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Reynolds v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 14–15, 1878
Decided May 5, 1879
Full case name George Reynolds v. United States
Citations 98 U.S. 145 (more)
25 L. Ed. 244; 1878 U.S. LEXIS 1374; 8 Otto 145
Prior history Defendant convicted, District Court for the 3rd Judicial District of the Territory of Utah; conviction upheld by Supreme Court of the Utah Territory
Religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment.
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
Majority Waite, joined by Clifford, Swayne, Miller, Strong, Bradley, Hunt, Harlan
Concurrence Field
Laws applied
Sect. 5352 of the Revised Statutes

Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. (8 Otto.) 145 (1878), was a Supreme Court of the United States case that held that religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment. George Reynolds was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, charged with bigamy under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act after marrying Amelia Jane Schofield while still married to Mary Ann Tuddenham in Utah Territory.

Before the Supreme Court, Reynolds argued that his conviction for bigamy should be overturned on four issues. These included that his grand jury had not been legal; that challenges of certain jurors were improperly overruled; that testimony by Amelia Jane Schofield was not permissible as it was under another indictment; and, most importantly, that it was his religious duty to marry multiple times.

Chief Justice Morrison Waite was consulted on the matter of whether or not polygamous Mormons in the Utah Territory were above prosecution from the law against bigamy because of their faith. The Chief Justice saw fit that George Reynolds was in violation of section 5352 of the Constitution and therefore guilty.[1]

Reynolds was also the first Supreme Court opinion to address the Impartial Jury and the Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment.


The Mormons, believing that the law unconstitutionally deprived them of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion, chose to ignore 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, amid the efforts to indict the LDS leadership for bigamy, 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 attorney numerous witnesses who could testify of his being married to two wives, and was indicted for bigamy by a grand jury on October 23, 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, the LDS Church leaders decided that they would no longer cooperate with him. Reynolds v. United States appeal.[2]

Prior history[edit]

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

'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 instruct the jury that if the jury found he committed polygamy with the only intention of following his religion, then he must be found not guilty. This is a vague interpretation of the First Amendment where he thought his practices of Religion were covered and was purely a religious act. However, 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."[4] After being found guilty by the lower court, Reynolds appealed to the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory, which upheld the conviction.

The bench[edit]

The makeup of the Supreme Court and their opinions were thus:


"Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order"



  1. Written by Justice Stephen Johnson Field (dissenting only on the admission of the evidence of Amelia Jane Schofield)

The case[edit]

Religious Duty argument[edit]

The most important ruling of the case was over whether Reynolds could use a defense due to religious belief or duty. 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 Supreme Court recognized that under the First Amendment, the Congress cannot pass a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. However it argued that the law prohibiting bigamy did not fall under this. The fact that a person could only be married to one person had existed since the times of King James I of England in English law, upon which United States law was based.

This was the Supreme Court's first run-in with a critical case concerning the Free Exercise of Religion Clause in the First Amendment. The court unanimously decided that polygamous activity would not be tolerated, even under the portecting of Free Practice of Religion in the First Amendment.[5]

Although the constitution did not define religion, the Court investigated the history of religious freedom in the United States. In the ruling, the court quoted a letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he stated 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 argued 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 true spirit of the First Amendment was that Congress could not legislate against opinion, but could legislate against action.

Other arguments[edit]

Reynolds also argued that the grand jury that had indicted him was not legal. Under United States law at that time, a grand jury had to consist of no fewer than 16 persons. However his grand jury had only 15 persons. The court overruled this on the grounds that the Utah Territory had passed a law in 1870 that stated a grand jury had to consist of only 15 persons.

During his original trial, Reynolds had challenged two jurors, both of whom had stated that they had formed an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Reynolds before the trial. The court held that with universal education and media it would be hard to find jurors who had not formed some opinion on cases before they went to trial. The onus was then on the challenger to show that a real and strong opinion had been developed by the juror before the case. Reynolds had not done this.

The prosecution had asked the potential jurors whether they were themselves living in polygamy. Two of the men answered that they were unwilling to answer this question and so the prosecution had them discharged. The Supreme Court held that it would not overturn a case based on the legality of challenges to dismissed jurors.

The evidence given by Amelia Jane Schofield on a former trial of the accused for the same offence but under a different indictment was admissible. 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". Schofield could not be found during the second trial and so evidence from the previous trial was used. The court held that Reynolds had every opportunity under oath to reveal the whereabouts of Schofield. This was the only point on which Justice Field dissented, finding that the evidence should not have been allowed.

Lastly, Reynolds had argued that the jury had been improperly instructed by the judge. The judge had told the jury 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 and therefore was guilty of the crime he was charged with. 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, states concerning this decision:

"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."[6]

See also[edit]


  2. ^ Larson, “Government, Politics, and Conflict,” pp. 252, 254.
  3. ^ "Reynolds v United States." UMKC School of Law. Web 18 Feb 2012.<>.
  4. ^ Reynolds v United States
  5. ^ Smith, Stephen Eliot. "Barbarians Within the Gates: Congressional Debates On Mormon Polygamy, 1850-1879." Journal of the Church and State 51.4 (2009):587. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.
  6. ^ Federal Government Efforts to "Americanize" Utah Before Admission to Statehood By Gustive O. Larson

Further reading[edit]

  • Alley, Robert S. (1999). The Constitution & Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 414–419. ISBN 1573927031. 

External links[edit]

Category:1878 in United States case law Category:History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Category:Legal history of Utah Category:Law related to Mormonism Category:Mormonism and polygamy Category:United States First Amendment case law Category:United States Supreme Court cases Category:1878 in the United States Category:Marriage, unions and partnerships in the United States Category:United States free exercise of religion case law Category:1878 in religion Category:United States Sixth Amendment jury case law Category:Confrontation Clause case law