A “Mohammedan Barbarism”?: Polygamy and the Mormon/Muslim Menace Before the Supreme Court

Adam Morrison
Religious Studies
UC Santa Barbara

In 1879 the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Reynolds v. United States, the case that upheld Mormon George Reynolds’s conviction for polygamy. Leading up to this decision, the practice of polygamy was attacked as a violation of Christianity, an attack on the democratic impulse, an erosion of civilization, and as a threat to the life and liberty of women and children. Lurking everywhere behind this parade of horribles were allusions to polygamy as the “Mohammedan barbarism”. Mormon polygamy was marked as foreign, uncivilized, and unchristian through particular characterizations of Muslims and the practice of polygamy in Islam. In the courts, these characterizations and comparisons helped successfully argue that polygamy was outside the limits of constitutionally protected religious practice. This project explored how the nineteenth-century legal struggle to protect women, children, and country from the “barbarism” of Mormon polygamy relied heavily on negative characterizations of Islamic polygamy.