There was a major change in Utah law that happened on May 12, 2020. Polygamy is no longer a felony, and you can more afoul of Utah in getting a speeding ticket then having a polygamous relationship. This post looks at the history of polygamy in Mormonism and also Utah. Plus it raises the question for those evangelicals who said that gay marriage would open the door to accepting polygamy. In that context what does this change in the law mean?
“Any young man who is unmarried at the age of twenty one is a menace to the community.”
Washington, D.C. Mormon Temple
This is going to be a different post today. There was some fascinating news that while irregular I wanted to write about. Those reading this blog know that I got involved in Mormonism when I was in college in Montana in the 1990’s. When I was involved I recall discussing polygamy with the Mormon missionaries and at one point even joked about one of the benefits to being Mormon is that you could have a wife for every day of the week. It was a joke but still. The other day while going through my inbox and scanning the news there was a major change to the law in Utah about polygamy that grabbed my attention. But before this blog goes there let’s look at some history.
The History of Polygamy in Mormonism and Utah
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830. Early on Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage in private. Smith was married to Emma in 1827. She was 22 at the time. In 1833 Joseph Smith, who was 28 then married Fanny Alger who was 16 at the time. In Smith’s lifetime most of his marriages were kept secret from non-Mormons and active Mormons. Joseph Smith married several teenagers, and some marriages were just for salvation purposes only. In the end Smith married 51 females. In the LDS faith the teachings of the prophet are in the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation that Smith received that he wrote about is in Section 132. Joseph’s wife Emma was not too fond of polygamy and pay close attention to Section 132:64, that is the part where the Mormon prophet threatens to send her wife to hell if she does not accept his teachings on polygamy.
58 Now, as touching the law of the apriesthood, there are many things pertaining thereunto.
59 Verily, if a man be called of my Father, as was aAaron, by mine own voice, and by the voice of him that bsent me, and I have endowed him with the ckeys of the power of this priesthood, if he do anything in my name, and according to my law and by my word, he will not commit dsin, and I will justify him.
60 Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God.
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse aanother, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
62 And if he have aten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to amultiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be bglorified.
64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take aHagar to wife.
66 And now, as pertaining to this law, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will reveal more unto you, hereafter; therefore, let this suffice for the present. Behold, I am Alpha and Omega. Amen.
When Joseph Smith was killed in Navou, Illinois in June of 1844 the Mormons who already moved several times made a decision to leave the United States. During this time Kansas and Nebraska were on the frontier, the California Gold Rush had not started and the Northwest part of the United States was in Illinois. Minnesota and Wisconsin were territories at the time. (Hence this is why Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois is so named) Brigham Young who would lead the Mormons had embraced polygamy early. In his lifetime he would have a total of 55 wives and 59 children through his wives. Under Young’s leadership the Mormons migrated to Utah where they arrived on July 24, 1847. They had traveled over 1,000 miles to arrive in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Most Mormons could not afford to practice polygamy and did not. From what I was told at one point Young had provided his Mormon wives with a nice home, with each one having access to a porch. For the next 20 years a number of Mormons practiced polygamy. Brigham Young was the leader in Utah and he created a theocracy.
On the same day that California was admitted into the United States in 1850, Utah became a territory. In time the stories of polygamy in Utah came to the attention of the press and politicians in Washington, D.C. In the mid 1850’s the newly formed Republican Party called slavery and polygamy the “”twin relics of barbarism.” In 1862 the Congress passed the Merrill Act which was aimed at Utah. That legislation prohibited plural marriage in the territories, dis-incorporated the Mormon Church, and restricted the church’s ownership of property. However it was hard to enforce because the Civil War was being waged in the Eastern United States. More legislation was passed to enforce the Merrill Act in the late 1860’s but a number of Mormons continued to practice polygamy. Brigham Young interested in testing federal law about polygamy had his private sectary violate the law which eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court which eventually upheld the Merrill Act. While the act was on appeal Brigham Young died in 1877. It was during this time that the United States had built the transcontinental railroad which connected both coasts. With the railroad more people started to come into the Utah territory. Many in Utah wanted to become a state but many Mormons still practiced polygamy while the federal government wanted it outlawed. Succeeding bills from Congress such as the Edmunds Act , or Edmunds-Tucker Act, or the coming Cullom-Struble Bill were being debated in 1889 when the Mormon Church acted. The previous Mormon leader John Taylor died while on the run from the federal government. Wilfred Woodruff the new Mormon leader then came to realize that the polygamy needed to be outlawed. On September, 26, 1890 Woodruff released what became known as the “Manifesto” The “Manifesto” declared the following to the faithful Mormons. “I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land.” And with that polygamy went underground and while some Mormons practice it remotely it was the fundamentalists most known for embracing polygamy. After the Mormon church made polygamy illegal Utah became a state in 1896. But polygamy was a part of the state’s culture. It is estimated that between Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Montana that over 30,000 people are practicing polygamy currently.
Why Polygamy is No Longer a Felony in Utah
Utah took polygamy somewhat seriously, while others in Utah government ignored it. Those who were arrested once faced five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. On the books it was listed as a third degree felony. There were concerns in Utah that it was hard to bring forward abuse and other crimes with such a law that was strict. So Republican state Sen. Deidre Henderson introduced legislation in Salt Lake to do away with the felony. To CNN Henderson explained her action this way. “Vigorous enforcement of the law during the mid-twentieth century did not deter the practice of plural marriage. Instead, these government actions drove polygamous families underground into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey. Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse, not eliminated polygamy.”
In February the Republican legislator wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune explaining why the law had to be removed form the books. This is part of what she said.
“The fact that Warren Jeffs, a notorious polygamist, is languishing in prison on two felony counts of child sexual assault is well known. What is less known is how Jeffs was able to create a culture of fear among his followers that allowed him to perpetuate his abuse for so long.
I’ve spent many months researching Utah’s history and meeting with current and former polygamists from communities throughout Utah to answer that question. The clear consensus I hear from a wide range of voices — including victims, victim advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement, and social workers — is consistent: Utah law bears much of the blame.
Unlawful cohabitation in Utah has been a felony since 1935. Contrary to the law’s intended purpose of eliminating polygamy, it has instead enabled abuse. Like alcohol’s prohibition a century ago, which gave rise to Al Capone and a dangerous black market, today’s prohibition on polygamy has created a shadow society in which the vulnerable make easy prey.
It is in these reclusive environments that abuse happens with impunity. Fear and isolation breed secrecy, like a petri dish in which dark and ugly things grow. The fear isn’t theoretical. Polygamists not long ago experienced their homes being raided, men and women being imprisoned and hundreds of children being forcibly removed by the government.
One county attorney explained to me that Warren Jeffs had “weaponized” Utah law in order to perpetuate that fear and isolation. Branding all polygamists as felons obstructs integration into society and limits access to education, healthcare, and justice; it also allows abuse to escalate unchecked.
Later on in the op-ed she explains that she is not trying to promote polygamy. If you would like to read the op-ed you can do so in, “Utah’s polygamy law creates a culture of fear and abuse.” Eventually the law was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert. On May 12, 2020 you can get into more trouble in Utah with a speeding ticket than in practicing polygamy. If you would like to read more you can do so in CNN’s, “Bigamy is no longer a felony in Utah” and the Salt Lake Tribune in, “Removing polygamy as a felony is one of the important laws that take effect today.”
What Does this Mean for the Evangelical Culture Wars?
Here is a question that looms in my mind as I compose this post. What does this change in a law regarding polygamy mean for the evangelical culture wars? If you recall one of the reasons why evangelicals claimed gay marriage should be rejected is because it would also open the door to more polygamy. Now we have a situation that a major polygamy law was repealed but it was not for the reasons evangelicals claimed in fear. It was repealed because there was fear that it was contributing to abuse in Utah. Is this another example of evangelicals acting in hysteria and fear? Or does this show them to be on target? I remain doubtful as I study this issue that this was done for reasons that evangelicals could not have anticipated. Maybe one of the by-products of black and white thinking is that you fail to adjust to other issues that come about. What is your take?