As is well known, the manual for priesthood and Relief Society lessons for next year focuses on the teachings of Wilford Woodruff.  As the manual is now available online in .pdf format, it will now be reasonable to discuss the book’s approach to the most important theme in Woodruff’s life: polygamy.

Wilford Woodruff was almost single-handedly responsible for the issuance of the Manifesto (now Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants).  This document produced perhaps the single greatest change in Mormon practice and doctrine since the death of Joseph Smith.  Whereas polygamy had previously been seen as a required ordinance for achieving the highest exaltation, it would eventually come to be seen in the wake of the Manifesto as a sin.  This stark change in how Mormons carry out our marriages allowed the church to survive and become normalized in the broader American society.  Obviously, then, Woodruff’s life and ministry is intimately interconnected with polygamy.

On the other hand, the church is increasingly reluctant to permit public discussion of the historical episode of polygamy.  A search of the entire "curriculum" section of the lds.org website for the word "polygamy" returns only three results, two of which are from the John Taylor priesthood/Relief Society manual.  The third result arises in the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson on marriage.  This lesson contains the following statements on polygamy:

The following information is provided to help you if class members
have questions about the practice of plural marriage. It should not be
the focus of the lesson.

The Lord’s purpose for commanding His people to practice plural marriage

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob taught: “For there shall
not any man among you have save it be one wife. … [But] if I will,
saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my
people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (Jacob 2:27, Jacob 2:30).
At various times throughout biblical history, the Lord commanded people
to practice plural marriage. For example, He gave this command to
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon (D&C 132:1).

The revelation to practice plural marriage in this dispensation

In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to
practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to
him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by
this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the
practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the
marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the
priesthood.

The Church’s position on plural marriage today

In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation that the
leaders of the Church should cease teaching the practice of plural
marriage (Official Declaration 1,
pages 291–92 in the Doctrine and Covenants; see also the excerpts from
addresses by President Woodruff that immediately follow Official Declaration 1).

In 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley made the following statement
about the Church’s position on plural marriage: “This Church has
nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not
members of this Church. … If any of our members are found to be
practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious
penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct
violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this
Church” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1998, 92; or Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71).

In light of this manifest reluctance to talk about polygamy, how does the new Wilford Woodruff manual address the topic?

The historical summary section of the manual attempts to avoid discussing the polygamous marriages of Woodruff altogether with the following statement:

The following chronology provides a brief historical framework for these teachings.  It omits many significant events in secular history.  It also omits many important events in President Woodruff’s personal life, such as his marriages and the births and deaths of his children.

This statement has close parallels in the John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant manuals.  However, the statement that "events in secular history" were also omitted is new to the Woodruff manual and tends to give the explanation a somewhat more apologetic air than in past iterations.

Oddly, the marriage of Woodruff’s parents on 1 March, 1807, as well as Woodruff’s father’s second marriage on 9 November 1810, are listed in the historical summary.

For those who are interested, the FamilySearch site lists five marriages for Wilford Woodruff.  His listed wives, as well as the years of marriage in each case, are:

  • Sarah Brown (1853-1898)
  • Emma Smith (1853-1898)
  • Phoebe Whittemore Carter (1837-1885)
  • Mary Ann Jackson (1846-divorce before 1857)
  • Sarah Delight Stocking (1857-1898)

Note that I have been unable to find the date for Woodruff’s divorce from Jackson.  However, Woodruff’s biography by Thomas Alexander states that Jackson offered to remarry Woodruff in April 1857 — but Woodruff refused on the basis that the two had already been proven to be incompatible.

Woodruff had two other known wives, as well: Mary Carolyn Barton and Sarah Elinore Brown.  He married both women in 1846 and divorced them the same year.

Aside from its failure to mention his personal practice of polygamy, how does the historical summary approach the broader topic, including conflict between the US government and the church?  The chronology offers four entries related to polygamy.  It mentions the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887.  These entries are worded in such a way as to be compatible with the Mormon folkloric hypothesis that polygamy was legal until shortly before the Manifesto.  The summary then provides two 1890 entries related to the issuance and subsequent approval of the Manifesto.

The narrative history of Woodruff’s life and ministry provides a two-paragraph statement about polygamy:

Strengthened by the Lord’s guiding hand, President Woodruff led the Latter-day Saints through one of the most turbulent times in this dispensation.  In the late 1880s the Church continued to practice plural marriage in obedience to the Lord’s command to the Prophet Joseph Smith.  [Note: there is no explanation offered, either here or at any other point in the manual, as to what "plural marriage" actually is.]  However, the United States government had recently passed laws against the practice, with severe penalties for the violation of those laws, including confiscation of Church property and denial of Church members’ basic civil rights, such as the right to vote.  These developments also opened legal channels for the prosecution of Latter-day Saints who were practicing plural marriage.  The Church made legal appeals, but to no avail.

These circumstances weighted heavily on President Woodruff.  He sought the will of the Lord on the matter and eventually received a revelation that Latter-day Saints should cease the practice of entering into plural marriage.  Obeying the Lord’s command, he issued what came to be known as the Manifesto — an inspired statement that remains the basis of the Church’s stance on the subject of plural marriage.  In this public declaration, dated September 24, 1890, he stated his intention to submit to the laws of the land.  He also testified that the Church had ceased teaching the practice of plural marriage.  On October 6, 1890, in a session of general conference, the Latter-day Saints sustained their prophet’s declaration, unanimously supporting a statement that he was "fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto."  (xxxii-xxxiii)

This statement seems to me to be quite carefully worded.  With respect to the legality of polygamy before the 1880s, for example, the text never explicitly claims that polygamy was permitted.  Instead, it leaves this claim as an implication, thus avoiding a potentially false explicit statement.  Likewise, with respect to the practice of polygamy after the Manifesto, the text never states that polygamy stopped on or before September 24, 1890.  Instead, it correctly states that Woodruff said polygamy had stopped on or before that date.  The only relevant fact that the text omits is that Woodruff was being less than candid in these public statements.

In comparison with the treatment of polygamy in the other priesthood/Relief Society manuals, this seems to me to be about half a step forward.  The manual did not entirely evade the subject, as the other manuals devoted to the teachings of polygamous past leaders of the church have done.  On the other hand, it seems to me that the manual said the least that it possibly could about the subject without starting a media firestorm.  Furthermore, while the manual has largely avoided explicit misstatements about the history of polygamy, it also has missed the opportunity to clarify some of the wide-spread misperceptions about that history.