The face of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has changed dramatically since Warren Jeffs, the president of the religion, was put into prison beginning in 2006. Whereas the church once had as many 10,000 people, today the number has shrunk to possibly lower than 3,000. Members stay very much to themselves and are wary of outsiders, especially those whom they think are connected to the government. Those members who remain in the religion pray regularly that their prophet would be released from prison so they could return to their old way of life.
|Church Name||Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, FLDS|
|Founder||Leroy S. Johnson (Uncle Roy) (1888-1986)|
|Date of Founding||1952|
|Membership||3,000 estimated and dropping|
|Main places of faith||Hildale, UT/Colorado City, AZ|
|Scriptures||Bible (KJV), Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price|
|Leader||Warren S. Jeffs (1955- ): In prison since 2006|
Leroy S. Johnson (1888-1986, pictured to the right) was baptized into the LDS Church at the age of 8 just a year after the Manifesto banning polygamy was announced by fourth President Wilford Woodruff. As an adult, Johnson moved to an area in Arizona called Short Creek where polygamy was taking hold along with leaders such as John W. Wooley, Joseph White Musser, and John Y. Barlow. Johnson and his wife Josephine Ford Johnson were excommunicated by the LDS Church in 1935 along with others at Short Creek who were unable to sign an affidavit promising to end their polygamous ways. Johnson sided with the Wooley group and was ordained an apostle by Barlow as he became a member of the Council of the Priesthood.
When Barlow died in 1949, Johnson took on a leadership role at “The Fundamentalist division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” By 1952, he and his followers officially separated themselves from the LDS Church. On July 26, 1953, the federal government raided their community of 400 fundamentalists, with 263 children getting arrested, 150 of whom were not allowed to return to their parents. It was a public relations disaster, as the government’s action did not end polygamy in the area. A few years later Short Creek was renamed Colorado City in 1960.
A church split took place in the 1980s, with a group from Centennial Park, AZ breaking off from Johnson over the “one man doctrine.” This teaching comes from a reference in D&C 132:7, which says “there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.” When two council members (Carl Holm and Richard Jessop) died, Johnson used the “one man doctrine” as an excuse to not replace those men. The Centennial Park Group was thus created; today this group has approximately 1,500 followers.
In February 1984, Johnson dismissed the remaining members (J. Marion Hammon and Alma Adelbert Timpson) from the council. Those who sided with Hammon and Timpson were evicted from their homes that were owned by the church in the United Effort Plan, and a new splinter group called the “Second Ward,” “The Work of Jesus Christ,” and “The Work” was formed.
Johnson died two years later in 1986 and he was succeeded by Rulon Jeffs (1909-2002, pictured to the right), who was known by members as Uncle Rulon. Because his parents were polygamists, Jeffs lived his first 10 years as “Rulon Jennings.” He was raised in the LDS Church and served a 2-year mission to England in 1930. In 1938, Jeffs’ father presented his son with polygamous information and introduced him to Joseph W. Musser and John Y. Barlow. Jeffs took a plural wife in 1940, which caused his first wife Zola Brown—daughter of LDS Church Apostle Hugh B. Brown and great-granddaughter of second President Brigham Young—to divorce him.
At the end of WW2, Jeffs moved from Idaho to Salt Lake City and was ordained a High Priest Apostle by Barlow. By the time he died at the age of 92, he had as many as 75 wives (several of whom were as young as 14 when he married them) and 65 children, including Warren Jeffs (1955- ) who became the top leader in 2002. One of Warren’s first commands to the other church leaders was to leave his father’s wives alone, as Warren ended up marrying all of these women with the exception of two who ended up leaving the religion. In other words, he married more than 70 of his step-mothers!
Warren served for a time as the principal of Alta Academy for 22 years at the foot of the Little Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City. He was known for being a strict disciplinarian as well as a sexual pervert, as documented by detective Sam Brower, a Mormon, in his book Prophet’s Prey (New York: Bloomburg, 2012).
Members were told to move to the Colorado City, AZ/Hildale, UT cities in 1998. In July 2000, Jeffs told his followers to take their children out of public schools, which resulted in the closing of the Colorado City Unified School District. Today, most children are home schooled, with girls rarely getting any more than a fifth grade education.
According to Brower, in 2002, Jeffs decided to tighten the screws and instituted rigid rules for his members, including no:
- Flying the flag
- Organized get-togethers
- Magazines and newspapers
In 2003, the church purchased a 1400-acre ranch called YFZ in Eldorado, Texas and built a temple on the land along with a meeting house, homes, and even a 29,000-foot house for Jeffs. A total of about 1,400 people ended up living there. The temple was dedicated in 2005.
In 2006 Jeffs was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List with a $60,000 reward—later raised to $100,000—when he took flight from the charges he had arranged marriages between his adult male followers and under-aged children. He was arrested near Las Vegas, Nevada on August 28, 2006 on a routine traffic stop driving his red Cadillac Escalade, which is ironic since he had banned his followers from using the color red. He claimed this was the color of the devil. In the car were a number of communication devices, a police scanner, laptops, wigs, sunglasses, credit cards, and $55,000 in cash along with a number of prepaid debit cards. Audio recordings of Jeffs having sex with young girls were found in boxes, which further incriminated the FLDS prophet.
Jeffs tried but failed to hang himself on January 28, 2007 while he was awaiting trial. In September 2007, he was found guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice and was sentenced to 10 years to life in Utah State Prison. The conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court because the jury had been given faulty instructions. Jeffs, who had as many as 87 wives, was extradited to Texas on November 30, 2010 and was found guilty on August 9, 2011 of having sex with under-aged wives who were 15 and 12, for which he received life in prison plus 20 years, with no possibility of parole until July 2038. Jeffs remains in a Texas federal prison today.
On April 7, 2008, six months after Jeffs formally resigned as the president, federal agents raided the YFZ Ranch, as 468 children, some of whom were mothers under the age of 18, were taken into legal custody because there was evidence that sexual acts were taking place in the temple. About 130 women voluntarily left the compound. Eleven of the twelve adults arrested in the raid were tried and convicted on charges of child sexual assault, bigamy, and performing unlawful weddings. By 2014, the state of Texas had taken complete control of the ranch.
Merrill Jessop (1935- ) appeared to be the leader of the church after Jeffs was sent to prison. However, he was deposed by Jeffs in February of 2011. In early 2012, Jeffs—self-proclaimed as the “mouthpiece of God”—published a book in prison titled Jesus Christ: Message to All Nations that was written in the same style as the LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants. The book compiled “revelations” given to Jeffs by, he claims, Jesus. In the preface, for instance, is a “Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ” on Wednesday, September 19, 2012, referencing Jeffs in verses 2-3: “He is innocent. Let him go free soon, so my Church on earth hath full leadership of Keyholding Priesthood order. . .”
The different sections warned everyone from President Barack Obama to presidents of nations such as Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and Columbia to release Jeffs from prison or face consequences. Natural disasters are threatened, including a warning in Section 37:35 that reads, “Let the city of San Diego know that a devastating earthquake and the waves of the sea shall come upon thee, and the ravenous and wild animals in thy borders shall be a distress to thy peoples in that day of greater trial and judgment.” Of course, San Diego is located on the Pacific Ocean and the city lies in an earthquake zone, so if an earthquake or tsunami ever takes place there, Jeffs would be able to claim that these disasters came as a result of his prophecies! A second edition of the book with additional material came out in 2013. For a review on this book, click here.
In January 2012, Jeffs was found guilty of violating a prison policy by making conference calls to lead his congregation. By the end of 2012, a rumor claimed that Jeffs was telling his people the world would end before 2013. Of course, this didn’t happen.
The church stopped holding public meetings around 2015, as the meetinghouse was repossessed. Some members may have continued to meet in homes, but this is not certain. Warren Jeffs has had no direct contact with his church membership since at least 2015. If he has contact with any church leaders, nobody but those leaders know. Meanwhile, many members continue to fast and pray–some claim to appeal to God every hour on the hour–for Warren Jeffs to be released from prison. Because nobody desires to have a target painted on their back, no other leaders have stepped forward, so it is unknown if there is anyone leading the church today.
On February 23, 2016, Lyle Jeffs—Warren’s brother—was indicted of fraud and money laundering. He had removed his FBI tracing bracelet and fled in June 2016. A year later, he was arrested in South Dakota. On December 13, 2017, he was sentenced to almost five years of federal prison for food stamp fraud and escaping house arrest. Roy Jeffs, a son of Warren who led a campaign against his father whom he says sexually abused him, died by suicide on May 29, 2019. In the summer of 2019, it was reported that Warren Jeffs suffered a mental breakdown in prison.
Over the years, members have been taught to obey their leaders at all costs. The religion had its heyday in the 1990s when the group consolidated and moved to the former “Short Creek,” which is made up of the twin towns Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people belonged to the religion, with additional groups in Canada as well as North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Today, however, it appears most of the members live in either in Hildale and Colorado City, although the numbers are nowhere close to what they were just a decade before. In fact, it is estimated that as of 2020, only 5% of Hildale and less than 40% of Colorado City remain loyal to the FLDS. Many members have left the area, with some speculating they have moved to other places in Southern Utah.
Brody Olson, a Christian missionary who has lived in the Hildale/Colorado City area since 2012, believes that the FLDS religion is more like Communism than a spiritual religion, with the goal to “create an Utopian environment where there was a head of the community who would tell you what to believe and do.” Without clear leadership and confusion about how the people are supposed to think and act, he says the religion has self-destructed. He believes it won’t be long before everyone still connected to the religion will walk away and nobody will be left.
Policies and Doctrines
The Bible (KJV), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are all accepted as scripture. The two “Declarations” found at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants are not accepted, as they refute polygamy and a ban on blacks holding the priesthood. However, church leaders did not emphasize their written scriptures in sermons and teachings, as many members never read all the way through any of these books.
The doctrine of polygamy, or one man having two or more wives, was stressed, which is the main reason why the fundamentalist churches split from the Utah-based LDS Church after 1890. The church leaders accepted Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor as authentic prophets of God, but it was taught that the line of LDS Church succession ended with fourth President Wilford Woodruff whom they believe did not have the authority to end polygamy when he created the Manifesto that banned polygamy.
According to FLDS teaching, a man needed a minimum of three wives to qualify for entrance into the celestial kingdom. This caused a problem with the young men growing up in the religion, for the younger ladies were promised as plural wives to the older men. Jeffs was accused of excommunicating younger male members and making them leave the group, providing them with no money or other resources. Hundreds of teenaged boys who were cast out of the group because they were unwelcome competition with the older men were given the name “Lost Boys.”
Leaders of the church prescribed marriages. When a young woman got to an appropriate age, she was placed with a male follower. Jeffs often took wives from his male members and transferred them to others. This was called the law of placing. Wives were commanded to be completely obedient to their husbands. Warren Jeffs taught in 2005, “The woman, if she is not careful will be overbearing and always ask permission for what she wants. And ladies, build up your husbands by being submissive.” Rulon Jeffs came up with the phrase “keep sweet,” which is another way to say “be obedient.” Meanwhile, mothers were not supposed to show public affection for their children because only the father and the prophet were allowed to do this.
There were reports that the religion followed its own version of the “Law of Sarah” talked about in D&C 132. This “law” required women to help prepare each other for sexual encounters with their husbands. One former member called it a “lesbian sex show.” Those women who would not participate were sent away to “redeem themselves” and their children could be given to other women.
In November 2011, church members were instructed to be celibate, even if they were married. Then, in late 2012, a new rule taught that women were allowed to only have sex with one of fifteen chosen men who were appointed “seed bearers” and therefore deemed as “elect.” Men who were not part of this chosen group were not allowed to have sexual relations (and children) with their wives. It was reported that the husband was supposed to hold the hand of his wife while a “seed bearer” had intercourse with her. It is not known how long this rule was in place, but it apparently didn’t last long.
Meanwhile, there have been few to no children born in the towns of Hildale and Colorado City since 2011. In fact, it is rare to see a child under the age of 8 (as of 2020). The Book of Mormon teaches in Jacob 2 that polygamy would only be allowed for procreation, so the prevention of having children (whether though celibacy or contraceptives) goes against the church’s scripture.
No blacks were allowed to join the FLDS. Church leaders disagreed with Official Declaration 2 that was instituted by the LDS Church in 1978. According to an FLDS Priesthood History class in 1995,
He [Cain] was cursed with a black skin and he is the father of the Negro people. … He is used by the devil, as a mortal man, to do great evils. … If you, young people, were to marry a Negro, you could not be a priesthood person, even if you repented. You could not stay in this work.
Jeffs stated in a sermon, “The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth.”
The Colorado City/Hildale area had the world’s highest incidence rate of “Polygamist Downs Syndrome,” which is a rare genetic condition officially called fumarase deficiency. Experts said the high incidence rate was a result of cousin marriages between two of the town’s founders, Joseph Smith Jessop (1869-1953) and John Yeates Barlow (1874-1949). The deficiency causes an intellectual disability, unusual facial features, brain malformation, and epileptic seizures.
Women are not allowed to cut their hair short or wear makeup or pants; dresses must cover the knees. Many women generally wear long-sleeved prairie dresses with long stockings or trousers underneath, usually keeping their hair coiffed. They are taught that they should not cut their hair as it needs to be long enough to wash Jesus’s feet at the Second Coming. Men generally wear plain clothes, with a long-sleeved collared shirt and pants. No tattoos or body piercings are allowed.
United Effort Plan (UEP)
The United Effort Plan (UEP) was set up in 1942, which controlled all the property and houses in Colorado City and Hildale. The trust’s assets were in the millions of dollars, as occupants of the homes had to pay rent to the UEP. Beginning in 2005, the federal court took over management of the UEP, and in 2019, this responsibility was transferred to a board made up of mostly former church members. The judge told these former members, “I think it’s time for us to just leave you alone and let you run your community the way you intend to and the way you want to.” Deeds to some homes have been given to those who live in them. However, having outsiders—anyone who does not belong to the church or is affiliated with the government is not trusted by most members—manage the UEP caused many problems for members who were unwilling to pay their mortgages or property taxes. Many were kicked out of their homes because they were unwilling to comply, which is a major reason why there has been a major exodus of members out of Hildale and Colorado City. These issues are still not completely resolved.
Word of Wisdom
Alcohol and coffee are not banned substances for FLDS members. However, the regular membership was not encouraged to partake of these substances, although many leaders did.
Bleeding the Beast
A practice called “bleeding the beast” was a common tactic used by FLDS members for many years. Because the plural wives were not officially married to their husbands but had many children with little to no income, the women were able to qualify for full welfare benefits. The more wives and children a man had, the higher the governmental aid the families received. Defrauding the government and taking money from “oppressors” was considered a noble act. Over the past years, the government has been more stringent in not allowing as much welfare fraud, especially for those who called themselves “single” but had children traceable to a church member.
Over the years, the church dictated many end times scenarios. Sam Brower explained,
God would lift up the FLDS faithful, scour the world with fire, and then replace the chosen ones back down safely in the holy city of Zion, Warren declared. The date was set for September 1998, but when that came and went without incident, it was reset for October, which was another failure. A new forecast naming December as the time of reckoning also did not work out, but that did not stop Warren from continuing the drumbeat of doom, insisting the predictions came from his father. With the FLDS penchant for anniversaries, another, more certain end-of-the-world date was set for June 12, 1999, which would mark the 111th birthday of the late Uncle Roy (p. 73).
For many years the FLDS religion has been a sociological cult with no theological purpose. It has gone through many trials and tribulations, with leaders who have been sold out to fulfilling their own personal interests rather than following biblical principles or guiding their people. The group has dwindled in the past decade to possibly fewer than 3,000 followers, although the actual number is hard to determine. Some speculate that by the next few years there will be nobody left in the FLDS religion. Those who continue to hold on to their faith wait for the release of their prophet, who appears destined to remain in prison for the rest of his life. The goal for Christians who care about those belonging to the FLDS, then, is to present a clear-cut understanding of the Gospel to those who desperately need Good News.
To see articles on other splinter groups of Mormonism, click here.