John Taylor, who had survived the mob attack that killed prophet Joseph Smith, was chosen as the next president of the Church. His first task was to sort out the estate of Brigham Young which was valued at over $1.6 million (about $40 million in today’s money), but which was complicated because the Church had signed over much of its property to Young after the passing of the Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. President Taylor then chose to continue this policy of secretly holding Church property in excess of $50,000 in the names of individual Church leaders.
In June of 1874, the Poland Law was passed, which took control of the Utah judicial system from Church leaders and returned it to federal control. This paved the way to finally begin the enforcement of the law against bigamy signed by Abraham Lincoln a dozen years earlier. By the early 1870s, between 25 and 30 percent of the Saints were living in families with multiple wives. Despite the many attempts to defend plural marriage as their religious and moral right, most Americans still viewed the practice as barbaric, immoral, and deplorable.
Church leaders were eager to have the Supreme Court review the anti-bigamy law, expecting they would determine it to be unconstitutional, and overturn it. 32-year-old Church secretary George Reynolds, who had recently married a second wife, was chosen to become a test case. He was arrested in 1875 and sentenced by a judge to two years of hard labor in prison and a $500 fine. By 1879 the twice-appealed case made it to the Supreme Court which upheld the constitutionality of the anti-bigamy law and Reynold's sentence.
With the law now firmly in place, federal officials began prosecuting polygamous husbands and wives during the 1880s. Choosing to disobey the law, many of the Saints including President Taylor and other church leaders went "underground," moving frequently from place to place, on the run from federal marshals. Some fled to Mexico. One bishop hid for 24 hours in freight container used for transporting pork.
In 1887, Church President Taylor died, and his successor, William Woodruff chose not to attend Taylor’s funeral so as to avoid arrest. That same year, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed, legally disincorporating the Church, and requiring all its assets in excess of $50,000 to be forfeited to the government. "I pray to God that He will protect the Manti Temple and all other temples we have built," said President Woodford at the dedication of a newly completed temple in Manti, Utah, "that they may never go into the hands of our enemies, to be defiled by them."
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1890, and also upheld an Idaho law that took away the right to vote from any citizen refusing to swear he did not belong to a church that believed in plural marriage. By spring a similar bill that would disenfranchise the Saints in Utah appeared likely to pass. When Church President Woodruff then learned that he was to be subpoenaed and brought to Washington, DC, to testify concerning polygamy, he fled to California.
In San Francisco, Woodruff met political leaders including influential businessman and lobbyist Isaac Trumbo who had close ties to Senator Leland Stanford. He was informed that—were it not for the irreconcilable matter of polygamy—leaders in Washington could be convinced to grant Utah its long sought-after statehood. By August Woodruff received reports that the government was preparing to confiscate the Church's temples in Salt Lake City, St. George, Logan, and Manti.
Soon after his return to Salt Lake City the next month, Woodruff told fellow Church leaders that after seeking guidance from Jesus, he had received a revelation telling him what to do. At a conference on October 7,1890, the Church approved and publicly proclaimed a Manifesto written by Woodruff which stated that the Church was no longer teaching plural marriage and that the practice was now forbidden by the Church.
Woodruff testified to the Saints that the Manifesto was from God, and encouraged them to each pray to receive their own assurance from Heavenly Father of its truth. "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray," he reminded them. "If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty."
In the wake of the Manifesto, US President Grover Cleveland issued a general amnesty to all who had been prosecuted under the anti-bigamy laws, and all confiscated property was returned to the Church. Plans for Utah's statehood moved forward with the writing of a state constitution that prohibited plural marriage and ensured a separation of church and state. Finally, on January 4, 1896, President Cleveland announced that Utah had now joined the Union as the 45th state.
April of 1892 saw the completion of the Salt Lake City Temple. Amid an audience of 50,000, President Woodruff stood on a platform and pressed an electric button that caused the capstone to be lowered into position. At the dedication ceremony for the temple, angels were seen by some, while others saw the former presidents of the Church who had died.
Woodruff spent his latter years promoting temple work for the dead. Although baptisms for all the Founding Fathers of the nation had previously been performed, in March of 1894, Benjamin Franklin appeared to Woodruff asking that further temple rituals necessary for salvation be performed on his behalf.
As was his annual tradition, in 1898, Woodruff escaped the heat of Utah's summer by traveling to San Francisco. But while vacationing there, the prophet's health failed him, and he died in his sleep at the home of his friend Isaac Trumbo who had helped Utah gain its statehood.
Upon receiving the news of Woodruff's death, the 85-year-old Lorenzo Snow went into the Salt Lake City Temple and poured his heart out to Jesus. "I now present myself before Thee for Thy guidance and instruction," said Snow. "I ask that Thou show me what Thou wouldst have me do." In one of the temple's hallways, Jesus then appeared and told Snow that he was to become the next president of the Church.