The horrific killing of three women and six children in Sonora, Mexico, this week has taken a little-known chapter in Mormon and Mexican history in the limelight, deeply linked to the lost Latter-day Saint practice of polygamy. This story is not even understood by the Mormons themselves. Although a lifelong Latter-day Saint, I did not learn about it until several years ago, when two Utah men commissioned me to write a biography of their mother, who was born and raised in a polygamous Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico . [1
The Latter-day Saints publicly declared their practice of polygamy as a religious principle in 1852, several years after the violence of the crowd forced them to flee Illinois from the American West. After the Civil War, the debate about banning polygamy began to heat up in the US Congress and reached a crescendo in the 1880s. In 1882 and 1887, federal laws were passed that criminalized polygamy.
From 1884 to 1895, more than a thousand Latter-day Saints were convicted of crimes in connection with several marriages. Many polygamists, from local leaders to the church's top hierarchy, tried to avoid arrest by living in hiding. As anti-polygamy crusades continued to focus on polygamists in Utah territory, a large number of plural families spread to other areas, including Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona in the United States; Alberta, Canada; and northern Mexico.
In 1889, the new church president, Wilford Woodruff, saw the inevitability of bowing to federal law if the church were to survive. He directed that no new pluralistic marriages be carried out in the three temples of the church, under threat of the federal government shutting them off. However, he began to intimate that such marriages "can be solemn in Mexico or Canada."
This points to something that the media and even some historians are wrong about the history of Mormonism in Mexico: the Latter-day Saints who went there in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not emigrate in violation of the church leaders' efforts to end the practice of polygamy. From 1885, church leaders established the Mexican colonies as a refuge where polygamous families could live free from prosecution and leaders encouraged these families to move to Mexico.
The church hierarchy hoped that a large number of pluralists would be removed and become pluralists to Mexico would free these families from prosecution while releasing federal objections to Utah Territory's bid for state power, which was eventually granted in 1896.
Polygamy, meanwhile, was also illegal in Mexico, but church leaders convinced Mexican federal leaders that Mormon immigrants would strengthen Mexico's economy by developing farmland in the country's arid northern region. The Mexican administration told them that if they colonized peacefully and lived their marriage methods quietly, they were welcome.
American Mormons began to move seriously to Chihuahua from the beginning in late 1885. During the next quarter century, several thousand moved south of the border.
After the United States Supreme Court upheld the Constitution for congressional anti-polygamy legislation in May 1890, Woodruff prepared a statement on majority marriage that would become known as "official Declaration – 1" or in noncritical terms, the "Manifesto", which was read and upheld the church's general conference on October.
"We do not teach polygamy or plural marriage, nor allow any person to go into its practice," Woodruff's statement said. No pluralistic marriage had "become solemn in our temples or anywhere else in the [Utah] territory" since "last June or during the past year. … I now publicly declare that my advice to Latter-day Saints is to refrain from entering into any marriage that is prohibited by the law of the land. "
But in Mexico, colonies of Mormon polygamists grew – with Latter-day blessing Saint leaders. Despite the public "council" that Mormons should refrain from entering into new majority marriages, Woodruff and one of his two counselors approved some Mormon leaders to continue to perform a small number of such marriages.
In addition, they privately encouraged some last-day Saints who openly wanted to practice polygamy or contract new polygamous marriages to relocate to the Mexican colonies.
In December 1890, approximately 1,500 LDS immigrants lived in three large "colonies" in Chihuahua – Colonia Diaz near the New Mexico border and Colonias Juarez and Dublan, approximately 50 miles south of Diaz and 200 miles southwest of El Paso, Texas . Over the years, Mormon settlers built several more colonies in Chihuahua and the state to its west, Sonora.
Although it took effort to isolate themselves and keep their marital practice quiet, within their hard-knit communities, Mormon colonists were able to live their polygamy lifestyle openly, without fear of prosecution.
In the early 1900s, Congress learned that some Latter-day Saints continued to practice polygamy. After Utah elected Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot to the United States Senate in 1902, a group of non-Mormons in Utah sent a protest to Washington, asking the Senate not to place Smoot because the church was still promoting polygamy. The resulting Senate hearings began in 1904 and lasted for more than three years. Although Smoot was monogamous, he faced accusations about the Church's continued spread of polygamy, especially in Mexico.
After the Senate hearings opened in January 1904, Smoot urged the then President of the Church, Joseph F. Smith (nephew of the founding Prophet (Joseph Smith)) to correct the Church's damaged reputation. Smith soon issued what became known in other words as the Second Manifesto, explaining that "no such marriage has become solemn with the sanction, consent or knowledge of the Church." Smith's statement added that excommunication would be the punishment of any member who contracted or performed a new plural marriage.
The second manifestation resulted in a dramatic reduction, if not complete cessation, of the Latter-day Saint plural marriage, even outside the United States. Smith traveled to the Mormon colonies in Mexico to reinforce the 1904 manifesto. "There are no plural marriages currently being performed in the church, in Mexico, or anywhere else," Smith told the colonial men at a meeting. "The Church is on trial before the United States government, and we must be very careful."
In Mexico, the colonists who married polygamy before 1904 continued to live openly as plural families. But the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 20 eroded their ability to live together in coherent family units. Revolutionary violence forced Mormon settlers to flee north to the United States. In 1912, some 4,500 Mormon colonists fled – including Utah late. Mitt Romney's then 5-year-old father, George – from his home on a mass outing.
Inadvertently was Mexico's revolution that ended the end of the last day's weekend-sanctioned polygamy that the US government had long sought to achieve. Although 90% of them never returned, a small number of polygamous families returned to their colonies in Chihuahua. Many of their descendants – mostly monogamous – remain there today.
Mexico, which provided a sanctuary for majority marriage to thrive as the anti-polygamy process increased in the United States, also witnessed the last breaths of polygamy for adherents to the 20th Century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mexican revolution helped end the federal prosecution, Senate hearings and two manifestos had begun.
Barbara Jones Brown is a historian and executive director of the Mormon History Association, an independent organization dedicated to the scientific study of the Mormon past. Her work on polygamy after the manifesto is published in Bringhurst and Foster, ed., " The Persistence of Polygamy: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present " (John Whitmer Books, 2015) and in Dormady and Tamez, ed. , " Just South of Zion: The Mormons of Mexico and Its Borders " (University of New Mexico Press, 2015). Her co-written book on the aftermath of the 1857 Massage in Mountain Meadows comes from Oxford University Press. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion New Service.