9.1.5 Rocky Mountains (1850-1900): The Legal Struggle Between Mormons and Gentiles

Reynolds v. United States – U.S. (Utah), 1878 (98 U.S. 145); People v. Hampton – Utah, 1886 (4 Utah 258); Wooley v. Watkins – Idaho, 1889 (2 P. 102); Davis v. Beason – U.S. (Utah), 1890 (133 U.S. 333)
  • Utah’s legal history, like its social history, is unique among American states.  Led by Brigham Young, a large cohort of Mormons fled from Gentile (non-Mormon) harassment in Illinois and settled Utah’s Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  The area went from a wilderness to a populous, well-organized colony virtually overnight, but conflicts with Easterners for decades.
  • The federal government reluctantly bowed to the reality of Mormon control by making Utah a territory in 1850 and approving Young’s appointment as governor.  However, most Americans were scandalized by the Mormons’ support of polygamy, their desire to maintain a theocratic government and their receptiveness to communal ownership of land and water.  As a result, Washington not only rejected repeated requests for statehood but repeatedly took steps to check Mormon power. 
  • The Morrill Act (1862) and the Edmunds Act (1887) outlawed polygamy and prohibited legal enforcement of church law in Utah.  Territorial judges and officials attempted to exclude Mormons from juries and to take other measures reducing Mormon influence in government, although Congress authorized mixed juries in 1874 in response to loud Mormon protests. 
  • National and territorial officials put steady pressure on the Church to renounce polygamy and commit to separation of church and state, and a steady influx of Gentile settlers after 1860 gradually increased the pressure.  Idaho, which also had a substantial Mormon population, experienced the same clashes in more muted form.  In 1890, the Church formally renounced polygamy, and soon afterward Congress authorized statehood on condition that Utah insert an anti-polygamy in its constitution (which it did).
  • Many of the clashes between Mormons and territorial officials were settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In Reynolds, a Mormon charged with polygamy tried to avoid conviction by invoking religious freedom, arguing that he should not be prosecuted for following the tenets of his church.  The Supreme Court rejected his defense, reasoning that Americans cannot be prosecuted for their beliefs alone but that government may regulate socially undesirable conduct even if it was religiously motivated.  In the process the justices made clear their disapproval of polygamy and other Mormon practices.  In Davis, the court upheld an Idaho law making it illegal to encourage others to engage in such practices, and in Wooley, Idaho’s territorial court upheld a law denying the vote to polygamists and those who encouraged them.  The court rejected an argument that this violated Mormons’ religious freedom.
  • Hampton was the most prominent Utah territorial court decision addressing the issue of whether Mormons should be excluded from jury service.  In Hampton, the court upheld a court official’s decision to exclude Mormons because he thought they would not be impartial.  Strikingly, in an age when courts were beginning to reject the right of Southern officials to exclude blacks from juries based only on the stereotype that blacks  were not qualified, the Utah court was content to allow such stereotyping of Mormons.

“The appointing of strangers as officers over the citizens of the United States in territories, though a time honored custom, is to say the least a relic of British Colonial Rule, and a direct infringement upon the right of self government, and opposed to the genius and policy of republican institutions.”  - Utah territorial legislature, memorial to Congress (1861)


“Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order … An exceptional colony of polygamists under an exceptional leadership may sometimes exist for a time without appearing to disturb the social condition of the people who surround it; but there cannot be a doubt that unless restricted by some form of constitution, it is within the legit scope of the power of every civil government to determine whether polygamy or monogamy shall be the law of social life under its dominion.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice __, in Reynolds


“It is time to speak plainly on this subject. … The tendency of such principles and purposes is clear.  They do not lead to the ‘security of the blessings of liberty;’ but they do lead to its utter subversion.”  “It is time to speak plainly on this subject. … The tendency of such principles and purposes is clear.  They do not lead to the ‘security of the blessings of liberty;’ but they do lead to its utter subversion.”  - Justice _ Berry, in Wooley


“Of course, an officer summoning a jury should not exclude men merely because they are of the same faith as the D.  But … they were omitted, not because they were Mormons, but because they were partial.  This was clearly within the discretion of the marshal.” – Justice __, in Hampton