Plural lives: the diversity of fundamentalism

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 20 2006 3:01 p.m. MDT

Robert Noyce, Deseret Morning News

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The recent capture of polygamous leader Warren Jeffs — now off the FBI's most-wanted list and waiting his fate in the aptly named Purgatory Jail — once again puts plural marriage and Utah under international scrutiny.

The world press is clearly intrigued, while at the same time baffled by polygamy's modern-day complexities. In the shorthand of daily journalism, polygamous fundamentalism is often pictured as a monolithic culture full of sister wives in dowdy ankle-length dresses. Though estimates put their number at less than 40,000, "Mormon fundamentalists" are often confused in media reports with the 12.5 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In reality, modern-day polygamous fundamentalists are a diverse lot, full of rival leaders and a contentious history, as well as thousands of members who follow no leader at all. Some live in isolated communities (one group worships in a pyramid on the Utah-Nevada border); some may live next door in the Salt Lake Valley, not unlike the folks on HBO's "Big Love." Others live at Jeffs' new, secretive FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) temple compound in Eldorado, Texas, in polygamous colonies in northern Mexico and western Canada, and in tiny outposts scattered around the Intermountain West.

Despite the imprisonment of the movement's most visible leader, polygamous fundamentalism appears to have a staying power that makes it unlikely to disappear anytime soon, according to experts both inside and out.

Anne Wilde, a polygamist widow and a director of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, says there are currently some 37,000 people (including children) who are fundamentalist Mormons. That's a name that the LDS Church finds objectionable, but one that the fundamentalists say is fitting. It is the mainstream LDS Church, they argue, that strayed from the faith's original doctrinal underpinnings when LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto in 1890, advising Latter-day Saints to refrain from plural marriage.

Deseret Morning News graphicFundamentalist authority lineRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Because polygamy continued in secrecy to a small extent, a second "official statement" on the practice was issued by LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith in 1904, ending authorization for plural marriages on pain of excommunication from the church. Current LDS leaders acknowledge the practice as part of their early history, and LDS scripture still contains passages that fundamentalists use to defend its continuation.

Groups are diverse

In the first few decades of the 20th century, several LDS Church members — including a few leaders — were excommunicated as they continued to advocate polygamy and/or practice it. Some were later reinstated in the church, while a handful split from the faith to form their own groups under separate leadership. The ins and outs of those complex relationships are documented in a new 500-page book just off the press this week, "Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto," by Layton physician and historian Brian Hales.

The dissenters said the true priesthood authority to perform plural marriage came to them in a variety of ways, most tied to either their early ancestors as acquaintances of church founder Joseph Smith or one of his successors, President John Taylor. (See related story link)

"We feel it's the priesthood that created the church, not the other way around," Wilde says, adding the mainstream LDS Church went "out of order" with the 1890 Manifesto. God knew the Manifesto was coming and set out this lineage to preserve plural marriage, she says.

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