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

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

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

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


From the Mormon Church's public announcement of its sanction of polygamy in 1852 until its formal decision to abandon the practice in 1890, people on both sides of the "Mormon question" debated central questions of constitutional law. Did principles of religious freedom and local self-government protect Mormons' claim to a distinct, religiously based legal order? Or was polygamy, as its opponents claimed, a new form of slavery--this time for white women in Utah? And did constitutional principles dictate that democracy and true liberty were founded on separation of church and state?

As Sarah Barringer Gordon shows, the answers to these questions finally yielded an apparent victory for antipolygamists in the late nineteenth century, but only after decades of argument, litigation, and open conflict. Victory came at a price; as attention and national resources poured into Utah in the late 1870s and 1880s, antipolygamists turned more and more to coercion and punishment in the name of freedom. Theyalso left a legacy in constitutional law and political theory that still governs our treatment of religious life: Americans are free to believe, but they may well not be free to act on their beliefs.


This book grows out of my journey into a dual scholarly commitment. My underlying (and gradually unfolding) inquiry is into conflicted loyalties, especially those that trap the believer between religious command and temporal authority. I first experienced this dilemma in my own education when I applied to graduate school. I was torn between divinity school and law school. Which should it be, divine Word or secular law? I assumed that these were separate and mutually exclusive. Little did I know.

Every law student learns in constitutional law classes that conflict between sovereigns is basic to all of constitutional history. Such conflicts have been—and continue to be—central also to the fields of social ethics and justice in the ministry. If few clerics or lawyers plan in advance to venture onto the field of conflict, many are drawn in willy-nilly. The pages of the Supreme Court Reports are full of hardfought and deeply felt cases. I even argued one in my first-year Moot Court competition. It was wonderful. I wrestled with questions of separation of church and state, individual religious liberty, and even the definition of "religion." I felt I had at last found my calling—I would work with and study those who lived such conflicts.

Thanks to two understanding deans at Yale, I pursued simultaneous training in both religion and law. Symbolic of the luxury and the tension of pursuing such a vocation was the mile-long walk between divinity school and law school. There was a virtual barrier, somewhere on the slope (upward to religion or downward to law, depending on which way I was walking) of Prospect Street in New Haven. For several years, I led an apparently split life, disappearing into one or another intellectual and institutional universe, walking up and down the hill thousands of times in fair weather and foul (mostly foul). It made sense to me to study such conflicts from both sides of the divide. But often it was not easy. I was teased about "prayer breakfasts" in law school and outraged when expected to say "amen" to a professor's spontaneous prayer in Bible classes taught in the "div" school chapel. Conflicts between law and religion were everywhere, even in the life of a grad student.

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