When Men Become Gods
SEX AND TERRORISM
THE BORDER CONNECTING UTAH AND ARIZONA, just below the canyons and mesas of Zion National Park and just above the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, is perfectly isolated and perfectly beautiful. Covered with red cliffs, wide-open vistas, endless fields of sage, and shafts of light shining down with an illuminating glow, this piece of the Southwest conjures up the desert landscape of the Old Testament or the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. It lends itself to the notion of mystical breakthroughs and heartfelt revelations, to nakedly worshipping the grandeur of God or embracing nightmarish visions of the Apocalypse. Black and blue clouds ride atop the cliffs, shifting and splitting during late-afternoon thunderstorms, rain and wind raging across the hillsides and leaving everything washed and altered. It is exactly the sort of place Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, might have imagined when first delving into the spiritual realm. From the start of his amazing journey toward faith, he lived in that space between what can be experienced and what can be proven to others. Ask three serious Mormon scholars about who Smith was or the nature of his mystical adventures, and you'll get three different answers. Nobody knows for sure where his ideas came from.
A conservative religion never had more unconventional origins. Official Mormon history tells us this: as a fourteen-year-old boy living in upstate New York in 1820, Smith saw two angels appear before him, one representing the Lord, the other Jesus Christ. The teenager was confused about what branch of faith to accept as his own, so he asked "the Personages who stood above me in the light which of all the sects was right. I was answered that Imust join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage [representing Jesus] who addressed me said that all creeds were an abomination in his sight."
It was an extreme statement, and when Smith came out of his vision and told people what had happened, he angered other Christian believers. While suffering a "most bitter persecution" from those around him, he refused to stop talking about his discoveries. Three years later another angel, named Moroni, came to him.
"His whole person was glorious beyond description," Smith recollected, "and his countenance truly like lightning."
Moroni told him about some hidden golden plates, covered with hieroglyphic-like writing, and about two stones wrapped in silver bows, which would help the young man decipher the foreign text. Moroni eventually led him to the buried plates, Smith translated them into English, and these evolved into the Book of Mormon. They revealed an astounding tale that refuted the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Bible itself: 2,600 years ago, the lost tribes of Israel were not the Jews of the Old Testament, but a different group that had left the Middle East, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on wooden boats, and resettled in what would become America. Centuries passed, and following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, Jesus appeared before the transplants and spoke to them of their special destiny. They'd reached the Promised Land of Scripture, where they'd create a new religion and restore Christianity to its earlier, purer form. This brand of faith would be driven by men like the spiritual giants of old, and they'd be called not mere believers or worshippers, but "Latter-day Saints." After Smith had finished translating the golden plates, he returned them to Moroni and they were never seen again, deepening the mystery of the teachings' origins.
Many have suggested that when founding Mormonism, Smith was exposed to several other world religions and even borrowed key elements from the Muslims. Both faiths embrace a belief in divine revelation, delivered straight from the mouth of God to one chosen man, known as the Prophet. For Mormons, these messages represented the only true view of Christianity, and anyone failing to embrace them was an "apostate" or "gentile." When it came to dealing with apostates, "blood atonement" might be necessary. Converting others to your beliefs was also important; every good Mormon should serve time as a missionary and grow the new religion. Both Islam andthe Latter-day Saints banned drinking alcohol and practiced polygamy. To be exalted in heaven, Mormon men needed at least three wives.
Smith initially had one intelligent, strong-willed spouse named Emma, and she and Joseph were partners in getting their religion off the ground. One day he told her that he'd received a divine revelation to the effect that a man needed to wed a handful of women, if not more, to achieve salvation. When he started practicing this "spiritual principal," Emma became enragedand she was hardly alone. As word of Smith's polygamy spread, he met resistance from other religious leaders and began moving his Mormon tribe west, all the way to Missouri, which he labeled "the new Zion." He chose Independence, Missouri, for the Promised Land and five thousand people followed him there. They were so unwelcome that the natives burned down their homes. Missouri issued an extermination order for the Mormonsthe first in American historyand Smith himself was tarred, feathered, and driven out of the Show Me State. This established a pattern, as both persecution and the Biblical theme of exodus became central to the new faith. So did going to jail for one's beliefs.
Smith then led his congregation into Illinois and resettled in the town of Nauvoo, where the locals were terrified of his efforts to baptize the dead and to marry more than one woman. Everything about polygamy ran counter to the nation's puritanical roots. The "perfect theocracy" Smith hoped to create in Nauvoo was seen by others as a perfect threat to the government and its belief in the separation of church and state. Smith ignored public opinion, and in the early 1840s the Mormon Prophet deepened the hostility toward him by deciding to run for President of the United States. When the town's newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor, wrote about his practice of polygamy, he was charged with treason and faced with arrest. He had a chance to escape Nauvoo and keep running from his tormentors, but this time he decided to stay put. He was incarcerated, and prison would be his undoing.
An enraged mobtwo hundred men with faces painted blackstormed the jail and murdered the Mormon founder in 1844, only fourteen years after he'd started the new church. But it had already gained traction, and a sense of victimization may have united the believers. They were bound together against a common enemy and for a common cause: their own survival and blood atonement for those who opposed them.
Another strong leader, Brigham Young, emerged as the next Prophet. He,too, lived out the "sacred principle" of polygamy, marrying as many as fifty women. Young felt that the Mormons should get farther away from the established order, so he pushed on, he and his followers marching across the Midwest in wintertime, on foot and in covered wagons, losing many along the way, until they reached the Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory. It was a massive trek toward freedom, but no sooner had they resettled than the U.S. government began trying to end the Mormons' sexual and marital practices. In the 1850s, President James Buchanan ordered one-fifth of the American military to invade the region and wipe out plural marriage. Force did not accomplish this goal but only left the faithful more determined to resist authority, driving polygamy underground.
At times, the struggle to survive and take control of their new land in the West overwhelmed the better instincts of the Mormons. In the summer of 1857, they learned of a group of emigrantsnearly 140 men, women, and children from Presbyterian and Methodist familiesmaking its way from Arkansas to California. The Fancher-Baker wagon train was following the Old Spanish Trail, wending through the southern Utah territory and coming into a valley known as Mountain Meadows, thirty-five miles north of modern St. George. On the morning of September 11, 1857what would much later be called "America's first September 11th" by MormonsJohn D. Lee led an assembled Mormon militia. He'd recruited a few men from the Paiute Nation, a Native American tribe based in the Southwest, while the Mormon warriors had dressed themselves up to look like Indians, so they could be blamed for what happened next. The militia attacked the traveling party with knives, rocks, hatchets, and "black powder weapons," killing 120 of the emigrants. Only seventeen children escaped with their lives. John D. Lee was eventually tried and executed for his role in the September 11 slaughter.
"It was," says western historian Will Bagley, the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, "the saddest, darkest, ugliest day in Utah history."
The strategy to blame the savagery on the Indians worked well for about a century, until a writer named Juanita Brooks began digging into the facts behind the Mormon propaganda, publishing The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950. The Paiutes' role in the tragedy wasn't entirely clear, but they were not the culprits in planning or carrying out the attack. Nor was John D. Lee the only Mormon villain, and in future decades some argued that Brigham Younghimself bore a share of the guilt. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was painfully slow to acknowledge all this, and 150 years would pass before it began to come to terms publicly with the butchery at Mountain Meadows.
By 1890, the Utah territory was eager to become an American state, but the federal government said nonot until the Mormons gave up plural marriage. The majority went along with this demand, but others saw it as a direct attack on their faith and their survival. In the 1800s, six out of ten babies born in the region did not see their first birthday, so there was a Biblical need for the pioneers to "be fruitful and multiply." Hadn't Joseph Smith himself married approximately thirty or forty women? Hadn't Brigham Young? These men would never have accepted this kind of compromise. The entry in Young's Journal of Discourses dated August 15, 1876, reads, "There are only two churches on the earth, only two parties. God leads the one, the devil the other ... Apostates are literally tools of the devil." For the true believers, the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City was about to join forces with the devil.
When the church officially denounced plural marriage in 1890 and Utah achieved statehood six years later, the hard-core polygamists felt betrayed. How could their leaders have changed their views, denying the core tenet that most distinguished Mormonism from all other Christian denominations? Why had the one true faith caved in to a secular authority?
In a sense, the LDS Church wanted to have it both ways. While publicly decrying plural marriage, it never removed its founder's divine revelation on polygamy or "Celestial Marriage" from the Book of Mormon. In 1831, according to the church's Doctrine and Covenants, God had addressed Joseph Smith on the issue of "having many wives and concubines":
Celestial Marriage and a continuation of the family unit enable men to become gods ... For behold, I reveal unto you a new and everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then ye are damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory ... And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
If Joseph's wife did not want to go along with this revelation, God had some words for her as well:
And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to no one else. But if she will not abide this commandment, she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.
If the Lord had told Joseph Smith that Celestial Marriage was the pathway to becoming a god, and if Brigham Young had lived out this principle, why should the faithful now behave any differently? Shouldn't Mormons be prepared to sacrifice for their religion, as their founder had done, even if that meant going to jail?
A small but committed minority of believers, who would eventually be known as the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, refused to knuckle under to Utah, the American government, or the LDS power structure in Salt Lake City. They'd been sold out by the "corporate church," which had fallen under the control of "apostates" and "gentiles." They would side with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young no matter the cost. The time had come to break off from the LDS and begin looking for a new homefar away from both the official church and the long arm of the police. In the 1920s, they struck out for the southern part of the state and put down roots in the tiny village of Short Creek, called "Short Crick" by the natives or just "The Crick," which straddled the border between Arizona and Utah.
Because Short Creek was located in two states, its legal jurisdiction was more complicated than in most towns and enforcing the law there was more difficultexactly what the locals wanted. They soon established their own city government and police department, both run by polygamists.
THE CRICK WAS HUNDREDS OF MILES from the region's major urban centers, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, and set in a distant corner of massive Mohave County, Arizona. The high-desert plateau that spreads out above the Grand Canyon, known as the Arizona Strip, was virtually empty and in coming decades would attract tax resisters, survivalists, drug dealers, sexual cowboys of every stripe, and other outlaws. The wide-open, rolling landscape, covered with red dirt, jackrabbits, and stray dingo dogs, had a woolly feeling, as if modern civilization was unwelcome here. You moved to the Strip to get away from the cops and the conventional judgments of more tame Americans. The West would eventually be dotted with pockets of revoltnudist hot springs, old-time bootleggers, wild-eyed men running meth labs, secret energy experimenters looking for the breakthrough that would replace fossil fuels, UFO enthusiasts, countless spiritual retreatsand the Strip was just one more. The Mormon Fundamentalists had found a home in the part of Utah called "Dixie," because Brigham Young had insisted the people of this region grow cotton for their clothing and as a cash crop.
The folks of Short Creek got busy multiplying. The men took as many wives as they could and at least one of their brides was supposed to have a baby every year; it wasn't uncommon for families to have fifty children. Money wasn't a big issue because the settlers were largely self-sufficient. They lived off their orchards and gardens, their canned fruits and vegetables. They milked cows or butchered them for beef, raised chickens for meat and eggs. A general store provided them with flour, sugar, and a few other staples. They ran a dairy and a bakeryturning out cheese products, breads,cakes, and pieswhile sewing their own clothes and trimming their own hair. Utah was called the "Beehive State" because Mormons were highly industrious and natural-born carpenters, building farms and houses everywhere.
The original population of around four hundred began to spread, pushing outward and upward and sideways, moving onto hillsides and across the flat patch of desert that lay in the great shadow of the Vermilion Cliffs. The locals dubbed this mesa overlooking the village "Canaan Mountain." Out on the Strip, under a vast sky and surrounded by the natural beauty of the Southwest, people could easily imagine that they were re-creating life from Biblical times and starting the human story over from scratch. Joseph Smith's original vision, watered down in Salt Lake City, began to flourish in The Crick. Inbreeding was common, and nearly half the locals were blood relatives of the town's two founding families, the Barlows and the Jessops (97 Jessops are listed in the current Colorado City phone book). The genetic consequences of marrying first and second cousins wouldn't be seen for decades.
In 1942, the FLDS established the United Effort Plan to manage church members' real estate and other financial assets, which by the end of the century amounted to well over $100 million. The original UEP Trustees were John Y. Barlow, Leroy Johnson, Joseph Musser, Marion Hammon, and Rulon Jeffs. All land and homes were placed under the control of the UEP, run by the Prophet and Trustees, making The Crick different from every other community in the United States. Despite its distance from Salt Lake City, the FLDS's financial and marital habits made the official church nervous. The LDS was after respectability, wanted to assimilate into American society as quickly as possible, and didn't need any trouble down in Dixie that might smear its own name.
In 1935, the LDS Church excommunicated twenty-one men from Short Creek after they refused to renounce polygamy. Three of themPrice Johnson, I. C. Spencer, and John Y. Barlowwere charged with unlawful cohabitation; Johnson and Spencer spent nearly a year in a Florence, Arizona, prison. A decade later, forty-six Utah adults, some from Short Creek, were charged with unlawful cohabitation; twenty-four went to state or federal prison, but ten were freed after signing an oath to give up polygamy. Yet plural marriage continued to spread in The Crick, as did itsscandalous reputation. One man was certain that he knew what to do about this.
As the Republican candidate for Arizona governor in 1950, Howard Pyle won an upset victory over his Democratic opponent, and he was eager to make his imprint on one part of the state. He'd heard the stories coming out of Short Creek about rampant polygamy, child brides, communal living, and tax fraudmaybe even socialism. The son of a Baptist minister and a deeply religious man himself, Pyle was offended by the plural marriage lifestyle, but also saw the situation on the border as an opportunity to advance his political career. For many years before becoming governor, he'd been a popular radio broadcaster, the vice president of the Arizona Broadcasting Company, and the best-known voice in the state. He believed he had a keen understanding of the power of the media and how to use it for political ends.
Like many others who viewed polygamy from a distance, the governor judged it in black-and-white terms: it was bad for all involved and should be stamped out. Pyle was untroubled by human complexities and by the freedoms promised religious minorities in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ..." Things needed to be cleaned up along the border, and a few simple actions would take care of the problem. Not only would this increase the governor's stature throughout Arizona, but future generations living in The Crick would thank him for it.
On Sunday, July 26, 1953, Pyle ordered a massive raid, police descending on the community during the darkness of a lunar eclipse. Locals had gotten wind of this and arose early to meet the police face-to-face at dawn in the streets of Short Creek. As Truman Barlow ran the American flag up a pole, townspeople gathered round him and sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty" and "God Bless America." They kept singing as the startled officers confronted them with pistols and machine guns, placing them under arrest. More true believers were headed to jail.
The police barged into homes, entered bedrooms, and shone lights into the eyes of families who were still asleep, dragging the men out at gunpoint. They didn't go quietly into custody.
"We have rights under the Constitution," Leroy Johnson told the invaders, "and this soil will drink our blood before we will run another step."
World War II and Korean veterans who now lived in The Crick protested the raid by showing their wounds to the officers, saying they'd gone abroad to fight for their country and religious freedom. Neither the soldiers nor the locals backed down.
"If there is a scrap of red-blooded manhood among you," Short Crick native Clyde Mackert told those who arrested him, "you will turn around and go back where you came from. We are living higher principles of Americanism than you know anything about."
As Arizona jailed the men and rounded up hundreds of women and children, headlines across Utah and Arizona announced that the "Nest of Polygamists" had been routed at last.
Governor Pyle proudly delivered this proclamation:
Arizona has mobilized and used its total police power to protect the lives and future of 263 children. They are the product and the victims of the foulest conspiracy you could possibly imagine. More than 120 peace officers moved into Short Creek, in Mohave County, at 4 o'clock this morning. They have arrested almost the entire population of a community dedicated to the production of white slaves who are without hope of escaping this degrading slavery from the moment of their birth ... In the evidence the State has accumulated there are multiple instances of statutory rape, adultery, bigamy, open and notorious cohabitation, contributing to the delinquency of minors, marrying the spouse of another ... along with various instances of income tax evasion, failure to comply with Arizona's corporation laws, misappropriation of school funds, improper use of school facilities and falsification of public records ...
THE STATE OF ARIZONA IS UNALTERABLY PLEDGED AND DETERMINED TO STOP THIS MONSTROUS AND EVIL GROWTH BEFORE IT BECOMES A CANCER OF A SORT THAT IS BEYOND HOPE OF HUMAN REPAIR ... THESE CHILDREN HAVE THE RIGHTS OF ALL NATIVE-BORN AMERICANSTHE RIGHTS THAT WERE WRITTEN INTO THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE ... THE RIGHT TO LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS ... WE COULD DO NO LESS THAN THIS.
The governor had made several miscalculationsbut one was huge. The press had known of the coming raid but held off reporting on it until it tookplace. Now the media repeatedly showed heartrending images of families torn apart by law enforcement, with FLDS men being hauled off to jail as their wives cried and reached out for the children they'd just been separated from. Photos from that time show the adults males of Short Creek being treated no differently from thieves or murderers. Confronted with these pictures, the public confounded the governor and began to feel sympathy for the people of Short Creek. What right did Arizona have to tell these folks how to live? They weren't harming anyone, so why not just leave them alone? Neither polygamy itself nor the problems surrounding it were as black and white as the governor had imagined (both then and now, some women much prefer plural marriage to conventional matrimony). There was more to life in The Crick than sexual license.
1953 became a pivotal year in the history of the FLDS, both in the way authorities would now look upon the border towns and in how fundamentalist Mormons would regard the outside world. Unexpectedly, Pyle lost his bid for reelection in 1954, and for the next half-century the government backed away from Short Creek. The message was clear: using force was counterproductive in rooting out religious sects, and such moves could destroy one's political ambitions. Further, though it was illegal to practice polygamy in Utah, nearly every politician in the state had ancestors or relatives who'd done precisely that. If anyone made too much fuss about reforming the FLDS, somebody was sure to point out that the critic's father or grandfather or great-grandfather had married a score of Mormon women and sired two or three dozen children. Why bother taking the political risk?
In Short Creek itself, the raid lived on and expanded in the memories of the community. The fundamentalist church had long viewed its members as a special group in the eyes of God, subject to a special kind of persecutionjust as Joseph Smith had been hounded and then murdered for refusing to buckle under to fear and convention. Governor Pyle's actions only deepened and solidified these feelings. Locals had earned the right to be afraid, even paranoid. From generation to generation, church members handed down horror stories about the raid and what they'd suffered, the event shaping and haunting FLDS parents and kids for decades. The message was clear: strangers could never be trusted, outside law enforcement was evil, apostates were lurking everywhere and deserved blood atonement for their sins. The invasion only drove polygamy, and some of its darker sexual offshoots, further underground.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as America underwent a cultural and political revolution, the women's movement declared emphatically that females were not the property of men and had the right to choose what to door not to dowith their own lives and bodies. All females, including teenage girls and young children, needed to be protected from violence, male aggression, and sexual abuse. Change was stirring across the nation and filtering out toward the hinterlands, reaching as far as Short Creek. FLDS views were in direct conflict with the ideas developing elsewhere, and the two forces couldn't be kept apart forever.
IN 1954, LEROY JOHNSON BECAME THE PROPHET and reigned for the next 32 years. Many church members saw "Uncle Roy" as a reasonable and decent ruler during his first couple of decades in powerat least, before he became closely allied with Rulon Jeffs, one of seven men on the Priesthood Council running the FLDS. The Prophet was the Council's senior leader, but all seven shared power, made decisions, performed marriages, and delivered sermons. They voted on important issues and served as a system of checks and balances to keep anyone from having too much control. One-man rule was always a danger to religious communities. In the 1970s, another Southwestern polygamist leader named Ervil LeBaron, head of the Church of the Lamb of God, put together a "Bible" for his flock and declared that anyone violating his commandments would experience blood atonement. In 1981, LeBaron died in prison after being convicted of ordering the murder of rival leader, Rulon Allred.
LeBaron had left behind a "hit list" of enemies and during the next few years, several people on it turned up dead. Four murders were carried out on one day, June 27, 1988, at approximately 4:00 P.M. in Houston and Irving, Texas, all the victims slain by shotgun blasts to the head. In 1992, federal prosecutors in Houston charged six people with conspiracy, racketeering, and murder in connection with LeBaron's final wishes.
A few years after Leroy Johnson was chosen Prophet, the part of Short Creek located on the Arizona side was officially renamed Colorado City, while the remainder that lay in Utah was called Hildale. The twin communities had long avoided giving anyone too much clout, but in the 1970s theFLDS foundation began to shift. The aging Johnson and the up-and-coming Rulon Jeffs had started pushing for one-man rule over the protests of others on the Priesthood Council. A civil war was building inside the church and would burst open the following decade.
Jeffs had been a successful accountant in San Francisco before relocating his family to Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside Salt Lake City, in the 1960s. He lived on a large spread with a colossal home featuring a restaurant style kitchen and a living room with a baptismal font and enough space to hold a couple hundred people for Sunday sermons. A public road ran in front of the house, but a massive concrete fence kept passersby from seeing into the compound. As it would be later on in the border towns, privacy was paramount for Jeffs. Behind the concrete fence were perfectly manicured trees and a groomed, spotless lawn. Green and white pillars stood in front of the mansion, creating the impression of a grand colonial estate, and those living here were expected to contribute to this flawless facade. Trash was immediately picked up, and if cracks appeared in the wall or one of the estate's roads, they were quickly repaired. When children went outside to play basketball, they weren't supposed to be loud, to quarrel among themselves, or to become disobedient toward adults. When it was time to go inside, they lined up in rows and walked in quietly, single file. The atmosphere was orchestrated to reflect harmony, order, and not just the possibility but the realization of human perfection.
On Sundays, families traveled from Colorado City and around the region to attend services at the Jeffs's home. Worshippers entered through sliding glass doors off the living room and were seated on chairs on the immaculate green carpet according to their importance in the church, the most elite near the front, the less so behind them, and the unruly teenagers at the back. Highly placed elders were always referred to by the children as "Aunt" or "Uncle." The Council of Seven occupied chairs at the head of the sanctuary, and two or three of the men gave sermons each Sunday. Next to them was a person translating the words into sign language, along with Norma Jeffs, one of Rulon's many wives, who played the piano. Songs came from LDS hymn-books and were often about the Mormons' difficult pioneer roots. When speakers took to the pulpit, fire and brimstone were unleashed, with references to the 1953 raid and the actions of the evil gentiles in the outside world of "Babylon." The Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and in a blaze offlames and glory, the Lord would reach down and destroy the LDS church in nearby Salt Lake City, kill the apostates who prayed there, wipe out governments from coast to coast, and put FLDS members back on their natural footing as the Chosen People of God.
One young worshipper attending services at the Jeffs's house in the 1970s and 1980s was Laura Chapman Mackert. Born in 1963 to a family with four mothers and thirty-one children, she grew up in Sandy, Utah, not far from Little Cottonwood Canyon, the shadow of the FLDS hovering over her and her ancestors. Her great-uncle, Rulon Allred, had been murdered by the LeBaron gang and her own father, Clyde Mackert, had been taken into custody in the 1953 raid. In the Jeffs's home on Sundays, she obediently listened to the sermons of the Priesthood Council, trying to follow and believe in what she heard, but the room was claustrophobic and the speeches often confusing. Everybody was told to be kind and loving and sweet, but when she tried to do that, trouble erupted. One day after attending kindergarten in a public school, she brought home an African American child. Instead of welcoming the girl to their home, Laura's mothers took their daughter aside and explained that if she ever did this again, her father could go to prison. When she asked why, they said that if any females in the church became involved with a black man, they'd be killed.
FLDS racial attitudes had been clearly laid out by Brigham Young, who'd said this about the "cursed" black race: "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] in him cannot hold the [Mormon] priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spoke it before, I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true and others know it."
What went on inside Laura's home was beyond confusing. When she was four, one of her stepbrothers tied her to a bedpost and tried to rape her. Three years later, her father began coming into the bedroom where she and her older sister, Rena, slept; quietly, he put his hand over her mouth, lifted her up, and carried her to another room. When she tried to fight him off, he backhanded her across the mouth. She learned not to resist, but to try to ignore what he was doing and stare up at the ceiling, telling herself that he could do this to her body, but he'd never have her soul. Her father came from a rigid German military background and she'd always been terrified of him, even before his nighttime visits to her bed. She couldn't say anything about what he didnot tohim or to her sisters, who were also being visited in the dark. She didn't dare speak to her mothers, because they'd beat heror worse. One of them, her own mother's sister, already liked to hit her with hangers and a yardstick.
As a teenager, Laura lay awake at night, unable to sleep, listening to the wind blow across her bedroom sill and stir the curtains back and forth, the soft sound she always remembered when thinking of her childhood. As she got older, she'd recall her father's smell, a combination of cheap cigarettes and Brut cologne, which evoked both terror and the coldness of his personality. In her thirties and forties, whenever she encountered this particular scent, it made her nauseous.
Church elders at the Jeffs's home constantly preached that women and girls were supposed to "keep sweet," no matter what happened, just "keep sweet for the Lord." Stay obedient and quiet and always be pleasant, regardless of what you are feeling or thinking. To reinforce this idea, Laura taped the words "Keep Sweet" to her bathroom mirror. The only way she could do this now, when seeing her father in the house or at the dinner table or passing by him in the hallway, was to convince herself that none of this had really happened, that she'd just dreamed it all up after falling asleep.
A photo of Laura at age thirteen shows a dark-haired girl with long, tightly wound ponytails, dressed up to her neck in nineteenth-century pioneer clothing. Her face isn't open or childlike, but fearful and mistrustful, her mouth curved downward and her eyes glancing away from the camera with timidity and pain. The numbness she'd felt when hearing her father step into her bedroom at night had been embedded in her features, covering up and deadening the anger just below the picture's surface. "Soul murder" was how she later described this feeling. Her greatest pleasure back then, sometimes her only pleasure, was to get out of the house and ride her horse, her hair blowing behind her as she rode faster and faster through the spacious countryside, free and in control of her life for a few moments, until she went home and waited with dread for the bedroom door to open again.
Laura was ashamed when she went to her non-FLDS public school, carrying cheap sandwiches, old brown bananas, or other pieces of fruit into the cafeteria in a soiled paper bag. She wished she could eat a hot meal for lunch like other kids who weren't in the FLDS, but her parents made her bring her own food, and it was so unappealing she couldn't trade it for something better. She wished she could dress like the other girls who didn't go to herchurch and were now imitating the big hair and flashy clothes of the latest TV star, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Instead, each morning she had to put on the "sacred long underwear" of her faith.
"The undergarment's fabric," Laura says, "was a lightweight white nylon that didn't allow much airflow, so it was hot but not too heavy. We sewed it ourselves and it covered the body from our collarbones down to our ankles. We wore thick support pantyhose over it or tights, and sometimes jeans on top of all this. In the summer, the temperatures reached 110 degrees where I grew up, but we still kept it on. I like to call the sacred underwear 'polygamy's burka.'"
One day in the school cafeteria, when a woman server asked Laura if she'd like a bowl of hot chili, the surprised girl gratefully accepted. The woman was a gentile, and Laura had always been told of their wickedness, but this one was kind and generousa fact that confused Laura.
She also didn't understand the conflict building inside her church and slipping out in the sermons. Leroy Johnson and Rulon Jeffs were supporting one-man rule now, but others on the Priesthood Council were strongly opposed. Johnson and Jeffs thought the Prophet should have all the power and be the only one to decide who could get married and who couldn't. Their attitude didn't sit well with some FLDS clans. The Jessops and the Hammons, for example, had ancestors who could be traced back to the pioneers who'd settled Utah, and they regarded their bloodlines as royal. Rumors were surfacing that several men on the Priesthood Council were thinking of breaking away and starting their own church and community.
There were other signs of conflict. If church leaders weren't supposed to touch alcohol, why did Uncle Rulon have a wine cellar in his home? Worshippers had seen him staggering around, losing his balance and talking too loudly, spit flying from the corners of his mouth. It was disturbing to observe a member of the Priesthood Council drunk. Yet one had to be careful about criticizing Jeffs. People whispered that he had spies everywhere, reporting back to him about who supported his desire to be the next Prophet and who did not. Everybody knew who his chief spy was. During church services, one young man usually stayed in the back of the main room and watched everyone else or walked up to the front and spoke softly in Rulon's ear. He was a head taller than most, with a lanky build, a long thin face, and a sanctimonious air that the congregation instantly picked up on. His name was Warren Jeffs, and hewas his father's favorite son and favorite watchdog. The two of them were locked in a relationship that nobody else could penetrate, as it had always been.
Following the 1953 raid, Short Creek residents had begun to scatter all over the western United States, many hiding out in California. In Sacramento on December 3, 1955, the first son of Rulon's fourth (and most favored) wife, Merilyn Steed, entered the world a couple of months prematurely. Rulon was called upon to help deliver tiny Warren Steed Jeffs, small enough to fit into a shoebox with room to spare. His father's childbirthing efforts and the infant's survival were seen as miracles. The experience created a special bond between Rulon and his son, leaving the youngster with his own sense of destiny. God had saved him for a purpose and, just like Joseph Smith, Warren had grand things to accomplish. He grew up hearing stories about the tribulations and murder of Smith, and about the ugliness of the 1953 raid, developing an absolute disdain for any authority but his father's and his own. He heard about Smith's revelation concerning the "one mighty and strong" who would be sent by the Lord to purify the community and "to set in order the House of God." Warren and his father were the only truly principled followers of the first Prophet. Everybody else was subject to corruption.
If Warren saw himself as ordained for greatness, few others did. As a child he was sickly, gawky, and frail-looking, his young life filled with physical and emotional challenges. It was difficult enough to get noticed inside a large family, but even more so if you were constantly criticized for your bad health. Boys rarely chose him for their games, and the girls likewise avoided him. He found himself drawn to artistic endeavors, singing or playing music or putting on plays, while most of his brothers were rougher around the edges. Warren's muscles didn't develop, but his mind did, and he became good at plotting strategy and ratting out his siblings if he felt they'd done something wrongor just to get even. He was fanatically jealous of his father's attention and always trying to get more of it. One time his snitching became so offensive that he was thrown out of Rulon's house, made to go away and think about his sins and repent, before confessing to his dad and being let back in. The banishment from home and separation from his mother made a permanent impression on the young man, who never forgot the shame of being singled out for punishment and humiliation.
From boyhood on, Warren was fascinated with power and eager to getsome for himself, which his mother didn't discourage. As a plural wife, Merilyn Steed Jeffs's own dreams were buried behind helping raise scores of children and countless domestic chores. Because Warren was her favorite child, she nurtured his ambitions instead of her own. As he got older, he loved reading about historical figures, like Napoleon and Hitler, and became obsessed with the lives of famous men. He was also developing an obsession with improving the human racejust as Joseph Smith had been hoping to do with his perfect community of Nauvoo, Illinois, inside his perfect theocracy. Jeffs himself didn't need to be perfect, but to surround himself with those who were. If he ever had his father's power, or the power of the Prophet, he'd find a way to improve everything and everyone around him.
As Warren grew taller and taller, he remained thin as ever, his neck so flimsy it hardly looked able to support his head. He was pale, wore glasses, and had a very prominent Adam's apple, which seemed to jump out of his throat when he talked. His eyes drew you in, then repelledand his face held a false sensitivity. Because his father had for decades been one of the Mormon elite, the young man felt that he, too, should be viewed and treated in this manner. Others didn't regard him as a prince about to inherit the throne but as a sickly, awkward-looking, mostly ineffectual young man. They didn't hesitate to poke fun at his appearance or his weakness. Only his mother saw him for what he actually wasborn royaltyand he was determined to prove her right. Maybe someday he could be the one mighty and strong.
AFTER GRADUATING IN THE TOP 3 percent of his class and with honors from Jordan High in Sandy, Warren briefly worked at his father's accounting business. When Rulon opened Alta Academy in 1973, a private school on his compound in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the seventeen-year-old Jeffs became a teacher of math, science, computer programming, and FLDS priesthood history. Warren had studied the life of Joseph Smith in depth: his visions and revelations, his direct pipeline to God, his sense of persecution for having plural wives, his resistance against the outside world, his need to keep moving the faithful, and his arrest and death in jail. The young man was absolutely certain that Smith had discovered and launched the one true faith, and he closely identified with the struggles of the Mormon founder. Starting in the first grade, kids at Alta Academy learned about Smith from Jeffs, along with the trials and glories of the other Prophets from Brigham Young to Leroy Johnson.
Each morning following a conference with his father, Warren walked over to Alta, held a meeting with the children, sang songs, offered up prayers, and asked them to give testimonials about being a real Mormon, as opposed to the apostates in Salt Lake City. He'd been given the chance to exercise power and would make the most of it, keeping the boys and girls segregated from one another at school and safe from the modern influences of the outside world. He insisted that they cover their bodies with long dresses or pants and long-sleeved shirts buttoned up to the collar. Their skin was never to be exposed to the sun, so it remained as white as possible.
Race was part of the educational process at Alta, where teachers tried touse textbooks without pictures of African Americans, Mexicans, or anyone with dark skin. If they couldn't find such books, they went through others and meticulously cut out the images of people of color so the children wouldn't have to look at these faces (the official LDS Church had refused to accept blacks as priests until 1978). Warren taught American history, but only up through the writing of the U.S. Constitution, dismissing the rest of the nation's past and denying many recent events, including man's landing on the moon just a few years earlier. The Constitution was a critical document for the FLDS, which practiced its beliefs under the protection of the First Amendment. As U.S. citizens, fundamentalist Mormons felt they had the unconditional right to live out the practices of their faith, regardless of the laws of Utah, Arizona, or the American government.
Warren wrote hymns about his faith and an ode to his father called "He Will Be Renewed." The younger man liked to sing his own material to audiences, but other kinds of music, especially those rooted in the African-American experience, disturbed and angered him. Rulon had once declared that the penalty for being homosexual or for an FLDS worshipper marrying an African American was "death on the spot." At the school, Warren shared his ideas on this subject with the students:
You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, or rude and filthy, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits; wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is usually bestowed upon mankind.
So I give you this lesson on the black race that you can understand its full effects, as far as we are able to comprehend. And that we must bewareif we are for the prophet, the priesthoodwe will come out of the world and leave off their dress, their music, their styles, their fashions; the way they think, what they do, because you can trace back and see a connection with immoral, filthy people.
It was necessary that the Devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God. So Ham's wife that was preserved on the Ark was a Negro of the seed of Cain and there was a priestly purpose in it, that the Devil would have a representation as well as God.
So the Negro race has continued, and today is the day of the Negro as far as the world is concerned. They have influenced the generations of time; they have mixed their blood with many peoples, until there are many peoples not able to hold the priesthood ... And the lesson is, if anyone mingles their seed, their bloodline, with the seed of Cain, the Negro, they also would lose all rights and priesthood blessings.
When Rulon later picked his son to become school principal, Warren was given a bigger platform for leadership. He began each day with a one-hour devotional filled with sermons, hymns, and the reading of scripturebut not the Pledge of Allegiance. At Alta, the authority of the federal government was nothing compared to God's authorityor Jeffs's ownand he constantly enforced his own brand of discipline. Sloppy handwriting or a casual remark led to verbal humiliation from the principal. If a boy's shirttail wasn't fully tucked in, he was lectured or whacked with a yardstick or belt-whipped. If a girl's skirt was too short or she smiled at a boy, she could be suspended. For his own amusement, Jeffs made kids stand in the classroom and flex the muscles of their buttocks in front of others. He liked to sneak up behind girls, grab their necks, and squeeze while asking, "Are you keeping sweet or do you need to be punished?" He shocked the children by grabbing a first- or second-grade boy by the ankles, flipping him upside-down, and saying, "I'm shaking the evil out of him!"
Students weren't allowed to wear red clothes (the color of the devil) or anything with stripes. Some days Jeffs let them eat lunch during the noon hour, but other days he switched the time, and occasionally they didn't get to eat at all. From moment to moment, he acted like their best friend or flew into a rage, keeping everyone and everything off-balance. He hated snowball-throwing or water fights, which could lead to expulsion. He took youngsters into a small room and interrogated them about their parentsgetting information to be used later on.
Mothers and fathers of Alta children assumed that someone, most likely Rulon, would eventually step in and tone Warren down, but that never happened. Rulon was a vengeful man himself, long ago embracing blood atonement toward his enemies, and the need for violence.
"I could refer you," he once said,
to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be) if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty ... The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.
This is loving our neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.
At the academy, Warren implemented his favorite motto: "Perfect obedience produces perfect faith, which produces perfect people." If children weren't perfect in his eyes, he simply got rid of them, expelling dozens of kids without regard for what would happen to them or their education. Yet he wasn't always fearsome and could be quite childlike, letting the students see a gentle and humorous side. Some of the children greatly respected and admired him; he was a strong leader and they were eager to follow his commands. He enjoyed sledding with them, playing softball, or telling jokes. He did slapstick imitations of Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis, which left the kids roaring. He put on plays at the school and delivered long speeches to his captive audience, giving his voice a lulling, hypnotic quality, repeatedly driving home his central point: perfect obedience leads to perfect faith, perfect lives, and perfect people.
Jeffs treated the academy as his personal laboratory for experimenting with various human emotions, but particularly fear. For years he'd read about the rise of Adolph Hitler and absorbed the story of Nazi Germany, paying close attention to the relationship between sex and power (the Nazis had designed one program in which SS officers were bred with carefully chosen blonde, blue-eyed women in order to produce the next generation of elite Germans). One of Warren's half-brothers was Ward Jeffs, and some family members believed the two siblings had grown up as rivals. Ward didn't blindly support his father in all things; he wasn't devoted to one-man rule for the FLDS and felt the church was better served by keeping its Priesthood Council and its system of checks and balances intact.
In 2004, decades after Jeffs had become Alta's principal, one of Ward's sons filed a civil lawsuit against Warren for his actions at the school. For years Brent Jeffs had kept quiet about his experience at the academy and his recurring nightmares as he'd gotten older, but the denial and silence gradually became intolerable.
"Don't hurt me!" he'd wake up screaming in the darkness as a young man. "Don't hurt me!"
In his suit, Brent alleged that when he was five years old, Warren and two of his brothers, Blaine and Leslie Jeffs, would slip away during church services, lead him out of a basement room where the children studied Sunday school lessons, and take him into a bathroom, where they sodomized him. According to Brent, the three adults told him that this ritual was God's willand the way for him to become a man. Two of Brent's brothers had also stepped forward to back up this claim. Before Brent could work up the courage to file the suit, one of the brothers supporting his confession, Clayne Jeffs, shot himself in the head. The suicide was a major motivation for Brent finally taking legal action.
UNLIKE WARREN, who was eight years older, Laura Chapman Mackert was forbidden from attending Jordan High School. Because she was female, her public education stopped at the fifth grade, and she also wasn't permitted to get a driver's license. On her sixteenth birthday, her father took her into Salt Lake City in his new Cadillac. As they headed to a fancy restaurant to celebrate the occasion, he commented on her developing figure and announced that it was time for her formal "Sexuality Lesson"the same one he'd given his other daughters when they'd reached this milestone. The Sexuality Lesson was his way of legitimizing the intimacy he'd already had with them; and his way of commanding them, with force and clarity, not to talk about any of this with their mothers. At sixteen, they were supposed to start thinking of themselves not as his children but as his wives, and what went on between them could never be discussed with the other women. Listening to him talk in the car, Laura wrapped her fingers around the door handle and squeezed, wanting to fling it open and leap out, but the Cadillac was traveling sixty-five miles an hour and she was frozen with fear. She often wanted to dieto make her breathing stop or her heart quit beatingbut the impulses passed and afterward all she felt was numb.
Two years later, in 1981, she and her father traveled down from their home near Salt Lake to Colorado City for the wedding of one of her sisters at Uncle Roy's house. Laura was eighteen and had fallen in love with a young man for the first time, but when his family advised him to marry someone else, he'd followed their orders. She was still trying to heal her crushed expectations.
After her sister's wedding ceremony, her father took Laura's hand and led her up to Uncle Roy.
"She's eighteen now," he said to the aging Prophet, implying that his daughter was quite old to be single. "She's ready to get married."
Laura's cheeks colored, shocked by his words, but the shock was about to turn to anger.
As she stood by, the men conferred. Then Uncle Roy told her that another young man attending the wedding, the pale-skinned Philip Barlow, who was a member of the Barlow clan, had just been chosen as her new husband. Since they were already doing one ceremony today, they might as well perform a second. Was she ready to go to the altar or did she need a few minutes to get prepared?
Laura stared at her father, a pleading look in her eyes, but she was afraid to speak up.
He told her to do what the Prophet had instructed.
All she could think about was the young man she loved, and that she had to come up with a planimmediatelyto keep from marrying Philip.
"I need to pray about this decision," she stammered to Uncle Roy. "I need to be alone and have time to pray."
He granted her request and she was led to a back bedroom, where she sat down by herself, trying to shove aside her growing sense of panic. Glancing at a window, she considered climbing out and running until she was away from all of them, but they'd catch her and bring her back and force her to wed the boy, whom she wasn't attracted to at all.
Her older sister, Carol, knocked on the door and stepped inside. She said Uncle Roy had just had a direct revelation from God that Laura's salvation depended on her marrying Philip this afternoon. If she didn't go through with the ceremony, she would be damned for eternity.
"I have to think about this," she told her sister. "I don't have to do it right now."
Carol rolled her eyes.
"A roomful of people are waiting for your answer," she said as she left.
Laura knew that she had to do something nobody in her family had ever done before or maybe even thought about doing: defy the Prophet and his revelation from the Lord, or at least stall Uncle Roy for a little while. The hell with salvationshe couldn't marry Philip Barlow.
As she sat on the bed, it didn't occur to her that she had legal rights in the state of Utah about deciding whom she married, and when, and under what circumstances. She didn't know that if a woman was forced into wedlock against her will, the man performing the ceremony could be subject to punishment under the law, including charges of being an accomplice to rape. She didn't even know that for years she'd already been a victim of various sex crimesafter all, so many of the young females around her had been treated the same way. She knew twenty girls in her position, just off the top of her head, maybe more. It was normal, so normal that no one ever thought of it as illegal.
When Laura got off the bed and rejoined the other guests at the wedding party, they crowded near her and once again encouraged her to get married this afternoon. Summoning all her courage, she asked Uncle Roy if she could have just a few more days to fast and pray about her decision.
The old man with bushy eyebrows and hands that were bent and gnarled by rheumatoid arthritis looked puzzled by her request. Young women didn't act like this, not the ones he was used to dealing with; there must have been something wrong with Laura. After considering her request, he said yes, she could have some time to think things over. With this reprieve, she and Philip left Uncle Roy's and went to his family's house, where he was eager to introduce Laura to her soon-to-be relatives. His father gave him $25 to entertain the woman he would marry, and they rode around town in a pickup. Philip kept putting his arm around Laura and trying to pull her closer, as she tried not to squirm or jump out of the truck.
She returned home to Sandy but still had to give Uncle Roy a final answer. When she met with him again a week later in Salt Lake City, she'd had time to devise a subtle strategy. Laura told the old man, who was in failing health and addicted to morphine, that God had revealed to her through her prayers that she should not become Philip's wife. With the same befuddled expression as before, the Prophet nodded and asked if she wanted to marry somebody else. She'd anticipated his question and had her answer ready. She mentioned George Barlow, another member of the local clan, whom she wasn't in love with but who was more appealing than Philip. Uncle Roy accepted this choice and a date was set. During the ceremony, Laura and George enacted the secret FLDS handshake, clasping palms and folding the middle finger down into the wrist of the marriage partner, sealing the wife toher husband forever. After both were dead, the husband, if he believed his wife worthy of the honor, would call to her from the grave by a special nameusually "Sarah"and she'd be resurrected and greet her spouse in the afterlife with the secret handshake.
At Laura and George's reception, Warren Jeffs played a starring role, crooning "The Wedding Song" by Peter, Paul, and Mary in the same soft, droning tenor voice he used when speaking to the children at Alta Academy. His first wife, Annette, accompanied him on the piano. After Warren finished performing, he sat quietly at the reception by himself while Annette got up and circulated among the guests. She was the sister of Laura's new husband, and the bride couldn't help noticing the changes in Annette since she'd become Warren's wife.
Before her marriage, Annette had been considered a prime catch inside the FLDS, the young woman whom all the young men wanted to take to the altar. Five feet two, with blond hair, blue eyes, an explosive smile, and a radiant personality, she was popular enough to buck some of the harsher fashion restrictions imposed on other female church members. She didn't wear long cotton dresses or elaborately woven braids that trailed down her back. Her clothes were more modern and her style much freeruntil she got married. Then she began looking more and more like the other women around her, acting much more subdued in public. Under other circumstances, people might have been surprised by her marriage to this homely young man, so stiff and reserved and self-righteous, but he was the favored son of a leader on the Priesthood Council, so he could have anyone he wanted for a wife. After marrying Annette, he married her sister, Barbara.
Mormons weren't supposed to drink, but many did in private and some even did publicly on certain occasions: at weddings or when men gathered for professional football games on autumn Sunday afternoons. Annette was usually more restrained, but at Laura and George's reception she drank too much wine and got tipsy, her pretty face flushed, her laughter returning. Her husband kept a constant eye on her. In church, at school, or around Rulon's compound, Warren made mental notes on who was having too much fun or becoming too rowdy, and this included his own wife.
WHEN MEN BECOME GODS. Copyright © 2008, 2009 by Stephen Singular. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.