Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Doris Hanson of A Shield & Refuge Ministries, which offers help to those who wish to leave polygamy.

BOUNTIFUL — The words stand out amid the signs for new houses and fast food.

"Escape polygamy."

From Ogden to St. George, billboards are popping up in an evangelical Christian ministry's efforts to reach out to those seeking to leave polygamy.

"It's an awareness campaign for people to know that someone is there and to give them this number," said Doris Hanson of A Shield & Refuge Ministries, which is behind the billboards.

Hanson is starting the campaign as part of her ministry's efforts to reach out to people dealing with abuse and neglect in polygamous communities and provide help through provisions, education and prayer.

"We will provide anything we can to help someone leave," she said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News.

A Shield & Refuge Ministries was born, in part, out of Hanson's own experiences in polygamy, which she called "abusive emotionally." Hanson said when she finally left the Kingston group in 1964, she had few people willing to help her.

"I don't want anyone to think that I'm doing it out of revenge, bitterness or anger. I don't have any of that," she said. "I don't want to see others go through what I went through."

The billboard space was donated, and supporters of her ministry have provided money to pay for the signs. Since they went up, Hanson said she has fielded several calls from people in different fundamentalist groups.

"There's a lot of people who contact me out of curiosity," she said. "Others are upset and call me and say, 'Why don't you leave polygamy alone?"'

Pro-polygamy activists have some concerns about the billboards and the message they send.

"Good intentions to help people who truly are in need is fine," said Mary Batchelor, with the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices. "I always have a little bit of a concern that the idea of 'escape' and 'polygamy' is always associated together. You have to 'escape polygamy' to leave a bad relationship, and it's not true of everybody."

Batchelor said many organizations provide resources to help those in abusive situations, including the state's domestic violence hotline, which has trained its operators to deal with plural family dynamics.

"This organization does not want to go out to those who believe it's what they need to do or change their mind. That's not our purpose," Hanson counters. "If there's people who want to leave, we want them to know we'll help."

Hanson's efforts are part of the Brigham City-based Living Hope Ministries, which has produced a DVD titled "Lifting the Veil of Polygamy." The DVD recounts the Mormon faith's history of polygamy and how fundamentalist groups splintered over it. Featuring interviews with ex-fundamentalists and ex-Mormons, it is critical of Joseph Smith and church doctrine and the practice of polygamy, and accuses the LDS Church of hiding its history.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices polygamy and excommunicates those who do. The LDS Church also has said there is no such thing as a "Mormon fundamentalist," although many of the estimated 40,000 people who belong to sects that broke away from the church over polygamy consider themselves as such.

A component of A Shield & Refuge Ministries is missionary work, Hanson said. While some people who leave polygamy gravitate toward the LDS faith, others have embraced evangelical Christianity.

"The Lord just really spoke to my heart in that church," ex-LeBaron group member Susan Ray Schmidt said in a testimonial on the DVD. "I accepted Jesus as my savior that day."

A Shield & Refuge Ministries' awareness campaign will continue with a book and CD Hanson has authored analyzing Biblical verses on polygamy, as well as works by other ex-plural wives.

"We want them to know, so they will not carry a load," Hanson said. "We want them to know who God really is."

E-mail: [email protected]