It Practices What They Preach
And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
-- Joseph Smith's 1831 revelation on marriage and polygamy as currently published in the mainstream Mormon Church's Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132, Verse 62
The 12 million-strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is desperately seeking to disassociate itself from its uncomfortable polygamist underpinnings.
The mainstream Mormon church has been thrust into the spotlight worldwide because of the unlawful flight from justice of polygamist leader Warren Steed Jeffs, and church leaders in Salt Lake City are emphasizing loud and long that they have no connection to the fugitive.
Earlier this month, Jeffs, 50, was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for fleeing from Arizona and Utah prosecutors who have filed criminal charges related to his performing so-called spiritual marriages of underage girls to already-married men in his fanatical sect -- the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Colorado City, Arizona, and adjoining Hildale, Utah.
The FBI's action has generated international interest in the practice of polygamy by the fundamentalist Mormons scattered across the Rocky Mountain West, from Canada to Mexico. In one cable news report, CNN superimposed Jeffs' face in front of the LDS temple in Salt Lake City, giving viewers the impression that Jeffs is a member of the mainstream Church.
"This is not just careless editing, but highly offensive to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," states a May 10 LDS press release posted on the church's Web site. "Warren Jeffs is not and never has been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
The LDS release claimed that the church has no connection to polygamy.
The statement quoted LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley as saying in 1998: "I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose."
These statements give the clear impression that the LDS does not support any form of polygamy, and that polygamy is not part of current church doctrine.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is, many mainstream Mormons believe, the LDS would reinstitute polygamy -- which was practiced by members of the official church from the 1830s into the early 20th century -- if it had the legal power.
Jeffs and his band of hard-core polygamists are providing the public with chilling insight into the abuses of the practice, the most alarming of which is the sexual predation of underage girls. That both branches of the Mormon religion share the same polygamist roots is something the LDS leaders would rather not see exposed.
Both the LDS and the FLDS are based on the spiritual "revelations" of Mormon Church founder and prolific polygamist Joseph Smith. Smith's bedrock religious principle is polygamy, which is described in detail in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
One verse of Section 132 is printed above. Others are directed at Smith's first wife, Emma. She is warned that if she doesn't accept Smith's plural wives, "she shall be destroyed." The admonition to Emma is considered by anti-polygamy activists as a warning to all Mormon women that, if necessary, they must accept polygamy or face hellfire.
The fact that Section 132 remains official Mormon doctrine has been a rallying point for anti-polygamy groups whose leaders bitterly complain that the LDS has provided no support, financial or otherwise, in their efforts to assist women and children who have been victimized by fundamentalist Mormons.
"[LDS] Mormons are trying to present a picture of the traditional family and yet they still have Section 132 in their scripture," notes Vicki Prunty, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Tapestry Against Polygamy. "They have not denied the belief system that propagates polygamy. Until they do so and treat women as equals, we are going to continue to have the same fallout and abuses."
The LDS has provided little, if any, financial assistance to youth discarded by the polygamists, known as the "Lost Boys," or to desperate mothers who frequently face difficult and expensive legal battles to secure custody of their children.
Instead of providing help to people who, like its members, were brought up on the teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, the LDS do not officially admit that fundamentalist Mormon polygamists even exist.
"There is no such thing as a 'Mormon fundamentalist,' nor are there 'Mormon sects,'" the LDS states in its May 10 press release.
The LDS conveniently ignores the fact that FLDS members refer to themselves as "Mormon fundamentalists." It is all part of LDS propaganda that attempts to hide the deep historical ties between the two branches of the same religion.
The mainstream LDS renounced polygamy in 1890, but the disavowal came only under severe duress. At the time, the United States government was threatening to destroy the financial foundation of the church by seizing church assets. The widespread practice of polygamy was also preventing Utah from gaining long-sought-after statehood.
The church's fourth president and prophet, Wilford Woodruff, issued a "manifesto" asking members to abide by the civil laws of marriage that required monogamy.
Woodruff's declaration created a huge controversy within the LDS because it was seen by some members as a direct challenge to the teachings of Joseph Smith and to his immediate successor and fellow polygamist, Brigham Young. It was also viewed with suspicion by non-Mormons who believed that the church was only paying lip service to the government to get the feds off their backs.
Woodruff's manifesto accomplished the desired outcome: Utah's statehood was achieved in 1896, and the church survived without the LDS' deleting Section 132.
Abandoning polygamy proved to be very difficult for the Mormon Church. Even after Woodruff's manifesto, top church officials continued to sanction polygamous marriages in Mexico, Canada and elsewhere.
The LDS leadership's continued support of polygamy led to a contentious round of hearings before the United States Senate beginning in March 1904, and lasting three years.
During the hearings, then-LDS president and prophet Joseph F. Smith (the nephew of the church's founder) admitted that polygamous marriages had continued after the 1890 manifesto. Smith then issued a second manifesto in 1904 that once again called for the end of plural marriages by LDS members.
But that did not mean the LDS abandoned polygamy entirely.
It continues to conduct ceremonies in its 122 temples across the world where men are sealed to multiple wives who would only become their spouses in the afterlife.
Mainstream Mormons today fully embrace polygamy in the highest level of their complex heaven known as the "celestial kingdom."
Joseph Smith promised men who were faithful members of the Mormon "priesthood" a fabulous existence in the afterlife. As far-fetched as it may seem to the uninitiated, the exalted LDS males and their chosen spouses sealed to them in LDS temples on Earth are to rule over planets as gods and populate them with their offspring.
The fundamentalist Mormons of Colorado City and Hildale consider Warren Jeffs the true Mormon prophet. The fundamentalist faithful believe in the same heaven and promise of rule over planets. The primary difference between the FLDS of Colorado City and the LDS of Salt Lake City is that FLDS faithful do not wait to practice polygamy until after death.
Though largely out of sight and out of mind to most of us before Jeffs hit the headlines, the FLDS has openly practiced polygamy in the isolated communities north of the Grand Canyon for seven decades.
While Jeffs is attracting international attention for conducting polygamous marriages involving underage girls, many mainstream Mormons say their church quietly clings to its belief in polygamy.
"What I was taught when I was growing up was that plural marriage was an eternal principle and was supposedly never to be taken from the Earth after Joseph Smith started it," a former East Valley LDS bishop tells me. "Church leaders told us that it would be reinstated on the Earth by the church as soon as the church took over the government."
The former bishop, who asked that I not use his name because he feared reprisals from family members, is in his late 50s. He says many mainstream LDS church members his age and older privately support fundamentalist Mormon polygamists.
"One reason the polygamists were able to continue is because [mainstream] Mormons have sympathy for them and understand their reasons and knew that regular Mormons were going to come back and practice it someday," he said. "These people are considered heroes for continuing to practice polygamy."
Lifelong Colorado City resident Benjamin Bistline has carefully chronicled the history of FLDS polygamists in his book The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City.
Bistline, who quit the FLDS church more than 20 years ago and has since become a member of the mainstream church, says the LDS continues to believe that polygamy is a central part of its doctrine.
"We believe that plural marriage is a correct principle, but we are not commanded to live it today. We are commanded not to," Bistline says.
But if political conditions ever allow the reinstitution of polygamy, he says he and other church members would gladly return to the practice.
"If the Lord commands it and it's legal, we will do it," Bistline says.
The parallels between the LDS and the FLDS don't end with polygamy.
Both groups demand strict obedience to their respective prophets, whom they believe are infallible.
Both groups believe other religions and civil society are out to destroy them. Both are hostile to a free press and strongly encourage members to utilize only church-approved media.
Both demand that members tithe at least 10 percent of their incomes to qualify for the highest levels of the celestial kingdom.
Both call for shunning for life even family members who are kicked out of the church.
Over the past several years, I have documented such activities and beliefs among fundamentalist church members during voluminous research -- which included hundreds of interviews -- on the polygamists of Colorado City and Hildale.
As for the LDS church, Steven Benson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist from the Arizona Republic and the eldest grandson of the late LDS Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, provides unique insight into mainstream Mormonism.
The editors at the state's largest newspaper refused to allow Benson to talk to me, but Benson and his wife, Mary Ann, explained their reasons for leaving the LDS very clearly in a provocative May 22, 1994, column that appeared in the Republic.
Consider this excerpt:
"After a lifetime of membership in the Mormon Church, we came to regard it as an institution beyond repair, its moral heart eaten out by the worms of deceit, intolerance and blind conformity.
"We see Mormonism in a state of significant spiritual and intellectual decay, corrupted by the systematic and unchecked abuse of ecclesiastical authority at the expense of individual liberty, honesty and truth, and led by men lacking in prophetic vision. It has become tyrannical in its control and authoritarian in its exercise of power; in short, it has become Red Square on Temple Square.
"From our own experience, we saw relentless attempts by Mormon Church authorities to compel us to 'pray, pay and obey' at the expense of honesty, integrity and individuality."
The Bensons' description of the mainstream church 12 years ago could be used verbatim to describe the current conditions of Warren Jeffs' FLDS.
The two religious groups are deeply intertwined. Their beliefs are based on the same scripture. They have the same founders. The key difference is that the FLDS practices what the LDS preaches.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.