Editor’s note: The Success this week begins a series of articles delving into the belief system of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The first installment focuses on the Doctrine of Blood Atonement.
To fully understand the teachings of Prophet Warren Jeffs and his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), one must first understand the teachings of the early Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), as handed down by the group’s first Prophet, Joseph Smith, and how those teachings were carried forward and expanded upon by his successors, including church pioneers like Brigham Young.
First and foremost, FLDS devotees consider themselves to be true Mormons, meaning that it is they and not the mainline LDS Church who is the rightful heir of Joseph Smith’s prophecy. By holding fast to traditional church doctrines like Plural Marriage and Blood Atonement, doctrines which were first promoted and then later forsaken by the LDS Church, FLDS faithful believe that they are Smith’s living legacy and that it will be through them that God’s earthly kingdom will be restored.
Many conservative Mormons broke with the LDS church in the 1890s when the church renounced the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage. Eventually, the disaffected Mormons began to gather in small groups, finally coalescing into a handful of fundamentalist sects. Chief among these were the early settlers of a tiny town on the Utah/Arizona border called Short Creek.
Few realized then that Short Creek, later renamed Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, would become the center of the fundamentalist Mormon universe. Today, the sprawling town, and its outlying neighborhoods, is home to nearly 10,000 people who look, not to the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, but to FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs, for spiritual guidance.
Jeffs’ followers differ with the mainline Mormon Church over a number of core beliefs, one of them being Plural Marriage. But another area of strong disagreement involves the Doctrine of Blood Atonement, the belief that there are some sins so egregious that the sinner’s own blood must be spilled in order to atone for them.
Church historians disagree over whether it was LDS founder Joseph Smith, or his successor, the church’s second prophet, Brigham Young, who first introduced the doctrine of Blood Atonement. There is little debate, however, that by 1856, the doctrine was widely accepted by the Mormon faithful.
That same year, Brigham Young delivered a sermon, that was later published in the Journal of Discourses, saying, “There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins…
“And further more, I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further; I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.
“It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit…. There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, or a calf, or of turtle dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man.”
In 1978 the LDS Church repudiated the Doctrine of Blood Atonement, just as it denounced the practice of Plural Marriage some 90 years earlier, bringing it in line with the teachings of most mainline Christian churches that only the blood of Jesus, shed some 20 centuries ago on the cross at Calvary, can atone for sin. Most fundamentalist Mormon groups, and in particular the group that occupied Colorado City/Hildale, viewed the LDS action in 1978 as another in a long line of heresies.
In 1988 Rulon Jeffs succeeded Leroy Johnson as the Prophet of the fundamentalist Mormons of Short Creek. In 1991, he formally incorporated the church under the name Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with himself listed as president, agent and sole trustee. It was he, perhaps more than any other man, except for the possible exception of his son and successor, Warren Jeffs, who advanced the Doctrine of Blood Atonement among the FLDS faithful.
In a series of sermons published in 1997, Rulon Jeffs told his followers, “I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain, in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty, but who are now angels to the devil…
“This is loving our neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.
A combination of events, beginning in the year 2000 have led some FLDS observers to worry that the group could choose to put the teaching of Blood Atonement into practice. First, the aged Prophet Rulon Jeffs, speaking through his son, Warren, predicted the world would end that year and that the FLDS faithful would be “lifted up” and rescued from the destruction. Jeffs’ followers prepared for the day by withdrawing their children from the public school system. Then, gathering outside of town in a large field, the group massed and waited, but nothing happened.
Prior to the promised lifting up, many of Rulon Jeffs followers had maxed out their credit cards and stopped making payments to banks and other lenders. When the day of deliverance failed to materialize, they found themselves fending off creditors and some began openly questioning the Prophet.
But, Warren Jeffs had answers. The problem had not been with the prophesy, but with the believers who were told that their own lack of faith had prevented their ascension to heaven.
Then, in 2001, the prophet who had told his followers he was immortal, died and Warren Jeffs ascended to leadership of the FLDS. A series of excommunications, which continued even as recently as last month, were announced as the younger Jeffs solidified his grip on the FLDS church and the United Effort Plan trust, the financial arm of the church that owned most of the property in Colorado City/Hildale.
As word spread that Prophet Warren Jeffs was preparing to move his most faithful followers away from Colorado City/Hildale, FLDS historian Ben Bistline, received an anonymous letter threatening his life. Bistline, who was excommunicated from the church several years earlier, wrote The Polygamists, a History of Colorado City, Arizona. The book apparently drew the ire of the letter writer who told him, “I have a job to do. My job is to protect the prophet Warren Jeffs from you cockroaches and scum…
“There won’t be yellow dog here to greet us or stand in our way when it comes time for the prophet to rule this world…
“He’s working very hard to get us to a point where God will clean up the world. Then God will be able to order the destroying angels to go forth and they will kill off all the wicked…The prophet has promised us that the destructions are here and we will get to witness them.”
For his part, Ben Bistline says that he isn’t really worried for his own safety. “I’m more concerned with the mentality of a person who would write something like that,” Bistline told the Success.
Ross Chatwin, who was excommunicated from the FLDS Church last year by Warren Jeffs, and who recently won a court order allowing him to stay in his home despite an eviction order from the prophet, says that Warren Jeffs fully believes in the Doctrine of Blood Atonement and teaches it to his followers. “Warren says that the reason we don’t live the doctrine is that the United States government won’t allow it,” Chatwin said. “But, when God returns then his followers can carry it out.”
Both Bistline and Chatwin say that Prophet Warren Jeffs finds himself under increased pressure from government investigators, as well as an army of lawyers who are pursuing lawsuits against him in Utah, Arizona and Texas. Perhaps in response to that pressure, Jeffs is staying out of the public eye.
One source in Colorado City tells the Success that a meeting was called last week wherein FLDS members were shown a video tape of Warren Jeffs. In the tape he reportedly ordered those in attendance to stand if they were willing to protect him from danger. The source tells the Success that everyone in the room stood.
From the first day the FLDS/YFZ Ranch story broke here in Eldorado, the Success has sought comment from representatives of the church and/or the ranch. So far, none have been willing to speak on the record.
Next week the Success will explore the apparent contradiction between the FLDS church’s disdain for government and the willingness of many of its members to take advantage of government assistance programs as manifested in a policy known as “Bleeding the Beast.”