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God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

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by Karen Stollznow

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God Bless America lifts the veil on strange and unusual religious beliefs and practices in the modern-day United States. Do Satanists really sacrifice babies? Do exorcisms involve swearing and spinning heads? Are the Amish allowed to drive cars and use computers? Taking a close look at snake handling, new age spirituality, Santeria spells, and satanic rituals,


God Bless America lifts the veil on strange and unusual religious beliefs and practices in the modern-day United States. Do Satanists really sacrifice babies? Do exorcisms involve swearing and spinning heads? Are the Amish allowed to drive cars and use computers? Taking a close look at snake handling, new age spirituality, Santeria spells, and satanic rituals, this book offers more than mere armchair research, taking you to an exorcism and a polygamist compound—and allowing you to sit among the beards and bonnets in a Mennonite church and to hear L. Ron Hubbard’s stories told as sermons during a Scientology service. From the Amish to Voodoo, the beliefs and practices explored in this book may be unorthodox—and often dangerous—but they are always fascinating. While some of them are dying out, and others are gaining popularity with a modern audience, all offer insight into the future of religion in the United States—and remind that fact is often stranger than fiction.

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God Bless America

Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

By Karen Stollznow

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Karen Stollznow, PhD
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939578-08-2


Modern-Day Prophets and Polygamists

Fundamentalist Mormons

* * *

"Two girls for every boy." — The Beach Boys

"Looking Beyond" is the name of the now-abandoned compound in Westcliffe. To explain the numerous bedrooms, the realtor said with a cringe, "This place was used, um ... a little bit differently than a normal house." She didn't divulge that this had been an FLDS compound. "You could use it as a hunting retreat!" she suggested.

Mainstream vs. Fundamentalist Mormons

When is a Mormon not a Mormon? When the Mormon is a Fundamentalist Mormon — that is, if the Mormons have any say in the matter. Fundamentalist Mormons are the extreme sects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Former LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley once went so far as to say, "There are actually no Mormon fundamentalists." In fact, there are dozens of breakaway groups who trace their lineage back to the religion founded by Joseph Smith and who call themselves the "true Mormons."

Even without the fundamentalists, the Mormons are controversial, with their sacred underwear, their baptisms for the dead, and their belief that they will all become Gods and Goddesses in the Celestial Kingdom. A Mormon marriage isn't merely "until death us do part." Couples are "sealed" so their union becomes an everlasting covenant known as an "eternal marriage." These sealings are even performed posthumously between a living person and a deceased spouse. In every other regard, their contemporary views about marriage are conservative. Mormons are staunchly against gay marriage, and believe that "the Lord's law of marriage is monogamy, or marriage between one man and one woman." They are also antipolygamy, although it wasn't always this way. At one time, polygamy was doctrine.

Mormon presidents are also believed to be prophets. In the early 1830s, LDS founder Joseph Smith received a revelation from an angel that he must "multiply and replenish the earth." He was to achieve this through plural marriage, just like Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac. If he didn't take on additional wives he would be killed. This was a timely message, because Smith fancied his fourteen-year-old serving girl, Fanny Alger. Now his infidelities could be legitimized as religious creed. However, it wasn't until 1843 that Smith had the guts to introduce polygamy as a doctrine of the Church. By this time he already had about thirty wives, some of whom were already married to other men.

Smith took the angel's advice and became a polygamist, but he was still killed. Actually, he was murdered by an angry mob in 1844, and partly because he was a polygamist. Brigham Young became the second President of the Church, and continued the practice. In 1853, he announced that polygamy was a requirement for eternal life, "The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy." Following this proclamation, polygamy was openly taught and practiced, although it was still controversial. Many early Mormons were unwilling to enter into plural marriages, but God had told them to do so, so they did. Well, about a quarter of them did.

Even God felt uncomfortable about polygamy. He told Smith and Young that polygamy was a condition of entry into the Celestial Kingdom. God even reaffirmed his decision in a revelation to third Mormon president John Taylor in 1866. He insisted that this was an "everlasting" law that He would never revoke. Despite this apparent conviction, God still couldn't make up His mind and began issuing conflicting revelations to different people. At this time, polygamy was a felony in the United States, and hundreds of polygamist Mormons were imprisoned, while others went underground. Fourth Mormon president Wilford Woodruff received the timely divine revelation that polygamy was illegal and immoral, and so he issued the "1890 Manifesto" to that effect. The Mormon God suddenly concurred with the United States Congress, and Utah was granted statehood.

However, sneaky God told Woodruff to continue allowing polygamy in secret. He also said this to the following presidents, Lorenzo Snow and then Joseph F. Smith. Finally, God stopped His game of polygamy ping-pong with the LDS presidents. God told Joseph F. Smith that He had decided, for once and for all, that the practice was no longer required to enter the Celestial Kingdom. In 1904, the second Smith declared the "Second Manifesto," in which the Church officially renounced polygamy (again) and stopped performing new polygamous marriages — well, at least some people did.

God continued to be two-faced and issued different directions to different people. He told some Mormons that the 1904 decision was His final decision, although he told other Mormons that His 1866 decision was the true decision. These latter people believed that the Church was bowing to political pressure, and that they should form breakaway churches. This led to the creation of numerous splinter groups that have a penchant for lengthy names, such as the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Kingdom of God, and the infamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These Mormon sects believe in upholding the customs of the early church — that is, they still practice polygamy.

These groups are not affiliated with mainstream Mormons, who prefer to call these people "Polygamists." However, Mormons just can't shake the polygamy stereotype. Today, polygamy is strictly prohibited by the mainstream Mormon Church. The practice is believed to be in violation of the laws of the land, and the Church. However, the fundamentalists still consider themselves as Mormons who practice plural marriage, not as a new church. They see the mainstream church as "out of order" on polygamy, and hope that it will come back to the fold someday. In the meantime, the mainline Mormons excommunicate those who practice polygamy, while some fundamentalist Mormons excommunicate those who don't.

The Chosen People

The LDS has about 14 million members worldwide. Various sources claim there are some 30,000–60,000 Fundamentalist Mormons, although they are far from global, existing only in parts of North America and Mexico. There is no central authority, as numerous splinter groups sprang up when they spilt from the mainstream church. Since that time, many sects have become defunct. Others are very small, such as the Righteous Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has only 100 members. Other sects thrive, such as the 10,000-strong Apostolic United Brethren, and the 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

Beyond polygamy, fundamentalist Mormons have many controversial customs. They practice segregation and live in closed communities in remote towns scattered from Canada to Mexico. The largest concentration is the FLDS who live in the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, that straddle the border of the two states. The FLDS has expanded across the continent, establishing compounds in Texas, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, and South Dakota. In order to purchase large parcels of land without arousing suspicion, they often fib to the realtor that they are buying property for a "hunting retreat."

They have a sizeable $110 million treasury called the United Effort Plan, which is funded by tithing. This adheres to another early Mormon doctrine called the United Order, which is meant to create a community coffer, although in reality the leaders control the money. Fundamentalist families live in large do-it-yourself houses, and multiple or interconnected homes or trailers, but they don't own the land on which they are built. All property is owned by the Church, and followers must remain in good standing to keep their homes. Those who are excommunicated are labeled as "Apostates" and are evicted from the property. In particular, Colorado City and Hildale are totalitarian towns whose administration and police departments are governed entirely by the Church.

The Church owns the schools too. In the more conservative groups, children are homeschooled, or taken out of school by the sixth grade so they can work in construction, farming, or around the home. Child labor is rampant, while these workers are paid little or nothing at all. Escapees from the FLDS reveal that their education is often inadequate, and history was rewritten in their textbooks. They are taught that the church president is also the President of the United States. Science is neglected, and students are told that the Moon landing never happened. There is an emphasis on religious studies, especially learning the proverbs of former president Warren Jeffs, such as the chilling, "When you disobey there must and always will be punishment."

Behind the privacy walls that separate them from the world, fundamentalists are further isolated as television, radio, and the Internet are often prohibited. A few groups are modernizing, such as Winston Blackmore's compound in Bountiful, British Columbia, where the kids attend public schools, carry cell phones, and wear jeans and baseball caps. Others have strict rules about clothing and members must dress for modesty. Girls and women wear long dresses, or long shirts and skirts, while boys and men wear long shirts and pants, which are perfect for those sweltering Arizona and Utah summers. In recent decades, the FLDS has enforced a conservative dress code. Woman and girls wear a uniform of pioneer-style prairie dresses, colored in Easter egg pastels. They are not allowed to wear the modern clothes that we "Gentiles" wear, and cosmetics, tattoos, and piercings are forbidden. Girls wear their hair in intricate braids, while the women wear an elaborate, old-fashioned pompadour style. Women are not allowed to cut their hair, in deference to the Bible passage where Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus with perfume, and wipes his feet with her long hair (John 12:3). Some fundamentalists believe that Jesus was a polygamist, who was married to Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Martha.

Each community has a kind of church government called the Priesthood, which dictates all of these rules. Members of the Priesthood receive revelations from God to guide their decisions. All adult male members of the community are ordained into the Priesthood. Women are not eligible for the Priesthood, nor are black people, who are considered "descendants of Ham" and afflicted by the "curse of Cain" (Genesis 4:11–16). As Warren Jeffs once said, "[Cain was] cursed with a black skin and he is the father of the Negro people. He has great power, can appear and disappear. He is used by the devil, as a mortal man, to do great evils." This fundamentalist policy also excludes black people from participating in ceremonies in temples, not that they want to participate anyway. This racist doctrine originated with the mainstream Mormons, who didn't rescind the policy until 1978.

Like the president of the mainline Mormon Church, fundamentalist leaders claim to be modern-day Prophets. The Prophet talks to God via visions and dreams and is known as the "key holder" or "God's mouthpiece." All Prophets claim to be the "true prophet," resulting in power struggles and the creation of new splinter groups. In some sects, the Prophet wields complete power over the community, and obedience is necessary for salvation. The Prophet is accountable to God only, so he isn't accountable to anyone.

Always the Bride, Never a Bridesmaid

Fundamentalist sects splintered from the mainline church to practice plural or "celestial" marriage, which is also known as "The Principle." However, not all members of these groups are polygamists. Followers of the Apostolic United Brethren aren't obligated to enter into plural marriages, although this is believed to be the only way to reach the Celestial Kingdom, the highest level of Heaven. Mormons believe that there are three degrees of glory in Heaven, as Jesus said, "In my Father's house there are many mansions" (John 14:2). Fundamentalists believe that in the Celestial Kingdom, the husband becomes a God, ruling his own planet that is populated by his wives, who become Goddesses, and his children. Those who don't practice plural marriage can only reach the Terrestrial Kingdom, the middle degree, where Jesus and God visit, although they don't live there. The Telestial Kingdom is a kind of hell for Mormons that is reserved for murderers, thieves, liars, and adulterers.

In the early days, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young took additional wives who were often already married. At least 11 of Smith's wives were already married to other men. Today, fundamentalist Mormons don't practice the general form of polygamy, where women marry multiple husbands, and men take multiple wives. They specifically practice polygyny, where one man marries multiple women. The opposite is polyandry, although a woman with multiple husbands is the much rarer form of polygamy (that is most commonly practiced in Tibet).

Contrary to popular belief, not all fundamentalist Mormon marriages are arranged. More permissive groups allow youths to date and marry for love. Early Mormon plural marriages were for love, or convenience, but most modern marriages are arranged, and the couple is expected to learn to love each other. Joseph Smith had a unique pick-up line for his prospective wives. His proposals were divine revelations. He told the women that he had received a message from God that they were to be married, and that marriage would ensure salvation for her and her family. Like an infomercial, the offer was only valid for the next 24 hours.

Since the 1940s, the FLDS has practiced a similar custom known as Placement Marriage. This is where God plays cupid. The Priesthood or the Prophet receives a revelation from God, who decides who marries whom. When a young man or woman is ready for marriage, they go to the Priesthood or Prophet and ask for a spouse. Men and woman are assigned to each other, but there is no prescreening for compatibility, or preferences for someone who likes piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. There is no blind date, as this is a blind marriage. There is no engagement period, as the couple is often married that very day. It is considered romantic to not know who one's future husband or wife will be until minutes before the ceremony.

This isn't the end of the job for the divine dating agency. Married men will soon be approached to marry another woman. This isn't for their sexual gratification, but for their spiritual gratification. Three wives is the magical number needed to enter the Celestial Kingdom. The average fundamentalist Mormon husband has three wives, but God certainly assigns a lot of wives to the Prophets. Many church leaders have veritable harems of women. It appears that Joseph Smith had between thirty and forty-eight wives, and possibly more, some of whom were even sealed to him after he died. Brigham Young had fifty-five wives who bore him fifty -seven children. Collecting wives wasn't a trend only of the early Church; Paul Kingston, leader of the Kingston clan, has about forty wives. Warren Jeffs has seventy-nine confirmed wives, although some insiders report he has up to 180 wives. A group photograph of his fifty youngest wives shows an absent Jeffs appearing in a portrait in the background, while there are so many girls they look like they're posing for a school yearbook.

Child Brides

Not all communities wait for the girls to be ready. Some fundamentalist groups force teenage girls, or younger, to marry men who are much older. Girls of the Kingston clan fear that if they're not married by the age of seventeen they are already considered to be "old maids." In the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith married eleven girls under twenty years of age, including fourteen-year-old Nancy Winchester. Brigham Young liked them young too, and he had thirteen wives aged twenty or under. What is considered marriageable age to fundamentalists is viewed as statutory rape by the rest of society. When he was fifty -four years of age, fundamentalist Mormon Tom Green was convicted of child rape for marrying and impregnating a thirteen -year-old. In his late eighties, former FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs is said to have married a woman who was seventy years younger than him. His son Warren Jeffs had twenty-four wives who were under the age of seventeen. There is such a demand for child brides that the FLDS has been suspected of trafficking young girls across the Canadian border into the United States for this sexual slavery, several of whom are thought to have been married to Jeffs.


Excerpted from God Bless America by Karen Stollznow. Copyright © 2013 Karen Stollznow, PhD. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology. She is a columnist, podcaster, and the author of Haunting America, Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, and Red, White and (True) Blue. Karen was a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley, and has spent many years writing about a diverse array of topics, including language, culture, religion, and anomalous claims. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Skeptical-DoDo More than 1 year ago
A very interesting book that I could not leave until I finished. Very informative and insightful as to the non mainstream religions and the dangerous ideas that religious belief have. Many I knew existed but I didn't know really what they taught or demanded from believer. If you are a student of religion, I would highly recommend this for your library.
ParaBaxter More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book with an astonishing amount of hard work and research behind it. The reviewer that complained about the book based on her affiliation to the JREF obviously didn't read the book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. I admit that I read it in a library but that doesn't diminish my opinion. I am familiar with Dr. Stollznow's work for the JREF and obviously the one star reviewer's comments below are biased. The book is a very fair and detailed look at these religions. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very fun and clever book! Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things for what they really are. I enjoyed this book immensely. 
belqis More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this trip through the wonderland of America's religious cults and fads, and I gobbled it up within 24 hours. I wish her book on haunted houses were available via Nook too. My only wish is for better citation. For example, she makes claims about marriage practices of the FLDS which I have never heard before and somewhat question, but the reader isn't told the source of the information. Also -- and alas, this is true of very many books these days -- she would benefit from a good editor for coherence and organization. Even a good proof-reader would help. As for the one star reviewer complaining about Stollznow's "snarky" tone, well, s/he has a point -- the humor of the material speaks for itself; no need to belabor it. On the other hand, the occasional "snarkiness" is well-balanced by Stollznow's compassion for the people she observes. All in all, a fun read for readers like me who love this kind of exploration and debunking.