On September 24, 1890, faced with the eminent destruction of their church and way of life, Mormon leaders reluctantly issue the “Mormon Manifesto” in which they command all Latter-day Saints to uphold the anti-polygamy laws of the nation. The Mormon leaders had been given little choice: If they did not abandon polygamy they faced federal confiscation of their sacred temples and the revocation of basic civil rights for all Mormons.
Followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been practicing the doctrine of “plural marriage” since the 1840s. The best available evidence suggests that the church founder, Joseph Smith, first began taking additional wives in 1841, and historians estimate he eventually married more than 50 women. For a time, the practice was shrouded in secrecy, though rumors of widespread polygamy had inspired much of the early hatred and violence directed against the Mormons in Illinois. After establishing their new theocratic state centered in Salt Lake City, the church elders publicly confirmed that plural marriage was a central Mormon belief in 1852.
The doctrine was distinctly one-sided: Mormon women could not take multiple husbands. Nor could just any Mormon man participate. Only those who demonstrated unusually high levels of spiritual and economic worthiness were permitted to practice plural marriage, and the Church also required that the first wife give her consent. As a result of these barriers, relatively few Mormon men had multiple wives. Best estimates suggest that men with two or more wives made up only 5 to 15 percent of the population of most Mormon communities.
Even though only a tiny minority of Mormons practiced plural marriage, many church leaders were very reluctant to abandon it, arguing that to do so would destroy the Mormon way of life. Ironically, though, the Mormon Manifesto’s call for an end to polygamy actually paved the way to greater Mormon-Gentile cooperation and may well have helped ensure the religion’s lasting vitality.