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What Makes A Marriage?
The courts are taking up the question of what can and cannot constitute legal wedlock. They’ve been there before.
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
These arguments were linked to others more consistent with majority beliefs. The most telling was that the Bible clearly sanctioned the concubinage of the patriarchs. In addition, Mormon leaders readily agreed with the Victorian point of view that men were sexually more driven than women, and they argued that plural marriage, by providing legitimate outlets, eliminated prostitution and adultery. Asked how many wives he had, one Mormon elder snapped, “I have such a plenty of my own that I have no occasion to trouble my neighbors.” In all, Mormon teachings on the subject hardly encouraged license.
In actual operation the Mormons’ “puritan polygamy,” as a modern writer called it, was far less lurid than imagined. Facts are hard to come by, since persecution drove the practice underground. But studies indicate that the overall share of Utah’s Mormon populace in plural marriages was around 25 percent, with sharp variations among settlements. The great majority of these polygamists had only two wives, just enough to fulfill the commandment. Only a small number (mainly of successful leaders) had more than three. Brigham Young was variously estimated to have had between twenty-seven and eighty-four, but many of these (if genuine) may have been sealings for eternity without physical contact.
Polygamous husbands usually, though not always, built separate quarters for their separate families. Testimony on how the multiple wives and children got along is anecdotal but seems to suggest that jealousy and strife were not necessarily more common than in traditional arrangements. The best account is by Kimball Young, a sociologist and grandson of Brigham Young, in a 1954 book titled Isn’t One Wife Enough ? Despite the presumed degradation of women that the practice implied, there was no notable cry for rescue from female Mormons. It seems astonishing, but no more so than the success of Mormonism itself—the acceptance by individualistic and property-loving converts of a form of theocratic communitarianism. The power of faith to modify “human nature” is hard to exaggerate.
As it turned out, plural marriage could not be sustained in a territory destined to become an American state. Vermont-born Brigham Young had counted on the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution as his shield; “I defy all the lawyers of the United States to prove the contrary,” he thundered. But Congress first outlawed polygamy in Utah Territory in 1862. Twelve years later, following widespread evasion, it passed a tougher statute and took enforcement away from the Mormon-dominated territorial courts. Brigham Young died in 1877 and did not live to see the Supreme Court dash his hopes in the test case of his secretary, George Reynolds. The justices upheld Reynolds’s conviction on polygamy charges. They said that laws could not “interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions” but could prevent abhorrent “practices” for which a religious defense was offered. Anything less would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Mere, indeed!
The decision came in 1879 and opened the war in earnest. Young’s suecessor as president of the church, John Taylor, protested that polygamy “emanated from God and cannot be legislated away.” In retaliation the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 imposed jail terms and stiff fines for “cohabitation,” forced wives to testify against their husbands, disincorporated the church and confiscated its property. About a thousand “polygs” were hunted out and imprisoned for the crime, as one of them put it, of “obeying the commands of … my Eternal Father.” Taylor went into hiding, as did others. As many as twelve thousand Mormons were disfranchised.
Perhaps because the parallel to Reconstruction was so striking, one Florida senator opposed the EdmundsTucker bill by an appeal to let time and free expression work toward changing Mormon opinion, rather than invoke “the force of the criminal law.” But in fact, potentially changeable ideas on marriage and morals were not the only question. The real point was to break Mormonism’s union of church and state before Utah could be admitted to the Union. As one opponent of the “political domination of the Church” observed, thanks to the “universal detestation” of polygamy, “we were given a very effective weapon.”
Pragmatic Mormon leaders finally realized as much, and surrender came in 1890, when Wilford Woodruff, the new president of the church, issued a “manifesto” saying: “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.” Polygamy did not instantly vanish. There were purists who held out and hid for years. There were official adjustments, exceptions, pardons, and excommunications. Utah became the forty-fifth state in 1896, and by the 1920s Mormons were a conservative part of mainline America, while monogamy, “the most cherished institution of our civilization,” as a commission on Utah statehood had once called it, was safe. So ends the tale.