John Taylor was no stranger to conflict. As an editor to several publications, he denounced rampant political injustice, social prejudice, and mob violence. As a gifted orator, he confounded religious oppressors with their own scriptures. As a close friend to the Prophet, he accompanied Joseph Smith on that fateful journey to Carthage, Illinois, where they were ambushed by the state militia which the governor had commissioned to protect them. Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith were shot and killed while John Taylor was severely wounded. He never fully recovered. Throughout the remainder of his life he carried musket balls within his flesh–a daily reminder of the loss of his friend and the cost of defending his beliefs. He eventually became the third president of the church. His friends and enemies alike knew him for his unflinching devotion to freedom and his religion. Therefore, he didn’t falter when facing exile and a life of running to avoid imprisonment for his refusal to abide by the federal anti-polygamy legislation. After giving his last public address in the Tabernacle, he dodged federal marshals who were stationed there to arrest him. He was never seen publicly again. He was then seventy-six years old.
Nevertheless, the feds turned up the heat. There were rumblings from Washington of new legislation which would confiscate the property of the church. There were several other onerous measures within the bill, but this was the one that scared the hell out of wealthy Mormons. As often happens with those in power, their own wealth was tangled up with the property of the church. The escheatment of church property would precipitate substantial personal losses as well. Men from all around the church began writing letters to John Taylor imploring, whining, begging him to do something, anything to prevent the apocalypse. They all knew that the only gesture that the feds would accept was a complete and lasting denunciation of polygamy.
George Q. Cannon (first counselor to John Taylor) and several other leaders of the church drafted a statement intended to appease the government. Their plan was simple but deceptive–tell the government that the church had abandoned the practice of polygamy while secretly keeping it alive until Utah became a state. They would then be free to practice their religion because the federal legislation applied only to territories, not to states. They met with John Taylor, then in hiding, to present the document. As you might imagine, for a man of John Taylor’s caliber, deceit didn’t settle well. They were unable to come to a decision, so after much discussion, they asked John Taylor to take it up with the LORD and decide on a course of action the next day. President Taylor then retired for the evening to a bedroom in the John Woolley home, one of his trusted hideouts.
Little is known about what happened that night and on the following day, Sept 26th and 27th, 1886. The journals of those present are either silent on the subject or unavailable. The journal of the meeting’s clerk, L. John Nuttall, is presumably locked away in the private archives of the church, inaccessible to scholars. The written accounts that we do have were produced decades later. Whatever events transpired, however, we can say that they lit a fire in the souls of those present that would never be doused. President Taylor went to bed considering a manifesto to appease the government and woke in fervent opposition to it.
Lorin Woolley, a guard to President Taylor, attested that John Taylor told him and others that Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith appeared to himself (John Taylor) that night. Daniel Bateman and Lorin Woolley further testified that John Taylor boldly declared, “Sign that document, — never! I would suffer my right hand to be severed from my body first. Sanction it, — never! I would suffer my tongue to be torn from its roots in my mouth before I would sanction it!” They also claim that John Taylor put each attendant under covenant to “defend the principle of Celestial or Plural Marriage.” During this meeting, on September 27th, 1886, John Taylor dictated a revelation which he received during the previous night stating that, “I the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with, but they stand forever.” That essentially answered the question concerning what course of action they would take. It was John Taylor’s last stand; he died within a year.
Whether heavenly messengers appeared, whether other purported miracles occurred (John Taylor’s face shining bright, his person rising above the floor, etc.), something transpired that inspired those men and women to truly defend plural marriage at the peril of everything. I would like to think that anyone who has ever lived plural marriage would defend it as tenaciously, even without experiencing supernatural manifestations. This principle–this wonderful marriage relationship–is here to stay, notwithstanding the many onslaughts which it has withstood in the past and still faces today. The state of Utah passed a law this year (2017) making both men and women felons for choosing to love each other according to the dictates of their consciences. Therefore, the most punitive law in the United States against plural marriage was passed by a Mormon legislature, exactly the opposite of that which George Q. Cannon hoped for. He believed that statehood would save them from religious tyranny, not be the cause of it. Apparently Utah would prefer men engaging in illicit affairs and then abandoning women and children rather than standing faithfully by them and the children who are the fruits of their union. There is no felony law against abandonment.
Nevertheless, men of honor would never do it. John Taylor would never do it. Those that he placed under covenant would never do it. Their integrity and fierce determination inspires me. To commemorate the anniversary of John Taylor’s 1886 episode, I would like to offer my book JACK for free this September 26th and 27th. (It’s available here on Amazon.) I know that it’s a small thing in comparison to his sacrifice, but it represents my own determination to defend this principle of marriage that has blessed my life so immeasurably. I may not be called to take bullets for my faith, but if I am, I hope that I can do it as admirably as he did.
By Ariel Hammon
Author of JACK
Photo of John Taylor take from here.