The Era of Official Persecution: The U.S. Civil War, polygamy, and the struggle for statehood (1858–1896)
The Campaign against Polygamy
Utah was largely removed from the horrors of the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865). The Latter-day Saints (“Mormons“) continued to settle large swaths of the American West and to establish beautiful cities, such as Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Temple was begun in 1853, the famous Tabernacle was built, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, named for its justly famous venue, was begun by Welsh immigrants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (“Mormon Church”) leadership was reorganized following the chaos of the exodus from Nauvoo. The Relief Society, which had lapsed in the intervening years of settling and persecution, was restarted and Eliza R. Snow, famous for her poetry, became the President. The Relief Society started magazines and built their own buildings. They campaigned for women’s rights and started the first hospitals in Utah.
However, once the Civil War was concluded and slavery was ended, the federal government turned its eye back to Utah to end the other “relic of barbarism,” polygamy, or plural marriage. Mormons often referred to polygamy as “The Principle.” In 1862, the Morrill anti-bigamy bill was passed which made it illegal to have more than one wife. This was difficult to enforce, and so very few were ever prosecuted under this law. Brigham Young was arrested, but eventually released without trial.
Utah’s isolation and independence made it difficult to vigorously prosecute the Mormon polygamists. Throughout the rest of Brigham Young’s life, only token efforts were made to attack polygamy. Instead, the Utah Territory and the Mormon Church moved forward. Brigham Young oversaw the construction of temples in St. George, Logan, and Manti—all in Utah. In 1869, the Church established the first incorporated department store in the world: Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution, commonly called ZCMI. In 1870, Utah became the first territory or state to give women the right to vote (although Wyoming gave them the right later that year and held their elections before Utah, thus Wyoming became the first state where women actually voted). Anti-Mormon forces hoped that Mormon women would vote contrary to the men of the Church, but this was not the case. Toward the end of his life, Brigham Young organized a society for young ladies, called the Retrenchment Society, and re-organized the quorums and bodies of the priesthood to be more efficient and more in harmony with the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith. On August 29, 1877, Brigham Young died while visiting the city of St. George in southern Utah.
Saddened though they were by the death of this great leader, the Mormons moved on and Mormonism continued to grow, since no one man, except for the Lord Jesus Christ, was central to its mission and teachings. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church until John Taylor, a British convert, became the third president in 1880. That year, the Church celebrated its jubilee by forgiving debts and holding numerous parties. The Church also accepted the Pearl of Great Price as one of the standard works, or scriptural canon, of Mormonism.
Persecution from the government only increased as the Mormon Church continued to grow. In 1882, the Edmunds Act, which outlawed cohabitation with more than one woman, was passed. To enforce this, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur sent the Utah Commission. All Mormons who practiced polygamy were disenfranchised: stripped of the right to vote or forbidden to hold public office. Many of them were also jailed. Although this clearly violated U.S. constitutional law forbidding ex post facto laws, over 1,300 men were jailed. In Idaho, a loyalty oath was instituted in 1885, which required all residents to swear they opposed polygamy or any organization that taught it in order to be given the right to vote. This effectively disenfranchised all Mormons. Mormons appealed these laws all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but things only got worse. In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the Mormon Church and seized virtually all of its property. It required loyalty oaths from local officials, which kept even Mormons who were not practicing polygamy (of which there were many) from holding office and which allowed the federal government to appoint state officers and even control what textbooks could be allowed in classrooms.
Many thousands of Latter-day Saints languished in prisons. Federal appointees, many unfriendly to the Mormons, were appointed as judges and magistrates in the territory. Mormon leaders went into hiding. Thousands of Mormons fled to Canada and Mexico at this time, where some of their descendents still live today, though some Mormons left Mexico for the United States during the war with Pancho Villa in the early twentieth century.
The End of Polygamy
In July 1887, Mormon President and Prophet John Taylor died while in hiding. His funeral was small, since sheriffs were waiting by to arrest any Mormon leaders who attended. Some two years later, Wilford Woodruff, an early convert to Mormonism from Ohio, became the fourth President of the Mormon Church. He began his ministry in hiding. After much prayer and discussion with the other Apostles, President Woodruff received a revelation from God in 1890. It showed him what would happen if the Mormon Church continued to practice polygamy. All the Mormon temples and churches would be lost. All their men would languish in jail and no missionaries would be sent out. President Woodruff prayed fervently to know God’s will and was shown that the wisest course would be to cease practicing polygamy. He realized that temple work and missionary work were much more important. He also remembered that the Lord had said he sometimes commands His children to practice polygamy and sometimes forbids it. In October 1890, the Church accepted this revelation as the will of God. Polygamy within Utah Territory ceased, although plural marriages were performed for a short time afterward outside the United States.
With the official end of polygamy, persecutione eased somewhat. In 1893, the Salt Lake Temple was finished and dedicated, forty years after it was officially begun. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed its first concert outside of Utah at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. Mormon missionaries made their first appearance in parts of the South Pacific and Asia at this period. By 1901, they were preaching in Japan. In 1894, Wilford Woodruff received another revelation showing that children were to be sealed, or bound for eternity by the power of the priesthood, to their parents in the temple. Also in that year, President Grover Cleveland, who had long been friendly to the Mormons and had opposed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, pardoned all polygamists. In 1896, Utah was admitted into the union as the forty-fifth state. In September 1898, Wilford Woodruff died while visiting Mormon congregations in California.
Despite the official declaration that polygamous marriages were no longer to be performed, many U.S. citizens were suspicious that polygamy continued. Reed Smoot, a Utah citizen who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1902, did not practice polygamy, but because he was a Mormon, there was an uproar. Controversy continued for several years about whether he should be allowed to serve in the Senate or not.
Confusion continued, as it still does today, about those who chose to continue polygamy and their relationship to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Polygamy officially ended in the Mormon Church in 1890. It became an excommunicable offense in 1904 (as it remains today) for members of the Church to enter a polygamous marriage. However, there were several groups who broke off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who continued the practice. The confusion arises about the continuation of polygamy today because many of these groups still refer to themselves as “Mormons.” Since the media continues to refer to Latter-day Saints as “Mormons” today, it is easy for the public to assume that all Mormons are still practicing polygamy. However, anyone who enters into this practice will be excommunicated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many who call themselves “Mormons” today who practice plural marriage have never even been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These distinctions were lost on the general public 100 years ago as they still are today, and many battled to oust Smoot from the Senate. A four-year conflict ensued. The argument against Smoot was not that he practiced polygamy, because he didn’t, but that he was a “Mormon” as well as an apostle in the Mormon Church. Just a few years before the Smoot debate, B.H. Roberts, another prominent Utah Mormon, was denied the seat he had been elected to in the House of Representatives because he practiced polygamy (which he had entered into before the official declaration). This in itself would never be tolerated today. It becomes even more important to note again that Smoot did not practice polygamy; yet he was still denied his seat.
On February 20, 1907, the Senate defeated the proposal to remove Smoot from office, and he was allowed to serve out his term in the Senate. He was even reelected in 1908 and served until March 1933.
Utah Gains Statehood
The citizens of the Utah Territory petitioned for statehood for decades before it was finally granted. They were denied statehood on the basis of polygamy and their citizens who had fled the country and were deemed “unpredictable.” For anyone who is familiar with the severe persecution before (and after) the Latter-day Saints fled to the Salt Lake Valley, the surprise does not come that the government denied their petition for statehood, but that they requested the statehood in the first place. However, shortly after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, the territory was won by the United States and became U.S. land, which it had not been earlier. In order to preserve their rights (which obviously did not work for some time), they sought more government protection through statehood.
Not only were Utah citizens denied statehood, they also had an outside form of government imposed on them. While Utah had granted full voting rights to women in 1870, one of the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act (which already stripped many citizens of their right to vote) repealed women’s suffrage. Women did not regain suffrage until 1896, when Utah was finally admitted to the Union as a state.