- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

SPECIAL REPORT

SALT LAKE CITY Standing at his kitchen counter, wolfing down taco pizza during his lunch hour and cradling his infant daughter, Dr. Jeremy Thompson, 28, seems to have it all: a thriving medical practice, a comfortable home, a pretty wife, six healthy children and a minivan in the garage.
But he has something most young modern suburbanites don't have: a second pretty wife.
He may look like a typical modern husband, but in fact Dr. Thompson is a practicing polygamist. Born and raised as a fundamentalist Mormon, he believes he must take more than one wife in order to reach the highest level of exaltation in heaven.
In Utah, polygamy is outlawed both by statute and the state constitution. For the past 30 years, state authorities have followed a don't-ask, don't-tell policy toward polygamists, but recent charges of underage marriage and incest within some plural families have thrust what is arguably the most persecuted religious minority in American history back into the line of fire.
Alarmed by reports from an advocacy group called Tapestry Against Polygamy, the state attorney general hired a full-time investigator in October to probe the state's "closed societies." Last month, legislators debated a bill that would have, among other things, banned parents from promoting or teaching polygamy to their children.
"The legislature has become more hostile in the last two or three years because of the perception of abuse," said former state Rep. David Zolman, a rare public official who has come out in defense of polygamy.
In May, the debate over polygamy is expected to draw national attention when Tom Green, a Juab County man with five wives, becomes the first polygamist to face trial on bigamy charges in more than 50 years.
For generations, polygamists have reacted to state crackdowns by going underground, changing their names, swearing their children to secrecy. Those who failed to slink back far enough into the shadows could find themselves arrested, their homes lost, their children taken from them.
But not this time. Faced with a rising tide of angry public opinion, polygamists like the Thompsons are fighting back. Last month, Dr. Thompson's two wives his legal wife Melanie, 27, and his "spiritual" wife Mary Jane, 23 made Utah history when they appeared with a group of polygamists at the state capitol to testify against legislation that they said would make it impossible to practice their faith.
Much to nearly everyone's surprise, they won. Lawmakers removed the controversial language in the "child bride bill," a victory that has emboldened some of those in the polygamous community to speak out on behalf of their way of life as never before.
"People were totally shocked when these polygamous women came out," recalled Melanie Thompson. "We had a group of 11, and people said, 'Wow, I can't believe you have this many.' We said, 'Hey, this is nothing.' "

Growing in the shadows

Estimates of how many people now live in polygamy remain sketchy, but state authorities believe there are at least 30,000 in Utah and as many as 80,000 nationwide. Most of those are in the Rocky Mountain West, although polygamous clans have also been identified in Minnesota and Wisconsin, said Ron Barton, who was hired in October to lead the polygamy investigation for the Utah Attorney General's Office.
About half of those belong to a polygamous community or clan. The largest is in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, a remote town whose 10,000 residents are nearly all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the mayor and sheriff. Those unaffiliated with a group, who constitute the other half, are known as independents.
There is little census data on polygamists, but those living in such societies say their numbers are growing. They point to their high birthrates: Women having six or more children are commonplace in polygamy. In one extreme case, Paul Kingston, the leader of the Kingston clan here, is said to have 34 wives and more than 200 children.
Fundamentalist Mormons do almost no recruiting indeed, in many cases they discourage converts from joining what they consider a difficult way of life. Even so, their ranks have benefited from defections by mainstream Mormons, who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Owen Allred, the 87-year-old leader of the so-called Allred clan, the state's second-largest polygamous community, says he sees about five converts from mainstream Mormonism every month. He attributes the growth of his church, the Apostolic United Brethren, to its strict adherence to the original teachings of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.
On a recent Sunday morning the church auditorium, which doubles as a basketball court, was filled to capacity with 500 parishioners. Several hundred more crowded into the basement to watch the service on a remote link, despite the fact that it went on for two hours.
"All our priesthood authority comes from Joseph Smith. We don't teach anything different from what he taught," said Mr. Allred, who has eight living wives. "We haven't changed, but [the Mormons] have."

Hiding from the law

Mr. Smith taught that living in polygamy, or celestial marriage, was required not for salvation but for heaven's highest blessings. Many of his followers, including his immediate successor, Brigham Young, continued to live in polygamy after Mr. Smith was killed and his followers fled from Illinois to Utah in 1846.
Plural marriage was commonly practiced in Utah until the federal government made statehood contingent upon the abolition of polygamy. The church's president, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto outlawing the practice in 1890. Six years later, Utah joined the union.
Mainstream Mormons hold that Mr. Woodruff issued the anti-polygamy manifesto not in an effort to curry favor with the federal government, but as the direct result of a revelation from God. "A key tenet of our faith is the belief in continuing revelation," said church spokesman Michael Purdy.
But some Mormons never gave up polygamy, even when threatened with excommunication by the main church. Shunned by mainstream Mormons and subjected to periodic raids and arrests, many polygamists eventually relocated to remote regions of Utah, forming their own churches and societies as they continued to practice their faith.
That wasn't always enough to keep them out of the law's reach. In 1953, Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, disturbed that a polygamist community had drifted over the state line into Arizona, ordered the arrest of all married men in the border town of Short Creek on charges of bigamy, adultery and rape.
The Arizona National Guard bused 56 women and 153 children to Phoenix, where they planned to place them in Mormon homes so they could live "a proper and normal life." Instead, the public became outraged by newspaper photographs showing children being pried from their fathers' hands.
Given the difficulties of proving polygamy where no marriage licenses existed, the raid resulted in no arrests. Two years later, the episode was judged a massive failure and the families were returned to their former homes. Mr. Pyle ultimately paid for the Short Creek raid with his political career when he was defeated in the next election.
That history of persecution has done little to unite the polygamous clans. Many are perpetually quarreling over differences in their doctrines. Mr. Allred's older brother, Rulon, was killed 24 years ago during a feud with the LeBaron clan.
Still, the old-fashioned 19th-century religion holds a surprisingly strong lure for the young. Most of those attending church on a recent Sunday are under 40, and many are teen-agers.
Melanie Thompson says she had just graduated from high school when she met a polygamist family while working as a nanny.
"I was trying to convert them you know, 'If you go to my church, I'll go to your church,' " she said. "But instead I had a revelation. I started to read more about what they were saying."
Convinced that fundamentalism was the true faith, she broke with Mormonism and began attending the Allred church. Her family was devastated by the news, although they have since made amends.
"It was pretty hard at first. But now everyone's fine. I have sisters who aren't active in the church anymore, so I'm not the only one who's different," she said.

Abuses within polygamy

Vicky Prunty has a similar story, but without the happy ending. Born and raised within the mainstream Mormon faith, she was attending Brigham Young University when she made the decision to convert to fundamentalism. For years she dedicated herself to living as a plural wife, but after two disastrous marriages, she has since become one of polygamy's most visible critics.
In 1998, Mrs. Prunty and a handful of other former plural wives founded Tapestry of Polygamy, which has since evolved into Tapestry Against Polygamy. The group maintains that polygamy is a form of domestic violence and synonymous with abuse. Tapestry also holds that polygamy often leads to other abuses, notably the clandestine marriage of underage girls and incest.
A few months after they organized, a sensational case catapulted their cause into the spotlight. A 16-year-old girl from the Kingston clan told authorities she was beaten by her father, Daniel Kingston, after she ran away from a polygamous marriage to her uncle.
Tapestry leaders were soon being quoted and interviewed throughout the state, accusing the clans of regularly forcing teen-age girls into marriage and drumming up public sentiment against polygamy. Their charges helped fuel the state Legislature's decision last year to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 and hire a full-time investigator.
Tapestry was also a prime mover behind the child-bride bill, which was signed into law by Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt last week. In its final form the law stiffens penalties for parents or others who coerce girls under the age of 18 into marriage.
Daniel Kingston was ultimately convicted of felony child abuse in the girl's beating, but Tapestry members say his case is just the tip of the iceberg. They cite examples of other women forced to wed cousins or uncles and clans that regularly marry off teen-age girls to men old enough to be their grandfathers.
State Sen. Ron Allen, author of the child-bride bill, said the problem is rife in polygamous communities. He says he has turned over a list of 108 girls married off to older men to state and local law enforcement.
"This policy of ignoring it for the past 100 years is not going to solve it," the Democratic lawmaker told the Deseret News. "It is not solving the problem of these poor children who need our help."
The most notorious example is in Colorado City, where 92-year-old clan patriarch Rulon Jeffs is estimated to have at least 60 wives, some as young as 18 or 19. Because Mr. Jeffs suffers from Parkinson's disease, the clan is being run by his son Warren.
LuAnn Fischer, a Colorado City clan member who was excommunicated in September, said Warren Jeffs began assigning dozens of young wives to his father about 10 years ago as a way of preventing them from marrying other men. When his father dies, the younger Mr. Jeffs can then marry them off in exchange for leverage, money or favors.
"The best-looking, smartest girls marry Rulon," said Mrs. Fischer, who is writing a book about her life in the clan. "Warren is going to barter them off when Rulon dies."
It comes as a relief to learn that the elderly Jeffs isn't consummating these marriages. "They call [his home] 'the nunnery,' " she said.
Supporters of plural marriage insist that Rulon Jeffs is the rare exception. About two-thirds of polygamous men have just two wives, while almost 90 percent have two or three. Fewer than 5 percent have more than five, said Marianne Watson, a plural wife who co-authored "Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage" with Mary Batchelor and Anne Wilde.
The Colorado City group is known for other unusual behavior. Unlike most clans, whose members blend in easily with the rest of society, Colorado City members wear old-fashioned, Amishlike clothing that sets them apart.
About a year ago, the clan pulled all of its 800-some children out of public schools and began educating them in church-run schools or home schools in order to avoid contact with nonbelievers. Sports are forbidden due to their religious opposition to competition of any kind.
There is no official state investigation into the charges of abuse in Colorado City and Hildale, but the Attorney General's Office is aware of them, said Mr. Barton.
"We're concerned about what's going on there and would like to devote some time to it," said Mr. Barton.
Tapestry leaders contend that incest is also rampant within polygamy. After generations of living in closed societies, many of the followers are related, making it difficult to marry someone who doesn't share a bloodline.
Sometimes the incest goes a step further. Leaders of Tapestry say they have spoken to women who say they are being married to their fathers. One woman has said she and her sisters were raped for years by her father. Another claims that as a 12-year-old she was passed around among church leaders for sex.
Plural wives concur with some of the claims, but other charges leave them sputtering in disbelief. They question the memories and motives of some ex-polygamous women, suggesting they have an ax to grind.
They accuse Tapestry of weaving increasingly outrageous tales of abuse in order to keep public opinion on their side and encourage grant giving. They note that Tapestry members rely on controversial techniques such as hypnotherapy to tease out repressed memories of former polygamous women.
"These repressed memories may not have actually existed," said Mrs. Watson, whose family has practiced polygamy since the 1840s. "You really have to highly question their methods."
Leaving polygamy is difficult, according to Tapestry, because plural wives fear they will lose their children and their financial support. Indeed, in some communities, those who walk away often lose their homes because they are owned by the clan or church.

Cut from a different cloth

Those who try to paint all polygamists with the same broad brush can expect an earful from Mr. Allred. His group opposes arranged marriages, incestuous unions, the marriage of young girls and even polygamy when the man involved cannot properly support more than one wife. He recently urged the church's young people to delay marriage until the man is at least 22 years old and the woman 20.
Mr. Allred, whose eight wives all qualify for senior-citizen discounts, also believes in "free agency," in which church members may decide for themselves whether they want to practice polygamy. Of his own 23 adult children, about half are living "in the principle." The others have chosen monogamy, which is fine with him. "[Polygamy is] not for everybody," he said.
As for the women of Tapestry, he is surprisingly sympathetic. "I know them. They were treated wrongly when they tried to live in plural marriage," said Mr. Allred. He pauses, then adds wryly: "But no one in monogamy was ever treated wrong."
Whatever the actual extent of the abuse, Mr. Zolman, the former state representative, suggests the best cure is the purifying glare of sunlight.
"What if a whiff of democracy and the openness of our society got into there? By opening that society, we'd be able to expose the rotten ones and put them where they belong," said Mr. Zolman. "You don't do that by taking a club to them and hitting them on the head every time they stick their necks out."

Love, polygamy style

Dr. Thompson would be the first to attest that the life of a polygamist husband is not the erotic fantasy it's cracked up to be. Balancing the emotional needs of two wives and dealing with their inherent jealousies and insecurities is more taxing than most men realize, he said.
"It's not an easy way of life. It's hell unless you have the conviction that what you're doing is right," said Dr. Thompson. "You can't overcome the fear and jealousy that come with this unless you rely on the Lord. I think most men would crack under the pressure."
There are men who enter polygamy solely in order to have sex with more than one woman, but church members say they don't last long. "Men who have tried it ultimately lose their families," said Melanie Thompson. "Where that's happened, the wives stay here and the man is kicked out."
In a day and age when sex outside of marriage and cohabitation are often seen as socially acceptable, she said, men no longer need the cover of polygamy to lure multiple partners. "It's a lot more trouble than people think," said Melanie Thompson. "If [sex] is what you're looking for, there are easier ways to do it."
For some women, living in polygamy allows them to make their relationship with God and their family the center of their lives. "It's not about our individual relationship with our husband it's about our working together as a family," said Mary Jane Thompson.
A polygamous courtship follows certain rules. Within the Allred group, a suitor must first ask permission from a woman's father and Mr. Allred before he can ask the woman for a date. That's how it worked with Jeremy and Melanie Thompson, who became engaged about six weeks after their first date.
A wedding portrait in one of their home's two master bedrooms shows the couple posed in front of the Salt Lake Temple. As fundamentalist Mormons, they were forbidden from entering the temple, but they still wanted to pay a visit. "We still consider ourselves Mormons, even if the church doesn't," said Melanie.
Four years later, it was Melanie who urged Jeremy to seek another wife. "I'd always be elbowing him at church, saying, 'What about her?' But he is related to a lot of people here so there were a lot of people he couldn't marry," she said.
Eventually they met Mary Jane, who had recently moved to Utah from the church's sister community in Pinesdale, Mont. The three had lunch together a few times and Jeremy took Mary Jane out on a couple of dates. Three weeks later, he and Mary Jane were engaged to be united in a marriage recognized by their church but not by the law.
Like most young polygamists, the Thompsons still share a house, but they're busy building a new home that will give the wives their own separate apartments. At a whopping 10,000 square feet, the house will also include two more apartments, just in case.

The future of polygamy

Certainly public opinion continues to run against plural marriage. In November, fundamentalist Mormons lost their best friend in the Legislature, Mr. Zolman, when he narrowly lost his re-election bid, a defeat he attributes to his defense of the constitutional rights of polygamists.
Tapestry's Rowenna Erickson wants to see the state enforce its anti-polygamy statute. Ideally, she'd like to see plural wives removed from their polygamous marriages and "deprogrammed" of their beliefs.
"There's a criminal motive underneath it all. It's power and control," said Mrs. Erickson. "I struggled to come out of it. It's a cult."
But given the difficulties of proving polygamous relationships, not to mention the First Amendment issues involved, that's unlikely to happen. Indeed, in a day and age when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner can announce that he's living with eight Playmates, the lines between the lifestyles of polygamists and the rest of American society are becoming increasingly blurred.
Tapestry may have delivered polygamy a setback, but Mr. Zolman predicts that it will be temporary. As polygamists continue to move tentatively out of the shadows, he says the day will come when their way of life gains greater acceptance in Utah society.
"I think the toothpaste is out of the tube," he said, "and it will never go back to where it was."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide