An American Marriage: Mormons, Polygamy, and Federalism

HomeArticlesAn American Marriage: Mormons, Polygamy, and Federalism

The portrayals of the Mormon family in popular culture are schizophrenic: it is either a prosperous and proud, self-congratulatory nuclear family or a secretive cult in which the husbands lead double lives of public monogamy and private polygamy.1 This dual representation reflects the complex history of marriage in Mormonism as well as the challenge that Mormonism has posed to the American conception of it. It is through this contestation of the American understanding of the family, and specifically its understanding of marriage as monogamous, that Mormons have made their significant contribution to American jurisprudence and revealed precisely how much they were willing to sacrifice to become the most American of the country’s religions.

When the Mormons could no longer escape the jurisdiction of the federal government in Utah Territory, they applied for statehood, hoping that they would gain a measure of autonomy and the space to practice as they believed. In this process, the question of what constituted marriage became both a legal and cultural issue in the country. Traditionally, monogamous marriage in the United States was deemed not only divinely sanctioned but also a civilized practice and a natural right.2 European political philosophers had long recognized that monogamous marriage benefited the social order in channeling sexual desire into the predictable procreation and care of children. The ethical virtues associated with monogamous marriage, such as consent, could also be translated into the political virtues of republicanism. For instance, in Persian Letters, the French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu equated polygamy with despotism: the harem stood for tyrannical rule, political corruption, coercion, and selfishness, while monogamy stood for the opposite values, those necessary for republican government: moderation, liberty, and consent.3

These republican virtues associated with monogamous marriage were recognized in the early American republic. For example, the Anglican bishop William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), which pointed out the benefits of monogamous marriage, became the most widely read college text on the subject of marriage in the first half of the nineteenth century. Paley’s defense of monogamy was rooted in reference to God and focused on reducing fornication and other undesirable social practices. Compared to monogamy, polygamy did ―not offer a single advantage‖ but rather produced the ills of jealousy, abasement of women, and abandonment of children.4 The equation was simple: monogamy was equated with republicanism, with all its divine and social virtues, while polygamy was equated with despotism, with all its undesirable vices and practices. It was civilized, moral, and protected by law.

However, the federal government in the nineteenth century was not the recognized authority on the matter of marriage and lacked the specific regulatory power to implement its commitment to monogamy because marriage fell under the purview of the states. The Mormon practice of polygamy therefore brought the issues of federalism as well as the relationship between church and state to the surface. When Utah applied for statehood, the question of whether the federal government could regulate marriage could no longer be ignored. In all the previous applications for statehood, the federal government had never before dictated the standard of marriage for the prospective state.

The one area where the federal government did have direct authority and the means to implement monogamy was in its relations with the Native Americans. The principle of monogamous marriage was a significant aspect of the policy of Native American assimilation. The states themselves had established different standards for marriage (most of the differences regarded interracial marriages), but all of them adhered to the criterion of monogamy. Still, even after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1866 Civil Rights Act, a single national standard did not exist for marriage until the controversy about the entry of Utah into the union.5 The attempt to eradicate the Mormon practice of polygamy consequently was not only the first time the federal government played a direct role in defining marriage as monogamous, but it would also change the balance of power between the states and the federal government on social public policy, in favor of the latter.

For Time and All Eternity

Before examining the implications for federalism, it is worth looking at the central role that marriage and the family plays in Mormon theology and practice. According to Mormon theology, the family is not only an earthly good, but a divine and eternal one as well. As a result, the meaning of ―family‖ for church members, today as it was in the nineteenth century, is both broader and more far-reaching than for most Americans. When husband and wife are married in Mormon temples, they are sealed together ―for time and all eternity‖ instead of promising ―”until death do us part.”

This belief that familial relations continue in the afterlife is a unique feature of Mormon theology that allows the family to be defined fluidly. Although the basic familial unit for members of the LDS Church today is a father, mother, and children, early Mormons, due to a revival of a peculiar doctrine, permitted room for more than one mother and a prodigious amount of offspring.6 In many ways, the early Mormon practice of plural marriage (polygamy) can be seen as an experimental variation of already existing American values, in which the central tenets of loving, nurturing, and providing for one’s family remained constant regardless of family size. In spite of being riddled with controversy, the doctrinal foundations of LDS theology provide some insight into how a community of American citizens could justify their departure from the cultural norm of monogamous marriage and the traditional nuclear family—and do so under the very American grounds of a millennial and literal reading of the Bible.

Although the practice of polygamy and early Mormonism as a system of belief may seem inseparable, this was not always the case. The Mormon Church did not begin to sanction polygamous marriage until 1843, more than a dozen years after its founding, and the revelation that sanctioned it took most Church members by surprise, including Church president Joseph Smith himself. 7 Polygamy was not a foundational doctrine of the Church, and even at its height was never practiced by more than a small minority of its followers. In fact, it was difficult for many members of the faith to understand and accept.8 Many of Smith’s most ardent followers left the Church and deemed him a fallen prophet because of it. Non-Mormons, guided by ulterior motives, became suddenly interested in Mormonism because of its seemingly open regard for intimate relations. Nevertheless, despite its less than wholehearted acceptance by the Mormon community itself, the reputation for polygamy and the scandal and outrage the practice attracted remain a part of the heritage of the Mormon Church and of nineteenth-century U.S. history.

The revelation sanctioning polygamy is canonized in Mormon scripture. It reads, in part, “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent . . . then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him. . . . And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”9 Joseph Smith shared the revelation with his followers and performed second, third, and additional marriages for many of them.

Although it was kept quiet, the doctrine of polygamy was controversial even among Smith’s most faithful followers. Many members saw it as a test of their faith and took second or third wives only to show their willingness to obey God’s commandments. Smith was mindful of the broad range of reactions evoked by the principle of polygamy and was himself overwhelmed by the weight of it. Even his wife, Emma, was upset by the doctrine. And understandably so: Smith took twelve secondary wives in the first six months of 1843. During the remainder of his life (which ended in June 1844), Smith publicly denied that he advocated or practiced polygamy, and only spoke of the doctrine with his most trusted friends. Still, rumors circulated regarding his relations with a growing number of women, and his reputation suffered. In conversation with family and other church leaders, Smith maintained that he was reluctantly following a commandment that he had undeniably been given from God, for if he did not believe that salvation was at stake, he would have rejected the practice himself.10

Mormons justified the practice of polygamy in part by invoking the ancient law of the Hebrew Bible, in which plural wives were a right of a husband who lived righteously and kept God’s commandments. For example, Abraham took Hagar as a second wife in order to fulfill God’s promise that his children would be numberless; and David was chastised for killing Uriah in order to have his wife, not for having concubines.

Smith and his followers believed that he had reintroduced the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and that in this ―final dispensation,‖ or the last stage of the earth’s existence prior to Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ, all things must be restored. This eschatologically driven belief meant that all the principles or practices that God had required of his people throughout earth’s history would need to be accepted again. By embracing what they saw to be a full spectrum of early Hebraic and Christian traditions, Mormons believed that they were doing God’s will. Polygamy was one of these traditions, and although it is no longer sanctioned by the LDS Church, the Church’s members still believe that the period in the history of the Church when polygamy was practiced was necessary precisely because it was part of the restoration of all things.

The Mormon justification of polygamy also relies on the Church’s literal interpretation of some portions of the Bible. Literalist readings of biblical texts were common among nineteenth-century Christian sects in America, in part as a reaction against an influx of non-Protestant influences as a more diverse set of immigrants settled in the country.11 The idea that an individual could read the Bible for himself and understand it as it was written was also democratic, because it essentially opened up the ―secrets‖ of scripture to every man.12

Conservative Christians and fundamentalists today continue to believe that the Earth was created by God in six days, that Noah saved humanity from a great flood that covered the entire planet, and that Jesus’ miracles happened precisely as the Bible says. Mormons, however, were the only group to take upon themselves the distinctive call to resurrect the doctrine of polygamy as it was practiced by Old Testament prophets.

Furthermore, the early Mormon doctrine of polygamy and the celestial law of marriage that accompanied it fit seamlessly into a broader system of beliefs regarding the family unit as a spiritual entity espoused by the LDS Church. According to Mormon theology, men and women are the spirit sons and daughters of God, made in his image, and, as such, can approximate their relationship to him in their own family circles. Smith taught that families were a central part of life after death and that a person who lived a good life could live together with his or her family forever in heaven.13 The Mormon idea of heaven is consequently largely dependent on the existence of the ideal family unit. Because familial ties, especially between husband and wife, are so sacred, polygamous marital relationships continue in the afterlife just as monogamous ones do.

Secondary to the historical and theological justifications for polygamy are practical explanations for its value.14 Some argue that polygamy as practiced by early Mormons in the nineteenth century was defensible because it provided a sensible way for the Church to care for widows and other unmarried women. During the period when Mormons were moving west in great numbers, dependent women and children greatly outnumbered the men and therefore needed food, shelter, and care. Another practical benefit of polygamy was that it relieved the difficulty for a woman of managing her household by herself out on the frontier, where physical labor was required and life overall was hard. Apologists for polygamy during this period also argue that it was a blessing to women on the frontier who might not otherwise have had the opportunity for marriage or the right to own land and property. Finally, having multiple wives allowed a man to father dozens of children in some cases. The population boom that resulted was beneficial to the group as they worked to settle new land in the Utah Territory. More children meant that family farms could be more productive, and more residents made a stronger case for Mormon entitlement to the land.

A New Kind of Federalism

Whatever its justifications, the early Mormon practice of polygamy provided fodder for a bitter dispute between Church officials and the federal government. As a result of decades of troubles stemming from what neighbors perceived as Mormonism’s peculiar system of beliefs, members felt they were not safe within the borders of the United States. When the Mormon pioneers set their sights westward and aimed for the Rocky Mountains, they were intent on leaving the country. Led by their new Church leader, Brigham Young, in 1847 the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake Valley, which was still part of Mexico. The migration was a calculated political move by Young, who knew that the Mormons’ conflicts with the U.S. government regarding polygamy would not easily be resolved. But when the Mexican-American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, the United States had undisputed control of Texas and the territory that would make up the states of California, Nevada, and Utah. Any plans Young had to leave the United States and align the Mormons with Mexico or Great Britain were dashed.

Young quickly changed his plans. In the summer of 1849, just two years after their arrival, he and other members of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City put together a constitution for the proposed state of Deseret. It was based on the constitution of the state of Iowa, where the Mormons had lived for a time before moving west. Young initially had intended to apply for territorial status, but when he learned that California and New Mexico were applying for statehood, he decided to follow suit. After all, statehood would allow the people a higher degree of sovereignty to handle their own affairs than would be available to them as a territory; and since marriage was a state rather than a federal matter, the possibility for the continuance of polygamy appeared to be genuine.

Unwilling to take the time to go through the usual channels, the citizens of Deseret opted to take their newly minted constitution directly to Washington, D.C., and hope for the best. The proposal was ambitious: the would-be state of Deseret encompassed much of the land the United States had just received from Mexico. It extended northward from Mexico to parts of the Oregon Territory, and eastward from the Pacific coast of Southern California to the Colorado River.15 Had this proposal been accepted, Deseret would have included all of present-day Utah, most of Nevada, and parts of California, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The federal government wasted no time in denying Young’s ambitious proposal. Even without opposition from Mormon enemies who were enraged at the thought of a Mormon state in the union, the proposal would have failed because the territory that would be allotted to the state was too large, too unsettled, and simply too un-American at the time.16 Furthermore, the proposed state did not meet standard qualifications for statehood, such as containing at least sixty thousand eligible voters.17 Nearly a year after Young’s initial petition for statehood, Congress officially organized the Utah Territory, shrinking its borders and secularizing its name.18

President Fillmore, more concerned about the growing trouble with the Southern states, appointed Brigham Young as governor of the territory and generally allowed current Mormon political officials to stay in place.19 Thus, the question of federalism—whether the U.S. government could regulate an area traditionally reserved to the states, in this case marriage—was postponed because the issue of slavery had become more pressing to the nation. In 1856, after President Pierce allowed Young to continue as territorial governor, the people felt encouraged enough to put together a new constitution and proposal for statehood.

However, they were disappointed again, this time with direct reference to the impending troubles between the North and South. Slavery was simply a more pressing concern to the federal government at the time. However, it is likely that Utah’s application would have been rejected in any case. Concern about plural marriage became a national issue, with Republicans pledging at their 1856 national convention to do what they could ―to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.‖20 While the federal government was distracted by other matters, it could not allow such an important political battle to move to the forefront, and the issue was postponed.

The following year, U.S. relations with the Utah Territory continued to deteriorate. Soon after taking office, President Buchanan tried to remove Young as territorial governor because he believed that, as both president of the LDS Church and secular governor of the Utah Territory, he was incapable of fully separating the interests of church and state.21 What makes this incident remarkable is the federal government’s involvement in an issue that was then, prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, reserved for the states.22 Like polygamy, the relationship between church and state became a federal matter rather than a state one. The federal government’s relationship with its territories was thus drastically different than its relationship with the states; it treated its territories, at least the Utah Territory, as it treated the Native Americans: with direct control over social policies such as marriage and church-state relations.

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act also was representative of this new form of federalism. The act, directly targeted at the Utah Territory and the LDS Church, banned polygamy and limited church and nonprofit ownership to fifty thousand dollars in the U.S. territories. The latter stipulation was meant to curtail the growth of the LDS Church, whose assets were above the fifty-thousand-dollar limit. The federal government would have a direct say in the social policy of marriage and the economic policy of church-state relations. Although President Lincoln signed the act into law in 1862, no funds were allocated to enforce its stipulations. After the Civil War ended, the U.S. government could turn its attention more fully to the Utah Territory. In the years that followed, Mormon leaders were arrested and taken from their homes and families for practicing polygamy. LDS Church officers were forced to go into hiding to protect themselves, their families, and their assets. One of them, George Reynolds, who was arrested for his practice of polygamy, appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was only following his religion and ought to be protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. But the Court in Reynolds v. United States ruled against him, finding that the First Amendment did not protect religious practices that impaired the public interest.23

In 1887, through the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the LDS Church was disincorporated, and all funds and properties were seized by the federal government. In many ways, the Edmunds-Tucker Act finally gave teeth to the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by allowing federal backing for the appropriation of LDS holdings in excess of $50,000.24 In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act in The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States.25 The result was a new kind of federalism, in which the U.S. government could now regulate marriage, which was traditionally a state issue, and religion, which was traditionally a matter of personal conscience.

It was clear from the Supreme Court’s decisions, the Anti-Bigamy and Edmunds-Tucker Acts, the rejection of Utah’s applications, as well as the arrest of Mormons and the seizure of their assets that the U.S. government and public were not ready to accept Mormonism as part of American civilization. The practice of polygamy and the functioning of secular leaders simultaneously as religious ones was too much for Americans to tolerate. The fact that Americans were willing to federalize these issues revealed how far they would go to prevent Mormonism from becoming American.

Under such pressures, it was only a matter of time before the LDS Church, in order to save its future, would feel compelled to make accommodations to the U.S. government. The Church would have to conform to American values to survive: it would have to renounce polygamy and accept separation of church and state in its political affairs. In other words, Mormonism would have to become a more “American” religion if its members wanted persecution from the U.S. government to cease.

In 1890, the renunciation of the practice of polygamy was declared by the fourth LDS Church president, Wilford Woodruff. Having been given a new revelation from God, Woodruff spoke to Church members:

“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, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. . . . 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.”26

Encouraged by Woodruff’s manifesto, Congress passed the Enabling Act in 1894, which set forth the steps that Utah would have to follow in order to meet requirements for statehood. Having won on the question of polygamy, the U.S. government had decided to accept Utah as a state.

But by this time the territory was already changing rapidly from the insular Mormon community it had once been. The completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point had brought non-Mormons into Utah at an increased rate. With them came national political parties and varied schools of religious thought. With non-LDS business and families quickly filling the Utah Territory, along with federal legislation against the LDS Church and the Church’s renunciation of polygamy, the threat of a powerful, completely Mormon state disappeared. As the U.S. map was quickly filling in around Utah, its statehood could not be put off much longer—at least not based on the old justification of its barbarity and disloyalty. In 1896, Utah officially became the forty-fifth state of the union.

The Irony of Polygamy

The battle over Utah’s application to statehood seemed to resolve the issues of polygamy, church-state relations, and even the nature of federalism itself. By conceding to the U.S. government’s demands, the LDS Church defined what constituted marriage in America as well as the proper arrangement between church and state. Thus, the LDS Church not only accepted this new kind of federalism, in which the U.S. government could intervene in areas traditionally reserved for the states, but it also became the American religion that delineated what values could and could not be accepted by American citizens.

Nonetheless, the LDS Church continues to be perceived in popular culture and the media as un-American, or at least as something of an oddity. The cause of this perception is not only the LDS Church’s past practice of polygamy, but the continued existence of non-sanctioned Mormon polygamous communities. These communities, whether portrayed in popular culture like Big Love or in headline news about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, remind Americans of the divisiveness that Utah’s application to statehood had aroused. Even though the LDS Church has repeatedly denounced the contemporary practice of polygamy, it cannot escape guilt by association. The irony is that the more the LDS Church aims to become ―American‖ by rejecting polygamy, the more Americans, by looking to places such as polygamous communities, refuse to accept it. In short, the persistence of non-LDS polygamous communities continues to be one of many obstacles to the LDS Church becoming fully accepted in America.

Even when both the U.S. government and the LDS Church punished practitioners of plural marriage, particularly between 1890 and 1929, polygamy persisted in some of the fundamentalist groups which had splintered from the LDS Church. The polygamists see themselves as the true heirs of Joseph Smith’s teaching and cite fundamentalist leader Lorin Woolley’s 1912 public statement about a visitation in 1866 by Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ to the polygamist John Taylor as evidence validating the principle of polygamy. Polygamist believers accepted Woolley’s statement as revelation, and passed his teaching on to others. Thus the modern fundamentalist Mormon movement was born.27

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the fundamentalist movement gained increasingly public visibility with an established organizational structure, while at the same time it experienced permanent schisms and separations. Led by John Y. Barlow, the movement established itself in both Salt Lake City and Short Creek, an isolated town on the Utah-Arizona border.28 Short Creek is of particular interest because in 1942 it established a tax-free cooperative association, the United Effort Plan, that implemented the nineteenth-century Mormon ideal of a unified community having ownership of the land, with everyone working cooperatively.29 Although the LDS Church excommunicated fundamentalist members and encouraged people to report polygamist activities, and the Utah State Legislature passed a variety of criminal and civil laws against polygamy, the fundamentalist movement continued to grow.30

But the fundamentalist movement split into two factions over a dispute regarding Barlow’s successor, Joseph Musser, who had become leader of the movement after Barlow’s death in 1949. The dispute was between the Short Creek community and the Salt Lake City and Mexican communities. The Short Creek community disagreed with Musser’s condemnation of underage and arranged marriage, which were practiced in Short Creek, as well as his appointment of his close friend and personal physician, Rulon C. Allred, as his successor.31 The Short Creek community’s rejection of Allred in 1954 formalized the schism between these two communities. The Short Creek community, which selected LeRoy Johnson as its leader, would eventually become known as the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), while the Salt Lake City and Mexican communities, which accepted Allred, would become known as the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB).

But before the schism, both communities were galvanized by the 1953 Short Creek Raid. On July 26, 1953, Arizona state police officers and the Arizona National Guard arrested the entire Short Creek Community, which numbered about 400 members, including 236 children.32 One hundred and fifty of the children were taken into custody and were not permitted to return to their parents for two years, and some parents never regained custody.33 Although the raid had the full support of the Arizona and Utah state governments and the implicit support of the LDS Church, it was characterized as “un-American” in the national media and compared to the government’s brutal treatment of its Native Americans in the nineteenth century.34 Under pressure from the media and lacking criminal statutes to enforce the anti-polygamy clause of its constitution, Arizona released the parents and, after protracted legal battles over violations of due process, returned many of the children to their homes.35

For the LDS Church, which took steps toward becoming more American by permitting the U.S. government to dictate social policy to its members, the negative portrayal of the Short Creek Raid in the national media was ironic. The LDS Mormons believed if they rejected polygamy and separated church and state, their religion would be at least tolerated, if not accepted, in America. However, after the Short Creek Raid, it was the FLDS Church, in spite of its practice of polygamy and the fusion of church and state in its governing affairs, that elicited a national response in support of its community. Whereas the LDS Church continued to be viewed with suspicion by its fellow citizens, the FLDS Church was viewed with sympathy, even though it continued with the very beliefs and practices that had led Mormons to be perceived with hostility in the first place.

Since the raid, Utah and Arizona state governments have conducted only sporadic legal activities against Short Creek (renamed Colorado City in 1960) and other nearby polygamist communities. The community has grown to an estimated eight to ten thousand members, including its satellite communities in Salt Lake City and British Columbia, and still subscribes to the United Effort Plan, through which economic, educational, social, and political activity are controlled by the leadership of the fundamentalist church. The Church itself became formally established in 1991 as the FLDS Church. Until 2006, when FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, an unspoken truce was followed by the FLDS on one side and the LDS Church, and the Arizona, Utah, and U.S. governments on the other.36

In 2004, Jeffs expelled a group of twenty men from Colorado City and reassigned their wives and children to other men in the community; and in 2005 he dedicated a new FLDS temple on the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ), near Eldorado, Texas. The new temple received national media coverage in 2008 when 416 FLDS children and 138 women were taken into state custody after a call from a purportedly sixteen-year-old girl who reported abuse to Texas authorities. In contrast to the 1953 Short Creek Raid, the national media portrayed the FLDS Church negatively in the YFZ Raid. But after the call was traced to a woman unconnected with the FLDS Church, Rozita Swinton, who was known for filing false reports, and the courts had established that insufficient evidence of abuse existed to remove the women and children, they were returned. In 2008, the FLDS Church formally renounced underage marriage.37

Jeffs himself had returned to Colorado City and renounced his role as prophet of the FLDS Church in a conversation with his brother Nephi in 2007. Prior to this, he faced charges of sexual assault of minors in both Utah and Arizona. Jeffs was arrested in Nevada because his temporary license plate was not visible on his Cadillac Escalade and was extradited to Utah, where he was convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape in 2007. He was sentenced for ten years to life in Utah and was scheduled to face similar charges in Arizona but was transferred to a Las Vegas hospital for medical reasons. In the midst of these troubles, Jeffs resigned as the president of the FLDS effective November 20, 2007, and the FLDS Church’s United Effort Plan, worth an estimated $100 million, was placed in the custody of the Utah court system.38

The difference in the media coverage of the YFZ Raid compared to the Short Creek Raid reveals the changing perceptions and acceptance of the LDS Church by Americans. By 2008, the LDS Church was able to distance itself from its past of polygamy and from the communities that persisted in that practice. It had become more fully integrated into American culture and society, so that the FLDS Church was now perceived as an oddity and the LDS Church as mainstream. Although an association still exists between polygamy and the LDS Church in the perception of the American public, it is not nearly as strong as it was during the period of the Short Creek Raid. The members of the FLDS Church are now seen as being as far from representative of mainstream Mormonism as David Koresh would be of Protestant Christianity.

Not attracting nearly as much national media attention but suffering from its own internal problems has been the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), located in Salt Lake City and led by Allred. After the 1954 split, the AUB experienced growth, especially in the 1970s, when it gained new converts in partial reaction to the 1978 LDS revelation that permitted the admission of blacks to the LDS priesthood39. Under Allred’s leadership, the AUB grew to about ten thousand members, with smaller communities throughout Utah and Colorado and even in Great Britain. However, Allred was assassinated in 1977 by members of the dissident LeBaron Group, whose family members believed that Ervil LeBaron was the true leader of Mormon fundamentalism.40 Allred was succeeded by his brother Owen, and the AUB continued to grow in membership. Like the FLDS Church, the AUB maintains relations with civil authorities and the LDS Church where those parties disapprove but do not interfere.41

In the past decade, fundamentalist polygamy has entered the popular culture and been painted negatively by the national media. Besides the YFZ Raid, the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart by the polygamist Brian Mitchell (who is not representative of polygamist groups) and Wanda Barzee sparked a national media frenzy, especially after Elizabeth’s return to her family in 2003. The press and television shows like America’s Most Wanted, Dateline, The Today Show, The Nancy Grace Show, and The Oprah Winfrey Show have uniformly portrayed polygamy as practiced by fundamentalists in a negative light.42 Interestingly, Winfrey herself was not disparaging of polygamist families who lived more mainstream lives in suburban centers across the United States.43 Still, disapproving depictions of fundamentalist polygamy persist in the national popular culture, with books like Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) and Stolen Innocence (2008) and films like The Elizabeth Smart Story (2003) and Banking on Heaven (2006) depicting polygamy as harmful and destructive to marriage and the family.44

But perhaps the television show Big Love (2006–11) has introduced polygamy to mainstream popular culture like no other event. Polygamy in Big Love has been cast in a sympathetic or at least neutral light. The leading characters are compelled to lead a double life in their monogamous and polygamous worlds, thereby generating audience sympathy for the Henrickson family as outsiders. Television critics of Big Love have for the most part interpreted the polygamous lifestyle as a literary device rather than debating the moral and legal merits of the practice.45 However, the LDS Church has criticized the show for its depiction of polygamy.46 The Church’s underlying concern is clear: it fears that the public will associate the practice of polygamy with mainstream Mormonism as it once had. Whether this will occur remains to be seen.

Conclusion

The continued existence of the fundamentalist communities poses a threat to the LDS Church as an American institution. Although it has renounced polygamy, the LDS Church still is associated with the practice, all the more so when references to polygamy are made in the national media and culture. This would explain the LDS Church’s strategy of alternate silent disapproval and explicit condemnation of the FLDS, AUB, and other polygamous communities.

If the polygamous communities do not enter into the public consciousness, then it is better to remain quiet about them so that people do not remember the “un-American” origins of the LDS Church. But if the polygamous communities receive attention in the national media and culture, then it is incumbent upon the LDS Church to remind the public that it is committed to the American institution of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. Public service announcements and ads on radio, TV, and the Internet with the slogan “Family: it’s about time” are examples of the many strategies for improving the public perception of the LDS Church as an institution fully in concert with American values.

This desire to separate itself from Mormon fundamentalism and align itself more closely with the American mainstream may also partially explain what appears at first contradictory political behavior by Mormons on the same-sex marriage question. On the one hand, the LDS Church officially condemns homosexual behavior and supported, for example, Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that recognizes marriage as between one man and one woman.47 On the other hand, the LDS Church endorsed Salt Lake City’s nondiscriminatory ordinance in housing and the workplace against sexual orientation.48 These two seemingly contradictory positions are reconciled when one considers not only the theological position of the LDS Church but its place in American culture and civilization. First, the LDS Church condemns only homosexual behavior and not homosexuality itself; consequently, one can be a devoted believer and also a homosexual, according to LDS beliefs. Discrimination in housing and the workplace against such a person therefore would be difficult to justify. Second, the LDS Church paid an enormous price to enter into American civilization by renouncing the practice of polygamy in favor of monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. To give up this position for same-sex marriage would be an affront to those ancestors who made that sacrifice.49 Recent statements made by LDS Church leaders that ―marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children‖ affirm this position.50

As the LDS Church has entered into mainstream American culture, America likewise has become shaped by the LDS Church: the questions of marriage, separation of church and state, and federalism have been clarified by the debate over Utah’s entrance into the union; the growing acceptance of the LDS Church, as demonstrated in the differing national reactions to the Short Creek and YFZ Raids; and the current debate over same-sex marriage, where the LDS Church plays an active role in determining the future of this social institution for our country. In many ways, the LDS Church is the American religion because it has challenged American conceptions of marriage, family, and government and then subsequently accepted and promoted them. We may have thought these issues were resolved long ago, but it is only when we examine the role of Mormonism in the history of our country that we see that our conceptions of them are continually changing. Without Mormonism, we would have never thought or known otherwise.

 

Notes

1 Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

2 Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia,: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

3 Montesquieu makes this equation explicit in his other famous work, The Spirit of the Laws.

4 William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (Boston: Benj. Mussey, 1853).

5 Cott, Public Vows.

6 Some Mormons who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (such as fundamentalists) continue to practice polygamy today, despite the threat of state prosecution.

7 Reports suggest that Smith received revelation on polygamy and practiced it as early as 1831. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Vintage, 1995); Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: A Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage, 2007).

8 Bushman, Joseph Smith: A Rough Stone Rolling.

9 Joseph Smith’s revelations from God are recorded in Doctrine and Covenants, a book revered as scripture by members of the LDS Church. This particular quotation comes from Doctrine and Covenants 132:61-62.

10 Bushman, Joseph Smith: A Rough Stone Rolling.

11 Whitney Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950).

12 Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1991).

13 In order for families to be reunited after death, they must be sealed together in sacred ceremonies. Part of the ritual of sealing (joining) families together takes place in Mormon temples. Unlike regular meetinghouses (which are used for Sunday worship and activities throughout the week), temples are dedicated to a higher purpose, and access to them is restricted to those who have been interviewed and found worthy to enter by their local and regional Church authorities. In them, marriage ceremonies are performed “for time and all eternity” rather than “until death do us part.”

14 These are twentieth-century justifications and are most clearly argued by offshoot branches of the LDS Church. For example, the Strangite movement explains that polygamy is actually a liberating practice for women. “The Original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Women,” accessed January 18, 2010, http://www.strangite.org/Women.htm.

15 Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900, 3rd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

16 Enemies of the Mormons did petition the government to reject the Deseret proposal, citing what they characterized as unpatriotic temple oaths and lasting animosities between the LDS and the national government arising from the ill treatment they had received in the East and the murder of their founding prophet. Furthermore, because much of the proposed territory of the state of Deseret would have come from what had been Mexican territory only a year before, or under British control in recent memory, the U.S. government could not take the chance of having a group with questionably loyalty to the union in charge of its political affairs. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom.

17 Linda Thatcher, “Statehood Chronology,” Online Utah, accessed January 14, 2008, http://www.onlineutah.com/statehoodchronology.shtml.

18 As part of a compromise meant to prevent the Civil War conflict, there was no mention of slavery.

19 To thank Millard Fillmore for his kindness, Utah has both a county (Millard) and a city (Fillmore) named after him. Michael Kent Winder, Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America’s Presidents and the LDS Church (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2007).

20 O. Kendall White, “Mormonism in America and Canada: Accommodation to Nation-State,” Canadian Journal of Sociology–Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 3, no. 2 (1978): 161–81.

21 D. L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998); William P. MacKinnon, ed., At Sword’s Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).

22 The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868 and incorporated the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses to apply to the states. Prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, the regulation of church-state relations was reserved to the states.

23 Robert Alley, The Constitution and Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1999), 414–19.

24 The Act also disenfranchised Utah women, who had been given the right to vote in 1870.

25 Alley, Constitution and Religion.

26 This announcement, made in a letter to the general church audience, is included in LDS Scripture along with Doctrine and Covenants and is known as Official Declaration 1.

27 Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989). For more about Taylor’s religious experience with polygamy, also refer to Martha Sonntag Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993); and Ken Driggs. “After the Manifesto: Modern Polygamy and Fundamentalist Mormons,” Journal of Church and State 32 (1990): 367–89; for more about Lorin Woolley and his father, John, refer to Ben Bradlee Jr. and Dale Van Atta, Prophet of Blood: The Untold Story of Ervil LeBaron and the Lambs of God (New York: Putnam, 1981).

28 Hans A. Baer, Recreating Utopia in the Desert: A Sectarian Challenge to Modern Mormonism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988); Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy.

29 Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land.

30 Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy; refer to article 3 of the 1896 Utah Constitution; chapter 112, section 103-51-2 of the Utah Penal Code, and chapter 7, section 76-7-101 of the Utah Criminal Code.

31 Bradlee and Van Atta, Prophet of Blood; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy.

32Bradlee and Van Atta, Prophet of Blood; Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy.

33 Ken Driggs, “Who Shall Raise the Children? Vera Black and the Rights of Polygamous Utah Parents,” Utah Historical Quarterly 60 (1992): 27; also see Driggs, “After the Manifesto.”

34 For example, “The Great Love-Nest Raid,” Time, March 8, 1953; “People: The Big Raid,” Newsweek, March 8, 1953; also see Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy..

35 Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land.

36 Irwin Altman and Joseph Grant, Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 50–53.

37 Sara Corbett, “Children of God,” New York Times, July 27, 2008. Also refer to “Timeline of Raid on FLDS-Owned YFZ Ranch,” Deseret News, May 23, 2008.

38 Ben Winslow, “Jeffs Is Now an Inmate at Utah State Prison,” Deseret News, November 22, 2007.

39 Although Blacks were numbered among LDS Church members from the 1830s, they were not included in the offices of the priesthood (authority given to LDS men to act in God’s name and run the church). The specific reasons for this practice are unclear and were not discussed by LDS leadership. Under pressure from civil rights activists in the 1960’s, Church leadership explained that it would take a revelation from God (rather than the suggestion of Church members) to change the policy. This revelation came to then Church President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. Since that time, Black members of the LDS Church are permitted the same rights and privileges of other worthy, practicing members of the faith, including ordination to the priesthood, positions in Church leadership, and participation in temple ceremonies.

40 Altman and Grant, Polygamous Families; Bradlee and Van Atta, Prophet of Blood; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy.

41 Altman and Grant, Polygamous Families.

42 Tom Smart, In Plain Sight: The Startling Truth behind the Elizabeth Smart Investigation (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005); Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven (New York: Random House, 2003).

43 Oprah Winfrey, “Polygamy in America,” Oprah, October 26, 2007.

44 Krakauer, Under the Banner; Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer, Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

45 For example, Havrilesky, I Like to Watch.

46 “Church Responds to Questions on HBO’s Big Love,” March 6, 2006, LDS Church’s Newsroom, http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/church-responds-toquestions-on-hbo-s-big-love.

47 Jesse McKinley and Kirk Johnson, “Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage,” New York Times, November 14, 2008.

48 Tamara Audi, “Mormon Church Backs Salt Lake City’s Gay-Right Ordinances,” Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2009.

49 Not to mention that what often is portrayed as “authentically American” has been described by conservatives, who also are opposed to same-sex marriage. It would make sense for the LDS Church to align itself with these like-minded groups to be on the side of authenticity as well as for agreement on their public policies.

50 Gordon Hinckley, James Faust, and Thomas Monson, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,00.html.

 

This was originally presented at the Religion and Politics Symposium at Calvin College in Michigan on April 28-30, 2011. Portions of this was incorporated in the second chapter of LDS in USA: Mormonism and the Making of Mormon Culture (Baylor University Press, 2012).

Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander

Written by

Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander are authors of LDS in USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture (Baylor University Press, 2012).