As a haven established to practice polygamy, the colonies in northern Mexico played a role in plural marriage persisting in the Church into the 20th century.
“Our Savior, Jesus Christ, understands our pains and our afflictions. He wants to ease our burdens and comfort us.”
This is part 9 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.
In 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was at a breaking point. US Federal laws targeting plural marriage had reached a point that it would be difficult to continue existing as a church without yielding the practice of polygamy. This wasn’t done fully willingly, though, and the practice persisted for many years to come. As a haven established to practice polygamy, the colonies in northern Mexico played a role in the practice persisting in the Church into the 20th century.
Facing the prospect of giving up plural marriage was an existential crisis for the Latter-day Saints. In many situations, they had been taught and believed that it was something that was necessary to gain exaltation. Yet, President Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that: “I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church.” In a later explanation, he added:
Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?
The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice.
Having seen that possible future, in September 1890, he issued a Manifesto in which he stated that: “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.” This marked the official end of plural marriage.
After the Manifesto was presented during a general conference, President George Q. Cannon explained that their reason for officially ending the practice of plural marriage was because God recognized that the U.S. Government had made it virtually impossible to continue as an institution. He quoted a revelation of Joseph Smith, in which the Lord stated that: “when I give a commandment to any of the sons of man, to do a work unto my name and those sons of men go with all their might, and with all they have, to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them, and hinder them from performing that work; behold, it behoveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings” (D&C 124:49). Then, he stated that: “It is on this basis that President Woodruff has felt himself justified in issuing this manifesto.” After commenting on the laws they faced and legal battles they fought to continue the practice, he stated that: “The time has come when, in the providence of God, it seemed necessary that something should be done to meet the requirements of the country, to meet the demands that have been made upon us, and to save the people.” President Cannon was drawing upon things that the prophet had shared with him in private when he shared this explanation, indicating that the practice was stopped in accord with God’s will in order to preserve the Latter-day Saints and their church.
The announcement was soul-wrenching for many of the Latter-day Saints. For example, B. H. Roberts famously wrote that after he heard of the announcement:
I thought of all the Saints had suffered to sustain that doctrine; I remembered my own exile, my own imprisonment; I thought of that of others. I remembered what sacrifices my wives had made for it; what others had made for it. We had preached it, sustained its divinity from the pulpit, in the press, from the lecture platforms. Our community had endured every kind of reproach from the world for the sake of it–and was this to be the end? I had learned to expect that God would sustain both that <principle> and his Saints who carried it out, and to lay it down like this was a kind of cowardly proceeding that the more I thought of it the less I liked it.
Nor was he the only one with whom the change of policy did not sit well. Further complicating the issue, questions about whether this only applied within the United States or whether it was a global policy were not resolved in the near-term timeframe of the announcement. This created a climate wherein plural marriages continued to be practiced and established by faithful Euro-American Latter-day Saints who had moved to Mexico.
There is a lot of evidence that these marriages continued to occur with at least tacit approval of the Church. As explained in a Gospel Topic Essay published by the Church:
The Manifesto declared President Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States. It said nothing about the laws of other nations. Ever since the opening of colonies in Mexico and Canada, Church leaders had performed plural marriages in those countries, and after October 1890, plural marriages continued to be quietly performed there. As a rule, these marriages were not promoted by Church leaders and were difficult to get approved. …
The precise number of new plural marriages performed during these years, inside and outside the United States, is unknown. … Of the 25 [recorded] plural marriages, 18 took place in Mexico, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Utah, and 1 each in Colorado and on a boat on the Pacific Ocean.
In other words, a few plural marriages continued to be sanctioned, and somewhere around 70% of the ones we know about occurred in Mexico.
We have a few stories on record about polygamists moving to Mexico to support the data. For example, Elva Richardson Shumway explained that when she grew up in the Colonies: “Others down there including President [Anthony] Ivins interpreted it that it applied to where it was against the law of the land. … It wasn’t against the law down there. … They had asked the president of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, if it was permissible. He said, ‘to the government of Mexico it doesn’t matter whether a man drives his team tandem or single.’ It was all right for them to have plural wives. … If Anthony W. Ivins had done wrong in performing the plural marriages he did, he would never have been put in the First Presidency afterwards.”
While polygamy was, in reality, illegal in Mexico, she was accurate in describing how the government tolerated the practice. Díaz was more interested in the prospect of economic growth that the colonies could provide than enforcing marriage laws. When children were born to plural wives, the men simply registered the births of their children as being hijo natural (illegitimate) or registered whichever wife was most likely to have children as their legal spouse. In another example of moving to Mexico for plural marriages, Anson Bowen Call recalled that after he proposed to Harriet Cazier as a plural wife, but faced difficulty getting the marriage approved in Logan, Utah. So, he “went to President Wilford Woodruff, President of the Church. He advised me to go into Mexico, and also advised me to sell all my property. … Accordingly I sold my property in Wyoming and Utah, and took my wife, and three daughters, and Hattie, my wife-to-be, and started to Mexico, leaving Salt Lake City on November 27, 1890.” When they arrived in Colonia Juarez on December 10, they were expected and the sealing with Harriet was performed on the spot by a local authority. Other similar situations could be cited all the way until early 1904.
It was only at the April 1904 general conference, when a Second Manifesto was issued by President Joseph F. Smith, that the Church really became serious about ending the practice of plural marriage. This manifesto declared that: “Inasmuch as there are numerous reports in circulation that plural marriages have been entered into … I hereby announce that all such marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage he will be deemed in transgression against the Church and will be liable to be dealt with, according to the rules and regulations thereof, and excommunicated therefrom.” Even then, some Saints persisted in starting more plural marriages despite running against the Church’s policy, eventually leading to some fundamentalist groups and, in a few cases, separate Mexican colonies. But, even for the faithful Latter-day Saints who initiated plural marriages between 1890 and 1904, there would be difficulties when many of them returned to the United States during the Mexican Revolution.
 Moisés Villanueva, “Favored of the Lord in All My Days,” CR October 2021, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2021/10/28villanueva.p16?lang=eng
 In Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 3:192.
 Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891. Published with Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1?lang=eng.
 Official Declaration 1, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1?lang=eng.
 George Q. Cannon, “Remarks,” Deseret Weekly, Oct. 18, 1890, 550–52, https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2021/10/03/george-q-cannon-on-the-manifesto/
 B. H. Roberts Diary, 39-41, https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=1082225
 “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” ChurchofJesus Christ.org, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng, Accessed 2022-11-10.
 [Gwen] Elva Richardson Shumway, Interviewed by Leonard R. Grover, 25 April 1980, Mesa Arizona, 7-9, Oral History, cited in B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its origin, practice, and demise (Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 368-369.
 See George Ryskamp, “Mormon Colonists in the Mexican Civil Registration”, in Just South of Zion: The Mormons in Mexico and Its Boarderlands, ed. Jason H. Dormandy and Jared M. Tamez (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2015), 39-51.
 Life Story of Anson Bowen Call, 1954, LDS Archives, 2, cited in Hardy, 367.
 April 1904 General Conference report, 75-76, https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2021/10/31/the-second-manifesto/