An advertisement appeared in the August 3rd 1870 Desert News: “We now have for sale at this office in pamphlet form, a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Newman, pastor of the Metropolitan Methodist Church, Washington D.C., and a reply to the same by Elder Orson Pratt. Price twenty-five cents per copy.” Dr. Newman was one of the great speakers of that age, a great orator when good oratory was much appreciated. In addition to being a pastor, he was chaplain of the U.S. Senate. That position made him a first hand observer of members of congress as they struggled with the big political issue of that spring and summer. It was polygamy, specifically the form of plural marriage as practiced by those strange anti-establishment Mormons out in Utah Territory. To most easterners, including one congressman, “polygamy was a great evil requiring the most extreme measures to remove at all cost that festering, malignant cancer afflicting the nation’s moral soul.”

Dr. Newman delivered his sermon at his church. In attendance were the most powerful players from Washington society, including President Grant, Vice President Colfax, Chief Justice Chase, and Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine. The sermon was well received.

Back in Utah, the non-Mormon Salt Lake Daily Telegraph stirred the controversy further by asking the question in a May 3rd editorial: “Why was not the sermon given in Salt Lake City where 10 thousand Mormons could hear it and then Elder Orson Pratt or some other prominent Mormon could deliver a rebuttal? Let us have a fair contest of peaceful argument, and let the best side win. Come on and convert them (i.e. the Latter-Day Saints) by the peaceful influences of the Bible, instead of using means now proposed (special, hostile legislation).”

Dr. Newman, not being one to turn from a challenge, took this editorial as an invitation and immediately made plans to visit Utah. Upon arrival, he fired off a letter to President Brigham Young proposing a debate on the subject of polygamy. President Young explained that he was much too busy to properly prepare for formal debate but that “Dr. Newman would be given free access to the tabernacle or any other building he desired and a suitable congregation would be provided along with Church Elders of his choice to discuss polygamy or any other scriptural doctrine.” Newman was resentful; he called it a “cheap and safe attempt on Young’s part to avoid debate.” Though highly displeased, he finally accepted and chose Orson Pratt as his opponent. Unknowingly he chose the most accomplished scripturian in the Mormon hierarchy. Pratt accepted and the stage was set for the great debate: “Does the Bible Sanction Polygamy – Pratt vs. Newman?”

Debate, (some would call it argument), was almost the national pastime in 1870 America. There was no organized sports, no television, no internet, no movies, no shopping malls, no telephones; there were few opportunities for recreation of any kind but being a democracy, American culture encouraged debate. And Americans loved a well presented argument with its play-on-words, clever and flowery expressions, logical deductions, and especially the ever-present sarcasm. Usually the debates were political but as in our example, sometimes they were about religion.

The dates selected were the 12th, 13th and 14th of June, to be held in the tabernacle. Each speaker was allowed one hour each day. The only permitted standard of authority was to be the Bible in its original and English languages. Much of the discussion centered upon what to us would appear to be obscure passages of little interest but to those of that generation, items of substantial importance. It’s hard to say who won. The general consensus was that Dr. Newman was the more polished speaker. He carried those who valued a fine oratorical presentation while Elder Pratt was the clear winner for those more concerned with the weight of evidence. In the end, the most intriguing aspect, at least to historians, was the unusual amount of interest shown by the public. Attendance the first day was 4 thousand, much larger the second day and on the third, a Sunday, 11 thousand with standing room only. The newspapers, the only media of that day, carried detailed, almost verbatim accounts of each presentation. Also there was extensive pre- and post-event commentary, not so different from how sporting events are covered today. And probably the most interesting part of all was the reaction of thousands of small communities all across Territorial Utah. The Desert News tells us that special impressions were printed and rushed to the outlying settlements so literally everyone could stay up-to-date.

Details for this story come from “A Comprehensive History of the Church, Century One, Vol. V”, by B. H. Roberts, Brigham Young University Press, 1965.