From Morrill to Reynolds to Edmunds

Ten years following Pratt’s announcement, tensions continued to surmount between Mormon doctrines and American values. These tensions were only cemented in legal doctrines that outlawed polygamy. Mormons saw this as a direct restriction on their religious liberties. Paradoxically, the Mormons believed that their practices ought to be protected by one of the utmost American values, freedom of religion. Failure to do this is a failure to the American constitution. However, the courts did not see it like that.

            In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, an act that was thought to directly target the Mormons as it “defined plural marriage as bigamy, and made the contracting of such a marriage punishable by a fine of five hundred dollars and imprisonment for a term of five years.”[1] Feeling personally attacked, Church Elder George Reynolds “furnished the evidence to convict himself” convinced that he would win the court case.[2] Reynolds, fully aware of the crime he was committing, entered into a second marriage, and was soon charged for violating the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act.

            However, the court case did not go as the Church would have planned. Reynolds was convicted in the lower court, but his appeal to the Supreme Court followed in a similar manner, as they denied his claim to “religious duty.” The court instead upheld that religious duty was not a suitable defense for Reynolds criminal indictment. The court went even further and explained that polygamy is a threat to American society, as demonstrated in the following excerpt:

“Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. At common law, the second marriage was always void (2 Kent, Com. 79), and from the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offence against society.”[3]

Now the Mormons are not only legally prohibited from fulfilling their religious duties, but their practices are also labeled as “offensive” to American society as a whole. In a lot of ways, their “civility” is denied, as the legal system denies their religious practices. Despite this, the Mormon marital system remained relatively unchanged, prompting the courts to implement even more legal restrictions, as they feared that the Mormon’s practices were a threat to society’s interests as a whole.[4]

The Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 will only further cements these issues as the Act declares polygamy to be a felony. It also took away “the right to vote from those who practiced plural marriage and made it illegal for them to hold any office or place of public trust.”[5]


[1] “Church History,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accessed October 18, 2011, http://history.lds.org/?lang=eng. 

[2] "Church History"

[3] Reynolds v. United States (See attached)

[4] Ray J. Davis, “Plural Marriage and Religious Freedom: The Impact of Reynolds v. United States,” Arizona Law Review 15 (1973): 287-306, accessed October 18, 2011, doi http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/arz15&div=20&g_sent=1&collection=journals, 292.

[5] "Church History"

Legal Action
From Morrill to Reynolds to Edmunds