The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken some controversial positions in its 185-year history. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered for one of them (polygamy, of course). The church became much more mainstream in the 20th century, but still manages to anger people.
After polygamy, the church came under fire for restricting blacks from the priesthood, for restricting women from the priesthood and for fighting gay marriage. The church has received its greatest criticisms when it involves itself in politics. So why does it keep doing it?
I can’t answer why the church takes the positions it does, but I think I can explain why it enters the political fray even though doing so will cause it to lose some current and potential members. The answer comes down to its experience with polygamy.
I don’t know how many times I have read a news article that said the following, almost word for word: “Mormons practiced polygamy in the 19th century, but abandoned it in order to obtain statehood.” This is not even close to the truth.
Mormons abandoned polygamy for one basic reason, and perhaps two more subtle ones. The clear motive for abandoning polygamy was the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which was passed in 1887. The law strengthened previous anti-polygamy laws. Among other things it disbanded the church as a legal entity; allowed the seizure of almost all its property, including churches and temples; threatened polygamists with jail and fines; required voters, jurors and officials to take anti-polygamy oaths; and, oddly, took the vote away from women (which Mormon men had given them in 1870).
The last item seems to show that Mormon women were not truly opposed to polygamy, even in the privacy of the voting booth. As hard as it is to believe, 19th century polygamy wasn’t really an anti-woman institution, at least not in comparison to the social arrangements available elsewhere in the country. For one thing, divorce was easy to obtain. Women in polygamous marriages were active in the feminist movement, with the consent of their husbands and communities.
Leaving aside that debate, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was draconian. The church sued, but the Supreme Court ruled the law was constitutional on May 19, 1890. That decision has never been overturned.
On September 25 of that same year, the church, led by Wilford Woodruff, published the Manifesto that announced the end of polygamy. The decision prompted a few members to say he was a fallen prophet. They founded their own churches, including the FLDS Church, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that has been in the news so much.
Later, Wilford Woodruff defended the Manifesto. In one of his defenses, he claims that the Lord would never let him lead the church astray, but would take him out of his place. This is a non-canonical doctrine that is included in a footnote in the scriptures, but is accepted by a large number of faithful Mormons.
However, it is a different defense found in those same footnotes that interests me. Wilford Woodruff says: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us….”
Wilford Woodruff says that if the church did not stop polygamy, the organization and its members would suffer greatly. This is the clear reason that the church ended polygamy. One of the more subtle reasons I referred to is a likely desire on the part of the members to fit in, let go of a difficult practice and stop being weird. The second subtle reason is that, if you accept Wilford Woodruff at his word that the Lord showed him these things and showed him how to end polygamy, then the Lord also wanted polygamy to stop. It sounds to me like the Lord told Wilford Woodruff if the church didn’t stop polygamy, he would let all these horrible things happen. To my ear, it almost sounds like a threat.
Whatever the more subtle motivations may have been, the church only abandoned polygamy in the face of draconian punishment by the federal government, and the law which authorized and encouraged that punishment is still considered to be constitutional. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows better than any other institution what the limits to religious freedom are in the United States. When Mormon leaders talk about religious freedom, they are almost speaking from experience.
I believe this is the real motive behind the church’s heavy involvement in the fight against gay marriage. The church was banned once because its marital practices were out of step with the nation’s. Its leaders could hardly be unaware of the possibility that such a thing could happen again, especially with one of its top leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, being a former state supreme court justice. I think this is also one of the motives behind its fight against the ERA in the 1970’s and early 80’s (being afraid that it might be forced to give women the priesthood by court order).
Again, I am not claiming any special insight into the reasons the church opposes gay marriage or why it doesn’t want to ordain women to the priesthood. I am only saying that its political involvement seems to stem from experience. I believe that church leaders are afraid that the church could come under fire the way it did in the 19th century.
Those events happened 125 years ago, but the way the church is organized makes it an event that isn’t quite so distant. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serve for life, like Supreme Court Justices, but without the possibility of retirement. Traditionally, the most senior Apostle is called to be the President of the Church. Current and recent leaders are not far removed from the legal battles over polygamy.
Thomas S. Monson is currently the President. He was born in 1927 called to be an apostle in 1963. When he was called, David O. McKay was the President of the church. President McKay was born in 1873 and was called as an apostle in 1906. He led the church from 1951-1970.
President McKay lived in the time of polygamy. He was called to be an apostle by Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of Joseph Smith. Brigham Young, Jr. was an assistant counselor in the First Presidency at the time. At least five of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had served before the church abandoned polygamy. One of the more recently-called apostles was Reed Smoot, who had also been elected to the US Senate and had endured lengthy congressional hearings before he was seated. The hearings centered on polygamy.
President Thomas S. Monson, current president of the church, is only one step removed from Reed Smoot, Brigham Young, Jr. and Joseph F. Smith, among others. He worked closely with someone who worked closely with them. He is only two steps removed from Brigham Young. Recently deceased apostles Boyd K. Packer and L. Tom Perry worked with people whose experiences stretched back a little less, but not much.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long institutional memory. The draconian measures enacted by the US Congress in 1887 are not ancient history for the First Presidency and the senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve. These are things that touched some of their close friends personally.
It is no coincidence that the church pushes for religious freedom. Its senior leaders may not have known the legal persecution the church endured in the 19th century, but the President of the church and its senior apostles all knew people who did. They seem quite reluctant to bring polygamy into the conversation, but the church’s experiences with the United States government hang like a constant shadow over the issues at hand.
I have my own opinions on the political stands of the church. We are not required to agree with them and I don’t. But I think that people should be a bit more forgiving of the church’s political involvement on laws that might someday affect its practices. For the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, religious freedom is not an excuse or a political ploy. It’s almost personal.