A Look at Fundamentalist Mormonism

By Bill McKeever

The practice of plural marriage had been the center of controversy for Joseph Smith and his fledgling church ever since rumors began circulating about an extra marital affair he had while living in Kirtland, Ohio. According to George D. Smith:

Rumors about Smith's extramarital relationships with women had circulated for a decade before his 1841 plural marriage and the revelation sanctioning polygamy, recorded in 1843. The story repeated most often involved Fanny Alger, a young woman whom Smith employed in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835 to help his wife Emma with housework. Several Mormon leaders claim that Fanny Alger was Smith's first plural wife. (“Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy,” Dialogue, Vol.27, No.1, p.5-6.)

Accusations about Smith’s “marriages” to approximately thirty other women, at least ten of whom were simultaneously married to other living men (see Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 439, and Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 15), were met with adamant denials by Smith. Denials of his affairs to Smith’s wife Emma and to his church members, did little to remove the suspicions. As George D. Smith notes, “Although Joseph Smith met his death at the hands of outsiders, it was internal dissent, precipitated by polygamy, which brought him to the Carthage jail in June 1844.”

Plural marriage continued to be practiced long after the Mormons left Illinois in 1847 for the Salt Lake Valley. In 1852 its significance in Mormon theology was announced publicly at a special session of Conference – Brigham Young giving the “honor” of making the announcement to Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt, a staunch defender of “the principle.”

Distain for plural marriage led to its becoming a key component in the platform of the newly formed Republican Party. The Republicans called for the destruction of the “Twin Relics of Barbarism” (polygamy and slavery) in their 1854 presidential campaign. Such political aspirations were put on hold when the 1854 election went to Democratic candidate James Buchanan; however, they wasted little time showing they meant business when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act in 1862, but the distraction of a long and bitter four-year Civil War caused polygamy to be put on the back-burner of government attention until 1882 when Congress passed a bill proposed by Republican Senator from Vermont, George Franklin Edmunds. The Edmunds Act was meant to give some teeth to the Morrill Act of 1862. It made plural marriage a felony, repealed polygamists' right to vote, and made them ineligible for jury service. This law led to the arrest and imprisonment of Mormon Apostle Rudger Clawson, and Seventy Abraham H. Cannon.

In 1887, the federal government increased its pressure on the ever-defiant LDS Church. George Edmunds joined with Virginia Congressman John Randolph Tucker to write the Edmunds-Tucker Act. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

By 1887 national political leaders saw that the Church was not bending to the law, so Congress framed a tougher measure, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, designed to destroy the Church as a political and economic entity in order to force the Saints to abandon plural marriage. The law dissolved the Church as a legal corporation, required the forfeiture of all property in excess of $50,000, dissolved the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company and claimed its property, and disbanded the Nauvoo Legion (territorial militia). To aid prosecutions, the law required compulsory attendance of witnesses at trials and confirmed the legality of forcing wives to testify against husbands. County probate judges, who helped impanel juries, had to be appointed by the President of the United States. Federally appointed officers took control of schools. Probate courts certified all marriages. The act disinherited all children born of plural marriages one year or more after the act was passed. Woman suffrage was abolished and a new test oath was designed. No one could vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office without signing an oath pledging support of antipolygamy laws” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:626-627).

Despite the heated rhetoric of Mormon leaders for members to continue their opposition to the government, the effort to resist was hopeless. In 1890, fourth LDS President Wilford Woodruff, in order to save his church, was forced to relent and promise that polygamy would be abandoned. In an article titled “The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case Study in Decanonization,” writers

Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker, and Allen D. Roberts note:

The Wilford Woodruff Manifesto, first placed in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1908 as an "official Declaration" and now Official Declaration 1, was not presented to the Church as a revelation either and was first issued on 25 September 1890 as a press release through the office of Utah's delegate in Congress, John T. Caine. (Dialogue, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.75.)

While the 1890 Manifesto’s promise to abandon polygamy did enable the LDS Church to eventually regain its property, it did not stop the practice of plural marriage. Instead, members who were intent on living the principle did so by having their marriages solemnized in Mexico and Canada as well as off shore on ships. Leaders encouraged such relationships. When the news of this duplicity began to enrage American sensibilities, the LDS Church was eventually compelled to issueanother declaration of policy, the Manifesto of 1904, signed by then-president Joseph F. Smith, who was a practicing polygamist. From this point on, the LDS Church began to seriously punish, via excommunication, those who continued to live in polygamous relationships.

Understanding this history is essential to understanding the modern fundamentalist movement since efforts by the U.S. government to quench plural marriage is seen by its adherents as nothing more than persecution. The villains in this grand narrative include not only the U.S. government who used force to bring an end to the practice, but also the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the eyes of the fundamentalists, President Woodruff not only betrayed the church, but betrayed God himself. Modern polygamists look upon Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor as heroes of this doctrine, and even though Smith continued to lie about his personal involvement, he never denounced the doctrine as false.

Polygamist groups can be found scattered across North America. Most of them trace their beginnings to John Wickersham Woolley (1831-1928), a man who claimed he was given authority to perform plural marriages by third LDS President John Taylor. When Woolley died in December 1928, his son Lorin Calvin Woolley set up headquarters in Short Creek, Arizona (later to be named Colorado City). Here he ordained a new quorum of apostles called the “Council of Friends.”

In 1934 Lorin Woolley died and J. Leslie Broadbent became the new leader. Broadbent’s role as leader was short lived. When he died a year later, John Yeates (or Yates) Barlow was chosen as his successor. This decision led to a split that caused Charles Elden Kingston to leave and form his own group called the Davis County Cooperative Society that is based in Bountiful, Utah. Under the later leadership of John Ortell Kingston, they founded the Latter Day Church of Christ. Its current leader is Paul Kingston.

Joseph White Musser succeeded John Barlow after his death in 1949. Musser died in 1954 and Charles Zitting became the new leader. That same year, Rulon C. Allred branched off to start the Apostolic United Brethren with congregations in Bluffdale and other Utah cities. When Zitting died only four months later, LeRoy S. Johnson took over as the group’s new prophet. During his tenure Marion Hammon and Alma Timpson were disfellowshipped and left Johnson to form a new group in Centennial Park, Arizona. After three decades of rule, and despite the fact that he predicted he would live to see Christ’s return, Johnson died in 1986. He was succeeded by Rulon Jeffs who, in 1991, officially incorporated what has come to be known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 and the leadership then turned to his son Warren Jeffs.

There have been many “independent” polygamist leaders. Though all of them had/have ideas that separated them from each other, all of them claimed a connection to Joseph Smith. Some of these include:

  • Ervil LeBaron, founder of the Church of the Lamb of God. Ervil died in prison in 1981 after being convicted for the 1977 murder of Rulon Allred, the leader of the Apostolic United Brethren. LeBaron’s life of suspicion and murder led to a made-for-TV movie in 1993 called “Prophet of Evil: The Ervil LeBaron Story.” Actor Brian Dennehy played the role of LeBaron.
  • Alex Joseph, left the LDS Church to join the Apostolic United Brethren. He later left this group to form the Confederate Nations of Israel. He died in 1998.
  • Ogden Kraut was known as a prolific fundamentalist author who wrote such books as Jesus was Married and Polygamy in the Bible. Kraut often wrote responses to LDS General Authorities.
  • John Singer was killed after pointing a gun at law enforcement officials who came to retrieve the children of his polygamist wife Shirley Black.
  • Adam Swapp is serving time in an Arizona prison for the 1988 bombing of a Mormon chapel. The bombing was in retaliation for the death of Swapp’s father-in-law, John Singer. This led to a two-week stand-off at a cabin in Marion, Utah where Swapp, two sister wives, their mother, and several children were located. In the siege a corrections officer was killed and Swapp was wounded. The siege was featured in the made-for-TV movie “In the Line of Duty: Siege at Marion.”
  • Jim Harmston, the prophet and leader of the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, known more commonly by its shortened title TLC. Harmston’s church is based in Manti, Utah. In 1999 he erroneously predicted that everyone not affiliated with the TLC who lived in the Sanpete Valley (where Manti is located) would be swept from the earth between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (between September 11 to September 20).
  • Tom Green, a flamboyant man who often appeared on television talk-shows with his wives. Green was convicted in 2001 on four counts of bigamy and in 2002 of child rape for having sex with his 13-year-old “wife” Linda Kunz.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Most polygamist clans try not to draw attention. They desire to live quiet lives without government interference. However, Warren Steed Jeffs, the prophet of the FLDS, has been anything but inconspicuous. Almost immediately after taking power after the death of his father Rulon Jeffs, he began to bring nationwide attention to his group. Born on December 3, 1955 in San Francisco, CA to Marilyn Steed, the fourth wife of his father, he graduated from Jordan High School in Sandy, Utah. When his father predicted in 1998 that the 2002 Olympics would usher in the destruction of Salt Lake City, he left with his family to Hildale/Colorado City. Warren Jeffs inherited more than the church from his father. Upon becoming the new leader of the FLDS Jeffs “married” nearly all of his father’s twenty two wives. Some have estimated that Jeffs has over 40 wives.

The FLDS practice what it calls “The Law of Placing.” This is a doctrine that allows Jeffs to decide who marries and to whom. According to this teaching he can join wives to men, or remove them, based on what he considers their worthiness.
A practice among the FLDS that directly affects American taxpayers is called “bleeding the beast.” Since plural marriage is illegal, only one wife is legally married, while additional wives are married “spiritually.” According to the law women in this type of relationship who have children, are technically “single mothers” and eligible for public assistance. In a 2003 article written for the Prescott Daily Courier, Al Herron wrote:

The following numbers are estimates based on year-old statistics, and they’re all rising rapidly. Arizona’s AHCCCS [Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System] program provides most of the medical insurance for residents in Colorado City. Last year more than 4,000 residents were enrolled, costing the state about $8 million a year. About half of the residents there receive food stamps, compared to 5 percent statewide. This costs the state and federal governments over $3 million a year for those in Arizona. Five years ago there were no Colorado City children getting child care assistance, but last year there were about 200 – which cost the state another $600,000. Colorado City gets back about $8 in benefits for every dollar the residents pay in state taxes, while for the rest of Mohave County it’s about one for one” (“Polygamists also excel at ‘bleeding the beast,’” September 2, 2003).

Like other polygamists groups, Jeffs continues to believe some of the racist teachings of past LDS leaders regarding those of African heritage. For example, he believes, as did third Mormon President John Taylor, that the “Seed of Cain” was allowed to pass through the Flood, “because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God.” The Eldorado Success newspaper has posted several clips of Jeffs reciting the teachings of Mormon leaders – leaders still revered by Latter-day Saints to this day.

Polygamy in such a closed society as the FLDS becomes difficult given the equally proportioned number of females to males. This has led to the expulsion of young males who are deemed by older men as competition for the remaining females. Called “Lost Boys,” these young men were forced to leave the FLDS community. According to the Guardian newspaper:

Up to 1,000 teenage boys have been separated from their parents and thrown out of their communities by a polygamous sect to make more young women available for older men, Utah officials claim. Many of these "Lost Boys", some as young as 13, have simply been dumped on the side of the road in Arizona and Utah, by the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day (sic) Saints (FLDS), and told they will never see their families again or go to heaven.

Jeffs became the center of a huge manhunt and was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in May 2006. Charged for arranging marriages of underage girls to older men, a $100,000 reward was offered for information leading to his capture. After eluding officials for 15 months he was arrested outside of Las Vegas, Nevada on August 26, 2006 as he traveled in a red 2007 Cadillac Escalade one his wives (Naomi) and a brother (Isaac). Jeffs was wearing cargo shorts and a white, short sleeved T-shirt. Naomi was wearing jeans and a pink T-shirt, clothing deemed forbidden to all other members of the FLDS Church.

On September 25, 2007, Jeffs was convicted of “being an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 16-year-old first cousin” (“Polygamist leader Jeffs convicted in rape case,” Reuters, 11/26/2007). “In Utah, a 14-year old can consent to sexual intercourse. However, such activity is considered rape if the other person is three years or more older and the 14-year-old is enticed or lured into having sex” (“Jury Finds Jeffs Guilty,” Deseret News, 9/25/2007). Marriage among close relatives is commonplace in the FLDS organization.

According to FLDS community historian Ben Bistline, most of the community's 8,000 residents are in two major families descended from a handful of founders who settled there in the 1930s to live a polygamist lifestyle. “Ninety percent of the community is related to one side or the other,” Bistline said. He notes that the FLDS claim to be “the chosen people, the chosen few,” and this is why “they marry closely to preserve the royal bloodline.” “In the FLDS community, marriages with cousins and even closer relatives are common,’ according to Bistline. ‘There are people that have married their nieces…People who have married their aunts.’” (“Birth defect is plaguing children in FLDS towns,” Deseret News Feb 9, 2006)

Such marriages are necessary since the FLDS does not tend to attract a large number of outside converts. However, the intermarriage of family members has resulted in a significant, but rare health risk called Fumarase Deficiency:

"Fumarase Deficiency is an enzyme irregularity that causes severe mental retardation, epileptic seizures and other cruel effects that leave children nearly helpless and unable to take care of themselves. Dr. Theodore Tarby has treated many of the children at clinics in Arizona under contracts with the state. All are retarded. 'In the severe category of mental retardation,' the neurologist said, 'which means an IQ down there around 25 or so.' Until a few years ago, scientists knew of only 13 cases of Fumarase Deficiency in the entire world. Tarby said he's now aware of 20 more victims, all within a few blocks of each other on the Utah-Arizona border. The children live in the polygamist community once known as Short Creek that is now incorporated as the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Tarby believes the recessive gene for Fumarase Deficiency was introduced to the community by one of its early polygamist founders… Tarby saw the first 'Fumarase child' in the community 15 years ago. He said the oldest victim is now about 20 years old. In March 2000, Tarby co-authored an article in the medical journal 'Annals of Neurology' describing eight new cases of Fumarase Deficiency in the Southwest. It has now grown to 20 known cases in the polygamist community on the Utah-Arizona border" ("Birth defect is plaguing children in FLDS towns," Deseret News Feb 9, 2006).

The FLDS owns a number of properties throughout the United States in areas including Hilldale (UT), Colorado City (AZ), Mancos (CO), Pringle (SD), Pioche (NV), and Eldorado (TX). They also have a large group of followers in Bountiful, Alberta, Canada. The compound in Eldorado, Texas, known as the Yearning For Zion Ranch (YFZ), grabbed headlines in early April 2008, when local law enforcement officials raided the property after an alleged 16-year-old girl named Sarah called to say she had been abused by her husband who was in his late 40’s. Angie Voss, a child protective services supervisor, later testified that she was escorted onto the YFZ Ranch on April 3 by law enforcement officers. According to the Deseret News:

She was accompanied by a dozen case workers investigating complaints initially lodged by a 16-year-old girl named Sarah. The girl had called a domestic violence hotline a few days earlier saying she was spiritually married to an older man who beat her, forced her to have sex, and held her at the ranch against her will. The caller said she had an 8-month-old baby and was several weeks pregnant with her second child” (“Child Welfare worker describes FLDS ranch as ‘scary environment,’” 4/17/2008).

Voss stated that after six hours of speaking with some of the girls from the ranch, “it was decided to remove some of the children from the complex.” Voss said that as a result of her interviews she learned that at the YFZ ranch "there's no age too young to be spiritually united." Eventually over 437 children were removed from the property.

Because of its illegal nature, it is difficult to know how many practicing fundamentalists there are. According to mormonfundamentalism.com:

The largest polygamists groups include the United Apostolic Brethren, led by Owen Allred with headquarters in south Salt Lake City valley. They carry around 6000 members on their rolls. There may be additional members in Montana and elsewhere. Estimates for the Fundamentalist LDS Church (FLDS) lead (sic) by Rulon Jeffs located in Colorado City, Utah on the Utah-Arizona border have been around 8000. A smaller group located nearby called the "First Warders" may support another thousand or so. The Kingstonites have a [sic] over a thousand. The "True and Living Church" (TLC) of Manti, Utah whose prophet is James Harmston has a few hundred.

Further Reading