Mormons Officially Renounce Polygamy: ‘1890 Manifesto’
The fate of Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been inextricably linked ever since Brigham Young led a group of Mormon pioneers to Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, to found a new community. They were fleeing the persecution that had plagued them everywhere they settled, first in Ohio and Missouri, and then most especially in their own Illinois community of Nauvoo—where their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., was assassinated by an angry mob after being imprisoned in Carthage, Il.
Utah was part of Mexico when the Mormons arrived, and it was so remote from both the U.S. and Mexico City that the Mormons believed they would finally be left alone. However, their new home became U.S. territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that ended the Mexican-American War. Utah Territory was created by the Compromise of 1850, and in the first 22 years after settling in the harsh conditions of their new home, the Mormon community grew as 70,000 believers joined them. Other pioneers came to Utah Territory as well, lured by the abundant land and rich mineral resources—especially silver.
By 1890, Utah had become the most populous and prosperous of the U.S. territories. Both Church members and non-members wanted to be admitted into the Union, but the U.S. opposed them because of the Mormon practice of polygamy, or plural marriage. A special federal investigation, called the “Utah Commission,” found evidence that polygamy was still being sanctioned by the Church in Utah. In response to this, on Sept. 24, 1890, Church President Wilford Woodruff wrote the “1890 Manifesto” to formally disavow polygamy and announce to the world that the Church did not condone the practice.
This manifesto effectively stymied opposition to Utah’s statehood. When the territory next applied it was accepted, and on Jan. 4, 1896, Utah was admitted into the Union as the 45th state. Its statehood was greeted with suspicions of continued polygamy; even in 1890, after the manifesto had been announced, there were many rumors that the Mormons still were secretly practicing polygamy.
The following three newspaper articles are about the 1890 Manifesto. The first gives the manifesto in Woodruff’s own words. The next two articles reflect some of the prevailing suspicion.
This article was published by the Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois) on the front page of its Sept. 25, 1890, issue:
No Polygamy in Utah
The Head of the Mormon Church Denies That Plural Marriages Are Performed
Salt Lake City, Sept. 24.—Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church of Latter-day Saints, has prepared and tomorrow will publish the following manifesto:
“Press dispatches having been sent from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published for political purposes, to the effect that the Utah Commission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, alleges that plural marriages are still being solemnized, and that forty or more such marriages have been contracted in Utah since last June or during the last year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy—I, therefore, as President of the Church of Latter-day Saints do hereby in the most solemn manner, declare that the charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have, during that period, been solemnized in our temples or any other place in the Territory [of Utah]. One case has been reported in which the parties alleged that the marriage was performed in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, in the spring of 1889. But whatever was done in the matter was done without my knowledge. In consequence of this alleged occurrence Endowment House was by my instructions taken down without delay. Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have already been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I do hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws and to use all my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can reasonably be construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy, and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey such teachings he has been promptly reproved; and 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.”
This article was published by the Salt Lake Weekly Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah)—a rival of the Mormon’s own newspaper, the Deseret Weekly—on the front page of its Sept. 25, 1890, issue. The Tribune obviously wants the territory’s prosperity to continue, and one can sense its frustration that the Mormons’ polygamy is standing in the way of admission into the Union. The Tribune’s article questions Woodruff’s sincerity, pointing out his “devious” method of announcing his manifesto via news outlets in Chicago and only calling his prohibition “advice,” rather than preaching it from the Tabernacle as official Church policy:
Why the Devious Way?
The Mormon President’s Artfully Promulgated ‘Manifesto’
He Does Not Encourage Polygamy
And His ‘Advice’ to the People, by Way of Chicago, Is to Obey the Law—Will It Be Read at the Tabernacle?
The following was received in this city as an Associated Press dispatch sent out from the Chicago headquarters:
Salt Lake, Sept. 24.—President Woodruff of the Mormon Church today issued a manifesto in which, referring to the statement in the report of the Utah Commission that plural marriages have been solemnized during the past year, and that the leaders of the church have encouraged the continuance of polygamy, he enters a sweeping denial that such things have occurred.
President Woodruff further says that inasmuch as the law forbidding polygamy has been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort he hereby declares his intention to submit to those laws and use his influence with the members of the church to have them do likewise. There is nothing in his teaching to the church or in the teaching of his associates during the time specified which can reasonably be construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy, and when any elder has used language which appeared to convey such teachings, he has been promptly reproved.
He concludes: “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.”
This third article extends the Salt Lake Weekly Tribune’s suspicion into outright distrust. It was published by the Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) on Sept. 25, 1890:
The Utah Commission and Polygamy
The report of this Commission is in direct conflict with the statement of President Woodruff that there have been no plural marriages solemnized by the church during the past year. The report sets forth that since September 1, 1889, there were 202 complaints made against Mormons under the several heads of polygamy, bigamy, etc., and that of the 186 indictments found no less than 149 convictions were secured. Evidently the Mormon authorities are disturbed by the statements made in this report. The number of cases enumerated does not include all by a long way. The report thus sets forth the difficulty of making any correct enumeration of polygamous violations of the law:
“When it is remembered that there is a large number of communities and precincts where there are no anti-Mormons to act as registrars, and the Commission is compelled to appoint them from the membership of the Mormon Church; that these reports (of polygamous unions) come only from precincts where there are watchful opponents of the crime; that Mormon registrars never report the cases occurring in the precincts in which they serve, and in which plural marriages are probably most frequently entered into; and that the greatest care is observed to keep such marriages secret, so secret that the birth of a child is generally the first cause to suspect the fact of unlawful marriage, it is more than probable that only a small proportion of the polygamous marriages really contracted are reported, and a still smaller proportion where convictions could be had even for unlawful cohabitation.”
President Woodruff declares that there has been nothing in his teachings, or in those of his associates, since the law prohibiting polygamy was declared to be constitutional by the Federal Supreme Court, that could be construed to encourage polygamy. But not long ago this head of the Mormon Church, in a discourse delivered in the Tabernacle, made this reference to plural marriages: “These things are clear, they are pointed, they are strong and they are revelations of God, and they will be fulfilled whether men believe it or not. I say there is not a nation under Heaven, there is not a King, a Prince, nor a President, nor any other man who has power over the sons of man, but should give unto their subjects the privilege of worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences; they are not responsible to the Emperors, or Kings, or Presidents, or Governors who rule over them.”
Every Mormon must have understood the reference, and that it was no less than a direct sanction of polygamy. The doctrine is as zealously taught and defended as at any former time in the history of the Mormon Church. It is practiced only to a less extent because there is a Federal statute which forbids it as a crime. The Commission recommends the enactment of the Idaho test-oath for Utah, or a law of a similar character.
The report of the Commission has created something of a sensation in Utah as well as outside of that Territory. The impression had been gaining ground that polygamy was well-nigh extinguished. That is the impression that the head of the Mormon Church now seeks to strengthen. The Commission finds a different condition, and even goes so far as to recommend further legislation. There has never been any renunciation of the polygamous feature of the Mormon creed, save by the small number who profess to be followers of Joseph Smith. It is doubtful if there ever will be any absolute renunciation. It was not an original article of the creed. The “revelation” came to Brigham Young. The Reformed Mormon Church, or the followers of Smith, have always declared that the “revelation” was a spurious one.
The Mormon problem is hardly less perplexing now than it has been for the last twenty years. Utah is seeking admission into the Union. Within the limits of that Territory there are about 200,000 inhabitants. The only obstacle today to Statehood is polygamy. It is practiced by only a small minority of the inhabitants. But the Mormon Church dominates the Territory. Without a provision in the Federal Constitution prohibiting polygamy, the State in the sovereign capacity might sanction it. The hope was that in Utah, without further legislation, there would soon be an end of this fanaticism. The Commission does not furnish much evidence which makes for such a result. President Woodruff, however, immediately after the promulgation of this report concludes a manifesto with these words: “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.” But substantially such advice has been given many times by the leaders of the Mormon Church. It was always understood, when given in a public way, to be for Gentile ears. Some of the leading bishops who sustained polygamous relations and who even officiated at plural marriages, gave substantially similar advice. It was understood to have no binding force. It could have none, for the very reason that a contrary doctrine was continually taught and practiced. Violations of the Federal statute are less open and notorious. That result would virtually follow when severe penalties were occasionally enforced. The leaders of the Mormon Church have always maintained absolute power over all members. All the commands and edicts are absolutely obeyed.
It is worthwhile to note that the followers of Joseph Smith, who constituted what is known as the “Reformed Church,” are not in good standing with the Utah church. The reason is that the former have disclaimed all connection with polygamy. They have never practiced it, and have never ceased to denounce it as a great wrong. It will not do for any Latter-day Saint who abstains from the practice himself to denounce what the church has constantly taught. A reformation in this respect is not quite beyond all hope. The Commission intimates that the real hope of abating the evil lies in the possible renunciation of this feature of the Mormon creed.
If that is the only way in which the problem can be solved, then the settlement of one of the most vexatious questions of the day is only a remote possibility. The Federal Government has assumed, by the tenor of its legislation, that there is another and shorter way. It has not favored the theory that nothing can be done to abate the evil until a great and radical reform has been initiated in Utah which would sweep polygamy away. Utah waits for Statehood. In the meantime population increases. Converts are brought in from the “ends of the earth.” The most prosperous and the most populous of all the Territories waits for a place in the Union, which could be gained readily enough if only the one foul stain were purged away.
Click here for more articles about the Mormons.