Post-Civil War Persecution

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Post-Civil War Persecutions and the End of Polygamy

Utah was largely removed from the horrors of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Mormons continued to settle large swaths of the American West and to establish beautiful cities. The Salt Lake Temple was begun in 1853, the famous Tabernacle was built and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, named for its justly famous venue, was begun by Welsh immigrants. The Church was reorganized following the chaos of the exodus from Nauvoo. The Relief Society was restarted and Eliza R. Snow, famous for her poetry, became the President. The Relief Society started magazines and built their own buildings. They campaigned for women’s rights and started the first hospitals in Utah.

However, once the Civil War was concluded and slavery was ended, the federal government turned its eye back to Utah to end the other ‘relic of barbarism,’ polygamy. In 1866, the Morrill anti-bigamy bill was passed that made it illegal to have more than one wife. This was difficult to prove and so very few were every prosecuted under this law. Brigham Young was arrested, but eventually released without trial.

Utah’s isolation and independence made it difficult to vigorously prosecute the Mormon polygamists. Throughout the rest of Brigham Young’s life, only token efforts were made to attack polygamy. Instead, Utah and the Church moved forward. Brigham Young oversaw the constructions of temples in St. George, Logan, and Manti, all in Utah. In 1869, the Church established the first incorporated department store in the world, Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution, commonly called ZCMI. In 1870, Utah became the first state to give women the right to vote, although Wyoming gave them the right later that year and held their elections before Utah, thus Wyoming became the first state where women actually voted. Anti-Mormon forces hoped the women vote contrary to the men of the Church, but this was not the case. Toward the end of his life, Brigham Young organized a society for young ladies, called the Retrenchment Society, and re-organized the quorums and bodies of the Priesthood to be more efficient and more in harmony with the revelations given to Joseph Smith. On August 29, 1877, Brigham Young died while visiting the city of St. George in southern Utah.

Saddened though they were by the death of this great leader, Mormons moved on and Mormonism continued to grow, since no one man, except for the Lord Jesus Christ, was central to its mission and teachings. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church until John Taylor, a British convert, became the third president in 1880. That year the Church celebrated its Jubilee by forgiving debts and holding numerous parties. They also accepted the Pearl of Great Price as one of the standard works, or scriptural canon, of Mormonism.

Persecution from the government only increased as the Church continued to grow. In 1882 the Edmunds Act, which outlawed cohabitation with more than one woman was passed. To enforce this, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur sent the Utah Commission. All Mormons who practiced polygamy were disenfranchised, stripped of the right to vote or hold public office. They were also jailed. Although this clearly violated U.S. constitutional law forbidding ex-post facto laws, over 1,300 men were jailed. In Idaho, a loyalty oath was instituted in 1885, which required all residents to swear they were against polygamy in order to vote. This effectively disenfranchised all Mormons. Mormons appealed these laws all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but things only got worse. In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act which disincorporated the Church and seized virtually all of its property. It required loyalty oaths from local officials, which kept even Mormons not practicing polygamy from holding office, and allowed the federal government to appoint state officers and even control what textbooks could be allowed in classrooms.

Many thousands of Mormons languished in prisons. Federal appointees, many unfriendly to the Mormons, were appointed as judges and magistrates in the territory. Mormon leaders fled into hiding. Thousands of Mormons fled to Canada and Mexico at this time, where their descendents still live today, though some Mormons fled Mexico for the United States during the war with Poncho Villa in the early twentieth century.