The Renunciation of Polygamy

In 1890, under enormous pressure from the federal government, prophet Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto that he would only years later describe as a revelation. In it he announced that the Mormon Church renounced polygamy.

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

In September of 1890, Wilford Woodruff says, "Inasmuch as laws of the land and the institutions are arrayed against us, I will instruct my people to refrain from plural marriage. Wilford Woodruff."

This is the summit point, the continental divide in the Latter-day Saint experience. ... Faced with the end of their existence or accommodation, Wilford Woodruff says that he has been divinely inspired to move in a direction away from plural marriage. ...

So in 1890 the church basically says: "There it is. This is what you've been asking for. You have our word. It's over. Everything's fine, right?" Well, the federal government says: "Not so fast. We are going to keep a very, very close eye." This plays out most dramatically in the case of Reed Smoot, who is designated to serve as the United States senator from the state of Utah just after the turn of the century. The United States Senate looks at Reed Smoot and says, "We don't believe that you're worthy to be formally seated in our august body, because we have heard ongoing reports that plural marriage still exists in Utah."

So they use Reed Smoot's confirmation hearings as a means of dissecting Mormonism after the Manifesto. The church president is called to testify. Reed Smoot gives hours of testimony. They stretch on and on and on, and Reed Smoot is twisting in the wind. And finally the president of the church, Joseph F. Smith, in 1904 says, "Lest there be any doubt, we do not practice plural marriage, we will not practice plural marriage, and we will be part of a process that ends the practice of plural marriage." ...

And finally the forces relent. Reed Smoot is seated as a U.S. senator, and all seems to be well in the land. Not quite. Because as if it were a grape juice stain dropped on a perfect white pair of pants, the issue of plural marriage cannot be washed away, And it endures; it endures throughout the 1920s. Despite the pronouncements of the church, there's this lingering perception the Mormons can still not be trusted because there're plural marriage practitioners.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

... Polygamy continues to represent a unique challenge to us, contrasted to the policy on exclusion of blacks from the priesthood. That was an albatross around our necks for over a century, but once we changed, it went away. Even though we dropped polygamy, we have never been in a position of getting polygamy to go away, in part because it was so sensationalized for so many decades and in part because the institution of polygamy itself hasn't gone away, and it continues to exist, and by association it's still linked to Mormonism. ...

Would you say there's also a little bit of fuzziness when you look at the [anti-polygamy] Manifesto and the language of the Manifesto? ...

Well, what's commonly referred to as the Manifesto that disavowed the practice of plural marriage ... has never been given the full weight of binding revelation, and the wording of it is fairly clear that we will discontinue this practice because the federal government is obliging us to discontinue it. It doesn't address the issue of what's behind the practice. What's the doctrine? And the doctrine and the practice were bound so tightly together for so long that to take one out of the picture and not deal with the other causes confusion. And I think that confusion still exists. ...

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

[The Church] will never disavow that it was practiced; it will never disavow that it was believed, that it had biblical precedent. ... I myself -- like probably, I don't know, 95 percent of the current General Authorities of the church -- I am the product, at least on my mother's side, of polygamous great-great-grandparents, four, five generations back. So I'm not going to disavow my past, and I'm not going to disavow the church's past.

In the same breath, we will be unequivocal in declaring that it is not now practiced and say it with equal energy, with equal vehemence. ... As of 1890 we believe it was revealed [not to practice plural marriage], and so therefore the change is not the doctrine or the practice, but the issue is revelation -- the founding, guiding principle of the church. So it's loyalty to the revelation. It's loyalty to the role of the prophet. ...

... When the change came, the loyalty was every bit as demanding to absent oneself from it, to leave it, as it was to live it. I don't know, not having been there -- not having heard Joseph Smith teach it, not having seen the Western church, the Utah church, in later development live it more broadly -- I cannot speak to the pluses or the minuses. ... I just know we don't disavow it, and we do not now advocate it.

... Maybe with more time, ... maybe we can talk about it with more distance, with more dispassion, with more historical clarity, and telling the average visitor this was our polygamist past. But I think that it is too recent with too many people. This may sound defensive, but too many people think we still advocate it. So it almost strikes us, if we say anything about it, if we hardly say even the word, someone's going to say, ... "The Mormons are on the verge of reintroducing polygamy," or "They're secretly practicing it." ... Therefore the seriousness -- it's one of those lines that we ask people not to cross.

... The fact that I've known so many [modern-day polygamists] from my childhood has been a vivid, indelible imprint on my soul about the pain of it. ... The teachings are still the teachings, and the loyalty I just described to you is the loyalty we ask, but the pain is just immense. And I think we try to be understanding. We try to be charitable. ... I don't know what we can offer, but we can't offer membership in the church. Like anybody, we'd like to offer compassion and patience and love and hope and a future. But for us the steps are fairly clear about how to claim the blessings of the church. ...

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion

... I think there are many of us who can only understand polygamy in terms of the Abrahamic test. And the Abrahamic test, as I understand it, is not that you sacrifice a person or someone who is most dear to you but is that you sacrifice a principle.

In Abraham's case it was the principle of human life, and in polygamy it's that understanding of the sanctity of a monogamous bond between a man and his wife. For reasons known only to God, that was the test required of the Saints during that terribly difficult period. ...

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

The [1890] Manifesto [against polygamy], as it is called, is literally a declaration that they understand the rule of law: They understand that you have to obey it, and they understand that open defiance will no longer be tolerated. It's not clear that it's much more than that, ... but it certainly is a white flag, a very important white flag that finally deflected Congress from going even further. ...

By 1890 the Mormons had learned that to be an American citizen was to have strict limits and painful limits imposed on their ability to live their religion. Those outside the faith thought that they had really achieved a victory, that they had made the Mormons come to heel in ways that were consistent with the broader Protestant faith that literally governed the country at the time. They believed that the limitations on the free exercise of religion wouldn't come back and bite them, but they have.

What we learned through those polygamy cases was that the Constitution protects the freedom to believe but not necessarily the freedom to act. And as the 20th century progressed, and as believers began to feel the new secularism biting at their heels, they had to learn to live by the rules that they themselves had imposed on Mormons, and it has been painful -- school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and more, all these forces of secularism. We can even go to abortion. Same-sex marriage is the current topic of the day. ...

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

And when the principle, the practice was finally given up, there was great agony across the church and great pain. A lot of families had been living under this for many decades, and there were people who had sacrificed for this immensely. They'd had to move to Mexico; they'd had to move to Canada; they'd had to go to outlying settlements who knows where. They'd had to hide from marshals for years to live as what they regarded "the principle," as they called it then, and to suddenly have it seemingly surrendered was a wrenching experience for them, and it's one that I think we're overly embarrassed by. I read the accounts of some of the early plural wives as well as some of the early husbands, plural-marriage patriarchs, and it's clear to me that they saw this as something they were religiously committed to. This was not some sort of lascivious harem or something like that. ...

I have been uncomfortable, I have to say, sometimes, as we've tended to distance ourselves from that. These were heroic people, even if you don't agree with them. They sacrificed to a great degree to [do] something they really believed in. They believed that they had been told to do this by a prophet, and they were going to do it. What you saw in a lot of the caricatures from the 19th century [were] these Mormons living in this kind of lecherous luxury out in the Great Basin. That is simply, utterly foreign to the practice as we know it. It was rigorous; it was patriarchal; it was demanding. It took a lot to support numerous wives and large families, and it was difficult to do. ...