Renegade group that Jeffs led remains true to plural marriages
HILDALE, UTAH — Driving toward this tiny town feels like nearing the edge of the Earth, a place of jagged red-rock peaks surrounding dry valleys covered in pinyon trees. It seems like the perfect place to hide.
For about a century, that’s what members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have done here and in adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. — living in isolation to practice their religion without interference.
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However, the arrest of the sect’s self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, has increased outside attention on the group and its practice of polygamy, which sometimes includes marrying teenage girls to men 20 years or more their senior.
Jeffs, 50, a fugitive wanted on criminal charges in both Utah and Arizona for more than a year, was arrested outside Las Vegas late Monday during a traffic stop. He waived extradition to Utah to face two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice, accused of arranging a marriage that led to the rape of an underage girl. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Polygamy was a tenet of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — but the practice was abandoned in 1890. However, strident believers in “the principle,” as it is known, have remained steadfast.
FLDS members practice polygamy because they believe that plural marriage secures their exaltation in heaven and that the number of wives a man marries corresponds to the level of glory he’ll achieve.
A survey by a plural-marriage advocacy group, Principle Voices of Polygamy, estimates about 37,000 people are living the lifestyle in the western United States and British Columbia. Based on the data, the largest known organized community is the FLDS, with about 10,000 members in Hildale and Colorado City.
FLDS members are taught to believe that their leader is “the prophet of God over us in our lives,” said Carolyn Jessop, a former FLDS plural wife who was married for 17 years to a man 32 years older. She fled with her children in 2003.
Critics say Jeffs’ need for control and obedience has moved the faith from what was once described as a community guided by love to one of secrecy and segregation. He ordered children pulled from public schools. He banned books, music, television and other forms of entertainment, unless he was the writer or performer.
Jeffs imposed dress codes that include long, white undergarments. He banned bright colors, including red, the color of the devil. However, when arrested he was riding in a bright-red SUV, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt — clothes his followers are not allowed to wear.
Former FLDS members say they hope Jeffs’ capture will reveal how his demands for perfection fall flat and relieve members of the shame they say Jeffs has often heaped upon them.
“The church is absolutely not going to collapse, but I think that with Warren gone, the stranglehold he’s had on the people is gone,” Jessop said.