The Reynolds Jury Charge

The trial court in Reynolds v. United States gave the following jury charge, which the Supreme Court later found was proper and not inflammatory.

I think it not improper, in the discharge of your duties in this case, that you should consider what are to be the consequences to the innocent victims of this delusion. As this contest goes on, they multiply, and there are pure-minded women and there are innocent children, innocent in a sense even beyond the degree of the innocence of childhood itself. These are to be the sufferers; and as jurors fail to do their duty, and as these cases come up in the Territory of Utah, just so do these victims multiply and spread themselves over the land.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of the ideas and prejudices of the time — Note that polygamy (or is it the church itself?) is referred to as “this delusion.” The jury, not surprisingly, convicted, leading to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the First Amendment did not protect Mormon polygamy.

UPDATE: I should note that Reynolds is a relatively short and readable opinion (among Supreme Court opinions, that is), and even more so with a few quick pointers I’ll give here. The first several pages are dedicated to certain procedural challenges to Reynolds’ conviction which are of essentially no interest now, so non-legal readers will probably want to skip these evidentiary challenges and jury composition challenges, and go to sections 5 and 6 (they’re clearly labeled), which deal with the religion issues. It is fascinating reading.

13 comments for “The Reynolds Jury Charge

  1. As to “this delusion”–ouch! I think that it is referring to the Church, to “Mormonism” in macro, not just to polygamy, since polygamy is an expression of “this delusion.” It is difficult to see prejudice expressed as something so normal that it constitutes a valid jury instruction.

    Whatever your stance on polygamy, don’t you think that the nation–and particularly the Church’s enemies–were merely using it as a pretext to destroy the Church? I have a hard time believing that a sincere desire to protect “the innocent victims” really motivated the crusade against polygamy in nineteenth-century America.

  2. John,

    Why is this so difficult to believe? See Sarah Barringer Gordon’s _The Mormon Question_ on how many non-Mormon Americans viewed the Mormons and the practice of polygamy. If you don’t think opposition to polygamy was a primary reason many Americans were opposed to Mormonism, what was the reason then? Was it just irrational, Satan-inspired antipathy in your mind?

    Aaron B

  3. In a world where there was very little concern for “victims” of any kind, but where there was much concern about divergent religious views, I think it is a highly plausible claim that the polygamy issue–precisely because of its moral implications that Gordon points out–was used as the pretext to “break” the Mormon Church, as Nate points out was the goal of the anti-Mormon Chief Justice of the territorial Supreme Court. If an externality of eliminating Mormonism (deemed so offensive to “mainstream” Christianity in the nineteenth century much the same as it is today) was that “the innocent victims” of polygamy would be freed from that system, then that was nice too.

    What is the point of disparaging looking past the pretext to see what the real agenda of the movement was?

    Also, realistically, do you think that the people in the United States cared about “victims” of polygamy who were themselves Mormons? When these polygamous Mormon women were in the United States, they were persecuted and even permitted to be exterminated, despite being victims of polygamy.

  4. Aaron B. asked: If you don’t think opposition to polygamy was a primary reason many Americans were opposed to Mormonism, what was the reason then?

    I think the problem was the Joseph Smith claimed to see God and Jesus, that he claimed they told him that all of the other churches were wrong, and that he claimed to be a living prophet. In addition, he used his fair share of “condemnatory prophecy” (see thread on Lehi and condemnatory prophecy).

    Persecution of the Saints existed before polygamy was instituted.

    Do you think that opposition to polygamy was the primary reason so many Americans opposed Mormonism? There was no element of “irrational, Satan-inspired antipathy” involved? I know it is popular nowadays to de-emphasize the persecutions of the Saints, to turn things around and say that it was our own fault, etc., and especially to defend the actions of the Americans who perpetrated the persecutions out of bigotry, so maybe we can indeed eliminate the “Satan-inspired” part and just highlight their antipathy, without suggesting that it was Satan-inspired (just to be sensitive to those persecutors). In sort, do you think that it was all our own fault because we practiced polygamy (because God told us to do it)?

  5. “I know it is popular nowadays to de-emphasize the persecutions of the Saints, to turn things around and say that it was our own fault, etc., and especially to defend the actions of the Americans who perpetrated the persecutions out of bigotry”

    Popular among who, John? It doesn’t sound like a particularly popular argument to me.

    My goodness, I post the Reynolds jury charge — how more innocuous can a post be? — and four comments in, you’re already breaking out the persecution/martyr complex.

  6. Kaimi, I was just asking whether anyone else thinks that stopping polygamy was just the pretext used to eradicate Mormonism, which was greatly detested in nineteenth-century America.

    Aaron B. then jumped on me wondering whether I could actually believe that regular old-school bigotry (he said “Satan-inspired antipathy”) was the real agenda and that people weren’t truly concerned for the “innocent victims.” I used strong rhetoric in my answer, partially speaking to a sub-text of Aaron’s comment: a willingness to absolve the persecutors of illigimate intentions and ascribe to them the legitimate aim of eliminating polygamy (i.e. they would never have persecuted us if we didn’t have that immoral doctrine of polygamy). Am I reading him wrong?

  7. Kaimi, also, your post was not as innocuous as you have made it seem. You highlighted blatant prejudice in which a court passed judgment on Mormonism as “this delusion” (a court declaring that a religion is merely a delusion!); it even goes deeper–it is taken so fundamentally for granted as a fact of life (that Mormonism is a “delusion”) that it can appear in a jury instruction and then be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Why do you have to accuse me of a persecution/martyr “complex”? Did the persecution of Latter-day Saints happen or did it not? I don’t see any reason for ignoring the fact that it happened, that it was wrong no matter what effect the Latter-day Saints had on voting patterns in Missouri or what the rest of the U.S. thought was happening in the “Mormon harems,” and that the state-sanctioned persecution in which the federal government participated was an injustice.

    Are people who don’t allow anyone to lessen historical perceptions of the persecution of racial or ethnic minorities labeled as having a persecution/martyr complex? If not, why do I merit that label by pointing this injustice out when the opportunity arises?

  8. John,

    Well, there are ways of telling Aaron he’s wrong without sounding like a the-world-hates-me martyr.

    (And using Aaron as a barometer of what is popular? I would venture to guess that if there is any correlation between Aaron’s views and popular views, it’s an inverse one).

    Your form masks a good point that you have: Anti-Mormonism clearly has earlier roots than mere anti-polygamy ideas. We were chased out of New York and Pennsylvania long before anyone thought about polygamy. And anti-Mormons successfully used the legal system to persecute the church prior to polygamy — Joseph Smith’s trials, for example.

    I believe that the conventional wisdom is that people didn’t like Mormons, pre-polygamy, because (pick any number of these):

    -Joesph’s religious views were very hard to accept.
    -Joseph got a reputation as a fraud and/or womanizer.
    -Mormons were insular and weird (has anything changed?).
    -Mormons were a political bloc.
    -Satan was stirring up the hearts of men to anger.

    Then the church instituted polygamy, which gave anti-Mormons a flash point to unite their argument with abolitionists and others. At some point, anti-Mormonism and anti-polygamy may have become almost synonymous.

    But you’re entirely correct, of course, to suggest that the roots of anti-Mormonism go far deeper than polygamy.

  9. John, you’re right on the mark. Joseph smith – a dirty faced 14 yr old kid from no where – only had to casually mention his experience of seeing God and soon the whole countryside was after him like a pack of wolves.

    Sounds like “Satan-inspired antipathy” to me.

  10. John,

    Umm, duh. Of course it was wrong. In fact, I think the world is more aware of the wrongness of Mormon persecution than possibly at any other time. Everyone knows it was wrong.

    Which is why your “I know it is popular nowadays to de-emphasize the persecutions of the Saints” seemed to be an unwarranted assertion of persecution / martyrdom. You are asserting that the world is against you, and that you are boldly taking an unpopular position, but everyone agrees that the Mormon persecution was wrong.

    If someone says, “I know it’s popular these days to suggest that the sky is green, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s blue,” it’s going to appear to me that this person is seeing persecution where it doesn’t exist and trying to paint himself as an iconoclaust or martyr when there’s really nothing to get worked up about.

  11. Aaron: Sally Gordon makes a good case for the primacy of polygamy in the motivations of “elite” anti-polygamy activists. Folks like Senator George Edmunds. On the other hand, I think that she lets the local anti-Mormons in 19th century Utah off a bit easily. To be sure, all of them no doubt found polygamy distasteful and no doubt some of them were as sincere as George Edmunds. On the other hand many of them — e.g. R.N. Baskin — seem to have seen anti-polygamy as a convienent way of enlisting Eastern support in a federal campaign to break Mormon power in the west so as to increase their own political and economic status.

  12. Oops. I forgot to follow up on this thread. Here goes…

    I do not deny that opposition to polygamy may at times have been a front for other deeper animosities toward the Saints. I recognize that the causal factors behind the early persecutions endured by the Saints are multiple and complex, and I certainly don’t care to “de-emphasize the persecutions of the Saints, to turn things around and say that it was our own fault, etc., and especially to defend the actions of the Americans who perpetrated the persecutions out of bigotry.” I was merely objecting to John’s wholesale dismissal of the idea that antipathy to the practice of polygamy could be plausible on its own terms. It seems no more implausible that 19th Century non-Mormons found polygamy barbaric for its alleged enslavement and degradation of women, than it does for many modern Americans (including many Mormons in Utah) to find the modern polygamy of the fundamentalists abhorrent for its abuse and exploitation of underage girls.

    Like Kaimi, I am skeptical that there is much of a campaign to rationalize the persecution of the Saints. What there has been from various quarters is an effort to try to understand the persecution in historical context, and to provide explanations that do not resort to laying the blame solely upon irrational, otherwise-inexplicable, non-Mormon nastiness. This project can be threatening to those heavily invested in a narrative that casts anyone opposed to anything the Saints do as intentional frontmen for the Adversary. But I just happen to think things are usually a bit more complicated than that. And I don’t think that acknowledging as much serves to rob us of our collective identity, memory or meaning, nor does it remove the drama from LDS history.

    The tendency to overstate the black and white nature of every LDS morality play has played out more recently in discussions about, say, the construction of the Boston temple. Whatever you think of the ultimate merits of the various arguments, I always found it a bit silly that so many LDS couldn’t take any of their opponents’ arguments at face value, preferring instead to paint everthing as demonic persecution, without rhyme or reason (which interpretation, by the way, had the added benefit of serving as a springboard for monologues about how the inexplicable persecution was indisputable evidence of the Church’s divine favor – not that the lack of persecution wouldn’t also have been read as evidence of its divine favor.) 

    None of this is meant to put words in John’s mouth. But his initial comment sounded reminiscent of this sort of thing.

    Aaron B

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