Smart case highlights Mormon church’s historical link to polygamy

AP, Mar. 16, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Despite the Mormon Church’s centurylong effort to rid itself of the stigma of polygamy, high-profile cases like Elizabeth Smart’s abduction have cast the church in an unfavorable light by linking it to the outlawed practice.

The Church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice or preach it. But an estimated 30,000 polygamists whose beliefs are rooted in Mormonism live in Utah and other parts of the southwest, Mexico and Canada. While most of them are consenting adults, living quietly, the region’s history is littered with would-be prophets who, abandoning the traditional church, sought to lead their own polygamist groups or cults.

Among them, it appears, is Brian David Mitchell, the self-styled prophet arrested last week in Smart’s abduction. An excommunicated Mormon, he wrote a rambling manifesto espousing the virtues of polygamy and may have kidnapped the teen to make her his second wife.

Mitchell’s case is just one of several involving avowed polygamists with extremist or fanatical views. Among them:

– In August 2002, polygamist Tom Green was sentenced to five years to life in prison for a child rape that occurred when he took Linda Kunz, a 13-year-old girl, as his “spiritual” wife in 1986 when Green was 37. Green drew the attention of prosecutors when he appeared on a half-dozen nationally televised talk shows to defend his brand of polygamy.

– In 1984, brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty, who had formed a polygamist cult called School of Prophets, killed Ron Lafferty’s sister-in-law and her baby because she agreed with Ron Lafferty’s wife’s decision to leave him.

– In 1979, Summit County, Utah, polygamist John Singer, who pulled his children out of public school, was shot by law enforcement officers for running away when they tried to capture him. His son Addam Swapp, who also became a polygamist, in January 1988 blew up the Marion, Utah, Mormon administrative center. Swapp was wounded after he led his clan in an armed standoff with police and was later sentenced to 15 years in prison.

– In the late 1940s, the excommunicated LeBaron clan established Colonia LeBaron, a polygamist colony in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. In the early 1970s Ervil LeBaron executed rival polygamists in Mexico and Salt Lake County. He died in prison.

Some experts say Mormonism will never be able to shed itself of polygamy – and the sects or cults that arise because of it – because the practice is linked inextricably to the church’s founding.

“Polygamy is an albatross the church has been unable to rid itself of,” said David Bigler, a former Mormon and historian on the church.

At a conference in October, Gordon Hinckley, the church’s image-maker since 1935, issued a powerful reminder that the members’ faith depended on the belief that God and Jesus Christ revealed themselves to founder Joseph Smith in 1820 on an upstate New York hillside when he was 14.

“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision,” said the 92-year-old president.

It was Smith who, in 1843, also disclosed his revelation that polygamy, restored by prophecy from the patriarchal milieu of the Old Testament, was an essential ingredient of eternal exaltation on which the church would stand or fall.

Smith’s teachings on polygamy remain in the church’s four volumes of scripture. Section 132 says that “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.”

Therein may lie a justification for Mitchell and thousands of so-called fundamentalist Mormons to defy mainstream Mormonism and establish sects where men take multiple wives, some as young as 12.

“They believe in Joseph Smith and polygamy,” said Rowenna Erickson, 63, a former plural wife and co-founder of the group Tapestry Against Polygamy. “In order to gain their eternal salvation, they feel they need to live polygamously, because that is one of the higher laws, to get them to the celestial kingdom.”

As for Mitchell, his manifesto includes apocalyptic ravings that crib from several books, including the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon and other Joseph Smith writings. The tract typed on a computer is dated April 6, 2002 – the Mormon church’s birthday.

Mitchell, once a high local Mormon leader, was excommunicated several years ago for “activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle” far afield of the church. Also excommunicated was Wanda Barzee, arrested along with Mitchell on Wednesday for her alleged complicity in Elizabeth’s kidnapping.

Such discipline is not uncommon in the church’s struggle with polygamous splinter groups who continue to keep multiple “sister-wives.”

Yet the church also teaches that plural marriage will revive when Christ returns. And members are allowed a kind of polygamy in the belief that widowers who marry again may live with both in the afterlife.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 17, 2003.
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