Polygamist’s death creates tension in enclave

The Arizona Republic, Sep. 10, 2002
Tom Zoellner

The leader of an Arizona-based polygamist sect died Sunday, setting the stage for a possible religious power struggle in the nation’s largest enclave of plural marriage in northwestern Arizona.

Rulon T. Jeffs, the president and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died of intestinal failure at Dixie Medical Center in St. George, Utah.

He was 93 and is survived by a reported 19 wives of varying ages.

Jeffs led North America’s largest polygamist church, a congregation of 10,000 headquartered in the remote desert town of Colorado City.

Other branches are located in the nearby town of Hildale, Utah, in Salt Lake City and in British Columbia.

The church proclaims plural marriage as the key to attaining the highest level of heaven and believes the words of its prophet carry heavenly authority.

The last time a change of leadership occurred in Colorado City was in 1986 with the death of prophet Leroy Johnson. A bitter schism ensued and a rival church known as “The Work” broke away from the main body.

There are now two main contenders to succeed Jeffs: longtime bishop Fred Jessop and one of Jeffs’ more than 60 children, Warren Jeffs.

“The general feeling out of Colorado City is one of unrest,” said Flora Jessop, who left the church several years ago but still has ties to the community. “Most people there are expecting another split now.”

According to a statement released by the Fundamentalist church’s Salt Lake City attorney, R. Scott Berry, “an appropriate announcement will be made in due course” announcing the identity of the new prophet.

“There are succession mechanisms in place,” the statement continued. “Leadership of the church is intact, and the church will be guided by the hand of God in determining who its next prophet will be.”

Rulon Jeffs was born in Salt Lake City on Dec. 6, 1909, at a time when the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was beginning to crack down on plural marriage.

He went to work as an accountant for the Utah State Tax Commission and became captivated with the teachings of his father, a polygamist.

Jeffs was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1941 and later became a top financial manager for a settlement of dissident Mormons in the town of Short Creek, later called Colorado City. He prospered as an accountant and sat on the board of several multimillion-dollar corporations, including one that made gaskets for the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

Jeffs lived most of his later life in a massive compound with 23 bedrooms at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon outside Salt Lake City. He commuted regularly by chartered jet to Colorado City after he assumed the presidency in 1986.

“He was a very gentle and inspiring man and was a great teacher all his life,” said Dan Barlow, the mayor of Colorado City and spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse in Colorado City.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 11, 2002.
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