Mormon Disavowal of Plural Marriage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This 1890 manifesto, written by Wilford Woodruff, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, denied that polygamy was being practiced by members of his church. He argued against accusations that the church was recognizing plural marriages. In this manifesto, Woodruff declares his intentions to lead his church's members to follow anti-polygamy laws and to refuse to teach church doctrine that may have subscribed to plural marriage. The practice of polygamy by members of the Mormon Church stood in the way of Utah's efforts to become a state. Woodruff's denunciation of plural marriage within the Mormon Church and his successor Lorenzo Snow's subsequent affirmation of the manifesto were crucial in the United States' decision to adopt Utah as a state in 1896.

Summary Overview

This 1890 manifesto, written by Wilford Woodruff, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, denied that polygamy was being practiced by members of his church. He argued against accusations that the church was recognizing plural marriages. In this manifesto, Woodruff declares his intentions to lead his church's members to follow anti-polygamy laws and to refuse to teach church doctrine that may have subscribed to plural marriage. The practice of polygamy by members of the Mormon Church stood in the way of Utah's efforts to become a state. Woodruff's denunciation of plural marriage within the Mormon Church and his successor Lorenzo Snow's subsequent affirmation of the manifesto were crucial in the United States' decision to adopt Utah as a state in 1896.

Defining Moment

Prior to Woodruff's 1890 manifesto, many Mormons subscribed to the belief that men were divinely entitled to more than one wife. Woodruff himself had multiple wives. Despite not believing fully in the manifesto, Woodruff believed its issuance was necessary for the preservation of the church he represented. His manifesto effectively denounced and ended the open practice of plural marriages within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church). Since 1847, Mormons had been increasingly populating the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young led the Mormons here, calling it the “promised land,” to escape the hostile persecution they faced in Illinois, which resulted in the death of their president, Joseph Smith, and his brother, Hyrum. The Salt Lake Valley, which was under Mexican control upon their arrival in 1847, was ideal for their objectives, especially escaping the jurisdiction of the United States. In 1848, however, the United States obtained the territory through the Treaty of Hidalgo at the close of the Mexican War. The Mormons were no longer free from American interference. The Mormon settlers decided to seek statehood, led and represented entirely by Mormons. The proposed state was to include parts of surrounding states in addition to Utah, including parts of what are now California, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, and Colorado. Although Brigham Young was appointed the territorial governor in 1850, the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, also appointed some officials who did not represent the Mormon Church. Members of the LDS Church wished to elect their own officials, which would require statehood. The announcement made by the authorities of the Mormon Church that they would follow the practice of plural marriage was not well received by US citizens generally. For the next forty-six years, the practice of polygamy stood in the way of statehood for Utah, until Wilford Woodruff's manifesto sought to distance the Mormon Church from this practice. This manifesto allowed for the Utah State Constitution to contain a ban on plural marriage, which fulfilled a Congressional Act requiring this in order for Utah to be considered for statehood.

Author Biography

Wilford Woodruff was born March 1 in 1807 in Farmington, Connecticut. His mother died during his infancy, and his father supported him and his eight siblings. He was baptized as a member of the Mormon Church in 1833. He met the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1834. Wilford Woodruff kept a diary documenting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. He was ordained an apostle in 1839, one of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Woodruff practiced polygamy, having at one time five wives and thirty-three children. He divorced one of his wives. Woodruff was ordained as the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1889 and famously issued the 1890 manifesto disavowing plural marriage. He died in 1898 and was succeeded by Lorenzo Snow as church president.

Historical Document

To Whom It May Concern:

Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes, from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published, to the effect that the Utah Commission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, allege that plural marriages are still being solemnized and that forty or more such marriages have been contracted in Utah since last June or during the past year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy—

I, therefore, as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.

One case has been reported, in which the parties allege that the marriage was performed in the Endowment House, in Salt Lake City, in the Spring of 1889, but I have not been able to learn who performed the ceremony; whatever was done in this matter was without my knowledge. In consequence of this alleged occurrence the Endowment House was, by my instructions, taken down without delay.

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.

There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.

Wilford Woodruff

President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Lorenzo Snow offered the following:

I move that, recognizing Wilford Woodruff as the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing ordinances, we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto which has been read in our hearing, and which is dated September 24th, 1890, and that as a Church in General Conference assembled, we accept his declaration concerning plural marriages as authoritative and binding.

Salt Lake City, Utah

October 6, 1890

Glossary

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: a Christian religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830; also known as LDS Church or Mormons

inculcate: to instill or impress through instruction

polygamy: the practice of having more than one spouse

sealing ordinance: a sacred covenant in the LDS Church whereby a husband and wife and their children are bound together for eternity

solemnize: to formally recognize or sanction under religious authority

Document Analysis

The Mormon Church came under much criticism for its members' practice of plural marriage, or polygamy. In 1843, the original leader of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, claimed to have received a divine revelation asserting that Mormon men were blessed by God with the right to have multiple wives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had existed for thirteen years prior to this claim by its leader. The practice of polygamy that is historically associated with Mormonism was not considered a part of the religion between its founding in 1830 and Smith's 1843 revelation.

The Mormon Church was split on the issue of polygamy, and a newspaper was started to publicly opine against the direction in which Smith was pushing the church. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, attempted to stop the newspaper presses, but were arrested and held on charges of violating the Constitution. The Smith brothers were lynched, shot, and killed by anti-Mormons. After the death of Smith, the next president, Brigham Young, took over. He led the Mormons from Illinois to what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, on what was called the Mormon Trek. Young selected this area because it was remote enough to insulate against persecution as well as for its placement within Mexican, rather than United States, jurisdiction. Young and his followers believed that they would be free to practice their religion as they chose, including the practice of plural marriage. The United States gained control of Utah in 1848, however, which threatened the religious freedom of the Mormons by once again subjecting them to US government interference.

Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor; however, some non-Mormons were also appointed by US President Millard Fillmore as territorial officials. Many Mormon residents of the Salt Lake Valley were unhappy with the appointments and wished to elect their own officials. This, however, would be possible only if Utah were granted status as a state (rather than a territory). Utah's quest for statehood began, only to be stymied by LDS officials' public acknowledgment of the common Mormon practice of plural marriage. Much of the general population of the United States were opposed to and offended by polygamy and its practice by Mormons in Utah territory. Indeed, the practice would continue to stand in the way of statehood for Utah until 1896.

Anti-polygamy laws were passed by Congress, including the Morill Anti-Bigamy Act, which outlawed polygamy, and the Poland Act, which shifted the control of the Utah territory justice system from the LDS Church to US district courts, enabling successful prosecution of polygamists. The Edmunds Act of 1882 further restricted the rights of polygamists. As the United States took steps to eliminate polygamy, Utah continued to petition for statehood. Multiple petitions were rejected over the course of several decades, primarily owing to disagreements over plural marriage.

The 1890 manifesto by church president Woodruff demonstrated to Congress that members of the LDS Church were willing to abandon the practice of polygamy and that church leaders would neither condone nor recognize such unions. This was a significant step toward statehood for Utah. In 1894, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which outlined the terms under which Utah would be considered for statehood, including a ban on plural marriage. In 1895, a constitution for the state was drafted, and the following year, Utah was recognized as a state.

Essential Themes

Woodruff's manifesto addresses important themes, including First Amendment rights and the controversial practice of plural marriage. The Morill Anti-Bigamy Act, which became law under President Abraham Lincoln, was viewed by many LDS Church members as a violation of their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects the freedom to exercise religious practices. Followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believed in his prophecy that men were granted the divine right to marry multiple wives. For these believers, to interfere with their practice of plural marriage was to deny their right to practice their religion. For this reason, the Morill Anti-Bigamy Act was largely ignored until further legislation enabled the prosecution of polygamists to a much greater extent than had been previously possible.

Plural marriage, bigamy, and infidelity continue to be common themes in the media in modern times. In United States history, polygamy within the LDS Church remains the most noteworthy example of an institutionally sanctioned form of the practice (at least in the past). Polygamy and polyamory—or having intimate relationships with more than one person—remain topics of debate among experts in the fields of anthropology and social psychology, as well as in the popular media. Some argue that polyamory is natural, and that males are biologically compelled to become intimately involved with multiple female partners. Others argue against it, often citing moral reasons why the practice is socially unacceptable. Polygamy, even when presented as a religious practice, was at the outset a topic of contention when Utah sought statehood. The initial refusal of the LDS Church to abandon polygamy prevented Utah from becoming a state for nearly fifty years from its first petition. The popularity of modern-day media accounts of polyamory suggests that although polygamy was once viewed as abhorrent and immoral, it is being revisited today in terms of its human, rather than its spiritual, possibilities.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bachman, Daniel. “Plural Marriage.” BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections, 2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
  • Bowman, Matthew. The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
  • Jessee, Dean C. “Woodruff, Wilford.” BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections, 2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
  • Van Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 1989. Print.
  • Woodruff, Wilford. “Official Declaration I” (1890). Scriptures, Doctrines, and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
  • Yorgason, Ethan R. Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region. Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P, 2010. Print.
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