Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1862)

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The constitutionality of the anti-polygamy laws were upheld in Reynolds v. United States (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 1878).

Mormon Polygamy was recently criticized in a Weekly Standard article by Stanley Kurtz (“Polygamy Versus Democracy”). Under the title “The Mormon Question” he writes, “Modern Mormonism’s success is certified by the emergence of Mitt Romney, a Mormon governor from Massachusetts…as a presidential contender.” He then goes on to speak of “Mormonism’s largely forgotten history.” Prejudice against Mormonism still lingers over the long abandoned practice of polygamy. See here for the 1890 declaration wherein the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially renounces the practice of polygamy.

The entire text of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act is given below.

(Google Books text here)

Thirty-seventh Congress, Sess. II, Ch. 126, 1862.

CHAP. CXX VI .—An Act to punish and prevent the Practice of Polygamy in the Territories of the United States and other Places, and disapproving and annulling certain Acts of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That every person having a husband or wife living, who shall marry any other person, whether married or single, in a Territory of the United States, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, shall, except in the cases specified in the proviso to this section, be adjudged guilty of bigamy, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, and by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years: Provided, nevertheless, That this section shall not extend to any person by reason of any former marriage whose husband or wife by such marriage shall have been absent for five successive years without being known to such person within that time to be living; nor to any person by reason of any former marriage which shall have been dissolved by the decree of a competent court; nor to any person by reason of any former marriage which shall have been annulled or pronounced void by the sentence or decree of a competent court on the ground of the nullity of the marriage contract.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the following ordinance of the provisional government of the State of Deseret, so called, namely: “An ordinance incorporating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” passed February eight, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty one, and adopted, reënacted, and made valid by the governor and legislative assembly of the Territory of Utah by an act passed January nineteen, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-five, entitled “An act in relation to the compilation and revision of the laws and resolutions in force in Utah Territory, their publication, and distribution,” and all other acts and parts of acts heretofore passed by the said legislative assembly of the Territory of Utah, which establish, support, maintain, shield, or countenance polygamy, be, and the same hereby are, disapproved and annulled: Provided, That this act shall be so limited and construed as not to affect or interfere with the right of property legally acquired under the ordinance heretofore mentioned, nor with the right “to worship God according to the dictates of conscience,” but only to annul all acts and laws which establish, maintain, protect, or countenance the practice of polygamy, evasively called spiritual marriage, however disguised by legal or ecclesiastical solemnities, sacraments, ceremonies, consecrations, or other contrivances.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall not be lawful for any corporation or association for religious or charitable purposes to acquire or hold real estate in any Territory of the United States during the existence of the territorial government of a greater value than fifty thousand dollars; and all real estate acquired or held by any such corporation or association contrary to the provisions of this act shall be forfeited and escheat to the United States: Provided, That existing vested rights in real estate shall not be impaired by the provisions of this section.

APPROVED, July 1, 1862.

Except from Reynolds v. United States:

…The inquiry is not as to the power of Congress to prescribe criminal laws for the Territories, but as to the guilt of one who knowingly violates a law which has been properly enacted if he entertains a religious belief that the law is wrong.

Congress cannot pass a law for the government of the Territories which shall prohibit the free exercise of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution expressly forbids such legislation…The question to be determined is, whether the law now under consideration comes within this prohibition.


Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people… from the earliest history of England, polygamy has been treated as an offence against society…

By the statute of 1 James I (c. 11), the offence, if committed in England or Wales, was made punishable in the civil courts, and the penalty was death…In connection with the case we are now considering, it is a significant fact that, on the 8th of December, 1788, after the passage of the act establishing religious freedom, and after the convention of Virginia had recommended as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States the declaration in a bill of rights that “all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” the legislature of that State substantially enacted the statute of James I., death penalty included…From that day to this, we think it may safely be said there never has been a time in any State of the Union when polygamy has not been an offence against society, cognizable by the civil courts and punishable with more or less severity. In the face of all this evidence, it is impossible to believe that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom was intended to prohibit legislation in respect to this most important feature of social life…

In our opinion, the statute immediately under consideration is within the legislative power of Congress…the only question which remains is whether those who make polygamy a part of their religion are excepted from the operation of the statute. If they are, then those who do not make polygamy a part of their religious belief may be found guilty and punished, while those who do, must be acquitted and go free. This would be introducing a new element into criminal law. Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband; would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?

… Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances…

2 thoughts on “Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1862)

  1. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  2. By a ruling of a federal judge polygamy is no longer illegal in Utah. That is, they are not legally recognized but are not prosecuted either.

    John Schwartz, “A Utah Law Prohibiting Polygamy Is Weakened”, NY Times.

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