COLORADO CITY, Ariz. – In this polygamist enclave, where men take many wives to get to heaven, believers are taught that the difference between good and evil is stark and unwavering.
Just who is good and who is evil in the heart of polygamy country depends on who’s asking.
In Terrill Johnson’s bucolic world, “life is beautiful” among members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In Colorado City, where Mr. Johnson has been a council member since the town was incorporated in 1985, the people all have jobs and the population grows each year. Here and across the state line in Hildale, Utah, where the church leadership lives, there are no nursing homes and the children stay near their parents to raise their families.
“There’s 98 or 99 percent of the people here that are just as happy, just as friendly, as you’ll ever meet,” Mr. Johnson said. “One thing we can guarantee in a multiple family like ours is that our children are just as loved and cared for as any you’ll ever meet.”
A five-acre community garden provides food for the needy because, Mr. Johnson said, “we don’t believe in rich and poor. We believe in everyone’s needs being taken care of.”
Mr. Johnson runs the Meadowayne Dairy, which supplies most of the raw milk and cheese for the town, and employs his children in the dairy store. Two years ago, he opened a hennery.
He and Barbara Johnson married by arrangement 20 years ago. They declined to say how many wives are in their household. Mrs. Johnson described her family as “beautiful and loving.”
“If I have to come to work, I have another sister-wife who takes care of the children,” she said. “I trust her because I know she loves them like they were her own.”
The Johnsons say attacks by former church members come from bitterness.
“We have those who become disaffected and go away and cause terrible, terrible trouble,” Mr. Johnson said. “There’s absolutely no truth to what they tell you.”
But that world looks very different from Pam Black’s isolated home on the cliffs overlooking her former life among the fundamentalists.
Five years ago, the 52-year-old mother of 14 left the church and set up her mobile home on six acres of land far above the sprawling homes.
“I knew I was dying, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” Ms. Black said. “I had to have my freedom.”
The place she remembers is much darker than the one the Johnsons describe. The women in polygamist families are miserable, she said, and the men are thrown out of their homes and stripped of their families at the whim of church leaders.
When Ms. Black was 16, she said, she was assigned to Martin Black, 27, in an arranged marriage. He raped her on their wedding night, she said, and named a daughter for a woman he was eyeing as his next wife.
Opinionated and strong-willed, Ms. Black defied church doctrine by fighting with her husband and arguing with church elders.
Her husband filed for divorce, and she took off to live on the cliffs. Later, just before he died of cancer, her husband apologized for everything, she said.
Now, she said, her purpose is to be a constant reminder that not everyone in the church is happy – and that life there is not always beautiful.
“I will never give my life over to somebody again,” she said.