False prophets: Why polygamists believe they’re doing God’s will

I’m mostly and blissfully ignorant of strange religious offshoots that seem to occur in out-of-the-way locales, usually featuring a few seemingly crazed fanatics putting their own particular, often legalistic, spin on some religious doctrine or tenet.

That’s why I’ve passed right by recent headlines about the arrest of a notorious polygamist sect leader, Warren Jeffs, who had been a fugitive for nearly two years, and is currently in a Utah jail cell awaiting trial.

Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape for forcing a teenage girl to enter a “spiritual marriage” with an older man and to submit to sex in order to give birth to children.

When the girl told Jeffs she didn’t want to marry or have sex, the fundamentalist leader told her it was her duty as a church member to submit to his authority because the marriage was ordained by God.

As a journalist, I’ve been aware that polygamy was still around, but only on the periphery, and I really didn’t give it much thought except for the HBO TV series, “Big Love.”

But a friend suggested I read Jon Krakauer’s book, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” about a 1984 double murder committed by fundamentalist Mormons who believe in the so-called “divine principle” of what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints euphemistically calls “plural marriage” AKA “celestial marriage”.

Krakauer is most famous for his book “Into Thin Air,” about a doomed expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

In “Heaven,” however, he tells the story of how the history of the LDS church is intertwined in the stories of the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, members of a fundamentalist wing of the Mormon religion that the mainstream LDS church has condemned.

The Laffertys believe that in following the core beliefs of the church founded by Joseph Smith Jr., they received a direct revelation from God directing them to kill another brother’s wife, and her baby daughter.

Along the way, Krakauer takes readers through the history of the LDS church — intertwined with the amazing story of Smith, who founded America’s only homegrown religion, one that continues to grow exponentially, and that essentially operates as a theocracy in the state of Utah.

In addition to reporting on the 40,000 or so zealots who make up Mormon fundamentalism there are about 11 million Latter-Day Saints in the world, Krakauer’s subject also is the nature of fanatical religious belief and how, in whatever guise it appears, sex, violence and conflict seem sure to follow.

The LDS church, incidentally, called Krakauer’s book “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern church.”

Still, bringing up celebrated cases such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, Krakauer does show how polygamy remains inextricably linked to the church’s founding.

He points out the similarities, for instance, between Smith’s revelations and early church and Islam, and compares present-day polygamist communities to life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Smith, who had multiple wives, was murdered by an angry mob in Illinois in 1844 and was eventually succeeded by another man who had multiple wives, Brigham Young, whose name today graces a famous university.

But polygamy threatened to bring down the LDS church, which in 1890 disavowed the practice.

Fundamentalists today are excommunicated from the modern LDS church, which has said that polygamists are not true Mormons. Moreover, the LDS church has decried reports of wife and child abuse coming from the fundamentalist communities.

One of many chilling and unforgettable characters in the book is Rulon T. Jeffs, leader of a polygamist community along the Utah-Arizona border who traced his prophetic leadership on a direct line to Smith.

Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 and was succeeded by his son, Warren Jeffs, whose official title in the fundamentalist LDS church is “president and prophet, seer and revelator.”

He claims the authority to assign women and girls to husbands, and to punish men by assigning their wives and children to other men.

Warren Jeffs has been reported to have more than 90 wives, and to have married all but two of his father’s several dozen wives.

In May, Warren Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Jeffs was arrested Aug. 28 near Las Vegas during a routine traffic stop.

In a lawsuit filed this week in Salt Lake City, an unidentified woman sought unspecified damages from Jeffs, who she accused of forcing her into a “nonconsensual spiritual marriage including sexual relations … resulting in pregnancies that have been physically and emotionally devastating.”

Krakauer’s book details numerous instances of how underage girls were forced into marriages with older men, and how many of these women were kept in a polygamous relationship akin to sex slavery.

In the past, it has been difficult to prosecute polygamists, because most are not married under state laws.

However, since some polygamists marry women prior to the age of consent or fraudulently try to obtain welfare and other public assistance, enforcement has focused on crimes such as child abuse, domestic violence and fraud over anti-polygamy laws.

Most Mormons, of course, disavow any connection to the fundamentalist LDS church. They hate the “Big Love” series, which, they say, dredges up old stereotypes and prejudices against their religion.

Some conservative commentators say the creators of the show are intending to challenge the way Americans think about the family, monogamy and same-sex marriage.

Today, more than 22 years after the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Dan and Ron Lafferty remain in prison, unremorseful and still convinced they are in direct contact with the true God, who spoke to Smith.

In a 2000 Salt Lake Tribune story, Dan Lafferty told a sheriff’s deputy who had confronted the convicted murderer about his lack of remorse, “With all due respect, if God asked me to, I’d kill you right now.”

Dan Lafferty, who narrowly avoided being sentenced to death for the 1984, is serving two consecutive life terms. His older brother, Ron, remains on death row for the same crimes.

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This post was last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015 at 5:47 AM, Central European Time (CET)