Raid on Sect in Texas Rattles Other Polygamists

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — As the supper dishes were being cleared away and the rice pudding brought out for dessert, Marvin Wyler’s two wives, along with some of their children and a group of friends, began poring over the list.

The 44-page document, from a court in Texas, gives a glimpse of who is married to whom in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S. — and in the hothouse world of religious polygamy, a list like that is a sort of Rosetta Stone to the usually hidden relationships of power, politics and piety.

“We are adding up the number of men who may be going to prison,” said Isaac Wyler, 42, the eldest of Mr. Wyler’s 34 children, who was examining the list on Sunday to see which men may have had wives under the legal age when they married.

Scenes like this have played out in recent days in polygamist communities on the Arizona-Utah border as the marriage list and other records, seized last month from the polygamist sect in Eldorado, Tex., along with 462 children in an investigation of possible under-age brides, have filtered west.

The information has families like the Wylers talking about some of polygamy’s best-kept secrets. Who would have guessed, for instance, that Wendell Nielsen, a high-ranking sect official with family here, had 21 wives in Texas, too? Or that he has 35 children on top of those here?

As law enforcement officials from Utah and Arizona prepare for what they expect to be a capacity crowd town-hall-style meeting on polygamy on Thursday — planned north of here in St. George, Utah, before the Texas raid but now proceeding with an added urgency — polygamist gossip is only one of the many consequences of the raid that they are encountering.

Rumors of an imminent Texas-style police crackdown — the authorities say none is contemplated — are among the new constants of life here, the historic heartland of the F.L.D.S. Some polygamists, who had considered moving to Texas, are putting down roots again here, even cooperating with the authorities. Others are speaking out publicly, trying to distinguish their forms of plural marriage (no under-age brides) from what the authorities say was practiced by the sect in Texas.

“Polygamy is not the problem,” said Marlyne Hammon, who belongs to a group called The Work of Jesus Christ, which practices polygamy in a town just a few miles from here. Ms. Hammon, of Centennial Park, Ariz., said child brides had no place in her group’s faith or practice. “This is about human error, not polygamy,” she said.

Fierce winds of change — from national political attitudes about polygamy to new economic stress and even down to the personal decisions about where to live in a post-Eldorado world — are buffeting the polygamist faithful.

Recent statements by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, calling for toughened enforcement of laws against polygamy, possibly with an expanded federal role by the Department of Justice, have sent a particular shiver, with questions swirling about what the states will do under federal pressure.

“They think they’re going to be next — that there’s so much pressure being brought on me that I’m going to raid them,” said Utah’s attorney general, Mark L. Shurtleff, a Republican. “They hear the rumors, and they call.”

Mr. Shurtleff said he planned no change in tactics, and no mass raids, which he said would only destroy the trust needed to protect people, including the young girls his office is trying to help. It is a point, he said, that he intends to make forcefully on Thursday night on a shared stage with the Arizona attorney general, Terry Goddard, at the meeting in St. George, about 45 miles from here.

Mr. Goddard, a Democrat, said he too intended to continue pursuing accusations of abuse case by case, with no mass arrests or seizures in the offing.

“I don’t know how I can make a case that all the children in Colorado City are in danger,” Mr. Goddard said.

But some polygamist families say paranoia is only natural now. Even the Wylers, who left the sect years ago — he is 63 and his wives are 63 and 58 (a third wife died years ago) — are anxious. The 63-year-old wife said she risked losing her job if her name was used in this article.

But as the Texas raid’s impact is digested here, individual F.L.D.S. families are making new decisions. Over the last month, dozens of families have come forward to cooperate with a court-appointed officer, pay their bills and sign documents that could allow them to stay in their homes here, most of which are owned by a trust once controlled by Warren S. Jeffs. Mr. Jeffs, the F.L.D.S. leader, was convicted last year in a Utah case of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old.

Before the raid, said the officer, Bruce R. Wisan, people would not even answer the door when he knocked. The raid shook something loose.

“This raid in Texas just totally exacerbated their concerns and solidified the idea that we’re not going to be moving out of here,” said Mr. Wisan, who is also an accountant from Salt Lake City. “It’s a huge shift, from moving the whole community out, to paying and signing.”

Polygamy and the Birth of Mormon Fundamentalism
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, described plural marriage as part of “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth” and taught that a man needed at least three wives to attain the “fullness of exaltation” in the afterlife. He warned that God had explicitly commanded that “all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same … and if ye abide not that covenenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.
John Krakauer, Under The Banner of Heaven, Doubleday (July 15, 2003), pages 5, 6.
However, the god of Mormonism — a religion that, theologically, is a cult of Christianity — constantly changes his mind; reason why the doctrines of the Mormon Church often change (interestingly, whenever doing so is convenient to the Mormon Church).
The Mormon Church’s rejection (sort of…) of polygamy directly led to the formatation of various sects of Mormonism. Though the the LDS/Mormon Church disavows them, collectively these sects are referred to as Mormon Fundamentalists.
As a matter of fact, the doctrines and practices of Mormon Fundamentalists are closer to those of the original Mormon Church than are the doctrines and practices of today’s Mormon Church.

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The F.L.D.S. broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 13 million members worldwide, decades ago over the practice of polygamy; Mormons disavowed it in 1890 and now excommunicate polygamists.

The relationship between the sect’s core settlement here and its outpost in Texas called the Yearning for Zion ranch, was complex. Families sent to Texas by the sect’s leadership were favored and said to have been identified by revelation to the leadership from God.

“They were just gradually moving down there as things got ready, but they took the most elite and most chosen first,” said Shannon Price, the director of a group called the Diversity Foundation that works to help people leaving the fundamentalist groups.

Now there is a question, Ms. Price and others said, about who might be coming back from Texas — and whether it might include a few men who do not want to be found by the police.

The stress rippling out from Texas is also compounding economic woes. A power plant built under the leadership of Mr. Jeffs’s predecessor and father, Rulon Jeffs, in 1997 — with $21.4 million in municipal bonds — has been in default for years as customers for the power, including the city of St. George, walked away and fuel costs soared.

The power station was needed, the Jeffs men said, in anticipation of a prophesied collapse of American society in the year 2000 that would have left the F.L.D.S. humming along in its rural fastness with the lights still on. Now, the bondholders are going to court, and last week, the utility officers began considering a 25 percent rate increase, on top of what is already some of the most expensive electricity in the West, in an effort to stave off financial disaster.

The City Council in Hildale, Utah, sister community to Colorado City across the border, is to vote on the proposal later this month.

“We are in a financial cash-flow crisis,” said Jerry Barlow, the utility’s manager. “We will not be able to pay for the power without some kind of adjustment.”

Meanwhile, in the documents from the Texas court, the tapestry — if not the dirty laundry — of familial F.L.D.S. life has become the stuff of dinner table chitchat.

The reports hint, for example, at a network of safe houses where sect members can take refuge for reasons undisclosed. In some cases, wives and children are listed as living “elsewhere,” in “hiding” or living in a “house of hiding.”

The Wylers here in Colorado City were also particularly astounded to learn that Mr. Nielsen, the high-ranking sect official who everyone at the dinner table believed kept his wives and children in Arizona, had another family cluster in Texas.

According to the records, Mr. Nielsen, who was 67 in August 2007 when his “family information sheet” was completed, had 21 wives, ranging in age from 24 to 79, and 35 children, ranging in age from 6 months to 23, who were living at the Zion ranch until the raid.

The records do not include the dates of marriages, most of which would have been religious ceremonies with no state civil licenses issued. So the lists are more suggestive than conclusive, for now. Under Texas law, no girl under 16 can legally marry, even with her parents’ permission.

New York Times — Religion and Beliefs: News about religion and belief, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 8, 2008.
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