Plural Wives

The LDS church has issued another press release. This one is on plural wives. The press releases could certainly help combat the “Google Apostasy” and the “Swedish Apostasy.” When Elder L. Tom Perry went to Europe recently and said he had answers in his briefcase but couldn’t release them, presumably he was referring to the press releases now rolling out onto the LDS.org website.

The historical stories that have been taught within the church are generally in conflict with the outside accounts told by historians. Increasingly, there are LDS historians recounting history in ways which conflict with the church’s narrative. The best way to deal with these things is to get it all out.

The church’s statement on plural wives in early Utah begins its discussion with the year 1843, ignoring all the history between 1829 (when I date the beginning of the topic) and 1843 (when the revelations on the subject were reduced to writing in what is now Section 132 of the D&C). Although the statement mentions someone (not clearly identifying who) did post-1890 plural marriages, it avoids discussing the deceit  and official involvement at the highest levels of the church in continuing the practice of sealing plural wives from 1890 to 1904, and thereafter.

The church avoids discussing the full history from 1832 (Joseph Smith/Fanny Alger) through 1904, which the fundamentalists make good use of. The problems will not be solved by hiding the unpleasant parts of the history. Fundamentalists and church critics should be able to exploit this lack of complete candor.

The statement by the church says the 1890 Manifesto was “inspired.” It reads: “In 1890, the Lord inspired Church President Wilford Woodruff to issue a statement that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.”  That is not quite true according to actual history. This subject was debated in my High Priests Group a couple of Sundays ago. Some of these fathers and grandfathers have children and grandchildren falling away from the church over the subject of polygamy. Not because the practice existed, but because there is very little candor by the church in its discussion of it. The Manifesto was a political statement. It was a press release to deal with pressure from the Federal Government. It was not “inspired” in the LDS vernacular. Rather it was a desperate attempt to preserve legal rights and church property by making a statement designed to mislead Congress into believing the practice would end.

Heber J. Grant, an apostle at the time, was the publisher and managing editor of the Salt Lake Herald. His paper responded to another newspaper’s article that said the Manifesto was a revelation by writing: “[The Tribune] pretends the declaration is a revelation… although no one today has heard anyone except the lying sheet say it was a revelation.” (Salt Lake Herald, October 9, 1890.) Heber J. Grant said on September 26, 1890: “I …feel that it is merely a public announcement of the course which we had already decided in our private councils to adopt. …Yet I believe greater troubles will follow the prominent Elders in the Church through adoption of this policy.” When asked if the Manifesto was a revelation, “President Smith answered emphatically no… he did not believe it to be an emphatic revelation from God abolishing plural marriage.” (First Presidency Office Journal, August 20, 1891.) In the trial for the membership of Apostle Matthias Cowley he testified that President Joseph F. Smith informed him the 1890 Manifesto did not “mean anything.” Others including George Reynolds, L. John Nuttall, Charles W. Penrose, John Henry Smith and B. H. Roberts all denied the Manifesto was a revelation. To the extent the statement by the church is intended to convey the impression this was an inspired revelation, there is plenty to show that is inaccurate. It would be more correct to say the church reluctantly abandoned the practice as a result of legislation passed by Congress which disincorporated the LDS church, escheated its property, disenfranchised Mormons from voting, disqualified Mormons from serving on juries, and criminalized continued plural marriages. But it was abandoned only as a temporary measure to secure statehood. It was to resume when a state legislature, instead of the US Congress legislating for the Federal Territory of Utah, could pass laws. The United States did not trust Mormons, and required Utah’s state constitution to include the abandonment of plural wives as a condition of statehood. Utah became a state in 1896, but underground plural wives were continued until the Congressional hearings during the Senator Reed Smoot controversy in 1904. President Joseph F. Smith went to Washington, DC and testified under oath about the matter, and subsequently actually ended the practice. The trauma of testifying during these hearings resulted in the “Second Manifesto” written in 1904 by President Joseph F. Smith. This was another attempt to end the underground practice.

Even the 1904 letter didn’t actually end it. It just became more secret. Apostles Taylor and Cowley were sacrificed when their continued sealing of plural wives was brought to light by the Salt Lake Tribune. Their trials removed them from the Quorum of the Twelve for failing to discontinue the practice of sealing multiple wives in violation of the 1904 letter (NOT the Manifesto). No one contended in the church court proceedings for Apostles Taylor and Cowley that the Manifesto ended the practice or required them to cease sealing plural wives as early as 1890.

Interestingly related to this topic is the ruling by Judge Clark Waddoups on the issue of plural wives. The Waddoups’ opinion does not legalize plural wives. Instead it decriminalizes private sexual relations between consenting adults which would otherwise violate a criminal statute adopted by Utah. It also does not prevent criminal prosecution of bigamy. The distinction between what is legal and what is illegal is driven by whether the people engaged in the private consensual relationships bothered to purchase a marriage license and seek governmental authorization for their second (or more) marriage. If they did, and they have more than one legal marriage, they violate Utah’s bigamy law and can be prosecuted. If they did not, then they are merely engaging in private conduct which is protected by the penumbra of the First Amendment.


As a result of the decision, a man could have concubines, but not plural wives. Which brings to mind a discussion that took place in a meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on April 5, 1894 (four years after the Manifesto): They discussed concubinage as a means of meeting the technical requirements of the law, while still continuing sexual relationships with multiple women. George Q. Cannon said: “I believe in concubinage, or some plan whereby men and women can live together under sacred ordinances and vows until they can be married. Thus our surplus of girls can be cared for, and the law of God to multiple and replenish the earth can be fulfilled.” President Lorenzo Snow added: “I have no doubt but concubinage will yet be practiced by this Church, but I had not thought of it in this connection. When the nations are troubled good women will come here for safety and blessing, and men will accept them as concubines.” President Woodruff added: “If men enter into some practice of this character to raise a righteous posterity, they will be justified in it. The day is near when there will be no difficulty in the way of good men securing noble wives.” (Spellings corrected.) If you put the decision of Judge Waddoups together with the discussion on April 5, 1894, a resumption of concubinage seems possible. I’m not expecting it to resume with official sanction. But the fundamentalists are going to be perking up in Utah, I assume.

Comments are closed.