Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Zane's Antipolygamy Crusade

Polygamist Prisoners.jpg

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Zane's Antipolygamy Crusade


A key figure in the struggle over polygamy was US Supreme Court Justice Charles Zane. His tenure on the bench saw hundreds of people convicted of illegal cohabitation or polygamy, leading some to call his work an “antipolygamy crusade”.

The struggle between federal authorities and the LDS Church over polygamy reached its fiercest stage in the 1880s.  A key figure in this controversy was Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Zane, whose tenure on the bench saw hundreds of people convicted of illegal cohabitation or polygamy.  To radical gentiles and anti-Mormons, Zane was a hero.  To most Mormons, he seemed a fanatic bent on destroying thousands of families and the Church itself.

For years, the wholly Mormon legislature had denied appropriations for enforcement of anti-polygamy statutes and grand juries refused to return polygamy indictments.  But when the federal Edmunds Act disfranchised polygamists in 1882, Zane had the legal tool he needed to sentence convicted polygamist Rudger Clawson.  Their exchange during Clawson’s 1884 sentencing hearing epitomized the argument.

Clawson said:  "I much regret that the laws of my country should come in conflict with the laws of God, but whenever they do, I shall invariably choose the latter....The constitution... expressly states that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…   [These laws] were … designed to operate against marriage as practiced and believed in by the Latter Day Saints. They are, therefore, unconstitutional."

In his reply to Clawson, Justice Zane affirmed that:  "The constitution of the United States...does not protect any person in the practice of polygamy... This belief that polygamy is right, the civilized world recognizes as a mere superstition… The American people… have pronounced polygamy a crime, and the Court must execute that law…" 

The Deseret News called Zane’s actions a "judicial anti-Mormon crusade.”  But when LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff renounced polygamy six years later in 1890, Justice Zane was convinced that he had performed his job well and that Mormon and gentile could be reconciled now that the LDS Church was obeying the law.  


Cynthia Buckingham for Utah Humanities © 2010


Image: Salt Lake Penit.- Sugarhouse Prisoners. Polygamist prisoners at Sugarhouse Prison.Third from left, Christopher J. Arthur, Salt Lake City, Utah. Peter Barton in center sitting (Bishop in Kaysville.) 3rd from right-George Facer. 2nd from left. Francis Webster . Far right -Ike Fendel. 2nd from right-Rudger Clawson. 1889. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

See Jeffrey D. Nichols, “Justice Charles S. Zane and the Antipolygamy Crusade," History Blazer, September 1995, accessed http://historytogo.utah.gov; Thomas G. Alexander, "Charles S. Zane, Apostle of the New Era," Utah Historical Quarterly 34 (1966); Salt Lake Tribune, November 4, 1884.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org