After reading a recent article on Flora Jessop, a former member of the Fundamental Latter Day Saints who fled the sect and now devotes herself to “rescuing” others who are trying to make their escape, a woman who grew up in the faith broke what has been a pervasive silence by most members of the church to defend her faith and her beliefs.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, she agreed to answer several questions raised about the secretive church, a group scattered in several enclave communities from Mexico to Canada comprised of an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 members.
It is the only religious group in the U.S. and Canada that openly espouses polygamy, or plural marriage, as a tenet of their faith.
“I don’t mind sharing with you my personal story or experiences so you can better understand our people,” she wrote, “but I don’t want to become part of this horrid media circus that is attacking our people from every direction.”
While not willing to share her identity with readers, she did describe herself as having been born and raised in Hildale, Arizona, and Colorado City, Utah, once being a good friend of Flora Jessop, spending the fourth through the sixth grade as classmates and friends.
“We spent a lot of time together,” she wrote, “horse riding, hanging out, listening to music, etc. Our little sisters were best friends, so we spent a lot of time together. I assure you her childhood was not as described. And the childhoods of our children are not as she describes, either. We love our children and they are our greatest treasure. The treatment of our children as she describes makes my blood run cold. We are not brainwashed, abused housewives forced into loveless marriages at young ages. The truth is, we are just a peaceful people trying to raise our families and live our religion. And truth is not what people want to hear; it won’t sell any papers.”
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Though in existence for over a century, splitting off from the main body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the 1890s when the church officially renounced polygamy, the Fundamental Latter Day Saints have for the most part maintained an extremely low profile. While concerns have been raised of allegations of polygamy, which is against the law in both the U.S. and Mexico, child abuse and more, law enforcement has until recently been recalcitrant about investigating. A raid on FLDS compounds in Colorado City and Hildale in the early 1950s ended in a publicity disaster for the agencies involved. The raid split up numerous FLDS families, placing many children in foster care, and raised the cry of religious persecution that was taken up far beyond the FLDS community.
Only recently has media attention increased its focus on the group, and law enforcement has also stepped up its efforts, most brought on by the seemingly erratic teachings of “Prophet” Warren Jeffs, who stepped into the leadership role after his father, Rulon Jeffs, died in 1998. Many consider his actions since achieving a position in which he, and only he, is the source of contact between “God” and his followers, bode disaster on par with those of Waco, Texas and Frenchtown, Guyana, in the 1970s, when over a thousand followers of the Reverend Jim Jones committed suicide or were forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
In answering a series of difficult questions, the woman I corresponded with confirmed what many who’ve attempted to learn more about the group have said, that its people are generally hard working, devout and industrious. In prefacing her answers, she wrote, “As you know, no one can accurately say for sure the motives or the actions of others. I will try to answer your questions as best I can.”
These are the questions and the answers she gave.
After decades of relative quiet, to what do you attribute the increasing media and law enforcement attention on the FLDS?
“I do not know why we are receiving increased media and law enforcement attention. Possibly it is because of our increased effort to live as we are taught. Mostly I feel like it is due to the unfounded rantings of dissidents.”
A concern among outsiders is the perceived instability of Warren Jeffs, who is apparently hiding and is being sought by law enforcement in Utah. Is there validity to this, and is there a sense of concern among members of the church?
“If it seemed that the general public were becoming hostile towards you, wouldn’t you ‘lie low?’ I know he has had many death threats and is taking them seriously. After all, our Prophet Joseph Smith was murdered by a crowd that had been threatening him, and the government did nothing to stop it. Would we want to risk that?”
Another major concern is the apparent increase in young men being excommunicated, forbidden to make contact with their families, stripped of all they hold dear and being cast into the outside world with little or no education or social skills and with the belief that they’re damned to hell for eternity. Law enforcement in cities where this is allegedly occurring report a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide as these young men have no resources, lack a basic education and lack the coping skills necessary to face life outside the church, which is all they’ve ever known. The reason, many outside the church feel, is to increase the availability for older men to take young women, some as young as 13, as celestial brides. Is there validity to this perception?
“They young men that have been excommunicated or leave are generally not willing to live by the rules of the home. A lot of them just want the ‘party’ lifestyle, drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. Under age drinking, smoking, sex outside of marriage and any illegal drug use is not permitted. Most leave … I personally know of only three young men that have been sent out. I know of dozens who have chosen to leave, three of my own brothers have chosen to leave because they want a different life. That is their choice and I respect them for it. Another of my brothers was excommunicated because he committed adultery. I personally do not know of anyone who has been married before the age of 16, most wait until they are 18. I was 21. My sisters were 25, 18, 19 and 17. The youngest was a first wife, married to a 19-year-old.”
Another perception is that these young brides, though married in the eyes of the church, are not legally married, and that the church advocates that these young women attain food stamps, Medicare and other government funds as single mothers, which many deem nothing less than defrauding the government at the expense of tax payers. Is this perception true, and does the FLDS advocate such action?
“When our family was going through a financial difficulty due to the loss of my husband’s job, we asked our bishop if we should apply for assistance. We were told to apply for assistance only if we could qualify while being completely honest and legal. I personally know of no one who is receiving assistance as a single mother who is not indeed a single mother.”
It is reported that since rising to the status of prophet, Warren Jeffs has rewritten the by-laws governing the United Effort Plan Trust and that this trust, meant to benefit the members of the FLDS, is being used for little more than to line the pockets of Warren Jeffs and depriving those who rightly share claim to a portion of the proceeds. In the eyes of the members of the FLDS, does the trust remain intact for use as intended when it was established?
“To my knowledge, the UEP Trust has not been rewritten. I do know that over the years the original trust officers have been replaced due to deaths of the original trust officers. Which is the traditional way such matters are handled.”
Rumors of sexual abuse involving both young boys and young girls by men who leaders in the church run rampant. In the Utah lawsuit in which Warren Jeffs is being sought, the complainant alleges he was sexually molested by Jeffs and two other adult male relatives under the guise of “making him a man.” Are these rumors true, and if so, is such action condoned by the tenets of the church?
“The allegations of sexual abuse are just that, allegations. False allegations. The people would never follow a man who had committed such crimes. Men who commit such crimes are excommunicated!”
Much has been said of the tension between multiple wives in a home; that the practice of polygamy is degrading to the women involved and that some of the worst abuses faced by younger women comes not at the hands of men, but at the hands of other of their wives. In your perception, is this an accurate depiction?
“I have personally never seen such treatment. Everyone who lives that closely would have occasional spats. I have had more disagreements with my husband than I care to remember, but never anything physical!”
It is widely believed that young women are moved between the various cities of the FLDS for the purpose of becoming wives to men they don’t know. As these marriages aren’t condoned by the governments of the countries involved, where polygamy is illegal, this is called little more than trafficking in sex slaves. Is there any basis to this belief?
“No, women are not trafficked as sex slaves. That accusation is an insult to us and our beliefs in celestial marriage! I knew my husband, but not well, when we were married. We did not ‘consummate’ our relationship until we knew each other well and felt a genuine love for each other.”
It is reported that members of the FLDS are raised from birth to shun the outside world, that one of the earliest lessons taught is to “keep sweet,” to avoid contact with outsiders and above all not to tell of the inner workings of the church. Based on this belief, outsiders have likened the FLDS that they see as nearly on par with hate groups such as the Aryan Nations. What is the members’ perception of those not of the church?
“Yes, we do tend to shun the outside world. Wouldn’t you if your beliefs were continually being attacked? We are not to tell the inner workings of the church … they are private and sacred! How many religions do you know of where their inner workings are displayed to the general public? We do not believe we are superior to other races, we are all God’s children. We do believe we are not to marry outside of our race. I personally have many friends, of different races, outside the church. We are not the sheltered, helpless people the media portrays. I attended public schools, including several years of college. Education was always encouraged. I was offered a modeling contract with a big firm in L.A., but my father forbid me to take it until I had finished high school.”
Despite these concerns, those who purport to know the workings of the FLDS best all agree that for the most part its members are pious, industrious and hard working people. What are the key things people outside the church should know about the FLDS congregation to help them understand that the growing hysteria is unfounded?
“We are hard working, good people. We are cautious of the outside world due to recent attacks and our history with the 1953 raid. My father was five at that time, and he did not see most of his family for three years! It was a horrid and stressful time for all of our people, but especially the children, who are now adults, many of whom were scarred for life and have no trust for the government. We want to prevent the same thing from happening again to our children. Can you blame us?”
In your own words, please describe as best you can what life on a day-to-day basis is like within the FLDS. What are your hopes and aspirations? What brings you joy … what causes you concern?
“Day to day life for us is much the same as it is for you. The men go to work and work hard to support their families. Some ladies work. But instead of leaving their children at daycare, those with plural families leave their children in the safe, secure environment of home. Some of us, like myself, are just housewives, same as anywhere in the world. We cook and clean, do laundry, take care of our children, run errands, etc. Many also work at home sewing, bookkeeping, etc., whatever we can do to help support our families.
“My joys in life are simple ones. Pride in a good days’ work. The joy of watching my children develop and grow. To spend time with them, enjoy their childhood along with them. Teaching my son how to repair a bike tire. Preparing a special meal for my family. Helping my 13-year-old sew her first dress. Reading a favorite book with my toddler. Snow boarding, skating or hiking with the older ones, or a simple evening at home playing board games and eating popcorn.
“As for my hopes and aspirations; I hope to raise a good family, with strong moral values and a good work ethic. I hope that my children will be able to pursue their dreams without being persecuted for their beliefs. I hope that we will all be able to afford to send our children, boys and girls, to college. I plan to go back to college when my last preschooler goes to school, and eventually to own my own business. My husband and my family supports me in my hopes, dreams and goals. What more could I want?”