The last quarter of the 19th century was an era of moral reform for some. Much attention was directed toward temperance and prohibition activities, but other reformers concentrated on what they regarded as family values.
The Mormon Church had long attracted critics, particularly for its support of polygamy, the condition of having more than one spouse at a time.
Early in the Civil War, some Northerners equated polygamy with slavery and supported the passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, not to be confused with the Morrill Act of the same year that created land grant colleges. This anti-bigamy measure was aimed directly at the Mormons in Utah and outlawed bigamy in the territories. With the war well under way and Utah far from federal authority, the law was almost impossible to enforce.
A new tack was taken in 1870 when polygamy opponents attempted to subvert the practice by extending suffrage to women in Utah. This was not successful; the women voted and remained in plural marriages.
During the Arthur administration, Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont took up the cause in Washington. The Edmunds Act of 1882 made "unlawful cohabitation" illegal, thus removing the need to prove that actual marriages had occurred. More than 1,300 men were imprisoned under the terms of this measure. The act did declare to be legitimate births in Mormon polygamous marriages prior to January 1, 1883.