Mormon president goes underground - HISTORY
Year
1885

Mormon president goes underground

John Taylor, the president of the Mormon Church, goes “underground” to avoid arrest and continue resisting federal demands for reforms within the community of Latter-day Saints.

A former Methodist minister, Taylor converted to Mormonism in 1836, not long after Joseph Smith founded the religion in New York. Taylor quickly became one of Smith’s closest confidants and supporters, and he remained loyal to the controversial prophet and his church through years of persecution. When Smith was assassinated in Illinois in 1844 by an angry mob, Taylor was by his side and suffered several wounds during the attack. He escaped serious injury because a heavy pocket watch stopped a potentially fatal bullet.

After Smith’s death, Taylor became an equally loyal follower of the new church president, Brigham Young. Taylor led one group of Mormon emigrants westward to Salt Lake City where Young was building a thriving theocratic empire. In Utah, he continued to ascend in the church hierarchy, and when Young died in 1877, Taylor took over leadership of the church.

Taylor’s tenure as the leader of the Latter-day Saints was marked by growing tensions between the church and the federal government. The Mormon practice of polygamy became a lightning rod for federal criticism, yet this issue reflected a larger struggle regarding the church’s power over its members and the future state of Utah. Although the Mormons treasured the freedom to develop their new society free from outside interference, they also sought the benefits of being a part of the United States. Inevitably, these two goals conflicted. In 1851, the Mormons won territorial status for Utah, but the government remained suspicious of Taylor’s theocratic society. To the federal government, the Mormon political and economic domination of the region violated the separation of church and state. By attacking polygamy, federal authorities hoped they could also undermine the secular power of the church.

Taylor strongly opposed the federal attempts to undermine the Mormon theocracy. He believed the practice of polygamy was divinely ordained and state or federal anti-polygamy laws should not be allowed to prevail. Determined to assert the primacy of national secular law over the Mormon theocracy, U.S. marshals began arresting Mormons for practicing polygamy. Vulnerable to arrest themselves, Taylor and his leading administrators went underground on February 1, 1885. For the next two-and-a-half years, Taylor conducted church business from a series of secret hideouts in Salt Lake City.

Taylor’s underground administration managed to avoid arrest, but the federal actions were steadily undermining church power and influence. Grudgingly, in 1887, Taylor assented to one concession: making polygamy illegal in a proposed Utah state constitution. Congress found Taylor’s proposed compromise inadequate and rejected the petition for statehood. Taylor died that same year, still an exile in his own home. For several more years, the Mormon leadership continued the fight, but federal pressure eventually became so great that in 1890 Taylor’s successor publicly rejected polygamy. The theocratic government of the Latter-day Saints had been tamed, and Utah achieved statehood in 1896.

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