On the morning of July 4, 1885, Salt Lakers awoke to find the American flag flying at half-staff over City Hall, ZCMI, the Salt Lake Theatre, the Deseret News and other LDS Church-controlled buildings. Many feared former President Grant or John Taylor, the Mormon prophet, had died. When word spread that LDS officials had lowered the flags to protest polygamy prosecutions, Utah's non-Mormon population exploded.
For five years, Congress had been turning up the heat on Utah's odd marriage customs, and in February 1885, Taylor denounced the federal government's anti-polygamy campaign. God had revealed "certain principles pertaining to the perpetuity of man and of woman," he said, and he would not disobey the Lord. So what should the Latter-day Saints do? "If you were out in a storm," Taylor said, you would "pull up the collar of your coat and
button yourself up, and keep the cold out until the storm blows past."
Taylor told his people to forsake violence and not to "break the heads" of the miserable sneaks "crawling about your doors," or "spill their blood." There should be "no rendering evil for evil." Instead, he advised, Mormons should avoid the authorities, "just as you would wolves" and "get out of the way as much as you can." Then Taylor disappeared into the "Underground." The Latter-day Saints began the longest campaign of civil disobedience in America until the civil rights movement of the 20th century.
That summer Taylor directed that American flags on all LDS church buildings be flown at half-staff on Independence Day to protest the federal anti-polygamy "raid." As historian B. H. Roberts wrote, this was to mourn "the subversion of those principles of religious and civil liberty in our Territory." Leaders of Utah's majority religion had misread the temper of the non-Mormon population. An overwhelming majority of the so-called "gentiles" had suffered through the horrors of the Civil War fighting for the Union, and their devotion to Old Glory went far beyond mere sentiment.
Outraged citizens stormed City Hall and raised the flag. One demonstrator said he was "as mad as when Fort Sumter was fired on." The Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans'organization, branded it "a deliberate expression of Mormon contempt and defiance of the law which that flag represents." Even ex-Confederate soldiers proposed holding an "indignation meeting" on the 24th to denounce "the insult offered to the flag on July 4, by the Mormon church."
The Deseret News kept its flag at half-staff until dark and defended the action as an exhibition of sorrow by Utah's people "over the decadence of their liberties." When rumors claimed the Mormons planned a similar protest on Pioneer Day, President Cleveland ordered Army units in the West to prepare to put down a rebellion in Utah.
The protest continued to generate controversy. For years, there had been two separate Fourth of July celebrations in Utah, but in 1887, LDS leader John W. Young suggested Mormons should show they revered Independence Day "even under such trying circumstances." This resulted in the first united Fourth of July celebration by all Utahns, which proved to be an important step toward reconciliation. Few Americans recall that during the 19th century, Utah's Latter-day Saints defended what they perceived as their civil rights with one of the longest and hardest-fought nonviolent protests in American history.
Historian Will Bagley learned about the "Half-Mast Incident" from David L. Bigler's Forgotten Kingdom