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The Mormon Question
by Prof. Sarah Barringer Gordon

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In Reynolds the thrust of such claims was more complicated. For the denial of a “right” to religious freedom in this case was tantamount to the protection of its victims in the eyes of antipolygamist reformers. If the extension of rights was typically the empowerment of those who had been subordinate, in Reynolds the equation was reversed. The extension of a right to Mormons to practice their faith in plural marriage was construed by liberals to be a violation of humanitarian principles. Thus one could satisfy the humanitarians by denying the power of a local majority and at the same time argue against the extension of rights, which was traditionally the constitutional conservatives’ position.

Either way, the Mormons lost. And the Constitution protected the presumably enslaved women of Utah but did not insulate the patriarchs of the Mormon Church. The list of offenses that Devens insisted were the logical correlatives of polygamy (suttee, exposure of newborns, ritual murder), also countered Biddle’s claim that polygamy was not prohibited by the Decalogue. If murder and human sacrifice were the ineluctable result of the protection of polygamy, then the recognition of a right to practice plural marriage was tantamount to licensing murder at the hands of the same men who claimed the right. The connections between Christian family structure, human rights, and stable government could not have been more clearly drawn. As Devens hammered the connections between polygamy and Asian religions, he also distinguished the Christian localism sanctioned by the Constitution from the “foreign” practices of the majority in Utah Territory. None of the states had ever (or would ever, Devens implied) authorized such an abuse of the law of marriage. The point has some irony, to be sure, since enslaved persons were formally prohibited from marrying in Southern states before the Civil War.18

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