The recent capture of polygamous leader Warren Jeffs — now off the FBI’s most-wanted list and waiting his fate in the aptly named Purgatory Jail — once again puts plural marriage and Utah under international scrutiny.
The world press is clearly intrigued, while at the same time baffled by polygamy’s modern-day complexities. In the shorthand of daily journalism, polygamous fundamentalism is often pictured as a monolithic culture full of sister wives in dowdy ankle-length dresses. Though estimates put their number at less than 40,000, “Mormon fundamentalists” are often confused in media reports with the 12.5 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In reality, modern-day polygamous fundamentalists are a diverse lot, full of rival leaders and a contentious history, as well as thousands of members who follow no leader at all. Some live in isolated communities (one group worships in a pyramid on the Utah-Nevada border); some may live next door in the Salt Lake Valley, not unlike the folks on HBO’s “Big Love.” Others live at Jeffs’ new, secretive FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) temple compound in Eldorado, Texas, in polygamous colonies in northern Mexico and western Canada, and in tiny outposts scattered around the Intermountain West.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
Despite the imprisonment of the movement’s most visible leader, polygamous fundamentalism appears to have a staying power that makes it unlikely to disappear anytime soon, according to experts both inside and out.
Anne Wilde, a polygamist widow and a director of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, says there are currently some 37,000 people (including children) who are fundamentalist Mormons. That’s a name that the LDS Church finds objectionable, but one that the fundamentalists say is fitting. It is the mainstream LDS Church, they argue, that strayed from the faith’s original doctrinal underpinnings when LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto in 1890, advising Latter-day Saints to refrain from plural marriage.
Because polygamy continued in secrecy to a small extent, a second “official statement” on the practice was issued by LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith in 1904, ending authorization for plural marriages on pain of excommunication from the church. Current LDS leaders acknowledge the practice as part of their early history, and LDS scripture still contains passages that fundamentalists use to defend its continuation.
Groups are diverse
In the first few decades of the 20th Century, several LDS Church members — including a few leaders — were excommunicated as they continued to advocate polygamy and/or practice it. Some were later reinstated in the church, while a handful split from the faith to form their own groups under separate leadership. The ins and outs of those complex relationships are documented in a new 500-page book just off the press this week, “Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto,” by Layton physician and historian Brian Hales.
The dissenters said the true priesthood authority to perform plural marriage came to them in a variety of ways, most tied to either their early ancestors as acquaintances of church founder Joseph Smith or one of his successors, President John Taylor.
“We feel it’s the priesthood that created the church, not the other way around,” Wilde says, adding the mainstream LDS Church went “out of order” with the 1890 Manifesto. God knew the Manifesto was coming and set out this lineage to preserve plural marriage, she says.
According to Wilde, who says she obtained her numbers from surveys of polygamous leaders, 10,000 of the 37,000 current fundamentalists affiliate with the FLDS Church under Jeffs; 7,500 with the Apostolic United Brethren, formerly headed by Rulon Allred, who was murdered by members of a rival polygamous clan (and now led by J. LaMoine Jenson); 1,500 affiliate with the Kingstons, who made headlines last year with court proceedings in a child abuse and custody dispute; and 3,000 affiliate with smaller groups of a few hundred or less. The once-prominent LeBaron group seems to have splintered since it was tied to a string of assassinations in the 1980s, with some in Mexico and others scattered throughout the United States.
Some 15,000 fundamentalists are “independents” who aren’t tied to any larger group or leader. They include headline grabbers like Tom Green and the late John Singer. Some independents, Wilde says, are still active LDS Church members “who remain quiet about their fundamentalist beliefs.”
Her numbers and description jibe with information provided by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which tracks polygamous groups.
Beliefs go beyond marriage
At their core, Wilde says, is a set of beliefs that goes beyond plural marriage. In fact, when a potential fundamentalist comes to her living room in Cottonwood Heights to chat, she says it’s always a red flag if the first question is “how can I find a second wife?”
“Until you have a testimony of some of the other basic principles of the gospel,” she tells these men, “you’re at the wrong end of the ladder.” Polygamy, she says, has to be lived “righteously.” It is difficult, she says, “to live it on a spiritual plane.”
It’s also difficult to define what “righteously” means to so many different leaders and sects, but Jeffs is learning the definition of what is legal under civil law. While his lifestyle is technically illegal in Utah, Jeffs was only hunted down after allegations that he facilitated illegal sexual relationships between young girls and older men. He was charged in St. George on Wednesday with two counts of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony.
While such crimes make polygamous groups a magnet for publicity, multiple wives and dozens of children are simply the most visible component of an inner faith commitment driving the movement. Fundamentalists believe that plural marriage is the literal key to the highest heaven in the afterlife. Many expect an everlasting reward based not only on the number of wives and children they have (the more the better), but for enduring persecution of their faith.
The “media serves prurient interest” by “choosing to portray (fundamentalism) in a particular way because it’s good press,” says University of Utah historian Martha Sonntag Bradley, who has researched and written extensively on polygamy. She said the study of religious doctrine and the FLDS vision of heaven “is much less interesting, but it’s absolutely at the core” of why polygamists live as they do.
Other key components of belief also tied to the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: that the community must hold all assets in common, rather than tithing personal property individually; that believers are to “gather” to the same community; and, most importantly, that men are given authority from God — either directly, or passed from leader to leader — to perform marriages and exercise leadership in the group.
In many groups it is that leadership — whether outwardly charismatic or mundane — that dictates spiritual life or death for members. Jeffs demanded followers’ adherence to his commands regarding even the most intimate details of their personal lives. Other leaders are reportedly less rigid in their approach. And independent Mormon fundamentalists, says Wilde, do not believe that they should organize under a leader or in a regimented group.
Irwin Altman, a psychologist at the U. who spent time living in both rural and urban polygamist communities for a study on the relationships between marriage partners, reports that “they repeatedly referred to trying to follow the traditions of the early church in a very strict way, and their homes were replete with religious symbolism — pictures, statues and icons, paintings and pictures of the temple and of early church leaders.”
Worship services are “very serious business … with large-scale attendance,” and involve such traditional practices as sermons, prayers, singing and distribution of a sacrament or Eucharist, he says. Members are community-minded, planning youth activities and dances. Altman saw an expectation that young boys within the community would volunteer for community service projects like cleaning roadsides, grounded in the religious tenet of service to others.
Fundamentalism does not try to “spread the gospel” by proselytizing, notes author Hales. Joseph Smith’s “restored church was to go to all the world. They don’t do that, yet they claim to hold the same authority as Joseph Smith,” he says. “Their message and work is just to keep polygamy alive and ignore the world. For me it’s an incredibly narcissistic religion for a narcissistic era.”
In the communities Altman studied, and which he agreed not to name, he said that only a relatively small percentage of men had more than one wife, and an even smaller number had more than two wives. Wilde says that among currently practicing polygamists the average number of wives is two or three.
Leaders wield power
Bradley says the current media emphasis on underage marriages and sexual practices fails to examine the reality of how “Jeffs has used the political power that comes with being a religious leader.” The group’s recent construction of a temple in Texas is “a display of wealth and political power in a way that’s not typical of this group. That’s as fascinating to me.”
She believes Jeffs has done so “as a way to mark himself” in the eyes of his followers and for future generations. “His contribution is very different from his father’s. There is now physical and tangible evidence of his time there. I think El Dorado is sort of a metaphor for the FLDS vision of the good life or of Zion. It’s just amazing that he bought that idea so much he wanted to build it and had enough people behind that would help him do it.”
She sees some similarities “between the building effort in Texas and the story of Enoch that Joseph Smith was fascinated with — a lot in this most recent building effort to construct a physical environment that could be ‘lifted up in the last days.”‘
As such, she dismisses speculation that Jeffs’ imprisonment will result in the demise of his church or fundamentalism in general: “They have survived these kinds of crises multiple times in history. Persecution is tied to their identity and tends to pull them closer together rather than splinter them apart.”
She also wonders whether law enforcement is overreacting in its precautions around transporting Jeffs, placing SWAT teams in and around the courthouse and preparing for a violent confrontation. “They may threaten or talk in bold rhetoric, but they have no history of that. I think it speaks to their deep religious commitment. They tend to be pretty idealistic about America as a system of government that should protect their rights, and one of those would be to practice their religion in the way they think they should.”
The FLDS Church in particular “has a stability to them that has grown through the decades. They first organized as a group in late 1920s and have an 80-year history under their belt. That makes it possible from outside to sort of predict reactions,” Bradley adds.
She says that drawing parallels with other offshoot groups like the Branch Davidians is an apples/oranges comparison that doesn’t have the perspective of a long history to draw on. “Not to say that tomorrow some terrible thing won’t happen. But with the benefit of history or time, there’s nothing to predict a violent confrontation.”