This article was originally published in 1999. The group from Manti is, for the most part, splintered and no longer a functioning church. The prophet Jim Harmston died in June 2013. Still, it’s interesting to see how a splinter group of Mormonism came to originate and live for almost two decades.
The world as we know it is coming to an end, possibly beginning as soon as this fall (1999), according to the leaders of The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of The Last Days (TLC) based in Manti, Utah.
Prophet James Harmston and his apostles have always held a fascination with end-times theology, which is evident in the last part of the church’s title. The TLC is a Mormon splinter group that was officially founded in 1994 as a response to the “falling away” of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an organization that TLC leaders say has abandoned some of the essential teachings of early Mormon presidents Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Only half a decade after its founding, TLC leaders are claiming that Jesus is ready to return to Manti in order to set up the kingdom of God, thus commencing the end of all time and concluding the current world system. TLC leaders also teach that, just as Noah and his family resided on the ark to be saved from the cataclysmic flood waters, those who belong to the TLC will be saved from the certain and imminent disasters that lie ahead.
Although this group has been marked with controversy ever since it was officially founded in 1994, the TLC certainly maintains a visible presence in Manti, which is in the heart of Sanpete County. This is true even during the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Manti. Until this year, the church, which is prominently headquartered in a bright red brick building located in the center of Manti’s Main Street, had its doors open and a big sign on the sidewalk inviting visitors to come inside and see what this faith was all about.
The church of 350 members has not tried to hide its unique belief system, including polygamy and its exclusive claim to truth. Leaders actively shared their truth with the media, especially on local and national television shows, including ABC’s 20/20 newsmagazine and the Leeza talk show (where the ratings were some of the highest ever in the history of this program). In addition, television crews from such countries as England, France, Israel, Germany, and Spain have produced documentaries on this religion.
This all stopped on April 15, 1999, when the church leaders were told by God to withdraw from such activities, including actively witnessing to the world. According to the church’s newsletter entitled The Manti Times & Seasons (Vol. 2, No. 1, June 1, 1999, p. 3), the group’s responsibility to warn this generation has ended. It said:
“Now that the time allotted by the Lord for us to warn this wicked and unbelieving generation is complete, it is time for the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Lord’s ‘great and dreadful’ chastisements which are soon to be poured out upon the peoples of the earth, and more particularly, Latter-day Israel for their apostasy, blindness, stiff-neckedness, and hardheartedness to see, understand, and do the things of the Lord.”
The church’s web site—which had been a mainstay on the Internet for more than three years with pictures, articles, and other pertinent information—was temporally shut down, with the exception of a simple statement on the site’s home page. It read in part:
“God has commanded us by revelation to cease our labors of preaching and warning to errant Israel and the nations of the earth. The day has now arrived that God has shut the mouths of His servants and will begin to do His own work of rendering judgment and calamity upon the wicked generation and boarded the Ark. It is now time for the rains of destruction to begin to consume the nations of the earth. We pray for the Elect who have been slow to hear, that they will be spared and delivered when the great day of the Almighty punishes the wicked and rebellious.”
During our outreach in Manti last June, I had the opportunity to speak at length with Bart Malstrom and John Harper, two of the 12 TLC apostles. Although I was told that several nationwide news organizations have attempted to interview these leaders during the past few months, the media have been denied by a once-public church.
The Early History of the TLC
The TLC began in 1990 when James D. Harmston, now 59 years old, moved from Ogden, Utah to Manti. On November 25, 1990, the prophet was sitting in a specific chair in his home when he claims he had an out-of-body experience. Hovering in spirit above the chair, Harmston could see himself in the chair surrounded by four angels: Abraham, Enoch, Moses, and Noah.
The time of his revelation couldn’t have come at a riper time for yet another Mormon splinter group to be formed. Crucial changes had been made to the secret LDS ordinance ceremony in the spring of 1990, fueling the curiosity of those looking for more pure authority of the keys left behind by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Because the temple ceremony was not supposed to be changed except by revelation, many Mormons became dissatisfied with the change in policy.
According to the TLC pamphlet The Gathering, these changes left the LDS Church “in utter apostasy and ripe for God’s wrath and vengeance to be poured out upon them” (p. 12). Both Malstrom and Harper are ex-Mormons who agreed that this was a reason to leave the LDS Church behind.
“The (LDS) leaders basically cut Christ out of the endowment (ceremony),” Malstrom said. Added Harper, “They removed so many key elements. If it was the same since the time of Adam, it must have had some significance.”
The TLC began unofficially in the summer of 1991 when a group of people who were interested in finding the deeper meaning to the religion of Joseph Smith attended a Gospel study led by Harmston. According to Harper, Harmston-whose disdain for Mormons is widely known, including having called them “morons” in one meeting-had “had his fill of organized religion” and was poised to begin his own.
By the summer of 1994, the TLC had grown from a loose organization to one that was ready to be officially organized with 120 members. Soon after it was organized, the church split when the appointed council could not agree on some important issues. Yet the remnant was convinced that the LDS Church was no longer true.
Harmston taught that the 100-year period of LDS Church apostasy began in 1890 with the announcement of the Manifesto, a document denouncing polygamy as issued by fourth President Wilford Woodruff. With the changes in the temple ceremony, the apostasy was complete, and a new organization needed to be formed in order to continue the true church to the very end of time.
Harmston became the “President of the High Priesthood,” the highest position in the “Church of the Firstborn,” and 12 apostles were chosen. Everything done by the leaders of the church is an attempt to get back at the original Mormon Church’s roots.
The Apostasy of the LDS Church
TLC leaders have written 11 pamphlets to help explain the beliefs of this church. Almost every one of these short booklets, which range from 14 to 36 pages, includes a comment about its disagreement with the Mormon Church of today. For example:
“We, as Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, bear solemn witness that the LDS Church has gone whoring after Babylon and the vain things of the world, has built up the kingdom of the devil, and apostatized from her earlier mission and charge… Because of these rebellions and iniquities, she will be destroyed when the fierce and just judgments of God are poured out on the wicked of the earth. The only thing for true Saints to do is to forsake her and get out of her” (Law of Gathering, pp. 25, 26).
“We bear solemn testimony that the LDS Church, leaders and people, and all those who have abandoned these principles of the Restored Gospel are in a state of rebellion against the Lord and, are therefore, under condemnation for violating the praise of the world and the honors of men instead of seeking the welfare of Zion” (Upon My House Shall it be Built, p. 6, emphasis theirs).
In fact, the TLC leaders believe that they have taken over the role of God’s representative upon the face of the earth.
“There is very little Priesthood left in the LDS Church, and none at all among its leaders. Every warning they have received, they have rejected, and the Priesthood has been withdrawn by God. Another people have been raised up, a people who will live every part of the restored Gospel. We are that people” (A Warning Testimony, p. 36).
The importance of the “gathering of the elect” is stressed. This entails moving to Sanpete County:
“We know by the Spirit that the Sanpete valley in Utah has a manifest destiny in the work of the Lord, and we testify that great and marvelous events will yet transpire in this prophetic valley… This valley will serve as a temporary refuge for the righteous while great destructions occur in all the land. That righteous remnant of the elect are already gathering to this place to fulfill the covenants they have made with God before they came to earth.” (The Gathering of the Elect, p. 7).
According to the TLC leaders, the LDS Church no longer has its authority partly based on the fact that it is not a “gathering” organization.
The Doctrines of Old
Because the LDS Church has fallen into apostasy, it has forgotten many of the truths that marked its beginnings. Unique TLC doctrines include:
- the Standard Works are the Bible (the Joseph Smith Translation), the 1830 edition of theBook of Mormon, and the 1835 Lectures on Faith, which are preferred to the LDS scripturesDoctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
- The pre-1890 original teachings of the LDS Church leadership. Special emphasis is given to second President Brigham Young. For instance, the TLC accepts the Adam-God teaching rejected by the Mormon Church.
- Multiple mortal probations.
- The end of the world as we know it is near.
TLC leaders are quick to chastise those who have “fallen” away from the above eternal principles. If the gathering of the elect is really to take place, “the principles of Zion are in the process of implementation. These laws must be lived before the coming of the Lord” (Zion vs. Babylon, p. 30, emphasis theirs).
Polygamy: A Doctrine of Great Importance
The doctrine for which the TLC is most known is polygamy. Of course, this aspect of their faith is the reason why the media are attracted to the TLC story. This teaching is a requirement every person must obey in this life. For instance:
“It is necessary that a man must enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. If he does not, he cannot obtain the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. His eternal progress is stopped; he cannot have an increase”…plural marriage is necessary to obtain exaltation” (A Warning Testimony, pp. 16-17).
Responding to a quote from LDS Apostle James Talmage who said that celestial marriage was never an essential requirement, the TLC apostles wrote:
“Dr. Talmage was either doctrinally ignorant or a deliberate liar. But Talmage’s view of the plurality of wives as non-essential is the view the LDS Church takes today. Modern LDS leaders must be doctrinally ignorant or deliberate liars, because they teach a false Church history” (A Warning Testimony, p. 18).
It is not uncommon to see husbands boldly walking through the streets of Manti holding the hands of two wives, with another wife or two in tow. They do not appear to be bashful about this practice, and they even sell T-shirts proclaiming, tongue-in-cheek, “Help Stamp out Monogamy.”
Towering 6-foot-6 Apostle Bart Malstrom is a firm believer in the doctrine. He is married to three wives, although he had as many as five wives two years ago. One wife ended up leaving him, taking her children from a previous marriage with her, and his former third wife Monique, the younger sister to his fourth wife Nicole, left him earlier this year.
Bart, who is 40 years old, has 11 children. Two of his wives are currently pregnant. The families live on what some might call a “compound” in Fairview, almost an hour away from Manti in the Sanpete valley. With several buildings, Bart’s families are able to spread out and run their herbal vitamin business.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Apostle John Harper, who had been a fifth-generation Mormon until he lost his LDS membership in 1992-also has three wives, marrying his last wife Randi two years ago. He has nine children and three separate homes. He admits that being married to three women can be trying at times, especially since they are all human beings. Jealousy is something that the wives must deal with, and he said that Randi had a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. But it’s all worth it, he says. “Living higher laws may not be easy, but we need them so we can qualify for a better place of living,” he said. “This is a telestial world, so it’s Satan’s world.”
The two apostles say that the women are not treated as second-class citizens, as many critics may think. They claim they are:
- taught to be independent thinkers; their husband’s most important counselors;
- women of God, not baby factories;
- queens and priestesses;
- not merely subservient women who always are walking two steps behind.
Since polygamy is officially illegal and is generally a repulsive idea for most Americans, it appears that the majority of Manti’s residents are not happy that this group of polygamists is so open about this teaching. The legal authorities appear to leave the TLC members alone since putting the husband in jail for this “unenforceable felony” would mean there would be a further drain on the already-overextended welfare system.
The church also keeps the plural marriages off the city’s legal books. Although Bart and John are officially married to their first wives, the other two wives were married in the church only. This is a cause for some pretty sticky situations. For instance, TLC member John Pratt-the great great grandson of original Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt-left his legal wife and two children to marry his wife Tammy last year. Tammy left her legal husband and their three children as well. While John later divorced his wife, Tammy is still legally married to her “former” husband.
They consider their union to be righteous before the eyes of God since their TLC baptism covenant did away with “all old covenants.” However, John says that he “would welcome [his] wife back” if she would repent and embrace the TLC gospel.
As far as the treatment of the women is concerned, it is a rare situation to hear a polygamous wife publicly complain. In fact, the women with whom we have talked say that plural marriage is a positive aspect to their lives. Every member is family, including the other wives and their children, they generally call their husband’s other spouses “sister wives.”
One of the positive aspects of this arrangement is that the housework roles can be distributed. A woman who enjoys doing the cooking may take the ownership of this job and allow another wife to take care of the laundry. Some families switch duties to lessen the monotony. Child-caring responsibilities are usually shared.
As far as the sexual relationship, each family unit makes its own arrangement. One husband says he allows his wives to choose with whom he will sleep each night. Bart, on the other hand, is more systematic, allowing the wives to take turns and giving each one two nights in a row in Bart’s room while the other wives watch the woman’s children.
Multiple Mortal Probations and the Work with the Dead
Even more interesting than polygamy is the doctrine of multiple mortal probations, which became part of Harmston’s theology in 1992. According to this important TLC doctrine, everyone on this earth has lived a number of lives before his current life. Some have dubious backgrounds while others come from pedigrees most respected and refined. How you live one life will have an impact on how you will live your next, and like the actors of old who played numerous roles by switching masks, so too do TLC members take their character traits with them to the next life.
While this may appear to be a type of reincarnation, TLC leaders make it very clear that they do not believe in Hinduism or New Age thought. They take this “buried doctrine” straight from a secret teaching of Joseph Smith, who kept it hidden, say Malstrom and Harper, because “higher doctrine like this would get people killed in Smith’s day.”
Calling this belief the “glue that holds the gospel together,” Malstrom said that the discovery of this doctrine “was like someone took a load off of my back. To know this gave me the confidence to be who I am.”
The TLC members learn about their former lives through “patriarchal blessings” given by the church partriarch, Apostle Phil Savage. Although this is a subject that the two apostles don’t like to brag about or dote on for too long a time, they are willing to talk about their past lives.
Harmston was Joseph Smith in one of his previous lives, and his TLC apostles were apostles of both Jesus as well as Joseph Smith. Bart, for instance, believes he was Apostle Parley P. Pratt as well as the biblical Matthew. Meanwhile, John claims that he was Willard Richards as well as the biblical Doubting Thomas.
When John understood that he was Thomas in a previous life, it made sense to him since he says he is naturally skeptical. However, the memories of a previous life can be quite selective. For instance, John says that he does not remember calling Jesus “My Lord and My God” in the John 20 passage. Adds Bart, “A couple of thousand years makes things a little fuzzy.”
Neither Bart nor John will actively role-play the characters of their previous lives, but they will talk about their previous lives and recount events that they do remember. In effect, it is possible to ask them questions as if you were addressing the Matthew or Thomas directly, and they will readily answer you according to their memories.
Although it is a church of less than 400 members, the TLC has many famous people represented in its congregation due to “previous probations.” For instance, there are many former religious movers and shakers who are now alive as TLC members. Represented in this church are Martin Luther and John Calvin along with other Reformers and important Christian leaders.
Another integral TLC doctrine is the work done on behalf of the dead. While the LDS Church baptizes by proxy in its temples for thousands of people every day, Mormons make no effort to get permission from the deceased to see if they even want such an ordinance performed on their behalf. The TLC, on the other hand, has performed 19,000 baptisms by proxy, every one for a dead person who was personally interviewed by church leaders and members.
They “pray and interview the dead,” John said. “It’s not a séance.” It is then determined whether or not the spirit wants to have this ordinance performed. This can be a very emotional time, as the dead spirits can speak, sometimes through other people in the room. Added Bart, “You know somebody else is in there.”
The Final Destructive Judgment
The TLC leaders have always emphasized the end times. In Book of Mormon Warning, one of the church’s pamphlets, it reads on page 1:
“We must understand that in these last days we are on a virtual parallel with the history and events of the people of the Book of Mormon. God’s dealings have always been focused on His covenant people, the House of Israel; and today is no different. The Latter-day Saints are God’s covenant people. That status is a good thing when people keep their covenants and serve God. It is a disastrous predicament when God’s chosen people stray from their covenants and disobey His commandments.”
Another pamphlet, Upon My House Shall It Begin, says on page 1:
“In these last days, He has warned us of the destructions to come. He has not left us in ignorance. We have the words and prophesies of the prophets of this and other dispensations-warning us, the children of Israel, of the destructions that await the wicked among us if we will not repent.”
On April 10, 1999, a two-day class entitled “Models” was interrupted after the first day, and church leaders decided not to finish it. There were some visitors, some from as far away as Florida, but something occurred that was too clear for the church leaders to ignore. The leaders then gathered together in a quorum meeting, where warnings were given, and a decision to shut down contact with the media, including the Internet web site, was made.
In a nutshell, the TLC holds to a pre-millennial, post-tribulational viewpoint. Jesus will return to Manti, take over His church, and only those who belong to this organization will be part of the reestablishment of God’s kingdom.
Bart and John fully expect the beginning of the end to start sometime this fall. How it will happen, they are not quite sure, but what is evident to them is that the most awful, prophesied destructive last day events will begin to occur, letting the non-TLC world know that their abandonment of God is abominable.
According to the TLC pamphlet entitled Gathering, this destruction will include earthquakes, cataclysms, war, invasion, bondage, famine, pestilence, drought, sickness, economic distress, floods, fires, and disturbances.
“Today’s latter-day counterpart people are not excluded from the impending fulfillment of these same destructions; and given the current general state of apostasy of the Lord’s chosen people, they can reasonably expect the wrath of the Lord in like manner” (p. 9).
At the end of the millenium, Satan will be loosed, Jesus Christ will play the role of Adam once again, and then a new world will be established. In essence, there are eternal worlds, and so when this world wraps up, life will begin all over again on another world. This will be the process for the eternal worlds to come. What must a person do to escape such a fate? Page 15 of the same pamphlet reads:
“Read all of the pamphlets produced by The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days. Then, with a sincere heart, with real intent, pray to God about the message contained therein.”
A Controversial Church
While there are numerous doctrines that are most unique to the TLC, it seems the sociological issues such as polygamy and membership requirements are what infuriates most non-members.
Rodney Clowdus, an ex-member, obtained a 3 ½-hour video of Harmston’s teaching from a February 1998 meeting and released it to the public along with an audiotape he secretly made where the TLC prophet admitted to taking a 16-year-old bride, saying she was not a good lover but that “she’s the most cuddling thing you ever saw in all your life.” He also said LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer’s “skin is going to be turned as black as coal” when he is “taken down.” He knows it, he said, “because I am the one that’s going to make it that way!” (Salt Lake Tribune, April 26, 1998, p. B1).
The way the church handles its finances is certainly a concern for those outside the organization. According to Bart, a person becomes a member of this religion upon baptism. However, the individual needs to be willing to consecrate, or give up, his possessions to the church as a “freewill donation” like “any other church.”
Bart claims that “there is no property in the name of the TLC at this point.” However, church influence is prominent at the Manti Campground, formerly the Yogi Bear Jellystone Park, located just north of the Manti temple. According to Dan Simmons, who is the president of the TLC, the campground is “church owned” even though it is listed in one of its member’s names.
Several former members have also criticized the church for the way it handles money. This summer I was witnessing in the streets of Manti when I came across a former member, a gentleman in his 50s who admitted to giving the leaders of TLC over $100,000. Despite having been a member for only several months, he has no recourse to get a refund. His only regret is not that he gave his money away, but that he gave it to the wrong people.
Other ex-members have taken their cases to court in an attempt to get their money back. In 1998, three former members sued Harmston for a quarter of a million dollars that they gave to the church because they were convinced the TLC prophet was the only way they would be able to meet Jesus Christ. Cindy Stewart, one of the plaintiffs, said, “You think we’re insane? Maybe we were. But we’ve woken up.”
Is the TLC a different kind of a religion? Are the doctrines taught in the red-bricked building unique? Should we be concerned about the apocalyptic nature of this group? The answer to each of these questions is certainly a resounding and emphatic “YES!” At the same time, this is a group of people, like the LDS people, who deserve our compassion.
Getting to know Bart, John, and other members of the group has been fascinating, to say the least. Yes, they are polygamous, a revolting idea for our Western mindset. Yes, they have some unique ideas of how the end of the world will occur. But most of all, yes, they are in need of a saving relationship with the true and living Jesus Christ as revealed in the pages of the Bible. Lest we forget, this is what can happen when God’s Word is replaced with the feelings of sinful man.
See part 2 written a year later here.
Also check out the YouTube Jim Harmston: Polygamous Leader and Fraud. The founder to the “TLC” polygamous church in Manti, UT died in 2013. Eric Johnson tells more of the story from his gravesite in Manti.