Plural marriage was an Abrahamic test. The Church’s essay on the topic begins,
Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage. … By revelation the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to institute the practice of plural marriage among Church members in the early 1840s. For more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints under the direction of the Church president.
The next line acknowledges, “Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes in instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage.”1 That seems to be key to at least part of what the Lord accomplished through plural marriage. He didn’t explain it any more than to say that it would be Abrahamic in its wrenching test and in its promised blessings. He left it at that and promised to explain more later (D&C 132).
Saints went forward with faith and uncertainty. Plural marriage was a poorly kept secret in Nauvoo in the 1840s. In Iowa Territory and Utah Territory in the late 1840s and early 1850s, it was an open secret. In August 1852, Brigham Young appointed a special conference to have the revelation in section 132 read publicly, and apostle Orson Pratt give a lengthy defense of the practice of plural marriage. After that, the secret was out. More than one hundred missionaries were sent all over the world with instructions to preach it.
That was wildly unpopular in the United States and elsewhere. In 1862, in the midst of Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which was designed to punish the Church for plural marriage by confiscating its property. President Lincoln had bigger problems and didn’t enforce the law. After the Union was reconstructed, Congress turned its attention back to the Saints. With encouragement from the First Presidency, George Reynolds allowed himself to be convicted under the Morrill Act to test the constitutionality of the law. Though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stipulates that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, the Supreme Court upheld Morrill in 1879, ruling that a person may believe in but not practice plural marriage.
Latter-day Saints generally responded with civil disobedience, since, when it came to a choice between the two, obeying God trumped fidelity to what they regarded as a bad law. Congress, meanwhile, passed tougher and tougher laws against the Saints, the Supreme Court upheld them, and federal marshals enforced them. Apostle and jurist Dallin H. Oaks testified before a Congressional committee,
I know of no other major religious group in America that has endured anything comparable to the officially sanctioned persecution that was imposed upon members of my church by federal, state, and local government officials. … Most of these denials of religious freedom received the express approval of the United States Supreme Court. It was a dark chapter in the history of religious freedom in this country.2
Meanwhile, Lorena Larsen married Bent Rolfsen as a second wife. It was not her ideal arrangement. Most women in her time and place didn’t think of marriage as an ideal. They thought of it as an obligation and a protection. They expected it to be a lot of hard work, child rearing, and duty. And Latter-day Saint women expected it to end in exaltation.
We had gone into that order of marriage because we fully believed God had commanded it, and while we had human nature to contend with, we worked and prayed for strength to overcome selfishness and greed and live on a higher plain, learn to love each other, or there would never be happiness.3
In response to the “raid” on her family and others, Lorena left home to work in the Manti temple so her husband would not be prosecuted. When she discovered she was expecting a baby, she and her family went to rural Colorado to avoid prosecution.
In his May 19, 1890, journal entry, President Wilford Woodruff noted: “The Supreme Court of the United States Decided to day Against the Church of Jesus Christ of latter Day Saints. They Decided to Escheat all the Church Property Real & Personal.” That meant that for the first time, all of the teeth of the Morrill Act and others passed since would bite. The temples would be confiscated. President Woodruff worried continually about the wisest course to take.
In late September he wrote in his journal:
I have arived at a point in the History of my life as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whare I am under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church. The United State Government has taken a Stand & passed Laws to destroy the Latter day Saints upon the Subject of poligamy or Patriarchal order of Marriage. And after praying to the Lord & feeling inspird by his spirit I have issued the following Proclamation which is sustained by My Councillors and the 12 Apostles.4
About two weeks later at the Church’s October 1890 general conference, President Lorenzo Snow presented the Manifesto, as he called it, to the Saints for a sustaining vote. Consent appeared to be unanimous, but many were unsettled by the announcement and resentful of the government’s oppressive measures that led President Woodruff to seek the revelation.
Lorena Larsen learned of the Manifesto near Moab, Utah, on her way home from Colorado. She wrote vividly about the experience:
My husband came to our tent and told me about it, and my feelings were past description. I had gone into that order of marriage solely … because I believed God had commanded his people to do so, and it had been such a sacrifice to enter it, and live it as I thought God wanted me to. And as I thought about it, it seemed impossible that the Lord would go back on a principal which had caused so much sacrifice, heartache, and trial before one could conquer one’s carnal self, and live on that higher plane, and love one’s neighbor as one’s self. My husband walked out without saying a word, and as he walked away I thought, Oh yes, it is easy for you, you can go home to your other family and be happy with her, while I must be like Hagar, sent away.
My anguish was inexpressible, and a dense darkness took hold of my mind. I thot that if the Lord and the church authorities had gone back on that principle, there was nothing to any part of the gospel. I fancied I could see my self and my children, and many other splendid women and their families turned adrift, and our only purpose in entering it, had been to more fully serve the Lord. I sank down on our bedding and wished in my anguish that the earth would open and take me and my children in. The darkness seemed impenetrable.
All at once I heard a voice and felt a most powerful presence. The voice said, “Why this is no more unreasonable than the requirement the Lord made of Abraham when he commanded him to offer up his son Isaac, and when the Lord sees that you are willing to obey in all things the trial shall be removed.”
There was a light whose brightness cannot be described which filled my soul, and I was so filled with joy, peace, and happiness that I felt that no matter whatever should come to me in all my future life, I could never feel sad again. If the people of the whole world had been gathered together trying with all their power to comfort me, they could not compare with the powerful unseen Presence which came to me on that occasion.
And as soon as my husband came back I told him what a glorious presence had been there, and what I had heard. He said, “I knew that I could not say a word to comfort you, so I went to a patch of willows, and asked the Lord to send a comforter.”5
Through personal revelations like the one Lorena received, Latter-day Saints learned to accept plural marriage in the 1840s and to let it go beginning in the 1890s. There have been many significant changes in the Church throughout its history. The way to cope well with them is to live in the light of personal revelation that confirms the Lord’s revelations to the prophets. In a world where everything, including Church practices, is subject to change, revelation to prophets and ordinary folks remains constant. So does the love of the God of Abraham.
1. “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Church Gospel Topics.
2. Reported in “Elder Oaks Testifies Before U.S. Congressional Subcommittee,” Ensign (July 1992), 78–80.
3. Lorena Larsen, “Life Sketch,” 144–145.
4. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898, Typescript, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983–85), 9:112–14.
5. Lorena Larsen, “Life Sketch,” 239–41.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
From the 1840s to the 1880s, many Latter-day Saints participated in the practice of plural marriage. Recognizing how controversial the practice was, Joseph Smith introduced it privately to a few close associates during the Nauvoo period. Elder Orson Pratt then publicly announced it in an 1852 discourse. The practice began through revelation to the Prophet Joseph and ended with a revelation to another prophet, Wilford Woodruff. Official Declaration 1, also commonly known as the Manifesto, is not Woodruff’s revelation itself but an announcement of it. On several occasions, President Woodruff explained the spiritual communications that led him to issue the Manifesto. Excerpts from some of these addresses are found in the Doctrine and Covenants directly following Official Declaration 1. President Woodruff felt the need to explain his actions because the Manifesto constitutes such a dramatic turning point in the history of the Church and in the mindset of its members.
Most of the people who interacted with the Saints in the nineteenth century viewed the practice of plural marriage as controversial. In 1862, the United States Congress passed a series of laws intended to pressure the Saints into ending the practice of plural marriage. These laws, particularly the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, put great strain on Latter-day Saint leaders. By 1890, the federal government of the United States had disincorporated the Church, seized many of its assets, and placed many prominent Church leaders in prison. The wives and children of these leaders often suffered the indignity of being subpoenaed to testify in court against family members, at times even their own husbands and fathers, not to mention the other hardships associated with the absence of their husbands and fathers, often the family’s breadwinner.
Under these difficult circumstances, President Wilford Woodruff sought guidance from the Lord about continuing the practice of plural marriage. In May 1890, when the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the Lord showed President Woodruff in a vision “exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice . . . all the temples [would] go out of our hands.” He later taught, “[God] has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it.”1 This announcement evidenced that the temple ordinances were of more importance than the practice of plural marriage, something that perhaps some members of the Church did not understand.
On September 25, 1890, President Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which he later maintained was prompted by a revelation given to him from God. The Manifesto announced, “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise” (Official Declaration 1). The Manifesto addressed the United States government when it explained, “We are not teaching polygamy, or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice.”2
Shortly after President Woodruff announced the Manifesto, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles voted to uphold his actions. A few weeks later, at the October 1890 general conference, the membership of the Church sustained the Manifesto and it became “authoritative and binding” upon the Saints.3 Although the members of the Church generally accepted the Manifesto, stopping the practice of plural marriage within the Church proved difficult. Part of the problem was a difference of opinion among Church leaders on how to implement the Manifesto. For instance, the Manifesto had no bearing on plural marriages that already existed. President Woodruff explained, “This Manifesto only refers to future marriages, and does not affect past conditions. I did not, I could not, and would not promise that you would desert your wives and children. This you cannot do in honor.”4 Even with this strong affirmation, some Latter-day Saints who had entered plural marriage began to live with just one wife. Although the Manifesto “officially ceased” the practice of solemnizing new plural marriages in countries where it was illegal, ending the practice happened more gradually.5 Since the Manifesto simply declared that Church members would obey the law in places where plural marriage was illegal, plural marriages continued to be performed and sanctioned for a time in Canada and Mexico, where polygamy was legal.
By 1908, the Manifesto had been canonized. Since its announcement, it has been included in every edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and is now titled “Official Declaration 1.” The end of plural marriage was nearly as difficult a trial for the Saints as its beginning. For nearly fifty years, the Saints defended and upheld the principle of plural marriage, accepting it as a revelation from God in harmony with His revealed word. But once again, the Lord provided guidance and direction to the Saints, and the practice came to an end in the Church.
1. “Remarks Made by President Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret Evening News, November 7, 1891. See Official Declaration 1.
2. “Official Declaration,” Deseret Evening News, September 25, 1890.
3. President Woodruff’s Manifesto, 1–3; “Third Day,” Deseret Evening News, October 6, 1890, as cited in “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics Essays, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
4. Marriner W. Merrill quote, in B. Cameron Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage, 1992, 141.
5. “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics Essays, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.