“For the Temporal Salvation of the Church”: Historical Context of the Manifesto, 1882–90

“For the Temporal Salvation of the Church”: Historical Context of the Manifesto, 1882–90

Joseph Stuart

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been characterized by one historian as “Christianity [pressed] into an Old Testament mold,” meaning that the Church not only restored New Testament principles but also taught principles from all prophetic dispensations. [1] Fundamental to early Mormon beliefs were the restoration of priesthood, the notion of “gathering to Zion,” temples, and, perhaps most importantly, a living prophet (through whom these items of restoration came). The first prophet of the Church, Joseph Smith, may have received a revelation concerning plural marriage as early as 1831, though the practice was not formally taught in the Church until 1852. From 1852 to 1890, nearly forty years, plural marriage was practiced in the open. This religious practice was taught, practiced, and preached, in spite of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, the Poland Act of 1872, the Edmunds Act of 1882, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. This paper examines the process that led to the cessation of polygamy among Mormons, focusing on the most important events between the Edmunds Act (1882) and the release of the Woodruff Manifesto (1890), which formally abolished polygamy.

Although polygamy had been outlawed in the United States during the Civil War, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1862) had gone largely unenforced in the Territory of Utah, due to the distance between Utah and Washington, DC, and greater problems facing the country, such as the Civil War and Reconstruction. The federal attitude of indifference toward Utah polygamists ended with the passing of the Edmunds Act of 1882. The bill’s sponsor, Republican George F. Edmunds of Vermont, had been in Washington for more than three decades, including serving as Speaker of the House. Senator Edmunds sought to end Mormon polygamy by limiting its financial and legal power. This legislation, meant to bolster and support the Morrill Act (1862), took away the right for polygamists to vote or serve on juries and, coupled with the support of a powerful senator, ensured that it would be more widely enforced.

Shortly after the passing of the Edmunds Bill in the Senate, President John Taylor publicly stated that the United States government “passed a law which we consider unconstitutional, and which interferes with our religious rights.” [2] He went on to explain that belief in the principle of plural marriage was essential for faithful Mormons, even if they did not practice polygamy. President Taylor vowed that Mormons would not voluntarily cease their religious practice. [3] There was no problem with polygamy in the eyes of the Latter-day Saints because polygamy as a religious practice [4] should have been protected under the First Amendment’s provision for free practice of religion. [5]

President Taylor continued speaking on the constitutionality of polygamy, saying: “[The United States is] seeking to deprive you and me and thousands of people in this Territory of religious liberty, without trial, without investigation. They have proceeded on the principle of tyranny and coercion.” [6] Not only were the laws viewed and explained by Church leadership unconstitutional, but the enforcement of these laws infringed on a major tenet of LDS theology: that each person had the right to choose for himself what actions he could take for himself. If any further proof was needed for fence-sitting Latter-day Saints to follow the President of the Church rather than the president of the United States, the emphasis on the right to choose may have put those Saints over the line.

The Saints did not see polygamy as any more worthy of punishment than following the tenets of any other religion. One major tenet of the LDS faith is to not discriminate against any religion (see Articles of Faith 1:11), and the Saints believed that they did not deserve such persecution from fellow Christians. [7] The Saints continued to practice polygamy because it had been “revealed by God,” not because any religious leader had coerced them into the practice. [8] President Taylor’s instruction to Latter-day Saints in light of the new legislation was to go about their business as usual, knowing that they should obey God rather than a government that was removed in thought and geography from the Saints. [9]

In response to the persecution and prosecution from the federal government, Church leaders left the United States, hid in the “underground,” [10] served Church missions, or went to prison. John Taylor rebuked those Latter-day Saints who did not agree with the Church’s continued course in polygamy: “I find some men try to twist round the principle in any way and every way they can. They want to sneak out of it in some way. Now God don’t want any kind of sycophancy like that. He expects that we will be true to Him, and to the principles He has developed, and to feel as Job did—‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’” [11] President Taylor’s words reflect the environment in which he had joined the LDS Church: a furnace of affliction characterized by persecution, panic, and pursuit by mobs. He believed that God’s watchful protection had always been over the Saints and that the persecution from antipolygamists was no different. He urged the Saints to follow their prophet and continue practicing the principle. Latter-day Saints were to live, preach, and, if necessary, die for the practices they knew to be true. [12]

In the eyes of Latter-day Saints, not only would stopping polygamy be against God’s instructions, but those who did so would be fighting against (in President Taylor’s words) “principles of eternal truth” and perhaps lose out on “enjoyment in the eternal worlds.” [13] President Taylor himself went into hiding, refusing to cease practicing or to disavow polygamy. He passed away in hiding on July 25, 1887. Wilford Woodruff, in his journal, remarked that Taylor had been a martyr for polygamy, just as he had been present at the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith. [14]

With the passing of John Taylor in 1887, Wilford Woodruff became the fourth President of the Church. Like John Taylor, Woodruff had been called as an Apostle during the presidency of Joseph Smith, served as such under Brigham Young, and entered into polygamy before the migration to Utah. Woodruff was just as firmly for the principle as Taylor was, telling the Saints (before he became President of the Church) that “the world do [sic] not like the doctrine we teach, as it lays the axe at the root of the tree.” [15] Employing biblical language about those who would be burned at the end of the world, Woodruff was showing that those who disagreed with polygamy would be the same as those who “bringeth not forth good fruit” (Matthew 3:10) or those who did not practice their faith through their actions. He clearly implies that one cannot profess faith through words alone. His statement also suggests that antipolygamy legislation and Latter-day Saint alike would be held responsible for any action taken against the practice of polygamy. President Woodruff stated publicly that it was “the God of heaven [who] commanded Joseph Smith to introduce and practice the patriarchal order of marriage, including the plurality of wives.” [16] Polygamy as the principle was to stay among the principal requirements for entering into God’s highest glory, in Mormon theology.

Fortunately for historians, President Woodruff kept a meticulous journal for most of his adult life. On the day he realized that he was going to become President of the LDS Church, he wrote a prayer in his journal that he would be prepared “for whatever await[ed] him on Earth and have power to perform whatever [was] required at his hands by the God of Heaven.” [17] During one of the most tumultuous times in the Church’s history, with Church leaders still living in hiding or abroad and Woodruff still under direct threat of arrest and imprisonment, he was left with most of the responsibilities of Church leadership with little access to counsel from his fellow General Authorities.

The fortitude and faith of Latter-day Saints was to be further tried, with Senator Edmunds putting forth more legislation concerning polygamy in 1887. The Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporated the Church and the Perpetual Emigrating Fund of the Church, on the grounds that the Church continued to foster polygamy. In addition to these actions, the Edmunds Act authorized seizure of Church real estate not directly used for religious purposes and allowed the government to seize anything in excess of the $50,000 cash holdings limitation that was imposed by the Morrill Act in 1862. [18] The Church’s situation became much more perilous, as the danger went from being persecuted to becoming penniless or being thrown into the penitentiary. Those who believed in the principle were not permitted on juries, the right to vote was stripped from all women of Utah, and men were required to take an oath swearing allegiance to antipolygamy laws before being allowed to vote.

The First Presidency began to discuss whether or not polygamists should say that they would not cohabitate, to show the government that the Church was sincere in its quest to participate in government, so that Utah could become a state. [19] The presiding leaders of the Church also made it a policy to avoid mention of plural marriage in general conference. [20] These decisions are evidence that the leading councils of the Church had begun to fully consider the end of polygamy for the political and social lives of its members.

The Saints perceived themselves as downtrodden, and persecuted for their religious beliefs, apart from other Americans. [21] Leaders of government in Washington, in turn, appeared to view the Mormons as religious fanatics who put their “assumed revelations” above the “laws of the land.” [22] Because neither side fully understood the other’s views and viewed the other’s actions as ungodly, no solution could have been reached at that time.

Perhaps because of their view that they had a divine mandate to practice polygamy, Latter-day Saints did not terminate polygamy through the early years of President Woodruff’s administration. Consequently, Mormon polygamists continued to be arrested, left the country, or were forced to live away from their families in safe places like the Juárez colonies in Mexico. In this climate where matters of faith were valued more than being convicted for felonies, the closing entry for President Wilford Woodruff’s journal in 1887 reads: “The year 1887. . . has been a peculiar year for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The prisons are filled with Elders of Israel Because they will not abondon [sic] their wives & Children. . . . The whole Christian world seems to be persecuting the Saints of God and seeking their destruction.” [23] Perhaps most significant in his thoughts is that President Woodruff did not say that the Elders of Israel were in prison because they had done something wrong but because they were doing what was best for their families. This attitude reflects the larger attitude of the Latter-day Saints: they would not stop practicing polygamy, because to Latter-day Saints, practicing polygamy was not wrong. To them, the government was the godless party in this standoff, and (if the Saints remained faithful) the Church would overcome the “most Ungodly and unconstitutional Law ever enacted by any Congress since the foundation of the American government.” [24]

Displaying the seriousness with which they took the Edmunds Act, the United States government brought the indictment of George Q. Cannon on September 16, 1888, an event that President Woodruff considered one of the most important days in the history of the LDS Church. [25] A member of the First Presidency, President Cannon submitted himself to being charged, hoping that “submission” to the law would bring “amnesty” and “statehood.” To the Latter-day Saints who believed that their persecution was a test of faith from God, the indictment of President Cannon must have been a severe trial. [26] He pled guilty to the charges of cohabitation and was sentenced to a total of 175 days in prison and a fine of $450. [27] President Cannon reiterated the positions of the Latter-day Saints when he wrote to a friend in prison that “this generation arrays itself against the Almighty, and you are punished for being on His side; but only wait, and be faithful, and you will share in victory and receive a glory before which angels will bow.” [28] Mormon leadership thought it more likely that angels would bow before polygamists than that polygamists would bow at the feet of the federal government.

The imprisonment of a member of the First Presidency of the Church displayed the course of action that the government felt it needed to take toward the Mormons, much like Governor Lilburn W. Boggs’s view in Missouri in the 1830s: “The Mormons must be . . . [politically and economically] exterminated or driven from the [Union].” [29] President Woodruff wrote in his journal that this hatred of the Church was fulfillment of a prophecy made by Joseph Smith that “the whole nation would turn against Zion and make war upon the Saints.” [30] To prove his point, President Woodruff wrote that the Church had never been so persecuted as it was at this time. [31]

President Cannon survived his prison sentence, proving to be a leader and a beacon in “the pen.” Less than a year after his release, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called for a special Church fast on December 23, 1889. President Cannon prayed that the leaders of the United States of America would have their hearts softened toward the people, as well as praying for the forgiveness of the Saints’ sins. It was noted in the meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency that “even little children have fasted. . . . No doubt the results will continue to be seen.” [32]

In a newspaper interview dated March 1, 1890, President Cannon stated that “plural marriages have ceased. . . . Those of us, men and women, who went into polygamy years ago are dying off. A few years will end that issue.” When a reporter asked him if that was also the end of the LDS Church, Cannon replied, “No. The Church is stronger today than it ever was.” [33] While the strength of the Church appears to be President Cannon’s opinion (the Church had seen better days financially and politically), his statement regarding polygamy is a landmark in the change in LDS policy concerning polygamy. A member of the First Presidency had rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged that polygamy would end. This softening, even if it was only for public relations or political motives, was perhaps the beginning of the end for polygamy as a Church-sanctioned practice. It was perhaps also a realization that the cessation of polygamy would be best for the temporal well-being of the Church. [34]

The persecution of polygamists and the Church in general culminated in one of the largest events leading up to the ending of plural marriage: the Supreme Court case Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States. The Church was sued for property and was disincorporated, losing its status as a tax-free institution. This verdict acted as a financial death knell to the Church in May 1890.

Perhaps the last big move leading up to the demise of polygamy came as a result of a conversation that Presidents Woodruff and Cannon had with one of Utah’s delegates to Washington, Judge Morris Estee. On September 9, 1890, while discussing the impact that the Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States was about to have concerning the property of the Church, Estee suggested that the Church “make an announcement that you are laying aside polygamy” and avoid having to announce it purely as the business decision of a defeated corporation. When Woodruff and Cannon hesitated to commit to such an action, Estee replied, “It is going to have to be done sooner or later anyway.” Woodruff agreed, saying, “I feel it is not proper for any marriages of this kind to be performed in this territory at the present time.” [35]

Less than a month later, after much prayer, pondering, and revelation on the subject of polygamy, President Woodruff wrote the revealed will of the Lord in what would become known as the Manifesto, or Official Declaration 1 in LDS scripture. President Woodruff drafted the Manifesto, saying that “the Lord had made it plain to him that this was his duty, and he felt perfectly clear in his mind that it was the right thing.” [36] His journal entry on the day he drafted the Manifesto is poignant and shows the pragmatism needed in the dire situation the Church was in at that moment. He wrote: “I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the President of the Church . . . where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church. The United States government has taken a stand and passed laws to destroy the Latter-day Saints on the subject of polygamy or patriarchal marriage.” [37]

The decision to end polygamy was not popular among Church leaders, nor among average Church members. President Woodruff later “expressed his gratitude to the Saints for the support they had given him. . . . His course had been taken under direction of God, and rather than do anything contrary to the will of God, he would allow himself to be taken out to his death.” [38]

President Woodruff met with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the other General Authorities of the Church between his first drafting of the Manifesto (September 24) and the beginning of general conference (October 6). The atmosphere in the room was heavy with the sorrow that after forty years of effort, persecution, and slander, a dearly held practice was now unexpectedly ending. Joseph F. Smith, Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, stood up in the meeting and said: “[I] would rather choose to stand, with [my family], alone—persecuted—proscribed—outlawed—to wait until God in His anger should break the nation with his avenging stroke. But . . . I have never disobeyed a revelation from God. . . . I cannot—I dare not—now.” [39] President Cannon added, “God has a right to suspend His law, . . . as the Savior did when He suspended the law of Moses.” [40]

President Woodruff had his men behind him, but those men had their heads and hands hanging down. Though he left no record of his emotion, one can imagine that this difficult proposition left him with a heavy heart and a head to match. He was left to present the revelation that he had received to the Church that he presided over, who would not be expecting nor enjoying the direction he was going to give. He sent press dispatches to the East and prepared to inform the Church of his decision.

Less than two weeks after the Manifesto was issued to the press, it was read to the members of the Church during the October 1890 general conference. The announcement to the Church and to the world begins:

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. (Official Declaration—1)

After this declaration disavowing new polygamous marriages, President Woodruff refuted charges given in the press that any polygamous marriages were to be authorized, with those who openly supported polygamy to be “promptly reproved.” [41] The revelation read in general conference was accepted as binding, on the authority of Wilford Woodruff’s prophetic office. Latter-day Saints were to follow the laws of the land concerning marriage, living in monogamy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never again formally sanctioned polygamy and would eventually make practicing polygamy an offense worthy of excommunication from the Church. [42]

            The New York Sun, in reporting the press dispatch of the Woodruff Manifesto, wrote: “The government never called upon them to renounce their opinions, but only to obey the laws. It did not expect or require a public renunciation of sentiments or beliefs to which they had sealed their devotion in battle through [the] years.” [43] Whether by design or by accident, however, the end of polygamy brought a major change of thought in future generations of Church members. Many Latter-day Saints did not renounce their beliefs or practices at the time of the Manifesto, but the majority of Latter-day Saints in Utah ceased to live as polygamists, although polygamist husbands largely continued to take care of their wives and families. The revelation contained in the Manifesto served as an inspired act for the “temporal salvation of the Church” and, in its revealed wisdom, also served as a catalyst for the political pluralism and economic opening that helped transform the Church’s image. The release of the Manifesto was the first of several important changes made in LDS culture and doctrinal practice that allowed Utah to become a state, something that the Saints had been trying to accomplish since 1849. The admission of Utah into the Union “mark[ed] the close of the great contest between the Mormon and the so-called Gentile elements, and ushers in an era of peace and good will.” [44] In following through on what he knew to be the revealed will of God, as well as “the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue,” Woodruff was able to start the process of attaining Utah’s statehood and to ensure the continued growth and success of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


[1] Richard L. Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 63.

[2] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 24:353.

[3] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:353.

[4] Many people who are unfamiliar with Mormonism see only the sexual aspect of polygamy. A more accurate view of the practice might be to view a man as having multiple families, with all of their blessings and responsibilities, rather than to view one as simply having multiple wives.

[5] This argument had already failed in the landmark case Reynolds v. United States, when the Saints sent a test case for polygamy through the Supreme Court, on the grounds of religious belief. The court found that the government could regulate “religious practice” and that “religious belief” could not justify actions such as polygamy. For a more extensive explanation, see Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001).

[6] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:353.

[7] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:352.

[8] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:353.

[9] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:355.

[10] The “underground” was a complicated network of hiding for polygamists, particularly Church leaders. The system bore resemblance to the “underground railroad” used by slaves and abolitionists to transport slaves to freedom.

[11] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 25:309.

[12] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 25:310.

[13] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 25:310.

[14] Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff, ed. Susan Staker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), July 25, 1887, 373.

[15] Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 23:130.

[16] Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 23:132.

[17] Waiting for World’s End, July 25, 1887, 374.

[18] Ray J. Davis, “Antipolygamy Legislation,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:52–53.

[19] Abraham H. Cannon Journal, September 29, 1887, as cited in D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 32n103.

[20] As cited in Quinn, “LDS Church Authority,” 34n109.

[21] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:353.

[22] “Facts about the Mormons,” New York Sun (New York City), October 4, 1887, 3.

[23] Waiting for World’s End, December 31, 1887, 375–76.

[24] Waiting for World’s End, July 9, 1888, 378.

[25] Waiting for World’s End, August 17, 1888, 378.

[26] Davis Bitton, George Q. Cannon: A Biography (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 291.

[27] Waiting for World’s End, August 17, 1888, 379.

[28] Bitton, George Q. Cannon, 295.

[29] Lilburn W. Boggs, Missouri State Executive Order 44, October 27, 1838.

[30] Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors as Recorded in His Daily Journals (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964), 566.

[31] Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 566.

[32] An Apostle’s Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon, ed. Dennis B. Horne (Clearfield, UT: Gnolaum Books, 2004), December 23, 1889, 119–20.

[33] Charles W. Penrose, ed., “Regarding the Test Oath Decision,” Deseret Weekly (Salt Lake City), March 1, 1890, 324.

[34] The LDS Church was facing financial ruin at the time, due to the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act.

[35] Bitton, George Q. Cannon, 311.

[36] George Q. Cannon Journal, September 24, 1889, as quoted in Quinn, “LDS Church Authority,” 44n152. Woodruff drafted the revelation, but it was formatted for release to the press with help from George Reynolds, Charles W. Penrose, and John R. Winder. See “Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the Matter of the Protests against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from the State of Utah, to Hold his Seat [January 16, 1904–April 13, 1906],” vol. 2 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1904–6), 52–53.

[37] Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1922), 606–7.

[38] An Apostle’s Record, October 6, 1890, 163.

[39] As quoted in Bitton, George Q. Cannon, 314.

[40] An Apostle’s Record, September 30, 1890, 154.

[41] "Judge Zane and the Manifesto,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), October 11, 1890, 13.

[42] A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 6:401.

[43] “The Yielding of Polygamy,” New York Sun, September 30, 1890, 6.

[44] “The Nation Has Its Eye upon Utah,” Salt Lake Herald, January 1, 1896, 1.