Family scrambling: As their wives and children are reassigned to other men, a wild surname web ensues
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. – Dad. Father. Richard Holm doesn’t much care which term his children use, as long as they think of him as their one and only.
That may be a lot to ask of children who, along with their mothers, were taken from Holm, assigned to another man and instructed that Holm no longer fills that role – which, in this polygamous community, is tied more to salvation than parenting.
“They are supposed to call him father and [are taught] that their real dad is to be referred to by first name,” said Holm, 53 and father of 17. “My kids do that very regularly.
“Everything sacred and holy to me is family and to have my kids taught they are someone else’s kids is the ultimate attack,” he said. “If anything is worse than the pain of death, it is that attack.”
Holm and other fathers exiled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leave behind homes, his wife or wives and children – even a surname may be wiped away when a family is placed with another man.
This unique scrambling of families has accelerated since 2002, when Warren S. Jeffs became leader of the FLDS church, based in the border-straddling towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz.
In a society that teaches children to love, value and depend on multiple mothers, fatherhood is much more fleeting and furtive, a status tied to spiritual standing, an identity that can be conferred on another with tacit approval
Even grown men participate in this name exchange, informally assuming surnames of supposedly more righteous men they regard as their “priesthood” fathers.
William Timpson started calling himself William Jessop after his father, Alma Timpson, left the community and his mother married FLDS patriarch Fred Jessop. In a similar fashion, William Barlow became William Rickert after his father, Louis Barlow, was kicked out.
The adult men in one family have gone through at least four name incarnations – Knudson to Knudson to Barlow to Allred – triggered first by their own father’s death and then excommunications of men, including an uncle, to whom their mother was assigned.
Holm, who once had three wives, has some children who go by a different last name; others, who were placed with his brother, were spared having to adopt a new surname.
Last names have always been problematic in polygamous communities because of the need to protect family connections. Most plural wives will keep a maiden name or, if previously married, a first husband’s name and pass it onto their children.
In some groups, plural wives choose an alias – a grandmother’s last name or one plucked out of nowhere. That phenomenon became widespread after government crackdowns on polygamists during the 1940s and 1950s.
Consider the case of Warren S. Jeffs, born two years after the infamous 1953 raid on Short Creek, as the twin towns were once known. The surname given at his birth was “Hansen,” a name dreamed up by his mother, Marilyn Steed, the fourth wife of Rulon T. Jeffs.
Other plural wives used such last names as Johnson, Hill and Jennings, according to Ward Jeffs, a son of Rulon’s first – and legal – wife. Around 1970, the senior Jeffs decided that all his offspring should have his last name, and birth certificates were changed en masse.
“I’m not sure what the excuses or reasons given for it were,” Ward Jeffs said.
Heidi Mattingly Foster, who has children with polygamist John Daniel Kingston, borrowed “Foster” from a grandmother. During a child welfare hearing, a juvenile judge ordered her to put “Kingston” on her 11 children’s birth certificates. A teenage daughter later asked to change the name again because of the notoriety associated with her father’s name.
In the FLDS community, some surnames – Barlow, Jessop, Johnson, Holm and Jeffs, to name a few – are so common that identities and relationships are blurred. A few surnames, such as Jeffs and Jessop, have become markers of spiritual rank in the same way “Young” or “Kimball” holds meaning in LDS circles or, in another context, “Rockefeller” or “Getty” signify wealth.
But “not everybody can be a Jeffs or a Jessop,” said Paul Musser, who was cut off from his family in 1999 and finally left the twin towns five years later after the hope of reconciliation evaporated.
Musser experienced the surname swap in two ways. At one point, he was rebaptized into the FLDS faith and was told to take a new last name. He chose Johnson, after former FLDS leader LeRoy Johnson, who married Musser’s mother after his father’s death.
After Musser was ousted, his wife and children were placed with another man and took that man’s last name. But he was subsequently kicked out, too, and there was another move. Once again, the children took the last name of their new “father.”
“They wanted to change their names to be identified with a good person,” Musser said. “It doesn’t make me feel real happy but there is nothing I can do about it at all.”
At some point, worries Musser, children “won’t remember who their real father is. It twists that knife a little bit deeper.”
The FLDS look to scripture and sermon to justify the practice, drawing from the Bible, Mormon canon, FLDS and LDS prophets.
One tome used by the FLDS, Purity in the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, quotes former LDS Church President John Taylor as saying: “A man dishonoring his Priesthood and his marriage covenants, forfeits his wives and children; the wives being released by the same authority that sealed them, are free to marry other men – worthy, their children automatically going to their new husbands without an adoption ceremony. They follow their mothers, and her sealing to a husband takes them with her.”
The early LDS Church also experimented with the “Law of Adoption.” The little used precept, which fell out of use around the end of the 19th century, allowed adults to be sealed to prominent church leaders to link them into a priesthood chain and ensure heavenly exaltation.
“Some adopted Saints took the surname of their new fathers. John D. Lee, for example, at times signed his name “John D. Lee Young” inasmuch as he considered himself to now be Brigham Young’s son,” writes Gordon Irving in a paper published in BYU Studies.
The “adoptionary system” had real world benefits, Irving notes, in that “sons were to give the fathers the benefit of their labor while the fathers offered their children not only some measure of security in the next world but counsel and direction in this world as well.”
In the end it proved unworkable, creating factions rather than uniting people, Irving writes.
But those who’ve lost fathers or children in the FLDS community say this stripping away of surnames is the final assault on a family and fatherhood.
Dan Fischer, a Sandy dentist and entrepreneur, grew up in the community that became the FLDS. One morning, then-prophet Rulon Jeffs announced Irwin Fischer would no longer be their father and the family was being reassigned to a more worthy man, Dan Fischer said. They were told to take on the last name of their new father.
“One of my younger sisters started sobbing and asked him, ‘If my father does better, can he be my father again?’ ” Fischer said.
Rulon Jeffs’ answer was no, there wasn’t enough time, according to Fischer. “It’s the destruction of a lineage,” Fischer said.
Richard Holm, whom Jeffs kicked out of the FLDS community in 2003, recently moved back into Colorado City to be closer to his eight younger children, who range in age from 16 to 5. It is a continual effort, he said, to show them he is not a bad person and to keep his position in their lives and hearts.
When the children call him “Richard,” Holm reminds them it is OK to call him “Father” or even “Dad.”
“I tell them every once in a while they only have one dad, one father, and it is the same,” he said.