- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
In the 1860’s and 1870’s Congress passed laws to eliminate polygamy and to take the trial of cases of alleged plural marriage out of the hands of the Mormon judges and juries, who invariably failed to convict. With the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, Congress began an even more vigorous attack on the Mormon Church and polygamy. Arrest and imprisonment of polygamous Mormon leaders, confiscation of church property, federal control of voting, and invasion by United States marshalls gradually reduced the Mormons’ physical ability to resist the imposition upon them of standards of behavior that would be in harmony with the majority of the United States.
Still, polygamy, so long a part of Mormon culture, was difficult to excise; it continued to be practiced, though on a much reduced scale, and the church fought the Edmunds-Tucker Act all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Finally, in 1890, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the act, and the Mormons were beaten. In September of that year, Wilford Woodruff, then president of the church, issued an official declaration: “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.” The declaration was unanimously declared “official and binding” by a vote during the October general conference, and the doctrine of plural marriage was no longer officially part of Mormon dogma.
While Woodruffs declaration did not necessarily bring an immediate end to existing polygamous relationships, nevertheless it gave promise that the church would no longer promote the institution, and with polygamy out of the way insofar as politics were concerned, Congress permitted Utah to draft a constitution and become a state in 1896.
What has happened since then is extraordinarily interesting. Having once resolved to surrender on the key issue of polygamy, the Mormon leadership decided further to reduce distrust and dislike by deliberately conforming to the rest of the United States in many other aspects of life. This meant accepting the patterns of thought of Victorian middle-class America, including laissez-faire economics and a hostility to anything that suggested socialism—despite decades of Mormon church socialism. The Mormons’ economic cooperatives were allowed to pass into private ownership, to be operated as profitseeking enterprises, sometimes as the private property of the local or general leaders of the church.
While the private profit motive grew at the expense of the old zeal for communitarian enterprises, Mormons of all levels of income continued to tithe and to devote extraordinary amounts of time to the work of the church. The church continued to be the center of their emotional and social lives. And since the church was so central to the thinking of all practicing Mormons, and since it had always given political leadership in the past, so did it continue to exercise a heavy influence on politics in the new era.
Politically the Mormons had been organized in a party of their own—the so-called Peoples’ Party—prior to making peace with the national government. Now the leaders decided that the Mormons would have more influence in Washington if they joined the national parties, dividing more or less equally between the Republicans and Democrats, so that the Mormons would have a solid bloc of votes in both camps. The faithful were solemnly instructed so to do—although in practice the leadership itself tended to find the atmosphere of the Republican party more congenial than that of the Democratic party.
This was only natural, for starting with Nauvoo and the first decade in Utah, there had been a tendency for the men at the head of the Mormon Church to become well-to-do property owners and businessmen. As Horace Greeley, the famous journalist, somewhat acidly remarked after meeting Brigham Young’s principal associates in 1859, “their Mormonism has not impoverished them. …” By the late nineteenth century this group of prosperous leaders had grown both in wealth and in influence. For them conformity to the mores of Victorian America was no problem once the divisive issue of polygamy was no longer present. In politics their natural allies were the Old Guard Republicans in Washington and in the individual states. In labor relations a comparable affiliation with well-to-do middle-class America also occurred. Since many more of the Mormon leaders ofthat day belonged to the owner or manager class than to the ranks of the workers, it is understandable why they joined Middle Western and Eastern employers in denouncing labor’s attempts to organize.
This tendency to affiliate with the conservative, ruling, entrepreneurial elements of American society was strengthened by at least two factors. One was the relatively provincial setting of most Mormon communities at the turn of the century, even after the arrival of local railroads. The present-day dispersion of Mormons to big cities in non-Mormon regions is a phenomenon that has developed only since the Great Depression and the Second World War. Most Mormons of seventy or eighty years ago still lived in small towns and modest-sized cities that had little communication with the big national and regional centers where, in the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, liberals and progressives were arguing fiercely over new ideas about social justice and using the power of the state to curb monopoly and economic abuse.