Colorado City, Ariz. — Amazing prophecies are nothing new here in the desert headquarters of America’s largest polygamous church, but the story of 2,500 people about to be lifted up into heaven has created an urgency unlike any before. Rulon Jeffs, the aging and reclusive prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), officially denies making predictions of mass ascension for the righteous. Yet preparations are evident.
Jeffs — who for more than a decade has commuted by Learjet from Salt Lake County, where he owns a 4-acre estate in Little Cottonwood Canyon, to church services and meetings in this red-desert sanctuary — reportedly declared that Salt Lake City is “the wickedest city on Earth” and will be destroyed.
The 89-year-old tax accountant and his sons are selling their polygamous enclaves in Little Cottonwood Canyon — palatial homes, a schoolhouse, nursery and 150-space parking lot. A collection of grain silos at the estate recently has been dismantled and reassembled in Hildale, where the prophet and his 20 wives have taken up permanent residence in a newly expanded home.
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Recent sermons here have focused on “readiness” for the deliverance, which is supposed to take place sometime between today and 2000.
Stockpiles of food are being gathered for the big event, which dissidents in town have derisively labeled “the pickup.” And polygamous families have scurried to build additions onto their homes for members returning from different parts of the country.
Inspired by a fear that unbound teens and young adults will be overlooked at the end because they have not adopted polygamous lifestyles, a flurry of weddings have coincided with a recent upswing in the aging Jeff’s health.
“My father is counted on to pair people off through inspiration, when he’s up and well,” said Ward Jeffs, a polygamist who recently was forced out of his father’s church by his brother, Warren Jeffs. “It’s all done so young adults can be sure that God’s mouthpiece will put them together with the person that is right. And, of course, there is an influence that says if the end is coming, it is better if people are paired off.”
The faithful have been told that an ending worthy of the Book of Revelation is at hand.
“I’ve been aware for a lot of years of this kind of talk, and yes, it has escalated,” Ward Jeffs said. “My father has not, in his own words, been given the word of God to pass the mantle [of the prophet], so he believes he must be the one to — spiritually and economically — prepare the kingdom for the one mighty and strong to return. When it happens, only the fit will be lifted up to heaven.”
Although Ward Jeffs believes in his father’s work, the fight with his brother has left him disillusioned. He is at peace with God, he says, and will remain behind in Salt Lake County.
That just 2,500 righteous followers will be deemed fit only adds to the urgency in the twin polygamous towns of Colorado City and Hildale. Church members are closer than ever, said Ward, and they are obedient about not speaking to outsiders for fear of losing their “fitness” to ascend to heaven.
The number 2,500, which comes from several sources within the FLDS church, has no apparent connection to Mormon or other Christian teachings. Mormons used to teach that 250,000 LDS faithful would return to Jackson County, Mo., for the second coming of Jesus Christ, predicted for 1890. In the Book of Revelation, there is a reference to 144,000 special kings and priests.
Joel Petersen — an ex-member forced out of the church because he grew his hair long and dared speak to girls his age, thus making himself impure for marriage — says the inspiration for Jeffs’ prophecy comes from the story of Enoch, a city lifted to heaven.
The story is included in the Pearl of Great Price, which, along with the Book of Mormon, the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants, make up the body of LDS scripture.
While the rest of the world faces Armageddon, Enoch returns to join a latter-day Zion — or, in this case, the polygamous communities of Colorado City and Hildale — during the second coming of Jesus Christ.
“They believe they’re the only true religion,” said Petersen, who left the church three years ago. “They’ll go get all those religious books — the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants — and prove it 40 different ways.”
The coming millennium — complicated by predictions of worldwide economic chaos triggered by computers ill-prepared for date changes in 2000 — has fueled the church’s end-of-the-world philosophy, Petersen said.
“Times were going to get bad, the government would collapse, there would be no access to the stores, the banks would go — everything,” he said.
According to another ex-member, preparations for the end are nearing frenzy.
“My mom said they have been canning like crazy and asked me if I could find her any canning jars,” she said. “There are no more jars at any of the towns for miles and they desperately needed more. Sounds more like a standoff than a trip to heaven.”
Rulon Jeffs, whose words are held in godlike acclaim by members of his church, does not give interviews. He suffered a recent stroke and is said to be on oxygen 24 hours a day.
His closest caretaker, Warren Jeffs, refused to explain church doctrine.
But Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, who also acts as a spokesman for the FLDS Church, called the ascension story “absolute foolishness” and denied that Jeffs has made any such prophecy.
“I see where you’re going with this. You’re trying to make us look like those nutcases in San Diego who committed suicide waiting for the flying saucer,” he told a reporter, referring to the 1997 group suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult in a California mansion.
“It isn’t coming from anybody who knows,” said Barlow of the supposed prophecy. “I don’t know who’s making it up.”
Coming Change: While insiders feign ignorance, leaders of the FLDS church were present earlier this month when Jeffs and his son Warren addressed the “Millennial” prophecy to followers in Colorado City.
“I would like to see you all in the glorified Zion, which is soon to come,” an ailing Rulon Jeffs is quoted as saying at the end of the Oct. 11 meeting, according to a copy of the lesson obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
In the five-page pamphlet, Warren Jeffs advises members to “sharpen up our preparation” for the return of Christ, and he equates his father’s move to the border communities as a final step.
“Our prophet is so concerned that we be prepared,” Warren Jeffs is quoted as saying. “He is wondering if there is time for the things he is having done right now, in moving and building. He knows all the evil powers are concentrated against us.”
Sermons, changes in doctrine or prophecies delivered by Rulon Jeffs are closely held among a select group of advisers and family members, including Warren, rumored to be next in line as prophet and seer for the FLDS.
Twin City Courier printers, an FLDS business in Hildale that produces faith-promoting literature, refused to release any of Rulon Jeffs’ writings. Warren Jeffs also refused to share the smallest shred of his father’s written legacy.
Short Creek: The towns of Colorado City and Hildale, which face each other across the Utah-Arizona border, have been dominated since 1935 by an outlaw church of polygamists who fled to the desert to live their old-style form of Mormonism away from the prying eyes of government.
They viewed their desert settlement on the banks of Short Creek as the fulfillment of a prophecy that Brigham Young once made that the southern Utah outback would one day “be the head and not the tail of the church.”
The Colorado City polygamists call themselves “the true Mormons” who never turned their backs on God’s supposed 1837 command to church founder Joseph Smith that men should take more than one wife.
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavowed multiple marriages under pressure from the federal government in 1890, views their holdout polygamous cousins as cranks and embarrassments and wants nothing to do with them.
With the full support of the LDS Church, Arizona authorities raided the town in 1953 and tried to break up the hundreds of illegal marriages. But widespread public scorn over the raid helped force Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle from office and ensured that the town would remain unchallenged in its devotion to polygamy.
In recent years, the town has swelled to a population of more than 6,000. A Salt Lake Tribune investigation published in June revealed that its residents rely heavily on food stamps and other public assistance to feed their huge families.
Those stories, combined with recent publicity about child abuse in the unrelated Kingston clan of polygamists, has caused most in town to take a more guarded attitude than usual toward outsiders, said Barlow.
When approached by a reporter one recent afternoon, faithful members of the FLDS Church either denied the prophecy altogether or would discuss it only in opaque language.
“If you’re here, you’ll hear about it,” said town librarian Marji Jessop. “But I can’t explain it to you if you’re not inside of it. You have to have a testimony of the truth. You can’t understand it if you’re outside.”
Asked about the date of the incipient ascension, Jessop would say only, “I don’t think there’s a definite deadline.”
The Liftoff: Most versions of the story have the righteous members lifting off from the base of a juniper-covered hill south of town known as Berry Knoll, which is said to be the site for the temple the polygamous church had hoped to construct one day.
Berry Knoll was coincidentally the site of a tragedy in April 1866 when early pioneer settlers Joseph Robert and his wife, Isabella, were slaughtered by the local American Indians.
The hill today is owned by a church trust called the United Effort Plan, which is governed by a powerful board of seven religious leaders, called the quorum, including Rulon Jeffs.
The United Effort Plan, which is roughly modeled on the utopian economic ideals espoused 140 years ago by Brigham Young, also owns nearly every house in the twin towns.
It became the focus of a bitter lawsuit in the late 1980s that tore the town into two rival factions. Dissidents from the main polygamous church, who had gone off to form a more liberal religious congregation south of town, were told to vacate their homes or face eviction.
The split was exposed only after longtime prophet LeRoy Johnson grew sick and feeble. He died in 1986, disappointing many who believed he would lead the church until the second coming of Jesus Christ.
After Johnson’s death, members of the new church filed a lawsuit and eventually lost the right to remain in their houses, though the Utah Supreme Court recently ruled the FLDS Church must reimburse them for any improvements made to the property.
Backbiting aside, many here believe Rulon Jeffs will succeed in ushering in the “liftoff” that Johnson failed to deliver.
“The calendar seems to be an influence — the year 2000 thing,” said Ward Jeffs. “It has also come together in my father’s mind, that he is getting very, very old and a new quorum to take the mantle from him has not organized. He thought it would come to him to call a new quorum of seven, to reactivate or reorganize the church, but similar to what happened to LeRoy Johnson, this hasn’t happened.”
For one longtime resident, the curious prophecy of the liftoff is an uncomfortable reminder of the rancor-filled days in the mid-1980s when a schism erupted in the midst of Johnson’s sickness.
“I don’t see how it’s going to hold together after Brother Jeffs dies. There is volatility there,” said the man, a white-collar worker. “We’re in a holding pattern right now, but you can feel change coming. It is on the horizon. It’s obvious there’s going to be a power struggle.”
The seeds of any potential fight are rooted in the fact that Rulon Jeffs has not picked any proteges. Many claim he has said, “after me, there is no other,” meaning that he will be the last leader of the church before the end of the world.
This lends special gravity to his prediction that 2,500 righteous members will be lifted up.
“You can imagine the ass-kissing that’s taking place,” said one woman with relatives in town. “Stress levels are running high with only 2,500 getting chosen. I’ll bet with all the evil thoughts going around, there aren’t too many qualified for heaven at this point.”
Millennial Prophecy: Apocalyptic prophecies were also in the air in the days immediately preceding Johnson’s death, according to Reid Lambert, the Salt Lake City attorney for the dissidents.
Johnson reportedly predicted that nearby Hoover Dam would burst and the waters of Lake Mead would flood Las Vegas.
“A pretty amazing prophecy,” remarked Lambert, noting that Las Vegas is about 900 feet higher than Lake Mead.
Some religious scholars believe Johnson’s prophecies — which have been collected in a four-volume set and widely distributed among FLDS members — laid the foundation for the doomsday doctrine of today.
Millennialists don’t view the turning of the clock that will usher in 2000 as mere coincidence, said Timothy Weber, a millennium scholar at Chicago’s Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“There are prophetic groups who have been around a long time who are pretty much taking the new Millennium in stride — they know the danger of date-setting so they are tying to be relaxed about this,” he said.
“Other groups are much more eccentric. Some groups have gone underground, some are making drastic changes and some, like the group that committed mass suicide in San Diego [the Heaven’s Gate cult], have succumbed to a charismatic leader.”
Johnson, a grandfatherly figure, borrowed his end-of-the-world pronouncements from the Book of Revelation and frequently used doomsday preparation to rally his followers.
“These are the last days,” he said during a Feb. 3, 1980, sermon to a small congregation in Creston, British Columbia. “We only have about 20 years until the Lord has to accomplish his work in this dispensation.”
About 20 years from 1980 fits exactly into Rulon Jeffs’ vision, son Ward said.
On March 2, 1980, during a sermon in Colorado City, Johnson told his followers: “We have only a few years left. So those who are under the sound of my voice should hasten to prepare themselves against the day of visitation, as the Lord calls it, when he is visiting the Earth with destruction in order to bring about his purposes on the Earth.”
Johnson’s death did not bring destruction, but the coming of 2000 and the imminent deaths of Rulon Jeffs and Fred Jessop, another leading patriarch who is bedridden, has shaken some church members’ resolve.
Rulon Jeffs, along with recently deceased Parley Harker and “Uncle” Fred Jessop, once formed a powerful counselorship.
“This end-of-the-world stuff passes and then you stop hearing about it until somebody else comes along — or somebody dies,” said millennium scholar Weber. “I don’t expect widespread mass hysteria, but I do expect some mass hysteria. 2000 has become a real moment of destiny that some people will put together with prophecy.”
Jeffs’ Legacy: It is unclear who will succeed Rulon Jeffs as the leader of America’s largest polygamous church if the alleged prophecy fails to come true.
According to the theology of the FLDS Church, the current prophet must handpick his own successor. And Jeffs has not yet done this.
“There’s not a thing written that I’ve ever seen or heard,” Barlow said.
There was an heir-apparent at one time: Harker, a wealthy dairy farmer, was listed on legal incorporation documents as first counselor and successor to Rulon Jeffs. But Harker died in a St. George hospital on Jan. 29.
Observers say the most likely candidate for the job appears to be Warren Jeffs, who, until moving, controlled access to his father at the estate at Little Cottonwood Canyon.
In court papers filed in Salt Lake County, Rulon Jeffs has yielded ownership of the corporation for the FLDS presidency to two of his sons, Warren and Ward.
Warren Jeffs, who has recently made attempts to consolidate his power among the church’s inner circle, stands to profit most from the sale of his father’s estate and his own adjoining property, which together total 4.55 acres and are valued at $2.9 million.
Rulon’s compound is advertised as a possible bed and breakfast or a large residence with accommodations for a mother-in-law. The main house has 33 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a spa and a cherrywood-paneled assembly hall that seats 400.
Before joining his father in Colorado City, Warren Jeffs was the principal of Alta Academy, a private school for polygamists’ children which operated inside the gates of the compound until shutting down earlier this year. The school’s motto was: “perfect obedience produces perfect faith.”
Earlier this year, Warren Jeffs told several leaders, including members of the Barlow family aligned with Jessop, they were no longer welcome to sit along a bench next to the pulpit at the FLDS church. Warren explained it was his father’s wish.
“Warren used ordination and position as a way to disqualify the Barlows,” Ward Jeffs said. “He reserved the space at the front of the church only for those who were ordained. As a result of that, three Barlow men can no longer sit up there even though my father relied on them to preach or teach. It was convenient for my father, but suddenly my brother uses title and authority to shift them off.”
In the absence of any clear chain of succession, many think it isn’t unreasonable to think that the town will once again subdivide, leaving three disunited churches to tend the flame of plural marriage.
Among the dissidents who like to play “What if?” games, the most commonly accepted scenario has the Barlow brothers — the town’s traditional power-brokers — moving away from Warren Jeffs, who has spent most of his time in Salt Lake City and is perceived as something of an outsider.
“When Rulon dies, there will be a split,” said John Timpson, a Colorado City businessman who left the FLDS Church several years ago to join the dissidents. Timpson is Rulon Jeff’s cousin. “As to the prophecy business, the only thing coming to an end is Rulon.”