“O that my voice could reach the ears…”

Suzanne Armitage

“O that my voice could reach the ears of those uninformed and misinformed”1

It has been said by some, ‘what good will it do to hold a mass meeting?’ If it does no other good, it will be a matter of history, to be handed down to our posterity, that their mothers rose up in the dignity of their womanhood to protest against insults and indignities heaped upon them.2

Much has been published on the topic of the Latter-day Saint practice of polygamy over the past two decades; authors Danel Bachman, Todd Compton, Kathryn Daynes, Jessie Embry, B. Carmon Hardy, Carol Cornwall Madsen and Richard Van Wagoner are familiar names to those who have made the effort to learn more about it.

Polygamy–or more correctly polygyny, the marriage of more than one woman to the same man–was an important part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half century. The practice began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith but became publicly and widely known during the time of Brigham Young.3

Because of the tremendous amount of historical material available in early LDS Church histories, personal diaries, journals, correspondence, newspapers and other publications, a great deal of research is necessary–oftentimes years of research–when putting together articles or books for publication on the topic of plural marriage.4 Unfortunately, historical documents are often reduced to a mere sentence or two by the authors; a quotation or two gleaned and duly footnoted–if any–depending on the author’s research topic. Some documents are ignored altogether.

One such historical document is the 91-page “Mormon” Women’s Protest: An Appeal for Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights.

My personal interest and research has been mostly centered on Helen Mar (Kimball) Whitney. It was in the process of gathering material that I came across the “Mormon” Women’s Protest to which Helen Mar contributed a speech.5 As I was reading it I made a note of several passages that I might include in an article some time in the future. But I was saddened that Helen Mar’s unabridged speech, and that of several other Latter-day Saint women whose speeches and correspondence were included in the document, would continue to go unnoticed. That these women’s voices are today silent simmered in the back of my mind and came to a boil when I read, in the document’s preface, that, “The aim of this pamphlet is to preserve in convenient form, for present use and future reference, the record of the proceedings of that memorable day…”

So instead of the usual article–with the briefest of glimpses of early Latter-day Saint women’s views of plural marriage including, generally, all too brief quotations–I thought it would be interesting to make available the entire document online along with this brief introduction, explanatory notes and an additional letter which was published in the Deseret News.

What is “Mormon” Women’s Protest: An Appeal for Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights? It is a “Full Account of Proceedings at the Great Mass Meeting, held in the Theatre”6 in Salt Lake City on the 6th of March 1886. Webster’s dictionary defines mass meeting as: a large meeting or rally of people for discussion of a public question.

The public question being discussed at this mass meeting was the same as had been discussed at previous mass meetings which had been held for many years in Utah: unrelenting anti-polygamy legislation which “put pressure on the Church by threatening members’ civil rights and Church property rights” and the enforcement of the Edmunds Act. The bill, which had been passed in 1882, barred “persons living in polygamy” from “jury service, public office, and voting;” polygamists were heavily fined and imprisoned.7

The conflict would worsen with the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act that was before Congress at the time this mass meeting was held. It was passed on 3 March 1887.

Over the next ten years or so, over a thousand Mormons would be convicted of unlawful cohabitation (easier to prove than polygamy), and hundreds of men, along with a handful of women, spent time in prison. Thousands of others, including many church leaders, went underground to avoid the federal authorities.8

Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cite the journal entries and correspondence of plural wives written during this period of fear and repression as proof that plural marriages did not work without noting the historical context.

The American anti-polygamy crusade lasted well over ten years and even into the early 1890s. Even if the husbands wanted to be fully equal with their plural wives it was illegal for them to do so. They could not acknowledge in any way a plural wife, no dinners together, no visits, no support, et cetera–it was illegal–and those who did attempt it ended up incarcerated (along with a few plural wives who tried to protect them.)

For some, like Annie Clark Tanner and Ida Hunt Udall, not only did they have to hide from federal agents in order to protect their husband and sister-wives but they also had to hide to protect their father, mother and “aunts.” Annie Clark Tanner, for example, was subpoenaed in 1886 after a raid in Farmington, Utah, not to testify against her husband, Joseph Marion Tanner, but to testify against her father.

Some chose exile. After Angus M. Cannon’s second arrest for unlawful cohabitation in September 1885, his plural wife Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon left with her young infant daughter Elizabeth and traveled to England not only to protect her family but also because “she might be used as a witness against other polygamous marriage partners since she had been the physician who delivered the children in several cases. ‘Hence I am considered an important witness, and if it can be proven that these children have actually come into the world, their fathers will be sent to jail for five (5) years.'” Even after Martha’s return to Utah, she and her husband, Angus M. Cannon, “were never able to live together publicly as husband and wife.”9

This abuse by federal agents continued even after the Manifesto. Joseph Marion Tanner had to resign as president of the Utah Agricultural College (today’s Utah State University) because he was a polygamist. His options were to ‘divorce’ his plural wives and retain his position or to resign his position and move to either Canada or Mexico with his families–he resigned and moved to Alberta. Not everyone made that decision, and by then the harm had already been done. Some wives chose to remain in the U.S. and not accompany their husbands.

There was another Mormon exodus after the migration to Utah: It was the exodus of Mormon plural families leaving the United States for either Mexico or Canada.

Full reports of the women’s mass meetings were often published in the Woman’s Exponent10 and the Deseret News but, as noted earlier, historical documents are usually reduced to a sentence or two, a duly footnoted quotation, or ignored altogether. For example, in his book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith author Todd Compton’s chapter on Helen Mar Whitney never mentions the March 6th mass meeting.

Compton is also the author of a lengthy introduction to A Widow’s Tale: The 1884-1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney. In his introduction, Compton reduces Helen’s many diary entries about the mass meeting to one sentence:

She attended a pro-polygamy mass meeting of women on March 6, 1886, and was asked to speak but declined.11

Although Compton is technically correct, Helen did refuse “to make a verbal speech,”12 she did agree to provide a written speech to be read at the mass meeting. This was not unusual at that time as women were unaccustomed to public speaking in front of a very large audience such as this one.13 But a speech wasn’t Helen’s only contribution. We read in her diary that a week before the mass meeting, on February 27, 1886, Helen met with Isabella Horne to help organize it:

…to talk over the subject of having a Mass meeting to protest against the outrages committed upon “Mormon” women, and insults heeped upon them in district courts etc who are the subjects of abuse from United States officials & their sneaks thieves, etc, and taking from the women the right of franchise, that they may more easily accomplish their robbing scheme. I was one of those appointed to write a speach.14

Isabella Horne was president of the Relief Society of the Salt Lake Stake; Helen Mar Whitney was her counselor.15 Notice of the meeting was published in the Deseret News and “Mrs. H.M. Whitney” is listed just below Isabella Horne’s name.16 Helen also noted in her diary that she spent several days prior to the mass meeting composing her speech. In the end, due to time constraints, Helen’s speech was not read aloud but it was published in “Mormon” Women’s Protest. On March 9th, she writes: “Spent going over my speach, adding to it, as it was cut down to suit the Mass meeting. I have gained by not having it read there.” Two days later, she handed in her “improved copy.”17

Four other plural wives of Joseph Smith participated in the mass meeting yet Todd Compton does not mention the significant participation and contributions of these women to the 1886 mass meeting in his book In Sacred Loneliness. In addition to Helen Mar Whitney we find Zina D.H. Young, the chaplain at the Great Mass Meeting, who opened the meeting with prayer (p. 7) and gave the closing benediction; Prescindia L. Kimball who delivered the opening address (p. 10); Eliza R. Snow Smith who wrote a brief letter (p. 67); and Mary Ann Pratt who also contributed a letter (p. 59).

As noted on the Title Page, this mass meeting was “to protest against the tyranny and indecency of Federal Officials in Utah, and against their own disfranchisement without cause;” “to protest against the indignities and insults heaped upon the wives and daughters of “Mormons” in the District Courts;”18 and “to memorialize Congress and the President of the United States for relief from insult and oppression at the hands of Federal officials.”19

For some time past a movement has been on foot to give the women of Utah an opportunity of expressing in some public and emphatic manner, their feelings regarding the indignities and the sufferings they are made to endure in the present crusade against the Mormon people. . . . Not only have the men, who for obeying a principle of their religion are declared to be violators of law, been made to suffer the extraordinary and unhallowed proceedings inaugurated against them under its form and in its name; but their wives, their children and their relatives have been hauled before inquisitorial grand juries, plied with shamefully indecent questions, threatened with punishment for contempt if they refused to answer, and in some cases actually imprisoned for such refusal.20

The document also includes poems written for the occasion and the Memorial which Emmeline B. Wells and Dr. Ellen B. Ferguson presented to President Grover Cleveland in Washington. “It was presented to the Senate of the United States on the 6th of April by Mr. Blair, of New Hampshire” and was “printed in the Congressional Record.”21

The women also took this opportunity to protest and refute antipolygamy activists’ misrepresentations and accusations of treason, hence the patriotism shown by several speakers. More importantly, for those of us who are interested in Latter-day Saint plural marriage, the document also includes many personal insights on the practice of plural marriage.

It was “Isabella Horne, Sarah Kimball, and Romania Pratt [who] expressed their desire to Church President John Taylor to ‘publicly protest against the indignities inflicted on plural wives in the district courts.'”22

Though some modern historians have levied criticism that LDS Church leaders manipulated both their own women and gentile suffragists in their confrontation with the government over polygamy, neither national nor local suffragists could be construed as pawns, maneuvered by the stratagem of religious leaders. Plural wives were no less committed to the Church and plural marriage than their husbands or Church leaders. Mormon women were inseparable partners in defense of what they persistently maintained was a divine mandate and a constitutional guarantee. Realistically, women had far more to lose than men if their marriages were invalidated and their children illegitimatized. Mormon women’s defense of the practice was thus fervent and personal.

. . . Mormon women were not only willing but also essential partners in this long-standing confrontation. Their presence, their petitions, their writings, their lectures all assisted in arousing public empathy, in finding allies, and in building bridges.23

The “Mormon” Women’s Protest has been reproduced in PDF format, with pagination as in the original. You can find the full document at this location:


Additional reading on this period in Utah history

Bushman, Claudia L., ed., Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1997.

Church Educational System, Church History in the Fulness of Times (Religion 341-43) (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 425-442.

Daynes, Kathryn M., More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Derr, Jill Mulvay, Janath Russell Cannon and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992.

Driggs, Ken. “The Prosecutions Begin: Defining Cohabitation in 1885” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 109-125.

Embry, Jessie L., Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987.

Firmage, Edwin B., “The Judicial Campaign Against Polygamy and the Enduring Legal Questions” in BYU Studies 27, no. 3 (Summer 1987): 91-113.

Garr, Arnold K., Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds. Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000. See articles under: “Antipolygamy Movement;” “Plural Marriage,” “Underground” and “Woman Suffrage.”

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Iversen, Joan, The Antipolygamy Controversy in U.S. Women’s Movement, 1880-1925: A Debate on the American Home. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

Larson, Gustive O., “The Crusade and the Manifesto” in Utah’s History. ed. Richard D. Poll et al. (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1978), 257-74.

——–, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood. San Marino, Calif., Huntington Library, 1971.

Madsen, Carol Cornwall, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells 18701920. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006.

——–, “‘At Their Peril’: Utah Law and the Case of Plural Wives, 1850-1900” in Western Historical Quarterly 21, no. 4 (November 1990): 425-443.

——–, ed., Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997.

Riess, Jana K. “Heathen in Our Fair Land”: Presbyterian Women Missionaries in Utah, 1870-90 in Journal of Mormon History 26, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 165-195. The article is drawn from Riess’ Columbia University (2000) dissertation about Protestant women missionaries in Utah in the late nineteenth century.

Van Wagoner, Richard S., Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.


1 Dr. Elvira S. Barney, “Mormon” Women’s Protest, 40.

2 President M. Isabella Horne in her opening remarks, “Mormon” Women’s Protest, 8.

3 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Newsroom. “Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the Practice of Plural Marriage.” 14 July 2006. (accessed 24 October 2006).

4 One author noted that her study had “finally been completed after twelve years” of research. Joan Iversen, The Antipolygamy Controversy in U.S. Women’s Movement, 1880–1925: A Debate on the American Home (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997), xiii.

5 See “Additional Speeches. Mrs. Helen Mar Whitney” in “Mormon” Women’s Protest: An Appeal for Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights. (Salt Lake City, Deseret News. Co., Printers, 1886) 49–53. Helen wrote about attending the meeting in her diary, see A Widows’s Tale: The 1884–1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Charles M. Hatch and Todd M. Compton, eds (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003) 140: “The Mass-meeting is over—Theatre was crowded, speaches splended, some were applauded over & over.”

6 “Title Page” in “Mormon” Women’s Protest.

7 Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992), s.v. “Antipolygamy Legislation.”

8 Terryl L. Givens, The Latter-day Saint Experience in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 43.

9 Constance L. Lieber and John Sillito, eds. Letters from Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886–1888 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), xi, xvii, xxiv.

10 The Woman’s Exponent (published semi-monthly from 1872 to 1914) “was the public voice of Latter-day Saint women . . . it offered its readers articles, poems, stories, letters, reports of women’s organizations and activities, and editorials on ‘every subject as it arises in which the women of Utah . . . are specially interested.’ (Exponent 1, 4). But its primary objective was to refute and correct anti-Mormon misrepresentations, particularly about Latter-day Saint women.” Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (2000), s.v. “Woman’s Exponent.”

11 Charles M. Hatch and Todd M. Compton, eds. A Widows’s Tale: The 1884–1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003), 30.

12 Hatch and Compton, A Widow’s Tale, 140.

13 In 1881, Helen Mar Whitney accompanied Emmeline B. Wells and Isabella Horne to the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society Meeting. She hoped that by sitting at the back near the door she wouldn’t be called on to speak, “I plead with Sister Horn to excuse me from rising to speak but she said any one that had had the experience that I had could say something interesting to my sisters. I told her my gift was not in speaking.” (Letter written by Helen Mar Kimball to Orson F. Whitney, December 12th, 1881, USU Manuscript Collections, MS167, Box 5, Fd 5.) A year later Helen was still uncomfortable speaking in public, “Well, I have attended the Primary & Relief Society of Farmer’s Ward . . . I was called upon but spoke only a few words and gave way for those more capable.” (Letter written by Helen Mar Kimball, August 21st, 1882, USU Manuscript Collections, MS167, Box 5, Fd7.)

14 Hatch and Compton, A Widow’s Tale, 139.

15 Augusta Joyce Crocheron. Representative Women of Deseret (Salt Lake City: J.C. Graham & Co., 1884) 115. Todd Compton was incorrect when he wrote, “On March 10, 1882, Helen was chosen by Sister M. I. Horne as second counselor in the Relief Society of the Eighteenth Ward.” Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 520.

16 Deseret News, 3 March 1886. The notice is included in “Mormon” Women’s Protest on page 5.

17 Hatch and Compton, A Widow’s Tale, 140.

18 “Prefatory” in “Mormon” Women’s Protest.

19 “Mormon” Women’s Protest, iv.

20 “The Ladies Mass Meeting”, Woman’s Exponent, 1 March, 1886.

21 Deseret News, 13 April 1886.

22 Carol Cornwall Madsen, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells 18701920. (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 221.

23 Madsen, An Advocate for Women, 228–229.

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