Hellfire and sexual coercion: the dark side of American polygamist sects

James Harmston’s letters to his youngest bride threaten fire and brimstone for her refusal to sleep with him. Not only would Rachael, 43 years his junior, have “a lonely miserable life” in this world for not going to his bed, but it would be far worse in the next.

“Rachael, the facts are, whether you want to believe or not, the end is coming and judgment will be executed in severity, especially for those who have broken their covenants,” Mr Harmston wrote, adding: “For certain I will deal with you in the future eternity.”

He signed himself “Your Husband, King and Priest”, and sent copies of his letters to five of his 18 wives, one of whom was Rachael’s mother, Pauline.

They would be troubling letters from any jilted husband. But from Mr Harmston – the self-declared prophet of a polygamist and apocalyptic sect, the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days – they were terrifying.

They also shine a light on a dark place in the American west. Polygamy is something that has officially been consigned to history, but it is still very much alive.

Watchdog groups believe there could be between 30,000 and 100,000 Americans living in polygamy today, many of them in Utah, where the practice first took root, and others scattered across the North American continent.

They live independently, shut up in reclusive homes out of public sight, or in self-contained communes governed by idiosyncratic rules and beliefs.

But everywhere it goes, critics and former sect members argue, polygamy takes with it the danger of institutionalised abuse of women and children, over whom it gives men supreme power.

Rachael Strong is now 21 and has broken free of Mr Harmston and the sect. Since she and her mother walked out some nine months ago, they have been living scarcely 100 metres away from the True and Living Church (known here as TLC) in the small town of Manti, and her former husband continues to cast a long shadow. “I wasn’t going to argue with him. He was the prophet,” Ms Strong said, cradling her two-year-old daughter Kirsten, the offspring of an earlier polygamous marriage within the sect.

“Nobody would help me. Everyone was scared of Jim. He got up in church and said if any wife disobeyed him, he would send her to hell for a thousand years.

“Jim also said that because of my actions Kirsten would have to die by some natural causes or accident to save her soul.”

Contacted by telephone in his office, Mr Harmston refused to discuss Ms Strong. “I don’t talk about people who are mentally ill,” he said.

In person, Ms Strong appeared articulate, calm and determined. But the TLC prophet added: “I don’t care what she’s accused me of. Reality is something she makes up from moment to moment.”

Mr Harmston conceded he had been married to her. In the vocabulary of his church, he said: “I was sealed to her for a while”, and then he hung up.

With the help of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a support group for former wives of such marriages, Ms Strong has taken her case to the Utah state authorities, claiming that the pressure Mr Harmston put her under to have sex consti tuted rape. “If someone sat there with a gun and said sleep with me, you’d call that rape. But God is scarier than that,” she said. “God is more powerful than a fist.”

The Utah attorney general’s office in Salt Lake City has said it will look into Ms Strong’s case but is clearly sceptical. Jim Hill, special investigator into polygamous sects, said: “She was an adult when all the conduct alleged occurred – an adult consenting to a bigamous relationship.”

Polygamy is a crime in the US, but the law is commonly flouted and prosecutions are rare.

The TLC sect is one of dozens of polygamous sects which are splinters from Utah’s dominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons.

Under pressure from Washington, the Mormon church formally disavowed the practice of polygamy in 1890, but it remains in the church scriptures as an ideal for humanity to aspire to after Christ’s second coming and in the afterlife.

From its Salt Lake City headquarters, the church leadership exerts near-total control of the state, and as the fastest growing religion in the country, with 11 million members worldwide, it wields serious influence in Washington.

All Utah’s congressional delegation in Washington are Mormon, as is the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. Church policy has been to excommunicate polygamists but not to confront them, and that approach has been mirrored by the FBI and Utah state prosecutors.

“The attorney general is not interested in pursuing people for their religious beliefs or their private conduct in their own bedrooms,” Mr Hill said.

That uneasy truce now appears to be coming apart. National attention has been drawn to the “lost boys”, up to 1,000 teenagers thrown out of polygamous sects to make more girls available for marriage to the elders.

Warren Jeffs, the head of one of the largest polygamous sects, the 10,000-strong Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is on the run, wanted in Arizona for arranging the marriage of an underage girl.

An investigation is also under way into the trafficking of girls between polygamous sects on either side of the US-Canadian border.

Andrea Moore-Emmett, the author of God’s Brothel, a book about polygamy’s victims, said: “The national press just thought it’s a goofy Utah problem. But it’s spread all over the country, in 38 states.”

After nine years growing up in the TLC in Manti, Rachael Strong put it this way: “Polygamy is an environment of abuse.”

From the age of 11 she was taught that Jim Harmston was the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. He travelled to other planets in his sleep and spoke with God’s authority. Sex with the church elders was a sacrament.

“He says orgasm and witness of the Holy Ghost are the same thing,” Ms Strong said. “Sex is the whole thing for him.”

Manti is a quiet town, stretched out along a fertile valley in the shadow of a cathedral-sized Mormon temple. It does not look like a hub of organised crime. But in the eyes of their most committed opponents, that is what the polygamous sects represent.

The Guardian

The Guardian newspaper, of which Guardian Unlimited is its online presence, was founded in 1821 and has a long history of editorial and political independence.

“It is ironic that my country is going into other countries to protect the rights of other people. But here in America we have a society every bit as repressive as the Taliban,” Ms Moore-Emmett said.

While pressure gathers for action against the polygamist prophets, Rachael Strong is trying to start her life anew. Having had only a TLC education, which taught history as a succession of Mr Harmston’s reincarnations, she is studying for her high school exams in the hope of becoming a nurse or a massage therapist.

But the first item on her to-do list is “Get out of Utah”.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Guardian, UK
June 30, 2005
Julian Borger in Manti, Utah

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 30, 2005.
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