Warren Jeffs’ Conviction Exposes the Coercion of Polygamy

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was found guilty on August 4 of sexual assault on two girls–a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old who he considered his “spiritual wives.” On August 9 he was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes; the 55-year-old Jeffs will be eligible for parole when he’s 90.

In a courtroom in San Angelo, Texas, in August 2011, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) leader Warren Jeffs defended himself against the charge of sexual assault on the basis of religious freedom. It was an outrageous defense given that the women and children of his FLDS have no freedom whatsoever, religious or otherwise. Their minds have been coerced, cajoled and controlled since the moment of birth.

I grew up in the little town of Granite, Utah, just down the road from the Jeffs compound in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Warren Jeffs went to my high school. We were LDS, and they were FLDS, the polygamists in town. We saw them as outcasts, the sinners behind the wall. As I listened to his droning voice on YouTube giving instructions to the young girls in his sect about “keeping sweet” and “clean” and how “a thought is as bad as an action,” my body reacted viscerally, as if he was speaking to me. I realized those were the same words I heard as a child in my LDS Sunday school, the same words my mother heard. But then the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS–commonly known as the Mormon Church) came from the same roots. Both trace their teachings back to Joseph Smith. They read the same religious texts and follow the same basic doctrine, except for the doctrine of polygamy–the LDS Church is against polygamy now, at least until the afterlife.

My father’s grandfather was a polygamist. He had three wives. Brigham Young brought him over from England to run the flour mills for the LDS Church. Later, they made him the custodian of the Gardo House, a Victorian mansion in downtown Salt Lake City where men came to meet secretly with their wives after polygamy was rescinded by the LDS Church in 1890. I’ve got to admit that as a child, I felt a sense of pride in my polygamist great grandfather. After all, Brigham Young was a prophet. He was a man who talked to God, and my great grandfather was a man the prophet relied on.

I often wondered if that was why my father became so interested in polygamy: He wanted to carry the legacy of his grandfather. He knew polygamy was against the law. He knew he would be excommunicated from the LDS church if he went down that road. But he was seduced by ideas that had been put into his heart and mind when he was a child–the idea that he could talk personally with God, that he could become a God himself if he lived right and if he found himself at least three wives. When I was about 12, he started to meet with different groups of polygamists, investigating the old doctrine, talking with people who believed the LDS Church never should have rescinded polygamy. His exploration forced my mother to face the devastating specter of living a polygamous life, of being excommunicated from the LDS church and becoming an outcast–along with her 11 children. The problem was, she loved him. And she had 11 children. What was she going to do? Refuse to go along with him? Women didn’t get divorced in those days, not in a small town with a population of  260 primarily LDS and FLDS people, a town in the heart of Mormon Utah. It was unthinkable.

My father’s meetings with the polygamists took place in secret, behind closed doors or away from home, and he and my mother never talked about it when we kids were around. However, I did hear her say, “If there’s polygamy in heaven, I don’t want to go there,” and I’d find her crying in the bathroom with a towel over her head.

Then one day my father said he was going to move us all down to a piece of property in the desert. It was out in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Hurricane, the same small Utah town where Warren Jeffs was held in Purgatory Jail before his first trial in 2006. My father said he wanted us to live the Law of Consecration, the old Mormon doctrine the FLDS still live by, wherein everything you own is given over to the Church. Maybe he wanted to be a prophet, like Joseph Smith. Maybe if he was a prophet, living and teaching the Law of Consecration, then God would talk to him and tell him what he needed to do to reach exaltation and become the god of his own world in the “next” life.

The problem was, we kids refused to go. We didn’t want to leave our school and our friends. My father didn’t have the power to make us go, and he didn’t have the upbringing or the followers of a Warren Jeffs to create a community in the desert without us. He only had his wife, his 11 children and his friend–who did go ahead and marry a second, younger wife. That friend was immediately excommunicated from the LDS Church, and subsequently his first wife divorced him. Maybe that’s when my father began to realize that going back to the old ways might not go exactly as planned.

My father was not able to start his own religious community, but he did manage to break my mother’s heart. She truly loved him, and she had been taught to honor and obey him and to rely on his priesthood as her access to God, her access to the Celestial Kingdom (the highest degree of heaven for both LDS and FLDS). I’m sure he coaxed her, read scriptures to her, and tried to convince her that the old ways were the right ways, and that the LDS Church should never have stopped practicing polygamy–because when they did that, they did away with his possibility of becoming a god (according to the books that he was reading).

I don’t know why this prospect of being a god was so important to my father. He obsessed over it. Even late in his life, when he had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know my name, or his own name, he was still desperate to talk with God. The idea had a hold on his mind and he couldn’t shake it. All those stories and promises of a celestial reward from his childhood were still having their effect.

Luckily, his sphere of influence was small. My poor mother was the one most hurt. She died far too young, and I am quite certain my father’s obsession with God is at least partly to blame. But is he really to blame for what he did? At what point does a person become accountable for actions if those actions are derived from their childhood indoctrination? Religious teachings instilled in children through continuous repetition are very powerful, and when words like God and Jesus and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are taught to a child at the same time as they are learning basic words like Momma and Daddy and dog and cat, they all become equally real. Later, additional religious concepts are built on that basic foundation. It all becomes very hard to unravel even as an adult, unless people purposefully stop and force themselves to look at their beliefs as beliefs, rather than absolute reality. This, of course, is not something leaders of either the LDS or the FLDS want their members to do. Those lessons are taught for a reason.

Warren Jeffs is a product of this kind of indoctrination. As he said in court, his church has been practicing the divine law of polygamy for five generations. But Warren Jeffs was not indoctrinated to be subservient; he was indoctrinated to be the prophet, to speak with the authority of God himself. No wonder he decided to defend himself on the grounds of religious freedom. His entire life has been about religion and religious authority. He absolutely believes himself to be a prophet. He believes he receives guidance directly from God. His freedom to practice his religion is everything.

Still, I have to wonder, what happened to him in Purgatory Jail down there in Hurricane, Utah when he was arrested in 2006? He stopped eating and became suicidal. They say he banged his head against the wall. During a visit from his brother, he disavowed his role as prophet of the FLDS. A recording of the visit reveals him saying, “I am not the prophet. I never was the prophet. I have been deceived by the power of evil.” Apparently, he even sent a note to the judge disavowing his role as prophet of the FLDS.

Was that the first time he saw himself the way others might see him? Did he experience that “objectifying look” that Simone de Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex? If so, it must have been a terrifying moment. After four years of fasting and prayer in jail, he seemed to resolve his cognitive dissonance: reconstructing himself as an even stronger prophet, more sure of his power and authority. He began to rule his followers from jail, by telephone. At the trial, his defense of religious freedom didn’t work, but he probably knew it wouldn’t. Perhaps the goal all along was to become a martyr, like Joseph Smith.

The voice of Warren Jeffs, and the interviews and video and discussions about the way he controls the mind of his people, affects me in a very personal way. Not because I feel controlled myself–though I did experience a strange, surprising fear of being punished when I was writing my novel, Torn by God. No, it’s not for me that I shudder. It’s for my mother. And my father. And all those people still behind the FLDS wall, those who may never get the chance to experience a free mind.

I know what a free mind is. Surprisingly, that was a gift from my father. It was his confusion, his being caught between the old Mormon doctrine and the new Mormon doctrine, that allowed me to see that it was all just made up, that the teachings on both sides were being used to get people to act in a particular way. It’s fine with me if people choose to follow a religious leader, but they should have a real choice. Children who are brought up in an isolated sect like the FLDS have no choice because they have no access to outside information. They do not know there are other options. They do not know they have choices. Maybe that is the worse kind of child abuse.

Photo of Warren Jeffs–which was distributed by the FBI when Jeffs was on the 10 Most Wanted list–from Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. It is absolutely ridiculous that Jeffs would cite “freedom of religion” as a last-minute Hail Mary plea here. Freedom of religion means just that, the freedom to practice one’s religion insofar as the liberties of other individuals *as defined by the law* are kept intact. That Jeffs was blind, ignorant, or just entirely apathetic to that is of no matter.

    Whether or not his religion is truly of God, I am dubious. I myself am deeply religious, and though I was raised deeply religious the ways I define and find ultimate expression in my own religion is ultimately different from the ways in which my parents do. I did go through the painful experience which you made reference to, which deBeauvoir wrote of in The Second Sex and which Mary Daly gives further scathing treatment in a specifically religious context in her own work of integral importance, The Church and the Second Sex.

    I do not think that ultimately God, or Jesus can be blamed here. When people are self-seeking, they are not truly out to serve God. When they are out to serve others that is the litmus test. It is more complex than that, but that is the simplest way I can define it after years of seeing ALL religious types having stones thrown at them with wide strokes because it is only the self-seekers that make headlines. There are so many humble, fruit of the earth people going about their business every day that keep their heads down and truly do simply hope to do better and to make the lives of others a bit better — only we never hear about them, and that’s fine with them. I think we should keep that in mind every now and then when scandalous priests and polygamous creeps make the news. Who is ultimately to blame? Broken, messed-up people. People are to blame, and for that I am truly sorry.

  2. yoteech2002 says:

    Similar kind of indoctrination occurs in the Roman Catholic church. Education in the public sphere is the best way to overcome the conditioning and brainwashing. One also needs to have the courage to face down the conflict between one’s taught beliefs and the new knowledge one is exposed to. Very freeing when one crosses that Rubicon!

    I think now of the Muslims and people of western civilization…same indoctrination but a long arduous path for education and opening of the minds. Fast forward several hundred years…will the various cultures be integrated by then?

    • Yes, yoteech, I think of that process of “facing down the conflict between one’s taught beliefs and new knowledge” as learning to walk in the shaky world of the unknown. I too hope we can evolve to the point where all ideas and cultures are integrated, with each being seen as a contribution to the grand stream of human consciousness, rather than being defended as truth. Thank you. Zoe

  3. Great article! It hits home with me because my parents did the same thing. It’s hard for me not to blame the church even though I know it takes personal depravity to go in that direction in the first place. The depravity is there, waiting in scriptures and history, for the perverse to find and adhere to.

  4. Rebeckah says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Zoe. It’s a terribly sad commentary on the “fruit” of Joseph Smith’s tale-spinning. So many people hurt and continuing to be hurt so that a few amoral men can do whatever they want to.

    Personally, I don’t think Warren Jeffs actually believes in a deity. I think he simply enjoyed the power that pretending to be a prophet gave him. I hope he spends a long, lonely, powerless life in jail.

  5. Gabrielle says:

    Very poignant article Zoe! Your mother crying out that “if there is polygamy in heaven, I’m not going” really hit home for me. I spent much time studying and researching the mainstream LDS doctrine (having been raised LDS). When it finally hit me what exactly was the true doctrine and what would really be practiced in heaven, I was shocked and dismayed. I did end up leaving the religion entirely and getting divorced. I now teach my children to think for themselves and make their own choices. They do get some LDS exposure living in Utah and from going to church with their father, but at least they have some balance and choice in their lives. I wish more children did!

    • Thank you, Gabrielle. It’s an interesting and traumatic journey away from the truths you learn as a child. But in the end, it opens up a whole new world. It’s wonderful for your children that they have you to nurture their minds and give them room to experience their own direction. I don’t have anything against any religion. I know religion and spiritual beliefs serve an important role in some people’s lives. It can be helpful to have faith in something larger than themselves, and to have a way of thinking about the unknowns. I just wish a child’s mind could be free to explore more than one idea (as your children’s minds are free) so they could choose what makes sense to them and not have to have guilt. I think human consciousness could evolve so much more quickly if we didn’t put so much energy into defending our religious and political turfs. It seems so limiting. Thanks again for taking the time to respond. Zoe

    • Actually, no, it is not LDS doctrine that polygamy is a requirement for exaltation. And, no, it is not LDS doctrine that polygamy will necessarily be practiced in heaven. D&C 132 makes plain that polygamy is an Abrahamic sacrifice, like unto the command by God to Abraham to slay Isaac. To practice it absent a command by God (which command to the LDS was rescinded in 1890) is one of the most grievous sins possible, up there with murder in its gravity. Because of this stance, the LDS Church refuses to baptize polygamists in countries where polygamy is absolutely legal, because polygamy is viewed as adultery. And since Mormons do not conceive of heaven as a place of perpetual Abrahamic sacrifice, it is quite unlikely you’ll find polygamy there. After all, Abraham isn’t sacrificing Isaac in the celestial kingdom.

      To sort this out, you have to disentangle Mormon doctrine from Mormon teachings. Teachings are not doctrine, and are not binding upon members of the Church. The Church has disavowed many, many teachings of former prophets. This is something that not only do non-Mormons not know about the Church, but many Mormons don’t know about the Church, either. Only Mormon doctrine is binding upon the membership, and it is not Mormon doctrine that there is polygamy in heaven. You can be a temple-recommend-carrying Mormon and not believe that there will be polygamy in heaven, and you’re just fine. I am just sorry that no one told Gabrielle that.

      • I always think it’s interesting when the LDS Church “disavows” teachings of former prophets. I mean, if the teachings came “through the prophet directly from God,” how can the teachings be wrong. From what I’ve heard from some folks who have grown up in the church and not all that recently, at some point the Church began to disavow (or at least bury the fact) that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. Z.

  6. Jorge Kafkazar says:

    No, I would not buy a used car from that man.

  7. MBettaBlues says:

    Dear Zoe,

    You’ve written the most enlightened essay I’ve read so far about the incredible story of the Warren Jeffs trial and the FLDS community. I’m a native Texan, now on the West Coast. I have personal experiences with many of the issues of this case: issues of faith, love, child rearing, allegiance to parents, God’s laws, laws of a nation, laws of a state, free will, freedom of religion, indoctrination, and early childhood education. These are complex, highly personal matters that have no easy solutions. All I can say is thank you for writing so honestly about your own life. It’s easy to condemn Warren Jeffs now that all the evidence is public. It’s much more difficult to think about our roles in our own families, how we influence our children for good or bad, and how we unknowingly affect the way they see the world and their own possibilities. There’s a lot to think about here and I thank you for leading the dialog to a deeper level.

    Best Wishes,
    Melissa

    • Melissa, I appreciate your reflection on the many issues raised by the Warren Jeffs Trial and my article. It is easy to rejoice in the fact that he has been sent to prison for life and that he will no longer be free to do his damage, but, as you say, there is so much more to consider. And now, there is the issue of what will happen with the FLDS now that Warren Jeffs is in prison – will there be a struggle for power? Will the people be told what he did and how the world viewed it? If they are told, how will they deal with that emotionally and cognitively? Will they be free to leave the FLDS, if they want to? Will they want to? Would they be better off, or worse off? Will the Warren Jeffs conviction open the road to more convictions, here and in Canada? (It looks like it.) Is that what we need? Oh, you can see I still have a lot of questions and I can see you do too. Thank you, Melissa.

      Zoe

  8. A breeding machine – 11 children! and she died young. OMiGod!!!

  9. While this sicko is in prison, and that’s good, there are plenty of other sicko males still in that compound and enslaving the women and children. What were the authorities thinking, sending these vulnerable and abused women and children back to that evil compound? Nothing has been solved, no one has received justice or help. The disgusting cult still won.

  10. Therese Duncan says:

    Thanks for the sanity. Patriarchy is not dead even outside the LDS and FLDS churches (obviously). What struck me is how poignant your mother’s love story is. I have read TORN BY GOD. Though heart-wrenching I couldn’t put it down.

  11. Tyler Nelson says:

    It is ludicrous that these self-serving middle-aged men actually have the gall to say when charged with having sex with 12 year old girls that ‘God made me do it.’ And allowed to prattle their fantasies about how these brainwashed young girls are their ‘spiritual brides.’ Doesn’t anyone have the presence of mind, much less conscience, to confront these old goats living behind high walls in Texas, Utah, Arizona and Canada with the fact they are sick pedophiles and not doing the Lords Work in bed each night? Why in the name of any so-called religion are they protected while those little girls are not?

    • Thanks Tyler, I guess in Texas they are going to try to do that to some degree, at least they say there will be further investigation and prosecutions. Also, there seems to be some talk about investigations in Canada, particularly with regard to shipping girls back and forth across the border for marriage. But I have concerns about what would happen if all those people who have been brain-washed since birth were suddenly dumped out into the world. I think there would have to be a lot of support, but then I don’t really think that is going to happen. I expect the FLDS will survive in one form or another. Right now (the word is) the people of the YFZ Ranch plan to build a 38 foot statue of Warren Jeffs. Amazing.
      Z.

  12. Jeffrey Lawson says:

    Zoe Murdock’s article gives the best description of the conflicting Mormon religions I’ve read. I felt enlightened by the clear description of the way children are indoctrinated from such an early age that it makes it difficult for most to see beyond that indoctrination even as adults.

    I have read Murdock’s excellent novel, “Torn by God,” and there, too, I gained important insights into the world of the LDS and FLDS. This article clarifies issues brought up in the novel, and deals with others that were not raised in the novel, including the fact that Murdock and Jeffs grew up in the same neighborhood. The compound where he was indoctrinated, and where he later participated in the indoctrination of others, was just up the road, and they both went to the same high school. It was a community split between the polygamous, FLDS, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the church Murdock’s family belonged to, the LDS, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The small town carried within its population a living example of the historical conflicts between the two branches of the church. A conflict that still exists today and is confusing to members of both branches, as well as the general public. Her novel, and this article, help to explain how she was able to overcome her indoctrination to become a free thinking person, and that journey relates to the conflict between the LDS and the FLDS.

    In the novel, the father, a religious man, gets the idea that he wants to leave the LDS church and become a polygamist. The reason is, he wants to talk to God and become a God in the next life, goals which are attainable if he practices the doctrine of the original church. Murdock reveals in this article that when her own father decided to move the family out to an isolated place in the desert to live by the old church doctrine, she and her eleven siblings were able to stop him from doing that. That they had the ability to do so struck me as fascinating given how both church branches were highly patriarchal. Men have powers and privileges women and children aren’t allowed to share in. That the children were able to stop their father from enslaving them into an abhorrent lifestyle must have had a strengthening affect on Murdock.

    In her novel, Murdock adds an ironic twist to how she learned to question doctrine. In spite of the awful pain the father causes the mother, by making her face the specter of living a polygamous life, it is evident that Murdock loved her own father. She admired his inquiring mind, and she obviously watched him closely, as he questioned the competing beliefs of the two religions. It was his questioning that gave her the idea she could do the same thing, and her questioning led her to the conclusion that the beliefs she’d been given were not absolute truths handed down from God, but man-made. She become a free thinker, by way of her father’s confusion, willing to look at many different ideas and decide such things for herself. From my point of view all that is very meaningful. It is her journey to freedom, her escape from the kind of indoctrination that exists in the FLDS church, as well as the LDS church, which makes this article and the novel fascinating and well worth reading. I really enjoyed this article.

    Jeffrey Lawson

  13. Excellent essay!

    Most people who have little to no contact with the realities of polygamy are easy prey for the reasonable-sounding argument that the law should not involve itself in relationships between “consenting adults.”

    While Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states, states like Utah deliberately follow a policy of ignoring it. They say they will actively investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and financial fraud, but their track record on that score is rather appalling. (reference: Prophet’s Prey by Sam Brower)

    The problem is that there is real reluctance to cast judgment on religiously-inspired relationship choices. It doesn’t feel right to us to intervene, even with the law on our side.

    Unfortunately, that allows groups like the FLDS to grow larger, stronger and more insulated from the larger society with it’s “intrusive” laws and moral standards.

    Is a young girl truly a “consenting adult” if she has been taught from birth that she has no alternative to accepting polygamy? In the case of the FLDS, she can’t even choose her husband. That choice is made for her and a refusal to accept it can (and often does) mean complete rejection by the only family she has ever known.

    Polygamy is not a good deal for women. It takes a lot of work to isolate and indoctrinate enough young girls to keep the older men supplied with brides.

    That makes it (literally) a breeding ground for abuse. It is wrong for the rest of us to close our eyes to the fact that young girls are being bred and raised for a polygamous future. Techniques to ensure compliance include teaching children that they have no right to say “no” to their religious leaders – even when it comes to the most personal of life choices like who they will marry and when. Isolation from the outside world which might corrupt them with notions about personal freedom, or even inform them of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, is essential to the success of such a system.

    The author’s mother was able to resist, even though the experience was painful, because she was not indoctrinated from birth that she had no other options. She was not facing banishment from her home and family if she resisted her Prophet’s “placement” of her in a polygamous marriage.

    It is time for the rest of us to wake up to the reality of the abusive nature of groups like the FLDS and refuse to be swayed by Made-for-TV images of well-groomed children in clean shirts and prairie dresses healthfully digging carrots in the yard. Polygamy is illegal for a reason. Many of those clean, obedient young boys will soon be cast out to reduce competition for brides – and their carrot-digging skills won’t take them very far in the outside world.

    Even polygamous women typically frame the benefits of their lifestyle as one of “getting help with the kids” or “learning to be less selfish”. In other words, polygamy offers some benefits in terms of mitigating a small part of the damage it causes. How about not having more kids that you can handle the first place? or living a life that challenges you to grow in other ways besides learning to accommodate too many people in one home?

    Then of course, there is the ugly truth that only a tiny percentage of the population can actually afford so many kids. It’s hard enough with two breadwinners per brood. It’s nearly impossible with one man responsible for 25+ kids, particularly when the mothers’ labor is needed to care for the children. Taxpayers pick up the slack to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for benefits to polygamous families.

    Yes there are plenty of people who make poor relationship choices outside of polygamous communities and there are children who suffer as a result – but there are no other communities that I am aware of that deliberately and systematically groom their children to accept the abuse that is built into the plan for their future.

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