Two years ago, Warren Jeffs gained nationwide infamy as he joined the likes of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and mob enforcer James Bulger on the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted List. Officially wanted on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, and rape as an accomplice, Jeffs’s crimes are deeper and more convoluted than anyone knows.
Jeffs remained on the run until August of 2006 when he was captured in Nevada. He was later convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice and sentenced to ten years to life in prison. Since taking over the religious group calling themselves the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and taking control of the twin communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah, he has abused his power to subjugate his followers and take their property, including wives. Jeffs’s followers are now making headlines as Texas authorities have taken custody of over 400 women and children and are investigating allegations of abuse within the sect.
Such offshoots have been in practice since the late 1800s when polygamy was outlawed and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially repealed its practice among Church members. These offshoots call themselves “Fundamentalist Mormons” and continue to try to live quiet lives, practicing what they call, “The Principle,” or “Celestial Marriage.” They believe the practice of polygamy is essential for them to ascend to the highest level of salvation and that the practice is required of them by God. They, and many others, believe that polygamy should be legalized, or at least decriminalized in the United States.
The decriminalization of polygamy would mean that polygamists would not be able to be punished for their practice, though, like many sodomy and adultery laws, the laws proscribing polygamy remain on the law books. Like in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states had no right to pass or enforce anti-sodomy or homosexual misconduct laws. Some believe that with the recent well-known cases of abuse, however, decriminalization might not be enough.
Legalizing polygamy would mean that the lifestyle could be under further scrutiny, which would require that the marriages were legal, with marriage licenses and with all parties being of legal consenting age. The current practice to subvert the bigamy laws is to take the first wife legally and all subsequent wives “spiritually,” where they are sealed together in a private ceremony overseen by the sect’s prophet.
For current plural marriages, no marriage licenses are issued and the practicing parties usually maintain a vow of secrecy, never revealing that they are married. In many cases, children are not allowed to know the name of their father, to further protect the marriages from prosecution.
In addition to the abuses of women and children, another problem with current polygamy is welfare abuse. Many polygamous wives claim welfare as unwed mothers, as their husbands are not listed on the birth certificates of their children.
The United States outlawed polygamy as a response to the LDS Church in the nineteenth Century. In the 1856 U.S. election, polygamy was compared with slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” Congress passed a succession of anti-polygamy laws that included The Morril Act of 1862, the Edmunds Act of 1882, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. These laws not only prohibited polygamy, but they denied existing polygamists the right to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury, or be granted a jury of peers. They also disincorporated the LDS Church and seized Church lands.
In 1890, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff issued a press release called the Manifesto. In it, he told Church members that they were no longer to practice polygamy. Federal authorities declared they would not accept the Manifesto as binding until it was formalized by being presented at the LDS Church General Conference. The document was read before several thousand Church members on October 6, 1890. Many LDS members at the time, also called Mormons, believed that the Manifesto was the result of pressure by the federal government and the desire to obtain statehood.
After the Manifesto, many members continued to practice polygamy outside of the Church and the law. In the 1920s, a large group of them met in secret. Two men, Lorin C. Woolley and his father, John W. Woolley, told the fundamentalists that former president of the Church, John Taylor (1880–1887) received a revelation in their home in 1886 where God told him to protect polygamy at all costs. At this time, there was mainly one faction of Fundamentalist Mormons, led by the Woolleys. Eventually, there were splits and now the major factions are the FLDS, the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), the Latterday Church of Christ, otherwise known as the “Kingston Clan,” and the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Last Days (TLC). There are also several thousand independents that include other Christian groups, not necessarily of Mormon heritage. There are estimated to be around 100,000 polygamists living in the United States, only about half of them being Fundamentalist Mormons. Many familiar with these sects also call them “clans,” as they tend to follow down family lines.
The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is the oldest and largest of the established Mormon Fundamentalist groups. Based in the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah, it boasts around 10,000 members. This group consists mainly of the descendants of the group led by the Woolleys in the 1920s and 1930s. Most polygamist clans, including the independents, have ancestral ties to the FLDS. To the locals, the area is still called “Short Creek” (pronounced “Short Crick”), the original name of the settlement. Most of the property is held in a trust set up by the Church.
In the past, male members were granted a lot of land, which he can build a house upon when he comes of age. Since the land itself is held by the Church, Jeffs has been accused of abusing his position by dispossessing members of their homes and property if they should oppose him. In 2002, Jeffs had declared that true “Celestial Marriage” should be between one man and a minimum of three women. In 2004, to make up for the shortage of women in the community, Jeffs excommunicated around 1,000 young men above the age of thirteen and took away the wives of many married men, taking many for brides himself. The excommunicated were expelled from the community, left to fend for themselves without any money and seldom an education above the eighth grade level. These young men have been referred to as the “Lost Boys of Southern Utah.” Jeffs has been in hiding since being indicted in 2005 for sexual conduct with a minor.
The Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), led by Owen Allred’s clan, has around 5,000–7,000 members and is the second oldest of the organized Fundamentalist Mormon sects. Also termed the “Allred Clan,” the group branched off from the FLDS in the 1940s when leader Joseph W. Musser named Rulon Allred next in line. Short Creek residents disagreed with this appointment, so Musser and Allred branched off, centralizing in the Salt Lake Valley. Rulon became leader of the AUB upon Musser’s death in 1949. The Allred clan gained media attention in 1977 when Rulon was murdered by the wives of rival polygamist, Ervil LeBaron.
The LeBarons had branched off on their own earlier in the twentieth century, believing that theirs was the true Church, as it was intended to be practiced. Ervil LeBaron believed that anyone who opposed him should have their spirits cleansed through blood atonement, the shedding of his life through blood to make up for one’s sins. In his lifetime, Ervil penned over 500 pages of names for his hit list, which he gave to his sons before dying of heart failure in prison, serving a life sentence for the murder of Rulon Allred. While the list was created nearly thirty years ago, some believe that people on the hit list are still under threat.
Among the most notorious of the Mormon Fundamentalists is the Latterday Church of Christ, more commonly known as the “Kingston Clan,” consisting of about 1,000 members. The Kingstons separated from Musser’s group in 1935. Many of them live in Salt Lake and Davis Counties in Utah. They are probably the wealthiest polygamist clan in Utah, owning a cooperative of businesses across the state. The Kingstons achieved infamy in the nineties when John Daniel Kingston was arrested for beating his sixteen-year-old daughter for refusing to marry her much older uncle. Earlier in 1985, clan leader John Ortell Kingston was charged with welfare fraud, settling with the state for $250,000.
The True and Living Church (TLC) is led by James Harmston and bases itself in Manti, Utah. They have around 300–500 members. A relatively new sect, they are made up of dissidents from other organized Mormon Fundamentalist churches along with many independents searching for some order and structure to their religion.
In addition to the several organized groups are several thousand independents scattered throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The most notable independent is Tom Green, who loved media attention and boasted his polygamous practices publicly on various talk shows in the nation. In 2002, the state of Utah used Green to set precedence for trying other polygamists for bigamy or unlawful cohabitation based on establishing marriage through common law. Prosecutor David Leavitt, brother of former Utah governor and now Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, successfully tried the case that convicted Green of bigamy and statutory rape. Many of his wives were fourteen at the time he married them. At the time, fourteen was the legal consenting age in Utah, provided the parents consent to the union. However, Leavitt established that one of his wives conceived Green’s child at the age of fourteen. Utah has since risen the consenting age to eighteen (sixteen if parents give legal signatory consent).
The modern day LDS Church is one of the fastest-growing Christian religions. Led by President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church wishes to distance itself from the polygamist sects, claiming that what the offshoots practice now is not what the LDS Church is about. Hinckley has asked the media to not refer to the Church or its members as Mormons, the term being coined in the nineteenth century, more as a derogatory name after the book of Mormon, scriptures that the Church members follow in addition to the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Furthermore, Hinckley said recently that there are no “Fundamentalist Mormons,” preferring that the title Mormon be removed from these groups so as not to confuse them as being related to the modern LDS Church.