The Mormons

"This Mormon Church binds its adherents with the strongest bonds known under heaven. It is at once a religion, an empire, a fraternity, a trust, and a partnership in crime."

Though the Mormons had built them a nest in the wilderness, they might not remain there at rest. The Mexican war brought the folk of Deseret back into hated American territory. A mad rush to our newly acquired California swept in throngs of strangers. An army post on the bench above Salt Lake City took away its sovereignty. Time railroad, offering swift escape to Gentile proscripts, and as swift inrushing of government troops whenever they might be needed, gave freedom of speech. Schism cleft the church; the Godbeites seceded; they assailed polygamy, and they founded a journalwhich became the Salt Lake Tribune, intensely, ferociously anti-Mormon. With Gentile immigration came the Christian sects, whose missionaries returned East and inflamed national sentiment.

After that it was certain that the Mountain Meadows massacre would not be repeat Wolf and crow might scour the canons to clean the bones of stray miners murdered alone and in secret, but never again would a heap of one hundred and twenty naked corpses lie festering in the sun for such foul repast. The new era had broken in full clay. Cunning took the place of carnage. Henceforward the Americanization of Mormonism would follow the blazed train of governmental imposition and political combinations. The case against was twofold: polygamy must go; so must the union of church and state.

Strange, you say, that a polygamous rout should have crossed America unmolested, and established itself afresh. Yes, but remember. The Mexican affair covered the flight of the quarry. Who chases the fox when the stag happens by? And again in 1862, when the United States government enacted its first anti-polygamy law and abolished the ordinance incorporating the Mormon church, we were fighting a civil war. Later, we bent our best energies mending the disrupted republic. Consequently, the decency laws remained unenforced in Utah, and crime ran riot. What wonder? The courts were the while in the hands of the Mormons, and though you may sagely set sinner to catch sinner, beware how you set Saint to catch Saint. Twenty years passed, and then the government at Washington saw a great light. So did the Mormons.

Open the Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of LatterDay Saints; read the Mormon version of the story, and fancy, as you read, that the fox looks over his shoulder at your tall hat, pink coat, and riding whip, and talks back: "The enjoyment of peace was short. Days of sore trial were at hand. In the summer of 1881 a crusade was inaugurated against the Saints to suppress their institution of plural marriage. It was begun by sectarian opponents and politicians. Beginning in Utah, the agitation soon spread throughout the whole land. Alarming falsehoods of Mormon disloyalty, vice, and abominations soon stirred the people of the nation and their national representatives to a fever heat against the Saints…The Edmunds law was signed by President Arthur on the 22d of March, 1882. Polygamy was made punishable by disfranchisement; also a find of not more than five hundred dollars, and imprisonment for not more than three years. Cohabitation with more than one woman was punishable by a fine not to exceed three hundred dollars, and imprisonment not to exceed six months. Polygamists and believers in the doctrine of plural marriage were rendered incompetent to act as jurors. No polygamist could hold office or vote. In 887 a supplemental act was passed, known as the Edmunds Tucker law. This gave additional powers to the officers, required certificates of all marriages to be filed in the offices of the probate courts (whose judges were appointed by the President of the United States), disincorporated the church, and ordered the Supreme Court to wind up its affairs and to take possession of its escheatecl property. Twelve thousand persons were disfranchised. A test oath was subscribed to by those Mormons who decided to retain their rights of franchise, the election machinery having been placed in the hands of a commission of five, appointed by the President of the United States. Their political rights thus interdicted, the Mormons were set upon by the judiciary…There followed an unjustifiably cruel legal persecution. Upwards of a thousand men were sent to the penitentiary, because they would not promise to discard their families. Hundreds were driven into retirement or exile, families were broken up. There was untold sorrow and heartsuffering in their midst. Juries obtained by open venire were unanimous in obeying the bidding of overzealous prosecuting attorneys who were determined on conviction. As a rule, to be suspected was equivalent to arrest, arrest to indictment, indictment to conviction, conviction to the full penalty of the law. Unprincipled, some of them very immoral, adventurers dogged the steps or raided the homes of respectable veterans, founders of the commonwealth. Government aided in the enforcement of the law by increasing special appropriations. Paid spotters and spies prowled among the people. . .The Saints were passing through a night of dreary darkness. Bereft of the counsels and presence of their leaders, torn with anguish, they were taught he lessons of self reliance, dependence upon the Lord, faith in God."
A pious fox, was it not? Hunted and harried near to death, it at last ran into its earth in the Temple, and whined piteously to heaven. "President Woodruff sought the Lord" in behalf of his afflicted people, " and in answer to his petitions of anguish received the word of the Lord authorizing the Saints to discontinue their practice of plural marriage."

Then the Gentiles, taking Mormon word in good faith, recognized "changed conditions," and made Utah a sovereign state. And now the fox is out, nerved by his devotions, and leads his pursuers once more a steaming chase. For there are times in the life of every rightminded fox when he is so good that he is sorry afterwards, and the Mormon church has lately come to one of those times. The Saints break their pledge two ways at once. The editor of the Deseret News (the "organ of the Lord") admits new plural marriages since the manifesto of 1890, while no one attempts to cloak or dissemble the survival of numberless plural marriages contracted before that manifesto.

"Let Utah alone," says B. H. Roberts. "Polygamy will die of itself," says the Mormon church. Polygamy, I reply, will die when we kill it, and not sooner. What matter if new polygamous marriages are rare; what matter if they have to be contracted in states other than Utah; what matter if an apostle must enter into a ship and sail out in to the Pacific Ocean, that he may espouse a fifth concubine? The trouble is not the isolated instance of law-breaking; the trouble is the determined attitude of the Mormon church, which permits the crime, covers the crime, and honors the criminal. Only when Zion will cut off a Saint for his breaking the law can we take Mormon declarations as anything but the delicious hoaxes they have hitherto proved to be.

With the survival or rehabilitation of plural marriages contracted before the manifesto we have been altogether too lenient. Mormons say "Sir, suppose that for fifteen years you have had two wives; suppose you tenderly loved them both; and then suppose that Congress should compel you to relinquish one of them. Do you think you would keep the law?" What puling sentimentality! The Mormons took their wives when polygamy was a crime; they perjured themselves, one and all, when they promise to give them up; and now they stand defiant. A thousand polygamous children have been born in Utah since it was made a state. The church smugly grins and approves. Naturally, for its leaders rank chief among the offenders. Mr. C. M. Owen, who is traversing the state to expose polygamists, telegraphed his paper a dispatch which concluded with this interesting summary: “Of the fifteen leaders who pledged their faith and honor for the future compliance with the law by the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of LatterDay Saints, eleven have been actually guilty of the transgression of the law; one is undoubtedly morally so; and three, two of whom are exceedingly old and feeble men, have complied with the pledge given to the people of the United States through their president."

There was also a purely political side of the contest with Mormonism, Salt Lake, a walled city for years, still remained departmentally a close corporation in the hands of the Mormons. For three long decades their opponents, the “Liberal" party, persevered with a patriotic, unselfish patience, awaiting recognition. Their ranks grew, also their power; and 1889, to the surprise of every Gentile, they carried the county election. That night, the chief of police might well have posted a writ (like that of his Helena comrade, when the capital of Montana had been snatched from Anaconda) to the effect that "any man found sober on the streets after midnight would be run in." The next year Gentiles learned a lesson from Mormondom, organized "tens" in room of "seventies," accounted for every vote in every block in every ward, bought drums by the carload and torches by the mile, and fought "the greatest political battle ever pulled off in this country." When the returns lagged in, all good Mormons buried their heads in the sand. Gentiles thronged the streets. The city flamed with bonfires. Bales, crates, boxes, gates, horseblocks, signs, wagons, I n short, every movable and combustible object in sight was gayly tossed into the blaze.

Then followed an era of dazzling reform. The Gentile administration built a milliondollar town hail, established a public library, borrowed $860,000 and spent it on schools, laid out Liberty Park, graded and paved the streets, lighted them with electricity, piped them for eighty miles with water mains, and tunneled some $400,000 worth of deep drains. But alas, their heads reeling with success, the Liberal party lost their balance, and the Mormon church had its way once more. Consequence, compromise. The former factions should vapor away, and there should be thence forward division on Republican and Democratic party lines. And so it goes today, ostensibly. But latterly one hears a note or two of the old plaint. Here is a perfectly conscienceless political machine, absolutely accurate in its every movement, strong as Tammany and twice as treasonable. If it put forth its power from time to time, why, what else are we to expect?

These are the charges against the Mormon, crime and disloyalty. What retort now finds the Mormon? I went to my Mormon friends, and, to borrow a conceit from the Sweet Auburn folk, "I got the story straight from the bear's mouth.”

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In