Reynolds v. United States 1879

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Reynolds v. United States 1879

Petitioner: George Reynolds

Respondent: United States

Petitioner's Claim: The Morrill Act, which made practice of polygamy a crime, violated his First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: George W. Biddle and Ben Sheeks

Chief Lawyers for Respondent: Charles Devens, U.S. Attorney General, and Samuel F. Phillips, U.S. Solicitor General

Justices for the Court: Joseph P. Bradley, Nathan Clifford, Stephen Johnson Field, John Marshall Harlan I, Ward Hunt, Samuel Freeman Miller, William Strong, Noah Haynes Swayne, Morrison Remick Waite

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: May 5, 1879

Decision: Polygamy was not protected by freedom of religion.

Significance: The Mormons, a religious group who settled Utah, permitted its men to practice polygamy. In Reynolds v. U.S., the Supreme Court found that laws banning polygamy were constitutional. They did not violate the Mormons' right to free exercise of their religion. This still remains the most important legal case to address the issue of polygamy.

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act is passed

In the middle of the nineteenth century, after a long trek westward, the Mormons settled the land that became the state of Utah. The Mormons were followers of a religious prophet named Joseph Smith. Their religion was called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They held a variety of beliefs. The most controversial belief was that a man could have two or more wives, a practice known as polygamy.

Many people in the United States had known about the Mormon practice of polygamy since 1852. Most Americans were traditional Christians who believed in monogamy—having only one spouse. Until the Mormons arrived, however, there were no federal laws against bigamy or polygamy. The government left the Mormons alone for many years, but in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act into law. The Morrill Act outlawed polygamy throughout the United States in general and in Utah in particular. The government did not do much to enforce the law at that time because it was concerned with the Civil War.

Congress strengthens anti-bigamy law

Congress again took up the issue of Mormon polygamy after the Civil War ended. The Morrill Act was strengthened when the Poland Law was passed in 1874. The Poland Law increased the powers of the federal courts in the territory of Utah. Because federal judges were not appointed by local politicians, they were usually non-Mormons who were more aggressive about enforcing the anti-bigamy law.

Mormon leader Brigham Young's advisor, George Q. Cannon, was a territorial delegate to Congress. Together, Young and Cannon decided to challenge the federal government in court. They were confident that if the government tried any Mormons for bigamy, the United States Supreme Court would throw out the convictions. Their belief was based on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. They arranged to bring a "test case" to court. They chose Young's personal secretary, George Reynolds, to act as the defendant. Reynolds was a devout Mormon and practicing polygamist.

Young and Cannon were successful. The government indicted (charged) Reynolds with bigamy in October of 1874. However, the first trial failed because of jury selection problems. The government indicted Reynolds again in October of 1875.

Federal prosecutors charged that Reynolds was married to both Mary Ann Tuddenham and Amelia Jane Schofield. The prosecutors had little trouble proving that Reynolds lived with both women. However, they did have some trouble serving Schofield with a subpoena. (A subpoena is a legal document ordering a person to appear in court.) The following dialogue is taken from questions the prosecution asked the deputy marshal sent to serve the subpoena on Schofield:

Question: State to the court what efforts you have made to serve it. Answer: I went to the residence of Mr. Reynolds, and a lady was there, his first wife, and she told me that this woman was not there; that that was the only home that she had, but that she hadn't been there for two or three weeks. I went again this morning, and she was not there. Question: Do you know anything about her home, where she resides? Answer: I know where I found her before. Question: Where? Answer: At the same place.

Judge White gave instructions to the jury after more evidence was presented that Reynolds had two wives. The instructions completely destroyed Reynolds's defense that the First Amendment protected his practice of polygamy allowed by his Mormon faith.

The jury found Reynolds guilty on December 10, 1875. On July 6, 1876, the territorial Supreme Court affirmed (maintained) his sentence. Reynolds then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 14 and 15, 1878, his lawyers, George W. Biddle and Ben Sheeks, argued before the highest court in the land that Reynolds's conviction must be overturned on the basis of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court destroys the Mormons' hopes

On January 6, 1879, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court's decision. The Court based its decision on historic American cultural values, namely that from the earliest times polygamy was considered an offense against society. Most civilized countries considered marriage a "sacred obligation," and a civil contract usually regulated by law. Therefore, the Court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect polygamy. Reynolds's sentence of two years in prison and a $500 fine remained.

The Court's decision rocked the Mormons. Initially, they vowed to resist the Court's ruling. Later, however, they seemed to accept their fate. In 1890, Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff issued a document called the Manifesto. The Manifesto ended "any marriages forbidden by the law of the land." After 1890, most Mormons abandoned the practice of polygamy.

The Reynolds case is still the leading Supreme Court case on the issue of polygamy. In 1984, a U.S. District Court considered the case of Utah policeman Royston Potter, who was fired from his job because of bigamy. District Court Judge Sherman Christensen rejected Potter's First Amendment defense. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this ruling. In October 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Potter's appeal. By refusing to hear cases like Potter's, the Court has effectively decided to keep Reynolds as the law of the land.

Many legal scholars have criticized the Supreme Court for not altering or overturning its opinion in Reynolds. It has been more than a century since the decision was handed down. During that time, the Court has greatly expanded First Amendment protection of free exercise of religion. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Court increased the Constitution's protection for the civil rights of women, minorities, and other classes of persons whose equality under the law had not been a part of the old "common law" on which Reynolds was based. As of 2000, however, the Supreme Court has not reconsidered the ruling it gave in Reynolds.


T he Mormon practice of polygamy had been controversial for almost as long as the religion existed in the United States. In 1857, 2,500 Army troops were sent into Utah to install a governor to replace Mormon leader Brigham Young. Mormons responded angrily. The result was the "Utah War." During this war, Mormons killed 120 people passing through Utah on their way to California.

For years, Utah was refused statehood because of its approval of polygamy. The controversy spread to the Mormon community itself. In 1873, Ann Eliza Webb Young made history by moving out of the home owned by her husband, Brigham Young, and demanding a divorce. She became a nationwide crusader against polygamy. The battle continued throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Over 1,000 Mormons were fined or imprisoned for polygamy. It wasn't until Mormons themselves outlawed the practice of polygamy that Utah's application for statehood was accepted, on January 4, 1896.

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, UT: Deseret News Printing, 1879.

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

Embry, Jessie L. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle. Salt Lake City, UT: 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, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

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

Johnson, John W., ed. Historic U.S. Court Cases, 1960–1990: An Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1992.

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

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Reynolds v. United States 1879

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