Correction: The U.S. Supreme Court's Reynolds decision on polygamy is named for defendant George Reynolds, Brigham Young's personal secretary. An editing error in Sunday's "History Matters" column incorrectly identified Reynolds.
June is the traditional month for American weddings, and typically they involve a lot of eating, drinking, celebrating and weeping. But marriage in Utah has always been a bit different.
Utah's Indian nations had a surprisingly modern approach to matrimony. There were no arranged marriages, although parents might nudge children toward likely prospects with comments like, "Isn't Tabiuna a good hunter? He'd make a fine husband." But the decision belonged to the individual. If hints didn't work, orders might: "Son, you have to find a good woman to marry."
Spiritual leaders performed Shoshoni marriages. They gave rules to live by and advised couples to be true to their mates. A shaman might take hair from the bride and groom, tie it together and give it to a relative to hide. If the couple wanted to divorce, they had to find the hair and untie it.
Indian custom did not limit how many wives a man could have, but only a few of the wealthiest leaders took more than one. When the Mormons arrived, they thought this gave them a competitive advantage over monogamous churches in their efforts to convert the heathen savages. For inexplicable reasons, the Indians were not impressed.
Mainstream Mormons haven't practiced polygamy for more than a century and wish the world would forget about it, but it won't. Despite the Olympics, when you say "Utah," most people still think of Brigham Young and his 56 wives. Mormons denied practicing polygamy until 1852, but only fooled the gullible, such as their political ally, Thomas Kane.
"Admit, for argument's sake, that the 'Mormon' Elders have more wives than one, yet our enemies never have proved it," Brigham Young boasted on Aug.1, 1852. "If I had 40 wives in the United States, they did not know it, and could not substantiate it." By the end of the month, Orson Pratt unveiled the doctrine of plural marriage, and Young quit being coy.
Mormon men who wanted to get ahead in Utah Territory had to take multiple wives. During the religious revival of 1856 and 1857, every month was June. Marriage became so popular Young hardly had time "to eat, drink, or sleep, in consequence of marrying the people." Apostle Wilford Woodruff complained "there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah but what is married, or just going to be."
In "More Wives Than One," her prize-winning study of how "the principle" was practiced in a typical 19th-century Mormon village, BYU professor Kathryn M. Daynes concluded about a quarter of Manti's population lived in plural families. In St. George, those living in polygamous families reached almost 40 percent. University of Pennsylvania law professor Sarah Barringer Gordon has studied the impact of polygamy on constitutional law in "The Mormon Question." The controversy produced the Reynolds decision, which still serves as the foundation of American religious law.
Basically, Reynolds ruled that Americans could believe whatever they wanted, but couldn't do anything that offended white Protestants. Utah legal eagles as diverse as Ron Yengich and BYU professor Jack Welch believe the Supreme Court could be compelled to overturn the Reynolds decision, especially if much-married Muslims challenged it.
Will Bagley is an author and historian living in Utah.