Edmunds Tucker Act

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The latter part of the 19th century was a time of Reconstruction for the United States. After rebuilding the South following the American Civil War, Congress took aim at “Americanizing” the Western half of the country. Central in their focus was what they called they “barbaric” practice of polygamy (which was a man being married to more than one woman at the same time) among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church.[1] The Latter-day Saints had emigrated to the Salt Lake Valley following intense persecutions and forced evacuations from Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. They sought refuge, peace and the freedom to practice their religion in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ believe that the family is ordained of God, and that marriage between a man and a woman is central to God’s plan for His children. At times (as with the Old Testament prophets), and for His specific purposes, Heavenly Father—through His prophets— has directed the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage. In obedience to a directive from God, Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage for about 50 years in the mid-1800s. The practice was ended by God’s prophet Wilford Woodruff with the Manifesto in 1890. The practice was begun because of direct revelation and commandment from God, and it was ended in the same way. Since then, plural marriage has not been approved nor sanctioned by The Church of Jesus Christ, and any members found in violation are subject to losing their Church membership.

Mormon persecution
Mormon men in prison (wikicommons)

The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 was anti-polygamy legislation that sought to end the practice of polygamy by targeting the political and economic heart of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Named after its congressional sponsors—Vermont Senator George F. Edmunds and Congressman John Randolph Tucker of Virginia—the act prohibited the practice of polygamy and imposed fines of between $500 and $800 and imprisonment for up to 5 years. In addition, the act disincorporated The Church of Jesus Christ, dissolved the Perpetual Emigration Fund (which had been used to help needy members of the Church emigrate to the Salt Lake Valley), abolished voting rights for women as well as any men convicted of practicing polygamy, and threatened the confiscation of all Church properties valued over $50,000.

Plural Marriage: The Center of the Firestorm

Plural marriage took center stage in the dispute between Congress and The Church of Jesus Christ. The Latter-day Saints believed that plural marriage was instituted by God and could only be repealed by Him. They believed that they were subject to the laws of God over the laws of man. They also believed that the practice of polygamy was covered under the free exercise of religion outlined in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the American people had different ideas, and the nation united against The Church of Jesus Christ and its practice of plural marriage. Republicans called it one of the “twin relics of barbarism”—the other one being slavery.[2]

The Edmunds-Tucker Act

Although the practice of plural marriage was the center of the firestorm, that was not the only point of contention between the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City and the U.S. government. Congress was also concerned about the lack of separation between church and state in the new territory.[3] The Edmunds-Tucker Act was not the first anti-polygamy legislation, but it addressed all of the issues in this dispute. It also threatened The Church of Jesus Christ with economic and political destruction if it didn’t abolish the practice of plural marriage. The legislation included the following:

It disincorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company. The assets were to be used for public schools in Utah Territory.

It required prospective voters, jurors and public officials to take an oath that they did not believe in or practice polygamy.

It annulled territory laws that allowed the children of plural wives to inherit property.

It required civil marriage licenses.

It abrogated the common law spousal privilege for polygamists—meaning that plural wives would be required to testify against their husbands if subpoenaed.

It eliminated women’s suffrage—which had been granted by the Territorial legislature in 1870.

It replaced local judges with federally appointed judges.

It abolished the office of Territorial superintendent of district schools, granting the supreme court of Utah Territory the right to appoint a commissioner of schools.

It also allowed the federal government to confiscate Church property valued at more than $50,000.

But the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ did not yield, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act was enforced to the fullest extent. Through this legislation and its application, The Church of Jesus Christ was stripped of more than $1 million worth of property,[4] and more than 13,000 Latter-day Saints were disfranchised—meaning they lost their right to vote and serve on a jury. In addition, the election machinery was effectively taken out of the hands of the people.[5] More than 1,200 men who practiced polygamy were either fined or imprisoned for six months.[6]

The Church of Jesus Christ appealed the law, but the Supreme Court denied their petitions.

The Manifesto Ends the Practice of Plural Marriage

The leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ endured financial and political persecution. Mismanagement by U.S. Marshall Frank H. Dyer—the appointed receiver of the Church’s property— as well as other factors left The Church of Jesus Christ deeply in debt. [2] But the pursuit did not end there. By 1890, the Church learned that despite an 1888 agreement promising otherwise, the government was pursuing the confiscation of their temples. Persecution, the Latter-day Saints could endure. But they could not abide the confiscation of their sacred temples—houses of worship where faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ make covenants with God and perform sacred, saving ordinances for themselves and their dead.

President Wilford Woodruff—the president of The Church of Jesus Christ at that time—turned to the Lord in mighty prayer and supplication. He also discussed the situation with his counselors. Finally, on September 25, 1890, he wrote in his journal: “I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as president of the Church … where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church.”[7]

President Woodruff said … that the Lord had shown him by revelation exactly what would take place if plural marriage did not cease. He was shown that the Church would suffer the “confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead” (Official Declaration 1, Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto).
…President Woodruff declared that the Lord had made it plain to him what he was to do and that it was the right thing. In the Manifesto, as it was called, he stated that the Church was no longer teaching plural marriage nor permitting any person to enter into it. He expressed his intent to obey the laws of the land, which forbade plural marriage, and to use his influence with Church members to do likewise. In closing he wrote, “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land” (Official Declaration 1).

The Manifesto was formally accepted by the members of The Church of Jesus Christ at its general conference in October 1890. Since that time, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has neither practiced nor sanctioned entering into plural marriage.

Reconciliation and the Continued Quest for Statehood

The Manifesto abolishing polygamy was the first step toward reconciliation with the U.S. government and statehood for The Church of Jesus Christ. A new era of understanding was beginning. Chief Justice Charles Zane of the Territorial Supreme Court of Utah—heretofore a harsh opponent of polygamy—adopted a more lenient attitude toward those brought before his court. After much petitioning, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison granted a limited pardon to all Latter-day Saint men who had lived in compliance with the anti-polygamy laws since the 1890 Manifesto. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland issued a more general amnesty. In 1893, Congress passed a law allowing the es-cheated property to be returned to The Church of Jesus Christ.

The quest for Utah statehood was also renewed. But before this could occur, Congress insisted that The Church of Jesus Christ relinquish its participation in politics. The Church’s political party—the People’s Party—had to be disbanded, and Utah’s citizens would have to align themselves with national political parties. The First Presidency of the Church publicly supported all of these actions. In June 1891, the People’s Party was formally disbanded. Once Utah’s election returns showed a strong two-party system and after further negotiations, Congress finally approved the Utah Enabling Act in July 1894. This allowed Utah citizens create a state constitution, which prohibited the practice of plural marriage and ensured the complete separation of church and state. Congress approved the constitution and on January 4, 1896, Utah officially achieved statehood. Church and civic leaders called for unity as the new state celebrated its independence.

References

  1. Gustive O. Larsen, “Federal Government Efforts to “Americanize” Utah Before Admission to Statehood,” BYU Studies, 10 (2), 1970, p. 1.
  2. Gustive O. Larsen, “Federal Government Efforts to “Americanize” Utah Before Admission to Statehood,” BYU Studies, 10 (2), 1970, p. 1.
  3. Gustive O. Larsen, “Federal Government Efforts to “Americanize” Utah Before Admission to Statehood,” BYU Studies, 10 (2), 1970, p. 2.
  4. Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 360–73.
  5. Gustive O. Larsen, “Federal Government Efforts to “Americanize” Utah Before Admission to Statehood,” BYU Studies, 10 (2), 1970, p. 6-7.
  6. Gustive O. Larsen, “Federal Government Efforts to “Americanize” Utah Before Admission to Statehood,” BYU Studies, 10 (2), 1970, p. 7.
  7. Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 377.