Struggling with Polygamy

Is the lifestyle an ongoing commandment from God or a religious excuse for abuse?
The Spectrum, May 4, 2003
By Jane Zhang

HILDALE — Pam Black had prayed for a “sister wife.”

It took at least three wives for a man to ascend to heaven. And only obedient, “virtuous” women could make it happen, or so she was told.

Yet after 35 years of marriage, she remained Martin’s only wife and bore 14 children in 22 years.

“I was angry at God and things: Would you please give us this blessing?” recalled Pam, 51, who has broken ranks with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “I wanted it because I honestly thought that was the only way to get to God.”

She sat upright in a green chair, bursting into tears. Five years have passed since she became an apostate in Hildale, but 46 years of polygamous teaching still weigh heavily on her.

It was a starlit evening, and the air was cold near Squirrel Canyon. Black’s mother, Julia Thomas, heated the one-bedroom house with an old wood-burning stove. Across the flue, Martin Black watched his wife denouncing polygamy under a framed painting of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS church also traces its roots to Smith.

“I hated polygamy,” Pam said. “I hated it. But I did not dare to tell anybody I hated it because I was afraid they would kick me out and (I would) go to hell. I did hate what I saw my sisters go through. I saw only abuse in polygamy.”

Clad in a pantsuit instead of her customary homemade cotton dresses, Pam is the most recent woman speaking out against the FLDS church, a break-away group from the LDS church that still teaches polygamy as a doctrine.

Border Towns

One of the largest and fastest-growing polygamist groups in America, the religion dominates the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Through the United Effort Plan, the FLDS church owns most of the area’s land, where houses with multiple entrances are lined up on unpaved roads.

Women in pastels pull their long hair up in buns or back in braids. Clean-shaven men wear short hair and long-sleeve shirts that are buttoned up to the neck. Occasionally, as outside cars passing through interrupt the tight-knit community, boys in jeans and girls in ankle-length dresses stop their play and stare.

Daniel Barlow, mayor of Colorado City for 18 years, said FLDS members try to preserve a pioneer atmosphere, much like the Amish and the early LDS pioneers. They work together on construction projects or manufacturing jobs, worship at the Leroy S. Johnson Meeting House on Sundays and rely on their prophet for counseling and marital matters.

From 1990 to 2000, the population of the two towns in Short Creek Valley grew by 40 percent, mostly boosted by high birth rates. Among the 1,895 people living in Hildale and the 3,334 in Colorado City, the 2000 U.S. Census showed that more than 60 percent were younger than 18, with a median age of 13.1 in Hildale and 14.3 in Colorado City. In contrast, the median age in St. George is 31.4 and 23.3 in Cedar City. But David Zitting, mayor of Hildale since 1985, said the 2000 Census underreported the area’s population. He estimates the population now exceeds 2,000 in Hildale and 4,000 in Colorado City.

With the population boom, Barlow said the towns have seen juvenile drinking and drug use. Most families have TV sets, he said, but they are not encouraged to watch television because “all that does is destroy your brain.” While FLDS members often shop at Wal-Mart stores about an hour away in St. George, they rarely mingle with “outsiders.”

“They have been abused,” Barlow said. “They have been persecuted as a people, and they just want to live their religion and have the same benefits every American has, that live the way they feel is right. And they didn’t care less what the papers say about it.”

Basis for Belief

FLDS members trace the roots of their beliefs to Joseph Smith, who first introduced the practice of polygamy in the early 1840s to a select group of people. As it became more widely known, however, the principle drew public opposition, which contributed to the community turmoil behind Smith’s 1844 assassination in Illinois.

After Brigham Young led LDS pioneers to Salt Lake City, the church in 1852 publicly announced polygamy as an official doctrine. But moral outrage among the American public prompted Congress to enact a series of measures to outlaw polygamy, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887.

After receiving a revelation, LDS church President Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto in 1890 to abolish plural marriages, a decision that helped the territory achieve statehood. Since then, LDS members practicing polygamy have been excommunicated and barred from LDS Temples.

Polygamists, however, say the FLDS church is justified because LDS President John Taylor was instructed in 1886 to continue the practice of polygamy by Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, said Benjamin Bistline, who is not a polygamist but has lived in Colorado City most of his life.

Mayor Barlow, who calls himself “a Fundamentalist Mormon,” said the FLDS church sees the practice of polygamy as “a commandment of God.” In the Bible’s Old Testament, patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob and early kings such as David and Solomon all had multiple wives or concubines. A son of former FLDS church leader John Barlow and his third wife, Barlow would not say how many wives, children and grandchildren he has.

The LDS church has abandoned a “fundamental” principle advocated by Smith and Young, Barlow said. Until recently, he said, LDS leaders felt threatened by the FLDS church and actively persecuted polygamists.

“The big church, the LDS church, is taking more of a liberal position that they are trying to appease and be more like the world,” he said. “That hasn’t been our desire.”

Donald Jessee, a spokesman for the LDS church, said the church abolished polygamy after a revelation from God. But the LDS church has cult,” said Bistline, who has self-published a book called “The Polygamists, a History of Colorado City.” “They want absolute loyalty. If anybody starts to buckle, then they want them out because it’s bad influence.”

One way of maintaining loyalty, some critics of the FLDS church say, is to evict people who dissent with the church.

Barlow would not say how many people have been evicted from the church’s land, but admitted some have been forced out “because of immorality or some other reasons.”

“Evictions are a normal way of people doing business,” he said. “If you are invited to live on a church farm and then you turn against the church and begin to fight it, they would probably ask you to leave the church farm.”

FLDS members are told not to believe in dinosaur tracks or such scientific achievements as astronauts walking on the moon, Bistline said. And instead of saying “pregnant,” people are told to say “with a child.”

In August 2000, then-FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs called for FLDS children to be pulled from public schools. Student enrollment at Phelps Elementary School in Hildale plummeted from a peak of 350 students to 16 in 2001, forcing the Washington County School District to close and eventually sell the building.

Becoming Apostate

Pam raised a vase of dried purple sage to her nose and took a deep breath.

Occasional night winds had filled the green house with pungent and sweet smells from about 100 different types of herbs Julia cultivated on their 7-acre property. Not far away from the town of Hildale and yet sheltered by towering red cliffs, the place has become “a refuge” since July 3, 1998, when Pam and Martin gave up their belongings and left their house on the UEP land.

“It is healing here,” Pam said. “I’m the happiest person, and I’m so free.”

Driving by her old house one day, however, she still couldn’t help trembling. Some people might see us, she said again and again.

Paid for with cash, the house on UEP land was built with other FLDS members’ help. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, a median-size house in Hildale had eight rooms. But only seven of the 256 households there had a mortgage. FLDS tenants face eviction unless they follow church rules that state, among other things, that women should obey men and that men obey the prophet.

For most of her life, Pam said, she worried that “the invisible Taliban” would drive her husband away, take her children away and evict the “disobedient” family.

What does it take to become an apostate? Martin recalled asking a church leader.

“All it takes is ‘Why?'” he was told.

Pam had refused to turn her paychecks over to her husband, and she even challenged church leaders — though, she said, never in an obvious, direct way.

As “‘the people in the world’ would not understand our ways,” she was told, counseling outside of the religion was forbidden. But when a family fight turned violent, someone called police to the Black house.

The couple went to a church counseling session with Jeffs. As Martin recalled, Sam Barlow, a former deputy town marshal in Colorado City, leaned over, pointed a finger at him and yelled, “Are you man enough to handle that woman?”

‘Ideal Polygamy’

Julia, Pam Black’s mother, poured a cup of self-made Brigham tea and sat down near the stove. “God’s way of polygamy” has become “man’s way of polygamy,” she said, shaking her head.

“(The current leaders) teach you how many children you should have, how many wives you have, how big your house is or what your name is,” said Julia, 76. “They are not preaching old doctrines, so all anybody can do is to rebel.”

Though evicted by the FLDS church, the slim, gray-haired “Grandma Thomas” still believes in “an ideal polygamy,” where women are respected by men and men by women.

On the table, next to photos of her great-grandchildren, lay a picture of the seven-member Priesthood Council that once governed the FLDS church. In the early 1980s, the council lost in a power struggle that resulted in “one-man rule” by Leroy Johnson. In 1986, Bistline said, a group led by Marion Hammon left the FLDS church and established the Work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Centennial Park, also known as the Second Ward. The remaining FLDS church became known as the First Ward, first led by Johnson, then Rulon Jeffs and now by his son, Warren Jeffs.

After refusing to support the one-man rule, Julia was given three day’s notice in 1997 to leave the house she built on UEP land. Several weeks later, FLDS church leaders ordered the house destroyed.

“An old woman” long estranged from her husband, she knew she didn’t have much of a chance to protest. But more than 30 people filed a lawsuit in 1987 to obtain the deeds to their houses.

The 13-year lawsuit cost the plaintiffs about $1 million and the FLDS church about $6 million, Bistline said. While some withdrew or died, about 20 men finally obtained the rights to live in the homes they built. Because their wives were not included in the list of plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Bistline said, they will have to move out when their husbands die.

“You hear the politics, the political influence they have in Washington County,” Bistline said. “The judge ruled against us. The judge was lied to.”

With only $800, Julia started building a one-bedroom house on the Black family property. For six weeks, she recalled, many townsfolk came to help, bringing an electric saw and metal tools. But most helpers were women, who set the beams and put on the shingles.

“Some say, ‘how hard was it?’ It was like having a baby,” Julia said, smiling. “Men are not the only guys that can do everything.”

The carpeted home is furnished with a low-legged sofa and a bookshelf with 44 Truth magazines, which were published by devout FLDS members 40 years ago. Everything in the house was donated by townsfolk, Julia said.

“I love them all,” she said.

Occasionally, her old friends would sneak to her house and voice frustrations with “the authorities.” There have been rumors that one woman in town helped her husband beat a “sister wife,” Julia said, but everyone was told to be quiet on the matter.

“(The authorities) have the power of life and death over us,” she said. “There are a lot of people that are scared there. They are afraid of doing something wrong.”

Her wavy gray hair neatly pulled back in a bun, Julia wore a white blouse and blue pants under a blue knee-length skirt with white flowers. White stands for purity and blue for virtue, she explained. Julia looked disapprovingly at her daughter, who was wearing a green jacket.

“No, my apparel is who I am inside,” Pam fired back. “God loves me as I am.”

Quick Wedding

Her emphatic response would have been unimaginable on Sept. 7, 1963, when 11-year-old Pam moved with her mother, three sisters and a brother to Short Creek, now Colorado City. Trying to fit into the “clannish community,” she said, she accepted the “gospel truth” wholeheartedly. She never wore her hair down, never showed her skin except for the face and hands, and always tried to please everyone, especially church leaders.

“I was not a bad girl,” she recalled. “I was ultimately a good girl. I didn’t speak at school. I had no self-worth. I literally kind of lost myself somewhere there.”

She dreaded getting into trouble. At 15, when a boy tried to kiss her in the dark, she broke away, turned herself in and confessed the “sin” to a church leader.

“The boys are taught girls are snakes and are venom,” said Pam, wringing her hands. “A woman’s virtue is considered her most prized possession. The girls need not to do anything; the husband will take you to heaven.”

Occasionally, she would get into trouble. At a Sunday church gathering, she was singled out for wearing “spit curls,” or a small curl falling on one side of the head. “Uncle Marion,” Marion Hammon, called it a “hither-come-to” for boys.

Men must wear short hair above the ear, Pam said, but women are not allowed to cut their hair.

When she was 17, Pam’s thick, red hair caught the attention of a returned veteran from Korea, 27-year-old Martin. The eldest son of Leonard Black and his third wife, Larna, Martin grew up with 32 siblings.

“I went to her house,” he recalled. “The beautiful red-haired girl came to (the) door with a pie, a cake on a tray. The first time I laid eyes on her, I fell in love. I mean, I really fell in love with her. And the way she, you know how she moves, she’s full of energy, vibrant. She was laughing, having a good time.”

His father went to then-prophet Leroy Johnson, who “took the message to God.” Martin was “tall, dark and handsome,” Pam recalled, but she was barely acquainted with him. Even before her mother knew, they were rushed to Las Vegas to get married on Dec. 24, 1968. Four days later, they were sealed by Johnson, known as “Uncle Roy.”

Women’s Self-Worth

For a girl who never learned to kiss, Pam said, her wedding night was “devastating.” She had fancied to get married at 12, but nobody ever talked to her about sex. The marriage, when she was 17, started with Martin feeling frustrated and Pam “smiling outside, crying inside.” Yet they bowed to the “main goal” of the marriage: “Not to let a year go by without a baby being born.”

“Women’s own self-worth comes from having babies,” Pam said. “We build their kingdom by having babies.”

Like other FLDS women, she said she never used birth-control pills. “We were told if you prevent a child from coming to the world, you will be damned,” she explained.

She held out a framed family photo, with four daughters and nine sons huddled together and smiling. Her second daughter was stillborn.

“I was feeling more and more like a ‘play thing’ for my husband, and less and less like a beautiful woman,” Pam recalled. “My energy was low, and I came face to face with the reality of just how much work it takes to be a parent.”

She tried to talk to Martin, but he shut down. The solution to family fights, FLDS counselors told them, was to make the women submit. Only through men with plural wives could women receive their blessings and go to heaven, they preached, but a disobedient woman was doomed.

“With this mindset, you cannot have an intimate relationship with a person you love,” Pam said. “Because if you do, you know he’s going to be taken from you and have someone else who’s prettier and younger than you. And I always — even when I was young and beautiful — I was afraid. My biggest fear was he would find somebody younger and prettier.”

Martin said he never had pressure to seek another wife. But Julia quickly rebuked him.

“Sure he did,” she said. “That’s the ambition of all of them.”

Martin conceded, saying a man had to have at least three wives if he wanted to go to heaven. “If you only get two, what are you going to do? You don’t have enough,” he said.

“He only has one,” Pam said. “I wasn’t considered anything because he hasn’t had two yet.”

One night, when Martin came home from work later than usual, Pam assumed that he had found another woman. And she vowed to be good when her rival came.

“I was under total anxiety — I basically was just jealous about the wife that didn’t exist,” Pam said. “The men here, the bed was even not warm yet before they want another one.”

Yet Martin was never granted another “blessing.” Instead, he would spend the next 30 years wanting and wondering.

“I like other girls,” Martin said. “I don’t know whether other guys ever do or not. But (I) guess everybody does. I don’t know. Girls like other guys, too.”

Correct Principles

“This is a philosophy,” Barlow said. “I would say that men are polygamists in nature. I mean all men, everywhere — that they have the capacity of leading, directing, inspiring more than one woman.”

Not everyone, however, can reach the “standard” for receiving plural wives, he added.

“If a man is worthy, then he’s called to that calling,” Barlow said. “It’s not something that everybody tries to do on their own.”

The ones deemed “worthy” by the prophet are those who have money and property, who come from powerful families and who are in favor of the current leaders, Bistline said. Others are abused, driven out of town or find their plural wives “reassigned” to more “worthy” men.

“The leaders have got to keep people pure,” Bistline said. “They’ve got to keep sin and wickedness out of the area.”

Lacking skills and basic education, Pam said, many young men from polygamous families have ended up on big-city streets. Without self-esteem, some boys have been arrested for alcohol or drug addictions.

Barlow denied that the FLDS men were taught the three-wife doctrine. Held at “the highest esteem,” he said, a woman is a “help maid” to a man. And she doesn’t have to have babies every year, either. He called those talking to the media “losers” and “criticizers” of the FLDS church.

“The very foundation of the religion we are believing in is the freedom of choice,” Barlow said. “We don’t regulate people’s lives. The church doesn’t regulate your lives. They just teach correct principles and you regulate your own lives.

“There’s a misconception about our people, that there’s some kind of force or some kind of ironclad rules that make everything fit together. But that’s false. People are taught correct principles, they are taught to live good and honorable (lives),” he said. “Maybe a little bit different than some other people. You know what makes America? There are all different kinds of people. The freedom works for us just like it does for everybody else.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 6, 2003.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject

Topics: ,


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at