March 18, 2024

Joseph Smith Wives: The End of Polygamy (Part 1)

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The following content is a transcript from Tyler Griffin and Anthony Sweat’s ‘Come Follow Me’ discussion on ‘The End of Polygamy.’ To watch the full video, click here.

It is important for us to keep in mind that the article of faith number nine says that we don't just believe in the many revelations that have been given or that were currently being given to the prophet in 1842 but many great and important things would be revealed in future times as the need arises.

I think it's important right out of the chute before we jump into the actual Official Declaration 1 to set the stage historically and culturally or the need for what they called the manifesto this ending of plural marriage and any ties to Joseph Smith wives. Because a lot is going on in the United States and there are two things that are really in the crosshairs of those lawmakers back east. They call them the twin relics of barbarism. And the twin twin relics of barbarism are slavery and polygamy. 

It's at the 1856 Republican National Convention that the republican party, in essence, says, “We're going to take these two things on so a lot of people don't realize that the ending of polygamy is actually very tied to the ending of slavery and the Civil War.” They're very connected. And the Civil War because of the ending of slavery once this one ending of slavery in the Civil War when that was settled in the mid-1860s then they start to shift their attention to say, “let's end the other relic of the barbarism of polygamy in America.” So in the 1870s and 80s a lot of attention shifted in particular out west to the Latter-day Saints. We're practicing it on our own in Utah territory not in a territory we weren't. We were not going to be a state until 1896 we were a federal territory which means we were not allowed to pick our own leaders they were appointed by the the federal government back in Washington DC. 

Plural Marriage and Governing Laws 

It's important to note that the first time that polygamy was publicly announced for everyone to hear was in a church conference on the 29th of August 1852 in Salt Lake.

So, in 1852, now 10 years later, on the 8th of July 1862, Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill into Congress called the Moral Act. This was the first bill that goes after polygamy, and people may not recognize this but Abraham Lincoln was the president who signed that bill into law.

And you know the the moral anti-bigamy act as it's known really didn't have any teeth behind it. Let's also say first it's important to recognize too that Latter-day Saints didn't invent plural marriage. There's been research done by American history scholars who have shown that there were a bunch of different groups that were practicing plural marriage. Native American African-Americans even some Catholic. And so this isn't just aiming at the Latter-day Saints but we are the most prominent group and the most vocal about it and we're out west on our own you have to you have to recognize that this time in American history too.

They're trying to colonize when I say they I mean Easterners, particularly Washington DC politicians. They want to they want to westernize the west and they kind of feel like particularly those lottery Saints out west. There's a lot of mixing of church and state. They're out there on their own we're not sure they're loyal to the federal government. We're not sure where they stand we got to reign them in and get them under control and so these bills start to pass partly because of all these tensions but they can't really do anything about it originally because it's a civil war you can pass laws but if you don't enforce them the laws mean almost nothing. 

So the penalty under the moral act was a $500 fine and imprisonment for a term of five years. But with the civil war taking place back east and no federal officials to enforce it either they're not that the law is not being enforced. 

Joseph Smith Wives: The Edmunds-Tucker Act

So then you get the Edmunds Bill in 1882 so this is 20 years after the Moral Bill. There were a handful of bills in between that tried to give the federal government. The way the Columns Bill in 1870. They're all those who are trying to say okay we passed this law how do we help the federal government enforce it then it really kicked in with the Edmunds Act. 

Five years later 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act. It disincorporated the church. It dissolved the perpetual immigration fund gave all of the property of the church to the government for the benefit of the common schools in Utah and took away the right of Utah women to vote there. 

One of the things you have to understand is the Edmunds Tucker Act goes after the church specifically it's not just a general anti-polygamy bill they are going after that bill after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints it seizes any assets over $50,000. It also does not allow immigrants to come to America who are Latter-day Saints. So process that we won't let you become a citizen of this country if you're a Latter-day saint in other words we can't gather to Zion now.

So Zion and gathering have now stopped because of this bill they're going to seize control of our temples they also have taken away women a lot like we are the leaders along with Wyoming and the suffrage act of giving women the right to vote and the Edmunds-Tucker act revokes that right to vote it makes people it required any juror voter or official to swear an anti-polygamy oath. 

So not even if you were practicing polygamy but if you even stated that you believed that in it or that it should be legal you were not allowed to act in those civil. I mean there are so many things after thing after thing they could seize any asset from the church that they didn't feel was necessary for a religious purpose they have jailed polygamists for up to five years. 

Just to cut to the chase it wreaks havoc on the church in terms of our temples we're going to lose our temples our ability to bind families together we are going to lose our ability to create Zion and gather people to Zion we're going to lose all of our church leadership in prison the first presidency, all the leaders, and that's really what Wilford Woodruff is dealing with as a whole. 

At the end of the day the question is well what would you do and ultimately the question that Wilford Woodruff is saying is what is essential to our church is polygamy our core essential doctrine is it in our articles of faith. Even the very fact that Wilford Woodruff would be willing to take this question to the Lord saying, “Can we get rid of plural marriage?” shows that it should not and was not the defining doctrine of the church even though they fought so stridently for it. 

What Wilford Woodruff is taking to the Lord, in essence, is what's more important temple mothers and fathers in their homes to gather and build Zion and to allow the leaders of the church to continue to operate or to keep practicing polygamy that was his question so those 1880s those were rough years here in Utah and in parts of Arizona parts of Idaho rough years where there's lots of persecution coming against these folks. These federal I mean I would invite everybody at home to make sure you read Saints Volume 2 you know these chapters and then like the late 20s early 30s chapters of Saints Volume 2 where you can get the detailed wonderfully written stories of women and men going into hiding women being forced to testify against their own husbands' people having to take assumed names. 

You know, sons and daughters, not knowing who their actual father was for fear of their dad being imprisoned. It was just... it was a terrible time. John Taylor, by the way, as president of the church, had to go into hiding. He gave his last public address in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. As federal officials are waiting to arrest him after the address, and the church blocks their guards and everything, and they usher him out the back, and he's never seen in public again, dies in hiding. And Wilford says he died because of the pressures of polygamy persecution. It's a very trying time for them. So before we get to Wilford Woodruff and the actual declaration, it's really important, back to the Article of Faith number 12 that we said we'd touch on, about honoring and obeying and sustaining the law.

Our church deliberately went against the law at this time. You know, there is a revelation in the Missouri period where the Lord says, 'When it comes concerning the laws of the land, I will that you obey whatsoever I say unto you.' So it's not quite as black and white as we want to make it sometimes, and the church felt that these laws that were being passed were unjust.

Now, while we were engaged in civil disobedience—protecting people's identity and putting people into hiding and things like that—to practice plural marriage, the church also did, though, take the legal route. If we feel that laws are unjust, then we have recourse, particularly within the United States of America, in a democracy, to try to get laws changed. So the church did appeal the law, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1890, the Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act, and that was the final blow. That's what kind of makes us go, 'We've pursued every avenue we can. I mean, what do we do?'

So, Tony had already mentioned this earlier, this idea of the government has made it very clear: they will confiscate all of the possessions of the church, including the temples. We will lose our ability to do any temple work, including the work of Joseph Smith wives ordinances.

So you can picture the prophet of God, Wilford Woodruff, with the weight of this situation on his shoulders, in that mantle that he's carrying, as he goes to God to say, 'What would thou have us do?' If God tells us that we need to keep performing plural marriages, you know that he and the other leaders are going to defend that to their death, regardless of the cost. They were willing to do whatever God wanted them to do. But I love the fact that he turns to, to He who stands at the head of this work, to ask Him what He would have us do. And it was on the night of September 23rd, 1890, when he received this revelation from the Lord that the church should cease the practice of plural marriage.

So the next day, after he's received this revelation, he puts a handwritten copy down in front of some of the general authorities. But this one's a little different because he's doing this a little differently. It's important to know that Wilford Woodruff is counseling with his counselors, but this is not a unanimous decision originally. This is a revelation that he receives, and he comes to Wilford Woodruff. He says the Lord made it plain that it was perfectly clear that this was the right thing. But some of the apostles find out about Wilford Woodruff's statement, like 'I'm going to the Lord; He has made it manifest to me that we will submit to the laws of the country.'

Some of the apostles find out about it by reading a newspaper while they're getting ready to get on a train. Yeah, it's like, what? So they will all convene, and he will lay it before them, but there's a difficulty. I mean, this is, uh, this is right off the church's essay, the ending of plural marriage. They say the members of the Quorum of the Twelve varied in their reactions to the manifesto. Franklin D. Richards was sure it was the work of the Lord. Francis M. Lyman said that he had endorsed the manifesto fully when he first heard it, but not all the Twelve accepted the document immediately.

John W. Taylor, who is President John Taylor's son (remember President John Taylor went to his deathbed defending plural marriage, saying 'we will not relinquish this'), John W. Taylor said he did not, quote, 'not yet feel quite right about it,' end of quote. John Henry Smith candidly admitted that the manifesto had disturbed his feelings very much and that he was, quote, 'still somewhat at sea about it.' Within a week, however, all members of the Twelve voted to sustain the manifesto. That's on the church's essay.

Now some people have said things like, 'Well, this isn't really a revelation; he's just responding to political pressure.' What would you say to that? I would say all revelation is a response to the cultural conditions and needs of God's people. All revelation is, you could read the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole, and nearly every one of those revelations is a response to temporal, mortal, and cultural conditions of the time. That's an interesting point, Tony. Think about Exodus: the people were in bondage, and God comes, inserts Himself into history, and provides revelation to change a situation that was oppressive, that could only really be fixed with God intervening. And God basically said to the Saints through Wilford Woodruff, 'It is not my will for you to go into bondage to the United States because of this one practice.' And so, we see that God will provide revelation as needed to His people. We should expect God to participate in our lives.

Before we go on with what Taylor just said, if we didn't think God was responding by giving revelation based on cultural conditions, then we would have no Word of Wisdom. Because without conspiring with men in the Latter days, the Lord doesn't need to give a revelation called the 'Word of Wisdom.' If we didn't think the Lord gave revelation responding to cultural conditions, we wouldn't have all these wonderful teachings helping us to combat pornography. For example, if pornography didn't exist, the Lord wouldn't give these revelations regarding it. All revelation is a response to the needs, conditions, and culture that His children find themselves in.

I love how we sing 'We thank thee, oh God, for a prophet, to guide us in these latter days.' It's not we don't thank Him for being a prophet to guide us through the ancient days and the time of Joseph Smith polygamy, because those aren't our days. So, it's beautiful that Wilford Woodruff is living in his culture, his environment, his political climate of that day, and making decisions that are necessary for the church to be able to move forward and for the kingdom of God to roll forth. And that's always the question of what's needed within that time and that setting, in that context, to keep the kingdom moving forward. That was his question at the time.

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