I find myself waiting today (yesterday, by the time you see this) for a couple of hours in a room where the most interesting casual reading consists of 19th century legal reports. (“Interesting” is a relative term, I know, but this stuff ordinarily wouldn’t be interesting even to me.) I’ve just skimmed through United States vs. The Late Corporation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 8 Utah 310, and while I don’t pretend to understand everything I’ve read, or to know exactly where this case lies in the long course of legal difficulties between the Church and the federal government, I did extract enough meaning to find interest in the kinds of machinations once used against us, and who our defenders were.
The Church had been incorporated as a legal body in the early days of territorial Utah. One of the key features of the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act passed by the U.S. Congress was to disincorporate the Church. Members could continue to meet together and worship and call themselves Mormons and pray and keep the Word of Wisdom and send out missionaries and sing hymns and read the scriptures and act in all ways as a group of believers, but legally they were only a “voluntary association.” The Church had no more legal existence – no legal standing to own property or defend any rights as an organization – than your neighborhood book club has.
But before its disincorporation, the Church had owned a great deal of property, both real and personal, which didn’t vanish with the stroke of the President’s pen in signing the Edmunds-Tucker legislation. This property was removed from the direct control of Church leaders and placed in the hands of a receiver appointed by the government, charged with managing the property and disbursing the funds according to that receiver’s idea of legality.
One of the Church assets falling into the hands of the receiver was a fund – presumably tithing and/or fast offerings – described as “the offspring of innumerable petty contributions and donations made to the late corporation by its members, from time to time, extending over a period of many years.” It was acknowledged by all parties that “these donations were made upon the understanding that the same were to be applied to the religious and charitable uses and purposes of said church by or under the direction of the president or head of said church and his two counselors.” The Church produced evidence that for many years those funds had been used to build and maintain places of worship, and to care for “poor and distressed members of said church and their families,” and also that such disbursements were far greater than the annual income of that particular fund – presumably this last was to show that the entire fund was used for legal charitable purposes, and that there was not a penny left over to be spent on anything the government would consider an illegal use (i.e., promoting polygamy).
The receiver, on the other hand, presumably wishing to use the Church fund for his own purposes and to deny its use for any practice that would benefit Latter-day Saints, claimed that “all the uses to which this property had been applied” were outlawed under the act disincorporating the Church, and that “the property cannot go back to any of such uses” – including the care of “widows and orphans and members in needy and distressed circumstances.”
So what did the government propose doing with the money that had been donated by Latter-day Saints for charitable purposes?
Recognizing that the law required the fund to be used for a purpose that was as close as possible to the purposes for which it had been donated, they proposed going clear back to an English statute from the reign of Elizabeth I for a definition of charitable activities. Included among the charitable activities of that statute was the support of “schools of learning, free schools … [and] houses of correction.” Those purposes, according to government theory, were the proper uses of Mormon tithes and offerings. That was how the receiver had decided to use the Church fund, and what the Church was appealing in this case.
This time the Utah Supreme Court, led by Charles S. Zane, disagreed with the receiver’s reasoning. Zane evaluated the receiver’s claims as tantamount to saying that aid to widows and orphans was “opposed to public policy, good morals, and contrary to the laws of the United States,” a ludicrous and false conclusion. Zane objected to the receiver’s language that by “public notoriety” (i.e., “everybody knows”) all money under the Church’s control was devoted to “the inculcation and spread … of polygamy, a crime against the laws and abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world” and that feeding orphans and housing widows equaled “the promotion of such a nefarious system and practice, so repugnant to our laws and to the principles of our civilization … to the detriment of the true interests of civil society.”
Zane gave a many-pages-long analysis of the law requiring the fund to be used for legal purposes matching nearly as possible those for which donors had given the funds, noting that diverting funds given for the care of Mormon widows to the cause of educating the children of non-Mormon families was a clear violation of that law. He analyzed the 1890 Manifesto, accepting at face value that the Church was no longer promoting polygamy, although he recognized that a moral belief in polygamy – a belief beyond the control of government – remained. “The perceptions, the feelings, the beliefs, or the consciences of mankind cannot be regulated by human laws,” Zane wrote. “Such laws would transcend the power of all just governments.”
He wrote, “The relief of the needy and distressed of whatever faith cannot be immoral or unlawful. Nor can we say that the expenditure of money for the erection and repair of convenient and necessary houses of worship for the Mormon people is devoted to an immoral or unlawful purpose.
“Polygamy having been abandoned by the church, the remaining purposes to which the personal property in question has been dedicated, and to which it may be applied by the church, appear to be lawful. And in view of this, the writer of this opinion is unable to understand upon what principle of law this court can deny to this church the right to appropriate and apply this fund to such purposes. He is of the opinion that it should be vested in Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith, its first presidency, and in their successors in office, the agents selected by the church, to be devoted and applied by them to those purposes according to the will of the church and the wishes of its donors.”
A very few years earlier, Judge Zane had been one of the feared and oppressive judges imposed on the Mormon people by the distant federal government, a man whose zeal to enforce anti-polygamy laws sent hundreds of Latter-day Saint men to the penitentiary. Yet he accepted us at our word that the Manifesto would end polygamy, and he defended Mormon rights in this June 1892 case regarding control of our charitable donations. His is a good example of the complexity of human character and the nuances of motives – something we like to claim for ourselves and need to recognize in those with whom we have clashed from time to time.