Critics claim that the practice of polygamy was against the law.
The Church believes in honoring and sustaining the law, but it does not believe that members must surrender their religious beliefs or conscience to the state. Not surprisingly, the question comes down to whether Joseph was a Prophet and whether God commanded his actions.
Polygamy was certainly declared illegal during the Utah-era anti-polygamy crusade, and was arguably illegal under the Illinois anti-bigamy statutes. This is hardly new information, and Church members and their critics knew it. Modern members of the Church generally miss the significance of this fact, however: the practice of polygamy was a clear case of civil disobedience.
- The decision to defy the [anti-polygamy laws] was a painful exception to an otherwise firm commitment to the rule of law and order. Significantly, however, in choosing to defy the law, the Latter-day Saints were actually following in an American tradition of civil disobedience. On various previous occasions, including the years before the Revolutionary War, Americans had found certain laws offensive to their fundamental values and had decided openly to violate them.…Even though declared constitutional, the law was still repugnant to all [the Saints’] values, and they were willing to face harassment, exile, or imprisonment rather than bow to its demands.
Elder James E. Talmage taught that members should obey the law, unless God commanded an exception:
- A question has many times been asked of the Church and of its individual members, to this effect: In the case of a conflict between the requirements made by the revealed word of God, and those imposed by the secular law, which of these authorities would the members of the Church be bound to obey?…Pending the overruling by Providence in favor of religious liberty, it is the duty of the saints to submit themselves to the laws of their country.
Learn more: Gregory L. Smith, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," FAIR, 2005. PDF link
- [note] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd edition revised and enlarged, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 401. ISBN 087579565X. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1981),382–383. ISBN 0877478384. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)