Summary: The issue of polygamy was a difficult and painful time in our church’s history where the saints struggled to accept this doctrine and then struggled to remain faithful to it as the United States government passed numerous laws to make its practice illegal. This was also a difficult time for the leaders of the church who struggled to know what guidance to give their people. This article looks at the history of this struggle and the lessons we can learn for it.
“Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:1,2).
Many of the revelations Joseph Smith received from God came in response to questions he asked, and such was the case with a question he had concerning why some of the great men of God in the Old Testament not only had several wives but even concubines.
In answer to this question the Lord said, “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and Concubines— Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter. Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same” (D&C 132:1-3).
The Lord went on to explain the principle of plural marriage, but he also told Joseph that once he revealed this law, he would be required to live it. Even so, Joseph was reluctant to keep it because he had trouble accepting it, and on three other separate occasions, an angel appeared and commanded him to do as he was told.
At first, although Joseph married a few women, he kept this practice to himself, but in time he shared this revelation with a few other trusted men, who were also told to quietly practiced this law. However, as the doctrine of plural marriage became more widely known, even though it was not openly talked about, by the time the saints moved to the Rocky Mountains in 1846 it had become a widely known secret.
Eventually, the doctrine of plural marriage was made public and was accepted by the church as a revelation from God. When that happened, plural marriage was no longer a taboo subject, and more and more men began marrying multiple wives. Many of the women of such marriages were at first reluctant to engage in this practice but nearly all of them eventually came to gain their own testimony that what they were being asked to do was truly from God. Even so, by 1870 only 25-30% of the saints were living in a polygamist household, and that figure declined over the next 20 years.
The critics of the church claimed that this was being done for purely sexual reasons, but this isn’t true. Part of the reason this revelation was more widely practiced in the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas had a more practical and pragmatic purpose.
The first was because the male population had died off more quickly than did the female population, which resulted in there being more women than men and so plural marriage provided a way for women to have a husband. Also, because there were relatively few saints in 1847, Brigham Young encourage married couples to have many children in order to increase the number of saints and to raise up a righteous generation. By men having more than one wife, they could produce more children who would be raised in a righteous home where they were taught to live the gospel, which included living the law of chastity.
Living by themselves, the saints practiced this law in peace, but in 1850 the Salt Lake Vally was acquired by the United States government and was made a territory. When this happened, people from the east flocked to the Rocky Mountains to stake out a living in this new land, and when these non-Mormons discovered that the saints were living a polygamous lifestyle, they were appalled and outraged and began to complain to the federal authorities.
In 1862 the federal Congress passed a law, making polygamy illegal, but it didn’t impose any penalties. However, as the saints continued living this law, the outrage grew stronger and in 1882 Congress passed another law prohibiting polygamy, but this one imposed fines and prison time. As a result, over 1300 men were arrested and incarcerated.
To avoid these penalties, polygamist men went into hiding, which necessitated them leaving their wives and children. Anyone caught was arrested and imprisoned without a trial, thereby violating their constitutional rights to due process. When the authorities couldn’t find those they were seeking, they arrested suspected polygamist women and tried to coerce them into testifying against their husbands, which again violated their constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
John Taylor was the prophet of the church at this time, and since he was married to more than one woman, he went into hiding until his death to avoid going to prison. Wilford Woodruff then became the president of the church, and it was now his responsibility to guide the saints through this very difficult time.
During all of this, the church kept going to the courts, pleading their case that the First Amendment gave them the right to practice their religion as they choose, but time after time, they lost their case. Then, in 1887 Congress passed the Edmonds-Tucker Act which said that if the Mormon church didn’t cease practicing polygamy, they would be disincorporated and all their property would be confiscated by the federal government. The church appealed to the federal Supreme Court, but it upheld the law.
Since the church had run out of all legal options, the saints now found themselves in an untenable situation. The Lord had said that we are to obey the laws of the land, and he also commanded that the saints were to live the law of plural marriage, but now they found themselves caught between two contradictory commandments. They couldn’t live the law of plural marriage without violating the law of the land, but for them to obey the law of the land, they would have to violate living the law of plural marriage.
Our temples are the most sacred and holy places on earth but now the federal government was going to confiscate them. Worse yet, someone began spreading the rumor that the Mormons were using their temples to hold meetings where they were planning to rebel against the United States government.
President Woodruff found himself in a serious dilemma. If he didn’t obey the law of the land the church wouldn’t be able to operate and fulfill its purpose of spreading the gospel, helping perfect the saints, and the work for the redemption of the dead would cease. Yet he feared offending God by disobeying the commandment to live the law of plural marriage.
After much prayer and supplicating the Lord for guidance, President Woodruff received a revelation and wrote a document has come to be known as the Manifesto wherein he stated, “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws.”
He then showed the document to members of the twelve who were with him at that time and asked for their approval. At first most of them were hesitant to endorse it because they felt it went directly contrary to the revelation of God to live the law of plural marriage, but after some discussion, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon each of them, and they all came to the same opinion that what President Woodruff had written was indeed from the Lord.
When the Manifesto was read to the saints, they too balked at agreeing with it. They had sacrificed and suffered so much in order to be faithful to this law of God and now it seemed to many that the church leaders were capitulating to the secular world. Because of this President Woodruff later told the saints, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2).
About a year later, President Woodruff told a gathering of saints, “The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question, … The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty
millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein… and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church… The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice… This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us and leave our Prophets and Apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people, so that the dead may be redeemed…. I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done… I have had this spirit upon me for a long time…. it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write. … I leave this with you, for you to contemplate and consider. The Lord is at work with us. (Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891.)
There are number of important lessons we can learn from this story.
The obvious question many people have is, why did God give this law if he knew that the saints wouldn’t be allowed to live it? The Lord answered that question by saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings” (D&C 124:49).
But why did God allow the United States government to hinder the saints from performing the work he gave them to do? Couldn’t he have interfered in the affairs of men to make things turn out differently, or did man frustrate God’s plan?
There are several possible answers to this question. Perhaps this was a test to see if the saints would do what God asked of them, much like what God did with asking Abraham to sacrifice his promised son. Another possibility is that since one of the main reasons for practicing polygamy was to give women a husband and to increase the Mormon population, perhaps the time had come when that was no longer necessary. Another possibility is that perhaps, now that Utah had become a state, in order for the gospel to spread throughout the United States it was necessary to do away with polygamy so that more people would accept being baptized into the church.
These are possible answers, but the real answer is that we don’t know why God commanded the saints to practice plural marriage and then later revoked that commandment. What we learn from this is that when God gives us a commandment, he rarely tells us why we need to keep it. Instead, he requires us to follow whatever he says in faith.
For example, when God told Father Lehi to send his sons back to Jerusalem to get the brass plates that were in Laban’s possession, he didn’t explain why. Back then, everyone knew this wasn’t going to be an easy task, and although Lamen and Lemual complained and questioned this revelation, Lehi and Nephi did what God asked of them, even though they didn’t know beforehand the reason for this commandment.
When God first revealed the law of plural marriage, even Joseph Smith hesitated to obey it and almost had to be threatened by an angel of God before reluctantly doing as he was told. When the saints first learned about this law, they too questioned it, but gradually they gained their own testimony of its truthfulness, and the same thing happened when this law was revoked.
When the church first announced that they were reducing the three-hour Sunday meeting down to two hours and that parents were to use that extra time at home to teach the gospel to their children, there were those in the church who thought this change was simply to give the members less time at church. Then came the lock down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the reason for this change became apparent. But at the time it was given, not even President Nelson knew the full reason why the Lord wanted to institute the new home centered/church supported program when he did.
The important lesson we learn from this is that God expects us to be obedient to him whether we understand the reason for his commandments or not.
The Lord has told us that his people must be tried in all things (D&C 136:21). Sometimes what the Lord asks of us is not easy. In fact, at times it can be very difficult. The saints first struggled to accept the law of plural marriage but then willingly suffered greatly in order to follow his word when it was dangerous to do so. There are Christians today who are being severely persecuted for their belief in Jesus, and even in America, the efforts to eliminate Christian values and beliefs are increasing and growing more strident.
Will we be as diligent in doing what God asks of us when it’s hard or dangerous to do so, like it was for the early saints? Their willingness to live the law of plural marriage because it was what God commanded, no matter what they had to suffer because of their obedience, is an example for us to emulate.
As president of the church, Wilford Woodruff had the ultimate responsibility of giving guidance to the church, but in this situation, he wasn’t sure what to do. He felt he was in an impossible, no-win situation because no matter what he decided, he was going to violate one of God’s commandments and his fear was that he would offend God. Then what was he to do? The answer was the same that Joseph Smith did when he was troubled about which church taught the correct doctrine of salvation. That answer is: Ask of God.
This is what the saints had to do when they were first taught the law of plural marriage. Most of the saints had serious reservation about living that law but they sought to know for themselves from the Spirit if this revelation was really from God. When the Manifesto was first read, many of those practicing plural marriage questioned if this revelation was from God and sought for and obtained a witness from the Spirit to know for themselves.
Many times we too face situations that seem impossible, but like President Woodruff, Joseph, and the early saints, we can go to God and seek for his wisdom in knowing what we should do
And there is another important lesson we can learn from this. President Woodruff had received a revelation from God and had been given a vision of the future. He knew with absolute clarity what the Lord wanted him to do, yet instead of going before the church, as God’s spokesman to the world, and issuing an official directive of what the saints should do, he first sought the consent of the Quorum of the Twelve, and then the sustaining voice from the members of the church.
In all things, the Lord grants us our agency to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to follow his will and sustain and support those whom he has called to preside over us. Sometimes what our church leaders tell us may be hard to do, as it was for the early saints, but it makes it easier to know what the right decision should be when we have sought for and received a strong testimony that the church is being led by Jesus Christ and not by men. Therefore, whenever doubts arise in our mind about what our church leaders tell us, the way to resolve those doubts is to do what the early saints did, which is by seeking for and obtaining our own personal witness from the Spirit.
President Nelson has been counseling us to seek personal revelation and to be worthy to receive it more frequently. He said that the time is coming when we won’t be able to survive spiritually without it, and in the October 2021 General Conference he said, “My dear brothers and sisters, these are the latter days. If you and I are to withstand the forthcoming perils and pressures, it is imperative that we each have a firm spiritual foundation built upon the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ… And oh, how we will need His power in the days ahead.”
Another important lesson we learn from this episode in church history is how we choose to obey the laws of the land. In today’s climate of evil, believers in Christ are being attacked from many different directions, and laws are being passed that run counter to what we believe. When that happens, we can find ourselves wondering what the right thing is to do. This was certainly the case with the early saints and the issue of polygamy.
Although the church vigorously fought against these laws, they did so by following all the legal remedies at their disposal, and when all such efforts failed, the Lord revealed that they should obey the law. However, that doesn’t mean we need to embrace such laws and willingly abandon our values. Rather, we submit ourselves to the law as far as is possible, and when that isn’t possible, then we submit ourselves to the penalties of the laws, even if that means being arrested and imprisoned.
But there’s still one more very important lesson we learn from what President Woodruff said. He told the saints. “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.”
We do not believe that our leaders are infallible, and we know they make mistakes because they’re human, but does that mean we can’t trust what they tell us because they could asking us to do something that will lead us astray? The answer is that making mistakes and leading someone astray are not the same thing.
When going somewhere, we follow a road or path that will take us to the place we want to be. As long as we stay on that path, we’ll eventually reach our destination. But as we travel that path, sometimes we can become confused and take the wrong road that then leads us to a different place. When that happens, we have strayed from the path we should be following.
If we are following a guide, we do so because we believe they know the best way to our destination. But what if the guide tells us to follow the wrong path? If we’re doing what they tell us, then they’re leading us astray, or are causing us to stray from the path we should be on.
The plan of salvation is called the plan of happiness, and the way we can achieve a fulness of joy is to follow the path that leads us back to our Father in heaven. However, there are many philosophies in the world that claim to show us the way to happiness, but in truth there is only one path that will truly lead us to it.
The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the responsibility to not only show us that path but to help us stay on it. What President Woodruff said is that despite human imperfections, faults, weaknesses, and mistakes, God will not permit the president of the church to tell the saints to do something that will lead them to stray from the path that leads back to God. If he were to begin to do that, God would correct him, and if he were to ever chose to disregard the Lord’s correction, God would remove him from his position.
The president of the church could institute a new program that doesn’t work out, or make a mistake in allocating church funds, or make a statement or a prophecy that doesn’t come true, but God will never allow him to tell us to do something that will lead us away from the path that leads to salvation and exaltation. When President Woodruff presented his manifesto to the saints, many of them felt that if they didn’t continue practicing polygamy, they could lose their salvation because it depended on them enduring to the end in following the commandments of God.
What President Woodruff told them was that God would never allow him or any other president of the church to tell them to do something that would cause them to lose their salvation. This principle is further strengthened when the full Quorum of the Twelve Apostles likewise sustains and approves of what the president of the church asks the saints to do. When that happens, we can have full confidence that they will never tell us to do something that will lead us astray from reaching our eternal destiny.
It’s been said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Although the issue of polygamy was a difficult and painful time in our church’s history, nevertheless it can teach us a lot of valuable lessons.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Covenants