A long-time follower of jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs says he has been ex-communicated after admitting to having sex with his wife — a violation of an order the cult leader apparently issued from behind bars.
Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also dissolved his marriage, the follower told CNN late Friday.
The church member spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The report follows news that Texas officials are investigating whether Jeffs violated his prison phone privileges by calling his congregation with orders, according to CNN affiliate KSL-TV in Salt Lake City.
Jeffs, leader of the 10,000-member church, is serving a life-plus-20-year term in Texas for sexual assault. He was convicted in early August of the aggravated sexual assaults of a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl that Jeffs claimed were his “spiritual wives.”
The television station, citing critics and observers, reported Friday that Jeffs has acted through his brother, Lyle, and at other times spoken directly to his congregation over the phone from prison.
He recently banned followers from using bicycles, ATVs, trampolines and children’s toys, the station reported.
“Right now, they have all been told that they are not to live as husband and wife,” Joni Holm, who has many relatives in the church, told the station.
As the year comes to an end and the followers of Warren Jeffs await the apocalypse he has predicted, they’re living under a challenging edict: they’re forbidden to have sex until Jeffs is sprung from a Texas prison.
“He has predicted that the walls in the prison where he’s at will fall and crumble,” said Joni Holm, who has many relatives in the polygamous FLDS faith.
According to Holm, Fundamentalist LDS Church members also face their faith’s most severe punishment, excommunication, if they conceive a child.
It’s one of the strangest edicts in a season full of them. Jeffs has issued a stream of revelations, prophecies and orders to his congregation in the border community of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
The recent edicts from Jeffs’ prison cell seem to be having two contradictory effects: Many are leaving the FLDS faith in disgust, and those who stay are reported to be increasingly devoted to a man who is serving a lifetime sentence for raping underage girls.
According to numerous critics and outside observers, the imprisoned FLDS leader has sometimes acted through his brother Lyle and other times has spoken directly to his congregation over the phone from prison. He recently banned many of the things his followers enjoy: bicycles, ATVs, trampolines, even children’s toys. But the sex edict reaches into the bedrooms of all his devoted followers.
According to Holm, Jeffs declared all existing marriages to be void.
“Right now they have all been told that they are not to live as husband and wife,” Holm said. “They can live in the same house, but they are not to have sexual relationships until Warren comes out and ‘re-seals’ them.”
Holm told the station that her brother left the church three weeks ago because of the sex ban. She said he had been a follower of the church for 39 years.
“They’re leaving,” Holm said. “Groups of them are coming out. We’re getting families that are coming out now. It’s only going to get worse.”
Many members have disavowed Jeffs over his criminal convictions, while others are defending him and casting his conviction on sexual assault charges as an act of persecution.
The follower who spoke to CNN said he does not practice polygamy. He added that although he was expelled from the church, his wife has decided to stay with him.
His family, he says, is very concerned about the ramifications of her decision.
If members have sex, any resulting children will be considered “sons of perdition,” Holm said she was told. The parents will also be excommunicated, she said.
Ever since succeeding his father as FLDS leader in 2002, Warren Jeffs has ruled the sect with an an iron fist.
After Warren Jeffs was apprehended in August 2006, one cult watcher reportedly predicted the arrest would mark the end of the church.
Even after being sentenced last August to life in prison, Jeff still remains in control. A day after he was sentenced, the Associated Press wrote:
“The vast majority are just not going to leave,” Atlanta-based polygamy historian and writer Ken Driggs said. “They’ve got family ties and marriage ties and a culture deeply rooted in their faith.”
Followers of Jeffs’ Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are likely to still revere him as a prophet, despite evidence presented in the Texas case that he had sex with girls from the sect as young as 12, former church members and experts say. Jeffs, 55, was sentenced by a Texas jury Tuesday and will not be eligible for parole until he is at least 100 years old.
There was no mass exodus in 2007 after Jeffs’ conviction on Utah sex assault charges. Most members remained loyal. As he spent almost five years in various jails, Jeffs continued to spiritually direct the faith, counsel followers and lead Sunday services by phone.
His legal grip on the church also remains strong.
No Outside Communication
According to the San Angelo Standard Times former FLDS sect spokesman Willie Jessop — who is no longer loyal to Jeffs — says since FLDS followers have no access to outside communication “Ninety-eight percent don’t know what he [Jeffs] was actually sentenced to prison for doing.”
Still, Jeffs conviction — along with his false prophecies and increasingly bizarre edicts — are causing a growing number of FLDS members to question his leadership.
Some of those exiled by Jeffs earlier this year have started a rival group. Last March Willie E. Jessop — the man Jeffs once pointed to as the group’s true prophet — launched a bid to take legal control of the sect’s corporate entity.
The move failed. but as Lindsay Whitehurst reports in the Salt Lake Tribune, Jessop is drawing at last count a few hundred people to Sunday services in the twin towns.
There’s been a flurry of construction and activity around the sect’s meetinghousein Colorado City, Ariz., in the last week, said private investigator and author Sam Brower, with cars surrounding the building and men going in and out with bags of cement.
“Whatever it is they have a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “I think the point is that he’s keeping them worked up to a fever pitch.”
Still, few expect fireworks Saturday from the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz.
“I think the only thing that will really happen is Warren will give some sort of secret training reserved for the evening that made it possible for the world to continue another year, a few weeks, or a month,” said former FLDS member Ezra Draper. “‘Well you’ve been progressing and the Lord is merciful, so he’s granted us a few more days.’”
Law enforcement is also watching, said Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap — though this year he’s also noticed more people from within the group questioning the leadership.
“I think there has been some movement of people to break away from the very controlling atmosphere and begin to think for themselves and ask questions where previously they wouldn’t,” Belnap said.
The same article relates the experiences of Lorin Holm. The father of 25 children with three wives was excommunicated from the sect last January:
Holm said he was a faithful member of the sect who donated thousands of dollars and was even re-baptized in late 2010. But on Jan. 9, he was called to the meetinghouse, surrounded by about 25 men and told he “unworthy.”
“There’s no trial, you don’t get a hearing or anything,” he said.
He said didn’t understand the “correction,” but accepted it and did what was expected of him. He left town, walking away from his three wives and children.
When his request for a return to his wives and children was denied by FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ brother, Holm started questioning the latter’s leadership.
He has since filed a lawsuit seeking custody, and hopes that through the case he can show his family the evidence against Warren Jeffs:
“If my wives knew what he was teaching, they wouldn’t put up with it for five minutes,” he said. “I’m going to go get my kids and teach them how to be children.”
Lindsay Whitehurt covers polygamy for the Salt Lake Tribune in her Polygamy Blog.
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