Remarks by President George Q. Cannon
Immediately following the adoption by the General Assembly of the Manifesto in relation to Plural Marriage
6 October 1890
After the 1890 Manifesto the began the process of ending the Church’s official practice of plural marriage (Official Declaration 1) was presented in the general conference of the Church, President George Q. Cannon shared the following remarks.
On the 19th of January, 1841, the Lord gave His servant Joseph Smith a revelation, the 49th paragraph of which I will read:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, 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]
The Lord says other things connected with this, which I do not think it necessary to read, but that whole revelation is profitable, and can be read by those who desire to do so.
It is on this basis that President Woodruff has felt himself justified in issuing this manifesto.
I suppose it would not be justice to this Conference not to say something upon this subject; and yet everyone knows how difficult it is to approach it without saying something that may offend somebody. So far as I am concerned, I can say that of the men in this Church who have endeavored to maintain this principle of plural marriage, I am one. In public and in private I have avowed my belief in it. I have defended it everywhere and under all circumstances, and when it was necessary have said that I considered the command was binding and imperative upon me.
But a change has taken place. We have, in the first place, endeavored to show that the law which affected this feature of our religion was unconstitutional. We believed for years that the law of July 1, 1862, was in direct conflict with the first amendment to the Constitution, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We rested upon that, and for years continued the practice of plural marriage, believing the law against it to be an unconstitutional one, and that we had the right, under the Constitution, to carry out this principle practically in our lives. So confident was I in relation to this view that in conversations with President [Ulysses S.] Grant, and with his Attorney General, ex-Senator Williams of Oregon, I said to them that if my case were not barred by the statute of limitations I would be willing to have it made a test case, in order that the law might be tested. We were sustained in this view not only by our own interpretation of the amendment to the Constitution, but also by some of the best legal minds in the country, who took exactly the same view that we did—that this law was an interference with religious rights, and that so long as our practices did not interfere with the happiness and peace of society, or of others, we had the right to carry out this principle. In fact, it is within six or eight months that, in conversation with two United States Senators, each conversation being separate from the other, both of them expressed themselves, though not in the same language, to this effect: “Mr. Cannon, if this feature that you practice had not been associated with religion, it might have been tolerated; but you have associated it with religion and it has aroused the religious sentiments of the nation, and that sentiment cannot be resisted. So far as the practice itself is concerned, if you had not made it a part of your faith and an institution sanctioned by religion, it might have gone along unnoticed.” I do not give the exact language; but these are the ideas that they conveyed to me. Now, we were very confident that this law was an unconstitutional one. President Daniel H. Wells will remember how he and I tried to get a case to test the constitutionality of the law during the lifetime of President Brigham Young. We wanted to get Brother Erastus Snow. It is the last thing that we should have thought of to put a man like he was in the gap if we had not been firmly convinced that the law was unconstitutional and would be declared so by the United States Supreme Court. We telegraphed to Brother Erastus in the south, thinking that his case would not be barred by the statute of limitations. He replied to us concerning it, and we found that it was barred. Brother A. M. Musser proposed himself, if I remember aright, to be a test case; but there was a defect in his case. We wanted this case, whenever it was presented, to be presented fairly, that there should be no evasion about it, but that it should be a case that could be tested fairly before the courts of the country. Finally, Brother George Reynolds was selected. I said to myself, when I learned the result, “It is the last time that I will ever have anything to do with a test case against which will involve the liberty of anybody.” I was promised when he was sentenced, by one high in authority and who had the right to make the promise, that he should be released, when the circumstances were told to him; for they were laid fairly before him, and he was told that the evidence had been furnished by Brother Reynolds himself, and that everything had been done to make it a test case; the government had been aided in the securing of witnesses, and no difficulty thrown in the way. Afterwards, on the second trial, I believe Brother Reynolds’ lawyers got frightened, and there was something occurred then that gave it a different appearance. But when the facts were related, as I stated, to one high in authority, he promised me that George Reynolds should be pardoned. There were those, however, in this city who were determined that he should not escape imprisonment, and the prosecuting attorney wrote a letter which changed the mind of this high official, as he afterward told me, and he declined to carry out that which I have received as a promise. But even then there were circumstances connected with this decision that made us reluctant to accept it.
Since that time the history of proceedings is before you and before the world. We have felt as though this command of God was of such importance to us, involving so many serious consequences, that we should do all in our power to have the world know the position that we occupied. There may be men among us who believed they would be damned if they did not obey this, accepting it as a direct command from God. Therefore, you can understand how tenaciously we have protested, and how vigorously we have endeavored, as far as we could, to make public our views upon this subject.
I suppose there are two classes here today in this congregation—one class who feel to sorrow to the bottom of their hearts because of the necessity of this action that we have now taken; another class who will say: “Did I not tell you so?” “Did I not tell you it would come to this?” “Did I not say to you that you ought to take advantage of and comply with this years ago, instead of enduring that which you have suffered since that time?” There may be men here today who pride themselves on their foresight, and who take credit to themselves before they foresaw, as they allege, that which we have done today and would lead others to believe that if their counsel had been adopted, if their views that they presented had been accepted by the people, it might have saved very serious consequences to us all and left us in a better position than that which we occupy today. But I, for one, differ entirely with this view. I believe that it was necessary that we should witness unto God, the Eternal Father, unto the heavens and unto the earth, that this was really a principle dear to us—dearer, it might be said, in some respects than life itself. We could not have done this had we submitted at the time that those of whom I speak suggested submission. We could not have left our own nation without excuse. It might have said, “Had we known all that you tell us now concerning this, we should have had very different views about this feature of your religion than we did have.” But now, after the occurrences of the past six years have been witnessed by this entire nation and by the world, and by God the Eternal Father and the heavenly hosts, no one can plead as an excuse that they have been ignorant of our belief and the dearness of this principle to us. Upwards of thirteen hundred men have been incarcerated in prison, going there for [p. 551] various terms from one or three months up to years. They have gone there willingly, as martyrs to this principle, making a protest that the heavens and the earth should bear record of, that they were conscientious in espousing this principle, and that it was not for sensual indulgences, because if sensual indulgences had been the object we could have obtained it without such sacrifices as were involved in obedience to this law—without going to prison, without sustaining wives and children, without the obloquy that has been heaped upon us because of this action of ours. If licentious motives had prompted us, we could have secured the results in a cheaper way and in a way more in consonance with universal custom throughout our own land and all Christendom. But the sacrifices that we had made in this respect bear testimony to the heavens and to the earth that we have been sincere and conscientious in all that we have done, and that we have not been prompted by a desire to use women for lustful purposes, but to save them, to make them honorable, and to leave no margin of women in our society to become prey to lust, so that every woman in our land should have the opportunity of becoming a virtuous wife and an honored mother, loved and respected by her offspring and by her associates.
If no other result has attended what may be termed our obstinacy, these results are, at least, upon record, and they never can be blotted out. The imprisonment of these men, the sufferings—the untold, unwritten, yea, the unmentionable, it may be said, sufferings—of wives and children, they are recorded in heaven and are known to men upon the earth, and they form a chapter that will never be blotted out.
Latter-day Saints, there has been nothing lost in the five years that have just passed. We have lost no credit. There has been no honor sacrificed. We can look God in the face—that is, if we are permitted to do so, so far as this is concerned, we can; we can look the holy angels in the face; we can look mankind in the face, without a blush, or without feeling that we have done anything unworthy of our manhood or of our professions and the faith that God has given unto us. This all of us can do; and if no other result has followed what may be called our obstinacy, than these which I now describe they are grand enough to pay us for all that we have gone through.
But 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 Woodruff and others of us have been appealed to hundreds of times, I might say;—I can say for myself, that I have been appealed to many scores of times to get out something, and to announce something. Some of our leading brethren have said: “Inasmuch as we have ceased to give permission for plural marriages to be solemnized, why cannot we have the benefit of that? Why cannot we tell the world it, so as to have the benefit of it? Our enemies are alleging constantly that we still practice this in secret and that we are dishonest and guilty of evasion. Now, if we have really put a stop to granting permissions to men to take more wives than one, why should not the world know it and we have the advantage of it?” These remarks have been made to us repeatedly. But at no time has the Spirit seemed to indicate that this should be done. We have waited for the Lord to move in the matter; and on the 24th of September, President Woodruff made up his mind that he would write something, and he had the spirit of it. He had prayed about it and had besought God repeatedly to show him what to do. At that time the Spirit came upon him, and the document that has been read in your hearing was the result. I know that it was right, much as it has gone against the grain with me in many respects, because many of you know the contest we have had upon this point. But when God speaks, and when God makes known His mind and will, I hope that I and all Latter-day Saints will bow in submission to it. When that document was prepared it was submitted. But, as is said in this motion that has been made, President Wilford Woodruff is the only man upon the earth who holds the keys of the sealing power. These Apostles all around me have all the same authority that he has. We are all ordained with the same ordination. We all have had the same keys and the same powers bestowed upon us. But there is an order in the Church of God, and that order is that there is only one man at a time on the earth who holds the keys of sealing, and that man is the President of the Church, now Wilford Woodruff. Therefore, he signed that document himself. Some have wondered and said, “Why didn’t his Counselors sign? Why didn’t others sign?” Well, I give you the reason—because he is the only man on the earth that has this right, and he exercised it, and he did this with the approval of all of us to whom the matter was submitted, after he had made up his mind, and we sustained it; for we had made it a subject of prayer also, that God would direct us.
There never was a time in this Church when I believe the leading men of this Church have endeavored to live nearer to God, because they have seen the path in which we walked environed with difficulties, beset with all manner of snares, and we have had the responsibility resting upon us of your salvation, to a certain extent. God has chosen us, not we ourselves, to be the shepherds of His flock. We have not sought this responsibility. You know Wilford Woodruff too well to believe that he would seek such an office as he now fills. I trust you know the rest of us sufficiently to believe the same concerning us. I have shrunk from the Apostleship. I have shrunk from being a member of the First Presidency. I felt that if I could get my salvation in any other way, I prayed God that He would give it to me, after He revealed to me that I would be an Apostle, when I was comparatively a child; and I have had that feeling ever since. These Apostles, all of them, feel the responsibility which rests upon them as leaders of the people, God having made us, in His providence, your shepherds. We feel that the flock is in our charge, and if any harm befall this flock through us, we will have to answer for it in the day of the Lord Jesus; we shall have to stand and render an account of that which has been entrusted to us; and if we are faithless, and careless, and do not live so as to have the word of God continually with us and know His mind and will, then our condemnation will be sure and certain, and we cannot escape it. But you are our witnesses as to whether God is with us or not, as well as the Holy Ghost. You have received, and it is your privilege to receive, the testimony of Jesus Christ as to whether these men who stand at your head are the servants of God, whom God has chosen, and through whom God gives instructions to His people. You know it, because the testimony of the Spirit is with you, and the Spirit of God burns in your bosoms when you hear the word of God declared by these servants, and there is a testimony living in your hearts concerning it.
Now, realizing the full responsibility of this, this action has been taken. Will it try many of the Saints? Perhaps it will; and perhaps it will try those who have not obeyed this law as much as any others in the Church. But all that we can say to you is that which we repeatedly say to you—go unto God yourselves, if you are tried over this and cannot see its purpose; go to your secret chambers and ask God and plead with Him in the name of Jesus, to give you a testimony as He has given it to us, and I promise you that you will not come away empty, nor dissatisfied; you will have a testimony, and light will be poured out upon you, and you will see things that perhaps you cannot see and understand at the present time.
I pray God to bless all of you, my brethren and sisters; to fill you with His Holy Spirit; to keep you in the path of exaltation which He has marked out for us; to be with us on the right hand and on the left in our future as He has been in the past.
Before I sit down I wish to call attention to one remarkable thing, and it may be an evidence to you that the devil is not pleased with what we have done. It is seldom I have seen so many lies, and such flagrant, outrageous lies told about the Latter day Saints as I have quite recently. I have not time to read the papers, but I have happened to pick up two or three papers and glance at them, and the most infernal (pardon me for using that [p. 552] expression) lies ever framed are told. It seems as though the devil is mad every way. “Now,” says he, “they are going to take advantage of this, and I am determined they shall have no benefit of it; I will fill the earth with lies concerning them, and neutralize this declaration of President Woodruff’s.” And you will see in all the papers everything that can be said to neutralize the effect of this. To me it is pretty good evidence that the devil is not pleased with what we are doing. When we kept silence concerning this, then we were a very mean and bad people; and now that we have broken the silence and made public our position, why, we are wicked in other directions, and no credence can be attached to anything that we say. You may know by this that his satanic majesty is not pleased with our action. I hope he never will be.
 “Remarks,” Deseret Weekly, Oct. 18, 1890, 550–52; https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/desnews4/id/15887/rec/84