In the late-nineteenth-century Intermountain West, crisis befell members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family members went into hiding, separated from one another by hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. Spouses wrote to each other with code or invisible ink. Federal marshals combed towns for suspects, and children learned to answer evasively or even deceptively to insist they did not know where their mothers were. The stakes were high, as these Latter-day Saint families were breaking federal law by practicing polygamy. Polygamist men could be—and were—arrested, tried, found guilty, and sent to prisons as far east as Michigan. “It strikes me as the greatest game of hide-and-seek ever played,” recalled Herbert Elliot Wooley, who grew up in such a household. “Certainly the most serious.”
From the mid-nineteenth century to the early-twentieth century, numerous members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often nicknamed “Mormons” in that time) practiced what became the most widespread departure from monogamy in the modern Western world: religious plural marriage, also called polygamy.
Latter-day Saint polygamy began after the Church’s founding prophet-president Joseph Smith asked God in prayer why Biblical prophets like Abraham had multiple wives. Smith reported he received a revelation explaining Abraham’s polygamy was appropriate because God had commanded it, and subsequent revelations instructed Smith to secretly introduce the practice to the Church. After the largest sect of Latter-day Saints moved to what became Utah Territory, Brigham Young—leading prophet of the Church following Smith’s death—had apostle Orson Pratt announce the Church’s practice of plural marriage. Mormon polygamy became public to the world in 1852—though it had already been widely rumored.
At polygamy’s height, in the 1860s–1880s, some half of all members of the Church may have been members of polygamous households, a proportion that would mean participants numbered in the thousands. However, practice was not required to be a member in good standing, and some evidence suggests the practice declined in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Manti, Utah, members living in polygamy declined from 43% in 1860 to barely over 7% in 1900. On the other hand, Church leadership frequently and emphatically preached, both at the pulpit and in private, the importance of plural marriage. Some apostles claimed polygamists would be more blessed in heaven than non-polygamists, and others suggested polygamy was somehow biologically healthier than monogamy. They often encouraged bishops and stake presidents to set an example for other Church members by practicing polygamy.
But while Latter-day Saint apostles extolled and preached polygamy, most of the rest of the United States viewed the practice as a moral evil, a threat to egalitarian democracy, and evidence of Mormon degeneracy. In 1862, 1874, 1882, and 1887 Congress passed various laws outlawing polygamy and even “unlawful cohabitation” (for when institutional marriage could not be proved) with each law providing successively stricter enforcement.
To enforce the laws, federal marshals patrolled western territories, raising the threat of arrest for polygamous husbands and subpoenas for plural wives. Between 1884 and 1893, United States governments convicted more than a thousand people for either unlawful cohabitation or polygamy.
Church leaders remained undeterred and continued encouraging members to practice civil disobedience and marry polygamously, regardless of social and judicial pressure. In an 1879 address, apostle Wilford Woodruff said of the commandment to practice polygamy, “if we do not obey it we shall be damned. Congress has said if
do obey it we shall be damned. Now, which shall we obey God or Congress?” In response, the congregation burst into shouts, affirming their commitment to continue practicing plural marriage.
To evade the judicial campaign, some Latter-day Saints went “underground,” a term referring to a broad range of practices for hiding to evade anti-polygamy law enforcement. Sometimes husbands went into hiding to avoid prosecution, such as President John Taylor, who vanished from public view until his death. Often, plural wives went underground to avoid subpoenas, as their testimony could be the smoking gun in polygamy cases. Sometimes first wives went underground, allowing a husband and second wife to masquerade as a monogamous couple. Families separated for years at a time, children were born on the underground, some women moved frequently and lived in different cities from one month to another, and some fled the country to Mexico. Through the decades, practitioners’ commitment to polygamy remained high, and men and women endured prison time, hiding, and deprivation to avoid law enforcement. Historian B. Carmon Hardy called the episode, “one of the longest instances of civil disobedience in United States history.”
Eventually, the underground came to an end. In 1890 and 1904 respectively, prophet-presidents Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith issued two different “manifestos” announcing ends to polygamy as a religious practice, and United States presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland granted legal amnesty to the Latter-day Saints. By the time of Joseph F. Smith’s death in 1918, polygamy ceased as a practice of the mainstream Church, and members had long since stopped going underground.