Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons, felt an extra layer of anxiety this week when they saw news coverage of the raid on a West Texas polygamist sect.
Like other Americans, they were horrified by reports that 416 children, mostly girls, had been seized by authorities after a 16-year-old called a family violence shelter to report that her 50-year-old husband had beaten and raped her.
But beyond the natural feelings of sympathy for the victims — officials suspect the girls were being sexually and physically abused — Mormons had an added sense of familiar dread.
The problem for Mormons is that fundamentalist splinter groups, many of which split from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decades ago over the issue of polygamy, retain the Latter-day Saints language in their names. The Texas sect is part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“I have the same reaction most people have — I’m just dumbfounded that in this day and age, those kinds of abuses go on,” said Heather Blair, a Mormon and 47-year-old mother of five from Chesterfield. “I’m just concerned we’re going to be lumped in with them, and the truth is we’re so far from where they are in a whole host of ways.”
The fundamentalist sect’s prophet, Warren Jeffs, was charged in 2005 and 2006 with forcing underage girls into marriages at the sect’s headquarters on the border of Utah and Arizona. He was convicted in September in Utah of being an accomplice to rape and is serving up to life in prison.
Investigators searching the sect’s 1,700-acre Texas compound this week found a bed in a limestone temple where, they said, girls were required to immediately consummate their marriages. A number of teenage girls are pregnant, investigators said.
“It is frustrating at times,” said David Sylvester, a 46-year-old from Herculaneum who serves as the president of one of four Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints territories (called stakes) in the St. Louis area. “The nickname given the church — Mormon — seems to be tagged to every one of the splinter groups that’s left the church, so people believe we’re one religion, and such is not the case. I don’t know how many times I’ve addressed this question. It’s an interesting challenge every time it happens.”
Polygamy is another reason non-Mormons sometimes confuse the mainstream church with breakaway groups. The church was founded by 1830 and by 1890 it had officially discontinued polygamy. But more than a century later, members still have trouble shaking that part of their church’s history.
“This is 100 years ago and kids go to school and they get asked, ‘How many moms do you have,'” said Jim Hendricks, a 48-year-old from St. Charles who works for the church’s religious education program. “There’s a little bit of ignorance out there about our doctrine and belief, but then again, I’m not an expert on other people’s religion.”
Terry Slezak, a 44-year-old O’Fallon software consultant and president of the church’s north St. Louis County and St. Charles stake, said the media are partly to blame for the confusion for applying the term Mormon — which only applies to the 13 million members of the mainstream church — to the fundamentalist sect.
But, said Slezak, a lot of church members use weeks like the last one as a teaching moment for non-Mormon neighbors and coworkers. “I look at it much more that way than anything else,” he said. “All we can do is just present ourselves for who we are. Some people need to be enlightened periodically because they don’t know.”
Blair said she’s happy to explain the differences between her church and the fundamentalist splinter groups to anyone who’s curious. “People can just ask me questions and I tell them I don’t share those beliefs,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.