Kidnapping Case Puts Mormons on Defensive

The New York Times, Mar. 24, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY, March 22 — The joy that greeted Elizabeth Smart’s safe return last week was tempered here with widespread revulsion for David Brian Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping and subjecting her to a nine-month ordeal of servitude and sexual abuse.

That Mr. Mitchell, a homeless man known here as a bearded, glint-eyed but seemingly harmless religious crank, might have justified the abduction as a divinely inspired polygamist mission strikes many here as not only cruel, but also irrelevant.

His supposed justifications for his bridal quest, they say, have nothing to do with religion — certainly not with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which outlawed polygamy more than a century ago and even excommunicated Mr. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, for their heretical views.

The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah

But isolating Mr. Mitchell, 49, and Ms. Barzee, 57, from their religious milieu may not be quite that simple in a state that is home to tens of thousands of polygamists, and whose governor only this week signed legislation imposing tougher penalties on men who take multiple brides.

Since the couple’s polygamist views came into focus through a rambling treatise Mr. Mitchell wrote last year in the voice of “Immanuel David Isaiah,” a fictional prophet claiming divine powers and wisdom, many Mormons here say the misperceptions about their church are back.

“When people say Mormons practice polygamy, that really disturbs me,” said Carolyn Jensen, a Mormon and a junior at the University of Utah. “People still have a distorted view of what we do and don’t do, and that view has been perpetuated.”

Yet for any misconceptions held by others, many Mormons say they are altogether comfortable with a history that includes polygamy, and with recent church efforts to keep it all in perspective. Polygamy became a part of Mormon life in 1830 through divine revelation to Joseph Smith, the church founder, and ended through divine revelation to another church leader 60 years later.

Polygamy was put away,” said Russell Butler, a Mormon and professor at Idaho State University. “But we’re not running from anything here. It’s not something we’re hiding. It’s part of our history.”

To outsiders, the history becomes problematical only when someone like Mr. Mitchell emerges, cloaking himself in church doctrine to validate his actions. His treatise made it clear he felt entitled to multiple wives and left the impression Elizabeth was to be the first of at least seven in addition to Ms. Barzee.

Larry Long, a lawyer who met with him in jail, told a Salt Lake City television station that Mr. Mitchell still considered Elizabeth his wife, adding, “He still loves her and knows that she still loves him, that no harm came to her during their relationship and the adventure that went on.” Mr. Long also said Mr. Mitchell was acting on a “call from God.”

Mormons like Rebekah Prisbrey reject Mr. Mitchell’s views.

“In my mind, these people are sexual predators,” Ms. Prisbrey said. “They took their ideas from religion and went off on a tangent. That happens a lot.”

While prosecutors say they are treating the defendants as “predatory sex offenders,” rather than as people acting on religious conviction, church officials concede that the Smart case has put them on the defensive once more, even after disclosing that Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Barzee were excommunicated several years ago “for promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church.”

“Over the last few years there have been a number of individuals we considered deviant with practices they ascribe to religious beliefs,” Richard E. Turley Jr., a senior church official, said this week, adding that conflicts arise when they “embrace only selective elements of church teachings” that apparently justify their actions.

That is a thorny problem with polygamy because Mormon scripture is, on the surface, ambiguous.

Generally, Mr. Turley said, church scriptures recognize only monogamy, a concept protected by the “Official Declaration 1” of 1890 that outlawed polygamy. But a section in Mormon scriptures written 60 years earlier appears to condone polygamy, saying, in part, “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 is he justified.”

Mr. Turley said that was an example of exceptions to the monogamy rule in the Old Testament and Mormon scripture, written when polygamy was practiced, adding, “A lot of people who live here descend from polygamists and look back to their ancestors with reverence and awe.”

But other Mormons concede that what outsiders might consider an ambiguity gives legitimacy for people like Mr. Mitchell and thousands of others who regard plural marriages as a fundamental part of their lives, promoted by the historical figures the modern church reveres.

Steve Dunlavy, who lives near where Elizabeth was found, in a Salt Lake City suburb, referred to the Mormon belief that God speaks through the church leader — now, Gordon B. Hinckley, 92 — and said: “If God says polygamy needs to be brought back upon earth, it will be.”

While Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Barzee are hardly alone among one-time church members charged with crimes that have polygamous overtones, they are unusual in that they are not members of any identifiable polygamist community or extremist brand of Mormonism. Indeed, the pair were once productive members of the mainstream church before they fell into homelessness and panhandling several years ago.

Members of the Smart family say they are disgusted by any suggestion the defendants may justify their actions in the name of religion. They cite the Mormon belief that people choose their own path, and reap the consequences in the hereafter.

Angela Smart, one of Elizabeth’s aunts, described the defendants, particularly Mr. Mitchell, as “pure evil,” insisting their religious explanation was “a really bad sham.”

She said the concept of polygamy once disgusted her, until she recalled a conversation with her husband, Zeke Dumke, before they were married. She said she told him, “You’re not going to have any other wives.”

But in 1984, when ethnic conflicts were simmering in the Balkans and her brother, Tom Smart, a photographer for The Deseret News, was sent to cover the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, she thought of Tom’s wife, Heidi, and made a tiny exception.

“At the time, I wondered what would happen if Tom didn’t make it back,” she said. “I love Heidi more than anybody in the world, so I told Zeke I’d let him take care of her.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 24, 2003.
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