Poland Act

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Poland Act
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titlesPlural Marriage Prosecution Act of 1874
Long titleAn Act in relation to courts and judicial officers in the Territory of Utah.
NicknamesAnti-Bigamy Prosecution Act of 1874
Enacted bythe 43rd United States Congress
EffectiveJune 23, 1874
Public law43-469
Statutes at Large18 Stat. 253
Legislative history

The Poland Act (18 Stat. 253) of 1874 was an act of the United States Congress which sought to facilitate prosecutions under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by eliminating the control members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) exerted over the justice system of Utah Territory. Sponsored by Senator Luke P. Poland of Vermont, the Act redefined the jurisdiction of Utah courts by giving the United States district courts exclusive jurisdiction in Utah Territory over all civil and criminal cases. The Act also eliminated the territorial marshal and attorney, giving their duties to a U.S. Marshal and a U.S. Attorney. The Act also altered petit and grand jury empaneling rules to keep polygamists off juries. By removing Latter-day Saints from positions of authority in the Utah justice system, the Act was intended to allow for successful prosecutions of Mormon polygamists.


In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the anti-bigamy bill known as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, but it was not rigorously enforced against Mormons in Utah Territory. This "legislation struck at both polygamy and Church power by prohibiting plural marriage in the territories, disincorporating the [...] Church, and restricting the Church's ownership of property to fifty thousand dollars."[1] The Mormons, believing that the law unconstitutionally deprived them of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion, chose to ignore this law at this time.

In the following years, several bills aimed at strengthening the anti-bigamy laws failed to pass the United States Congress. These included the Wade, Cragin, and Cullom bills which had their origin in the Utah Territory and were initiated by men who were bitterly opposed to the Mormon curia. The Wade Bill initiated in 1866 would have destroyed local government if it had passed. Three years later the Cragin Bill was proposed, but within a few days it was substituted by the Cullom Bill, which was more radical than the Wade or Cragin bills. Members of the church worked for the defeat of the bill, including women of the church who held mass meetings throughout the territory in January 1870 in opposition to the bill.[2]

Frank J. Cannon has this to say: "Brigham had no trouble in organizing at home a resistance to the Cullom bill, in which Gentiles, Godbeites, and orthodox Mormons stood side by side. The women of Utah made a special and particular protest. The fact that women in the state of Utah had the right to vote in 1870--one of only two places in the entire United States where women could vote at that time[3]--gave the protests added weight and consideration. The influence of railroad and telegraph friends was also called upon to resist the bill. Whether more tangible means of persuasion were used cannot be affirmed though some of Brigham's allies and protectors of that day were no more above susceptibility to financial influence than Brigham was above using it. At any rate, the Cullom bill died of willful neglect, and the territory was free, for a time, from this direct and dangerous menace to its independence."[4]

Immediate effects[edit]

Under the Poland Act, jury lists were to be drawn by the district court clerk (a non-Mormon at the time) and the Probate Court judge (a Mormon) in order to give equal representation of members and nonmembers of the church on juries. Immediately the United States attorney tried to bring leading church officials to trial but experienced problems. Many of the leaders of the church had married before the law was passed in 1862 and could not be tried ex post facto. Furthermore, the wives could not be required to testify against their husbands, and the records of plural marriages were kept privately in the Endowment House.

After U.S. Attorney William Carey promised to stop his attempts to indict general authorities during a test case to be brought before the United States Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the anti-bigamy law, church leaders agreed to furnish a defendant. The First Presidency asked thirty-two-year-old George Reynolds, a secretary in the office of the President of the Church, who had recently married a second wife, to stand in for the church in the courts. Reynolds agreed to serve, then provided the attorney numerous witnesses who could testify of his being married to two wives, and was indicted for bigamy by a grand jury on October 23, 1874. When Carey did not keep his promise and arrested George Q. Cannon, church leaders decided that they would no longer cooperate with him.[5]

In 1875, Reynolds was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor in prison and a fine of five hundred dollars. In 1876 the Utah Territorial Supreme Court upheld the sentence. His 1878 Reynolds v. United States appeal reached the United States Supreme Court, and in January 1879 that body ruled the anti-polygamy legislation constitutional and upheld Reynold's prison sentence (it struck down the fine and hard labor portions). Reynolds was released from prison in January 1881, having served eighteen months of his original sentence.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gustive O. Larson, "Government, Politics, and Conflict" in Richard D. Poll et al., eds., Utah's History, 2d ed. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989),p. 244
  2. ^ Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, 27th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), p. 444
  3. ^ White, Jean Bickmore (Fall 1974). "Women's Suffrage in Utah". Utah History to Go. Utah.gov. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  4. ^ Frank J. Cannon and George L. Knapp, Brigham Young and his Mormon Empire, 1913, p.[page needed][full citation needed]
  5. ^ Larson, "Government, Politics, and Conflict," pp. 252, 254.
  6. ^ Bruce A. Van Orden, "George Reynolds: Secretary, Sacrificial Lamb, and Seventy," Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1986, pp. 53, 57–62, 71, 76–77, 80–86, 103, 108


  • Stephen Eliot Smith, "The 'Mormon Question' Revisited: Anti-polygamy Laws and the Free Exercise Clause" (2005) (LL.M. thesis, Harvard Law School).

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