Utah's History

By Thomas G. Alexander; Eugene E. Campbell et al. | Go to book overview

years. A reorganized First Presidency, headed by John Taylor, found external pressure and internal sentiment for change mounting, but the course that it charted for the church did not depart significantly from that which Young had pursued.


The Reynolds Decision

The Supreme Court ruling that brought the new Mormon leadership to a crossroads was sought with the knowledge and consent of Brigham Young. In the mid-1870s the Mormons, elated over the defeat of radical antichurch measures, and the gentiles, pleased with the Poland Act, wished to test the Antibigamy Law of 1862 in the courts. George Reynolds, secretary to Young and the acknowledged husband of two wives, became the voluntary defendant in a test case. The first court proceeding in 1875 resulted in a mistrial; a second trial produced a conviction and a sentence of two years' imprisonment and a fine of $500. President Young died while the case was being appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On January 6, 1879 the high tribunal upheld the decision of the territorial district and supreme courts. In Reynolds v. the United States, the court declared that the statute in question "is constitutional and valid as prescribing a rule of action for all those residing in the territories. Laws are made for the government of actions and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions they can with practices. . . ."

Although the Supreme Court would later retreat from the position that religious belief cannot legitimize actions that would otherwise be subject to legal prohibition, its 1879 ruling left the Mormons without a constitutional defense for their practice of plural marriage. But they remained convinced that man's law conflicted with the law of God as revealed to them. Brigham Young's successor stated the dilemma in these terms:

We are placed--not by acts of our own--in a position where we cannot help ourselves. We are between the hands of God and the hands of the Government of the United States. God has laid upon us a command for us to keep; He has commanded us to enter into these covenants with each other pertaining to time and eternity, . . . I know they are true, . . . and all the edicts and laws of Congress and legislators and decisions of courts could not change my opinion. . . . The question resolves itself into this: having received a command from God to do a certain thing and a command from the State not to do it, the question is what shall we do?

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