Background and Fallout of My 1985 Article: “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904”

By D. Michael Quinn

D. Michael Quinn is the award-winning author of many articles and books on Mormon history including Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature, 1998) and the upcoming The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power (Signature, 2016).




I was recently asked1 to describe the background of the 97-page article I published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in April 1985, when I was a professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of History. Titled “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” it upset members of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I’ll summarize the fallout to the end of 1985.

I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss what I’ve thought about the principle of plural marriage since childhood, about how I became interested in its secret continuation after the LDS Church issued the “Manifesto” in September 1890, about why I felt it was (and is) important to understand that continuation, about how I gained access to the sensitive documents in the LDS Church’s archives that my 1985 article quoted, and about why I took the risk of getting into trouble as a BYU professor by publishing the article. This essay quotes extensively from daily journals I began writing at age seventeen, as well as from scattered memorandums, and from memoirs I wrote long after the events.


Monologues and Dialogues


I was born on 26 March 1944 in Pasadena, Southern California. Dad was a lapsed Catholic, but Mom was a devout sixth-generation Mormon. Her pioneer ancestor John Workman was mentioned in Joseph Smith’s journal on 7 June 1843. John didn’t need to be a polygamist since his wife, Lydia, bore him twenty children before her death in Nauvoo, Illinois. John remained an unmarried widower, but (in the Nauvoo Temple) his daughter Polly became a plural wife of John D. Lee—who lived for decades near the Four Corners of Southeastern Utah. John Workman’s son Jacob lived the Principle in Northern Utah; I descend from his first wife.

From early childhood, I knew that polygamy was part of my Mormon heritage, and was proud of the devotion my polygamous ancestors demonstrated. Dad and Mom divorced when I was four, and religious differences were among the reasons.


During the 1950s, I grew up in Glendale, California, where a prominent member of my ward had formerly been president of the San Fernando Stake. I talked with him occasionally as a kid, but don’t remember when I learned that his father was Abraham H. Cannon, an apostle who married polygamously nearly six years after the 1890 Manifesto. As a teenager, one of my Sunday School teachers was a son of Israel Barlow III and the polygamous wife he married in 1909. My teacher’s elderly uncle was John Y. Barlow, who helped establish the Short Creek colony in Northern Arizona in the mid-1930s. One of my teenage friends had an aunt who married Rulon T. Jeffs, leader of Short Creek (renamed Colorado City) from 1986 to 2002.

Memory fails to remind me when I first believed in the principle of plural marriage. I knew from a very early age that it was part of my family’s heritage and my Church’s history, but I don’t remember the year I first read Joseph Smith’s revelation that has been published as Doctrine and Covenants 132. I do know that I asked for a testimony of its truth, which I received by the “burning of the Spirit” within me. This faith remains with me today.


In the spring of 1961, at age seventeen, I definitely confronted some of the realities involved with post-1890 polygamy. One of my LDS friends gave me a copy of Samuel W. Taylor’s Family Kingdom. This family memoir emphasized his apostle-father’s experience with plural marriage after the Church’s 1890 Manifesto supposedly ended it.


The following December, Apostle LeGrand Richards spoke informally to our ward’s teenagers for an hour about his faith-promoting experiences as a missionary. Then he told our group to “ask any questions you want.” A risky invitation when I was around.

Waiting until the other kids made their devotional-type inquiries, I asked Apostle Richards about Brigham Young’s 1852 sermon that Adam is “our God.” My second question was about Apostle John W. Taylor being punished for marrying plural wives after the 1890 Manifesto.

As noted briefly in the memoir I wrote at age 23: “He replied that he finds it necessary to place many of the statements of Brigham Young and other early Church leaders on the shelf until the Lord reveals more.” At age 17, that seemed like an honest and sensible approach to me.

Regarding my second question, Apostle Richards said that pride was the basic problem with those who continued to practice polygamy after the Church officially abandoned it in 1890. I knew enough of my own pride that I could accept this as a reason for what he described as “spiritual error.”


On Sunday, 2 December 1962, while I was a freshman at BYU, my journal notes that “advocates of the Church of the Firstborn were passing out literature in front of our Priesthood meeting. The pamphlet was on the ‘Adam-God Doctrine’ . . . ” All were returned-missionaries, and they infuriated me by saying that David O. McKay was not God’s prophet on earth. Their pamphlet got my serious attention, however, because it quoted extensively from a master’s thesis on Adam-God by a BYU professor of religion.

As a result, I read Rodney Turner’s quotes from Brigham Young’s many sermons that discussed the Garden of Eden’s Adam as “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.” This prophet spoke about it for the remaining twenty-five years of his life.

I verified Turner’s accuracy by double-checking the original sources he quoted. This really confused me. As Apostle Richards advised me a year earlier, I still kept the Adam-God doctrine “on the shelf,” but I was reserving judgment on a much bigger bundle than simply “one sermon.” Later, I typed my own “Collection of Adam-God Statements.”


By mid-December 1962, I discovered the BYU library’s “Special Collections.” Everything I read there interested me in reading even more of these rare sources. By the next semester, I wrote two more research-reports for my private files: “Some Early Church Denials of Polygamy” and “Some Revelations Received by Joseph Smith But Not in d&c.”


Shortly after my arrival at London, England as a full-time missionary in September 1963, I listened to an Egyptian convert, Dr. Ebeid Sarofim, give faith-promoting talks in the Hyde Park Chapel. He was a multi-lingual lecturer at the University of London on Middle Eastern legal systems.

I later discovered that he resided in London with a plural wife at this time. Because they had married in Egypt, where polygamy was legal, the First Presidency approved this as an exception to their otherwise-strict international enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto.


In late June 1964, I became presiding elder of the LDS branch in Maidstone, south of London. My companion was constantly cheerful except when he received anti-Church letters from his mother. She had been excommunicated with his father for their Fundamentalist Mormon and polygamist beliefs in the little town of Hurricane, Utah. He told me that the Adam-God doctrine was what started his parents “on the road to apostasy.” I understood why, in view of the BYU professor’s thesis about it.

A few months after my return to BYU in September 1965, a devout freshman shook my confidence in official Church histories. Following my discussion with Apostle Richards in December 1961, I had felt confident of the traditional explanations by Church authorities and LDS historians about plural marriages after the 1890 Manifesto.

However, one afternoon Stephen E. Robinson (a religiously devoted freshman who was already studying the New Testament in Greek) confronted me in the BYU dorm with the accusation that his religion professor had willfully lied to the class that morning by claiming that anyone who married in polygamy after the Manifesto was an adulterer. Steve said: “My grandfather was a mission president who married two plural wives in Salt Lake City ten years after the Manifesto, and my family has a recommend for one of the marriages—signed by President Joseph F. Smith.”

By this time, he was yelling: “That religion teacher was lying! My grandfather was not an adulterer! He stayed mission president for years, and President Smith knew he married after the Manifesto.” I spent an hour persuading this student that the religion professor wouldn’t lie to the class, but obviously was unaware of cases like his grandfather’s.

Still, I was deeply disturbed by what Steve Robinson told me about his grandfather’s post-Manifesto polygamous marriages. This didn’t fit the explanation of Apostle Richards or the traditional histories by B.H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith that people entered post-Manifesto polygamy without authorization of the First Presidency. At first, I couldn’t believe Steve’s story and (without indicating my skepticism) asked for his grandfather’s name to verify it.

The next weekend, I took the bus from Provo to the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City. There I found individually submitted “family group sheets” showing that Joseph E. Robinson married two plural wives in 1901 (during the April and October general conferences). He remained president of the California Mission for almost twenty years, during which time he fathered children by all of his wives. That day ended my confidence in traditional Mormon historians.

This BYU student launched me on a quest to understand post-Manifesto polygamy and every other historical claim about the LDS Church made by anti-Mormons. In the process, I found that traditional Mormon historians were denying the existence of things that anti-Mormons could demonstrate even from Mormon sources. I felt that this was a great vulnerability for the average Mormon. I was determined to get to the bottom of every historical claim made by anti-Mormons and do what traditional historians had not been doing: acknowledge all the evidence and still come up with an explanation that was both honest and reassuring for believers.


From a memorandum I wrote on 23 April 1967: “This evening I gave the main address in Sacrament Meeting at the BYU 47th Ward. . . .

The point of my talk was that there is only one absolute moral law and only one absolute standard of conduct. That law or standard is to obey the will of God for you. All other moral codes and commandments are relative. The Ten Commandments say not to steal and not to kill, yet [the Book of Mormon’s] Nephi was directed by the Spirit to do both. The Ten Commandments say not to bear false witness, but Abraham lied at the Lord’s command and Joseph Smith and many others bore false witness in their denials of polygamy—again at the Lord’s requirement. We are commanded to honor the Lord’s anointed[,] yet one man in Old Testament times was commanded to strike a prophet and was cursed for refusing to do so.

The commandments revealed by the Lord to the world are guidelines for our happiness and well being, but if we should be specifically commanded by the Spirit of the Lord to do something that seemed to conflict with the general commandment, we should always obey the will of the Lord to us[,] and not fail to obey [simply] because it seemed to contradict. I emphasized that each of us must learn to live by the Spirit so that we may know what course the Lord wishes us to take in life. I pointed out that the course the Lord might want one of us to take [—] might be different from[,] or seem opposite to[,] the course the Lord might direct another [person] to take. As an example, I cited Apostle Ezra Taft Benson and Apostle Hugh B. Brown, who have widely divergent views, but each of whom I feel certain is following the will of the Lord for his specific mission in life.

I summed up my thoughts on the Spirit by citing the words of Paul: `Where the Spirit is, there is liberty.’ It is the true freedom of the Spirit which I pray we might all seek and live by.


In late August 1967, for my own use, I typed a several-page summary of my research into the most controversial aspect of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. I titled it: “The Principle and Practice of Marrying Other Men’s Wives.” The only person I showed it to was my philosophy professor at BYU, Truman G. Madsen. He asked permission to photocopy it for his own files.


In early June 1968, I wrote my first summary of post-1890 polygamy. For the past six months, I had spent most of my spare hours “finalizing” research into the instances of post-Manifesto polygamy that had apparently been approved by LDS general authorities. Adding it to my binder about “problem areas,” I titled this: “Violations of the 1890 Manifesto.” I was twenty-four and about to enter the U.S. Army for three years of voluntary service.


Beginning January 1970, I made the transition from planning on a career in English literature to wanting to be a professionally trained historian of the Mormon past. While serving as a military intelligence agent in Munich, Germany, I commenced re-reading the six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church (by B.H. Roberts) and did a superficial index. I also finished the 26-volume Journal of Discourses, while indexing it on 3×5 cards. Then I wrote extensive notes and long quotes from the four published volumes of testimony-transcript from the U.S. Senate’s 1904–07 investigation of Apostle Reed Smoot, the LDS Church, and its post-1890 polygamy. I was turning my hobby of Mormon history into a serious endeavor, a profession-in-waiting.

Among my correspondents in 1970 about Mormon history was Samuel W. Taylor, whose family-memoir I had read at age seventeen. His wry sense of humor added even more spice to the tidbits he shared about Mormon polygamy, which Sam called “the crazy aunt in the attic that no one in the family talks about.”

From him and his brother Raymond, I learned how difficult it was for researchers during the fifty years that Apostle Joseph F. Smith Jr. (Joseph Fielding Smith) was the official Church historian before he became Church president in January 1970. Moreover, the still-serving assistant Church historian, A. William Lund, was notorious for denying requests, for demanding to see whatever notes researchers had written about what he had allowed them to examine, and for confiscating their notes if he saw a quote or paraphrase he regarded as “sensitive” or controversial. This made me wonder in 1970 if I would ever be able to do research in the Church historian’s office about polygamy, which Sam Taylor said was “the most forbidden subject” to Apostle Smith and his research-overseer, “Will” Lund.

Therefore, while in Munich, I prayed almost daily (and fasted weekly) for God’s special intervention when I got out of the military. I asked Him to give me access to the documents of the LDS Church that would provide understanding of the internal operations of the general authorities and their activities, particularly regarding polygamy. Amazingly, that’s what happened as soon as I began graduate study in history the following year.

Another of my correspondents in 1970 was Nora Taylor Burgener, who had secretly violated both the LDS Church’s 1890 Manifesto and its so-called “Second Manifesto” of 1904 by becoming Apostle Matthias F. Cowley’s plural wife in September 1905. After her childbirth and divorce a few years later, she married my grandfather’s second cousin Walter Burgener. Ex-Apostle Cowley met them once on the sidewalk by accident and said: “You’re together now, but she’s my wife for eternity!” Her 1970 letter to me described their post-Manifesto ceremony by a stake patriarch in Canada.


At the end of June 1970, I had my first confrontation with an LDS official about my telling historical truths about polygamy. At the suggestion of full-time missionaries who were teaching “the discussions” to a non-Mormon in our apartment, I agreed to give a presentation about the history of plural marriage. They invited other missionaries, and the Munich Servicemen Branch’s minutes state on June 28th that I “will speak on polygamy in the Church” that night at a fireside where my wife, Jan, and I resided.

We ended up with about thirty people at this informal meeting. I talked about Joseph Smith’s plural wives, how polygamy moved from secret practice in Nauvoo during the 1840s to a public way of life in Utah, the U.S. government’s crusade against it throughout the 1880s, the 1890 Manifesto, and the occurrence of some authorized plural marriages until the Second Manifesto of 1904.

On Monday evening, mission president Orville Gunther phoned me at home, asking me to meet with him. I did so and learned that he had overheard some elders talking in the mission office about my presentation. He was emphatic that I should not tell missionaries about polygamy. I said that I wasn’t promoting plural marriage, but simply talking about Mormon history. He questioned me about some of the details he had heard through his missionaries, and I explained that these were “true facts according to my research.”

Then President Gunther gave me some interesting advice about “telling the truth” concerning what happens in the Church. He said that it wasn’t always good to tell the truth, and that sometimes it was necessary to conceal the truth in order to accomplish a greater good. “On more than one occasion,” he said, “I’ve met with other members of the Utah Legislature and have showed them a letter from the First Presidency indicating a wish that the legislators should vote a particular way on certain bills.” He explained that he had “Church authorization” to do this as a legislator, but showed such letters only to men he knew were loyal to the Church and would know how to vote after seeing a letter of this kind.

“What I have told you is true,” Orville Gunther said, “but if you told anyone else I said this to you, I’d deny I ever told you such a ridiculous story, and I’d deny it ever happened.” Up until this point, I had understood his line of argument about not volunteering information about Mormon history to investigators or new members that could injure their faith, but I was amazed that he used this story as an illustration.

Nevertheless, this mission president’s advice had its impact on me. I decided not to impose my understanding of the past on Church members. I wouldn’t speak about Mormon history in sermons or Sunday School lessons, unless the branch president or bishop specifically asked me to. Beyond any expectations I had in Munich, I would start receiving such invitations in two years.


Newly appointed as the official Church historian, Leonard J. Arrington told me in mid-February 1972 that I had been approved to join his staff part-time. While I continued as a full-time graduate student in history at the University of Utah, I was interviewed by Alvin R. Dyer, an ordained apostle who was serving as an assistant to the Twelve. My appointment was officially dated as of 1 March.

For my 20 hours of weekly work, I spent all day every Tuesday and Thursday in Leonard Arrington’s small staff room on the third floor of the Church Administration Building (47 East South Temple in Salt Lake City). It was a wonderful experience of research, discovery, and writing for me, but I was an employee for less than 18 months. That was the shortest service for anyone in his “History Division.” As a graduate student, I was full-time on Leonard’s staff for only the last three months.

For me, this time was life changing, which is why I soon resumed making daily entries in a journal for the first time since I left the British Mission in 1965.


From my journal on 14 April 1972:

The Lord has, I believe, blessed me greatly in having access to important documents relating to post-1890 polygamy. . . . I have found important mss which show the role of George Q. Cannon in advocating post-1890 polygamy, which show the manipulations and strategies involved in the Smoot Case and resultant resignations of [Apostles] Cowley and Taylor, and which have highlighted other aspects of post-1890 polygamy. During 1971, I verified that Heber J. Grant and Francis M. Lyman (traditionally considered as implacable foes of post-1890 polygamy) had each performed a few plural marriages after 1890, and that Heber J. Grant unsuccessfully tried to marry a plural wife after 1890. I also found other tid-bits of importance to this subject during 1971.

After I became a member of the [Historical Department of the Church, or] HDC a few weeks ago, my ability to pick up information increased. Being a staff member[,] I could wander through the stacks of mss without supervision.

This gave me the opportunity to find what I could by snooping around. In this way[,] I located the sealing records of Patriarch Alexander F. Macdonald of Juarez Stake (1900–1903); the record of some plural marriages performed by Apostle Marriner W. Merrill between 1894–1903, and a record called Temple Book B, which recorded over 300 sealings performed outside the temple from 1891–1903 (at least 9 of which were polygamous marriages—including that of [Apostle] George Teasdale performed [in 1897] by Apostle Anthon H. Lund). . . .

. . . I feel [that] the Lord has allowed me to find as much information as He has for a purpose. I believe that this purpose is for me to write a detailed and comprehensive history of this era [of post-Manifesto polygamy]—why I do not know. But I will never attempt to write such a history unless I have researched those additional sources I regard as absolutely essential to understanding the full story of this period of quiet and secret continuation of polygamy.


From my journal on 18 May 1972:

I asked Dean Jessee [a senior member of Arrington’s staff] if he was aware of the letter-revelation of Joseph Smith to N.K. Whitney in 1842. Dean is preparing a book (the 1st in the Heritage Series by HDC) on holograph writings of Joseph Smith.

I explained that the letter was instructing N.K. Whitney on the manner in which to perform the ceremony uniting his [teenage] daughter to Joseph Smith as a plural wife. Dean hadn’t heard of the letter.


From my journal on 7 June 1972:

At HDC. I finally decided to contact one of [ex-Apostle] Matthias F. Cowley’s daughters today, Mrs. Carole C. Dame. Elva Cowley (widow of [the next Apostle] Matthew Cowley) had told me a few months ago that she had given Sister Dame the diaries written by M.F. Cowley’s first wife. . . .

I left her [Sister Dame’s] home with her brother’s journal of his mission to Hawaii, and the scrapbooks of her sister and mother, plus some family-photographs.

Dr. Arrington was quite pleased at the acquisition, as well as Max Evans, who is in charge of cataloging at HDC. He is quite excited about acquiring new mss and is perturbed that the people technically assigned to Acquisitions do not seem to be going out of their way to acquire new mss.

Therefore, Max encouraged me and said he was willing to by-pass ‘channels’ as long as I keep bringing in mss. . . . I am quite anxious to bring as many mss as possible to CHO, especially if they aid my own research.


From my journal on 22 June 1972: A researcher

. . . asked if I had heard anything about an effort to excommunicate Ogden Kraut, a publisher of journal excerpts and [a] sympathizer with the polygamist fundamentalists. He said that he had heard [that Apostle] Mark E. Petersen had given orders for Kraut to be excommunicated after Kraut sent some pro-polygamy letters to Petersen and [to Apostle] Ezra Taft Benson. . . .

After our conversation[,] I thought over his situation and felt a little depressed. From what I know or have heard of Mark E. Petersen in this regard, he seems to be somewhat of a fanatic in seeking out and attacking real or imagined polygamists and other apostates. He seems to have something of the burning zeal of an Inquisitor, and the thought that I might one day have a run-in with him or someone like him chills me. . . .

I only pray that God will spare me such an ordeal. If it comes, He will be my only refuge and hope of avoiding bad consequences.


From my journal on 5 February 1973:

Meeting of History Division Staff. Dr. Arrington reported the meeting of the dept. heads with the 1st Presidency. He said [that] Pres. [Harold B.] Lee is concerned that we not issue materials of a ‘sensitive’ nature. After the meeting[,] I remarked to Ron Esplin that we have leaders, including Pres. Lee[,] who are ashamed of our history. He [Esplin] said that there was concern over the attraction of polygamy to members, and I said that after fifty years of polygamy scares, our paranoic fear about mentioning polygamy is getting stale. I said that the brethren are contributing to the problem by giving [LDS] members the impression that there is something which[,] if told[,] would justify people taking plural wives today.


After talking with Leonard Arrington and Ron Esplin about documents locked away in HDC’s vault, I wrote in my journal on 12 February 1973: “Perhaps I am naive or arrogant or both, but I do not feel the Church is jeopardized by any document[,] and I resent the implication that the Church members must be protected against the true history of the Church and its leaders.”


From my journal on 16 February 1973:

If Lauritz Peterson [who was employed by Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith] or someone else is trying to initiate a witch-hunt to root out ‘untrustworthy’ employees at HDC, I may find myself on the hotseat because I have been quite vocal about the need for honesty in our Church history, particularly with reference to the history of polygamy as it relates to the current polygamy problems.

If my position [of Church employment] became in jeopardy, I can only trust on the Lord. He gave me my present opportunities, and if it is His will that they be removed, I accept it.


From my journal on 5 March 1973: “Ron Esplin asked me if I would help write a response to a man [named Shaw] who is going to be tried for advocating polygamy. I told him about Dean Jessee’s [master’s] thesis [at BYU] on the Fundamentalists.”


6 March 1973 was the date of my signed letter to “Dear Brother Shaw,” titled “Some Notes on Polygamy, Before and After 1890.” I wrote it at the request of Ron Esplin.

Six days afterward, I wrote in my journal:

Dr. Arrington said that he was very impressed with my letter on present polygamy. He was especially intrigued by my interpretation. He wants me to provide footnotes, and to eliminate my name from it. He feels it would be valuable if sent out [anonymously] in xerox or mimeograph form to all Stake Presidents who are in areas where these problems arise. . . . Leonard said he wanted to show a final copy to Joseph Anderson for his recommendation on its use.


As Leonard asked, I revised it to become the anonymous “Response to a Mormon Fundamentalist,” addressed to “Dear Brother _______”. During the coming weeks, my journal would mention that nearly every member of the History Division sent copies of it to friends and local leaders.


From my journal on 7 April 1973: “Dick [Lambert] came over at 730 a.m. and brought me the letters of his grandfather, Apostle Abraham Owen Woodruff and his [post-Manifesto] plural wife Avery Clark Woodruff.”


I ended my employment with the LDS Church in August 1973 to become a full-time doctoral student at Yale University. During the following year of intensive research, my journal states on 12 August 1974:

In the afternoon[,] I talked with [Church archivist] Don Schmidt about the materials in the [HDC] vault (after I had devoted much silent prayer in the day asking the Lord to guide my words, and open the way for my access). . . .

He readily took me into Earl Olsen’s office, picked up the catalogue cards to the vault’s contents, and read off the subject titles so that I could indicate which, if any, were of interest to my [dissertation] research on the general authorities. Among the cards he read was the marriage record of 1898–1903, which I said I would like to see in addition to two other items of far less interest to me. He nonchalantly said: ‘Okay, that’s three items. Make up cards requesting them, and give them to me tomorrow.’


From my journal for 13 August 1974:

When I got the marriage record, I immediately recognized it as containing post-1890 plural marriages performed by Matthias F. Cowley. I typed extensive notes from the marriage record[,] which contained the record of plural marriages performed for 50 men by [Apostle] Cowley, and a scrap of paper with 2 post-1890 plural marriages performed in 1903 by Apostle Rudger Clawson. I know that Cowley performed more plural marriages than these, so it seems possible that this was an incomplete collation he made, perhaps as required by his arch-opponent [—Apostle] Francis M. Lyman.

When I had finished with this record, I turned somewhat indifferently to the second item from the vault, catalogued in Earl Olsen’s list as [Apostle] George F. Richards’ appointment book. I had asked for it primarily to act as a filler, so that the marriage record would not be the only item I was seeking.

To my surprize [sic,] I found that this record book contained a rather detailed summary of the [Quorum of Twelve’s] meetings held in connection with the resignations [that] J.W. Taylor and M.F. Cowley submitted in [October] 1905. In none of the available diaries of the Apostles or presidency has more than oblique reference been made to these meetings. Therefore I was profoundly happy and grateful to have stumbled upon this document.

I offered several silent, but heartfelt, prayers to God, thanking Him for giving me access at last to all of the documents apparently in HDC about post-1890 polygamy. . . .

The remaining documents I seek are either in private possession or are in the vaults of the 1st Presidency, or of Joseph Fielding Smith [whose large wheeled-safe of documents had been rolled inside the Presidency’s walk-in vault in January 1970]. When it is the Lord’s will, I know He will open the way for me to obtain access to the materials.


From my journal for “The week of August 19–23, 1974”:

One day during this week[,] I was put in an awkward position by Jay Max Anderson, the fellow who has done extensive research on the Fundamentalists. He had obtained from Bill Hartley a copy of [Bill’s own] notes from the trials of John W. Taylor & Matthias F. Cowley, taken from the 1888–1914 Minutes of the Apostles [that] I researched [separately—on my own] 1 1/2 years ago. Max Anderson asked me if I had seen these minutes and knew where he could obtain them.

Bill’s action was foolish, and had put me in an awkward position because Leonard had told me that no one should know that I had access to these minutes, and that I was not authorized to tell others that I had had such access. Therefore, when Max Anderson point-blank asked me if I had seen these minutes[,] I told him I had not. I think he knew I was lying.

I felt bad about the situation, but in such a case[,] an equivocation like ‘no-comment’ avoids falsehood, but nevertheless is giving an affirmative answer. I had no choice, under the circumstances of my instructions and agreement, except to lie—something I do very poorly.


After receiving a Ph.D. in history from Yale, I became a member of BYU’s History Department in August 1976, and wrote in my journal on 4 December 1978 that I informed Leonard Arrington that Apostle “Richard R. Lyman’s situation [in 1943] was actually a case of polygamy rather than simple adultery.”


From my journal on 17 January 1979, concerning the invitation from staff members that I help HDC’s managing director G. Homer Durham fulfill a research request to him from the First Presidency about post-Manifesto polygamy:

I worked on the letter to Durham until 2 p.m., without access to any of my research notes due to the deadline. I wrote 12 pages [single-space typed] in which I outlined and summarized in fair detail my understanding of the background to the Manifesto and the Declaration of 1904[,] as well as my understanding of the practice of plural marriage after the Manifesto of 1890. I prayed that the Lord would be with me in His Spirit as I wrote this . . . .

Word of my writing this memo apparently was passed around the Historical Department during the day, and both Ron Esplin and Ron Walker of the History Division asked me for xerox copies of what I was writing to Durham. I told them both that I had made a covenant with the Lord many years ago that I would never discuss in detail or write my knowledge of post-1890 polygamy until I knew the whole story from all available sources, and now I was violating that covenant today for Durham because of the request of the First Presidency to him. I said that I would not provide anyone else with a copy of what I had written to him.


From my journal on 3 March 1979:

[Church] President [Spencer W.] Kimball asked me to do my work today at a small card-table next to his own desk in his moderately sized office in his home. So I spent more than five hours in his office, oftentimes working next to him as he sorted through and read the piles of documents that are scattered in a jumble throughout his office.

At one point, as I was walking through the office-library area, I noticed on the top of one stack of papers a memorandum from Francis Gibbons, the Secretary of the First Presidency, describing several enclosed documents that related to the request of a Nigerian living in Los Angeles to be baptized. This Nigerian lives in Los Angeles at present with one wife and has two other wives back in Nigeria. The man said that he was willing to repudiate the other two wives in Nigeria if that was required by the First Presidency for him to be baptized. The memorandum of Gibbons was dated January 15, 1979.

As I have stated to Henry W. Richards [a member of Apostle Petersen’s “special committee”] in writing and to Ron Esplin in conversation, the Nigerian Mission has immediately thrust upon the First Presidency the question of baptizing active polygamists who have married their plural wives legally according to the laws of the nations in which they live. The matter of temple sealings for such legal and living polygamous families will soon follow. If the First Presidency requires these men to end the marriages to their legal plural wives, such a decision violates both the letter of the 1890 Manifesto as well as the spirit of the Gospel. If the First Presidency allows these legal polygamist families to be baptized and receive the sealing of their plural marriages in the temples, then an enormous problem with the polygamist schismatics of Mormonism is only steps away. I was tempted to say something to President Kimball about this memo while I was in the Kimball home but decided not to.


The LDS president’s answer in 1979 was that the Manifesto required this Nigerian to end his polygamous marriages before he could be baptized. This stunned me, because President Kimball knew that LDS presidents had authorized international polygamy long after 1890.

First, his father-in-law Edward C. Eyring married a plural wife in Mexico during 1903 in a ceremony authorized by the First Presidency of Joseph F. Smith. His predecessors Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow had likewise permitted post-Manifesto plural marriages in Mexico. President Kimball had approved his official biography, which affirmed those facts two years before this correspondence about Nigerian polygamy.

Second, President David O. McKay had authorized a prominent Egyptian polygamist to be baptized in 1962 and to attend the Hyde Park Ward as an elder while living in London with his plural wife. I had typed extensive notes at HDC from the correspondence and minutes of that decision. Surely, the First Presidency’s secretary mentioned those facts to President Kimball when this question of African polygamy came up for their consideration!

Furthermore, polygamy was legal and socially sanctioned in Nigeria. By contrast, polygamy and polygamous cohabitation were illegal in Mexico when LDS presidents authorized those new plural marriages from 1890 to 1904. Likewise, it was illegal to cohabit polygamously in England in 1962.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the wives this Nigerian polygamist had to abandon in a country that sanctioned polygamy in order to become a member of the LDS Church. These women and their children were now shamed outcasts in their villages. I felt heartsick.

By allowing Black Africans to be ordained to the priesthood in mid-1978, Spencer W. Kimball gave them something precious. Then he took away something equally precious in early 1979.

These were burdens of an imperfect Church led by very fallible humans. Good intentions and prophetic callings didn’t change those realities.


From my journal on 9 March 1979:

Leonard Arrington came in just as Ron [Esplin] was leaving. Leonard had the revised article on the Fundamentalists that G. Homer Durham had returned to him with comments, and the remark that Leonard should move slowly on it. Leonard asked me to revise it at my leisure. . . .

I glanced over the comments Durham had written on the Fundamentalist article, and found that in large measure his comments indicated two things: [first,] his ignorance of the issues and evidence used by the Fundamentalists to support their claims (and therefore his assumption that I am giving them support when I acknowledge some of the evidence that they regularly cite) and [second,] his unwillingness or resistance to my making acknowledgements that go against official Church positions or myths, such as the 1890 Manifesto being itself a ‘revelation’ rather than (as the evidence indicates) its being a policy statement that resulted from difficult circumstances and from a dream of Wilford Woodruff of what would be the result of continuing the practice of plural marriage. If I were guided only by rational considerations in this matter, I would immediately conclude that there is no possibility now or in the future that I or anybody else will be able to research the locked-away documents that will add essential insight to the practice of plural marriage[,] particularly the practice of polygamy after 1890.


From my journal on 30 April 1979:

Today, after much thought and prayer, I decided that I must take the only chance I seem to have left to me to seek for access to the materials of the First Presidency’s vaults. . . . I addressed and mailed the letter to the home of President Kimball, hoping that thereby the letter might reach his attention [—] rather than simply being shelved by his secretary Arthur Haycock.

In the letter, I pointed out why I feel the documents in the First Presidency’s vaults are important to understanding the history and developments of the Church, why I feel that [this] understanding is necessary for the strength of the Latter-day Saints, and why I feel that at least one Mormon historian, rather than an administratively burdened secretary, ought to be given full-time assignment to research the documents of the First Presidency vaults. I gave as an example of the vulnerability of the Saints to deception because of their ignorance of Church developments [—] the question of polygamy after 1890. . . .

I have done this thing with my eyes wide open to the possibilities, but am committed to doing everything I can do within my limited options to bringing about what I feel needs to be done. If I fail, at least I have failed through trying rather than through inaction.”


From my journal on 29 May 1979, BYU’s president Dallin H. Oaks said: “Arthur Haycock’s antennae are very sensitive, and I bet that he has made the connection, and that is why he is putting a blockade between you and President Kimball.”

Then, Oaks continued:

‘Now, I am telling you this only to apprise you that you need to be aware of this situation and of the possibility of the sensitivities of the Brethren proving to be an obstacle to you. When I was informed of the discussion in the temple [council meeting] about your prayer circle article [in BYU Studies], no mention was made to me that I should consider that you were in error or in trouble, nor was there any indication to me that I should reprimand you in any way. I am merely telling you this now because it may be the answer to why Arthur Haycock has treated you as he has.’


From my journal on 19 July 1979:

. . . depending upon the nature of the article on post-1890 polygamy that will be published next [year] in Utah Historical Quarterly [by B. Carmon Hardy and Victor W. Jorgensen], I am giving more serious consideration to making my last scholarly article on Mormonism a[n] overview of post-1890 polygamy.

Since it appears that the First Presidency will never allow the crucial documents to be made available for an honest exploration of this matter, I may present what I presently understand for whatever benefit it may have to the Church membership in understanding. If I do this, I will send the article to Dialogue for publication.

It will probably end my career at BYU[,] as well as pose barriers to me in other areas, but if the Presidency will not allow access to anything better, I may as well do what I can for the benefit of the Saints who may benefit from such an open examination. Such an article on the significance of the 1890 Manifesto would not be a bad Last Hurrah for me as a Mormon historian. After that, I can foresee nothing of significance or fulfillment.


Nonetheless, hoping against hope, I continued for three years to write the First Presidency requesting access to the documents in its vault about plural marriage.


From my journal on 31 October 1979:

Spent all day going through my notes, and took time to do more arranging of note cards about the manifesto and the practice of polygamy after 1890. The explosive significance of many things I have had in my notes for years was not apparent to me until I saw the things in juxtaposition. I am now sure that if I write the kind of article that I feel must be written and publish it in Dialogue as I plan to do . . . , that there is no power on earth that will spare me from excommunication if Mark E. Petersen is alive. In fact, as I see the article in my mind’s eye, I doubt that my employment at BYU or my membership in the Church will survive under any circumstances if I publish this article . . . I am approaching the point where I would prefer to have my collision with the authorities over this matter, and then take whatever consequences may follow.


From my journal on 19 March 1980:

In the evening, I went to high council meeting. Learned that at the last high council meeting, while I was in Provo, the man who had proposed plural marriage [by mail] to 70 women [last fall,] was excommunicated for continuing to write such letters. I am glad that I was out of town for that meeting.

Tonight, Brother [John] Langland of the high council (who also was out of town during the court two weeks ago), remarked to me in a whisper, ‘How can Church courts excommunicate mentally unbalanced persons who obviously do not really know what they are doing?’ As a recently returned mission president and one who was previously president of the Emigration Stake, John Langland’s candor in this matter surprised me.


From my journal on 24 April 1980:

I plan to phone the [Utah Historical] Quarterly editorial offices in mid-May or so to verify that they have received and are mailing out the issue, and to verify that it has the article by Hardy and Jorgensen [about post-1890 polygamy], and then I will go down to the Church offices and deliver in person my letter to the First Presidency about the article and about the problem of post-Manifesto polygamy, and my proposal for [publishing] a detailed study of it.


From my journal on 20 May 1980:

I awoke about 5:30, probably in anticipation of delivering my letter to the First Presidency today. . . .

After I took the bus downtown, I mailed the copies [of my letter] to Arrington and Durham, and crossed the street to the 47 East [South Temple] Church Offices.


From my journal on 24 July 1980:

Rhoda Latham (daughter of Melvin D. Wells by a post-1904 polygamous wife) told me that a few weeks ago[, that Apostle] LeGrand Richards performed the proxy sealing for Wells and her mother.


From my journal on 9 August 1980:

Last night I had received a call from JoLane Prince, asking if Jan and I would be able to go to dinner as guests of her and her husband [Greg], whom I had met at the Mormon History Association meeting in Canandaigua this year. He is a book review editor for Dialogue and works with the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. We had a very enjoyable evening with them. . . .

Greg Prince commented that they and others had long been amazed at my ability to write the kind of things I do and still get away with it [—] and he asked why I thought that was the case. Without hesitation[,] I said: ‘Because I don’t give a damn.’ . . .


On Sunday, 22 November 1981, I spent about an hour talking with the First Presidency’s counselor Gordon B. Hinckley in the study-library of his home on the hill above Utah’s capitol building. He said that he had already obtained and read (“several times”) the text of my talk to BYU students and faculty, titled “On Being a Mormon Historian.” This was obviously the purpose for the copy that Dean Martin Hickman had requested.

President Hinckley said: “I sympathize with many of the things you say, but I am gravely concerned that you have publicly criticized living members of the Quorum of the Twelve.” I explained that I didn’t intend this as personal criticism of these apostles. I felt that I had the right as a historian to evaluate their public views about how Church history should be written.

“Of course, you have that right, Brother Quinn,” he said, “but when you do it publicly, that can sow seeds of dissension among Church members.” I said that wasn’t my intent. President Hinckley was completely non-confrontational during our discussion at his home.

He referred to my talk’s emphasis about half-truths and distortions in traditional Church history, and he asked for an example. I said that contrary to officially published accounts, there were hundreds of authorized plural marriages performed after the 1890 Manifesto. President Hinckley asked for specifics.

For several minutes, I gave him a list (from memory) of the names of the new polygamists with the most prominent Church positions, the dates and places of their post-Manifesto polygamous marriages, and the officiators. President Hinckley was visibly stunned, for as a child and young man he had personally known many of these mission presidents, stake presidents, general board members, and bishops. Until today, he had not realized that they married plural wives after the Manifesto.

Gordon B. Hinckley was very candid throughout our meeting. He said that the whole situation was difficult. He acknowledged that there was much about Church history that he didn’t know and that he doubted “any” general authority knew.


Having received no answer to my formal letters to the First Presidency for permission to examine documents in its vault regarding post-1890 polygamy, I renewed the request in personal letters to Hinckley. I wrote him in December 1981, February 1982, and April 1982. I just assumed that his secretaries intercepted these letters and blocked me, as Arthur Haycock had done with President Kimball when he was still able to function. So I kept knocking.

Gordon B. Hinckley finally spoke with me by telephone on 26 May 1982. He said that he was sympathetic with my request and had inquired unsuccessfully about my getting access to those documents in the First Presidency vault. Since I now knew all I ever would about post-Manifesto polygamy, I told him that I would go ahead and publish the most detailed, supportive study I could of the problem.

President Hinckley replied: “That’s your decision to make, Brother Quinn.” He then repeated his statement that he had done what he could to help me get access to historical documents in the Presidency’s vault regarding post-Manifesto polygamy. Significantly, I thought, he did not advise me against publishing what I already knew about it from my research at HDC, research that I had previously outlined to him in his home and again in the correspondence.


After my 12-page memo to Elder G. Homer Durham, he knew of my extensive research about post-Manifesto polygamy, yet he continued for six years to give me access to restricted documents regarding plural marriage. This went far beyond the extraordinary access I had been given for researching the authorized biography of J. Reuben Clark from late 1977 until I finished its draft in mid-1981.

Throughout the next three-and-a-half years, I continued getting Elder Durham’s approval to examine heavily restricted documents at HDC. Just days before his death in early January 1985, he again gave me access to First Presidency files and correspondence, which my request had specified were necessary to finalize my upcoming article on post-Manifesto polygamy. And I specifically stated that it would appear in Dialogue.

“Mike Quinn has helped us explain other historical problems,” Elder Durham told newly appointed archivist Glenn N. Rowe: “I hope he can help us here—because this is a tough one.” Glenn repeated those words to me in the Research Room of HDC as he handed me the approval slips that Elder Durham had just initialed.


Following the April 1985 publication in Dialogue of my article “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” I learned from several sources that Apostle Boyd K. Packer condemned me in public meetings as diverse as a stake conference in Denver and a special solemn assembly in the Salt Lake Temple for priesthood leaders in Salt Lake Valley. Even though he didn’t identify me by name, Elder Packer referred to me in these meetings as “a BYU historian who is writing about polygamy to embarrass the Church.”

Sons of the apostles reported back that Packer told a meeting of the Quorum of Twelve: “What Mike Quinn wrote about plural marriage may be true, but no faithful Latter-day Saint would publish what he did.”


In early May 1985, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (formerly my congenial friend while he was president of BYU) wrote me an angry letter accusing me of underhandedly obtaining restricted documents at LDS Archives and of preparing to publish the article without notifying my “file leaders” or the custodians of those documents.

In response, I immediately mailed to Elder Oaks a summary of my conversations about this research into post-Manifesto polygamy—with HDC’s managing director G. Homer Durham and with First Presidency counselor Gordon B. Hinckley—and explained to Oaks that I had specifically informed each of them years in advance of my hopes to publish a detailed article about it. With this letter, I included photocopies of my numerous letters about this research to Durham, to President Spencer W. Kimball, to the First Presidency as a whole, and to Counselor Hinckley directly. From 1979 to 1982, those letters had gone to the highest-ranking custodian of HDC’s manuscripts and to my highest “file leaders” in the Church. But in 1985, Apostle Oaks seemed angry that I hadn’t told him during 1977–80, while he was BYU’s president (as a non-general authority) and when he was promoting me for J. Reuben Clark’s biography. But he had never asked me for reports about any details of my research back then. Nor did anyone else, yet I had volunteered those details to the general authorities who had a right to know—a need to know about my knowledge of post-Manifesto polygamy.


In late May 1985, by order of three members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (as communicated by Seventy’s president and area president James M. Paramore), the stake president of the Salt Lake Emigration Stake reluctantly withdrew my temple recommend. That really hurt, because I had been a regularly scheduled ordinance-worker in the temple one day each week.

The general authorities charged me with unworthiness of a temple recommend for “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed,” in my Dialogue article about the First Presidency’s approval of post-Manifesto polygamy. The three apostles also instructed stake president Hugh S. West to “take further action” if withdrawing my temple recommend didn’t “remedy the situation” of my speaking and writing about Mormon history in a way as to “offend the Brethren” (their phrase). The general authority message to the stake president was to pretend this was a decision that originated with him, which he refused to do throughout their two-hour meeting. Paramore was stunned to encounter such resistance.

Stake President West and his second counselor (my former bishop Richard Horne) told me that they both had read the polygamy article, and that they never considered that it could be the basis for taking any kind of Church action against me. They told me individually that the stake president’s first counselor, Richard Hinckley (son of First Presidency counselor Gordon B. Hinckley), agreed with them.

I told the stake president that I would not be intimidated by anyone and that I would continue my research and writing efforts to sympathetically explain problems in Mormon history. “I’m an insurance executive,” Hugh West said, “and I won’t tell you how to be a historian. But please try to find some way to be conscientious in Mormon history and still avoid these confrontations with the Brethren.” I said that I would try, but didn’t see how I could do both at the same time.

The stake president said that he regarded his instructions from Church headquarters as a back-door effort to have me fired at BYU. Despite the apostolic order to deprive me of a temple recommend, President West instructed me to protect my employment by telling BYU administrators (if they asked) that I did have a current temple recommend: “Don’t volunteer that it’s in my desk-drawer.” He said that he would continually renew my recommend and keep it in his desk to prevent employment difficulties at BYU.

Since he had been so candid with me about the details of his two-hour meeting and dispute with Paramore, I asked my stake president to identify the three apostles who had given these instructions to this general authority who was our area president. President West said that he didn’t feel at liberty to name them.

“If I was a guessing man,” I said, “I’d guess that the senior of the three was Boyd K. Packer and that he enlisted the support of two of his subordinates who have reputations as academics and liberals. Therefore, my guess is that the three apostles were Elder Packer, Neal A. Maxwell, and Dallin H. Oaks.” My stake president smiled and said: “That’s a pretty good guess.”

I promised him that I would not tell colleagues or friends about this situation. I didn’t want to be the center of more publicity.

And, despite my brave words to President West, I felt sick at heart. This was the death of my Mormon dreams, but (typical for the stages of grieving), I remained in denial about it.

This was hope-against-hope. My lifelong pattern.


In mid-1985, these were my reactions to the charge of “speaking evil”:

In all my work as a Mormon historian, I had honestly sought to recreate the words and acts of earlier prophets and apostles. At least to the degree that the available sources allowed, and keeping in mind the differences between the Past and History.

I had faithfully and empathetically placed these former general authorities within the context of the difficult circumstances they faced. I didn’t regard their words and acts as wrong, even though they were controversial and resulted in the confusing heritage of post-Manifesto polygamy.

The Church’s leaders in 1985 seemed to regard my Dialogue article (and much of the New Mormon History) as “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.” Why? Fundamentally, I think, because they themselves regard certain acts and words of those earlier leaders of the Church as embarrassing, if not actually wrong.

I do not regard it as disloyal to conscientiously restate the words, acts, and circumstances of earlier prophets and apostles. Such a historical restatement is not “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.”

Trying to analyze the processes of prophetic decision-making is not an act of apostasy. Nor is it spiritually disloyal to assess the results of such decisions. At least in my view. Also in God’s, I think.


In June 1985, after waiting a month for a reply to the letter I sent to Apostle Oaks, I phoned his secretary in the LDS Church Office Building to inquire whether he had received it. She confirmed that my letter arrived with its attached documents, that he had looked at them all, and that he would undoubtedly contact me again when he returned from a trip. He didn’t.

Instead, despite the information and documentation I provided him in May 1985, Apostle Oaks told numerous people during the next two decades that I had allegedly “misused” my research-access at HDC, that I had allegedly done “unauthorized” research about post-Manifesto polygamy there, and that I had allegedly “deceived” manuscript-custodians and Church leaders about my plan to publish that research. Several of his listeners reported this to me.


On 10 August 1985, Apostle Packer told priesthood leadership in the Winder Stake of Salt Lake Valley: “There are those who are crying sin and falsehood about the Brethren and the prophets—especially regarding the Manifesto and polygamy.”


For the rest of 1985, despite receiving instructions from LDS headquarters to punish me, President West allowed me to remain a counselor in the stake’s Sunday School presidency and to continue as Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward.

He told me this year that he felt he had no choice but to withhold my temple recommend as ordered by the apostles, but he refused to do anything further. The stake president hugged me and said: “You’ll just have to live without the temple.”

More than once in 1985, I left his office knowing that the temple was not the only part of Mormonism I must learn to live without. Yet I still could not face the reality of total loss.




Moving forward thirty years, I’ve recently signed a book-contract with the University of Utah Press for a detailed history of plural marriage among the Mormons from September 1890 to December 1907 (or perhaps to December 1915, or perhaps to December 1925). This book’s ending year will depend on how much help I can get from current Mormons and current Fundamentalists about their ancestors before 1925—whether these descendants are currently in the LDS Church, or in any Fundamentalist Mormon group/church, or among the Independent Fundamentalists, or have left Mormonism.

If readers of this essay have ancestors who entered plural marriage from January 1891 to December 1925, I make this request. Please send me a photocopy of any diaries up to 1925 or family histories up to 1925 of those ancestors, and I will reimburse your costs of photocopying. Contact me by email (, or (if you want to save us both some money) send to that email-address a PDF of such documents.

There is only one reason why I am asking for no documents beyond 1925 and why my upcoming book will not emphasize plural marriage after that year. In 1925, personality conflicts and differences of leadership began dividing those who had unitedly advocated the continuation of new plural marriages after the Second Manifesto of April 1904.

As in the 1985 article, this new book must discuss conflicts among the LDS Church’s leaders about post-Manifesto polygamy. However, I do not want the book to emphasize the splits that occurred among those subsequently called “Fundamentalist Mormons.” Many others have done so and will continue to do so, but I don’t want to be one of those polemical writers. My book will be primarily descriptive of plural marriages after 1890 among LDS leaders and among rank-and-file Mormons.