Question: Was the Manifesto that ended the practice of Mormon polygamy the product of legal pressure from the U.S. government?

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Question: Was the Manifesto that ended the practice of Mormon polygamy the product of legal pressure from the U.S. government?

Wilford Woodruff insisted and the other Church leaders insisted that he had been guided by the Lord in the decisions made during this difficult period

Critics of Mormonism allege that the Manifesto ending the practice of polygamy, printed as Official Declaration 1 in the LDS scriptures, was not the product of revelation but rather of legal pressure from the U.S. government, or alternately, of a compromise to achieve statehood. Critics also point to some marriages contracted after the Manifesto as evidence for their claims.

There was great political, legal, and even military pressure brought against the Saints because of plural marriage. The members endured great privations for their faith.[1]

Wilford Woodruff was clear that the Lord had made it his "duty" to issue the Manifesto. It is impossible to know what President Woodruff "really" thought about what he was doing. But, he insisted and the other Church leaders insisted that he had been guided by the Lord in the decisions made during this difficult period.

His decision also has clear Biblical parallels for peoples in similarly oppressive political circumstances.

Biblical parallels

This event has a parallel in the book of Jeremiah. The Torah instructs the Israelites to remain an independent people and to not make contracts or treaties with the surrounding nations. Many Jews in Jeremiah's day likely saw that instruction as further reason to rebel against their vassal-state condition as a subject of Babylon.[citation needed] Jeremiah, however, told them they should submit to their present political condition. He particularly warned them that if they disobeyed, they would lose their freedom and the temple. Choosing to heed their own interpretation of a dead prophet's word rather than obey the living prophet, the Jews did not submit to Babylonian rule and lost their lands, possessions, and access to the holy temple.

This outcome is very similar to what Wilford Woodruff saw in vision.

The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for . . . any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us, and leave our Prophets and Apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people, so that the dead may be redeemed. . . . I say to you that that is exactly the condition we as a people would have been in had we not taken the course we have. OD—1 off-site

The Edmunds-Tucker Act granted the federal government unprecedented powers in prosecuting Mormon polygamists, and prosecutors took these powers to cruel and illegal extremes

The Edmunds-Tucker Act granted the federal government unprecedented powers in prosecuting Mormon polygamists, and prosecutors took these powers to cruel and illegal extremes:

In the Edmunds-Tucker Act, [Congress] provided that a wife was a competent witness in polygamy, bigamy, and cohabitation trials and required that records be kept of weddings in the territories. These provisions still retained one restraint on spousal testimony, however; they provided only that a willing wife would be allowed to testify. The act specifically forbade attempts by the judiciary to compel wives to testify against their husbands. Utah’s judges did not always follow the law, however. A number of Mormon women were required to testify against their husbands or face contempt charges. The power of contempt could be a fearful weapon. On the basis of the most sketchy or nonexistent hearings, Mormon wives who refused to testify against their husbands could be sent to prison for indefinite periods. In 1888 Representative Burnes read to the House of Representatives a report by a visitor to Utah’s prison:

“I found in one cell (meaning a cell of the penitentiary in Utah) 10 by 13 1/2 feet, without a floor, six women, three of whom had babies under six months of age, who were incarcerated for contempt of court in refusing to acknowledge the paternity of their children. When I plead with them to answer the court and be released, they said: “If we do, there are many wives and children to suffer the loss of a father.”[2]

The most reprehensible aspect of this treatment of the women is that it was completely unnecessary. With the evisceration of evidentiary standards, the courts were practically assured of convictions without the testimony of Mormon wives:

In retrospect it is difficult to offer any explanation for this judicial conduct toward Mormon wives other than a spirit of vindictiveness. The polygamy laws, which were being vigorously enforced in the latter part of the 1880s, imposed ample punishment for the women who stubbornly clung to polygamy. The imposition of contempt sentences on wives who refused to testify introduced a sort of random sexual equality in the federal punishment of polygamy that was being imposed on Utah’s Mormons. Courts had reduced the quantum of evidence required to establish polygamy or cohabitation to such a low level that in almost any case ample alternate sources of proof must have been available. So Utah’s courts could not have believed that they needed to compel Mormon women to testify in order to convict their polygamous husbands. The cohabitation cases produced heartrending stories of suffering and pathos. Men were forbidden to associate with their children or provide for their former wives. Women were denied care and association with former husbands. Moreover, the law, not limited to prohibiting future polygamous marriages, fell with all its severity upon people whose relationships had most often been established when the law did not unambiguously forbid them.[3]

Legal challenges brought against Edmunds-Tucker failed, removing the final obstacle to those who sought to use the law to not simply stop polygamy, but to destroy the Church:

Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court combined to generate repressive legislation and distortions of Constitutional jurisprudence which to this day are unequalled in the degree to which they destroyed individual and institutional rights, freedoms, and privileges. Politicians so successfully exploited the situation that at times the nation was prepared to accept the destruction of the Church and its members.[4]

The Manifesto

President Woodruff attended a council meeting on 24 September 1890, and presented a statement which he had written, declaring: “I have been struggling all night with the Lord about what should be done under the existing circumstances of the Church. And here is the result.”[5]

This document was to become the Manifesto. After the Manifesto was revised by the First Presidency, three members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and a few others, it was sent to the media.

Of the process, George Q. Cannon wrote:

This whole matter has been at President Woodruff’s own instance. He has felt strongly impelled to do what he has, and he has spoken with great plainness to the brethren in regard to the necessity of something of this kind being done. He has stated 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.[6]

President Cannon also spoke soon after the Manifesto's publication, and indicated that President Woodruff’s writing of the Manifesto had been done “under the influence of the ‘Spirit’” and promised that “when God speaks and…makes known His mind and will, I hope that I and all Latter-day Saints will bow in submission to it.”[7] Thus, the Manifesto was considered to be a divinely mandated and inspired step by leaders at the time.


  1. For a detailed treatment of the history of plural marriage before, during, and after the Manifesto period, please see: Gregory L. Smith, “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” FAIR, 2004.
  2. Edwin B. Firmage, "The Judicial Campaign against Polygamy and the Enduring Legal Questions," Brigham Young University Studies 27 no. 3 (Summer 1987), 107–108.
  3. Firmage, “Enduring Questions,” 108.
  4. Gordon C. Thomasson, "The Manifesto was a Victory!," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 no. 1 (Spring 1971), 43.
  5. Statement of John R. Winder, 6 July 1902 meeting of temple workers, Salt Lake Temple Historical Record, 1893–1918, Book 71, LDS Church Archives; see also his nearly identical statement at a meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on the same day as reported in Rudger Clawson, Diary, 6 July 1902, University of Utah.
  6. George Q. Cannon, Diary, 24 September 1890, copy in Conference Report 1:48; Wilford Woodruff, Diary, 25 September 1890, Franklin S. Richards, “Address Delivered by President Franklin S. Richards to the High Priests Quorum of Ensign Stake, Sunday November 13, 1932,” in Richards Papers, LDS Church Archives.
  7. George Q. Cannon, “Remarks…,” Deseret Weekly (18 October 1890).