Tucked up against the Vermilion Cliffs on the backside of the desert wilderness that is Zion National Park, Colorado City and Hildale may appear to be the land time forgot. Men, women and children, wearing clothing reminiscent of pioneer days, have cut themselves off from TV, the Internet and much of everything else considered to be everyday conveniences of modern life. No matter where they’ve settled in North America, people who believe that plural marriage is a bedrock principle of their faith have never found respite from the law.
Three-quarters of a century ago, a small group of polygamists settled on the banks of Short Creek, which winds through the high desert of southern Utah and on into Arizona. There they would preserve the principle of plural marriage, believing it to be the path to the highest reach of heaven.
Today the Fundamentalist Church Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints counts some 10,000 members in what now are the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. A branch flourishes far to the north in Bountiful, British Columbia. Despite state and federal laws banning polygamy, the practice has continued all these years.
Their leader is Warren Jeffs. The faithful believe his words are given by God. He shields his people from the outside world, yet lives in a walled compound protected by bodyguards. He exiles men who displease him, yet many yearn to come back. Most of the FLDS flock say they have found spiritual fulfillment, but some chafe at the austere lifestyle and flee.
“I believe Warren is trying to accomplish something that even God hasn’t heretofore,” says a man who once was close to Jeffs. “To be able to pull together a captive group of followers who are measured by a mortal man as being perfectly united in mind and body and purpose.”
His goal: Perfect obedience, perfect faith, perfect people.