by Prof. Sarah Barringer Gordon
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|Sarah Barringer Gordon is a
Professor of Law and History at
the University of Pennsylvania,
and an Associate Dean at the Law
School. She is a Visiting Scholar
at the National Constitution
Center during this academic year.
Sarah Barringer Gordon
U.S. Civil War, federally appointed Utah territorial officials made polygamy
and the Mormon Church’s control of the political and legal systems the
centerpiece of their complaints in Washington. With the passage of the
Poland Act of 1874, which for the first time since 1862 expanded the reach
of federal power in the Utah Territory, the stage was set for a judicial
confrontation between Mormons in Utah and the federal government. This
played out in Reynolds v. United States, which went to the U.S. Supreme
Court in 1878.
From the Introduction
In the mid-nineteenth century, an extraordinary contest over religion
and law took shape. The conflict began with the announcement in 1852 by
Brigham Young, president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, popularly called Mormons. Young proclaimed that Mormons
believed in and practiced polygamy – known to the faithful as the “celestial”
law of plural marriage, or “Patriarchal Marriage,” or simply “the Principle.”
In 1890, however the church formally announced that it would no longer
counsel the Saints to disobey the laws of man by practicing polygamy.
The public announcement of the intention to abandon all claims to legal
right eventually (although with aftershocks that lasted into the twentieth
century) satisfied the great majority of those who opposed polygamy (antipolygamists)
that their goal had been achieved at last, and that American civilization
had been saved from a potent and destructive “barbarism.”
Published in 2001
by University of North Carolina Press in association with the American
Society for Legal History as part of the Studies in Legal History Series.
Reprinted with permission.