Founding anniversary: With the impending completion of a temple, memories of Waco loom
From time to time, Church of Christ minister Ray Don McIntosh asks God to protect the followers of a Utah-based polygamous faith who have moved to Eldorado, Texas.
“I’ve been encouraging my members to pray for these people, pray that things won’t get out of hand and that certain people won’t take matters in their own hands and do things they shouldn’t do,” McIntosh says.
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He’s talking about vigilante justice, the kind that can boil up when a strange new group of people moves to a town such as Eldorado, population 2,200, a fixture on the West Texas landscape for more than a century.
And the arrival of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints certainly qualifies as an oddity. First, the church’s agent bought a 1,600-acre hunting ranch and locked the gates. Then crews built what appear to be big dormitories and houses, as well as workshops and even a limestone quarry that apparently operates 24 hours a day.
But the biggest change came when one building started to go up. As the number of floors grew, and its walls were covered with limestone blocks, and finally a steeple was placed on its roof, speculation that the FLDS was building its first temple seems to have proved true.
The target date for completion appears to be April 6, the 175th anniversary of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Salt Lake City-based LDS Church abandoned polygamy in 1890, an action that led to the rising of a number of sects, including the FLDS, that believe they have safeguarded the early tenets of the Mormon faith.
In Eldorado, a year’s presence has done nothing to alleviate the worries about the FLDS, which is based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
The significance of the temple, and what will happen on April 6, is debated both inside and outside of Eldorado.
FLDS leader Warren Jeffs has previously forecast the end of the world, called the “Lifting Up.”
And since the winter of 2004, when Jeffs exiled dozens of FLDS men for unspecified sins, there has been talk that he would form a cadre of his most loyal followers to preserve the faith, even to the extent of an armed defense.
Ben Bistline, a former FLDS member and author of a history of Colorado City, thinks there’s a “serious possibility” of trouble on April 6, which he thinks is the scheduled date for FLDS church conference at the temple.
Many, though, say there is no evidence to support predictions of violence.
Ken Driggs, an Atlanta lawyer who has written extensively about polygamy and the FLDS, worries about knee-jerk reactions and comparisons to Waco, Texas, where the Branch Davidians‘ 1993 standoff with federal authorities ended with the deaths of 75 followers and the sect’s leader, David Koresh.
Although FLDS members traditionally have said they had no need for sacred space to practice their religion, the construction of a temple is no reason to worry, Driggs said.
In the Mormon faith, temples are sacred structures where members participate in ordinances, or rituals such as baptism and marriage.
“They’re conservative socially, but I can’t imagine that there would ever be a Waco,” Driggs said of the FLDS members. “In Colorado City, they don’t allow guns in town. They’re different in a lot of ways, but they’re not violent.”
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who keeps in contact with FLDS officials, said his source on the ranch denies any apocalyptic plans.
“What they say is that in the future, when everything is done, members of the FLDS church will be coming from all over the U.S. to do their temple ordinances, then return home,” Doran said.
The Rev. Jean Ann Karn of First United Methodist Church in Eldorado has no particular concern about violence but considers the group a cult.
“How can they have polygamy? How can that be a part of their religious beliefs?” Karn asks.
She also worries about the FLDS taking over local government through the ballot box. On Thursday, Karn took a flight over the ranch in a small plane and said that, judging by its size, the voting power could be there to eventually place church members in public office.
“I counted 14 buildings,” she said.
Flyovers are the only way outsiders can get a good look at the ranch. Its occupants stay behind the fence and are closemouthed when they venture out to buy groceries. No one has reported seeing Jeffs, who is rumored to be on the grounds.
Some local clergy would welcome a conversation. The Rev. Joseph Vathalloor, the priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Eldorado, said, “I would like to talk to Warren Jeffs. Just friendly talk.”
Karn said she would focus on Jeffs’ beliefs and intentions. “I would visit with him about what it means to be a leader of this group,” she said.
McIntosh, though, has no desire to meet Jeffs.
His reading of scriptures differs with that of the FLDS on several points, including polygamy, he said, adding that he supports a bill introduced by a Texas state senator that is aimed at the FLDS and would raise the age that girls could marry with parental consent from 14 to 16.
“I would imagine any conversation [with Jeffs] would go nowhere,” McIntosh said. “I would certainly pray for them. I pray for their souls and pray for their safety.”