Analyzing Religious Phenomena
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is a religious phenomena that was created right here in the United States of America. The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints strong belief in polygamy has found the organization under legal scrutiny from the time of its creation. The founders of this religion have fled, isolated and now insulated themselves in the South Western part of the United States. Federal, State and Local Governments are closely analyzing this religious sect as it posses the indicators to become a large-scale domestic issue. These indicators include a belief in an apocalyptic end, an all-powerful leader with a dedicated and devoted followership, and a drive to gain political control of an area. Government officials have respected the groups First Amendments rights, but have recently been forced to step in and prosecute members on criminal charges. This is a complete analysis of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.
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The First Amendment is perhaps the most significant concept in the foundation of the United States of America. Religious persecution drove the first settlers to journey across the Atlantic and find a place to freely practice the faiths that their countries perceived as a threat. It is a significant factor in personal freedom, and its (documentation) in the Bill of Rights is a clear indication of the duty of the government to protect the personal freedoms of its people. Yet the line blurs when those personal freedoms, and indeed the very safety of those citizens, are infringed upon and threatened by religious ideologies.
While a religious phenomenon that promotes and instigates violence is clear to be a threat, those that are more peaceful may not garner as much attention while they gather members. The Fundamentalist LDS Church is one such non-violent group that is both contained to a specific area and is relatively peaceful in its current execution, despite a tumultuous history.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an off-shoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), a Non-Trinitarian religion founded by Joseph Smith. Also known as the Mormon or LDS Church, it has over 6.5 million members. Fundamentalist Mormons are members of the LDS church who believe in the validity of selected fundamental aspects of Mormonism as taught and practiced in the 19th century, particularly during the administrations of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Their distinctive doctrines include plural marriage, plain and modest dress pushed to a cultural extreme, and the requirement to live on a vast amount of land that is owned by the Church under the “Law of Consecration,” which dictates that a member’s life and all his material possessions must belong to the church. These doctrines, among others, differentiate the FLDS from the LDS church.
The LDS church, which includes modern-day Mormons and the FLDS, claim that their foundation can be traced back to the Apostles of Jesus Christ. Their doctrine states that the centuries immediately following the deaths of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, plunged into an era of spiritual darkness. This time period, which stretches from around 60 ACE to 1865 ACE, is referred to by the LDS as the great Apostasy. According to doctrine, what the church refers to as “the power of the priesthood,” along with what they consider the truths of the gospel, were taken from the earth during this period. Their text declares that the LDS prophet Amos had foreseen this period of time and described it as: “a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). This also came with “God’s Promise” to restore the church and destroy the Apostasy. During the centuries of the Apostasy, many men, women, and Clergymen of various faiths sought the fullness of gospel truth and preached differing messages, but were unable to find it. Though their text never states this clearly, Mormons culturally tie the Catholic Church to the Apostasy as its primary Agent or the “enemy abroad.” As the nineteenth century dawned, Mormons contend that God’s promise was fulfilled, and the apostasy came to an end through the prophetic visions of Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was born in 1805, and at the young age of 15, he claims to have received his first Vision. Even as a young adult, he was troubled over the practices of individual religious sects and had a difficult time gravitating towards one or another. According to Mormon tradition, while he was searching for truths, he was visited by an angel named Moroni who spoke to him of an ancient Hebrew text that had been lost for over 1,500 years. Engraved on gold plates by a Native American historian during the 4th century, the holy text told the story of Israelite people who had lived in America in ancient times. Smith dictated an English translation of this text to his wife and other scribes over the next several years, and this became the Book of Mormon.
In 1830, after publishing the Book, Smith founded the Church of Christ, which later became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (History.com). Smith’s “Mission of the Church” contained three major elements: to proclaim the gospel, to perfect the saints, and to redeem the dead (Kimball, 1981). Smith and his followers grew rapidly out of Palmyra, NY, and Mormon communities were set up throughout Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. However, because of religious persecution (mostly due to unorthodox practices, such as polygamy), Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led an exodus of Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois along the western wagon trails in search of religious and political freedom.
In July 1847, the Mormon pioneers reached Utah’s Valley of the Great Salt Lake. When Young first viewed the valley, he declared, “This is the place!” and the pioneers settled there away from the religious persecutions of the East. In the years following, tens of thousands of Mormon migrants settled in the Salt Lake Valley (History.com). Since this settlement, the group branched out in their missionary efforts to pioneer a large, independent state called Deseret. Eventually, they established colonies from Canada to present-day Mexico. When Utah became part of the United States, a move which the Mormon church was actively opposed to, Young incorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a legal entity and governed his followers as a theocratic leader, serving in both political and religious positions. By 1857 tensions had escalated between Mormons and other Americans, mostly as a result of the church’s stance on polygamy and theocracy. The church previously had kept their practice of polygamy a secret until Young publicized it in 1852 (Embry, 1994).
The LDS Church’s relationship with the government was tumultuous and culminated in the Utah Mormon War, which lasted from 1857 to 1858. The result was a relatively peaceful invasion of Utah by the United States Army, which ended with Young stepping down from power and agreeing to let a non-Mormon territorial governor replace him (Ramos, 2006). Even with this change in power, the LDS Church still exercised significant political power in the Utah Territory as part of a shadow government.
Brigham Young was succeeded by other powerful leaders after his death in 1877, each who continued the practice of polygamy despite clear and extreme opposition from the United States Congress. Tensions with the U.S. government came to a peak in 1890 and the church officially abandoned the public practice of polygamy and stopped performing polygamous marriages in 1904.
It was this severance from their fundamental beliefs that spawned the schism between the FLDS and LDS Churches. Modern-day LDS followers actively distance themselves from the Fundamentalist group, which still practices polygamy. In fact, the modern-day church swiftly adopted a policy of excommunicating any member that continues to practice polygamy. Those participating in polygamy are considered in direct violation of the law of the Church as well as civil law (News Story 2006). Once polygamy was banned, the FLDS became a separate faith from the modern Mormon church (Msaydene 2013). From here, the FLDS Church developed independently of the broader Mormon church. Their headquarters were originally located in what was then known as Short Creek in Arizona, on the Southern border of Utah. However, the settlement eventually expanded into Utah, and its leaders incorporated their location as the twin municipalities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.
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Currently, the FLDS are taught to worship a man named Warren Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet. Warren Jeffs claims the divine right to control everyone and everything in the FLDS church. In reality, he holds the power to build and destroy the lives of each and every one of his followers within their community. Additionally, it is difficult for people to leave this community, and has often been exposed to oppressively contain women, children, and young men in the confines of both doctrine and location. Children and adults alike are taught to live to please God and, equally, their prophet. All who follow Jeffs’ teachings are considered to be Holier than all those who do not. According to Jeff’s teachings, his followers are born of pure blood and are above the rest of the LDS members. They are also taught that anything outside of the FLDS community is the work of Satan. Because of these large differences, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints is not accepted or condoned by the LDS church.
While personal freedom is clearly limited, there are many benefits to being a Fundamentalist in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS). The primary strength the FLDS claims to offer is Spiritual peace and enlightenment. This, their doctrine asserts, is first and foremost the primary strength of being an FLDS. There are many secular, humanistic, physical, and mental health benefits as well. Dietary restrictions on caffeine, as well as the FLDS strict rules on sex outside of marriage, tobacco, and alcohol have resulted in active FLDS less likely to suffer from certain types of cancers, heart disease, and overall poor health, than the average person (Enstrom, 1989). On top of health benefits, being a part of a polygamist family brings strength and a community within the family itself. The Sister-wives form a tight bond and they each help with the kids, cooking, cleaning, and have a unique relationship that others don’t understand.
Furthermore, most men don’t enter this lifestyle so they can have more sex; rather, they have a sincere sense of a higher purpose (Darger, 2017). The FLDS church as a whole is very peaceful and is committed to helping their fellow man and creating more good in the world. It is the basis of their faith and how they reach higher spiritual life both in this life and after death. For society, the FLDS are instruments of kindness, generosity, and help to their fellow man, whether they are FLDS or not. Other draws to the FLDS church include the newness appeal; it is a relatively modern religion and is North American Based as well, with roots in the LDS church. The FLDS faith has a modern living prophet, Warren Jeffs. These are all appealing aspects of the FLDS church. In addition to these highlights, there is also a community of values within the FLDS church and especially within their communities on the border of Southern Utah and Arizona.
Weaknesses, or damaging aspects of the FLDS community, primarily stem from their polygamist mindset. Because of this viewpoint, there are high instances of child brides, child abuse, and inbreeding, and the education of members is instituted and strictly monitored by the church.
A difficult aspect of dealing with extremist groups is the fine line between whether a group is harmless or harboring a deep-rooted insanity that might lead to acts of local or domestic violence and terror. In the case of the FLDS church, for example, Jeffs was convicted of accomplice to rape in 2007 for arranging a marriage involving a 14-year old girl. State authorities intervened and took more than 460 children from the FLDS’s secluded ranch in Eldorado, TX. The fate of the children was undetermined at press time, but the idea of the FLDS church might grow stronger as it fights what they consider ongoing harassment by outsiders is clearly a threat and an issue that must be examined with more scrutiny (Scherr, 2008).
Presently, our country is thrust in a fresh debate over individual religious freedom; protecting the First Amendment and our collective interest in protecting people’s civil rights. However, delving into the deeper questions of ‘When should the government leave people alone?’ And ‘When does the state have a public duty to intervene?’, The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This must be kept in the forefront when developing criteria in helping one identify if FLDS (or another extremist religious group) might be regarded as a possible threat to domestic security.
The First Criteria: The group’s continuation toward the apocalypse. A group that believes that history is about to come to an end (even if it is a peaceful end) have taken the first step away from consensus reality. The FLDS’ focus on polygamy is directly rooted in their own apocalyptic view of the future. Mainstream Mormons believe that polygamy exists in heaven and is God’s preferred way of organizing families. They also believe that 21st century America is neither the time nor the place to practice that principle on earth. The FLDS, however, teaches that because the end is so near, pious men can’t afford to be bound by the mainstream church’s sinful accommodations to man’s law. They need to please God now — and that starts with taking at least three wives each. This strong sense of apocalyptic urgency is why most of the church’s founders left mainstream Mormonism in the first place (Robinson, 2008). The obsession with the coming end has intensified in recent years within the FLDS church, as officials in Utah and Arizona have taken a wide range of official actions against the group while maintaining the rights of the First Amendment.
The Second Criteria: Political Influence. At-risk groups typically seek political power, despite their urge to retreat from society. This is often accomplished by corrupting or recruiting officials, or by putting their own members in positions of civil authority. The FLDS church has proven the most effective—and dangerous—in this area. The FLDS church’s headquarters has been on the Arizona/Utah border since the late 1940s. The cities are fully incorporated; with city councils, police forces, schools, an airstrip, and a hospital. However, the land in both towns is owned by a church trust that was, until recently, in the sole control of the prophet. The towns received state and federal funds that other small towns receive (Robinson, 2008). In 2005, the two cities received upward of $20 million per year in welfare and food stamps, health care, and education, and shared revenue grants, much of which ended up in church coffers (Egan, 2005). Until the states intervened a few years ago, every single council member, doctor, nurse, cop, and teacher was an FLDS member who swore his or her first loyalty to the church’s prophet (Egan, 2005). Essentially, this meant that both of the towns only knew the law of the Prophet. Even the police, judges, teachers, and doctors enforced the Prophet’s will and not the law of the people. All this occurred because the church maintained control over the entire political, fiscal, and civic infrastructure its followers lived under, and it used that control to deprive them of any recourse to their rights.
The FLDS has the basic ingredients needed to create the kind of authoritarian group that’s at high risk of developing into domestic terrorism and violence. They have the right kind of apocalyptic theology, all-powerful leaders, thoroughly intimidated and dependent followers, political and business infrastructure, and a contempt for the laws the rest of society lives by. However, they’re not quite at the tipping point. This is due to the fact they have contained themselves to their location and neither seek to expand into nor destroy the world outside of its membership. It seems their only wish is to be left to their own devices but were this to be threatened, its members have been trained in abiding religious laws that directly oppose the laws of the United States. In light of their religious rules, they have no qualms with breaking the law. It is important to note that the founders of Mormonism and early Mormons resorted to violence when they were threatened (Karakuer, 2003).
More recently, the local governments of Utah and Arizona especially have been working to disassemble the FLDS infrastructure. It is imperative to maintain the integrity of the First Amendment in these approaches; State authorities should create reforms in the areas of high FLDS concentration (mostly Utah/Arizona border) through police forces, courts, and schools. Without infringing on the First Amendment, a close eye should be kept on other new FLDS colonies rising within other areas of the United States. In addition to this, state and federal laws should be imposed and monitored within the communities to ensure the safety of its members.
- Darger, Vicki. (2017) A real sister wife speaks out: why I chose polygamy. Love Times Three. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-darger/real-sister-wife-chose-polygamy_b_991552.html
- Egan, Timothy. 2005. Polygamous Community Defies State Crackdown. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/25/us/polygamous-community-defies-state-crackdown.html
- Embry, Jessie L. (1994) Polygamy: The Book: Utah History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/p/POLYGAMY.shtml
- Epidemiol, Am J (1978) Cardiovascular mortality in Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah, 1969–1971. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/727204
- Karakuer, Jon (2003) Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books. p. 232. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
- Kimball, Spencer W. (1981) Three-fold mission of the Church. Retrieved from https://history.lds.org/event/three-fold-mission-of-church?lang=eng
- Mormon church established (2010) Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mormon-church-established
- Msaydene (2013) Truth in the eyes of an FLDS follower. Retrieved from https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/truth-in-the-eyes-of-an-flds-follower/
- News Story. (2006) Mormon Fundamentalists. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: News Room. Retrieved from https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/mormon-fundamentalists-
- Ramos, Donna G. (2006) Utah War: US Government versus Mormon Settlers. History Net. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/utah-war-us-government-versus-mormon-settlers.htm
- Robinson, Sara (2008) How Dangerous is the FLDS? Our Future.org. Retrieved from https://ourfuture.org/20080422/how-dangerous-is-the-flds
- Scherr, Sonia (2008) Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Prepares for Long Legal Battle After Children Seized from Compound. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2008/fundamentalist-church-jesus-christ-latter-day-saints-prepares-long-legal-battle-after
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