In Texas, the recent sentence to life in prison plus 20 years of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church), has once again focused attention on this Mormon sect and its practice of plural marriages.
Jeffs’ conviction was for two counts of rape because of his marriages to a 12- and a 14-year-old girl. Media reports suggested that the mothers of the girls also participated in the wedding day ritualistic “de-flowering” of the girls by holding them down. This gave rise to questioning whether Texas should also charge the mothers.
It may not be well known; however, polygamist sects have existed in the U.S. for many generations. The first leader of the FLDS Church was John Barlow, who led his polygamist sect at Short Creek, Ariz., until 1949. In 1953, there was a government crackdown on polygamy known as the “Short Creek Raid,” where all FLDS members, including 236 children, were arrested. In 2002, Warren Jeffs succeeded to leadership as the “Prophet” of the FLDS church after his father Rulon Jeffs, who was confirmed to have married 22 women and fathered more than 60 children.
Estimates are that Warren Jeffs may have upwards of 60 wives. Critics claim this form of polygamy leads to bride shortages for the younger men, to child marriages, incest and child abuse. Former members of the FLDS Church have reported that more than 400 young boys have been excommunicated and literally driven out into the streets in order to afford the older church leaders like Jeffs with less competition for young wives.
In addition to abetting statutory rape, FLDS women may be guilty of welfare fraud.
Since the government recognizes only one legal wife, the rest of the FLDS wives are considered single mothers and eligible to receive government assistance. More wives and children bring in more welfare checks and food stamps. In 2003, for example, more than $6 million in public funds were being channeled into the FLDS community of Colorado City, Ariz. This may be the tip of the iceberg as it is estimated that the FLDS church may have more than 10,000 members residing in rural towns like Hilldale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; Westcliffe and Mancos, Colo.; Creston and Bountiful, British Columbia; and Pringle, S.D.
All the blame for polygamy does not reside with Mormon splinter groups. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect (who was killed along with 54 adults and 21 children during a 1993 government raid on his compound in Waco, Texas) also was investigated for sexual abuse because of his taking of a 13-year-old girl (younger sister of his legal wife) as a “spiritual wife.” There also were sexual assault accusations by another underage girl, daughter of one of his followers.
One also may find on the Internet articles about polygamous American Muslims.
According to their religion, Muslims are allowed to have four wives, and in many Muslim countries, arranged marriages with young girls can be made right at puberty. Although it is illegal in the United States, the articles point out that some Muslim immigrants designate the first wife as the legal spouse while others are declared as members of their family. Meanwhile, all the wives are officially recognized by their local mosque.
Since so many consenting adults live together in America today without marriage, authorities are not interested in enforcing bigamy or polygamy laws; therefore, it is largely ignored or allowed by default. It only becomes an issue when one of the wives wants out of the marriage or ends up in the hospital after being beaten by her husband, or in the case of the FLDS, when an excommunicated member makes a legal complaint.
It must be noted that the polygamist FLDS Church has no relationship to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS Church), which suspended the practice of polygamy in the early 20th century and excommunicated its members who would not discontinue the practice.
It would also be unfortunate if the FLDS scandal tainted in some way the presidential candidacies of former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who profess the Mormon faith. Furthermore, the LDS Church does not approve of the TLC network’s reality show “Sister Wives.” This TV show, which features the life and times of Mormon fundamentalist Kody Brown and his four wives, offers a rather negative spectacle and might cause a backlash from a monogamous public. God forbid that it spawns imitators or fanatics who start a movement to free Warren Jeffs!
Dan Norvell, a self-styled “cultural relativist,” retired to Danville after a career in educational publishing and more than 20 years working and traveling overseas