For centuries polygamous families in America pretty much stayed under the radar.
But while some Fundamentalist Mormon sects have received unwanted attention with the prosecutions of adherents who had married underage girls, other such groups — who shun child marriages — have become more vocal in the defense of their beliefs and practices with regard to polygamy.
The polygamist lifestyle is illegal in all 50 states, but residents of Centennial Park say they allowed our cameras into their home because they want to show just how average and normal their lives are. The Cawleys will also appear on TV’s “Polygamy USA,” which airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
“We would like to start having the debate nationally about the decriminalization of polygamy,” Michael Cawley said. “If I had my choices, I would like to see it done right now. I don’t see there is any reason for this lifestyle to be a crime. It’s a religion. Not a crime.”
Centennial Park is home to about 1,500 fundamentalist Mormons. There are sharp contrasts between this sect and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religious cult whose ruthless leader has been sentenced to life in prison for taking underage girls in ‘spiritual marriages.’
Residents of Centennial Park have been among the most vocal supporters of polygamy.
Child marriage is out of the question in this group.
The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Marlyne Hammon, a spokeswomen for the group on this subject:
By custom, it is usually girls who take the initiative in choosing a mate, Hammon said, which affords the best chance of success for the marriage. The process begins with the girl first approaching her parents, then clergy and, if all those parties are supportive, the man she is interested in.
“This is usually the process for either a first or a plural marriage,” Hammon said. “There may be variations, but this is most commonly the way our marriages happen.”
But ABC News also notes that
While more tolerant than the FLDS, the Centennial Park polygamist community is not quite as laid back as the polygamy family featured on TLC’s “Sister Wives” either.
Women in Centennial Park get the inspiration for who they will marry, but then they can’t say no to an additional wife if one gets an inspiration to join their family. […]
There is no dating allowed. Women have to be at least 18 years old to marry, and God can tell them to marry just about anyone in town, even if they were many years older.
Polygamy was ‘most holy and important doctrine ever revealed’
To Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, polygamy was one of Mormonism’s most sacred credos.
As Jon Krakauer points out in his book, Under the Banner of Heaven,1 Smith 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.
According to Smith, “if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”
But faced with the disincorporation of the LDS Church, and the forfeiture to the Federal Government of all church property worth more than $50,000, in 1890 Mormon leaders claimed God revealed to them that polygamy was out.2
The Birth of Fundamentalist Mormonism
That major change in doctrine led many conservative Mormons to withdraw to remote sections of the American West, where they continued to practice what they called “The Principle” — plural marriage.
There are many polygamous sects of the Mormon Church. Nowadays their followers are often referred to as Fundamentalist Mormons, since they hold on to what they consider to be the fundamental doctrines of the Mormon faith.
The best known of these sects is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
Prosecuting Underage Marriage
In 2008 an FLDS compound near Eldorado, Texas was raided by authorities over concerns that children were being abused.
Based in part on evidence obtained during that raid, FLDS prophet and leader Warren Jeffs was convicted for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed “spiritual marriages.” In August, 2011 he was sentenced to life plus 20 years.
Jeffs was one of 11 FLDS men indicted and prosecuted after the raid.
Earlier, independent Mormon polygamist Tom Green, prosecuted after he boasted about his lifestyle and beliefs on national TV, was sentenced for bigamy, criminal nonsupport and child rape.
While most of the polygamous sects of Mormonism reportedly do not practice or otherwise condone underage marriage, these two cases brought fundamentalist polygamous groups and their beliefs and practices back into the spotlight.
Most of these groups had ‘gone underground’ after the ill-fated 1953 Shortcreek raid, when families were split up as Arizona authorities tried to combat polygamy in a heavy-handed manner.
Sixty years later, the polygamous families at Centennial Park say, as ABC News reports, “they are tired of living in secret and want to demonstrate plural marriage as the way they say it should be seen.”
Hammon said that the stereotype that women in polygamist marriages have no rights, no freedom to leave the community and are only there to have babies is false, as far as he is concerned.
“I can tell you that my door swings both ways,” he said. “If they come in, they can go out. I know of no greater freedom for a woman than living in a responsible, caring polygamist home.”3
Research resources on Polygamy
Polygamous Sects of the Mormon Church
- In Under the Banner of Mormonism Jon Krakauker examines Mormon Fundamentalist groups, in the process taking a look at Mormonism’s violent past, “and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism.” ↩
- The background to this change — and countless other changes in Mormon doctrine, claims and history — is documented in the online book, The Changing World of Mormonism ↩
- Arthur Hammon is one of the town elders and a husband to three wives with more than 20 children ↩