Women and the Manifesto: Painting with Broad Strokes

By March 11, 2013

Last Summer I had the privilege to work for the Charles H. Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU, researching the LDS reaction to the Manifesto of 1890.[i]  I thoroughly enjoyed sifting through hundreds of journals, diaries and autobiographies at different archives in Utah, searching for the raw emotion that I expected would be associated with the jarring social, doctrinal, procedural, and theological changes that I associate with the Manifesto.

You’ll have to wait until MHA 2013 to hear more about the main themes in LDS reactions to the Manifesto (shameless plug), but I wanted to share two women’s reactions to Wilford Woodruff’s decision to end plural marriage for the institutional Church. [ii]  Mormon women generally fell into two schools of thought on the Manifesto:

  1. How could God do this? I/we have sacrificed so much to practice plural marriage, and it was all for naught.
  2. It was time for polygamy to end, so God instructed Wilford Woodruff to do so.

These prevailing attitudes teach us valuable lessons about polygamy, but also the faith of the women who expressed their feelings of betrayal or apathy 123 years ago.

The first:

Lorena Eugenia Washburn Larsen: After dinner that evening Mr. Young opened his newspaper to the Conference news and there was the Manifesto which had been given in conference by President Woodruff. We were all greatly astonished and we discussed it for some time. I could not believe that the Authorities of the Church had given up plural marriage, as it had been called the crowning principal [sic] of the Gospel, and it has been such a sacrifice on the part of many young women to go into that order of marriage my husband went out and talked with them about the Manifesto. It seemed impossible that the Lord would go back on a principal which had caused so much sacrifice, heartache and trial before one could conquer ones [sic] carnel [sic] self, and live on that higher plane and love ones [sic] neighbor as ones [sic] self. My husband walked out without saying a word, and as he walked away I thought, oh yes, it is easy for you, you can go home to your other family and be happy with her, and then while I must be like Hager [sic] sent away. My anguish was inexpressible, and a dense darkness took hold of my mind. I thought that if the Lord and the Church Authorities had gone back on the principal, there was nothing to any part of the Gospel. I fancied I would see myself and my children, and many other splendid women and their children turned adrift, and our only purpose in entering it, had been more fully to serve the Lord. I sank down on our bedding and wished in my anguish that the earth would open and take me and my children in. The darkness seemed impenetrable.

The second: Victoria Hancock Jackson: The Lord told President John Taylor, when most of the Church leaders were yielding to U.S. demands of plural marriage abolishment, I have not revoked that law, nor will I. He also told them that he would fight their battles if they lived worthy. But the law was dragged into the gutter. Old men swapped daughters, sex weakness predominated in many cases. Some men neglected present wives with children and were captivated by a younger face. Although there was order to the law marriage being far above the looseness of many, yet who can blame the lord for allowing plural marriage to be discontinued.[iii]

I have grappled with the implications of these two particular reactions and the broader attitudes they represent for months. The most interesting aspect of the Manifesto, in terms of how Mormons, particularly Mormon women, reacted to its release, is the lack of soteriology associated with the practice.

Polygamy was perhaps the most visible part of living 19th century Mormonism. Women showed that their faith with their wedding vows, as well as their place in the pew on Sundays. Perhaps because of this visible act of faith, I expected polygamy to be discussed more fully in women’s private diaries and memoirs in terms of its theological merits. My research of the Manifesto has shown little if any attention paid to a forfeiture of blessings after mortality associated with practicing plural marriage.

I grew up reading the diaries of my grandfather who was imprisoned in the 1880s for practicing plural marriage, in which he associated his conviction that God required him to practice polygamy for his exaltation. I have also read the talks from the Journal of Discourses that focus on the salvific requirements of plural marriage (even if it was merely to believe that it was a divinely given commandment), and I am still puzzled by the lack of recorded feeling or discussion about whether or not it was required for exaltation.

While plural marriage will continue to be debated and discussed in Mormon History, I hope to see future studies of plural marriage to include the liturgical aspects of the practice, not so much the covenants attached, but the motives and feelings associated with those who practiced the Principle. What did plural marriage mean on a personal level What lessons and themes can we as Mormon Historians draw from those feelings?


[i] Incidentally, their applications for funding are due on March 15th. You can apply HERE.

[ii] By my count, less than 15% of the diaries and autobiographies I read made any mention of the Manifesto. In my estimation, more than 80% of the diaries and autobiographies I read discussed the prosecution of polygamists from of the 1880s at length.

[iii] MS 1906, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

Article filed under From the Archives Women's History


  1. Very interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 11, 2013 @ 8:23 am

  2. Heavy stuff in both diaries, interesting.

    Comment by Saskia — March 11, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  3. Thanks, Joey: This is a great teaser for the rest of your forthcoming research. I look forward to it. I’m wondering how many letters you found among the younger, unmarried demographic that expressed a general sense of relief, or “Thank goodness,” or “I’m so glad; I hated polygamy anyway,” or “At least I don’t have to live it now.” sentiments, or perhaps on the reverse of that, “Oh, too bad, I so wanted to be a polygamist wife.”

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 11, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  4. Those are two potent excerpts, Joey; the first, especially, captures the theological, emotional, social, and domestic strife caught up in polygamy, and could be unpacked in many productive ways. I think the implied question of your research–how the abrupt ending of such a complex practice is interpreted within different gendered spheres–is a fantastic one, and I look forward to more.

    Comment by Ben P — March 11, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  5. Hi J. Lorena Larsen was my great grandmother. From her story, and family tradition, the Manifesto was devastating to her marriage, despite a few more children borne after 1890. Her husband’s two wives never recovered, especially when he decided he could no longer live with/fully support Lorena. As you know, she eventually reconciled, at least according to her story, but the Manifesto’s ripples lasted for a long, long time. In some ways, the past isn’t dead–it’s not even past. Best of luck.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 11, 2013 @ 10:22 am

  6. Fascinating stuff, Joey. Did you find that first wives responded differently to the manifesto than plural wives?

    I hope you’ll incorporate some theoretical insights from memory studies into your work by examining how these women formed narratives of their responses to the manifesto and how individual and group frameworks shaped those narratives. There’s been some work on ways that elites mnemonically helped the church transition away from polygamy–I’m thinking of the books by Flake and the JI’s own Taysom–but understanding how ordinary Saints remembered the manifesto and used it (or didn’t use it) to organize their life stories needs further explication. I think that Underwood’s article on scholarly constructions of 1890 as a gaping rupture in Mormon conceptions of time–which he argues wasn’t much of a rupture for ordinary Saints–is also relevant here.

    Comment by David G. — March 11, 2013 @ 10:29 am

  7. I spent a few months researching autobiographies of later polygamist women (1860s-1890s) and I remember a conspicuous absence of theological discussions; after all, the theological explanations centered on androcentric dynastic portrayals of men’s afterlife (though I believe Kathleen Flake has alternative conclusions). I do remember reading an autobiography of a Scandinavian immigrant who converted to the Church – Andrew Janus Hansen- whose reaction to the Manifesto was fascinating. He acknowledged that the whole thing may have been one big, terrible mistake (and I think some of his own children suggested such), but that he couldn’t be faulted for trying to be obedient to what was presented as the Lord’s will.

    Comment by Rachael — March 11, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  8. Really interesting. I really like your research topic.

    Comment by Zach — March 11, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  9. Thanks everyone for the responses!

    Andrea: there’s one instance of a married couple that regretted not entering polygamy, but no single women that I’m aware of. Those letters may be an upcoming “from the archives” post. Most autobiographies simply said something like, “it was time to change” or “a lot happened in 1890,but we’ve moved on.” The majority of people don’t even mention the Manifesto in diaries.

    Gary: I would love to speak with you about Lorena. Her diary still haunts me academically.

    David: I’m exploring memory studies from Taysom and Flake, honestly, there’s an entirely separate paper in there! I really should have done this for an MA.

    Rachael: I will have to look at that diary! It provides an interesting case for other arguments. The Theology of polygamy disappears, understandably, after the 1890s.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 11, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  10. My work focuses on the ambivalence and panic the Manifesto elicited among the parents’ generation on behalf of their daughters. “See to it that not one word of silly, foolish rejoicing passes your lips,” Susa Young Gates scolded the girls in the Young Woman’s Journal (implying that she thought a lot of rejoicing was going on). She then proceeded to tell them that they were all going to end up as old maids. For the rest of the story (while we’re shamelessly plugging here) check out the next issue of BYU Studies.

    Comment by LisaT — March 11, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

  11. This is great stuff, Joey. And part of the reason I love blogs so much is because of connections like those made by Gary here. I’m excited about your MHA paper.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

  12. Great piece, Joey. I agree with Ben that those are some very potent accounts that have a lot to say. I’m also thrilled to hear that you’re adopting a bit of what I see as a ‘lived religion’ approach to the question, focusing on the experiential aspects of the subject. Look forward to hearing more at MHA.

    Comment by Ryan T — March 13, 2013 @ 7:18 am


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