In 1862 Congress adopted the Morrill Act for the Suppression of Polygamy (also known as the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act), named for its sponsor, Justin S. Morrill, R-Vt. The act was passed in response to the perceived threat posed by polygamy, which was practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in Utah.
Law outlawed bigamy and overturned the incorporation of the Mormon Church in Utah
The 1856 Republican Party platform had identified polygamy and slavery as “twin relics of barbarism” in the territories, and popular novels of the day linked polygamy to a variety of social ills. The law not only outlawed bigamy and provided penalties for it, but also overturned the incorporation that the Utah territorial legislature had granted to the Mormon Church and limited its property holding.
Referring to the Bill of Rights, Sarah Barringer Gordon has described this law as “a second disestablishment [of religion] in the territories” (Gordon 2002: 82). Although the Morrill Act proved to be largely unenforceable, it did lead to some successful prosecutions for bigamy, including in Reynolds v. United States (1879) in which the Supreme Court distinguished between the legal right to believe in polygamy under the First Amendment and the illegal right to practice it.
A later law was more successful in its enforcement
In 1882 Congress adopted a more expansive law, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which aimed to dispossess the Mormon Church of its wealth. The Court upheld this far more successful law in Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States (1890). A short time later, Wilford Woodruff, the leading Mormon prophet, renounced the practice of polygamy, and the government returned most of the property it had confiscated. Although some fundamentalist sects continue to practice polygamy, the modern Latter-day Saints have been in the forefront of the movement to protect traditional families against perceived threats from gay marriage and easy divorce.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.