The Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) broke from mainstream LDS (Mormons) towards the end of the 19th century. Their reason for leaving was the desire to continue practicing polygamy. Congress was denying Utah statehood as long as polygamy was practiced. Mormons at the time felt they would experience greater freedom as a state, so they relinquished this cherished belief—temporarily. When it became apparent they would never be able to practice polygamy again, schisms formed around Joseph Smith’s teaching that “a man needed at least three wives to attain…everlasting life” (Krakauer 2003). Those unwilling to relinquish their cherished belief established their own settlement in a sparsely populated corner of Arizona called the Arizona Strip. Colorado City lies on the Utah-Arizona border in an isolated wedge of land separated from the rest of the state by the 277-mile Grand Canyon (Krakauer 2003).Though polygamists are considered a sub-culture within the larger American culture, within Colorado City they are definitely the dominant culture. An estimated 100,000 polygamists thrive in the southwest and their birthing rates are roughly 5-7 times higher than the average American household. The average age of Colorado City is 4 ½ (Allen and others 2006).

To fully understand polygamy, we must look to its roots. Otherwise known as The Principle, polygamous marriage was instituted by the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. In her biography on Smith, Fawn Brodie said,

“Monogamy seemed to him…an intolerably circumscribed way of life. ‘Whenever I see a pretty woman,‘ he once said to a friend, ‘I have to pray for grace.’ But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage” (Brodie 1971).

The Saints who lived and served under Holy Jo did not become easily enculturated, however. Using religion to validate adultery contradicted many cherished values of the time. Emma Smith, Joseph’s first wife, found the idea abhorrent and strongly resisted it until “God” told her she would be destroyed if she didn’t submit. As Joseph collected more and younger wives, many left the Mormon Church—but many stayed as well. Polygamy became the norm for practicing Mormons, but as is often the case, it contradicted the norms of the Gentiles (non-Mormons). Here we have a clashing of cultural relativism—Polygamy made sense to loyal Mormons, but not to the outside world. How could Polygamy make sense? From a purely Biblical standpoint, some of God’s most faithful worshippers (Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon) all had multiple wives. As a new and struggling religion polygamy made sense in that it guaranteed growth—“polygamy increases, whilst monogamy balances, and polyandry diminishes progeny”. There were also economic benefits in that more could contribute and there were no spinsters (Dewey 1986).

Such rampant adultery, however, was considered taboo by surrounding communities and persecution erupted. The Mormons tried to flee their righteously indignant neighbors, but eventually, their prophet was killed. Beaten and divided, the Saints decided to wander far from man’s laws, so they could worship as they chose. In their quest they found the Salt Lake Valley–an inhospitable lake surrounded by towering mountains. This seemed the ideal place for isolation. (Their survival in this new land has taken on mythological proportions as can be seen when one visits their Temple Square in Salt Lake City). The culture of the Mormons continued to thrive with astounding birth rates and they soon wanted to become a state. Believing the First Amendment would protect their freedom to practice plural marriage, they were surprised to learn, in 1879, that the Supreme Court denied them statehood (Mason 2010). For some decades the United States had come to abhor polygamy almost more than slavery (Krakauer 2003). After the Supreme Court pronouncement, Prophet John Taylor responded, “Polygamy is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it. No nation on earth can prevent it, nor all the nations of the earth combined,…I defy the U.S.; I will obey God” (Krakauer 2003). In four cases, from 1879 to 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Mormons request for statehood as long as they practiced polygamy. The Church relented after the Supreme Court threatened to dissolve the religion all-together (Witte 2009).

Those practicing polygamy, however, now believed in The Principal so fully it had become a symbol of their faith. Their very salvation depended upon it. As a result, many of the polygamists felt the church had betrayed their martyred prophet and apostatized from established ritual. They moved their huge families across the border to Arizona, seeking—as their forefathers had—isolation and autonomy. Hence was born the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints. According to Karen Armstrong in her book The Battle For God, “[Fundamentalist movements] are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis…They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past” (Armstrong 2001). The FLDS continue to cling to doctrines long dead.

Proverbs 18:1 says, “One isolating himself will seek [his own] selfish longing; against all practical wisdom he will break forth” (Watchtower 1984). The almost one hundred years of enforced isolation has created a culture of paranoia and secrecy. In 1953 Governor Pyle raided the polygamist settlement now known as Colorado City (then known as Short Creek). At the cost of $50,000 to U.S. taxpayers, men were taken from their families and placed in prison while the women and children were placed in safe-houses. Newscasts portrayed weeping children being torn from the arms of their parents. The American public was outraged and Governor Pyle descended into infamy (White and others 2005). This public attack only increased the isolationist tendencies of the FLDS and increased its ethnocentric approach. Prior to the Short Creek Raid, polygamy was in danger of dying out for women were leaving the sect and not choosing plural marriage for themselves. “The Short Creek raid sabotaged the trust women had in the outside world. They now felt everyone was against them” (Jessop 2007). The FLDS prophet tightened his hold upon the community: women could no longer choose for themselves who they would marry but were assigned to husbands by the prophet, their dress became more formal and shapeless, and even their hairstyles were made uniform. Later television, books and public schools would be done away with until all information was controlled by the prophet (Jessop 2007).

The prophet became priest, shaman, diviner, and healer all-in-one. Nobody questioned his authority. All decisions came by revelation from God through the prophet. When a young girl was to be assigned to a much older man, argument was impossible for one might find they are arguing with God. The role of prophet was inheritable through the same extended family. Warren Jeffs, who is currently in prison for statutory rape and incest, inherited the position of prophet from his uncle, Rulon Jeffs (Jessop 2007). As the power of the prophet increased, he became the “alpha-patriarch”, thereby diminishing the patriarchal control of the other men in the community. “When you take away a man’s control over his own life, and control over his finances, control over his family, whether or not he can keep a wife or be given a wife…men…do things like molest their children” and abuse their wives (Gibson 2010). Thanks to the iron fist of the last two prophets, Colorado City seems to be eroding from within. The elect have been moved to the Yearning For Zion Ranch/compound in Texas to protect them from any further Government interference. A large community of FLDS still lives in Colorado City, but as the older, more influential, members marry younger and younger girls the boys of the community get left out in the cold—literally. Known as the “lost boys”, these adolescent men are brought up to fear the outside world only to be turned out into the desert when they begin to compete for the attentions of the fairer, younger, sex (Allen and others 2006).

Some may ask why women would want to live like this. “Mind control attacks two fundamental constitutional freedoms: self determinism and free will” (Allen and others 2006).

“The principle of celestial marriage is what defines the FLDS faith. A man must have multiple wives if he expects to do well in heaven, where he can eventually become a god and wind up with his own planet. A man has spirit wives in heaven, where he fathers spirit children. (Becoming a spirit child is the first step on the journey in coming to earth)” (Jessop 2007).

A wife’s salvation is entirely dependent upon her husband and sons. As with Joseph Smith’s first wife Emma, these women are threatened with everlasting destruction if they do not submit. They are kept in ignorance so they will submit, and are impregnated young so that when they develop some self-awareness they are tied down by children (Allen and others 2006).

The FLDS still hold to many of the same beliefs as the LDS (mainstream Mormons). They believe in the immortal soul and the concept of spiritual pre-existence before birth on earth. They practice proxy baptism, otherwise known as Baptism for the Dead, in which Mormon’s become baptized for those who died in their ignorance—hence the reason for such extensive genealogies (Catholic.com). Fundamentalists have held onto a teaching that mainstream Mormons have “officially” rejected—that of Blood Atonement. This was a teaching of Joseph Smith’s in which sinners who were considered beyond the reach of Jesus’ atoning blood could be killed by a true believer and thereby regain their souls.

Viewing the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints holistically presents an image of a bastard child that brings constant embarrassment to the parent. The FLDS despise the LDS for compromising, and the LDS despise the FLDS for continually reminding society of their polygamous past. The strongest opponents to plural marriage are in fact those whose ancestors practiced it. The recent raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas, in which 400 children were taken into custody, was only the most recent attempt to put an end to polygamy and its collateral damage. The polygamy problem is bigger than any one politician or religion can cope with. “Today, Mormons would probably identify slavery and polygamy as ‘twin relics of barbarism,’’ but the Saints have been no more successful in convincing the world to forget about the latter than some in the American South have been with the former. Yet forget they must if Mormonism is to enjoy the respectability that it requires to become a ‘’new world religion’”(White and others 2010).

Works Cited

Allen, Laurie and Dot Reidelbach

2006. Banking on Heaven: Polygamy in the Heartland of the American West. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkKlPoyqv-g

Armstrong, Karen

2001. The Battle for God. New York: Ballantine Books.

Brodie, Fawn M.

1945. No Man Knows My History: the life of Joseph Smith. New York City: Vintage Books.

This is the best bio on Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion and the practice of polygamy. It shows how polygamy got its start among the 19th century saints.

Catholic Answers

2004. Mormonism’s Baptism for the Dead. http://www.catholic.com/library/Mormonism_Baptism_for_the_Dead.asp

Jessop, Carolyn

2007. Escape. New York: Broadway Books.

This is an autobiographical account of a woman who grew up in and married within the FLDS religion. It relates her escape with her 8 children.

Dewey, Richard Lloyd.

1986. Porter Rockwell: A Biography. New York: Paramount Books.

This is the biography of Brigham Young’s chief avenging angel. Porter converted while Joseph Smith still lived and remained a vital part of Mormon history during Brigham Young’s rule. The Danites were the unofficial militia for the Saints and Porter was the leader.

Gibson, Michelle

2010. However Satisfied Man Might Be: Sexual Abuse in Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints.  Journal of American Culture, 33, 4, pp. 280-293.

Krakauer, Jon

2003. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Doubleday.

Mason, Patrick Q.

2010. What’s So Bad about Polygamy? Teaching American Religious History in the Muslim Middle East . The Journal of American History, 96, 4, pp. 1112-1118.

Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

1984. New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. New York: Watchtower.

White, O. Kendall jr. and Daryl White

2005. Polygamy and Mormon Identity.  Journal of American Culture, 28, 2, pp. 165-177.

Witte, John Jr.

2009. The legal Challenges of Religious Polygamy in the USA.  Ecclesiastical Law Journal, 11, 1 pp. 72-75.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I think that’s a common misunderstanding. Three wives are not required to attain eternal life. It’s just that if you are married to three women, it SEEMS like eternity.

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