Reynolds v. United States

Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), was a Supreme Court of the United States case that held that religious duty was not a defense to a criminal indictment.[1] Reynolds was the first Supreme Court opinion to address the First Amendment's protection of religious liberties, impartial juries and the Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment.

Reynolds v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued November 14–15, 1878
Decided January 6, 1879
Full case nameGeorge Reynolds v. United States
Citations98 U.S. 145 (more)
25 L. Ed. 244; 1878 U.S. LEXIS 1374; 8 Otto 145
Case history
PriorDefendant convicted, District Court for the 3rd Judicial District of the Territory of Utah; conviction upheld by Utah Territorial Supreme Court
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects the right to hold any religious belief, but not the right to engage in any religious activity whatsoever. Supreme Court of Utah affirmed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Morrison Waite
Associate Justices
Nathan Clifford · Noah H. Swayne
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
William Strong · Joseph P. Bradley
Ward Hunt · John M. Harlan
Case opinions
MajorityWaite, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Sect. 5352 of the Revised Statutes

George Reynolds was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), charged with bigamy under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act after marrying Amelia Jane Schofield while still married to Mary Ann Tuddenham in Utah Territory. He was secretary to Brigham Young and presented himself as a test of the federal government's attempt to outlaw polygamy. An earlier conviction was overturned on technical grounds.[2]


The LDS Church, believing that the law unconstitutionally deprived its members of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion, chose to challenge the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act at the time. On the other hand, in subsequent years, efforts had been underway to strengthen the anti-bigamy laws. Eventually, the First Presidency agreed to furnish a defendant in a test case to be brought before the United States Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the anti-bigamy law. Reynolds, a secretary in the office of the president of the church, agreed to serve as the defendant, then provided the United States Attorney with numerous witnesses who could testify of his being married to two wives, and was indicted for bigamy by a grand jury on October 31, 1874. In 1875, Reynolds was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor in prison and a fine of five hundred dollars. In 1876 the Utah Territorial Supreme Court upheld the sentence.

Previously, U.S. Attorney William Carey promised to stop his attempts to indict general authorities during the test case. However when Carey failed to keep his promise and arrested George Q. Cannon, LDS Church leaders decided that they would no longer cooperate with him.[3]

Prior historyEdit

Reynolds was indicted in the District Court for the 3rd Judicial District of the Territory of Utah under sect. 5352 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, which stated, as quoted in the Supreme Court decision:

Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.

Reynolds tried to have the jury instructed that if they found he committed bigamy with the only intention of following his religion, then he must be found not guilty. The trial court refused this request and instructed the jury that if they found that Reynolds, under religious influence, "deliberately married a second time, having a first wife living, the want of consciousness of evil intent—the want of understanding on his part that he was committing crime—did not excuse him, but the law inexorably, in such cases, implies criminal intent."

After being found guilty by the lower court, Reynolds appealed to the Utah Territorial Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction.


The Court affirmed Reynolds's conviction unanimously. Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote on behalf of himself and seven colleagues. Justice Field wrote a concurrence that dissented on one minor point.

Before the Supreme Court, Reynolds argued that his conviction for bigamy should be overturned on four issues: that it was his religious duty to marry multiple times and the First Amendment protected his practice of his religion; that his grand jury had not been legally constituted; that challenges of certain jurors were improperly overruled; that testimony was not admissible as it was under another indictment.

Religious duty argumentEdit

The Court considered whether Reynolds could use religious belief or duty as a defense. Reynolds had argued that as a Mormon, it was his religious duty as a male member of the church to practice polygamy if possible.

The Court recognized that under the First Amendment, the Congress cannot pass a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. However it held that the law prohibiting bigamy did not meet that standard. The principle that a person could only be married singly, not plurally, existed since the times of King James I of England in English law, upon which United States law was based.

The Court investigated the history of religious freedom in the United States and quoted a letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he wrote that there was a distinction between religious belief and action that flowed from religious belief. The former "lies solely between man and his God," therefore "the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions." The court considered that if polygamy was allowed, someone might eventually argue that human sacrifice was a necessary part of their religion, and "to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." The Court believed the First Amendment forbade Congress from legislating against opinion, but allowed it to legislate against action.

Other argumentsEdit

Reynolds argued that the grand jury that had indicted him was not legal. United States law at that time required that a grand jury consist of no fewer than 16 persons. The grand jury that indicted Reynolds had only 15 persons. The court rejected this argument because the Utah Territory had passed a law in 1870 under which a grand jury had to consist of only 15 persons.

During his original trial, Reynolds had challenged two jurors, both of whom stated that they had formed an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Reynolds before the trial. The court held that universal education and press reports made it hard to find jurors who had not formed some opinion. It found that Reynolds had failed to meet the requirement that he, as challenger of a juror's objectivity, demonstrate that a juror had developed a real and strong opinion. The prosecution had discharged two potential jurors who refused to say whether or not they were living in polygamy. The Court held that it would not overturn a case based on the legality of challenges to dismissed jurors.

The Court held that evidence Amelia Jane Schofield, Reynold's second wife, gave during an earlier trial of Reynolds for the same offense but under a different indictment was admissible. Schofield could not be found during the second trial and so evidence from the previous trial was used. The Court held that "if a witness is kept away by the adverse party, his testimony, taken on a former trial between the same parties upon the same issues, may be given in evidence". The court held that Reynolds had every opportunity under oath to reveal the whereabouts of Schofield. This was the one point on which Justice Field dissented, finding that the evidence should not have been allowed.

Reynolds had argued that the jury had been improperly instructed by the judge when he told them that they "should consider what are to be the consequences to the innocent victims of this delusion". Reynolds argued that this introduced prejudice to the jury. The Court held that Reynolds had freely admitted that he was a bigamist. All the judge had done was "call the attention of the jury to the peculiar character of the crime" and had done so "not to make them partial, but to keep them impartial".


George Q. Cannon, representative of the territory, wrote in response to this decision:[4]

Our crime has been: We married women instead of seducing them; we reared children instead of destroying them; we desired to exclude from the land prostitution, bastardy and infanticide. If George Reynolds [the man who was convicted of committing bigamy] is to be punished, let the world know the facts.... Let it be published to the four corners of the earth that in this land of liberty, the most blessed and glorious upon which the sun shines, the law is swiftly invoked to punish religion, but justice goes limping and blindfolded in pursuit of crime.[5]

The New York Times defended the decision, noting that the 1862 act that banned bigamy, though "obviously directed at the polygamous practices of the Mormons, merely extended over the Territories the common law in relation to bigamy which exists in every State of the Union." Its editorial ridiculed the Mormon defense of polygamy as a religious practice and said: "Similarly, a sect which should pretend, or believe, that incest, infanticide, or murder was a divinely appointed ordinance, to be observed under certain conditions, could set up that the enforcement of the common law, as against either [sic] of these practices, was an invasion of the rights of conscience."[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878).   This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Riggs, Robert E. (1992). "Reynolds V. United States". In Ludlow, Daniel H. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan. pp. 1229–1230. ISBN 0-02-879605-5. Retrieved 2015-10-29.
  3. ^ Larson, "Government, Politics, and Conflict," pp. 252, 254.
  4. ^ Gustive O. Larson, Federal Government Efforts to "Americanize" Utah Before Admission to Statehood, pp. ??
  5. ^ Cannon, George Quayle, A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Geo. Reynolds vs. The United States, Deseret News Printing and Publishing Establishment, Salt Lake City, Utah, p. 52.
  6. ^ "A Blow at Polygamy" (PDF). New York Times. January 8, 1879. Retrieved December 20, 2012.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit