“With All They Have to Perform That Work” – Narrating The Manifesto

By April 14, 2008

The following is a portion of my research from last summer’s Bushman seminar, in which I examined how Mormons between 1890 and 1940 vacillated between embracing and marginalizing their polygamous past.

With Protestants continuing to be suspicious of a possible attempt by the Latter-day Saints to bring back the practice of plural marriage, Mormons at times narrated their polygamous past leading up to the Manifesto to emphasize their loyalty to the nation. In this context, the potential to marginalize the importance of polygamy was evident. For example, in 1916 Talmage told a news reporter that “when the federal statutes prohibiting its practice were declared constitutional, plural marriage was forbidden by action of the Church, officially assembled in general conference.”[1] By arguing that Mormons immediately discontinued the practice of plural marriage when the anti-polygamy statutes were declared constitutional, Talmage implied that plural marriage was a peripheral practice easily discarded when it conflicted with the laws of the land.

However, it was a full eleven years following the Reynolds case that ruled that anti-polygamy laws were constitutional that Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto. Marginalizing plural marriage does little to explain why Mormons in the 1880s preferred to be imprisoned rather than submit to man’s law, or why so much energy was spent to challenge additional anti-polygamy laws during the 1880s. In fairness to Talmage, in a more candid passage in The Articles of Faith, he did acknowledge that “those who followed [plural marriage] felt that they were divinely commanded so to do.” In addition, he narrated the “many appeals” that were taken to the Supreme Court. In some contexts then, Talmage did show a willingness to place polygamy at the center of the Mormon past, at least for some Latter-day Saints.[2]

In 1933 the First Presidency released an Official Statement designed primarily to answer Mormon fundamentalist challenges to the Manifesto. In the statement, the abandonment of plural marriage by the Church was interpreted through the lens provided by Doctrine and Covenants 124:49-53. The revelation stated that those Saints that “go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence,” would be released from obeying a commandment if obstructed by persecution. By the statement’s logic, just as the Saints were released from building the Jackson County temple due to opposition during the 1830s, so would they be released from practicing plural marriage due to persecution. In claiming that the Saints had gone with all their might to fulfill the commandment of plural marriage, the 1933 statement necessarily centered plural marriage in the Mormon past.[3] The decision to either embrace or marginalize the importance of plural marriage in the Mormon past was therefore one that depended largely on the context that led to the construction of memory rather than any ideological determination to completely erase polygamy from the Mormon past.


[1] “?Mormonism’s’ Message to the World,” Improvement Era 19, no. 9 (July 1916): 831.

[2] James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principle Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1899), 435-36, 440.

[3] Heber J. Grant, A. W. Ivins, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “Official Statement,” Church Section, Deseret News, June 17, 1933, 4. George Q. Cannon in 1890 was apparently the first to use D&C 124:49-53 to explain the Manifesto (George Q. Cannon, “History Behind Issuance of the Manifesto,” October 6, 1890, Collected Discourses, Brian Stuy, ed., 6 vols. [Sandy, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1988), 2:129). John A. Widtsoe also used it in 1940 (John A. Widtsoe, “Evidences and Reconciliations, xxxi: Was the ?Manifesto’ Based on Revelation?” Improvement Era 43, no. 11 [November 1940]: 673).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Memory


  1. Great stuff. Thanks for posting this, David.

    Comment by Christopher — April 14, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  2. Great stuff — thanks, David.

    Comment by Steve Evans — April 14, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing this, David. It would seem that there is less incentive to embrace the past practice of polygamy today and more incentive to marginalize it since we have so little invested in it now and so many negative conceptions of it in the mainstream with things like the Texas raid.

    With an ever larger portion of the church’s membership coming from outside of polygamous stock, less and less people remember it through family anecdotes and traditions. I have heard on occasion the same type of discourse about polygamy that is applied to the handcarters (usually from pioneer-stock Mormons), that “polygamy was a great test, and I don’t know how they did it, but look how strong and faithful they were. I couldn’t have made it back then.” However, whereas we still talk about and uphold memories of handcarts and pioneer hardships, we don’t hear much about polygamous hardships. Perhaps because more can relate to memories of physical hardships in their own pasts but not so many have memories of this strange marriage custom.

    Comment by Jared T — April 14, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  4. Jared, I think you’re right about the lack of incentive today to embrace our polygamous past. In the decades following the Manifesto, church leaders were narrating the past in at least three contexts: to the outside world, to RLDS polemicists, and to the emerging fundamentalists. In the first context, there was certainly an incentive to marginalize polygamy’s importance. On the other hand, to the RLDS, church leaders had a political motive to embrace that past. Likewise, I think that during that period church leaders often spoke directly and publicly to fundamentalist sympathizers, so there was a political need to highlight the revelatory nature of not only the origins of plural marriage but also the inspired nature of the Manifesto.

    But today, I believe that public statements made by church leaders are primarily made to the outside world, to claim that we are not associated with the FLDS, etc., and in that context there is all the motivation in the world to marginalize the importance of polygamy in our past. The RLDS context that led church leaders to embrace polygamy has essentially disappeared and I’m not aware of any statements in recent decades made by the church directly to the fundamentalists that required a defense of the revelatory nature of the Manifesto.

    Comment by David G. — April 14, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  5. David G.

    The problem is, that explanation simply puts polygamy on holding pattern until we get the runway cleared down here. Which means it hasn’t really gone away, and will return. Not exactly something today’s Mormons are comfortable with.

    Let’s face it – Mormons who don’t like polygamy are only able to avoid some serious cognitive dissonance by pretending that D&C 132 essentially doesn’t exist. And we do pretend it doesn’t exist (when is the last time you heard a Gospel Doctrine teacher wade into that section in full – rather than just proof-texting some eternal marriage verses?). A careful breakdown of the section would actually seem to support George Q. Cannon’s view of the subject rather than Gordon B. Hinckley’s. These people viewed polygamy as essential for the highest degree of exaltation. And section 132 really seems to bear them out.

    You just can’t wish that away.

    I like the use of D&C 124, but it simply delays the issue. It doesn’t solve it.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 14, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  6. Seth, you’re right that D&C 132 presents an important challenge to forgetting polygamy in our past. As Steve Taysom has shown so well in his Dialogue article on polygamy memory, that revelation has gone through a considerable reinterpretation in the years following the Manifesto. In fact, Talmage published an edited version of the D&C in 1930 called Latter-day Revelation that completely removed D&C 132, explaining that his edition only contained “selections comprising Scriptures of general and enduring value” (iv). His little book however did not stay in print long, and the revelation has remained in our canon.

    Some recent commentators have suggested that if the church really wanted to get past polygamy, it would have to remove D&C 132 from our canon. But I just can’t see that happening, since our belief in eternal sealings is inextricably wound up in the section.

    Comment by David G. — April 14, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Seth, I don’t know that we so much ignore section 132 as much as we reinterpret it. Sure there is some ignoring going on, but I think there is more reinterpretation. Celestial marriage is this, while polygamy is only a part of it, easily divorced from it, etc.

    I don’t know if I get the feeling that it will return, not in modern discourse anyway. Maybe you could explain further. I just don’t see any incentive to ever have to go back and embrace our past polygamy as there used to be, as David explained.

    Comment by Jared T — April 14, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

  8. I recall that Tayler, the attorney for the Protestants during the Smoot hearings, attempted to pin down JFS on the issue of whether the LDS complied with Reynolds. It made for a very confusing set of exchanges. Smoot, with Worthington’s aid, attempted to minimize the decade-plus that passed between Reynolds and the Manifesto by suggesting that the “final” decision didn’t occur until 1890, and the Manifesto issued thereafter.

    Comment by Justin — April 14, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  9. Justin, I think that that was a common narrative device employed at the time. It’s problematic because the 1890 decision (as I understand it) declared that it was constitutional to seize Mormon property. Reynolds effectively settled the constitutionality of anti-polygamy legislation.

    Comment by David G. — April 14, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  10. I’m one of those Mormons who doesn’t really believe that polygamy is gone. Joseph Smith’s history with the issue is deeply problematic. But I can’t help but think he was on to something in his impulse to reach out to others and bind the human family together – not just with vague, undefined brotherly feelings – but with actual ritual, binding on both earth and heaven. You see this in his impulse to fulfill the Spirit of Elijah in turning the hearts of the children to the fathers. You see it in his overwhelming drive for Zion – the pure in heart, the perfectly unified society. And you see it in his idea of Celestial Marriage. It lives on today in our prime imperative of eternal family.

    Joseph wanted the bonds of sealing extended on a much wider and more radical scale than I think most Mormons appreciate. And I agree with and share this impulse.

    Jared, I agree that there is not much incentive to go back to polygamy in this life. What we have is enough. And yet, I would be sorry to see the doctrine of polygamy refuted. The human heart has room for more than one. And it would pain me to see that eternally denied to those who have such room and such desire (think of those who have remarried after a spouse’s death). I think the span of love and unity spreads much further and deeper. I expect to see an extension of marital bonds in the heavens. Not necessarily for me or for you. But I think it needs to be a part of the order of things.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 14, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  11. #9, David, that’s how I understand it too. Reynolds settled the question of the constitutionality of anti-polygamy legislation, the Morrill Act of 1862, which outlawed bigamy. Church authorities persisted in their assertions that the statute violated the Constitution and basically ignored the supreme court decision for over a decade. In the mean time, prosecutors found it difficult to prove a plural marriage, so the Edmunds Act was passed which only required proof of “unlawful cohabitation”. At any rate, the foundational statute had already been affirmed by 1878.

    Comment by Jared T — April 14, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  12. There are also those who read D&C 132 as binding for its time and not binding otherwise – much like the binding nature of circumcision that was rescinded with the influx of Gentile converts. Given what we believe through our scriptures about monogamy and polygamy, particularly Jacob 2:27 & 30, why does polygamy have to be eternally binding on all – even if it had to be presented that way to all those who lived in the times when it was practiced? Why couldn’t those in that time be required to accept it as divinely revealed and live it if required of them, while those in a different time could not have that same requirement?

    That’s consistent with our actual historical record – much more so than claiming that one or the other is the immutable standard of God.

    Comment by Ray — April 14, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  13. Seth, that’s how I interpret polygamy in the book manuscript, but I think by understanding it in those terms one also leaves open the possibility of other, equally potent but less personally revolting, modes of creating eternal community. I believe all that about how Joseph Smith understood polygamy and related ritual structures, but I am delighted to think that polygamy is gone forever.

    Comment by smb — April 14, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  14. “I am delighted to think that polygamy is gone forever.”

    Amen, smb.

    And great post, David.

    Comment by Randy B. — April 15, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  15. Of course polygamy presupposes more women than men in some context. Is there any correlation to this nowadays? I’m guessing there’s more men than women in the world today because of China. There’s the cultural tradition of keeping your male child and aborting the female, so as to perpetuate the family name. I thought I heard somewhere there’s 100 million more men than women in China; if so, these types of conditions historically lead to prostitution, sodomy and war.

    On the other hand, we have the Pew Report saying there’s 44% males in the Mormon Church, and 56% female. I assume this is close to accurate, as it compares to other Christian religions: Jehovah’s Witnesses are 40-60 in favor of women, and others are 46-54 or 45-55, if I remember right (it’s online somewhere).

    Since 75% of church membership is born into the faith instead of a convert (as I understand), I’m assuming out of that block it’s about half and half male/female. If so, then about 75% of all converts are female. Excluding those able to flirt to convert for an eventual temple marriage, I estimate that leaves up to a million marriageable women in our church with currently zero statistical chance of a temple marriage.

    If we input also those men unwilling or unable for whatever reason to temple marry a woman, then I guesstimate the number of marriageable women unable to temple marry might double, if not more. If so, wow. There may already be an invisible proportion in the Church, unknown to almost everyone, of something like 2 or more for every worthy male.

    Maybe this has to do with constant notices from the Authorities that if worthy no one will be denied eternal blessings. Is that almost exclusively directed to females?

    Comment by cadams — April 15, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  16. Maybe this has to do with constant notices from the Authorities that if worthy no one will be denied eternal blessings. Is that almost exclusively directed to females?

    It traditionally has been, though Elder Nelson’s talk in the Saturday morning session of the most recent conference that made this point was gender neutral.

    Comment by Christopher — April 15, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  17. That’s actually a point I’d be interested in hearing more about. While watching this past conference I remember absentmindedly thinking that there had been more attention in recent times to unmarried sisters who might not have the prospect of temple marriage. I know there was at least one reference in conference, and at the time I didn’t think much except that it seemed like I’d been hearing about it more frequently. Huh.

    Comment by Jared T — April 15, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  18. cadams,

    We really have to get the definitions straight for the purposes of more careful and academic discussions of plural marriage.

    Polygyny – one husband, more than one wife
    Polyandry – one wife, more than one husband
    Polygamy – plural marriage arrangements of ANY sort
    Polyamory – free love basically

    It is only Celestial polygyny that presupposes more women than men (a presupposition I too disagree with). I deliberately used the word polygamy and not polygyny.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 15, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  19. I mean polygyny of course.

    Go to
    for their statistical report and methods.

    Comment by cadams — April 15, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  20. I’m not aware of any demographic info published online by the National Council of Churches – http://ncccusa.org/.

    Comment by cadams — April 15, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  21. Section 132 provides for the practice of polygyny but has as its theme the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage of both polygynous and monogynous types. Polygyny IS a subset of the New and Everlasting Covenant, and while the New and Everlasting Covenant can exist without polygyny, polygyny cannot exist without the New and Everlasting Covenant. The brethren know what they are doing.

    Members should neither run away from, nor run towards polygamy. We are neither discarding the principle nor are we practicing it currently.

    I know my Doctrine and Covenants 132 as well. The first part of the section clearly states that there is one person on the earth that has the keys of this power. The authority to issue, or not to issue temple recommends for plural marriage emanates from the Lord through His prophet. The prophet can issue plural marriage to 20% of the population, 5% of the population, or 0% of the population, which is the policy now.

    Now while polygyny is a principle ordained of the Lord, it no where states in the section that all would be required to practice it for their salvation. (Why, for instance, did only less than 20% of the church population practice it in the 1800s? Were those 20% that were asked the only ones to receive exaltation? I don’t think so. They didn’t think so either.)

    Now I am aware of George Q Cannon’s words about the principle of plural marriage, but we should remember that he was speaking from the perspective of someone who HAD been commanded.

    Comment by Alex — April 18, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  22. Last I heard, for each temple worthy male in the Church, there are 7 temple worthy females. If the women of the church refused to marry someone who could take them to the temple, then we would have a lot of unmarried women in the church.

    Comment by AJ — April 18, 2008 @ 9:03 am

  23. Whoops, made a mistake, …refused to marry someone who could… should be …refused to marry someone who could not…

    Comment by AJ — April 18, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  24. David, I think that the majority of comments here reveal that Mormons struggle and vary just as much today in narrating their polygamous past as early 20th century Saints did.

    Comment by Christopher — April 18, 2008 @ 10:11 am

  25. Note to all: The Alex in #21 is not the Alex associated with the Joseph Smith Papers Project that comments here frequently.

    Alex: Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints did not make the distinctions that you make between the New and Everlasting Covenant and plural marriage. To them, the two were two terms for the same principle. It is well documented that during the first few decades following the Manifesto that church leaders such as James E. Talmage presented an interpretation of D&C 132 that separates the two concepts, an interpretation that is fully accepted today.

    Also, church leaders insisted in the 1800s that polygamy was a commandment for all Saints and was necessary for the highest degree exaltation. The numbers (which varied from time to time–in the 1850s perhaps 45% of Mormons in Utah were part of polygamous households) were so low not because the Prophet kept the numbers down, but because the people, whether for financial reasons or simple distaste for plural marriage, did not embrace the principle to the degree that the brethren would have preferred. But it is well documented that the vast majority of leaders in the church were polygamists.

    I suggest that, rather than relying on 20th-century folklore to make arguments about 19th century polygamy, you check out Kathryn Daynes’ More Wives than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, the best scholarly treatment of plural marriage out there as well as Stephen C. Taysom’s “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852-2002,” Dialogue 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 113-44.

    Comment by David G. — April 18, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  26. Thank you, David.

    Comment by Jared T — April 18, 2008 @ 10:55 am

  27. In fact, Jared could tell us a thing or two about an 1882 revelation given to John Taylor instructing that a monogamist was not to preside over a polygamist.

    Comment by David G. — April 18, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  28. True ‘dat. I don’t have that material in front of me right now (I’m at work), but that was definitely a part of the discourse of the period. There are a number of other references to this type of sentiment, some saying they would not lift their hand to sustain a man if he didn’t live the principle.

    Comment by Jared T — April 18, 2008 @ 11:39 am

  29. Thanks for the information, David.

    To me, it makes sense that up until James E. Talmage, the two would be considered lumped together if the law of plural marriage under the New and Everlasting Covenant was operative on the whole church. Therefore, any time they spoke of the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage then, it would naturally be assumed that you are referring to polygamy.

    (By the way, I am that new Alex and will refer to myself as Alex 1 in the future to avoid confusion.)

    Comment by Alex 1 — April 18, 2008 @ 11:53 am

  30. Thanks, Alex 1, for avoiding the confusion.

    Comment by David G. — April 18, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  31. I don’t think any of us know when or if plural marriage will return to this earth. As for me, I can take it or leave it. I neither run away from it, nor am I scheming to practice it.

    I am already sealed in the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, anyway. If the prophet begins to issue temple recommends for plural marriage, I would comply.

    If ultimately plural marriage were ultimately required for my exaltation, then that work would then have to be done for me in the temple, seeing as how I have not had the opportunity to receive it. In any case, it is out of my hands.

    All I need to do is be faithful to what I have received, and to be willing to receive all that the Lord would command. That is all anyone can do.

    Comment by Alex 1 — April 18, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  32. I guess it’s true that nothing ends a discussion like a testimony…at least that’s what they taught us in the MTC.

    Comment by Jared T — April 19, 2008 @ 5:24 pm


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