After concealing itself from the public eye for decades by virtually taking over and occupying small towns on the Utah-Arizona border, the intensely secretive FLDS finally started coming under scrutiny in the mid-2000s due to widespread allegations of organized welfare fraud and sexual abuse of children. Following the 2007 conviction of FLDS "prophet" Warren Jeffs on charges of being an accomplice to rape, many of the cult's members relocated to live behind the walls of FLDS compounds in Colorado and Texas.
In Its Own Words
"He [Cain] was cursed with a black skin and he is the father of the Negro people. … He is used by the devil, as a mortal man, to do great evils. … If you, young people, were to marry a Negro, you could not be a priesthood person, even if you repented. You could not stay in this work."
— FLDS Priesthood History Class, 1995
"The people grew so evil, the men started to marry the men and the women married the women. This is the worst evil act you can do, next to murder. It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, then the Lord destroys them."
— Warren Jeffs sermon, 2001
"The woman, if she is not careful will be overbearing and always ask permission for what she wants. And ladies, build up your husbands by being submissive."
— Warren Jeffs sermon, 2005
In 1890, when the leaders of mainstream Mormonism abandoned the practice of polygamy in a deal with the federal government to gain statehood for Utah, one group of adherents refused to capitulate. The resulting splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) has continued the practice to this day, residing for most of the 20th century in or around the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border. The remote border location allowed the sect to thrive with relatively few intrusions, given the towns' distance from neighboring populations and the possibility of crossing the border to avoid raids by local or state law enforcement agencies in either jurisdiction.
Even when the government did attempt to interfere, the result was the strengthening rather than the dismantling of the sect. A 1953 raid ordered by then-Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle provoked media outrage over the separation of children from their families and left the governor's political career in shambles, while bolstering the resolve of the polygamists to resist a government they viewed as infringing on their right to freedom of religion.
Through the decades, the FLDS survived leadership disputes and the formation of splinter groups to reach the turn of the 21st century with a membership estimated at 10,000, mostly centered around the Hildale-Colorado City hub, with smaller groups dispersed as far away as Mexico and British Columbia, Canada. Current leader Warren Jeffs' father, Rulon Jeffs, ruled for more than 15 years after dissolving a council government system and establishing one-man rule. When he died in 2002, this power was passed on to his son, who succeeded him as prophet, taking on the responsibility of directly relaying the word of God to his followers.
The younger Jeffs ruled with an iron fist, outlawing such activities as swimming and watching television, and taking exclusive control over the practice of "spiritual marriage," the centerpiece of FLDS polygamy. It was Jeffs who assigned wives to husbands and determined when a wife should be "reassigned" following an alleged deviation by her husband from the path of righteousness. Former members also allege that Jeffs took it upon himself to reduce competition for wives by "excommunicating" younger male members who presented the greatest threat to wife-accumulation by their elders. The young men, who were typically thrown out of the cult with no money or other resources, became known as "The Lost Boys" and were featured repeatedly in critical news accounts.
Jeffs also presided over some of the more dubious financial activities of the sect. The FLDS has grown fat on the property of its members, many of whom sign over their wealth to their leader. Even more troubling are allegations that "spiritually married" FLDS women are encouraged to apply for federal benefits designed for single mothers.
While media attention has often focused on the sect's polygamy, less attention has been given to its racism and homophobia. FLDS members view the 1978 decision of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to allow all males regardless of race to hold the priesthood as the church's ultimate spiritual downfall, and recordings of Warren Jeffs' sermons have him proclaiming, "The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth."
Since 2005, the FLDS has been under intense scrutiny. That was the year the prophet went on the run after a warrant for his arrest was issued on charges of conspiracy to commit rape and sexual conduct with a minor. During that same period, eight other FLDS men were arrested on various charges and a judge decided to freeze $100 million of the group's assets. Jeffs managed to ascend to the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list before his capture in a routine traffic stop in late 2006. In 2007, Jeffs tried to hang himself in prison while awaiting trial. A year later, he was sentenced by a Utah judge to two consecutive terms of five years to life (meaning he will serve at least 10 years) for marrying a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
The FLDS appeared resilient in the face of increased government scrutiny, with the group leader's imprisonment being interpreted as a sort of martyrdom. While on the run, Jeffs managed to organize the transfer of several hundred of those families he deemed most faithful to him to a large compound outside of Eldorado, Texas, where dormitories and an enormous church-like structure were constructed. In 2008, the group purchased $2 million worth of property in five locations along the remote eastern flank of the rugged Sangre De Cristo Mountains about 175 miles southwest of Denver.
While it seemed that the 1,691-acre Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado would provide the seclusion the group desired, peace was not to be had. In April 2008, after what turned out to be a prank phone call from a woman claiming she had been raped, police raided the compound and took 460 children into protective custody. For several days, intense media attention was focused on the compound, with images of tearful women in long dresses and the characteristic FLDS "up-do" hairstyles dominating television reports. The cult fought back, hiring legal assistance and embarking on a publicity campaign aiming to portray themselves as the victims of excessive government power. After a ruling determining that the state had in fact overreached in taking the children from their parents, all those removed were returned. Nevertheless, the sect faces a protracted criminal investigation into charges that young girls have been routinely forced to "marry" and engage in sexual relations with men who are often their elders by several decades.
The fate of the FLDS remains unclear. There is some evidence that Warren Jeffs continues to lead the group from prison, but reports have surfaced of a memo in which he renounces his position as prophet. While it seems that, for the moment, state officials have escaped the kind of media outrage that destroyed Howard Pyle in 1953, it is entirely possible that the group will emerge from this current struggle strengthened and more insular than ever.