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The Practice of Plural Marriage - 19th Century Mormon Polygamy

The Practice of Plural Marriage – 19th Century Mormon Polygamy

The command for the private practice of polygamy, or plural marriage as it was often called, was issued in the 1830s by Church founder, prophet, and president of the church, Joseph Smith. The public practice of plural marriage by the church was proclaimed and upheld in 1852 by Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, at the request of church president Brigham Young.

My latest book, Blaine’s Wager, book 7 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain series, includes a sub-plot including the practice of plural marriage.

Reasons for Plural Marriage and How Many Mormons Participated In It

From 1852 to 1890 between 20 to 30 percent of Latter-day Saint families publicly practiced plural marriage. The early Mormons saw plural marriage as a spiritual principle calling for self-sacrifice…a divine directive to enable righteous prosperity both here on earth and in the eternal life to come.

Book of Mormon

Why & When It Was Banned

In May 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act which prohibited polygamy and enforced that law with penalties including:

  • Fines from $500 to $800
  • Imprisonment up to 5 years
  • Confiscation of all church property valued over $50,00
  • And dissolving the corporation of the church.

The Church President at the time, Wilford Woodruff, responded by issuing the Manifesto, which addressed the Church’s intentions to submit to the laws of the U.S. Within a week the members of the Quorum of the Twelve voted to sustain the Manifesto. The members of the Mormon church accepted the Manifesto though some did so with reservation.

However, in the church colonies of Mexico and Canada, Mormons continued to perform plural marriages though it was hard to get permission for these marriages and at least one of the spouses had to agree to remain in Canada or Mexico.

In closed-door meetings with local leaders, the First Presidency condemned men who left their wives by using the Manifesto as an excuse. Trusting covenants made with God and spouses must be honored above all else, many husbands, including Church leaders, continued to live with their plural wives. In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison granted general amnesty to Mormon polygamists. Three years later, Utah banned polygamy in its constitution.

In 1898, B. H. Roberts, a member of the Mormon First Council of the Seventy, ran for the U.S. Congress and won, but he was barred from office when it came out that he had three wives, one that he married after the Manifesto. This reopened Mormon marital practices to public scrutiny. Church President Lorenzo Snow issued a statement that new plural marriages had ceased in the Church and that the Manifesto was now extended to all parts of the world.

Joseph Smith

Then, at the April 1904 general conference, President Joseph F. Smith delivered a powerful statement known as the second manifesto. He said that plural marriages were forbidden by God and the Church and that the penalizations ascribed for entering new polygamy marriages would be firmly enforced.

Up to this time, the Church didn’t interfere with those who felt a need to perform plural marriages as a matter of religious conscience. But, the Second Manifesto stripped off this spiritual command for the Church to mutually tolerate and shield plural marriage.

Mormon Women Who Left the Fold Rather Than Be a Part Of Polygamy

Some Mormon women could not endure a life of polygamy and ended up leaving their husbands. It was very easy to get a divorce in Utah Territory in that time period. One of the women who left was Ann Eliza. She married Brigham Young when he was 67 years old and she was a 24-year-old divorcee. Ann Eliza referred to herself as Young’s “wife number 19,” others have called her “wife number 27.” One researcher deduced that Eliza was essentially the 52nd woman to marry Young. Discrepancies occurred because defining what constitutes a “wife” in early Mormon polygamous practices were problematic.

Eliza Young, estimated to be the 19th Wife of Brigham Young

In 1873 Ann Eliza filed for a divorce from Brigham Young due to neglect, cruelty, and desertion. Eliza maintained Young’s monthly income was $40,000, and he was worth $8 million so she asked for $1,000 a month pending the trial, $20,000 for counsel fees, and $200,000 for her maintenance. Brigham Young denied her charges and declared his worth was only $600,000 and his monthly income was only $6,000. He also asserted that she shouldn’t receive alimony for a marriage that wasn’t legally recognized.

Eliza’s divorce was granted in January 1875. Brigham Young was ordered to pay her an allowance of $500 and $3000 in court fees. Initially, Young refused and was found in contempt of court. He had to spend a day in jail and pay a $25 fine. However, the alimony was later set aside on the grounds that a polygamous marriage was legally invalid, possibly indicting both of them for illegal cohabitation.

Ann Eliza was excommunicated from the LDS Church, but that didn’t keep her quiet. She traveled across the United States, speaking out against plural marriage, the Mormon religion, and even Brigham Young. She also testified before the U.S. Congress in 1875.  Many people believe her testimony impacted the passage of the Poland Act in 1874 that reorganized the judicial system of Utah Territory to make it easier for the Federal Government to prosecute polygamists.

Brigham Young

Ann Eliza Young wrote Wife No. 19, or The story of a Life in Bondage. In this book about her life with Brigham Young, she said she had “a desire to impress upon the world what Mormonism really is; to show the pitiable condition of its women, held in a system of bondage that is more cruel than African slavery ever was, since it claims to hold body and soul alike.”

Her opinion of polygamy in the church was that Brigham Young and other Mormon men basically lived in households that were harems, using their religion to validate what amounted to sexual slavery. She felt that while Mormon men were “building their kingdoms” their wives were expected to share their love and suffer in silence at the degradation.

Polygamy or plural marriage, is addressed as a sub-plot in my latest release, Blaine’s Wager, book 7 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain historical western romance series. Releasing June 28, 2018.

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Caroline Clemmons
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Caroline Clemmons

When I was a girl, we had a neighbor who was a polygamist Mormon. We thought he must travel but once his son told my brother that his dad was across town with his other wife. I think most men would have trouble supporting more than one wife. LOL I enjoyed this blog post and learned quite a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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