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Reynolds v. U.S.: 1879

The Supreme Court Destroys Mormons' Hopes

On January 6, 1879, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court's decision. The Supreme Court said that the First Amendment did not protect polygamy, and based its decision on historic American cultural values:

Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. At common law, the second marriage was always void, and from the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offence against society.… In the face of all this evidence, it is impossible to believe that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom was intended to prohibit legislation in respect to this most important feature of social life. Marriage, while from its very nature a sacred obligation, is nevertheless, in most civilized nations, a civil contract, and usually regulated by law.

Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld Reynolds' sentence of two years imprisonment and a $500 fine. The Supreme Court's decision rocked the Mormons, who initially vowed to defy the Court but later seemed to accept the inevitable. In 1890, Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff issued a document called the Manifesto, which terminated "any marriages forbidden by the law of the land." After 1890, most Mormons abandoned polygamy.

The Reynolds case is still the leading Supreme Court decision that the First Amendment does not protect polygamy. In 1984, a U.S. District Court considered the case of Utah policeman Royston Potter, who was fired for bigamy. District Court Judge Sherman Christensen rejected Potter's First Amendment defense, and the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Christensen's ruling. In October of 1985 the Supreme Court refused to hear Potter's appeal. By refusing to consider cases like Potter's, the Supreme Court has effectively decided to keep Reynolds as the law of the land.

Many legal scholars have criticized the Supreme Court for not modifying or overturning Reynolds. It has been over 100 years since 1879, and in many subsequent cases the Supreme Court has greatly expanded the First Amendment's legal protection for free exercise of religion. Further, in the 1960s and early 1970s the Supreme Court increased the Constitution's protection for the civil rights of women, minorities and other persons whose equality under the law had never been a part of the old common law cited in Reynolds. Logically, therefore, one could expect the Supreme Court to reconsider its position on the constitutionality of polygamy. To date, however, the Supreme Court has not reversed its decision.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cannon, George Quayle. A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, in the Case of Geo. Reynolds vs. the United States. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Printing, 1879.

Casey, Kathryn. "An American Harem." Ladies Home Journal. (February 1990): 116-121.

Embry, Jessie L. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1987.

Firmage, Edwin Brown. Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Reynolds v. U.S.: 1879 - Congress Strengthens Anti-bigamy Law, The Supreme Court Destroys Mormons' Hopes, Suggestions For Further Reading