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Heaven or Hell
Every child believes he’s special. But when you are number ten of twenty, with three “ sister- mothers”–two of whom are full- blooded sisters–and a grandfather whom thousands of people believe speaks directly to God, it can be hard to figure out what “special” really means.
All told, I have roughly sixty- five aunts and uncles on my dad’s side and twenty- two on my mom’s–with probably thousands of cousins. In families as large as mine, even keeping track of your own siblings–let alone cousins and aunts and uncles–is difficult.
As a grandson of Rulon Jeffs and nephew of Warren Jeffs, it once seemed that I was destined for high honor in the FLDS. My family had what our church called “royal blood.” We were direct descendants of our prophet through my father’s line. My mother, too, is the child of a prophet, who split from our group in 1978 to lead his own polygamous sect.
When I was little, my family was favored, in the church’s elite. I was assured that there was a place for me in the highest realms of heaven and at least three wives for me right here on earth once I attained the Melchizedek priesthood. I was in a chosen family in a chosen people, visiting sacred land near end times. I would one day become a god, ruling over my own spinning world.
So why would I ever abandon such status and rank? In the world of the FLDS, things are not always what they seem. The shiny, smiling surfaces often hide a world of rot and pain. And even royal blood and being born male can’t protect you from sudden changes in its convoluted power structure.
Outsiders tend to think our form of polygamy must be a great deal for us men. You get sexual variety without guilt: in fact, you are commanded by God to have multiple partners and the women are expected to go along with it. Indeed, they are supposed to be happy about doing so and obediently serve you. This is the only way for all of you to get to the highest realms of heaven.
To many men, that sounds like heaven right there, without any need for the afterlife part. They focus on the sex–fantasizing about a harem of young, beautiful women, all at their beck and call. They don’t think about the responsibility–or the balancing act needed to keep all of those women happy, or even just to minimize their complaints. During the one full year I attended public school, the few guys who befriended me rather than ridiculing me were fascinated by it all.
But while it might seem good in theory, in practice, at least in my experience, it’s actually a recipe for misery for everyone involved. In the FLDS anyway, polygamy and its power structure continuously produce a constant, exhausting struggle for attention and resources.
In families as large as mine, it simply isn’t possible for all of the women and children to get their needs met. Just making sure the children are fed, clothed, and physically accounted for is an ongoing challenge. Simply keeping dozens of children physically safe is close to impossible.
I’d estimate that maybe one in five FLDS families has lost a child early in life, frequently from accidents that better supervision could have prevented. And that number doesn’t include deaths related to the genetic disorder that runs in our church–which handicaps and often kills children very early in life but which many members refuse to see as a result of marriages among closely related families.
For the father, even though he’s at the top of the heap in his own family, he must constantly disappoint, reject, ignore, and/or fail to satisfy at least some wives and kids. There’s only so much of his time and attention to go around, and supporting such a large family takes many hours, too. At home, if one person has your ear, someone else doesn’t. Yes to one wife is no to the others. And, if a man wants more wives, he will have to engage in his own highly competitive fight for status and influence with the higher- ups in the church.
Then there’s the math problem: half of all children born are boys, of course. For some men to have many wives, others are either going to have to leave, recruit new women into polygamy (a difficult task, unsurprisingly–and one rarely attempted by the FLDS), or go unmarried.
Consequently, being born a boy in the FLDS is not the privileged position it first seems to be. Unless you are willing to kowtow to the leaders and attempt perfect obedience with constantly changing demands and hierarchies, you are likely either to be expelled or to have a hard time getting even one wife, let alone the required three. Just on the numbers alone, you will need a lot of luck to avoid losing everything as you hit manhood. Being born into the right family like I was is a good start–however, it may not be enough.
Once people get over their titillation and harem fantasies, and think through these issues, they start wondering why anyone stays. “How can you believe such strange things?” they ask. “Why didn’t you leave years earlier?” “And how could those parents marry their teenage daughters off to old men, abandon their sons, or give up their wives and children at Warren’s command?”
The answer is tangled in family loyalties, family history, and a church that has become expert at using these bonds to move beliefs into brainwashing.
On my father’s side, I come from around six generations of polygamy. My mother’s history is similar. Our families have lived polygamy since Joseph Smith first introduced “the principle” of “celestial marriage” in 1843–and the same is true for most members. One reason we stay is that this is the only life we know. Another is that leaving involves giving up contact with basically every single family member and friend you have–sometimes, everyone you know, period.
And, too, there’s the fact that you have been kept ignorant of the way the rest of the world works: you have been indoctrinated nearly every single day of your life to believe that all other peoples are evil, wish to harm you, and are damned by God, unchosen.
It’s weird, but even if you truly don’t believe what they have told you, some part of you remains frightened that they may be right and that fear–and your fear of losing everyone you love–is at the heart of what traps people. Then there’s the weight of family history and tradition.
My great- grandfather, David W. Jeffs, was born in 1873 and baptized in the Mormon Church when polygamy was officially part of the religion. Founder Joseph Smith had begun practicing polygamy before he preached it. The identity of his second wife is disputed because the ceremony took place in secret, without even the knowledge of his first wife, who vigorously opposed the whole idea.
As Smith’s biographer Fawn Brodie wrote, Joseph Smith “believed in the good life . . . ‘Man is that he might have joy’ had been one of his first significant pronouncements in the Book of Mormon.”1 The prophet’s belief in the rightness of things that gave him joy meant that he couldn’t see having more than one wife as sinful. That just didn’t make sense to him. Of course, a prophet couldn’t have mistresses. And so, “celestial marriage” was born. It is not known how many wives Joseph Smith had–but the number is believed to be around fifty.
Joseph Smith’s revelation on plural wives was grounded in the Old Testament, and in our church it is sometimes called the Law of Sarah, who was Abraham’s first wife. The Jewish patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament were polygamous. While the rest of Christianity accepts the New Testament and rejects polygamy, fundamentalist Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon supersedes the New Testament in the way that the New Testament updates the Old.
Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation on polygamy was personally directed at his resistant first wife. He was tired of hiding his other wives from her and everyone else and wanted it all out in the open. He wrote that God told him, “I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith,” to “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph” and “cleave unto my servant Joseph and to none else . . . if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed.”2
Believing this to be a true revelation, Emma complied. Still, she didn’t hesitate to expel from her home the women she believed her husband was favoring–and, according to some, she once demanded her own “spiritual husbands” as fair play. Needless to say, a revelation making this practice into gospel was never received by Joseph Smith.
The rest of the doctrine on plural marriage is written this way: “If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery . . . and if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him.”3 Given Emma’s strenuous objections, clearly, Joseph Smith had a very flexible definition of consent. Unfortunately, that probably had a great influence on the fundamentalist church.
And oddly, despite the prohibition against marrying those who “have vowed to another man,” many of the first Mormon plural wives also had other husbands. Some had left their spouses to join the church and were essentially separated. But others were married first to other Mormon men, then to leaders like Joseph Smith who decided that they wanted those particular women for themselves. Being lower in the church hierarchy, many men accepted this–some even saw it as an honor.
Probably for public relations purposes, the marriages of church leaders to women with other husbands were originally presented as unions that were “for eternity,” but not “for time.” In other words, they weren’t supposed to involve sex here on earth. However, accounts of the time suggest that these marriages were consummated and indeed sometimes produced children. In the FLDS, when a polygamous marriage is entered into, it is “sealed” by the prophet both “for time” and “for eternity.”
My former church doesn’t just preach multiple wives, however; it also preaches multiple gods and multiple heavens. Understanding this is important to understanding what happened to my family and how the FLDS works.
Joseph Smith preached that “God himself was once as we are now,” and Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the LDS church, wrote, “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”4 That’s a very exciting idea for many people–and you can see why it might have helped the early church attract converts. But by the 1860s, this transformation from man to God began to require the practice of polygamy.
As Brigham Young proclaimed, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory . . . but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessing offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.”5
The idea that one should never reject a blessing is a cornerstone of the FLDS belief system–one that would also have a profound impact on my family and my life. As you’ll see, there were several “blessings” that we truly could have lived without. But my parents didn’t feel that they could reject them. Few people in the church felt they could challenge this doctrine. That would mean failing at another key objective in the church: being obedient.
The FLDS conception of heaven is complicated, too. In our religion, it’s not getting into heaven that counts–it’s getting into the right heaven. There are three realms. The highest and most “glorious” is the
“celestial,” which can be entered only by men who have had at least three wives in polygamy. Here, men become godlike and rule over their own planets. The reason that FLDS members have so many children, in fact, is to populate their personal planets.
In the celestial realm, plural wives become “queens,” who bear celestial children (yeah, women get a raw deal even in the highest realm of heaven in our religion). The middle realm is the “terrestrial”–this is somewhat like purgatory in Catholicism and is for people who never knew the teachings of Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, but it’s still supposed to be pretty glorious.
The lowest realm is the “telestial,” which is for people who refused to worship God. This is not hell, it’s just a kind of mediocre heaven. Hell is reserved for the worst of sinners who refuse to repent and continue to wallow in sin. They are called the Sons or Daughters of Perdition.
Not surprisingly, as word of Mormon views on polygamy and men becoming gods first became public, the Gentile world was shocked and outraged. At the time of Joseph Smith’s polygamy revelation, Mormons had already fled both Ohio and Missouri (in the case of Missouri, it was under threat of extermination by the governor).
It was non- Mormon fury over polygamy and over Joseph Smith’s growing political power that led to his assassination in 1844 in an Illinois jail and to the subsequent migration to Utah led by Brigham Young.
The main LDS church banned polygamy in 1890 to pave the way for Utah statehood, which was granted in 1896. The manifesto that prohibited plural marriage made clear that the ban was being imposed only because the practice was illegal and the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that laws against it were constitutional. But the LDS didn’t begin excommunicating polygamists until 1904.
I don’t know when my father’s family converted to Mormonism. But when the polygamy ban took effect, my great- grandfather David W. Jeffs had already married plural wives in the church and refused to give them up. He sided with the men who would become the first leaders of the FLDS. They believed that the Mormon leaders who accepted the end of polygamy were not the true holders of the keys to the holy priesthood preached by Smith. These keys are important because, in Mormon belief, only those who have been given them by a legitimate authority can truly be prophets. Without them, prophets have no authority and men cannot receive true revelations. Lines of patriarchal authority– through these keys and through blood–shape most aspects of life in the fundamentalist church.
My great- grandfather believed that these sacred keys had been passed to the FLDS leadership, during an event known as the “ eighthour meeting.” This occurred in 1886. At that time, John Taylor was the president and prophet of the whole LDS church. He was living underground, to avoid federal prosecution for polygamy.
Lorrin Woolley, who would become a prophet of the FLDS, guarded the door to the room where Taylor was staying the night before the meeting. He said that it had no door to the outside of the house and had covered windows. According to his account, “I was suddenly attracted to a light appearing under the door leading to President Taylor’s room and was at once startled to hear the voices of men talking there. I was bewildered because it was my duty to keep people out of that room and evidently someone had entered without my knowing it.”6
Woolley said that Taylor told him the next day that the voices he had heard had been those of “your Lord” and Joseph Smith, and that they had instructed him not to sign a manifesto banning polygamy. Woolley wrote that at the eight- hour meeting Taylor “placed his finger on the document, his person rising from the floor about a foot or 18 inches,” and said that he would sooner have his tongue or arm cut off than sign it.7
He then gave five men who were at the meeting (including Woolley) the right to perform polygamous marriages. He made them swear that they would ensure that “no year passed by without children being born in the principle of plural marriage.”8
The first two prophets of the FLDS church were among the five selected to carry out these marriages. But while great- grandfather David Jeffs sided with the fundamentalists, my grandfather Rulon, who was born in 1909, became opposed to polygamy as a young man. He was baptized into the LDS and became estranged from his fundamentalist father.
Tall and handsome in his youth, Rulon had mischievous brown eyes and chestnut brown hair, although his hairline started receding quite early. He trained as an accountant, and after a mission to England during the Great Depression, he took a job in Salt Lake City with the Utah State Tax Commission. Clearly seen as a man of promise by the LDS, my grandfather Rulon was permitted to marry Zola Brown, the daughter of one of the highest- ranking leaders of the church, known as an apostle.
After he had his first son, however, Rulon reconnected with his father. David soon convinced him that he should live polygamy. But Rulon ran into the same problems with his first wife that Joseph Smith had had. She did not want to share him. Although Rulon built their new home with basement accommodations for a second wife, unlike Emma Smith, Zola Jeffs utterly refused to submit.
When Rulon told her in July 1940 that a mountaintop revelation had shown him that God had designated a cute young shop clerk in Provo to be his second wife, Zola broke down. According to their divorce papers, she became “so worried and upset that she cried almost day and night, that her milk dried up so she was no longer able to nurse her baby.”9 She took the couple’s two small children and moved to California. Two weeks after a judge granted the divorce in 1941, Rulon was excommunicated by the LDS.
My grandfather, however, was not to be deterred. He didn’t even go to his own LDS church trial. He wrote, “For the first time I say, I would put God’s work before anything else in my life.”10 He joined a group led by John Y. Barlow, who was the FLDS* prophet from 1935 to 1949. In 1986, Grandfather Rulon would himself become the prophet.
And that put my family right at the center of an organization that was extremely loyal to its leaders. The church reflected and amplified both its leader’s good sides and his flaws. With a relaxed leadership, the
FLDS was mighty peculiar, but not particularly perverse. There was child abuse and domestic violence in some families, but there is no way of knowing whether abuse was more common in our church than anywhere else at the time. The problem was the FLDS’s growing isolation– and a change in leadership structure that would inevitably produce corruption.
Before my grandfather came to power, there had been a leadership council that ran the church. This council was more powerful than mostn religious hierarchies because–at least in Colorado City and Hildale, where two thirds of the FLDS lived at the time–most people’s houses were owned by the church, not by the people who lived in them. This occurred through a system that became known as the United Effort Plan (UEP). The communal arrangement was based on one used by the early Mormons.
The council provided at least some checks on the prophet’s control over the group. It ensured that he did not have absolute power over both theology and property. But part of what brought Grandfather to the prophet’s position was his opposition to that council–and his belief in what they called “one man rule.”
A dispute over this issue splintered the FLDS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My grandfather’s position swayed the majority, who stayed, with the belief that the prophet should have absolute power. Rulon would eventually have this power for himself. And this set the stage for his son Warren, who would use the idea that he was God’s special messenger to do unspeakable evil, without any voice of reason or earthly authority to stop him.
* The FLDS did not formally incorporate under that name until some time in the 1940s. Prior to that it had just been known as “The Work,” but I will use the term they are now known by throughout for clarity.
From the Hardcover edition.