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  1. Long reads
27 May 2008

Polygamy and the f-word

Mormon Tom Quinn reports on the story of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Sai

By Tom Quinn

Ever since the April 3 raid in which Texas authorities removed 464 children from a remote polygamist ranch, much of the world has watched with a bizarre mix of curiosity and horror as investigators shine an unwelcome light on the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

The case has captured the media’s attention for the last month, and is likely to remain in the headlines until Texas courts find a way to untangle the children’s convoluted family tree, which includes more than 168 women and 69 men, many of whom might be blood relatives as well as husband and wife.

To top it all off, a Texas court of appeals just ruled in favour of 41 of the polygamist mothers, asserting that the state did not have sufficient cause to take their children into custody.

Texas officials now face the daunting task of sorting through hundreds of FLDS offspring to determine which belong to the aforementioned 41, not to mention fending off the argument that the ruling also applies to the remaining mothers and children.

As novel as the whole mess might seem to the average person, there is one group that would just as soon pretend it never happened: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), more commonly known as the Mormons.

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Although members of both the LDS and the FLDS churches chafe when mentioned in the same sentence as the other, the mistake is not uncommon. To the general populace, the two religions are separated not by a chasm of differing beliefs and practices, but only by the letter ‘F’.

As a card-carrying Mormon, I’ve already had to answer all sorts of queries regarding the number of mothers I have or the age at which my younger sister had her first child, questions that refer not to the tenets of my faith but those of the FLDS Church. I used to get a kick out of playing along and watching as my friends’ eyes went wide when I answered 14 and 12, respectively, but after nearly two months it’s become a bit bothersome.

The truth is that the millions of average, run-of-the-mill Mormons have as much in common with the members of the now-infamous polygamous sect as Anglicans do with Catholics; they share a common origin but went their separate ways ages ago.

Both the LDS and the FLDS churches trace their origins to the 1830’s and claim Joseph Smith as their founder. They share a common history up until the Mormon Church officially banned polygamy in 1890 – partly to ensure Utah could become a full member of the United States. Some members, however, continued to practice polygamy in secret, setting the stage for the ex-communication of several of its leaders in 1914.

Since that first schism, various polygamist groups and individuals, all claiming to be the true followers of Joseph Smith, have set up camp in remote areas all over the western United States and Canada, popping up just often enough to irk the Mormon population. The FLDS Church as a distinct organization emerged in the early 1990’s, and under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, has between 2,000-3,000 members.

Although polygamy is illegal in the United States, the FLDS Church successfully avoided legal entanglements and unwelcome attention until recently, when Jeffs was convicted in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to have sex with her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is now jailed in Arizona, awaiting trial on similar charges in that state.

Those cases, combined with the current FLDS mess in Texas, have some ordinary Mormons feeling like they’re watching a younger brother make a drunken spectacle of himself at some very important dinner party.

My advice to fellow Mormons, however, is to sit back and enjoy the ride. As far as religious scandals go, the world has certainly seen a lot worse. Besides, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “if you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”

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