Joseph Smith Polygamy: The Rocky End to Plural Marriage in the Church (Part 2)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Joseph Smith Polygamy: The United States and the End of Plural Marriage

So we’ve got the civil disobedience, can we call it that, where Saints believe they still have legal recourse and they still have a way to continue to challenge these things in the courts? During the eighties, the 1880s. And so they are practicing plural marriage while trying to avoid arrest. And when 1887 happens with the Edmunds Tucker Act. Now, much of church leadership is going to go underground right then and start to be hunted as fugitives by US deputies. In fact, there’s even you can find these wanted posters still if you Google them. John Taylor, President of the church. George Q Cannon counselor, there’s one I’m looking at now that says $800 reward to be paid for the arrest of John Taylor and George. Q Cannon $500 for. Cannon $300 for Taylor. I don’t know why Cannon was so much more valuable than the President of the church, but there you go. John Taylor, as president of the church during this time, he’s going to go into exile in Kaysville, Utah, and he’ll die there that same year, 1887, July 25th. Mm hmm. So for two years after his death, the church is without a first presidency. So the corner of the 12 is leading. Wilford Woodruff is the president of that forum, assuming leadership during that interim period. So in April 1889, Wilford Woodruff is sustaining the first presidents is reorganized. He’s now officially the president of the church, 1889. They’ve continued to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has officially ruled against them and upheld the Edmunds Tucker Act as constitutional. Meanwhile, many church leaders have been caught and put in prison. There’s some great pictures you should Google sometime. Listeners check out to some church Leaders in the Stripes of Shame, George Q Cannon and others in the Utah Territorial Prison arrested under the Edmunds Tucker Act and so 1890, Wilford Woodruff is considering all of this. We now have no more legal recourse. And the question is what is to be done? So in September of 1890, Wilford Woodruff seeks divine guidance on this about the path that should be pursued and what we know as the manifesto was the result. I think maybe the best way to think about this is what’s our highest priority, right? Because we can’t have it all either. We can retain our determination to practice plural marriage and lose the temples and lose much church leadership. Many of the heads of households be this incorporated everything the Edmunds Tucker Act was going to undermine Zion, undermine the ordinances that are to be done in the temples. But hold on to Joseph Smith polygamy or let go of polygamy and retain the temples, retain church leadership and heads of households retain the ordinances of salvation and exaltation. What is the most fundamental? What’s the most indispensable? And that’s when the revelation comes that Wilford Woodruff later explains. Actually, about a year after the manifesto, he starts explaining going on little speaking tours and starts explaining to people exactly what happened.

And I think, you know, even before he says something like, I’m under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church. Yeah, some people have said this was politically motivated, this revelation. But President Woodruff gives the reasons why the revelation came. I would point out official declaration. One doesn’t look like the other sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. Yeah, Wilford Woodruff is clear in stating it came as a result of revelation. He was told by God to do this.

It’s probably important to point out that the official declaration itself is not the revelation, right? It’s a declaration that revelation had been received and now I’m telling you about it. It’s in fact, when he comes back, his counselors know about it. And then about a week later, that was October, wasn’t it, when the court of the 12 meet and they sustain it, even though some of them were still wrestling with a little bit, but they do sustain it. And then it’s presented to the church in October 1890, and it kind of reads very much like the government is listening, right? He says. For instance, I’ll read directly from the declaration itself. He talks about how he had heard of a case where someone had used the endowment house in Salt Lake to perform a plural marriage ceremony, which was not authorized by him. And so he says, when I heard about that, I had the endowment house torn down without delay. And then he said, inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, that’s the Supreme Court. We have pushed this thing all the way to the Supreme Court, and they have found the Edmonds Duggar act constitutional. So I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws and to use my influence with the members of the church over which I preside, to have them do likewise. This is clearly because. Of what is happening in their external circumstance, Right? We’ve done everything we can. We’ve done everything in our power. And there’s nothing left for us to do legally other than submit. And so I declare my intentions to submit. Now, behind this are some revelations that he’ll explain to church members later. But this first public announcement is very business, a proclamation of our intention to be good citizens of the United States of America.

And oof, this is tough stuff, right? But he makes the action. It’s just as difficult to end plural marriage, I guess, as it was to begin plural marriage. This is a system that two and a half generations have defended. Yeah, he takes it very seriously, but he does basically say this is a revelation. I was commanded by God to do this. I have to act for the temporal salvation of the church.

He says this actually, on that day in his conference talk where this was read, he said, The Lord has required at our hands things that we were prevented from doing. And then he mentions that he says the Lord required us to build a temple in Jackson County. We were prevented by violence from doing it. The Lord has given us commandments concerning many things, and we have carried them out as far as we could. But when we cannot do it, we are justified. And then he said, The Lord does not require at our hands things that we cannot do. That alone is a pretty powerful principle, right? If you’ve been legitimately kept from keeping a commandment because of external circumstances, the Lord doesn’t require that commandment. I’m thinking about many missionaries who had to come home early because of COVID 19. You shouldn’t feel like a failure, right? External circumstances brought you home early. You served an honorable mission. The best you could write are people who yearn to be married, but they can’t, because of external circumstances, are married couples who want to have children, but they can’t. The Lord does not require at our hands things that we cannot do. So that alone is a pretty powerful principle when you apply it to this situation that’s telling to see inside the heart of president Woodruff. And we should also say that not every member of the church just eagerly, wholeheartedly accepted this. The minutes of that general conference do say that it was sustained unanimously, but it doesn’t seem to clear up all confusion in the hearts of the Latter-day Saints. Right. Right. Is this a temporary thing that we’re just doing this to appease the government? Are we all going to go to Mexico, to Canada, or is this just a political maneuver? Are we just giving a nod to the government so they look the other way and then we could do our own thing? Yeah. And Wilford Woodruff, that’s what begins his speaking tour the next year, where he begins then to explain, No, this was a revelation from the Lord.

He immediately has to make a clarification to like right after the manifesto is issued. He says this manifesto only refers to future marriages and does not affect past conditions. And I did not. I could not and I would not promise that you would desert your wives and children. This you cannot do in honor. But the language of the manifesto, which is basically we’re going to comply with the law. If the law has been upheld by the highest court, we’ll follow it. You know, opens questions During the struggles with the federal government, some Latter day Saints had moved to Canada, some had moved to Mexico. And does the law apply to them? Because if you’re in a country where it’s not illegal to practice Joseph Smith polygamy, can you still practice plural marriage, including creating new plural marriages? Is the question that comes up.

That’s outside the U.S. jurisdiction. You could see people easily coming to the conclusion that, yeah, that’s fine, because this is all about the US government

Lots of questions still left. Let me just highlight a few of the things that I think make it absolutely clear that this came by revelation. In fact, he actually says this in. If you look in your official declaration, in your doctrine and Covenants, you’ll notice there’s these excerpts from three addresses that President Woodruff gave. Right. I’m on the second page of that. And he said I have had some revelations of late. Very important ones to me. And I’ll tell you what the Lord has said to me. Let me bring to your minds what’s termed the manifesto. He said, The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question. And he also told me that if they would listen to what I said to them and answer the question put to them by the Spirit and power of God, they would all answer alike and they would all believe alike with regard to the matter. And then he says, Here’s the question which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue, to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage with the laws of the nation against it, and the opposition of 60 millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the temples and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead and the imprisonment of the first presidency and the 12 and the heads of families in the church and the confiscation of personal property of the people, all of which of themselves would stop the practice of plural marriage, or after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle, to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so, leave the prophets, apostles and fathers at home so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the church and also leave the temples in the hands of the saints so that they can attend to the ordinances of the gospel, both for the living and the dead. Which course should we pursue? He said “You should all, if you got the Spirit of God, answer that question with the same shallow work. Go on. Or shall it cease?” He asks. And so that was really what this was about. “The Lord showed me. The Lord told me, I’ve had revelations of late. The Lord,” he goes on to say, “showed me by vision in Revelation, what would have happened had we not stopped this. But the Lord has manifested to us. I saw what would come to pass. I’ve had this spirit upon me for a long time. The God of Heaven commanded me to do what I do. I wrote what the Lord told me to write. I’ll tell you what was manifested to me just over and over again. Evidence.” This is not Wilford Woodruff buckling to external pressure. I mean, that’s a criticism, isn’t it? Some people say this just goes to show that this is just president woodruff buckling to external pressure. Political pressure came and he conveniently got a revelation. That basically the government was stiff arming him into that decision anyway. And so he’s just capitulating to that and calling it revelation. That’s not what’s happening. But how do you respond to that?

I’ve had students bring it up in class before. Did they just do this because of what the government did? And I’m like, they have never tried to cover that up. That’s in the announcement. 

Wilford Woodruff was absolutely plain that he sought the revelation because of the pressure that was being placed on them. Yeah, he was open in every single way about saying. Here’s why, “I asked God if it was time for us to make a change. But this assumption that it just has to come out of nowhere just doesn’t fit in with any revelations that the church has ever received.” Every revelation is always born out of necessity.

I want to just say, like, what other kind of revelation is there than revelation in response to external circumstances. Prophets don’t operate in a timeless circumstance, this vacuum. They live in time and space and they receive revelations based upon external circumstances that they find themselves in their people in. That’s what drives prophets to their knees again and again. And that’s what got well, for Woodruff to go before the Lord, as he said, is because of that. Yeah. Sometimes with my students, attack a prophet on that point, it’s kind of like saying the only reason that you asked the Lord about whether it was wise to marry the person that you did was because you were seriously dating them and you really like them. You know, it was just the external circumstance of dating them seriously that made you seek a revelation. That’s how it works, actually. It’s always external circumstances that then drive you to seek revelation. So yeah, I think that’s just an unfair attack. 

Like we mentioned the manifesto, Official Declaration 1 says we’re going to comply with the law, but it leaves open this thread that a lot of saints wonder about, which is what if it’s not the law? And some of them just frankly, it’s seems do think that this is a delaying tactic until the second coming or whatever. So during the decade after the manifesto, there’s ambiguity, Joseph Smith polygamy couldn’t be stopped immediately. It gradually ends. In fact, most people don’t realize this, but the last president of the church to openly practice plural marriage was Heber J. Grant, whose presence in the church into the 1940s. Yeah. He has three wives, two of whom die relatively young. So by the time he becomes president, the church, he is monogamous. But those are his wives. He believes and accepts that. 

I bring this up with my classes. Who’s the last president of the church to be sealed to more than one person? It’s President Nelson. President Nelson’s first wife, Danielle, passed away in 2005. A few years later, he met and married Wendy Watson. He’s sealed to both of them. Does that make him the practitioner of plural marriage? I mean, technically, yes, only because he’s sealed the two people. So is that plural marriage? 

In principle? We still believe that a person can be sealed to more than one other person. The latest handbook of the church indicates that a deceased woman who was married to several people can be sealed to them as well. And so when you believe in eternal marriage, you believe marriage lasts beyond this life that opens the door to some complicated things. And that complexity is something we’ve got to be okay with.

I remember President Oakes being asked because he’s also in that situation. Sealed to two women. And he was asked, what’s life going to be like in the next life when you’re married to two women? And he said, “I honestly have to say, I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s going to work. All I know is that we’ve made those covenants and that there are promises associated with those. And I don’t know what the arrangements are going to be like in the next life.” So I’d like to just assure my students that there’s ambiguity here and there. We are going to be careful how we might picture the next life in circumstances such as President Oak’s and President Nelson, because this person said he doesn’t even know what it’s going to be like. And if he doesn’t know, then I don’t think it does us any good to pretend like we do, you know? Yeah, we just know it’s going to turn out well for Covenant Keepers. And I’m talking about everyone involved. The men and the women. Everybody. Things turn out well for those who keep covenants with Jesus Christ. I’m convinced of that.

The manifestos issued, but certain members of the church have questions and some are still performing new plural marriages in Mexico and Canada. And there’s even a record of a handful that take place in America. So the catalyst to issue the second manifesto, which is the final end for plural marriage in the church, is the reads Smoot, who is a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, but also monogamous, is elected to the United States Senate in 1903. And this leads to the Reed Smoot hearings, which go on. I mean, the guy gets elected in 1903 and isn’t formally seated in the Senate until 1907 because the hearings go on for four years. Wow. And the hearings also expose this difficulty in ending the practice of Joseph Smith polygamy. Like Joseph is asked to come to the stand and openly admits that he is still cohabitating with some of his wives and has had children with them. And he’s the president of the church. 

He’s the president of the church. I’m on his side here. Like, honestly, he says when he’s asked, why are you doing this? This is the answer he gave: “I simply took my chances, preferring to meet the consequences of the law rather than to abandon my children and their mothers. And I have cohabitated with my wives, not in a manner that I thought would be offensive to my neighbors, but I’ve acknowledged them. I visited them. They have borne me 11 children since 1890, and I have done it knowing the responsibility and knowing I was amenable to the law.” So this is another case where he’s saying, I’m not going to abandon my wife and children that I’ve already made covenants to because of the law and this whole exchange. Oh, my goodness, it’s such a thing. At BYU, we have the Reed Smoot papers and Reed Smoot kept a very detailed scrapbook of the newspaper articles about him. It was everything, including a paper that basically showed the temple clothing and the temple ordinances. And it’s front page. But it seems like a lot of the questions were centered around has the church actually stopped practicing plural marriage? There was an exchange between Joseph Smith, one of the senators. So the senator says, “Now I will illustrate what I mean by the injunction of Scripture, what we call the New Testament President.” Smith said, “That’s our scripture.” Also, the senator’s kind of surprised because that’s your scripture also. Then the senator says, “The apostle says that a bishop must be sober and must be the husband of one wife.” And Joseph Smith’s reply was, “Yes”, at least that was basically the whole exchange that happens in the Senate.

At least one wife. And so as a result of this read through and Joseph Smith worked together and they eventually produced what’s known as the second manifesto. So this is sort of the manifesto with teeth, with a method of enforcement, and also clears up that ambiguity of are we just doing this to obey the law and therefore it doesn’t apply in other countries? Or is the church ending the practice of living plural marriages? And when you say teeth, you’re saying that this one, if you practice, then excommunication will be the consequence, correct?

Yes. Here is the text of the second manifesto Joseph Smith reads April 1904, “Inasmuch as there are numerous reports in circulation, the plural marriages have been entered into contrary to the official declaration of President Woodruff of September 24th, 1890, commonly called the manifesto, which was issued by President Woodruff and adopted by the Church to this general conference October six, 1890, which forbade any marriages violative of the law of the land. I Joseph Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, hereby affirm and declare that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanctioned consent or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. And I hereby announce that all such marriages are prohibited. And if any officer or member of the Church so assumed to surmise or enter into any such marriage, he will be deemed an transgression against the church, will be liable and be dealt with according to the rules and regulations thereof, and excommunicated there from him.” So now, if you perform a new plural marriage, you’re going to be excommunicated. And this basically gives them the method to, within a generation or so, have plural marriage gradually end within the church as a way of illustrating it to apostles. John Taylor, this is the son of President John Taylor and Matthias Cawley were both removed from the Quorum of the 12. They both voluntarily resign within a day of each other.. In fact, in the smooth papers, the resignation letters are there, but there’s no better way to illustrate how serious they were. 

So after the second manifesto is issued and it’s very clear that this is church wide and it is an ex communicable offense, if you enter into new plural marriages, you have two apostles who say, okay, if that’s the terms and conditions, then I tender my resignation. 

This is the letter John W Taylor writes, “I find that I’ve been out of harmony with the set authorities as to the scope and meaning of the manifesto issued by President Woodruff. Inasmuch as I have not been in harmony with my brother and on these subjects and have been called in to. Concerning them. I now submit myself to their discipline and say further controversy and tender my resignation and hope for such clemency. In my cases, they may deem right and just and merciful.” And he is eventually excommunicated from the church. Matthias Cawley, who submits his letter the exact next day, is not excommunicated from the church. I gave a presentation once where I said they were both excommunicated and I had some Matthias Cawley descendants come up and correct me. That was tough, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. This allows Fritz to be seated in the Senate. In fact, a lot of people point out the Reed Smoot doesn’t practice Joseph Smith polygamy. One senator from Pennsylvania gets up and points out that some of the men who are accusing Reed Smoot of being a polygamist aren’t faithful to their wives. In fact, he has the classic quote where he says he’d rather be seated next to someone who’s accused of polygamy, but who is actually true to his one wife than someone who claims monogamy but is actually unfaithful to his one wife that these other politicians I’m sitting with. 

And this is a big deal because what’s at stake in the read from trials is whether a Latter day Saint can ever be seated in the Senate. Prior to this time, you had B.H. Roberts, who was elected to the House of Representatives. He is a polygamist. He’s not allowed to take his seat. George Buchanan was elected as a non-voting representative, wasn’t allowed to take his seat either. Reid’s move breaks that barrier. And there we are now where a couple of years ago, a latter day Saint Man was nominated for president of the United States. There’s no barrier anymore.

But we should probably point out that this is not going to sit well with a certain segment of Latter day Saints. There’s going to be a group that’s going to break off from the church actually on this. In 1912, a guy named Lawrence Woolley, a member of the church at the time, he reported that there was an 1886 revelation to John Taylor, and they saw that President Woodruff’s manifesto and were against that revelation. And so they’re going to make a case in 1912 that Wilford Woodruff was basically a fallen prophet and that they were going to continue with the fundamental practice of plural marriage. They’ll call it the principle. And so this is where we’re going to get the FLDS Church. That’s a break off in essentially 1912. The FLDS Church, Fundamental Latter-Day Saints. And that’s actually interesting and insightful, right? When you remember when Wilford Woodruff was wrestling as the revelations were coming in, the Lord saying, think about which one’s better to give up. In other words, which one’s more fundamental temple practice the ordinances of the temple or plural marriage? President Woodruff understood. My revelation at temple was more fundamental. But this other group is saying what’s fundamental is plural marriage. Yeah, that’s how we get this break off. And that’s going to lead to the continuation of the practice of plural marriage, even to this day with some groups. And that’s why there’s still rumors that we’re guilty by association with them, that they’re FLDS and we’re LDS. And so many people misunderstand. We would love if that went away. Yeah, but they head down to a place called Short Creek, down on the borders up by Arizona, border of Arizona. Anyway, that’s a whole nother hour or 2 hours of discussion of all of that. But I think it’s helpful for our listeners to know that this is where the FLDS church came from, is right after this second manifesto. It became very clear that there was no room whatsoever anymore for plural marriage to continue to happen in the church. And so that’s when they made their break.

And I mean, these groups coming out of the woodwork in the early 20th century, the first presidency does issue a statement explicitly about them.

One of the things they say is this, “No one better knew the principle regarding authority for the ceiling power than President John Taylor, and he would not have attempted to violate its sacrilege to its memory. The memory of a great and true Latter day saint, a prophet of the Lord, that these falsehoods should be broadcast by those who profess to be his friends while he lived.” They also point out that at President Taylor’s death, the keys of the sealing ordinances this is this 1933 first presidency statement with their powers and limitations passed by regular devolution in the way and manner prescribed by the Lord and in accordance with the custom of the church to President Woodruff. So President Woodruff has the keys that John Taylor had, and he’s the one that gave the declaration, and that’s that boy. 

And that’s such an important principle. Maybe this is a good place to land. Our discussion today is this idea of the keys and that this 1933 statement, the first presidency. This is President Heber J. Grant is the president of the church at the time. And this claim that continues to be made that Wilford Woodruff violated John Taylor’s revelation somehow and which, by the way, you can look at that revelation you find online, and there’s nothing in there that goes against the manifesto, but that’s the claim they made. But this point about the keys, I think this is the crucial thing, and I try to emphasize this with my students as we’re talking about this principle, just to say the key issue in all of this is the key issue. Right? The practice of Joseph Smith polygamy was begun by Joseph, who was acknowledged explicitly in Section 132 as the one man on Earth who held the keys of the kingdom, the keys of the sealing power that can authorize this kind of thing. And then in 1890, the one man on Earth who had the keys of the ceiling power, the keys of the kingdom, discontinued the practice. The key thing is the key thing of Lorenzo Snow. When he put this in 1894, the vote of the Latter-Day Saints to accept his binding, he said this. Listen to this language. I move that. Recognizing Wilford Woodruff as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing ordinances. We consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the manifesto. So anytime you see someone going against the one that’s got the keys of the ordinances objecting, rejecting them, calling them fallen prophets, that’s instantly a red flag area. Yeah. That 1933 statement from the first presidency emphasizes key. I want to count them. One, two, three, four, five times in just a few paragraphs. I’ll just read a little bit. There has been no change in the law of succession of the priesthood and of the keys appertaining thereto, nor the regular order of its descent. President Grant today is the only man on the earth at this time who possesses these keys. He’s never authorized anyone to perform polygamist or plural marriages. He’s not performing such marriages himself. He’s not violating the pledge that we made to our government at the time of the manifest. All right. So the only one who can authorize or. Deauthorize who can commission or decommission the practice of plural marriage is the one man on earth who holds the keys to the kingdom, and Joseph Smith was authorized to begin it. Who offered? Woodruff was authorized to begin its end and Joseph Smith was authorized to officially ended. And Heber J. Grant was authorized to officially say no for rebels. For rebels. For real. The issue is the keys. Yeah. And the key holders have been very clear on this. And so if we just keep our eyes riveted on the keys, they might take us on a ride in the 1830s forties. Plural marriage might be introduced, but then in the 1890s we may take a 180 degree turn and it might be discontinued. And that’s totally fine because it’s the one who holds the keys is doing that. 

Challenging issues linked to discipleship, but also a clear thread of the person that has the keys gets the revelation to initiate and or whatever with the practice. That’s right. The keys today are with Russell and Nelson, the ceiling keys that were used to sell me to my wife continue on the earth today. And that’s the person that we look towards to get our direction and guidance from Jesus Christ.

Thank you for hanging in with us. As we’ve discussed this challenging and difficult topic, look for more resources on Doctrine and Covenants Central and we’ll talk to you next time. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. Next week we wrap up this series by responding to your questions about plural marriage and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. And we will be honored to have with us Dr. Brian Hills as our special guest to help us respond to your questions. He’s a scholar of all things related to plural marriage in the church, and you’re not going to want to miss it. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galetti and Scott Woodward with Show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter day saints, scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to Scripture Central dot org where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us.

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By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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