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Celestial Marriage (Eternal and Plural)

Abstract and Keywords

Eternal marriage is embedded in Mormon theology and the temple ordinances Mormons believe are essential for exaltation. Nineteenth-century Mormons believed plural marriage was the highest form of marriage, meriting the greatest glory among those exalted. This chapter provides a brief history of the practice of polygamy, including the following: the experience of living in polygamy changed over time; economically disadvantaged women were more likely than other women to become plural wives; intermarriage between ethnic groups promoted assimilation into Mormon culture; the prevalence of plural families was relatively large but such families were always a minority; and divorce provided a safety valve for unhappy plural wives. Federal legislation facilitating prosecution of polygamists and escheatment of church property prompted change in Mormon marriage practice, and today only so-called fundamentalists not affiliated with the mainstream church practice polygamy.

Keywords: eternal marriage, plural marriage, polygamy, plural wives, divorce, exaltation

Conceptions of heaven have been many and varied over the centuries. For Mormons, heaven comprises three degrees of glory; the highest of these, the celestial kingdom, encompasses three heavens, the highest of which is exaltation. While all others will be single, those who are exalted will live with their families, while husbands and wives continue to increase their posterity. The reward of living in an eternal family is not simply a hope but rather is embedded in Mormon theology and temple ordinances Mormons believe are essential for exaltation. But only those who live worthily and whose marriages are sealed for eternity by the proper priesthood authority will enjoy celestial marriages. Nineteenth-century members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believed that plural marriages were the highest form of marriage, meriting the greatest glory among those exalted. Plural marriage was so honored that ending it took time and two manifestos (1890 and 1904), but the sealing of all eternal marriages, not only plural ones, and the prevalence of monogamous marriages paved the transition to a strictly monogamous system in the early twentieth century.

Initial development of this family-centered theology is shrouded by the lack of historical documents, the shaded testimony of those recalling events long after their occurrence, and the distortions of opponents. An early intimation that Mormons believed marriages transcended earthly life is found in the marriage ceremony adopted in 1835. The presiding official was to ask God’s blessing to help the couple fulfill their covenants “from henceforth and forever” (Doctrine and Covenants [D&C], 1835 ed., 101:2; emphasis added). Four years later, prophet and founder of the church, Joseph Smith, was more explicit in teaching the doctrine of eternal family organization to Parley P. Pratt. “I learned that the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity; and that the refined sympathies and affections which endeared us to each other emanated from the fountain of divine eternal love.” Pratt rhapsodized, “Now I loved—with a pureness—an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling.”1 Taught this way, Saints accepted marriage for eternity with unalloyed joy.

(p. 335) Such was not the case with plural marriage, a doctrine intertwined with eternal family relationships but whose early development is, if anything, more obscure. The beginnings of this doctrine probably were prompted by questions about the multiple wives of Abraham, Jacob, David, and others when Joseph Smith was engaged in a translation of the Old Testament in 1831. Sealing, a concept that later became an integral part of plural marriage, also had its origins in 1831. Ordinances were sealed so that their validity was eternal. This practice was rooted in the power given to Jesus’s disciples: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The sealing of ordinances was then applied to marriage, creating a relationship extending beyond death.

The authority to seal marriage ordinances was restricted to one person at a time, initially Joseph Smith, in the only revelation canonized about the eternal nature of marriages. Although internal evidence indicates part of this revelation dated from 1831, it was not committed to paper until summer of 1843. Its purpose was to persuade Emma Smith to accept her husband’s other wives, although the practice was never publicly taught in Nauvoo. Church leader Joseph F. Smith stated in 1878 that the revelation as it stood “was not designed to go forth to the church or to the world. It is most probable that had it been then written with a view to its going out as a doctrine of the church, it would have been presented in a somewhat different form.”2

The major part of the revelation briefly provides the theological foundations of celestial or eternal marriage. Earthly contracts and vows are not valid in heaven; thus, for a man and wife to be married for eternity they must be married on earth by one who has the authority to bind in heaven what is bound on earth. Those without such marriages will live “separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity” (Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] 132:17). A man and his wife married for eternity by proper authority will be rewarded by receiving “their exaltation” (D&C 132:19), which is “a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory” (D&C 132:16) than received by others. This first section uses the singular construction “a man marry a wife” four times (verses 15, 18, 19, 26), clearly indicating that marriages sealed for eternity leading to exaltation include monogamous ones. The theological raison d’être for plural marriage, given in the latter part of the revelation, was rooted in the promise given to Abraham that “both in the world and out of the world should [his seed] continue as innumerable as the stars” (D&C 132:30), a promise encompassing Joseph Smith and others who were righteous. Despite the promise that more would be revealed and the revelation’s relative brevity for so momentous a change in marital practice, Joseph Smith wrote nothing further on the topic in the subsequent eleven months before his death.

The outlines of the theological foundations of eternal marriages, both monogamous and polygamous, are clear in the revelation, but several points remained ambiguous. Among these is the verse “Prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same” (D&C 132:3). “This law” most plausibly refers to the section immediately following, which predicates exaltation upon obeying the commandment to enter into eternal marriage covenants, including monogamous marriages. Nevertheless, some (p. 336) have thought “this law” refers to plural marriage. Even if this were the case, those to whom “this law” was revealed were severely restricted. The revelation was committed to paper specifically for Emma Smith’s eyes, certainly not for the church in general. But the revelation did not succeed in its original purpose. Although Emma Smith accepted her husband’s plural wives and was sealed to him for eternity in May 1843, by July she had returned to her original opposition to plural marriage.

Others, however, did comply—reluctantly, to be sure—when Smith privately introduced this new theology to them and told them they must take additional wives. By June 1844, when Smith was killed, about thirty other men, including most of the twelve apostles, had married plural wives. Not all marriage sealings were plural ones, however. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, apostles Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith were each sealed for time and eternity to his first and only wife, demonstrating that the blessings of eternal marriages extended to monogamous sealings. Moreover, Parley P. Pratt was sealed to his deceased spouse, as were a number of other Saints. In short, in theology and practice, marriage was transformed during Smith’s lifetime from a relationship between a man and a woman until death parted them to an eternal relationship between a man and a woman, a man and several women, and/or a person to a deceased spouse.

Following Joseph Smith’s death, which intensified many Saints’ loyalty to their martyred prophet, the numbers in polygamous marriages expanded greatly, especially after the temple was dedicated in late 1845. Perhaps as many as 10 percent of those in Nauvoo lived in polygamous families as they began their trek west.

On the other hand, Nauvoo polygamous marriages did not bear all the elements associated with marriage: plural wives did not take their husbands’ surnames, they did not openly cohabit, and plural marriages were not openly acknowledged beyond a small circle of people. The Nauvoo period is best understood as protopolygamy, since the secret nature of these marriages precluded developing practices and traditions for everyday living in plural families. Even after arrival in Utah, however, these developed slowly because polygamous families were left to work out living patterns that fit their own situations.

Leaving Nauvoo in 1846, LDS society was under stress because the entire core community was on the move. Unlike most other colonizing efforts, in which the metropole sends out settlers and remains a source of support for them, the twelve thousand Mormons left whatever they could not pack into covered wagons as they crossed the Mississippi River and headed to the frontier. This massive enterprise strained the Mormons’ meager resources, especially because few Saints were wealthy and the poorest members, evicted from Nauvoo in September by surrounding settlers, required aid from the already struggling body of Saints. To be sure, crucial cash was provided by pay received for Mormon men enlisting to fight in the Mexican War, wages paid to men for labor in the Iowa villages through which they passed, small amounts of cash raised from “begging missions” to succor desperately poor Mormons, and later in Utah the trade generated by the forty-niners needing supplies on their way to California. But by and large the community was dependent on its own resources to transport thousands (p. 337) of people to Utah—not only those abandoning Nauvoo but thousands of converts who came later—as well as to transform the frontier into towns and farms.

While living in plural marriages was a trial for many—a refiner’s fire—polygamy served social purposes that aided cohesion of the community. Plural marriages incorporated most single women and widows with their children into family units. It not only increased the number of a man’s wives but also multiplied the kinship networks of everyone in that plural family. At the end of the nineteenth century, lineal families with ties between generations would become emphasized, but during the frontier period, when settlers were heavily dependent upon each other for economic survival and protection, horizontal familial relationships were extended by adding wives to the family. This overlapping web of familial relationships was further strengthened by adopting a person, male or female, to “parents,” generally church leaders. Creating a sacerdotal family based on Joseph Smith’s teachings, adoptions were initiated in the Nauvoo Temple, but since this rite could be performed only in temples, these were not resumed until the first temple in Utah was dedicated in 1877. The most morally binding obligations are to one’s family, and religious rites created eternal horizontal relationships and generated large kinship groups on whom one could call for aid. To be sure, unrelated church members assisted each other, and kin were not all equally helpful, but people who personally rely on others often emphasize horizontal relationships or common descent from a recent ancestor. The Latter-day Saint community—moving, changing, expanding, and constantly incorporating new converts—was thus enabled to quickly form a cohesive society based not only on common church membership but also on familial relationships.

Incorporating new converts was a necessity, given the thousands who arrived after initial settlement in Utah. Many of these were foreign born and by 1870 accounted for 67.9 percent of Utah residents twenty-five years or older. Plural marriage helped to break down barriers quickly between the various nationalities. The example of Manti is illustrative. First settled in 1849 by former Nauvoo residents, Manti began receiving Scandinavian converts in 1853. Unlike most immigrant communities in nineteenth-century America, in which marital exogamy usually does not take place until the second or third generation, plural marriage permitted first-generation immigrants to intermarry with spouses of other nationalities. Sophia Klauen Petersen, a widow with five children who emigrated from Denmark in 1856, was destitute when she arrived in Utah. She and her family were asked to go to Manti, where they moved into cramped quarters in the fort with the American-born Smith family. Three months later she became Albert Smith’s second wife.

The majority of polygamists married spouses born in the same country, but by 1880 in Manti, 45 percent of polygamous husbands and 22 percent of plural wives were married to a spouse whose country of birth differed from their own. The greater part of these spouses came from countries sharing the same or similar languages. Like Sophia Petersen and Albert Smith, however, 9 percent of plural wives and 19 percent of polygamous husbands married a spouse born in a country with a different language. Plural marriage was thus an important factor in building a common Mormon culture out of the disparate converts arriving in Utah before 1890.

(p. 338) Plural marriage was also a means for taking care of women without male breadwinners in an impoverished frontier society. Women’s occupations—teaching, sewing, and domestic service—paid poorly, and few other options were open to women during early settlement, except becoming a plural wife. With opportunities so constrained, economically disadvantaged women were more likely to marry into plurality than other women. In Manti, about a third of plural wives had previously been widowed or divorced, and about another third had fathers who were dead or not in Utah, types of women solely or largely dependent on their own meager resources and underpaid skills. It is not astonishing that a church believing marriage was necessary for exaltation but with limited financial resources would foster the marriage of the fatherless and widows, nor is it surprising that economically disadvantaged women who shared those beliefs would choose the honored role of mother and wife, even plural wife, over impecunious spinsterhood.

Polygamous husbands needed both religious and economic attributes to attract wives. Most church leaders married plural wives, but so also did many other men considered worthy. Though few husbands were wealthy by the standard in the “States,” polygamists were in general among the wealthiest in their own communities. By marrying additional wives, a polygamist not only gave those wives some right to his resources, but also distributing those resources among their large families mitigated the growing per capita economic inequality among the Saints. One goal of the early church was to eliminate large economic divisions among its members, and it instituted several programs to achieve that end. Plural marriage undoubtedly promoted economic equality at least as well as those other programs. Certainly it proved more long-lasting than any church economic program except tithing, and it was sufficiently widespread to have a significant impact.

Polygamy was also sufficiently widespread, especially in the early decades of settlement, to have a demographic impact. The revelation on plural marriage indicated that increasing one’s posterity—“doing the works of Abraham”—was central to its practice. At first blush, it appears that polygamy suppressed the birth rate. While first wives had the highest number of births, subsequent wives had on average fewer children than monogamous women. The stated purpose of plural marriage, however, was not to increase the overall birth rate but rather to increase the number of children born to and raised in righteous homes. Because only men deemed worthy received approval of church leaders to enter plural marriage, the number of children for some worthy men was greater than had they remained monogamous.

Nevertheless, plural marriage affected the entire Mormon community, not simply those who practiced it. In the first decades of settlement, demand for wives impacted all women, increasing the proportion of women who ever married to almost 100 percent, suppressing the average marriage age for women when the percentage of new polygamous marriages was at its peak, and providing widows and divorced women of child-bearing age opportunities to soon remarry. Hence, more women were married for more of their fertile years, thus having more opportunities to conceive children than otherwise would have prevailed. Overall, Mormon pronatalist beliefs resulted in large families, especially for women who married before age twenty. First wives bore about (p. 339) ten children, subsequent plural wives bore about 8.5 children, and once-married wives had about 9.5 children. The high birth rate and continued convert immigration into Utah created a strong central core of Saints, either by descent or consent, in the Mormon culture region—Utah and portions of surrounding states—by the end of the nineteenth century.

Contributing to that strong central core was the deep-seated sense of identity most Latter-day Saints had with their church and Mormon culture. That sense of identity preceded settlement in Utah and widespread knowledge of polygamy, forged in the fires of persecution and a sense of themselves as the latter-day House of Israel. But plural marriage strengthened that Mormon identity in the face of pressure by Protestants and the federal government to stamp out the practice. While the majority of Mormons did not practice plural marriage, all could believe in it and in fact were enjoined to do so. As laws became more punitive toward polygamy and the church, members had to choose whether they stood with the church, reinforcing the sociological boundaries between Mormons and others.

In 1852, when Orson Pratt first publicly announced in a special conference that the Latter-day Saints were practicing plural marriage, he did not wish to build barriers but rather to demand that Mormons be enfolded in the rights the Constitution granted for the free exercise of religion. “If it can be proven to a demonstration,” he claimed, “that the Latter-day Saints have actually embraced, as a part and portion of their religion, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional.” Pratt thus sought to prove that plural marriage was integral to Mormon theology. He told the assembled congregation that they must receive the law and not reject it, implying that the revelation of 1843 was now the law of the church. While accepting plural marriage—believing in it—would lead to members’ marrying additional wives, the necessity of actually doing so to be exalted remained ambiguous. Pratt discussed having one’s marriage sealed as crucial, and sealings were performed for monogamous as well as polygamous marriages.3 No vote was taken to accept the revelation, although such votes were not general practice at the time. It was not included in the Doctrine and Covenants until a new edition was published in 1876, approved by a church vote in 1880.

The number of plural marriages increased in 1852 but hardly as much as one would expect had Saints believed their exaltation depended on it. The Mormon Reformation of 1856–57 had a much greater impact on the practice of polygamy than did Pratt’s public announcement. In 1855, Brigham Young acknowledged, “Some say, ‘I would do so [enter plural marriage], but brother Joseph and brother Brigham have never told me to do it.’ ” The perception remained that plural marriage was a commandment to certain individuals, not to every Mormon. Apparently most did not believe taking additional wives was essential for exaltation, although Young in a private discussion in 1856 opined that it was. Answering the question whether to avoid damnation one needed to take more wives than one, he answered, “I think it includes the whole law with its covenants.”4 The “whole law” meant marrying multiple wives, but the qualifier “I think” indicates he referred to his own views and was not making a doctrinal pronouncement.

(p. 340) Utah was then experiencing a severe economic crisis. Grasshoppers had eaten much of the crop in 1855, and the following hard winter killed a high proportion of their livestock. Many resorted to gathering weeds to survive. The famine was exacerbated by a record number of immigrants arriving in the Valley. In these desperate circumstances church leaders initiated a Reformation to eliminate sin. Among these was the sin of omission—not obeying the command to enter plural marriage. Bishops and home missionaries visited families with the message that the command to live plural marriage must be obeyed.

Infused with millennial fervor, Latter-day Saints responded overwhelmingly. “Nearly all are trying to get wives,” wrote Wilford Woodruff on April 1, 1857, “until there is hardly a girl fourteen years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be.” Some believed exaltation was restricted to those who entered plural marriage, as shown by these lines from the “Reformation Song”: “Now, this advice I freely give, / If exalted you would be, / Remember that your husband must / Be blessed with more than thee.”5 According to Stanley Ivins’s figures, 65 percent more plural marriages occurred in 1856 and 1857 than any other two years of Mormon polygamy. Similarly, a study of Manti polygamists shows that new plural marriages spiked in 1857, with almost twice as many marriages as the two next highest years, 1846 in Nauvoo and 1869, when the railroad arrived in Utah. Moreover, the 1860 Manti census shows that only two women over sixteen years old had never been to the marriage altar; they were both eighteen. Demographically, the Mormon population had reached what Davis Bitton and Val Lambson call “unsustainably high polygyny prevalence”—the saturation point.

Soon, however, some newlyweds found that it was easier to get married than to remain married. The spike in plural marriages in 1856 and 1857 was followed by a peak in the next two years in the number of cancellations of sealings. Studies of Manti and Payson show that the percentage of plural marriages ending in divorce during the nineteenth century was around one in six, about one-third of the divorce rate in the United States today.

After the Reformation church leaders never made such an effort to adjure the general membership to enter plural marriage. While the revelation’s ambiguity remained about whom the law of plurality applied to, the church made no statements over the signature of the First Presidency, an important means of clarifying church doctrine and policy. Although sermons by leaders were not in complete concurrence, most agreed on two issues: that members’ belief in plural marriage was essential and that its practice was rewarded in the hereafter with a greater degree of glory among those exalted than would result from a monogamous sealing.

Reluctance of many members to enter plural marriage is evident in the warnings from the pulpit not to reject or deny the principle. Orson Pratt cautioned in 1874, “Those who reject this principle reject their salvation, they shall be damned, saith the Lord.” The sin is finding fault with plural marriage or a determination not to enter into it. In this context of warning members about not “obeying or submitting to it in our faith or believing this order,” Brigham Young declared, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others … may even be permitted to come into (p. 341) the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.” Tellingly, in the same passage, he stated, “If you desire with all your hearts to obtain the blessings which Abraham obtained [exaltation], you will be polygamists at least in your faith.” On another occasion, Young similarly stated, “A Man may Embrace the Law of Celestial Marriage in his heart & not take the Second Wife and be justified before the Lord.”6 The admonitions are not that every member must enter plural marriage but that every member should believe in it.

While a couple whose marriage was sealed merited exaltation on condition that they lived a righteous life, sermons emphasized that those in plural marriage would achieve an even greater eternal reward. Exaltation meant living in the presence of the Father and His Son, but among those earning such an eternal award, pluralists would merit “the fullness of the Lord’s glory in the eternal world,” “attain to the fullness of exaltation in the celestial glory,” or be “more advanced.” Joseph F. Smith made this point explicit: “Man may receive great reward, exaltation and glory by entering into the bond of the new and everlasting covenant [eternal marriage], if he continue faithful according to his knowledge, but he cannot receive the fullness of the blessings unless he fulfills the law.” Nevertheless, he stressed, “This law [of plurality] is in force upon the inhabitants of Zion,” which he said meant that every man who had the ability to practice plural marriage “in righteousness” should do so.7 Among members, however, views differed. Annie Clark Tanner thought that “if one wanted to attain the very pinnacle of glory in the next world there must be, at least, three wives.” Others accepted the principle, but only for women who would not otherwise have married. When Martha Cragun Cox became a plural wife, a friend told her: “It is all very well for those girls who cannot very well get good young men for husbands to take married men, but she [Martha] had no need to lower herself, for there were young men she could have gotten.” A Manti maiden, unsure what to believe, wrote Brigham Young asking whether she should accept her polygamous or her bachelor suitor. When Young recommended she marry the bachelor if he “reciprocate[d] your feelings and wishes in this matter,” she did so and never entered polygamy.8

Despite the greater eternal reward merited by plural marriage, not all could become pluralists, as George Q. Cannon acknowledged: “Take our own Territory: the males outnumber the females; it cannot therefore be a practice without limit among us.” Disabilities and poverty were additional constraints. In general, Latter-day Saints tried to be faithful in living plural marriage, but most were monogamous. The proportion living in plural families reached its height in the late 1850s, declining thereafter, although the absolute numbers had grown by 1880. In Manti, for example, the population living in plural families was 43 percent in 1860 and declined to 36 percent and 25 percent in 1870 and 1880, respectively. But the number in plural families increased from 1860 to 1870 and then remained fairly stable over the next decade. The prevalence of polygamy varied considerably over time and among communities, and the relatively large percentages identified as living in polygamous homes exclude monogamous parents, siblings, and children of pluralists living in households separate from (p. 342) their polygamous relatives. A remarkable number of Mormons lived some years of their lives in plural households.

Characterizing the nature of plural marriages is difficult because every polygamous marriage, like every monogamous one, is unique. Generalizing about plural marriages is even more problematic because there are not just two personalities interacting in the relationship, but three or more. Beyond the personalities of the individuals within a marriage, however, are other, more general factors influencing the nature of these plural marriages. Some of these factors are the ages at which husbands and wives married, the family’s wealth in relation to its size, the number of wives a husband had at one time, the number of children and their distribution among the wives, the living arrangements of the wives, and the area where the family lived, whether long settled or just being colonized. Another crucial factor that affected every plural family was the time in which they lived. Men and women in Nauvoo and early Utah had to overcome their strong prejudices against nonmonogamous marriages and pioneer methods of living in plural families; those marrying from about 1860 to 1880 had become accustomed to polygamy but often lived long enough to experience hiding from federal deputies and endure prison sentences; those marrying in the 1880s began their relationships under the cloud of possible prosecution; and some marrying after 1890 found even fellow Mormons treated them as embarrassing remnants of the past.

Religious conviction was the foundation of plural marriage, the more necessary because living it could be difficult for both men and women. Besides increased financial responsibilities, men needed to meet the emotional needs of multiple wives, not always successfully. Returning from a mission, Franklin D. Richards brought shawls and other presents for his wives and told them to choose. His tearful first wife had to inform her hapless husband that each wife would rather have a gift chosen especially for her. Though many wives expressed love and respect for their husbands, those who developed strong relationships with the other wives or with their own children often coped better than those who desired close emotional ties with husbands. Lamenting in her journals her loneliness even when her husband traveled, John Hindley’s second wife, Jane, became distraught when he married another wife: “I have suffered in my feelings More than I can tell.” The birth of that wife’s first child brought more grief: “What I have just passed through God only knows my feelings cannot be expressed.” Through it all, however, her love for her husband never wavered and it even grew for the first wife. Plural marriage had been a trial for her but also a blessing, she wrote.

Other polygamous wives agreed. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Macdonald also called it a trial but added that “the self control I have attained is of more value to me than all I could possibly have obtained by avoiding it.” Martha Cragun Cox in her reminiscences was positive about her relationship with the other wives: “To me it is a joy to know that we laid the foundation of a life to come while we lived in that plural marriage, that we three who loved each other more than sisters … will go hand in hand together down all eternity. That knowledge is worth more to me than gold and more than compensates for the sorrow I have ever known.” Finding plural marriage a trial at times, Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in the United States, nevertheless (p. 343) quipped to a reporter of the San Francisco Examiner: “If her husband has four wives, she has three weeks of freedom every month.” Polygamous wives generally found positive aspects of plural marriage more than compensated for its difficulties; truly unhappy wives received divorces.

Most church leaders, including local leaders, entered plural marriage soon after their calling, if they were not already pluralists. Admonitions to church leaders increased in the 1880s. Seymour B. Young was commanded to take a plural wife when he was called to the Council of Seventy in 1882, and two years later George Q. Cannon averred, “He did not feel like holding up his hand to sustain anyone as a presiding officer over any portion of the people who had not entered into the Patriarchial [sic] order of Marriage.”9

Such admonitions were given in the face of federal authorities beginning to arrest and imprison increasing numbers of polygamists. The Edmunds Act, passed in 1882, made unlawful cohabitation a crime and opened the way for successful prosecutions. In Utah alone, over two hundred men had been indicted by the end of 1886. While some polygamists agreed to obey the law in the future, most who pled guilty or were found to be so by juries, served prison sentences, and were released to praise as martyrs by the Mormon community. In 1887, Congress augmented its strategy of punishing individuals in order to abolish polygamy and passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, striking at the church itself by making provision for the escheat of its property.

The number of men going to prison reached its peak in 1888 but escheating of church property relentlessly continued. As the pressure on the church mounted, leaders were cautioned against saying anything about plural marriage from the pulpit, couples wanting to enter plural marriages were advised to go to Mexico, the 1887 constitutional convention in Utah included a provision making bigamy and polygamy a misdemeanor, and in 1888 the church’s attorney argued on the basis of the 1843 revelation that “plural marriages were permissive.”10 Despite these attempts at conciliation, the escheatment of church property continued, and in May 1890 the US Supreme Court upheld the disincorporation of the church and forfeiture of its assets. But only when federal officials began proceedings to confiscate the temples—crucial for the performance of saving ordinances for both the living and the dead—did the church act definitively.

On September 25, 1890, Wilford Woodruff, president of the church, published an Official Declaration, commonly called the Manifesto. Denying that the church had been encouraging polygamy or permitting new plural marriages in the past year, Woodruff declared “my intention to submit to those laws [forbidding plural marriages], and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. … I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land” [emphasis added] (D&C Official Declaration 1). Under inspiration, as he later explained, and to save temples from confiscation, Woodruff suspended the law of the church to practice plural marriage. Henceforth, the law regarding plural marriage referred to in the 1843 revelation would apply to no member of the church, a momentous change. On the other hand, the Manifesto avoided mentioning continuing cohabitation of those already living in plural marriages, who continued to be subject to the laws of the land. In short, the desired (p. 344) result was a return to ante-Edmunds-Tucker, when individuals were answerable for practicing plural marriage, but the church itself was not held responsible.

The Manifesto’s meaning became clearer only through later decisions and adjudications. In 1891, when Woodruff testified before the Master in Chancery about the disposition of escheated church property, he indicated the Manifesto applied throughout the world and included continuing cohabitation. Those entering plural marriage after the Manifesto “would be liable to excommunication.” In 1900, Lorenzo Snow, then president of the church, issued a statement that the church had “positively abandoned the practice of polygamy, or the solemnization of plural marriages, in this or any other State” (Mexico was not mentioned), and that the church did not “advise or encourage unlawful cohabitation.” The distinction follows the Edmunds Act, which provided for different punishments for polygamy—entering plural marriage within the statute of limitations—and continuing cohabitation. The Snow statement declared any member disobeying the law “must bear his own burden” and be answerable to the laws of the land, articulating the church’s policy that individuals, not the church, would be responsible for infringements of laws against plural marriage.11

Because plural marriage was so ingrained in Mormon beliefs, over two hundred plural marriages were contacted between the Manifesto of 1890 and 1904, most of which took place in Mexico. Far more prevalent were those polygamists who continued cohabiting with their wives. According to church statistics, the number of plural families in the United States was reduced from 2,451 in 1890, to 1,543 in 1899, and still further to 897 in 1902. Divorce accounted for only 4 percent of the decrease between 1890 and 1899, revealing dedication to their spouses, but 31 percent were broken by death, the advanced age of many polygamists inevitably reducing the number of cohabiting plural families. One polygamist continuing to cohabit with his wives was Joseph F. Smith, who became president of the church in 1901. To avoid what the US Supreme Court had called “flaunting in the face of the world the ostentation and opportunities of a bigamous household,” he resided with his first wife, his other wives living a short distance away in houses they owned. Confessing his wives had borne eleven children since the Manifesto, he nevertheless averred that he was not “openly and obnoxiously practicing unlawful cohabitation.”12

This confession was delivered before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections investigating whether Reed Smoot, senator from Utah and apostle in the church, should be allowed to hold his seat. Although Smith declared he was willing to answer to the law, Smoot claimed that Smith’s admission shocked national leaders more than reports of new polygamous marriages. In the wake of his testimony, Smith presented a Second Manifesto to a church conference in April 1904. It ignored continuing cohabitation but was stringent about new marriages: “All such [plural] marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into such marriage he will be … liable to be … excommunicated therefrom.” Although a few marriages were subsequently contracted without incurring church discipline, by 1910 two apostles had been dropped from the Quorum and a committee established to investigate new marriages and discipline those responsible. Francis (p. 345) M. Lyman, president of the Twelve who headed the committee to enforce the Second Manifesto, was essentially correct about the relationship between the two manifestos: “When [the Woodruff Manifesto] was given it simply gave notice to the Saints that they need not enter plural marriage any longer, but [the Manifesto of 1904] made that manifesto prohibitory.”13

These two manifestos revealed what was fundamental to the church. The 1890 Manifesto saved the temples from forfeiture, while the 1904 Manifesto paved the way for increased missionary work. In 1894, Woodruff announced that henceforth members would be sealed to their biological parents rather than church leaders, and that members’ responsibility was to research their ancestry and seal the generations to each other. The emphasis was thus changed from the horizontal bonds of plural families to the lineal relationships to one’s progenitors. Because the ordinance to seal parents and children could be performed only in temples, retaining the temples was even more essential in the late nineteenth century than it would have been before this change. Moreover, the Smoot hearings and the 1904 Manifesto helped over time to improve the church’s image, and Smoot as a national leader negotiated the admittance of missionaries into some European countries.

Plural marriages performed secretly in the fourteen years after the 1890 Manifesto, however, inadvertently lent scope to those who refused to accept change after 1904. After their excommunications, they began to meet together, claiming a religious authority higher than that of the church they had left and developing a priesthood organization after the mainstream church’s “Final Manifesto” in 1933 iterated that plural marriages could no longer be performed. While agreeing on the necessity of polygamy, the group later fractured, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (whose leader assigns spouses for its members) and the Apostolic United Brethren (which permits husbands to choose additional wives) being among the largest of the divisions. In addition, other groups arose with competing claims of authority to continue plural marriages, and some polygamists are “independents,” or unaffiliated with any specific group. These groups collectively denominate themselves Fundamentalist Mormons. An estimated 38,000 people, primarily in the Rocky Mountain region, consider themselves Fundamentalists, although not all belong to families headed by practicing polygamists. Not surprisingly, the mainstream church is not only completely separate from these groups but also disputes the umbrella term of Fundamentalist Mormons because it disagrees about what beliefs and practices are fundamental to Mormon doctrine.

Polygamous societies differ from each other, just as polygamous marriages do. Polygamy is not a marriage system; it is a category encompassing many different marriage systems. Rules, traditions, and practices vary between groups and change over time. Living in plural marriage among the Apostolic United Brethren is a considerably different experience from living among the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, and both differ from the Mormon experience in the nineteenth century. Each is shaped not only by ideas and practices within the group but also by the groups’ relationship to the surrounding society. Generalizations and assumptions of similarity between various groups practicing polygamy are thus often misleading. Moreover, mainstream (p. 346) Mormons have retained the original revelation on celestial marriage but tied it to its strictly monogamous marriage system. Today, Mormons are still adjured to prepare to live as families in the hereafter, but they are also counseled to focus on the present by making their homes a little heaven on earth—celestial families in this terrestrial realm.


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                                                                                    (3.) Deseret News Extra, Salt Lake City, September 14, 1852, 14–22.

                                                                                    (4.) Young, “Plurality of Wives,” 1855, 3: 265; Woodruff, Journal, April 15, 1856, 4: 411.

                                                                                    (5.) Young, “Plurality of Wives,” 1855, 3: 265; Woodruff, Journal, April 15, 1856, 4: 411; Deseret News, November 26, 1856, 302.

                                                                                    (6.) Pratt, “God’s Ancient People,” 1874, 17: 224 (emphasis added); Young, “Beneficial Effects,” 1866, 11: 268–69 (emphasis added); Woodruff, Journal, October 24, 1871, 7:31.

                                                                                    (7.) Pratt, Deseret News Extra, Salt Lake City, September 14, 1852, 14–22; “William Clayton’s Testimony” (emphasis added); Cannon, “Blessings Enjoyed by the Saints,” 1883, 24: 146; Smith, “Plural Marriage,” 1878, 20: 30–31 (emphasis added).

                                                                                    (10.) “Utah’s Cause,” Deseret News, February 22, 1888.

                                                                                    (11.) “The Church Cases,” Deseret Weekly News, October 24, 1891, 583; “Polygamy and Unlawful Cohabitation,” Deseret News, January 8, 1900, 4.

                                                                                    (12.) Cannon v. United States, 116 U.S. 55 (1885); Proceedings before the Committee, 1:324.

                                                                                    (13.) “Official Statement by President Joseph F. Smith,” Deseret Evening News, April 6, 1904, 1; “President Lyman Very Emphatic,” Deseret Evening News, October 31, 1910, 1.