An Unusual Call to the Law

woodruff.jpgLaw seems to be a profession that produces family dynasties. For example, I clerked for a judge who was the scion of a great Southern legal family that had a duo of distinguished federal appellate judges and a couple of state supreme court justices to its credit. The Oman family, however, is but one generation removed from high country ranching on the western slope of the Rockies. I have, however, unearthed some judicial ancestors through my paternal grandmother.

My great, great grandfather was a man named Justin Call. He was born in Utah in the last half of the 19th century and came of age as the confrontation between the Mormon Church and the federal government reached white-hot intensity. The Mormons had committed themselves to creating a religious (indeed theocratic) commonwealth in Great Basin that was to include communitarian economic experiments, religious direction on political questions, and — most notoriously — polygamy. Not surprisingly, an America devoted to ideals of companionate monogamy and economic individualism was not about to let the Mormon viper rear its ugly head on the nation’s hearth. The result was a series of ever more punitive laws between the 1860s and the 1880s directed against Mormon polygamists and the Mormon Church as an institution. By 1890, thousands of Mormons had been incarcerated for polygamy and “unlawful cohabitation,” the Mormon Church lay in financial ruin with essentially all of its assets confiscated by the federal government, tens of thousands of Mormons had been disenfranchised, and Congress stood poised to pass legislation that would purge all Mormons from the voting rolls. Faced with institutional annihilation and permanent political subjugation for his people, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Mormon Church, issued the so-called “Manifesto,” which began the tortuous process of abandoning plural marriage and Mormonism’s 19th-century utopian ambitions.

Ironically, the Mormon efforts to resist the federal legal campaign had been hindered by their own anti-legalism. Zion — the name that Mormons gave to their vision of the godly society — was to be a place ruled by love and justice, not by the pettifogging technicalities of the common law. Accordingly, Brigham Young and his associates treated Mormons to a good generation or two of sermons denouncing the evils of lawyers and “going to law” against one’s brothers and sisters. Hence, when the legal confrontation came, Mormons found themselves without many — in Young’s phrase — “lawyers of their own to defend them.”


By the 1890s, Woodruff had clearly decided that something needed to be done to remedy this situation. At the time, my great, great grandfather was teaching school in a remote settlement in the deserts of southern Utah. On a trip to Salt Lake City, he was contacted and asked to visit the office of the President Woodruff. At the time, it was not uncommon for Mormon men to be “called on missions” to preach the Mormon gospel which would send them to distant countries as missionaries. Justin Call no doubt assumed that his appointment with President Woodruff was to receive such “a call.” In their interview, however, Woodruff informed my great, great grandfather that he and the other high elders of the church were concerned about the dearth of Mormon lawyers. Accordingly, they had a call for brother Call. Rather than sending him to preach the gospel, his mission was to go to law school at Cornell and then return to Utah as both Mormon and lawyer.

So Justin Call and his family packed their bags, and after a blessing was pronounced on his head by Woodruff, moved to Ithica to study law. Cornell was probably chosen because as a militantly secular university in a time when higher education was dominated by Protestant institutions, it was less likely to be hostile to exotic religious minorities like a Mormon from Utah. In the fullness of time, Justin Call graduated, returned to Utah, and eventually served as a judge.

And that is how my great, great grandfather was called to the bar.

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1 Response

  1. Matt says:

    Given the size of his family you’re hardly alone in being related to Call! I knew at least a half dozen families in Boise directly related to him and many more (including my own) that had some relationship. This doesn’t add much to your story, of course, except to say that a very large number of people in Idaho and Utah are related to him.