The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

Law libraries are generally boring places to outsiders (and to many insiders). Row upon row of identically bound books containing the arguments of long-dead judges hardly make the blood boil or excite the imagination of most. Yet Latter-day Saints venturing into the volumes of United States Supreme Court decisions from the closing decades of the nineteenth century may well be surprised by what they find. For example, in 1980 the Court suggested that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not entitled to constitutional protection because Mormonism was not really a religion. In another case, the Court held that states could (and they did) pass laws denying the vote to any who believed in “the doctrine of celestial marriage.” Such cases are the dusty remains of the massive legal war waged by the federal government against the Church over the practice of plural marriage.

When I first read these cases in college, as a Latter-day Saint I had a visceral, tribal reaction. Notwithstanding the passage of time and the change of practice, I felt betrayed by America and the Constitution. And I was disappointed at the scholarly treatment of the Church’s early legal struggles. Despite the evocative power of these decisions, Mormon historians have written comparatively little on polygamy and antipolygamy from a legal perspective. Law, it seems, has remained a relatively neglected field within Mormon studies. This omission is unfortunate, because the legal history of the Church is a fascinating story that touches on many of the most fundamental questions in American jurisprudence. In particular, the legal war waged over polygamy was one of the titanic—and largely unstudied—struggles of American legal history.

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