Mormons dropped polygamy but image problem persists
SALT LAKE CITY -- Wilford Woodruff dropped to his knees in prayer. It
was September 1890 and the federal government was threatening to seize
church property and prosecute Mormons unless they stopped plural
Woodruff, a polygamist and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, had a revelation and declared a manifesto: The
faithful were to obey federal law and cease the practice.
It was read at the church's fall conference and approved unanimously.
The vote, Woodruff noted in his diary, "created a sensation throughout
the whole United States."
No manifestos are on the agenda this weekend _ it's unlikely polygamy
will even be mentioned _ when 100,000 Mormons gather for their
twice-a-year General Conference in Salt Lake City and millions more
worldwide watch broadcasts in 85 languages.
But polygamy continues to make headlines, and the church can't seem to
shake perceptions that it endorses the practice, no matter what
happened 116 years ago.
Since 2001, several self-described Mormon fundamentalists have been
charged with crimes tied to polygamy.
The latest and most prominent is Warren Jeffs, the leader of the
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is
jailed in southern Utah on charges of being an accomplice to rape by
arranging the marriage of a minor to an older man.
"Almost 10 years ago or so, literally, it was not a big deal," said
Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at
Indiana University-Purdue University, who has written about Mormons.
"Now it has suddenly emerged into the public domain and (the church)
has to find a way to talk about it again," she said.
The issue is "really aggravating" to the church, said D. Michael
Quinn, former history professor at church-owned Brigham Young
"The fact remains that these people who have extra wives call
themselves Mormon. They believe in the Book of Mormon," he said. "So
it's inevitable that this linkage is going to be there."
The roughly 10,000 members of Jeffs' sect, who mostly live along the
Utah-Arizona border, are among an estimated 37,000 fundamentalists in
western states who believe plural marriage is essential for their
exaltation in heaven. Jeffs is said to have 40-plus wives.
Many fundamentalists claim Mormon church founder Joseph Smith as their
original prophet and use the Book of Mormon as the cornerstone of
Mormon officials, however, say even a few shared traits don't put the
fundamentalists in the same category as members of the Salt Lake
City-based church. "Warren Jeffs is Not a Mormon," the church's Web
"Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, Jehovah Witnesses, Lutherans,
evangelicals and a host of other faiths believe in Jesus and claim the
Bible as their own, yet all consider themselves separate and distinct
faiths," said Kim Farah, a Mormon church spokeswoman.
"The same is true for all religious groups who believe in Joseph Smith
and use The Book of Mormon," Farah said.
Church President Gordon B. Hinckley rejects the idea that "Mormon
fundamentalists" can even exist.
Retired BYU history professor Thomas Alexander, a Woodruff biographer,
said there's nothing Mormons can do about how others identify
"The only thing we can try to do is differentiate ourselves and that's
extremely difficult to do," he said.
It's difficult because polygamy didn't quickly end with Woodruff's
manifesto in 1890, scholars say.
In fact, the practice continued secretly among some Mormons into the
20th century. When exposed in 1904, the manifesto was restated and the
church began excommunicating members who violated it.
Nonetheless, polygamy has not been removed from the church's Doctrine
and Covenants, which describe Mormonism's bedrock tenets.
Mormons believe in continuing revelations, meaning church doctrine can
change. Woodruff's manifesto, Farah notes, came long after original
doctrine was written.
"Asking why the church does not still believe in polygamy because it
appears in its scriptures is like asking Christians to explain why
they discontinued stoning people for adultery," the church spokeswoman
"It appears in the scriptures but has been superseded by later
revelation," Farah said.
B. Carmon Hardy, history professor at Cal State Fullerton, believes
church leaders have done a remarkable job of keeping the public
discourse at a minimum. He notes that for decades the issue was hardly
discussed and it's rarely mentioned in official church publications.
"In sermons and Sunday school lesson, it's absent," he said. "It's
conspicuous by its absence and for the large majority of church
members, I think polygamy is a largely forgotten chapter."