- Historic Sites
My Grandfather, The Mormon Apostle
Discovering a giant in the family
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
Grandfather did get back to Salt Lake City, and there he was a hero. He went to work as a bookkeeper for what can be considered the country’s first department store—the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution—and soon married Florence Dinwoodey, daughter of a prominent Salt Lake merchant. Then, in March of 1883, with Florence at his side, he married another young woman, Lydia Spencer. She was the daughter of Daniel Spencer, a Mormon convert from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who had been the mayor of Nauvoo at the time the Mormons were driven westward.
Grandfather’s marriage took place almost a year to the day after President Chester A. Arthur signed the Edmunds Act, which signified that the federal government was getting serious about eliminating polygamy in the Utah Territory. The mild little bookkeeper did not realize it, but this was another turning point on the road that would inevitably lead him to the top of the Mormon hierarchy and into history.
Although Grandfather had been told to be careful about publicizing his marriage to Lydia, at least one friend, Orson Whitney, didn’t think he was: “With his usual disregard for danger, he had allowed himself to be seen with her quite often, not only at her home, but upon the streets and in other public places. He did not propose [if apprehended] to plead guilty, however, and lose the opportunity in court of defending not only his own case but the general causes of which circumstances made him the champion.”
In other words, Rudger Clawson was eager for the chance to become a martyr in the cause of polygamy. And he got that chance when Florence’s pregnancy with their first child provided him with an excuse to move Lydia into the household, to be a companion for Florence. At about the same time, a new district attorney and a new district court judge arrived in Utah with a mandate to stamp out polygamy in Utah once and for all. If a few prominent Mormons had to serve time in prison, so be it.
In April of 1884 Rudger Clawson was arrested on charges of cohabitation (which carried a sentence of six months in jail) and polygamy (which carried one of up to five years). But he was almost denied his chance at martyrdom, for the trial produced a hung jury, primarily because Lydia had disappeared during the trial, “gone where the woodbine twineth,” said an exasperated district attorney in his summation.
However, on the night the trial ended, Lydia, for some reason, possibly because she had heard the trial was over and felt it was safe to come out of hiding, returned to the apartment she had been living in before going underground. She was served with a subpoena, and a new trial was scheduled for the next day.
Despite the judge’s threat to cite her for contempt of court, Lydia refused to be sworn in. The judge explained that a contempt citation meant a year in prison, which did not surprise Lydia; several Mormon women had gone to prison rather than implicate their husbands. But Lydia was going to have to serve her time at least a thousand miles away, because the Utah penitentiary did not have suitable quarters for pregnant women. This was too much for Rudger. The night before she was to be sentenced for contempt, he sent her a note (she was already in jail) urging her to testify the next morning. She did, much to the courtroom’s surprise, and Rudger got his chance. He rose to the occasion magnificently.
“Your Honor,” he said, when asked by Judge Charles Zane if he had any cause why judgment should not be pronounced, “I very much regret that the laws of my country should come in contact with the laws of God; but whenever they do I shall invariably choose the latter. If I did not so express myself I should feel unworthy of the cause I represent. The Constitution of the United States expressly states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It cannot be denied, I think, that marriage, when attended and sanctioned by religious rites and ceremonies, is an establishment of religion. The law of 1862 and the Edmunds Act were expressly designed to operate against marriage as practiced and believed by the Latter-day Saints. They are therefore unconstitutional, and, of course, cannot command the respect that a constitutional law would. That is all I have to save, Your Honor.”
Newspaper accounts and the history books agree that it was a dramatic moment. But Judge Zane was not impressed. His reply reflects the conflict that has gone on between church and state since the beginning of democracy: “The Constitution of the United States...does not protect any person in the practice of polygamy. While all men have a right to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience and to entertain any religious beliefs that their conscience and judgment might reasonably dictate, they have not the right to engage in a practice which the American people, through the laws of their country, declare to be unlawful and injurious to society. I confess that I should have felt inclined to fix this punishment smaller than I shall, were it not for the fact that you openly declared that you believe it is right to violate the law.”