Yesterday I wrote a post about the raid of a West Texas compound that belongs to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. In that post I described the Church as a “polygamist sect of Mormonism.” I have received two dozen emails as well as many comments saying that I misunderstood what I was writing about and that these polygamists have nothing to do with Mormonism and my use of the Mormonism moniker was uninformed and incorrect.
I appreciate these comments and completely understand how loaded the appellation question and polygamy are in talking about the FLDS. As every news article is quick to point out, polygamy has been outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known by outsiders as Mormonism, since 1890. Those who practice polygamy are banished and, usually, abhorred by members of the mainstream church.
But to say that the FLDS should not be considered Mormons, well that is a simplification of a very complex history and if you ask me, truly wishful thinking. I’ve spoken with former members of the FLDS and they certainly consider their former belief system “Mormon.” Its history and its holy books – including the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s Law and Covenants – are Mormon, and members believe themselves to be carrying out the true covenant of Joseph Smith.
So who’s right? In academia, the answer to this question is usually that you call people what they consider themselves to be. But, after yesterday’s post, I see that this is complicated because mainstream “Mormons” – members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — feel that it invalidates and insults their faith for anyone to refer to FLDS as a fundamentalist sect of Mormonism.
What makes this odd is that Mormonism itself is not the official name of the LDS Church. Historically, it actually was a pejorative term applied by mainline Christians who saw Joseph Smith’s followers as a radical and bizarre cult. Part of that prejudice in America was based on a revelation that Smith made official in 1843, stating that plural marriage was required to receive the highest glory from God. He said he had this revelation a decade earlier:
“If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else…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.”
(From the Doctrine and Covenants of the Latter-day Saints, Section 132.)
The LDS Church’s official web site acknowledges that its early adherents practiced polygamy. In the 19th century, more than a thousand Mormon men went to prison for polygamy-related offenses. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill law prohibiting polygamy and in 1872 Church president Brigham Young offered up his secretary George Reynolds as a test case to go before the Supreme Court in order to test the constitutionality of the law. In 1879, the Supreme Court heard his case and ruled the Morrill law was legal. In 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which provided imprisonment and fines for practicing polygamy. The Church was under siege and in 1890, the Church’s third president, Wilford Woodruff, received a revelation that plural marriage was to come to an end.
That would’ve been the end of the story for polygamy and Mormonism but it wasn’t. Dissenters said that prior to Woodruff’s 1890 revelation, there had been a divine visit by the long-dead Joseph Smith to then LDS Church president John Taylor, stating that plural marriage should continue. Lorin Woolley was a polygamist who said he was there when President Taylor spoke about this revelation and he was ex-communicated from the Church in 1912 when he gave a written account of those events. A group of dissenters who continued to practice polygamy organized around Woolley’s account, and some of these followers ultimately moved to the deserts of Utah and Arizona and began a homestead that would ultimately grow into the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. To make things further complicated, the Priesthood of the FLDS has itself splintered off into smaller groups of polygamists, such as those living Centennial Park not far from FLDS headquarters in Colorado City and Hildale.
So there’s all that. Does that clarify why this is so contentious? Maybe, maybe not. My editor asked me if it was like Jewish people disavowing Jews for Jesus. I’m guessing the stakes are higher here because the history of the Mormon people is short. They don’t feel like sharing it with the polygamists who are living lives so dramatically different than their own. And none of this answers the question of whether or not the authorities in Texas were right to bus out 250 women and children based on a single complaint of sexual abuse. Authority is a sticky thing.
And just now, after I put all my history books aside, I logged on to Facebook and asked the profile that claims to be Warren Jeffs whether or not he was Mormon. Here’s that answer here — take it for what it is:
“awkward subject… we aren’t on the best terms. they would say that i’m “excommunicated”, but i just like to say we’re on hiatus from each other.”