Table of Contents:
The Polygamy Story: Fiction and Fact
(by permission of the author)
Perhaps no other principle of "Mormonism" has engendered more criticism and controversy than the practice of plural marriage. When this principle was restored in the mid-1830s the Prophet Joseph Smith and his devout followers shrank from obeying it until they received a divine dictum to do so. It was a doctrine repugnant to a people raised in puritanical monogamy. The practice was necessarily secret in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois because of anti-bigamy laws banning its practice, but when the Latter-day Saints were driven west outside the confines of the United States it was declared a divine law from the pulpit and was commended to the Church as a necessary commandment.
After Utah became a territory of the United States, this peculiarity of the Mormon faith aroused public sentiment and indignation. It was declared a "relic of barbarism," and opponents wanted it arrested as a cancer on society. In 1862 the federal government passed the first law outlawing the practice of polygamy. Church authorities contested the law on the grounds that their constitutional rights were being denied: the United States Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, and marriage is a religious rite, so polygamy was held to be a sacred rite guaranteed under the Constitution. Whatever the claims, however, the Church was outside the mainstream of American life.
Indignation and opposition continued to mount. Additional anti-polygamy legislation was enacted in 1882, and still more stringent measures followed in 1887. The Church was disfranchised, and Church-owned property in excess of $50,000 was confiscated by the United States government. Polygamists were proscribed and hunted by federal marshals; members of the First Presidency of the Church, along with polygamists everywhere, were forced to hide out on the "underground" to avoid capture and prosecution. By 1890 the situation had reached crisis proportions Congress was considering the Cullom-Struble Bill that stipulated the disfranchisement of all Latter-day Saints, the confiscation of all Church property (including the temples), and the proscription of all Church members, whether polygamous or not. The situation was desperate.
The Church protested the illegality of the legislation enacted against it, but this legislation was declared legal and binding by the United States Supreme Court. Facing the virtual destruction of the Church in 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued his now-famous "Manifesto" publicly declaring an end to the practice of polygamy in the Church.
In the beginning the principle of plural marriage was declared to be "the most holy principle ever revealed to man." It was zealously proclaimed that the principle would never be given up, and that if it were the Church would be in an apostate condition. Because of such sentiments there were those who refused to concede when the practice of polygamy was terminated; they felt that President Woodruff had lost the Spirit and was leading the Church astray.
For a while those desiring to continue practicing plural marriage went out of the country, putting themselves outside the jurisdiction of the law that had forced the termination of the practice. In 1904 when Utah Senator-elect Reed Smoot attempted to take his seat in Congress he was refused. A hearing of national proportions ensued at which it was contended that polygamy in Utah was continuing unabated. At this juncture President Joseph F. Smith issued what has since been called "The Second Manifesto," which formally proclaimed an end to polygamy throughout the whole world.
It was admittedly a period of trial and tribulation for some. The Lord had released the Saints from the obligation to practice polygamy, and yet some Church members were skeptical and refused to give up the practice. After becoming entrenched in the principle and suffering greatly in its practice, it became as difficult to relinquish plural marriage as it had been to accept it in the beginning. Excommunication later severed such dissidents from the ranks of Church membership, but it did not terminate either their faith or their zeal in the rightfulness of their cause.
There were still devout polygamists who felt plural marriage should continue on an individual and sub Rosa basis. This group included two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, who were dropped from their callings and later severed from Church fellowship. Other devout polygamists who insisted on the continuance of plural marriage were also tried and excommunicated. Many of these felt duty-bound to stand fast to principle and proudly bore the label of "Fundamentalist."
With the death of John W. Taylor in 1916 and with the return to Church fellowship of Matthias F. Cowley, the main source of supposed authority for such sub-Rosa polygamist marriages was terminated. It was inevitable, therefore, that someone would arise with pretensions of divine direction and authority to continue the practice of plural marriage independent of the course of an "errant" church. Such a claim would of necessity tap into the recognized line of Latter-day Saint presidency during a time when plural marriage was practiced in the Church with divine sanction. Since the principles of priesthood succession were well established, that person must claim a special type of authority outside the recognized order as given in the revelations. This would require an allegation involving key figures in the priesthood Joseph Smith, the head of the last dispensation, and Jesus Christ, the foundation of all priesthood. This is the claim that we will review and analyze in this book.
Our analysis into so-called "Fundamentalism" must be viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of Joseph W. Musser, one of the founders of the cult and perhaps the most impressive and important "convert to the cause." Having been trained by a dutiful father, he was the only early "Fundamentalist" who kept a journal of events and concepts as they developed. He was the only adherent who wrote extensively in defense of the "Fundamentalist" position. His books and his monthly publication of Truth Magazine (1935-1956) are the bases for our present knowledge of "Fundamentalist" doctrine. He, therefore, becomes the principal source in this study of that doctrine.
Composed of mainly a group of dissenters from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Fundamentalism" is a heterogeneous and fractured movement. By its very nature there is a wide divergence in beliefs among its followers. For sake of analysis, how ever, "Fundamentalism" can be segregated into three main divisions:
All "Fundamentalists" claim to be custodian to the fulness of the gospel that was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and legitimate heir to the keys of the priesthood that was restored by heavenly visitors. They admit that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only church on the earth at the present time that is recognized by God, but they allege that the Church began to stumble in its divine mission when the practice of polygamy was suspended by Church edict in 1890. Numerous other criticisms have since been heaped on the Church, including the claim that it has seriously altered doctrines and practices of the early Church.
The objective of this book is to determine the validity of the foundational claims of "Fundamentalism." This book is therefore limited to an analysis of the basic story and the issues common to all "Fundamentalist" groups.
Research of this subject has taken many years to accomplish. It has meant painstaking research into "Fundamentalist" sources as well as research into the archives of the Church and other repositories of early Church documents. The writer is deeply indebted to the staff at the Church Historical Department, through the years of research, for their help in making pertinent records available. Acknowledgment is also made to the Utah State Historical Society, the University of Utah Library, the Brigham Young University Library, and the Huntington Library Special Collections. The writer is indebted also to those who have given encouragement in this project and helpful criticism of the manuscript.
Lastly, it should be understood that the author takes full responsibility for the contents of this book. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in no way responsible for the positions taken or the conclusions drawn.