Warren Jeffs and the Mystique of Cultic Power

Now that Warren Jeffs, the leader of the nation’s largest polygamous group, has been arrested, some observers had apparently anticipated that his followers would have paraded through the streets, rejoicing that they were now free from this man’s control. Instead, however, it seems to be “business as usual” in the border towns of Hilldale, UT and Colorado City, AZ, where most members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) reside.

Let’s consider the facts why this is the case. First, we need to understand that the majority of the people who belong to the church actually prefer this lifestyle as compared to other alternatives. For instance, most of the men must think it’s pretty sweet having two, three, or even four women taking care of their sexual needs, not to mention the additional benefits for older men who take very young brides.

And how many of these polygamous husbands have to cook their own dinners? I doubt few of them know how to sew, and I certainly can’t imagine a household with three or four wives where the husband is doing the laundry. Probably most important, there must be a feeling of power gained from raising your own harem and producing a kingdom of kids who will pass your name down to future generations. Perhaps there are some negatives in leading a polygamous lifestyle, but–and let’s be honest here, men and women–there sure seems to be a lot of positives for the husband.

Meanwhile, many of the polygamous wives would certainly feel threatened if polygamy were no longer an option for them. The majority of these wives grew up in this lifestyle, and the odds are that they were involved in arranged marriages. (In fact, this is how Jeffs initially got into legal trouble, since the most serious charge against him is arranging marriages of 13-year-old girls to men three or four times their age.)

The polygamous wife is most likely married to the only husband whom she has ever known. While she certainly has to share the man with his other wives, there has to be security knowing that your needs are met through this unique union. So what would you expect a 34-year-old polygamous wife–a woman with five kids, an eighth grade education, and no intellectual or social skills outside the home–to do? Raise her hands up in celebration of Jeffs’ arrest and declare her independence? Hardly. As far as the kids, what is their option? Run away? To where? The idea of surviving outside the community must be terrifying to the majority of the children who don’t have many options available to them.

Another fact to consider is that the psychological control of Jeffs and the other church leaders is strong. Even in jail, I’m sure Jeffs will have a way to keep a thumb on the goings-on of this group. When Leo Ryan, a California congressman, visited the People’s Temple compound in the South American country of Guyana, he invited anyone from the group to return with him to the United States. Only a few took him up on the invitation. Then, before Ryan could fly away on November 18, 1978, Jim Jones had his guards kill Ryan and his entourage before ordering his 900+ followers to drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide. Why did they follow such a suicidal man and not escape when they had the chance? This is a question that still can’t be fully answered by sociologists.

I would have to say that Jeffs was not much different in style than the man whom he emulated, Joseph Smith, Jr. I won’t provide details on how Smith was able to manipulate his followers, but let’s just say that every time Smith found himself in some type of jam with outsiders, he was somehow able to convince his people to follow him to the next state. A persecution complex was utilized that made the people identify with their prophet, following him at all costs. I would be willing to bet that Jeffs’ underlings are telling their people how the prophet is being unjustly imprisoned by the government for religious beliefs! This persecution complex will make the people hunker down and not budge in their devotion to their leadership.

Finally, I believe that these polygamous cities are so cut off from the rest of the world that they have lost their sense of reality. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the former Soviet Union was opened to the West, it was apparent that most of these people who lived behind the Iron Curtain all of their lives—having listened only to propaganda and little else—were ignorant of the truth.

Just as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” something special has to take place before a person can see the true Jesus. It’s going to take the prayers of God’s people and perhaps a thrust of evangelistic efforts if there will ever be a hope for these people to ever understand the true forgiveness of God. Many outsiders have already been helping the “Lost Boys,” young FLDS men who were driven out of their homes during these past few years because they were competition for the new teenage girls who were going to be made available for marriage. In the same way, the Christian church should make itself available to help others from this church who live in such harmful situations with no place to go.

I expect that a new FLDS leader will be appointed soon–if he hasn’t been chosen already–and continue leading in Jeffs’ absence. I also anticipate that the church will maintain its fight for the right to break the law. My prayer is that something bigger than the arrest of Warren Jeffs will take place in these communities, and soon.

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