By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Evening falls on the Concho Valley. Along the highway, which is dotted with rusty oil derricks and gnarled mesquite, spring grasses peek out from the rocky soil. It's April 3, 2008, and few here know what is about to happen.
Up on Rudd Road, a man steps from his bullet-riddled shell of a trailer. He watches his goats graze in the rocky pasture and then sees them coming: cars with blacked-out windows he does not recognize, carrying Texas Rangers and sheriff's deputies he does not know. He can guess where they are headed. Like everyone else in Eldorado, Texas, he knows what lies up the road.
The cars continue up the two-lane blacktop until they arrive at the gates of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. They sit outside and wait.
A mile up a dirt road another world exists. It's a world the U.S. government has been trying to eradicate for more than 150 years. Mobs and armies and judges have pushed the Mormon polygamists from the badlands of Missouri to the barren deserts of Utah to this place—a scab of scrubland in West Texas.
The men at the gate are prepared for the worst: a Waco-style standoff, a Jonestown-style mass suicide. They've heard stories about the fundamentalist Mormons who live here—about child brides and stockpiled weapons and mysterious accidents that befall those who try to leave the fold. The men can see the gleaming white temple, built from limestone quarried from the hills surrounding the YFZ Ranch, where, rumor has it, plural marriages are consummated in an upstairs room outfitted with a bed. And they have heard about the group's prophet, the jailed pedophile Warren Jeffs, and his doctrine of ritual sacrifice known as blood atonement.
The men at the gate wait for word. The sheriff has instructed his dispatcher to shut down all but one channel. The last thing they want is for the media to get wind of this, at least for the time being. They know this could turn bad, and fast.
The next morning, 350 miles to the north, I rise from my bed to wake my oldest son. Today is a special day on the Mormon calendar. Twice a year, in April and October, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather for a two-day General Conference to hear the church's Salt Lake City-based leadership (mostly old men in dark suits and conservative ties) deliver sermons on topics like faith, tithing and the evils of pornography, alcohol and smoking—all of which Mormonism forbids. These talks, as Mormons call them, are about 15 minutes each, divided among two sessions on Saturday and two on Sunday. While some Mormons travel to Salt Lake City to attend, most watch on the Internet or at their nearest Mormon chapel via satellite.
That's why my parents are in town this morning. Together with my wife and two young sons, we will drive to a nearby church in Allen and watch the broadcast.
We live in Plano in a two-story townhouse, not far from shaded walking trails and a big park surrounded by North Texas woods. I watch my son sleep for a moment and think about the legacy of faith into which he has been born. For six generations, the Hyde family has practiced Mormonism. Of my dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family, only one has left the church. For all of us, Mormonism is nothing we backslide into on Sunday mornings; it's a cradle-to-grave lifestyle that insists on 24-7 devotion.
I am putting on a white shirt and tie, the same sort of outfit I wore as a missionary in Brazil after my freshman year at Brigham Young University, when I hear my cell phone beep. It's a text message from a friend in Salt Lake City, a fellow journalist who has left the faith.
"You better get down to Eldorado," it reads. I have no idea what he is talking about.
"The polygamists," he writes. "They've got the polygamists."
I call him, and he says that the police have raided a fundamentalist Mormon compound where a sect of renegade polygamists live. There's some sort of standoff, he says, and a violent confrontation is possible.
As we drive to church, I mention to my parents the situation unfolding in Eldorado, but they seem only mildly interested. Like most mainstream Mormons, they see no connection between themselves and the breakaway sects of fundamentalist Mormons. The mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy nearly 120 years ago.
"I didn't even know there were polygamists in Texas," my mom says, and before long the subject shifts.
At the chapel, we take our place in the cushioned pews before the broadcast begins. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings a hymn, a prayer is said and a report is given on the status of the church. It has been a good year. There are now more than 13 million members, with more living outside North America than within it. Mormon temples dot the globe, from Manhattan to Hong Kong.
As I listen to a sermon on the life of Jesus Christ, I wonder how many Mormons in the audience, especially in places like the Philippines and Brazil, understand how far we have come as a people. Once, the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order to rid his state of its Mormon population. Recently a former governor of Massachusetts, a Mormon named Mitt Romney, had been a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.