The Polygamists Are Coming!

Nervous West Texas townsfolk brace for the arrival of a sect of Mormon fundamentalists and their many wives

"No man can become a god unless he has more wives than one. For a woman to become goddess, she must be married to a man who has more than one wife" is Jeffs' teaching.

But what the prophet giveth, he can taketh away. In recent months, Jeffs has excommunicated dozens of adult male followers--including some powerful community leaders--who fell short of perfection. In some cases, he has quickly reassigned their houses, wives and children to new men, feeding a bitter public rift. Rumors are also flying that the prophet is about to cut and run either to Mexico or Texas.

"He's on a rampage. He gets jealous and paranoid if he feels someone will be a threat to him," says Ross Chatwin, 35, one of those recently booted from the church. "There are about 100 people here who are not happy with him, so we're putting up a resistance. He's trying to control this place, but he's going to lose it."

At left: Ross Chatwin's family--a small brood for fundamentalist Mormons, with only one wife. Pam Black, right, is among the "living dead" booted out of Warren Jeffs' sect. Black, who bore 14 children in an arranged marriage, now helps girls and women in abusive polygamist marriages.
L) John Dougherty
At left: Ross Chatwin's family--a small brood for fundamentalist Mormons, with only one wife. Pam Black, right, is among the "living dead" booted out of Warren Jeffs' sect. Black, who bore 14 children in an arranged marriage, now helps girls and women in abusive polygamist marriages.
Mormon kids in Utah express their feelings for a photographer.
Nicole Frugé/ San Antonio Express-News
Mormon kids in Utah express their feelings for a photographer.

Jeffs is also feeling the heat from outsiders, as now, for the first time in many decades, the fundamentalists are being scrutinized by anti-polygamy activists, journalists and criminal investigators. A series of investigative stories by Phoenix New Times, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, has forced public officials to confront allegations of financial misconduct, forced marriages of teenage girls and sexual abuse.

"The level of pressure being put on this community is unprecedented. The government is acting like an occupying army," complained church lawyer Rodney Parker, who also serves as Jeffs' spokesman. "They are being treated like black people were in the 1880s. I can't blame them for seeking a place of refuge, and that's what I think is happening in Texas. They crave an isolated place where they can just live their lives in peace."

For the Mormon fundamentalists of Colorado City and Hildale, the long road leading to Eldorado began more than a century and a half ago and many miles to the north in Nauvoo, Illinois. It was there, in 1843, that Smith, the original prophet of the Latter Day Saints, recorded the sacred principle of "plural marriage."

"It very nearly shattered the church, brought about Joseph's death at the hands of a lynch mob and has been reverberating through American society ever since," wrote Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven, a recent book about fundamentalist Mormons. Plural marriage also went over like a case of the clap with Smith's wife, Emma, who threatened to take additional husbands if her husband persisted.

According to Krakauer, Smith had taken multiple partners for years before introducing the concept to his followers. Shortly after, he was shot to death by an anti-Mormon mob, throwing his church into chaos. In the battle of succession, the anti-polygamist faction lost out. Smith was replaced by Brigham Young, who soon led the Mormons west to the Utah Territory, taking polygamy with them.

In 1851, when he became governor of the new territory, Young boasted publicly of his numerous wives.

"I have many, and I am not ashamed to have it known," he told the territorial legislature. He also told the Saints that observing "the principle" was the path to heaven. "If any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned," Young said, according to Krakauer's book.

But the rest of America took a dim view of polygamy, a felony everywhere but in Utah. The Mormons resisted decades of aggressive federal efforts to outlaw the practice, holding out until 1890. That year, Wilford Woodruff, the fourth Mormon prophet, under threat of confiscation of church holdings, finally folded. In what has since been known as "The Manifesto," Woodruff announced that it was the Lord's will to cease to defy man's laws against polygamy.

And although the church eventually began excommunicating polygamists, many split off to continue the practice, and sects sprouted in back corners around Utah.

"That is the story of the birth of the Mormon fundamentalists," says Sarah Gordon, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who is an expert on polygamy and fundamentalist groups. "After 40 years of conflict that ranged from President Buchanan sending troops to Utah before the Civil War, to some 2,500 criminal prosecutions of people involved in plural marriages, the leader of the church said he would no longer counsel followers to disobey the law of the land. Polygamy went from being the most sanctified form of marriage to being a troublesome holdover from the past."

Among the many polygamist refuges was Short Creek, Arizona, founded in 1911 on the site of what is now Colorado City. In the 1930s, a die-hard polygamist named John Barlow brought his followers there. Hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City and cut off by the Grand Canyon from the rest of Arizona, the Short Creek polygamists were well-insulated from prying eyes.

That ended suddenly in 1953 when Arizona Governor Howard Pyle sent in more than 150 troopers and police in a pre-dawn raid. More than 120 men and women were arrested, and some 260 of their children were placed in foster care.

In language echoed by anti-polygamists today, Pyle condemned the practice. "Here is a community unalterably dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become more chattels of this totally lawless enterprise," he said.

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