The Mormon Question

Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

By Sarah Barringer Gordon

352 pp., 6 x 9, 53 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4987-3
    Published: January 2002
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7526-1
    Published: January 2003
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7074-2
    Published: January 2003

Studies in Legal History

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Awards & distinctions

2002 Best Book Award, Mormon History Association

2002 Best Utah History Book Award, Utah Historical Society

From the Mormon Church's public announcement of its sanction of polygamy in 1852 until its formal decision to abandon the practice in 1890, people on both sides of the "Mormon question" debated central questions of constitutional law. Did principles of religious freedom and local self-government protect Mormons' claim to a distinct, religiously based legal order? Or was polygamy, as its opponents claimed, a new form of slavery--this time for white women in Utah? And did constitutional principles dictate that democracy and true liberty were founded on separation of church and state?

As Sarah Barringer Gordon shows, the answers to these questions finally yielded an apparent victory for antipolygamists in the late nineteenth century, but only after decades of argument, litigation, and open conflict. Victory came at a price; as attention and national resources poured into Utah in the late 1870s and 1880s, antipolygamists turned more and more to coercion and punishment in the name of freedom. They also left a legacy in constitutional law and political theory that still governs our treatment of religious life: Americans are free to believe, but they may well not be free to act on their beliefs.

About the Author

Sarah Barringer Gordon holds degrees in religion, law, and history. She teaches in the Law School and the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
For more information about Sarah Barringer Gordon, visit the Author Page.


"[Gordon] deftly handles complicated issues of religion, states' rights, constitutional theory, and the separation of church and state. . . . [She] does an outstanding job of clarifying complex legal issues and demonstrating change over time. . . . Gordon is a fine scholar whose penetrating research and interdisciplinary approach break new ground in the fields of Mormon studies and legal history."--Publishers Weekly

"Beautifully crafted. . . . Gordon explores the constitutional and legislative foundations for current debates over marriage, morality, and law. . . . Essential reading."--Journal of American History

"This is a fascinating story, told compellingly and vividly by a scholar uniquely qualified for the task. . . . Gordon's analysis will supply the benchmark for future consideration of the law and politics of domestic relations."--Law and History Review

"Gordon's superb study of the nineteenth-century controversy surrounding Mormon polygamy in the United States ought to be required reading for every graduate student in U.S. history, law, and religion. Its organizational structure, effective use of sources, clarity of argument, and excellent prose set a standard of interdisciplinary scholarship to be emulated by all academics."--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Gordon has written a history that is at once erudite, compelling, and remarkably timely."--BYU Studies

"Her book is a welcomed addition to the few scholarly studies of one of the most important practices of nineteenth century Mormonism which even today continues to beguile the world. A careful reading of this work by the informed public will help to counterbalance the persistent misconceptions about the LDS church and the current residents of Utah."--Utah Historical Quarterly