Monday, November 22, 2010

Marriage, Religion and the State : A Mormon history (Part 7)

Origin of the Fundamentalist LDS Movement (1910 - present)

The LDS transition from polygamy to monogamy was not without challenges. Plural marriage practices continued, especially in the colonies of Southern Utah even after the Second manifesto. In spite of being a polygamist himself, President Heber J. Grant was determined to stop the practice of polygamy within the LDS church. In 1933, Grant’s counselor J. Rueben Clark prepared a “Final Manifesto”, which denounced the practice of plural marriage and pledged loyalty to President Grant. The majority of the members of the isolated Short Creek branch in Southern Utah refused to sign this pledge and they were excommunicated. This group, and several other traditionalist groups broke away from the LDS church during this time period and went on to form the nucleus of the Mormon Fundamentalist (FLDS) movement 1. Shortly thereafter, in 1935, the Utah legislature passed a law making unlawful cohabitation a felony, rather than a misdemeanor offense and the Mormon polygamists believed the LDS church had a role in this.2 Some branches of the church in Mexico also questioned the move to monogamous marriage and away from the United Order style of collective economy. This expressed itself in the Third Convention movement which occurred in the late 1930s and was eventually reconciled by George A Smith in 19463.

Not all groups were able to reconcile with the LDS authorities. During the 1930s, perhaps the most famous group of Mormon polygamists traveled to a remote area, later called Short Creek, along the Utah, Arizona border.4 By 1942, this group formally organized into the United Effort Plan, similar to historic LDS communities, which formed the communal economy for the group and grew to a population of 36 men, 86 women and 263 children. Arizona’s Governor Howard Pyle declared that the group were in a “state of insurrection”, and a massive raid was conducted on the morning of July 26, 1953 with the goal of putting an end to the polygamous community. Justifying the aggressive action, Governor Pyle started that the community was “entirely dedicated to the warped philosophy that a small handful of greedy and licentious men should have the right and the power to control the destiny of every soul in the community.5” Pyle argued that all the people, including children, in the community were creating wealth for the men who controlled the everything. Governor Plyle claimed that there was not a girl in the community over 15 years of age who was not married (which later proved to be untrue). He also argued that the women were as guilty as the men in perpetuating the system.

The LDS owned Deseret News responded with on editorial on July 27 which opened with “Law-abiding citizens of Utah and Arizona owe a debt of gratitude to Arizona’s Governor and to his police officers who, on Sunday, raided the polygamous settlement at Short Creek and rounded up its leaders for trial. 6” The Short Creek community was characterized as an “embarrassment to our people and a smudge on the reputations of our two great states.” The editorial emphasized that the United Effort Plan at Short Creek was in no way connected to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The First Presidency had already issued a statement indicating that all individuals who were involved with the polygamous group had “apostatized or have been excommunicated from the church”. It was further explained that “They are in no way connected with the Church and are living in open defiance of its doctrines and the laws of the land. As one of its fundamental tenets, the Church teaches that its members believe in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.” The editorial ended with the hope that “the unfortunate activities at Short Creek will be cleaned up once and for all”.

Unfortunately for Governor Pyle, the media did not universally support his actions. Time magazine quoted Pyle expressing his hope that “most of the men would not only get prison terms but fines, which might enable the state to attach their property and raze the town”. The same article quoted a Short Creek Elder as saying “This raid will give us $10 million worth of publicity.7”. Public sympathy soon turned towards the polygamist families and by Aug. 4, the Deseret News ran an article “Tots to stay with Mothers” reassuring readers that families would not be hastily broken apart. Superior Court Judge, Lorna Lockwood, stated “except for their marriage beliefs, the women are excellent in character. They are good mothers to their children.8”. She further commented that the women believed they were doing the right thing. She respected their religious convictions, even though she disagreed with them.

America’s political climate had clearly changed since the turn of the century and the media soon began casting the Short Creek raid as the threat of totalitarian state power against individual rights. Sensitive to the media images of sobbing children being torn from their mother’s arms, Americans were soon defending the fundamentalist’s religious freedom and their rights to raise their children as they saw fit. Ironically, only the LDS church seemed to approve of the polygamy prosecutions. Within two years, nearly all the men, women and children had been returned to Short Creek, and the raid became something of a legend in the Fundamentalist LDS (FLDS) community.9 It represented the wickedness of the outside world that would stop at nothing to prevent them from following their divinely ordained faith and an example of how God would always protect the faithful.10 Rather than ending polygamy, Short Creek, now known as Hilldale Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, created a powerful symbol that unified the FLDS organization which became more powerful, closed off and isolated than it was previously. Ultimately, the Short Creek raid provided $10 million worth of publicity for the FLDS church.

The FLDS church continues to practice plural marriage in spite of legal and political pressure. According to spokesman Willie Jessop, “The LDS issued that manifesto for political purposes, then claimed it as a revelation. We in the fundamentalist community believe that covenants are made with God and are not to be manipulated for political reasons, so that presents an enormous obstacle between us and those in the LDS mainstream11.” Since 1986, when the Jeff’s family took leadership the FLDS have become more solidified under the direction of their prophet.12 Under Warren Jeff’s leadership, wives and families have been frequently reassigned from one man to another and expulsions have increased for perceived unworthiness13. However, not all fundamentalist Mormons follow the same prophet and several groups have remained more free and autonomous.

2 Twentieth Century Polygamy and the Fundamentalist Mormons in Southern Utah by Ken Driggs
4 Time Magazine, Aug 3, 1953 The Great Love Nest Raid
5 Police raid Arizona polygamist enclave, The Salt Lake Tribune Special Report
6 The Deseret News July 27, 1953 pg. A8 “Police Action at Short Creek”
8 The Deseret News Aug 4, 1953 p B6
9 The Deseret News April 10, 2008 “parallels to short creek raid in 1953 are pointed out” by Geoffrey Fatah
10 Short Creek’s Long Legacy posted Apr. 16 2008 by Neil J. Young
11 National Geographic Feb 2010 p.51 “The polygamists”
12 ibid p. 51
13 ibid p 56

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