[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
The majority of Mormons welcomed the end of polygamy, announced by Wilford Woodruff in 1890. The suffering caused by government enforcement of anti-polygamy laws had been great.
Yet even when Wilford Woodruff announced that plural marriage should end, not everything was over.
For the vast majority of men involved in a plural marriage, Wilford Woodruff’s pronouncement ending polygamy did not persuade them to renounce their plural wives. Many of these men were older, with older plural wives who were at or near the end of their childbearing years.
A few men involved in plural marriage had married young brides in the days before the Manifesto. These were often inspired by John Taylor’s dying conviction that plural marriage was the New and Everlasting Covenant, and that this covenant could never righteously be taken from the earth.
Meanwhile, the United States had taken a hard position that polygamy was utterly wrong. On this point the people of the United States were of one mind as they have rarely been since.
Mind Your Own Business
Once the Morrill Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1879 and Edmunds Act was signed into law in 1882, plural marriages were conducted in strict secrecy. Young wives retained their maiden names even when they moved away from home. A young man could never know if his lady love kept her distance due to disdain or the reality of having already pledged herself secretly to another. 1 Thus for over a decade prior to Wilford Woodruff’s announcement ending polygamy, Mormon culture had adopted means of hiding the actual practice of polygamy.
Annie Clark Tanner tells of the women who existed in the Mormon Underground–pregnant women who would be taken in without question, who would not be asked their name or where they came from. When she herself was pregnant and underground, she had a complete false history at the ready, should anyone ask her who she was.
In August 1889 Annie Tanner was with her young daughter at the home of her aunt, Mary Rich. Wilford Woodruff, then president of the Church, was visiting, along with Apostles George Q. Cannon and Francis Marion Lyman. 2 Wilford Woodruff saw Annie playing with her daughter and asked if the child was Annie’s. Annie acknowledged that the girl was her child. Then President Woodruff asked who the father might be. Annie hesitated, saying nothing. Elder Cannon came to her rescue, saying “That is hardly a fair question, is it, Brother Woodruff?” 3
Ironically, Annie’s husband was present that week. But they were never together in public. Similar scenes played out throughout the rest of the Mormon settlements: no one wanted to know anything they might have to testify to in a court of law. 4
When President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto in 1890, it wasn’t clear whether the ban on plural marriages was supposed to include ending existing plural marriages, or whether plural marriages might still be possible to contract in countries other than the United States, countries where either polygamy wasn’t illegal or where the government was willing to turn a blind eye, as Abraham Lincoln had done in the US during the 1860s. Given a culture where participants in plural marriages weren’t even willing to tell the prophet himself of their status, the Manifesto became something the Church couldn’t effectively police.
Testing the Waters
As intense anti-polygamy persecution mounted against the Church and then in light of the Manifesto, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow had both made a decision to sever the earthly ties with their plural wives, spending the rest of their lives with only one of their wives.
Others, however, continued to believe polygamy was a fundamental principle of exaltation. So though most Saints were willing to follow the lead of Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow in forsaking polygamy, a few resisted.
One of these was B. H. Roberts, born 1857 in England, who started adulthood as a boozing, gambling miner who couldn’t read. By the time Roberts was in his thirties, he had become a staunch defender of the faith, a prolific writer, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, and had married three women.
In 1896 B. H. Roberts defied Church advice, 5 and ran for Congress. He won election as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives. Because Utah was newly a state, this meant Roberts, a practicing polygamist, would be a voting member of Congress if allowed to take his elected seated.
Outraged, anti-polygamy individuals throughout the United States signed the petition to bar Roberts from being seated in Congress. The originals of these petitions are housed in the U.S. Archives, where they occupy multiple feet of shelf space. The number of signatures collected is in excess of 50% of the number of enfranchised voters at that time. 6
The Actions of the Sons
A majority of high Church officials continued to privately acknowledge their plural wives. However those men who had taken on plural wives before the beginning of intense government sanctions were now in their sixties, and their wives were now older women.
A minority had been willing to marry even in the face of the dire sanctions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act and growing opposition to polygamy in the Church. Now that Utah had achieved statehood, this minority decided that it was necessary to continue to marry additional women. The three youngest apostles led this movement.
In 1901 these three young apostles married additional plural wives. John W. Taylor and Abraham O. (Owen) Woodruff were the sons of former prophets, admitted to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when they were in their mid-twenties. Matthias F. Cowley was the third apostle to break ranks and marry a plural wife in the new century.
John W. Taylor, in his mid-forties, was the eldest of these youngest apostles, both in age and in seniority in the quorum. It is almost certain that he was the ring-leader of this trio of apostles entering into post-manifesto polygamy. He had been guarding the door in 1886 in the home of John W. Woolley 7 when his father, John Taylor, had allegedly received a revelation. In response to John Taylor’s question asking if the Church was still bound to continue the New and Everlasting Covenant, God had said yes. President Taylor clearly believed New and Everlasting Covenant was synonymous with plural marriage.
In January, 1901, someone performed a marriage binding the married 27-year-old Owen Woodruff to a second wife, Eliza Avery Clark, an 18-year-old who had been born in Farmington, Utah. The following year on August 29, 1901, someone performed marriage ceremonies binding John W. Taylor to two half-sisters as his fourth and fifth wives, college-educated Eliza Roxie and Phoebe Welling, also from Farmington, Utah. In 1901 Matthias Cowley also took on an additional plural wife, Mary Lenora Taylor. 8
Given the absolute secrecy of the plural marriages solemnized after the manifesto, it isn’t always possible to determine who was officiating at post-manifesto plural marriages or where they occurred. However it is certain the 1900/1901 actions of this trio of apostles lent legitimacy to the idea that plural marriages could be entered into despite President Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto. The fact that these three were young, handsome men, put the lie to the idea that polygamists were just old men, well past the age of engendering children.
The Smoot Hearings
In 1902 Apostle Reed Smoot obtained permission from the Church to run for the U.S. Senate, and he was seated in 1903. But opposition to Reed Smoot was immediate. As a Mormon, he was suspected of being a polygamist, and as an apostle, he was suspected of being a mere puppet for the Mormon hierarchy.
Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow had both passed away, leaving Joseph F. Smith as the president of the Church. Joseph F. Smith was one of those who had refused to put away his plural wives.
The Smoot hearings would produce a huge record. According to Kathleen Flake:
The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, “secret oaths,” open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics. The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day’s admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.
Eventually, despite four years of hearings, the Senate was unable to muster the 2/3 majority required to expel a member from the Senate. 9 The most famous soundbite from the trial was uttered by Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania. Addressing the subject of polygamy, Penrose reportedly glared at one or more of his Senate colleagues who had a reputation for philandering and said:
“As for me, I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monag.”
However in 1904 the outcome of the Smoot hearings was far from certain. Earlier that year, Church President Joseph F. Smith was asked to testify before Congress. He acknowledged that his own unwillingness to give up his plural wives had set a bad example. Three months later, on June 6, 1904, President Smith issued a reiteration of the Church’s position on plural marriage:
Inasmuch as there are numerous reports in circulation that plural marriages have been entered into, contrary to the official declaration of President Woodruff of September 24, 1890, commonly called the manifesto, which was issued by President Woodruff, and adopted by the Church at its general conference, October 6, 1890, which forbade any marriages violative of the law of the land, I, Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hereby affirm and declare that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanction, consent, or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And I hereby announce that all such marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage, he will be deemed in transgression against the Church, and will be liable to be dealt with according to the rules and regulations thereof and excommunicated therefrom.
JOSEPH F. SMITH,
President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Significantly, B. H. Roberts seconded the new statement.
The next day Owen Woodruff’s first wife, Helen, died of small pox in Mexico. 10 Owen Woodruff himself passed away of small pox later that month. 11 The boyish apostle’s audacious practice of post-Manifesto polygamy would therefore be largely forgotten by history. 12
However John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley continued to solemnize plural marriages, despite the 1904 reiteration of the Church’s position. 13 When they were called as witnesses in the Smoot hearings, they went into hiding, fleeing the country. 14
In 1905, Taylor and Cowley were called before their colleagues in the Church hierarchy. They both resigned from the Quorum of the Twelve at the request of Joseph F. Smith on October 28, 1905.
In 1909, after Reed Smoot was no longer at risk of being ousted from the US Senate, John W. Taylor married Ellen Sandburg, his secretary. 15 He was able to keep this sixth marriage quiet until 1911. When the Quorum of the Twelve learned of this post-1904 marriage, they questioned John W. Taylor, who replied it was none of their business. John W. Taylor was excommunicated. Matthias Cowley was disfellowshipped, possibly because he had almost certainly performed the ceremony joining John W. Taylor and Ellen Sandburg.
Legend has it that John W. Taylor accepted his excommunication, but it broke his heart. 16 His financial dealings faltered now that he was no longer a member of the Church. 17 He was diagnosed with stomach cancer after the excommunication, and died in 1916 with President Joseph F. Smith sitting vigil for the last days of John’s life. Some take the prophet’s vigil at the deathbed of his longtime friend as a sign of their friendship. Others presume the prophet stood watch to ensure no one attempted to restore John’s blessings before he died. 18
Matthias Cowley curbed his involvement in performing and advocating plural marriage after he was stripped of his priesthood. In 1936, after twenty-five years, Matthias was again ordained to the priesthood, but he was never readmitted to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. However Matthias’ son, Matthew Cowley, would rise to prominence in the Church, becoming an apostle in 1945. 19
The erring apostles had been silenced by death and Church discipline. However others took up the cause of perpetuating polygamy.
The Church of the Landlord
There were those, like John Taylor, who were convinced that the New and Everlasting Covenant was synonymous with plural marriage. One of these was John W. Woolley, the man in whose house John Taylor allegedly received the 1886 revelation regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant. 20
As the man in whose house the John Taylor revelation had been received, John Woolley became convinced it was his duty to continue the practice of polygamy, that the Church leadership had fundamentally erred in ceasing the practice. Years later, John Woolley’s son, Lorin, would allege that John Taylor had set apart a cadre of men to ensure that -no year passed by without children being born in the New and Everlasting Covenant of marriage. However as the years had severed the linkage between the Covenant and plural marriage, Lorin Woolley specifically claimed it was necessary that no year pass without children being born into the principle of plural marriage.\
In 1912 Lorin Woolley published the first account of the 1886 revelation. 21 The story became more elaborate as the years passed.
In 1914 John W. Woolley was excommunicated for performing plural marriages in his role as a temple sealer. Despite this public censure, John and Lorin appear to have believed the Church itself was secretly continuing the practice of plural marriage. In this vein, Lorin alleged that church president Heber J. Grant and apostle James E. Talmage had taken plural wives in the “recent past.” 22 The Church vigorously denied Lorin’s claims and excommunicated him in 1924.
John W. Woolley died in December 1928, claiming that he was the rightful successor to John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, whose dead apostle-sons had each participated in post-Manifesto polygamy. 23 Lorin C. Woolley assumed the mantle of leadership in his father’s movement, and in 1929 published the authoritative account of what he claimed occurred in 1886. The Woolleys said they were perpetuating necessary and fundamental tenets of Mormonism, including polygamy and the United Order. 24 Thus those who adhere to the Woolley faith tradition are often referred to as fundamentalists.
Lorin Woolley assumed control of the Council of Friends, a priesthood council Woolley claimed was superior in authority to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that had excommunicated the polygamists. While Lorin claims the Council of Friends dated back to Adam, many accounts simply report that Lorin organized the Council of Friends. The vast majority of modern polygamists in the Mormon tradition are offshoots of Lorin Woolley’s 1929 Council of Friends, with a small minority of polygamists claiming they broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church without looking to Lorin Woolley for their authority. 25 Lorin, whose claim to authority was so controversial, would never live to see the multiple independent fundamentalist traditions his claims would spawn, with some leaders of the disparate fundamentalist sects found guilty of crimes from murder to rape and incest.
Mormon fundamentalist groups are primarily located in the Western United States, Western Canada, and northern Mexico. Somewhere between 8,000 and 30,000 fundamentalists actually live in polygamous households. One prominent fundamentalist leader, Warren Jeffs, was on the FBI list of ten most wanted criminals before he was apprehended and sentenced to life in prison plus twenty years. In 2003 Jon Krakauer wrote Under the Banner of Heaven, a book describing the violent fundamentalism of Dan and Ron Lafferty, brothers who murdered their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, and her infant daughter Erica. 26
What of the Taylors?
Given the history of those who attempted and even now still attempt to continue polygamy after the Church presidents called for its cessation, one family is of particular interest.
What have the descendants of John Taylor and John Whitaker Taylor chosen? The former went to his death bed believing that polygamy was necessary. The later persisted in this belief as a high Church leader, until he was stripped of every privilege of Church membership.
What did the third and fourth generations from John Taylor and his son choose?
They chose to remain in the mainstream Church, the Church that walked away from “the principle.” As late as 1980 the matriarchs of the family were carefully teaching their descendants of the dangers of fundamentalist sects, telling them of their status as precious children of a storied heritage, children that fundamentalists would desire to seduce to their cause.
As of 1980, it was alleged that only one descendant of John Taylor had been involved in fundamentalist polygamy, and she had the marriage annulled as soon as she became aware that her husband was a polygamist. 27 Thus I am unaware of any descendant of John Taylor who has knowingly entered into fundamentalist polygamy, and none have remained.
If there was a secret polygamous way that led to “true” salvation, is it not curious that no descendant of the Taylors have sought that “true” salvation? 28
Though the vast majority of self-identified Mormons reject contemporary fundamentalist polygamy, the history of polygamy has had a critical impact on Mormon theology and escatology, an impact most fail to recognize.
Future Planned Posts:
- Annie Clark Tanner, A Mormon Mother, pp. 74, 81. ↩
- Annie only mentions Elder Cannon and Lyman, without including first names, but as Abraham Cannon would not become an apostle until two months after the reported visit, I think it’s unlikely she was referring to someone other than George Q. Cannon. ↩
- Annie Clark Tanner, A Mormon Mother, pp. 110-111. ↩
- Annie Tanner would settle in Farmington, Utah, where she would become a Spiritual Living teacher, team teaching with Nellie Todd Taylor, the second wife of John W. Taylor. ↩
- In 1895 the Church issued a manifesto supporting political neutrality, and prohibiting high Church leaders such as the Apostles and members of the Seventy from running for political office without the express permission of the Church. While this policy was likely an important concession required for Utah to become a state, B. H. Roberts felt that this policy infringed on his rights as a U.S. citizen. For information see the Wikipedia article on the 1895 Political Manifesto, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_Political_Manifesto, retrieved 3 August 2014. ↩
- Unpublished research performed by Steven Stathis, also verifiable by accessing the originals held at the US Archives and comparing numbers to the number of enfranchised voters in 1896. By way of comaprison, roughly 14 million individuals cast a vote in the presidential election held that year, c.f., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1896, retrieved 3 August 2014. ↩
- A few years later, John W. Taylor would marry John Woolley’s niece, Janet Maria Woolley. ↩
- Mary Lenora doesn’t appear to be closely related to John W. Taylor. Family search lists the marriage as being solemnized in 1905, but Mary Lenora gave birth to Matthias’ child on May 30, 1902, implying their marriage was solemnized no later than September 1901. Though Mary Lenora is not from Farmington, she gave birth in Logan, Cache County, Utah, which is where Owen Woodruff’s plural wife, Avery, was going to school. ↩
- Reed Smoot would go on to serve in the US Senate until 1933. ↩
- The Woodruff family had most recently been staying in Colonia Juarez, one of the polygamist communities in Mexico close to the United States border. As a point of interest, Mitt Romney’s ancestors were part of the Colonia Juarez community, to which ancestor Miles P. Romney had fled to protect himself and his four wives from federal prosecution. ↩
- Owen died in El Paso, Texas. ↩
- A 2009 book about Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff is available for download at http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/40/, retrieved 3 August, 2014. ↩
- Presumably Taylor and Cowley felt that marriages performed outside of the United States were still permitted under the 1904 Manifesto. ↩
- In March 1904 subpoenas were sent to Joseph F. Smith, M. W. Merrill, John W. Taylor, George Teasdale, Matthias F. Cowley, John Henry Smith, and Dr. Joseph M. Tanner, see Snyder and Snyder, Post Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff,p. 33. Merrill and Teasdale were ailing, Taylor, Cowley, and Tanner went into hiding. Joseph F. Smith refused to do more than ask the rebellious men to testify, saying the hearings were a political matter, not a matter where he could exert spiritual command. Dr. Joseph M. Tanner was the husband of Annie Clark Tanner, mentioned earlier in this post. ↩
- John’s honeymoon with Ellen involved a large family camping trip with his plural wives and their children. Only Nettie, of his plural wives, refused to participate in this “honeymoon” trip. Ironically, her letter to Ellen, welcoming her into the family lest her failure to participate in the camping trip be misinterpreted as rejection of Ellen herself, is now the only extant contemporary record of the honeymoon trip. ↩
- John W. Taylor’s life is documented in Sam Taylor’s book Family Kingdom, a book the rest of the family would refer to as Nettie’s book, as Sam features his own mother’s interactions with John W. Taylor. The other wives did produce life sketches before their deaths, rounding out the picture of this particular post-Manifesto polygamous family. ↩
- John Taylor’s last big deal never came together. He died still owing over $30,000 to his second wife, Nellie Todd. After his death, she was not permitted to inherit any of his estate, as she was a plural wife. ↩
- According to Wikipedia, John W. Taylor’s blessing were secretly restored in 1965 by Joseph Fielding Smith, a few months after John’s first wife, May Leona Rich, turned 100. However John’s plural wives and their children were not aware of this restoration during their lifetimes. ↩
- Another of Matthias’ sons, Samuel P. Cowley, became famous as an FBI agent, head of J. Edgar Hoovers Flying Squad, which apprehended John Dillinger. Samuel P. Cowley was killed in 1934, shot down by Baby Face Nelson, surviving just long enough to convey information on how he and his partner were killed. ↩
- A picture of the alleged revelation is extant, which appears to be written in John Taylor’s handwriting. But the original document is not publicly available. See 1886 Revelation, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1886_Revelation, retrieved 4 August, 2014. ↩
- In Sam Taylor’s Family Kingdom, he describes his father, John W. Taylor, being approached after his excommunicated by two groups. One group consisted of protestant preachers, who hoped to win the now-underutilized Taylor to their cause. He refused. The second group consisted of those wishing to reinstate polygamy, arguing that John W. Taylor could attract a large portion of the Church to his banner, were he to publicly declare a return to the teachings of his father, John Taylor. Again, John W. Taylor refused. It appears Lorin Woolley’s publication of the account of the 1886 revelation followed John W. Taylor’s refusal to be the standard bearer of post-Manifesto polygamy. ↩
- Brian C. Hales, “‘I Love to Hear Him Talk and Rehearse': The Life and Teachings of Lorin C. Woolley”, Mormon History Association, 2003. Available online at http://www.mormonfundamentalism.com/NEWFILES/LorinCWoolleyBio.htm, retrieved 3 August 2014. ↩
- Others claim John W. Woolley was the rightful successor of Joseph F. Smith. ↩
- The United Order is a form of Christian communalism attempted in the early days of the Church in which property is shared. This sort of communalism is described in the New Testament, in Acts 4:32-37. ↩
- See Mormon Fundamentalists article on Wikipedia, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_fundamentalists, retrieved 3 August 2014. ↩
- Allegedly the Laffertys’ anger was associated with Brenda’s counsel to Ron’s wife that led Ron’s wife to refuse him a second wife and then leave Ron herself. ↩
- Alas, I was told this story back in the days before I cared about family history, so I never recorded the young woman’s name. The generation that maintained this level of vigilance has now passed from this life. ↩
- I am unaware that any Cowleys entered into fundamentalist polygamy, but cannot state that with authority. Owen Woodruff’s eldest son, Wilford Owen Woodruff, only five when his father died, married a plural wife in 1942 and was excommunicated, but his first wife left him and he was eventually re-baptized into the Church. ↩