Freedom and Church membership

This is a guest post by Michael Davidson, who is a friend of the Millennial Star and occasional contributor.  He also blogs at occasionally.

In October 1905, Matthias Foss Cowley and John Whitaker Taylor resigned from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles over their disagreement with the Church’s decision to abandon the practice of polygamy. As the Manifesto was issued in 1890, this was clearly a long time coming, and the historical record makes it clear that Cowley, at least, had persisted in solemnizing plural marriages through 1905 even though he had been instructed to cease the practice and lacked the authority to do so.

In my study this morning, I was reading the remarks made by the Pres. Joseph F. Smith in the October 1903 General Conference, as he was getting ready to present the General Authorities and General Officers of the Church for a sustaining vote.  Elders Cowley and Taylor were among those to be sustained that day, two years before their resignations.  I can’t help but wonder if Pres. Smith had these two men in mind when he said the following:

“The freedom of the Latter-day Saints has never been curtailed or lessened one whit by their becoming members of the Church of Christ. Rather has it been enlarged. There are no freer people upon the face of the earth today than the Latter-day Saints. They are bound to the Church by no ties or strings, but their own conviction of the truth. And whenever a man makes up his mind that he has had enough of what is called “Mormonism,” all he has to do is to make it known and we will sever the bond that unites him with the body, and let him go his own way, only bearing toward him the feeling of sympathy and of true brotherly kindness, and wishing him still the mercies of God. We will cry, Father, have mercy upon him, because he knows not what he is doing. For when a man denies the truth, when he departs from the right way, when he rejects the right of God to counsel in the affairs of men, he is either ignorant or wilfully wicked, and it only excites our pity for him. As the Savior cried upon the cross, so will we cry in the same spirit, Father, forgive him; have mercy upon him; for he knows not what he does. Therefore, we expect only those to vote at this time who are members of the Church in good standing; but all such we do expect to vote, according to their own free will, whether it be yea or nay.” (a PDF of this talk can be found here)

I found myself wondering about what must have been going through the minds of these two men sitting on the stand and listening to the President of the Church say these words.  No doubt these men chafed under the direction given by the First Presidency on the matter of plural marriage and they clearly couldn’t be said to be one with the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve.  I suspect that they felt that their freedom to do as they wished was very restricted and that perhaps unrighteous dominion was being exercised over them.

As I consider this, it occurs that not much has changed.  There are some in the Church today that feel like it controls their lives, that feel constricted in their freedom.  Many, too many, of these individuals cut themselves off from the Church, either in name or just in deed, and gleefully proclaim their newfound freedom.  This exercise, by itself, merely indicates that they were never in bondage because they are always free to go.  I feel to echo Pres. Smith’s thoughts in this, as my heart goes out to these people in ways that they would not accept, and likely would not understand.

But, it is true that there are consequences to actions and words and thoughts.  Those that choose to take a path contrary to the doctrines of the Church; contrary to he warnings and admonitions of the prophets and apostles; will find themselves cutting themselves off from the blessings of the Church and the Gospel, irrespective of whether they are still on the earthly membership rolls of the Church.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

14 thoughts on “Freedom and Church membership

  1. Geoff,
    It’s a hard thing to imagine that generation being asked to turn away from plural marriage after so much sacrifice, testimony, and families grew out of it.

    On one hand, they were still living it for the most part, not asked to deny it, but expected to stop teaching others to continue to marry into it. That doesn’t seem unreasonable. But in some degree they would be denying their own children. Preventing others from having the same experience. Imagine a time when you are asked to council newly married couples or your open children to not have children of their own. Not the same analogy but similar in principle in that their lives revolved around their family and the makeup of their family would be forever changed in ways we can’t even imagine — truly, our family’s are the same but very different.

    But that said, continuing would be futile. Eventually you run out of people to marry if everyone is eschewing the practice. Then you’re stuck arguing and persuading the practice in private. Similar maybe to the days of Joseph, but doing so unauthorized, which is a very dangerous precedent across the generations as we see in polygamous communities today.

    Still, I really sympathize with what surely must have been a mix of faith, knowledge, sacrifice, mingled with pride.

    To ask a man to deny his family structure is a terrible thing. And no matter how you sugar coat it, that’s what you’re doing within that first generation.

    Still, it was a trial and test of faith to start the principle, trial to endure it (on all sides) and it was one to end it.

  2. I think that when those who leave the church talk about freedom, they mean from the bondage of social pressure not legal pressure/slavery type bondage.

  3. Don’t forget Abraham Owen Woodruff, another of the junior apostles that was continuing to marry plurally after the Manifesto. He died in June 1904, so is often forgotten when we tally up the apostles who were removed from their position for continuing the practice of plural marriage.

    To us it may seem obvious that the error being obliquely discussed was this high-level endorsement and practice of deprecated practices, but I’m sure there were folks whose consciences pricked them for entirely different sins.

  4. What’s the authority for your statement, “lacked the authority to do so”? Are you asserting that the Manifesto itself curtailed their authority? I have always been under the impression that changes in doctrine always required unanimity from the 15. Are you asserting otherwise? Can the President or Presidency alone dictate doctrine and policy?

  5. @Paul M, only the President of the Church has the authority to personally exercise the sealing keys. He delegates that authority to general authorities and temple sealers under certain conditions and under certain procedures. Once the original manifesto was issued, the procedures under which that delegation occurred precluded apostles and sealers from exercising that delegated power to perform plural marriages. Certainly in 1903, Pres. Smith had done so, as further evidenced by his remarks in 1904 on the topic which can be found here:

    We read in OD-1 in the D&C:

    President Lorenzo Snow offered the following:
    “I move that, recognizing Wilford Woodruff as the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing ordinances, we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto which has been read in our hearing, and which is dated September 24th, 1890, and that as a Church in General Conference assembled, we accept his declaration concerning plural marriages as authoritative and binding.”

    This wasn’t a change in doctrine, but a change in practice. And in the case of the practice of polygamy, this practice was stopped by Pres. Woodruff with the apparent concurrence of those present.

    @Meg, you are correct.

  6. Michael Davidson and Paul M:
    According to Saints, Volume II, Chapter 40, page 606:

    “In conversation, Heber (Grant) heard several apostles say that the Manifesto was a temporary measure, suspending plural marriage until the Saints could practice it legally…

    The next day (October 1, 1890), the apostles met with the First Presidency, and each man sustained the Manifesto as the will of God. Afterward, some apostles expressed concern that critics of the Church would be dissatisfied with the document and continue to prosecute men who did not separate from or divorce their plural wives…”
    (end of citation)

    Apparently the vote among the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in 1890 was unanimous. It seems that a few felt it was temporary and eventually resumed conducting polygamous marriages prior to 1904.


  7. I think you all are forgetting the Second Manifesto, issues in 1904.

    Church leadership did, in fact, approve of some plural marriages post-1890 Manifesto. The Second Manifesto stopped this practice. It was Taylor and Cowley’s rejection of the Second Manifesto that led to their resigning their places in the Quorum of the Twelve.

  8. Thank-you, MT. I didn’t want to be the first to bring up the 2nd Manifesto. ;-P

    The 2nd Manifesto is not pertinent to MD’s thesis/conclusion. Though it is apropos to a discussion of Elders Cowley and Taylor. And it is of interest to those who want to know the nitty-gritty details of the cessation of plural marraige.

    But it, the 2nd Manifesto, and the associated history of 1890-1904 (specifically Mexican polygamy, and what to do with pre-existing plural wives in the US) is just not reducible, in accurate fashion, to a sound bite, or a couple paragraphs. It would take a treatise, if not a book, to cover it all. I read the Wiki article, and I felt that each paragraph, almost each sentence, would need to be expanded to a chapter in a book, in order to get a coherent picture of what really happened.

  9. Bookslinger,

    I absolutely agree with you. Unfortunately, we have a pretty stark view of what the (first) Manifesto allegedly means: that all polygamy stopped in 1890, and those which didn’t stop, were excommunicated. That clearly is not the case. Only after 1904, after the issuance of the Second Manifesto, did the Church really start excommunicating members who persisted in new polygamous marriages.

    My personal opinion: the Church leadership knew about and implicitly condoned, in limited cases and circumstances, new polygamous sealings. However, Joseph F. Smith finally put a stop to it when he realized that it was going to produce and provoke harsh, unpleasant consequences. The Second Manifesto was the real manifesto, and this is what caused Taylor and Cowley to abandon their apostolic callings.

    I also agree with MD’s thesis and his conclusion wholeheartedly with respect to freedom and church membership. I just thought that for important inoculation purposes, folks need to know about the Second Manifesto and the nuanced nature of how the Church approached ending the practice. Real history is messy, always has been.

  10. Potentially worth mentioning that for John W. Taylor, at least, all his sealings to wives and children have now been entered into the FamilySearch database as valid, with no indication that subsequent sealings needed to be performed. This occurred roughly 100 years after he married his sixth and final wife, Ellen Sandburg.

    I suspect this could be because of the rumored meetings between Joseph F. Smith and the dying John W. Taylor and family. In this rumored meeting, Joseph F. Smith allegedly restored Taylor’s blessings, but also swore all present to secrecy regarding the matter. The point of this would have been to comfort those present, who had borne the brunt of the pivot away from mortal plural marriage, being the public example of “Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope…” The secrecy, of course, would have been to preserve the public value of Taylor’s punishment.

    Family who weren’t present (e.g., Nettie and her children, including author, Sam Woolley Taylor) were not told of what had occurred in those final days, whatever it was.

    The fact that there is a rumor indicates that some people don’t value keeping secrets.

    Perpetuation of the practice of plural marriage continued despite the harsh sanctions publicly imposed on Taylor (and to a lesser extent on Cowley). But relatively few chose to follow the folks insisting plural marriage was the summum bonum of the gospel.

    In my opinion, it has been clear since the forming of the Church that it is safest to follow direction from the prophet, rather than following any contradicting theory.

    God wants His willing children home, and so none who wish to return to God will be forever cast off. But it isn’t wise to make heroic measures necessary.

  11. Back to the main thrust of the O.P., we’ve already passed a point where some members reject the current prophet in claiming they are following some future prophet.

    I also feel like the changes to priesthood organization, ministering, youth programs and leadership, Sunday meetings cutback, etc., are harbingers or preparatory for more changes. I think Pres Nelson even said bigger changes are coming.

    I have a gut feel that retired baby-boomers will be called upon for sacrifice and service in ways that are either innovative, or that haven’t been seen in a long time.

    These changes may even tempt us to look back to previous prophets and policies. In other words, it’s not just the “left” who will be challenged, but the “right”.

  12. The “right” chooses to be challenged too. Take a look at what happened in Manti a few decades ago that led to the TLC movement. Or Michelle Stone’s “Celestial Education”. Or most of what’s on Mormon Chronicle.

    Getting back to the OP, wasn’t Hyrum Mack Smith going around saying the Manifesto was no big deal before he suddenly died?

  13. JT, Hyrum Mack Smith died at age 45 in 1918 of a ruptured appendix.

    You may be thinking of Abraham O. Woodruff, who died in Mexico in June 1904.

    The 2nd Manifesto was presented in April General Conference, 1904.

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