COLORADO CITY, Arizona (AP) — Ben Bistline chuckles when asked to explain why the practice of polygamy persists. The outside world, he says, just doesn’t get it.
“We just grew up in polygamy,” said Bistline, a 70-something former polygamist and local historian. “It’s part of our life. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Bistline has lived along the Utah-Arizona border since the neighboring towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah — home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — were still known as Short Creek.
He was there when Arizona authorities raided the community in 1953 in an attempt to stop plural marriages and has seen dozens of men and women jailed for their beliefs.
“They believe that it’s necessary to gain their exaltation to the highest level of heaven,” said Bistline, a resident of Cane Beds, which is just east of Colorado City.
“They’ve been taught that since the day they were born. It won’t change.”
Not even with the prosecution of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
“He’s not the sole supporter of polygamy,” said Lori Chatwin, a Colorado City woman who grew up there and married at 17. “It’s a religious belief.”
Polygamy ‘not going away’
Jeffs, 50, was arrested Monday near Las Vegas after more than a year on the run. He appeared before a Nevada judge Thursday and said he will not fight extradition to Utah to face charges of rape by accomplice.
“Anybody who expects polygamy to go away is a fool. It’s been here 100 years and is not going to go away because one guy gets arrested,” said Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member who fled the community in 1996 and now works to help women and children who also want to leave the lifestyle.
The FLDS church is just one of a handful of Utah-based fundamentalist groups that continue to practice polygamy. Once a tenet of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the practice was abandoned in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
The church now excommunicates any member found practicing polygamy and disavows the idea of “Mormon fundamentalists,” although most Utah polygamists identify themselves that way.
If history is any indicator, Jeffs’ legal troubles should only serve to move him toward martyrdom, said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney who has written extensively about the legal history of polygamy.
“Historically, it’s generally made martyrs out of the people who get prosecuted,” he said. “They come back revered.”
Jeffs is already revered as a prophet. As head of the church since 2002, he has controlled the sect’s marriages, deciding whom and when women marry. He has performed most of the marriage ceremonies himself.
He is known to demand obedience and has reportedly used even minor infractions as grounds for booting some men from the church, forcing them to leave their families behind.
Fear as a management tool
More than any FLDS leader before him, Jeffs has used fear to manage his flock, Bistline said. But it’s unfair to say that everyone lives and worships here under duress, he said.
“The majority don’t want to leave,” he said. “They’re an intelligent people and within their belief of polygamy, they are a moral people.”
Jessop doesn’t deny that some in the FLDS community don’t want to leave, but she also believes many are naive and lack experience to structure their lives and families another way.
“When you’re taught from birth that if you don’t live this way you’re damned to hell for eternity, that’s not a choice,” she said.
Driggs said Jeffs’ incarceration now and after any conviction would likely be seen by church members as another test of faith, but it might have a moderating effect on practices like underage marriages.
“That’s where the legal pressure is coming from. It may not stop, it may just happen a lot less,” he said. “But it won’t stop plural marriage.”
What outsiders fail to understand is how deeply the practice is rooted in religious commitment and heritage, said Driggs.
“It’s been my experience down there that the women are as committed as the men, sometimes more so,” he said. “(Outsiders) think it’s about sex and power and domination, but it’s about a lot of other things. This is what they were raised in and it’s multigenerational. It’s their culture.”
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