In the century since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly condemned polygamy, Mormon fundamentalists have splintered off into different sects and offshoots throughout the western United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico.
The hyper-regressive religion has touted thousands of members despite its long history of child abuse, poverty, and sexual assault.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. In The 19th Century, Mormon Fundamentalists Separated From the Church of Latter-Day Saints Over Polygamy
In 1890, the “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” of the Mormon Church succumbed to federal pressure and issued a manifesto to officially condemn the practice of polygamy. A second manifesto was issued in 1904, reiterating condemnation of the practice. By its own admittance, members of the LDS Church continued to practice polygamy well into the 1930s, but the public condemnation prompted thousands of Mormons to splinter off into fundamentalist sects to practice their religion as it had been prescribed by the founder, Joseph Smith, a little less than a century before.
While the Church of Latter-day Saints insists that Fundamentalists are not members of their ilk (and, to that end, excommunicates members who practice polygamy or closely associate with the Fundamentalist community), members of both communities believe that Joseph Smith discovered gold plates on a hill in western New York in 1827 with the help of an angel named Moroni, that Jesus came to North America after His resurrection in the first century, and that God proclaimed through His prophet, Joseph Smith, that polygamy was the righteous standard for marriage.
2. Short Creek, a Fundamentalist Stronghold, Was Raided By Police in 1953
One of the largest of these sects, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took up residence on the northern border of Arizona. Incorporated as Colorado City and known historically as Short Creek, the community became a fundamentalist stronghold in the 1930s. On July 26, 1953, the governor of Arizona ordered the Arizona National Guard, in conjunction with local police, to raid the town, resulting in the arrest of over a hundred polygamists. The state took custody of several hundred children, prompting a national backlash against the raid.
The scenes of the 1953 raid were repeated in 2008 at another FLDS stronghold called the Yearning for Zion Ranch and located north of Eldorado, Texas. Police, responding to what turned out to be a prank phone call, raided the large FLDS compound, seizing evidence of rape and child abuse and placing more than 400 children into state custody. YFZ Ranch has since been seized by Texas authorities following the exit of the fundamentalists from the compound in 2014.
3. Mormon Fundamentalists Have Repeatedly Been Accused and Convicted of Rape, Incest, and Polygamy
Mormon fundamentalists have been arrested on a number of occasions over the last three decades and convicted of crimes relating to rape, incest, child abuse, and, of course, polygamy. Brian Mitchell, a Mormon fundamentalist, was implicated in the high-profile, nine-month-long abduction and rape of then-fourteen-year-old, Elizabeth Smart, in 2002. The leader of the Colorado City fundamentalist sect, Warren Jeffs, was accused of crimes relating to sexual violence against children in Arizona, Utah, and Texas, crimes for which he is now serving a life sentence in prison. Tom Green, an independent fundamentalist who fathered at least 30 children, was convicted of first-degree felony child rape, for which he served only five years of his five-to-life sentence.
Under The Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer’s 2003 account of a vicious double-homicide at the hands of a pair of Mormon fundamentalists, details the extent of the crimes committed by fundamentalists against the women and young girls of their communities and implicates zealous religious indoctrination as the mechanism that emboldened a community to commit heinous crimes against its vulnerable members.
While the concept of polygamy can ignite fierce and meaningful debate about religious freedom, privacy, the legal institution of marriage, and the freedoms of consenting adults, the reality is that polygamy within the FLDS Church enables and encourages the systemic rape of a countless number of girls, some of them as young as twelve years old. In many cases, young girls aged thirteen or fourteen are married off to cousins and uncles who are often many decades their seniors. Over time, this practice has produced medical complications and extremely rare birth defects within the Fundamentalist community.
4. In 2006, the FLDS Prophet Ranked Among the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List
Warren Jeffs, the one-time leader of the Fundamentalist community in Colorado City and son of the former leader, Rulon Jeffs, ranked on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List after he evaded arrest for crimes relating to child abuse and rape. Jeffs was apprehended during a routine traffic stop in Las Vegas in August 2006. Jeffs stood trial for his crimes in Utah in 2007, where his conviction was overturned for improper jury instruction. In 2010, Jeffs was extradited to Texas, where he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault of a child with evidence obtained from the raid of Yearning for Zion Ranch, an FLDS compound in Texas, in 2008.
Jeffs is now serving a life sentence in Texas. In 2017, he was successfully sued for $16 million by a former child bride. In 2019, the Jeffs’s lawyers claimed that he had suffered a mental breakdown in prison and was not fit to stand trial in a lawsuit filed against him and the FLDS trust by a woman alleging that Jeffs sexually abused her as a child. Over the last ten years, Jeffs attempted to hang himself in a Utah prison, had to be force-fed in jail in Arizona, and was placed in a medically induced coma after fasting from his cell in Texas.
5. Historically, the FLDS Church Exerts Intense Levels of Control Over Its Members
The president and prophet of the FLDS Church wields the sole power to perform marriage ceremonies, reassign the wives and children of FLDS men found wanting, and issue “revelations” from God, which constitute divine instruction and which invariably impose strict rules on FLDS members. Rulon Jeffs, the president and prophet of the FLDS Church from 1984 to his death in 2002, banned his parishioners from watching television or reading content that had not been provided by the church.
Women are still expected to wear ankle-length dresses. FLDS members are also religiously obligated to pay tithes to the Church, which created a trust worth more than $100 million. Throughout much of Short Creek’s history, most homes were owned by the church and could be seized at any time. Mormon fundamentalists maintained control of the school board and police department. In 2006, the state of Utah took custody of the trust in part, resolving some of these restrictions and encouraging non-FLDS people to move into the area, further easing some restrictions.