Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle ran a lengthy article about Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In “A Prophet in Purgatory” journalist Don Lattin examines Mr. Jeffs’ history, leadership and behavior as the Prophet-leader of the FLDS Church. A significant question asked by Mr. Lattin is this: “Will throwing the book at polygamist Warren Jeffs bust up his sect or be a boon to it?” In exploring possibilities, Mr. Lattin writes:
Breeding LoyaltyWarren Jeffs’ battle to practice polygamy and lead his earthly domain as he sees fit is just the latest chapter in the 150-year-old saga of Mormon polygamy in the West.
His sect — which also has members in Canada, Mexico, Texas and elsewhere in the United States — sees itself as the true continuation of a religious tradition dating back to the spiritual revelations and sexual lifestyle of Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of the Mormon faith. In 1890, the mainline Mormon Church officially suspended the practice of polygamy in a deal that allowed the Utah Territory to join the United States. Today, the 12.3-million strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates members who openly practice plural marriage.
But that does not stop an estimated 37,000 Latter-day Saints who see the taking of multiple wives as one of the central tenets of the Mormon religion.
One of them is Marvin Wyler, who cites Mormon scripture to back up his belief that Latter-day Saints must practice polygamy to rise into the upper reaches of heaven, where Mormons believe man can “be like God.”
“In order to obtain the highest level in the celestial kingdom you have to live in plural marriage,” Wyler said. “They (the mainline Mormon Church) gave that up. It was too hard for them.”
According to historians, Joseph Smith had taken 33 wives by the time he was murdered by an angry mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844. Among those women taken as wives by the founding prophet were the already-married wives of his top male lieutenants, a practice anthropologists say can actually breed loyalty among the tribe.
It comes as no surprise that pressure and duress often act to strengthen groups rather than weaken them. We’ve seen it in Jonestown and we’ve seen it in Waco. It was evident in the early LDS Church, too. Even today the Mormon Church leverages a myth of continuing persecution to strengthen and unite Latter-day Saints in an us-against-them worldview — the same worldview fostered by Warren Jeffs among his own Latter-day Saints.
Another article about the FLDS Church appeared in today’s Salt Lake Tribune. “Guiding principles all-important for Jeffs” also notes the presence of strong loyalty among the members of Mr. Jeffs’ church. The article’s sub-title reads, “FLDS followers remain devoted despite strict guidelines that often separate their families.” Journalist Brooke Adams reports:
For three decades, first as a school principal and later as a sect prophet, Warren S. Jeffs has acted with a singular purpose: To prepare a perfect people for God.Jeffs has pursued that goal through unyielding standards and swift repercussions for those who don’t measure up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect of about 6,000…
Despite the seeming harshness of his faith, the majority of Jeffs’ followers remain devoted to him and his 19th-century version of Mormonism.
He is seen, according to sources, as a modern-day John Taylor, the third president of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who spent two years in hiding to avoid prosecution for polygamy.
In the spring of 1880, nearly five years before going into hiding, John Taylor said at the Church’s 1880 General Conference:
“Has God given us a law? Yes! Have they made a law to punish us for obeying His law? Yes. All right we will get along and do the best we can, but we won’t forsake out god[;] and all those who are willing to abide by the law of god signify it by raising the right hand” (Deseret News Weekly, 12 May 1880; quoted in Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 115).
Later, while hiding out from Federal authorities in 1886, President John Taylor received the following revelation in response to his query about the possibility of the LDS Church giving up polygamy:
“All commandments that I give must be obeyed unless they are revoked by me or by my authority and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant for I the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with but they stand forever. I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so amen” (John Taylor Letter File, LDS Archives; quoted in Mormon Polygamy, 128).
There sure are a lot of similarities between early Mormonism and the FLDS Church. It’s just as King Solomon said: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).