Post-Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff (Vol. 11 in the Life Writings of Frontier Women series)
Phillip A. Snyder, Lu Ann Faylor Snyder
Utah State University Press, 2009
196 pages (Biographical List; Endnotes; Bibliography; Index
One of the most dramatic, tragic, and continually surprising eras in
Mormon history is the period of post-Manifesto polygamy, 1890 to the
first decade of the 20th century, the era when LDS leaders publicly gave
up polygamy and yet many of the highest church leaders continued to
encourage it and practice it secretly. For political reasons, LDS
leaders had to give up polygamy; but for religious reasons, many of
them could not give up the practice. The church did not suddenly
discontinue plural marriage in 1890; it had to go through two decades of
painful, confusing transition.
There are many myths about Mormon polygamy. The standard misinformation
about post-Manifesto polygamy is that after President Woodruff renounced
further polygamy in 1890, no polygamous marriages were authorized by
church leaders. However, two rogue apostles, John W. Taylor and Mathias
Cowley, with some of their followers, continued to practice and
encourage plurality, unbeknownst to other church leaders. When the
leaders found out about it, they removed the two men from the Quorum of
the Twelve, and then removed them from the church.
This radically wrong account of post-Manifesto polygamy — which is
probably the standard view of LDS church members, and even continues to
be passed on by some conservative historians[fn 1] — has been rejected
by a series of remarkable, courageous, works of history in our century,
and a truer portrait of the era has emerged. High points have been
Samuel Wooley Taylor’s biography of his father and mother, John W. and
Janet Maria Woolley Taylor, Family Kingdom (1951);[fn 2] Kenneth L.
Cannon, “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy, 1890-1906” (1983)[fn 3];
D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages,
1890–1904” (1985)[fn 4]; Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition:
A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (1986)[fn 5]; and E.
Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage
And now, this wonderful book, Post-Manifesto Polygamy: the 1899-1904
Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff, edited by Lu Ann
Faylor Snyder and Phillip A. Snyder, is another major accomplishment in
this tradition. It differs from Cannon, Quinn and Hardy in that it is
not primarily analytical and does not try to cover the wide sweep of the
historical period; instead, it is more like Sam Taylor’s Family
Kingdom, as it looks at one polygamous family in great depth. However,
unlike Taylor’s novel-like memoir, it is more scholarly, telling a
complex and fascinating story largely through contemporary documents and
letters (supplemented by Avery Clark Woodruff’s autobiography).
Many post-Manifesto plural marriages were solemnized in Mexico (though
not all of them), on the assumption that the Manifesto required
compliance with U.S. law only.[fn 7] A good introduction to
post-Manifesto polygamy is H. Grant Ivins’s “Polygamy in Mexico as
Practiced by the Mormon Church, 1895-1905.”[fn 8] He told how his
father, Anthony Ivins, was instructed by the First Presidency — Wilford
Woodruff, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith — to perform plural
marriages when people came south of the border with the proper
authorization from the Presidency. Grant Ivins wrote that,
"Many men of the highest standing, leaders in the community, men who
would never have gone against the advice of the Church leaders, took
second and in some cases a third and fourth wife during this period.
These marriages were entered into with the full approval of the
community, and the plural wives were given equal standing with the other
members of the household. Among those outstanding citizens, whose
loyalty to Church authority can [n]ever be questioned, I list the
following: Miles P. Romney, Joseph C. Bently, George C. Naegle, and
Edward Eyring, father of the noted scientist, Henry Eyring, Orson P.
Brown, Guy C. Wilson, Helaman Pratt and Henry E. Bowman. This list could
be easily extended, but it is ample evidence of the quality of the men
engaged in the practice of polygamy, and taking plural wives after the
“That the practice carried on in Mexico was known to the General
Authorities cannot be doubted. Many of them visited the Colonies where
they could not fail to become aware of what was going on. Among those
who came to Mexico on official Church business, some of them many times,
were John W. Taylor, Mathias F. Cowley, Hyrum Smith, son of Joseph F.
Smith, A. Owen Woodruff, son of Wilford Woodruff, Heber J. Grant, Amasa
M. Lyman, B. H. Roberts of the Council of Seventy, and President Joseph
F. Smith. These men, with few exceptions, preached with fervor the
doctrine that plural marriage was a pre-requisite to celestial
exaltation. They urged the young men in the Colonies to accept and
practice the principle. Many of them brought pressure to bear on my
father to take a second wife, a pressure which he steadfastly resisted.”
As this last sentence suggests, there were differences of opinion among
church leaders on the propriety of continued secret polygamy. This was
especially the case during the presidency of Lorenzo Snow, from 1898 to
1901, who generally prohibited new plural marriages. However, his
counselors, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, were authorizing new
plural marriages without his knowledge at the same time. When Smith
became church president in October 1901, he could encourage secret
plural marriages more freely. He continued this course until the Smoot
hearings in 1904, when Apostle Reed Smoot’s senate seat was at stake. At
this juncture, Smith realized that the church had to publicly
excommunicate new polygamists in order to retain Utah’s political power,
and he issued a “Second Manifesto.”
Naturally, in continuing polygamy after 1890, church leaders were not
living by the spirit of the Manifesto; and, for political reasons, they
had to make continued denials of secret post-1890 polygamy. D. Michael
Quinn interprets the conflict between public profession and private
action during this period as “theocratic ethics.” Because polygamy was
so important to these men, because they believed that God wanted them to
continue practicing the Principle, and because the political situation
demanded that polygamy be practiced in secret — that secrecy demanded
full denials. Hardy’s Solemn Covenant includes a remarkable appendix
on what I call “conflicting truth claims” during this period; he
concludes that good people often tell untruths for idealistic reasons
(as in espionage, or in war), but that such duplicity can often produce
major unintended, practical drawbacks. Both Quinn and Hardy suggest that
the conflicting messages and practices from church leaders during the
post-Manifesto period were one of the major reasons for the emergence of
“fundamentalist” polygamous Mormonism in the twentieth century.
A number of apostles, not just Taylor and Cowley, took post-1890 plural
wives and performed post-1890 plural marriages: John W. Taylor, a son of
President John Taylor, took a plural wife four days after the Manifesto
was presented in conference, a marriage solemnized in Salt Lake City by
another apostle, Francis M. Lyman. In 1901, Taylor married two sisters.
Brigham Young, Jr., a son of President Young, also took a plural wife in
that year, as did Marriner W. Merrill, who married a plural wife in the
Logan Temple. Mathias F. Cowley married a plural wife in 1899, and
performed a number of marriages for other post-Manifesto polygamists.
Apostle Rudger Clawson married a plural wife in 1904, after the Second
Manifesto. Abraham Hoagland Cannon, a son of George Q. Cannon, married
his fourth wife in 1896, in obedience to his father’s instructions,
while Apostle George Teasdale took a plural wife in the following
And another apostle, and another son of a church president, Abraham Owen
Woodruff married a plural wife, Eliza Avery Clark (known as Avery), in
1901. Apostle Mathias Cowley was a close friend of the Woodruff family,
and of Owen; Owen’s views on the necessity for continued secret polygamy
seem as intense as Cowley’s. Owen once said that he was the product of a
polygamous family, and was willing to die for the Principle. In a church
meeting, he predicted that (authorized) polygamy would continue in the
LDS Church till the Second Coming, and asked Joseph F. Smith, seated on
the stand, to correct him if he was wrong. Smith did not.
Owen had married his first wife, Helen May Winters, on June 30, 1897.
Four months later, in October 1897, when Owen was only twenty-four,
Wilford Woodruff called him to be an apostle and brought him into the
Quorum of the Twelve. Owen had a close relationship with Joseph F.
Smith, and, according to Owen himself, Smith encouraged and authorized
him to take a plural wife. (p. 16) Mathias Cowley performed the marriage
between Owen and eighteen-year-old Avery on January 18, 1901 (p. 18) in
Preston, Idaho.[fn 10] This marriage shows that, contrary to one myth, a
number of post-Manifesto marriages were performed in the United States.
Since Lorenzo Snow was still the president of the church in January
1901, it also shows how Joseph F. Smith would sometimes encourage and
authorize plural marriages without Snow’s knowledge.
In 1904, Smith instructed Owen to leave the country during the Smoot
hearings, as he would not make a good witness. In a quorum meeting, Owen
voted for the Second Manifesto, but soon after this, he proposed to a
relative of Reed Smoot.[fn 11] Clearly, he viewed the second Manifesto
much as he viewed the first one.
We have known this basic story since the works of Quinn and Hardy were
published. Now the Snyders’ Post-Manifesto Polygamy: the 1899-1904
Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff gives us the story in
much more detail, and supplies the human context for all three members
of this plural family. This book provides us with a vivid re-creation of
what it was like to participate in a plural marriage eleven years after
The characters of Helen and Avery especially spring to life in these
letters and Avery’s reminiscences. We see how difficult it was for Helen
to accept a sister-wife in a family that she had probably expected would
remain monogamous. Nevertheless, she did her best to welcome Avery into
the Woodruff family, and Avery wrote that Helen “treated me like a real
sister— always did.” (p. 124) Helen would write Avery on occasion, and
some of these letters are preserved in this book.
The story of Avery, however, shows that, in the dynamics of a
post-Manifesto plural marriage, the position of plural wife was much
more difficult than the position of first wife, as the husband and
first, recognized, legal wife could live in the same house openly,
travel openly, have children openly. However, a number of non-Mormons
were actively trying to document church leaders being involved in
post-Manifesto plural relationships, and being caught in such
relationships could have serious political and religious repercussions
for Utah and the LDS church. Therefore, in America, the husband could
not be seen in public with the plural wife, and could visit her only
briefly. If she became pregnant, the childbirth must be carried out in
secret somehow. (And people who did not know that she was a secret
plural wife, even in her own community, would consider the child
illegitimate.) Men who had married plurally after the Manifesto were not
able to spend much time with their plural children; functionally, the
polygamous wife had to act as a single mother much of the time, though
the husband could give financial support and could visit the mother and
children occasionally. Raising children without the father present could
obviously become a tremendous, sometimes nerve-wracking responsibility
for the polygamous wife.
All of these burdens suddenly descended on the eighteen-year-old Avery
when she married Owen. Certainly, she was swept off her feet by the
charismatic young apostle, and entered the relationship willingly; she
even broke off a quasi-engagement with another young man in order to
marry him. But it was clearly difficult for Avery when it turned out
that she could see Owen only briefly and at intervals. On January 16,
1904, Owen wrote to her, “It made me feel badly dear to know that you
cried yourself to sleep and I hope you will not let this occur again but
that you will be comforted and cheered with the ‘prospects’ of the
future.” (p. 127)
When Avery became pregnant, she was sent down to the Mormon colonies in
Mexico, and had to stay there for a number of years, even after Owen’s
death in June 1904. There she lived with two of apostle John W. Taylor’s
plural wives, while Owen built a substantial house for her. In Mexico,
as we have seen, plural wives could live somewhat openly.
Her only child with Owen, Ruth, born on April 11, 1904, came into the
world when Owen could not be present; there were major complications in
the delivery, due to inadequate medical care, though the child and
mother did not die. Owen and Helen traveled down to Colonia Juárez to
see Avery, but then, after a few days, traveled on to Mexico City
together, and with other church leaders. Avery also learned that Owen,
accompanied by Helen, would soon become a mission president in Germany,
to avoid subpoenas for the Smoot hearings, and she would have to stay
alone in Mexico. All of this left Avery again feeling “resentful,” as
she put it (p. 124).
I will not tell the dramatic, tragic story of the subsequent events in
this family, but will encourage readers to experience it in the letters,
diaries, and memoirs that the Snyders have collected.
Was Owen, and church leaders like him, courageously standing up for what
he felt was right, and sincerely trying to do God’s will despite intense
and unjust opposition from the non-Mormon legal system? Or was he, and
all of the prominent participants in post-Manifesto polygamy, remarkably
impractical and even foolhardy in his belief that he could keep a
post-1890 plural marriage secret? Different readers will come to
different conclusions on the subject. However one feels, this book will
help to place Owen beside other well-known post-Manifesto polygamists, a
person who was as committed to continued plurality, perhaps, as his
friend Mathias Cowley.
One theme that emerges in these letters is the cloak and dagger
atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded post-1890 polygamy. Letters
between Owen and Avery are written under aliases; even the places of
writing have code names (Salt Lake City is “Bethel,” for example). At
one point, Owen instructed Avery to burn all his letters to her; she did
burn some, but fortunately spared others. Owen, while traveling with a
group of church leaders, wrote to “Mattie” (Avery) under the name,
“Ivan,” saying, “We feel very much honored in having with us Apostle
Woodruff and Prest. Duffin of our Mission.” (103) A casual reader of the
letter would not understand its meaning immediately!
The lead editor of this book, Lu Ann Faylor Snyder, died before it was
finished, and her husband, Phillip A. Snyder, completed it. He is an
English professor, and we should not expect him to be an expert in
Mormon history. While this book has been edited well, with an excellent
introduction and informative notes, some minor points are bothersome.
There are many typos, and it is hard to tell whether they were mistakes
in the originals or in the book finalizing process. One wishes that the
editors had noted that the mistakes were in the originals. For example,
on p. 140, “I may have her come atay with me” – I would have preferred
that the editors had written “I may have her come atay [stay] with me.”
Another example is “suspicion of ti and Ibcan assure you” on p. 132.
Either these are modern typos (as I suspect), or the editors might have
written “suspicion of ti [it] and Ibcan [I can] assure you.”
There are a couple of errors in the section of the introduction dealing
with Nauvoo polygamy (pp. 4, 9). Joseph Smith’s first plural wife in
Nauvoo was Louisa Beaman, not Louisa Batemen. Also, the Snyders have
Mary Ann Frost Stearns Pratt, an ancestor of Helen, marrying Joseph
Smith during his lifetime, then Parley P. Pratt after Joseph’s death.
Actually, historians are divided on whether she married Joseph Smith
during his lifetime.[fn 12] But it is certain that she had married Pratt
in 1837, and was his legal wife throughout the Nauvoo period. It is also
certain that she married Joseph Smith after his death, in a proxy
marriage in which Pratt stood in for Joseph. She later divorced Pratt.
This book would have been improved by referring to a few of the
following works. Some of the significant scenes in this drama take place
in Star Valley, Wyoming, Avery’s home when she met Owen. Dan Erickson,
in an important article, “Star Valley, Wyoming: Polygamous Haven,” gives
background on its post-Manifesto history.[fn 13] In addition, references
to the Smoot hearings would have been improved by referring to Kathleen
Flake’s superb The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating
of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.[fn 14] As the Snyders discuss
the many general authorities who were friends or relatives of Owen,
Helen and Avery, often they simply cite Andrew Jenson’s useful but
outdated LDS Biographical Dictionary; I would have preferred, in
addition, references to modern, scholarly works when possible, such as
D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power.[fn 15]
Nevertheless, we all owe Lu Ann Faylor Snyder and Phillip A. Snyder a
great debt of gratitude for this marvelous book, which gives scholarly
permanence to the moving story of a unique family and adds much to our
understanding of a continually fascinating and important transition
period in our history. Anyone interested in Mormon history should read
1 For example, Jacob Olmstead criticizes Terryl L. Givens’s treatment
of post-Manifesto polygamy as minimizing “the extent to which
post-Manifesto marriages were contracted,” and being inaccurate because
he fails to reflect the spiritual crises the Manifesto caused. Review of
Terryl L. Givens, The Latter-day Saint Experience in America, in
Journal of Mormon History 34.1 (Winter 2008): 271-74, 272.
Conservative historians often state that some plural marriages were
contracted after the Manifesto, without giving the crucial context that
these new plural marriages were encouraged and authorized by members of
the First Presidency, and that a number of apostles were participants.
2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951).
3 Sunstone 8 (Jan.-Apr. 1983), 27-35, revised version in D. Michael
Quinn, ed., The New Mormon History (SLC: Signature Books, 1992) 201-20.
4 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18.1 (Spring 1985): 9–105.
This can be accessed online at
5 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
6 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
7 One myth is that polygamy was legal in Mexico; it was not, though the
government did not prosecute the American polygamists. Were polygamists
married in Mexico complying with the Manifesto? Probably not. The
Manifesto did not explicitly make exceptions for other countries, and
church leaders stated under oath that the Manifesto applied to all
Latter-day Saints, everywhere, in every nation. See Hardy, Solemn
Covenant, 139, 143.
8 Available at Utah State Historical Society, or on New Mormon Studies
CD-ROM (SLC: Smith Research Associates, 1998).
9 For these marriages, see Hardy, Solemn Covenant, 206-32.
10 Place of marriage according to D. Michael Quinn, see his “Plural
Marriages After the 1890 Manifesto,” a talk given at Bluffdale, Utah on
August 11, 1991, a transcript available at
http://www.ldshistory.net/pc/postman.htm, consulted on Nov. 26, 2009.
11 Quinn, “Plural Marriages After the 1890 Manifesto.”
12 George D. Smith accepts her as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives,
see his Nauvoo Polygamy: “But We Called It Celestial Marriage” (SLC:
Signature Books, 2008), 207-9. I don’t find the evidence for her
marrying Joseph Smith during his lifetime conclusive.
13 Dan Erickson, “Star Valley, Wyoming: Polygamous Haven,” Journal of
Mormon History 26.1 (Spring 2000): 123-64.
14 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
15 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997).