To understand the anti-polygamous movement, one needs to understand the Protestants’ ability to enact moral standards during the mid-19th century. Protestants made up the majority of the United States population during this time, giving Protestants the societal leverage needed to create social norms and act as moral judges. Protestants ruthlessly oppressed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in particular. Members of the LDS Church during this time practiced polygamy, which is in direct conflict with the monogamous traditions of Christianity. This resulted in the Protestant view of Mormons as impure and dangerous to all communities (ANTI). Anti-polygamists exploited common gender roles through editorial cartoons to eradicate the practice of Mormonism.

Mormons came to have a negative social identity as a result of their negative portrayal in editorial cartoons, which were an influential medium at the time. This identity reflected impurity and pervertedness as a result of their polygamous practices. Terryl Givens, in his book The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, outlined the purpose of editorial cartoons well. Givens stated that the depictions of Mormonism in editorial cartoons revealed and exploited the anxieties caused by the reader’s internal conflict with self and nation, both of which were constructed by Protestant views (Givens, 4). The “Mormon problem” remained a pervasive concern within society, and the malicious cartoons were the result of and solution for the “Mormon problem” (Givens, 4). In this instance, caricature was used to shun othered groups in society (Givens, 4). Editorial cartoons depicted Mormon men as perverted because of their multiple wives, and also as cowards, given that Mormon wives were seen as enslaved by their husbands. An example of this is seen in the image below.

Brigham Young from behind his breastworks charging the United States troops (1857). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Brigham Young, a prominent leader and common symbol of Mormonism is seen fighting the United States Army from behind his army of wives. By demonizing polygamy and Mormon masculinity, this editorial cartoon succeeds in painting Mormonism in a negative light. Furthermore, it is also a literal and metaphorical representation of the perceived danger Mormonism posed to America. Although Mormonism was not going to overtake Christianity in membership, the danger was seen as a deviation from American values, that at the same time were also Christian values. This means that the posed Mormon danger was both moral and physical.

While anti-polygamous Protestants saw success in forcing Mormonism away from the Eastern United States into Utah, Mormons were suffering. Bathsheba Smith, a convert to Mormonism, wrote about the struggles Mormons faced on their journey west. One instance was in a Mormon development in Illinois, where 175 homes were burned down by an angry anti-polygamous mob (Smith, 10). Following the incident, there was no attempt by the state government to arrest the members of the mob. This was because the authorities knew they could not protect the Mormons because the mob wanted the Mormons out of the state (Smith, 11). So, the government told the Mormons that they should just leave (Smith, 11). 

The anti-polygamist movement was pervasive and ruthless. Anti-polygamous material flooded society, convincing the masses that Mormons were impure in comparison to Christians and Mormonism was blatantly un-American. Also, as seen in Smith’s recollection, no member of the LDS Church was truly safe. Mormons were violently attacked, and their attackers remained free of prosecution because the pervasiveness of anti-polygamous material influenced legislation as well. The migration of Mormonism and the Protestant dominance worked to shape the American West by furthering the identity of the American West as inhabited by pioneers who made their own path. The anti-polygamous movement demonstrates the power of a self-confident nation of Protestant people who got their way when it came to controlling Mormonism.  

– Andrew Schultheiss, December 2018

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bunker, Gary L., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983.

Givens, Terryl. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. Religion in America Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Smith, Bathsheba W. Autobiography of Bathsheba W. Smith, n.d. Salt Lake City. LDS Church History Library.