Domestic “Spying” and the Mormon Motto

 Podcast of a talk given at a Sunstone conference:

During the days of Brigham Young and John Taylor, part of the “Mormon creed” was tomormon creed “mind your own business”.  (Brigham Young, 11 December 1853     SLC Tabernacle     Wilford Woodruff Journal)

Brigham Young even went so far as to say, “To mind your own business’ incorporates the whole duty of man.” (Journal of Discourses (JD) 10:289)

To help explain this principle, John Taylor said, “But I don’t want to be confidant. Why? Because if they made a confidant of me and I was called before a tribunal, I could not, as an honorable man, reveal their confidences, yet it would be said I was a transgressor of law; but no honorable man can reveal confidences that are committed to him. Therefore I tell them to keep their own secrets, and remember what is called the Mormon creed, “Mind your own business,” I don’t want to know the secrets of people, those that I cannot tell. And I could not tell very much to that court; for I have studiously avoided knowing any more than I could possibly help about such matters. I was asked questions about our temple, which of course I could not divulge. I was asked questions about records which I could not tell them, because I did not know. I have studiously avoided entering into a knowledge of these matters.” JD 25:355

However, more relevant to the topic at hand, Brigham Young explained, “They will ask, ‘If I bow the knee and confess that he is that Savior, the Christ, to the glory of the Father, will you let me go home and be a Presbyterian?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And not persecute me?’ ‘Never.’ ‘Won’t you let me go home and belong to the Greek Church?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Will you allow me to be a Friend Quaker, or a Shaking Quaker?’ ‘O yes, anything you wish to be, but remember that you must not persecute your neighbors, but must mind your own business, and let your neighbors alone, and let them worship the sun, moon, a white dog, or anything else they please..’” JD 2:317

Not only does this apply to belief, but as the 1st Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

Brigham Young applied that to the Gospel when he explained, “I pause now to ask, had not Joseph Smith a right to promulgate and establish a different, a new religion and form of worship in this government? Everyone must admit he had. This right was always held sacred, for upon it was based the religious liberty of every citizen of the Republic. It was a privilege held sacred in the bosom of every class of people; no Judge dared invade its holy precincts. No Legislator nor Governor ventured to obstruct the free exercise thereof.” JD 2:170

John Taylor agreed saying, “The question, however, necessarily arises, is it constitutional for Congress to interfere with religious matters—with the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof? The Constitution says no.” JD 11:220

The Constitution not only protects your God given right to believe whatever you want, but to act upon that belief (clearly, as long as that does not deprive another of their freedom.  You don’t have a “right” to kill red heads just because you claim it is a tenet of your religion for example).  Our religious faith sustains this view as seen in the above as well as D&C 98:4-11, 101:77-80 & 134:2, 4, 5 among others. If the scriptures can be considered “doctrine”, this is our doctrine.

Enter Fred E. Curtis

For the rest of this article I will be quoting from “The Fred E Curtis Papers”, by Marianne Watson given at the 2001 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium.  This is not “anti-Mormon” nor are we trying to make anyone or institution “look bad”.  Our intent in presenting the information from the 30 page typed presentation is to make us aware of things we might not have considered and see if this is something we would participate in, if we should be on guard against this if it were to come up in the future again, to just make us aware so that it cannot be used against us when we try and defend our faith and we respond with “The Church would never do that”, and then we look like a brainwashed fool when it is proven leaders in Christ’s Church actually did do those things. Is it right, wrong, neither? We will leave that up to you to decide.

I will include information to elucidate why I find the information credible, and details I find would be most interesting to those that don’t have the time to wade through the entire 30 pages. Editing is not to make anyone look good or bad, but simply for space. “…” will be placed to show where cuts have been made, but all quotations will be original to the presentation by the presenter and not inserted editorially.  Additionally, following these excerpts, you will find a download to the original audio presentation so that you can at least listen to it in its entirety.  ***End editorial notes***

In 1991 the Utah State Archives held a unique collection of papers labeled simply “Fred E. Curtis.” They were included as a part of the Polygamy Investigation Files used by the Utah Attorney General’s office from the 1930s to the 1960s. This portfolio warranted inspection for several reasons. First, these records were not created by the state officers, but by officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Second, the presence of these Church records in the Utah Attorney General’s files implied possible church and state cooperation in the prosecution of Fundamentalist Mormons for polygamy…

Fred Evelyn Hopewell Curtis, for whom this paper was named, was born 15 November 1900 in Mercur, Tooele County, Utah. He was oldest child of first-generation English immigrant Mormons, which meant he had no early Mormon polygamous ancestry. In 1933, Fred Evelyn Hopewell Curtis, was called to serve as the Bishop of the Salt Lake City Hawthorne Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After his first four years as Bishop, Curtis given a “special assignment” directly from a member of the Church’s First Presidency. He was to begin a surveillance project to observe and report the comings and goings of those suspected of believing, preaching or practicing plural marriage. Bishop Curtis’ surveillance records and his correspondence with local law enforcement and Church hierarchy comprise the contents of the Fred E. Curtis Papers.

Many Church members, both laymen and leaders, were embarrassed during the Reed Smoot hearings over the public revelations of continued polygamy within the Church. To convince the doubting nation, Church leaders instituted new policies, issued a Second Manifesto, and offered two scapegoats as evidence of their sincerity – two Apostles involved in post-manifesto plural marriage, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, were dropped from their high positions. Those who entered new plural marriages after 1904 were routinely excommunicated… LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, whose administration began in 1918, became vehemently opposed to continued plural marriage..

After Grant became Church President, he repeatedly denounced polygamy. There can be little doubt of Grant’s behind-the-scene’s influence when, in 1935, the Utah Legislature increased the penalty for unlawful cohabitation from a misdemeanor to a felony. The bill was drafted by an LDS Church Apostle, Hugh B. Brown. It was fathered in the House by an officer in the Mormon Church, Lyle B. Nichols, and enacted by a dominantly Mormon legislative assembly. Finally, it was signed by Governor Henry H. Blood…  This law “with teeth” provided a new legal backdrop for Bishop Fred E. Curtis’s surveillance operation sponsored by the Church whose goal was to stop polygamy permanently first by excommunicating suspects and second by providing evidence to the state for prosecution of these “felons.”…

The Fred E. Curtis Papers and Other Sources

 The Fred. E. Curtis papers were surveillance material comprising several hundred documents. The file contained numerous small slips of paper with handwritten notes, full-size pages of typewritten lists, a small collection of newspaper clippings, bundles of household bills and receipts, and copies of correspondence dating from 1938 to 1954. The file showed that Fred E. Curtis was appointed in about early 1938, but possible in 1937, to observe people living within the vicinity of the Hawthorne Ward who were suspected to believe in, heard to preach about, or reported to live polygamy. Curtis was probably selected for this assignment on the basis that Hawthorne Ward boundaries included several suspects’ homes where small gatherings were taking place.

Bishop Curtis was instructed by letter to provide his evidence to the Church’s First Presidency and to the Presiding Bishopric. They, in turn, coordinated with him to contact Bishoprics of other LDS Wards concerning Church members under suspicion. Bishop Curtis also coordinated with the Salt Lake City Police Department and made reports of this relationship to Church authorities.

The Fred E. Curtis papers are corroborated by both Church and Fundamentalist Mormons sources. The papers of President J. Reuben Clark, to whom Bishop Curtis was directly responsible for his surveillance mission, verified and gave further insight into the polygamy surveillance project. Also, the diaries of two Fundamentalist Mormons, Joseph Lyman Jessop and Joseph White Musser, provided intimate, personal responses about being subjects of Bishop Curtis’ surveillance. Last, excerpts from the Fundamentalist Mormon publication TRUTH, edited by Musser, reported the public Fundamentalist response to Bishop Curtis’ project…

Clark was called as a member of the First Presidency under President Heber J. Grant in 1933. Clark’s first assignment in his new Church calling was to draft a statement condemning such polygamy. The result was the Church’s “Official Statement” of 1933, which was dubbed “the Final Manifesto.” President Grant presented this last and longest denunciation the Church had ever published against polygamy, fourteen printed pages in length, at the April 1933 General Conference of the Church. Grant then gave Clark a mandate “to suppress the…practice of polygamy.”…

The Surveillance Operation

Bishop Curtis’ surveillance operation involved a network of individuals from the Hawthorne Ward, the Church’s First Presidency, and the Church’s Presiding Bishopric. Several lay members of the Hawthorne Ward were drawn into the effort. One of these was High Priest George Lund who worked as a credit manager for Standard Furniture Co. Lund apparently got permission from his Mormon employer to drive a company delivery truck to conduct surveillance activity. He also used the company’s printed memo forms and letterhead for permanent records of the surveillance.

Bishop Curtis also recruited the help of the Sister G. C. Jenson, wife of a former Bishop, who worked as female private detective. Curtis asked Jenson to see if she could get into a Fundamentalist meeting posed as an interested religious investigator. The plan failed when she was recognized by her neighbor, a regular attendee of the Fundamentalist meetings.

At Church headquarters, the network included President J. Reuben Clark, Presiding Bishop Joseph Anderson, and a secretary, Sister Mabel Jones, who was assigned to help coordinate and facilitate communication between Bishop Curtis and other LDS bishoprics. Later, another secretary was added “so the work would not fall behind.”

This Church network engaged in what amounted to full-fledged investigation of suspects.

Bishop Curtis and his assistants spent hours observing the homes of suspects. They wrote names of any individuals they recognized. They also compiled lists of license plate numbers of all vehicles parked at or near suspected residences, noting their arrival and departure times. At first, minutely detailed lists were arranged by license plate numbers and each date each vehicle was observed was noted. Later these lists were expanded to include the names and address of owners. Letters to identify car owners were written to vehicle departments in several states. After suspects’ were identified and their faces recognized, their names and addresses were included in the observation notes.

Once Bishop Curtis’ team felt sure they had sufficient evidence against a suspect, they contacted the bishopric where the individual lived (if he/she resided outside the Hawthorne Ward boundary). Neighbors and fellow ward members of suspects were sometimes questioned about what they might know. Visitors to targeted residences often became suspects as well. Newspaper, obituaries, births and wedding announces concerning any members of the suspect families were clipped and added to the files. Garbage cans at some residences were ransacked to obtained copies of bills and receipts to use as evidence. If any suspects moved away, they were traced…

Tuesday, 1 November 1938, a document, titled “Report of the Salt Lake Police Department,” was typed on Hawthorne Ward letterhead. This “police” report was the earliest hard evidence in the Fred. E. Curtis Papers that demonstrated church-state cooperation. Later correspondence showed that at least two Salt Lake City police investigators were assigned to work in conjunction with the Church surveillance operation. The two officers, according to Curtis, “gathered a large amount of information.”

Meanwhile, President J. Reuben Clark used his influence in other government arenas. He encouraged the Salt Lake City public library to exclude Fundamentalist polygamy literature from library holdings and asked the Salt Lake City postmaster to prohibit the mailing of fundamentalist publications.

Disfellowshipment, Excommunication and Loyalty Oaths

Once suspected members were identified, Church officers dealt with them in one of three ways: (1) disfellowshipment; (2) excommunication; or (3) a demand for a signed loyalty oath. Heber K. Cleveland, the frequent host of fundamentalist meetings, was among the first to be disfellowshipped from the Church as a result of Curtis’ activity. The TRUTH magazine published partial transcripts of Cleveland’s Church trial in which George Lund testified that he had been appointed by the Bishopric about six months before to investigate the meetings.28 Lund, however, could not say for certain whether plural marriage was taught at the meetings and admitted it was “only through rumor” he had heard such things.

The defendant, Heber K. Cleveland, was allowed to question Mr. Lund:

Q- Brother Lund, how do you know . . . [who] took charge?

A- I saw him through the window.

Q- How could you see him, the blinds were down?

A- Sometimes the window was up and I could see and hear?

Q- And you were on the sidewalk [which TRUTH notes was 25 feet from the house]?

A- Yes, but I could both see and hear.

Q- Did you hear plural marriages discussed?

A- No.

Q- How did you know there was a woman’s class?

A- I could see them in the kitchen?

Q- How could you; there is not a window facing the street and the front door was closed?

A- I was not on your property. I walked on the driveway of the house north of you.

Q- Did you hear plural marriage being taught there?

A- No.

Q- What did you hear?

A- I do not remember now.

Q- Bro. Lund, have you ever heard of me telling a lie?

A- No…

For those investigated who wished to have their names cleared, the Church’s First Presidency required an oath of loyalty. 31They called the oath an “affidavit,” which required a signature and a declaration that stated, in part,

“I … solemnly declare and affirm that I, without any mental reservation whatever, support the Presidency and Apostles of the Church; that I repudiate any intimation of any one of the Presidency and Apostles of the Church is living a double life . . .that I denounce the practice and advocacy of plural marriage . . . and that I myself am not living in such alleged marriage relationship.”…

Problems Encountered in Surveillance

Bishop Curtis found certain challenges in his job. First, not all Bishops were anxious to excommunicate sympathizers or believers in continued plural marriage. Second, sometimes mistakes were made that caused embarrassment. Third, cooperation with the Salt Lake City police did not last. Finally, Curtis found that the fundamentalist movement was actually growing rather than shrinking.

Bishop Curtis complained to President Clark about having considerable trouble with Bishops and Stake Presidents “in getting them to handle [excommunicate] these people.” He solicited President Clark’s help, writing, “Anything you could do to assist us would be most sincerely appreciated.”

Another problem arose from the use of license plate numbers to identify polygamy sympathizers. Joseph A. Wirthlin of the Presiding Bishop’s office wrote to Bishop Curtis telling him of members of the Church who had come into his office shocked to find their names connected with the plural marriage movement. Wirthlin complained, “it causes some embarrassment in this office when a mistake is made.” He recommended checking all license plates twice.

Curtis was frustrated when he lost police coordination and support. This happened when a new Salt Lake City Police Chief, Reed E. Vetterli, replaced the old one, Odis B. Record. When Bishop Curtis interviewed Vetterli early in 1941, he learned that “that the two men who had been making this investigation [had] been assigned to other work” because Vetterli “did not know that the former chief had been conducting an investigation.”… He (Bishop Curtis) wrote to President Clark that “possibly . . . a word to Chief Vetterli from a member of the First Presidency would help materially in having this investigation continued, as it would be a shame for this investigation to be dropped at this time when so much valuable information has already been secured.”

Nevertheless, Vetterli did not renew the police department’s participation as Curtis had hoped. In August 1941, Curtis wrote Clark, “Since the changing of the Chief of Police, we have had no cooperation whatsoever from them. …Chief Vetterli…promised full cooperation…however has given us none whatsoever.”…

The temporary lull was caused when the Granite Stake President released Fred E. Curtis as Bishop of the Hawthorne Ward. Assuming the surveillance mission would be part of the new Bishop’s duties, Curtis turned over his entire polygamy files to his replacement and then notified President Clark. Clark immediately arranged a  meeting with Curtis. Curtis was instructed to continue the investigation of these “special people.” President Clark soon furnished Curtis with a list of “New Polygamists” marked “CONFIDENTIAL” which he had obtained from Police Inspector Otis B. Record. Clark requested that Curtis send him a complete summary of those “who have already been dealt with and those . . . [who] have not.” Curtis provided the list, naming a total of 170 persons. Of these, 32 had been investigated and cleared, 58 had been excommunicated or disfellowshipped and several others were still under investigation. It named 24 “new” individuals who had not been previously reported…

As time progressed, Curtis’ letters to the First Presidency indicated increasing alarm at the growing number of Fundamentalists and their increased activity.

“The Group is now getting so larger [sic] that they are meeting men and women together on the first Tuesday of the month. On other Tuesdays, the men still meet [at one address], while the women assemble on Tuesdays [at another address]. Sunday meetings are held at the home of Charles F. Zitting, while a meeting of boys and girls of our Deacons age is held each Sunday evening.”

He later reported that fundamentalists had formed Book of Mormon and temple ordinance study groups which were being attended by members of the Church. Bishop Curtis wrote, “…it is surprising to see how many young people are joining this group. …[a] total of 73 people attending January 7th [1941], about 60% were young people under thirty years of age.” Seven months later, in August 1941, Curtis’ apprehension seemed almost a panic. “This group is growing by leaps and bounds and the attendance of young people is astounding…. …over 100 people attend and meetings are being held in all parts of the city and county. New members are being introduced each week.” He plead with Clark for a personal meeting, “we would like very much to explain to you the seriousness of this situation …we feel that the way this organization is growing [,] something must be done.”

Something was being done. In a meeting of the First Presidency with Salt Lake County stake presidents, it was pointed out that, “the district attorney “was a good Latter-day Saint and would persecute [sic] the ‘new polyg’s criminally if it were deemed wise.” President Clark responded to this remark that criminal prosecution should begin as soon as possible. Clark’s recommendation came to full fruition within four years. The results was the 1944 polygamy raid called the Boyden Crusade – a massive coordination of federal, state and local law enforcement that culminated in the arrests of 46 men and women relating to their fundamentalist activities and to plural marriage. In 1945, 15 men out of the original 46 arrested were incarcerated in the Utah State Penitentiary and two men were sent to a Federal prison in Nebraska. None of those who served time ever gave up their belief in or practice of plural marriage.

It is noteworthy that in 1944 (and subsequently) President Clark denied he had ever instigated any legal actions against the fundamentalists. Other Church officials were not so reticent about admitting Church involvement. In October 1944, Apostle Mark E. Peterson sent an article to the San Francisco News for publication, “desiring, now that convictions were obtained [against the Fundamentalists], to make it known to the world that the Church was doing the prosecuting.”…


… Church leaders were determined to distance the Church as far as possible from those who persisted in the practice on the Church’s periphery and make it apparent to everyone, both inside and outside the Church, that polygamy was no longer acceptable. These leaders influenced stiffer laws against polygamy and initiated surveillance to discover polygamists or would-be polygamists within Church ranks and provided their evidence to the state. Understood in this light, it is no surprise that the Fred E. Curtis papers, files of an L.D.S. bishop, were given to the Utah State Attorney General. Perhaps then it also no surprise that these files have been recently reactivated within the offices of the current Utah Attorney General

 Audio of the unedited presentation can be downloaded here


9 thoughts on “Domestic “Spying” and the Mormon Motto”

  1. This is really disturbing. I don’t know what else to say. I can’t see why this couldn’t have been handled through normal Church channels, such as priesthood interviews, etc., with the kinds of questions we get today, such as “Do you sympathize with or participate in groups that…?”

    When taken together with other evidence that Church leaders did, in fact, practice polygamy long after they publicly said they didn’t any more, this is even more disturbing.

    Disclaimer: I am a faithful, loyal member of the LDS Church. That’s what makes this information disturbing.

    1. What is more disturbing is the fact that during the Smoot hearings and after the “Manifesto” the prophet under oath admitted to have take an additional plural wife. However, he was never excommunicated. hm…..

      1. “Do you sympathize with or participate in groups that…?” Wouldn’t have been done, since that question (along with the other temple interview questions) was invented by Heber J. Grant because of the things written in this article.

  2. I loved this article. It seems to be consistent with many other LDS authors as of late such as Daymon Smith. I am glad these things are becoming more public. We need to remember to put our faith in the one that matters and saves us which is Jesus Christ.

    Many of the cultural traditions that we hold are not “true”. What I mean by that is that many things i hear people say over and over to be revelations from God were not revelations at all. It is understanding this history correctly that allows us to see God’s hand in it all, and where “mans” hand was in it all.

    Just the poster above me shows the current attitude by adding a “Disclaimer:”, like any attitude different than the cultural norm is “apostate”. This article shows how different opinions were normal.

  3. I read this kind of expose and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I will do neither. Suffice it to say that the “Little Vatican” located in SLC did to its “heretics” what the “BIG Vatican” located in Rome did to its heretics for about 500 years. It is one thing to “excommunicate” those who violate Church policy. The Church has EVERY right to do that. But to then go the “next step” and put these people under duress for life and limb is crossing the line. Sincerely, I cannot and will not support such wholesale persecution. If this be The Church of Jesus Christ, then PLEASE send me to the farthest corners of Hell, where I can be as far away as possible from being even the minutest complicit in such Inquisitions of righteous men and women.

  4. So, as faithful latter-day saints in TODAY’S culture, whether by living such orthodoxy or “out of the box” and “working out their own salvation” by increasing their own personal relationship with their Father and Savior, what exactly is expected that we DO with this information?

    1. So often I wish I could ask such a question and just follow someone else’s sincere belief in what I should do. But that isn’t a true solution. I would suggest digging deep into your heart and take it to the Lord as for what you should do. Information even such as this should be a catalyst to research and ponder and inquire of God if there is something to learn or do. I appreciate the authors efforts NOT to direct opinion or actions because that wouldn’t be their place. But I would personally rather struggle with the truth than be at ease in ignorance, so I appreciate the information shared.

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