw an opportunity to gain a large voting bloc in the West.   Through this mutual benefit, Utah achieved statehood in 1896, and completely gained control over marriage within the state.[4]

The confrontation over polygamy was one where populists, evangelists, and politicians saw their ability to control federal politics had risen to its zenith, a number of historians feel that their goals in Utah matched a larger goal to reform American society into one which their own Protestant Christian, and rural values dominated.  It lasted only a few years but it had a large effect on society as whole and Mormons in particular.  After 1890 the Church no longer openly supported plural marriage, but they did not disavow it completely, to the surprise of some and the shock of thousands in 1904, it was revealed that the church had not ended the Principle.  It just divested itself of the responsibility of protecting polygamists from the law.  Edmunds himself returned to the issue to express his support for a constitutional amendment on marriage.  Only after Joseph F. Smith, the new President of the church announced a second Manifesto, one that included church discipline for practicing plural marriage, did the church actively end the practice.[5] 

George Edmunds, passed away in February 1919, considered a powerful statesman who achieved many great things in 25 years in the Senate.  His role in the polygamist laws of the 1880s have for some Mormons at least always associated him with those who were most against the church.  Certainly without his stature and ability in can be argued that the anti-polygamists would have had a much harder time creating the laws that heaped so much pressure on the church.  The Deseret News, a LDS Church owned newspaper acknowledged as much at his retirement from the Senate, calling him “shrewd” and “cold” yet referring to him as “of great brain force and legal ability.”[6] He was a central and critical figure in the movement to end polygamy.  Yet in most ways his desire was defeated, the church politically was not defeated, most of its control on the levers of power would return with statehood.  The corporate monopoly of the church, as Edmunds perceived it, existed long after George Edmunds passed away.[7] 


[1] Gordon, 207-208

[2] “Evils of Monopolies,” New York Times, February 4, 1910

[3] Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 2004, 30.

[4] Flake 46-49.

[5] Flake, 51-52.

[6] “Senator Edmunds Steps Out,” Deseret News, April 18, 1891.

[7] “George F. Edmunds,” New York Times, March 1, 1919.

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