The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect
New book examines the religious sect that infringes on human rights
The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect

By Daphne Bramham

(Random House of Canada) $32.95

In 1843, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, had a revelation. Only men with multiple wives would reach the highest realm of heaven, Smith proclaimed before taking on additional "celestial" wives himself. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, also practised polygamy. But in 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints renounced the practice, which was, and remains, illegal in both the United States and Canada.

Still, dissidents persisted in believing that they must abide completely by all the commandments set down by Smith. The polygamous communities located in Bountiful, B.C., and the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are the creation of one such splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), and the topic of Daphne Bramham’s exhaustive research in The Secret Lives of Saints.

For the most part, FLDS polygamists have been treated with a "live and let live" attitude by their neighbours and by all levels of government in both countries. Bramham is determined to point out, however, that the FLDS developed from a religious sect into an economic and social construct that infringes on human rights. She illustrates this by detailing some of the FLDS’s more abhorrent practices, such as assigning marriages of girls as young as 14, imposing child labour and systematically expelling boys into the "outside" world, for which they are woefully ill-prepared.

Those who live near FLDS communities might find it commonplace to see a pregnant teenager in pioneer dress with a toddler in tow, but Bramham reports on what is not visible: the economic and hierarchical underpinnings, the fear and manipulation at the core of these communities where the "prophet" makes decisions and others are schooled to obey at all times.

It angers Bramham that governments in both countries have been unwilling to prosecute polygamists, though the 2006 arrest of FLDS president and prophet Warren Jeffs in Utah for being an accomplice to rape seems to signal a turning of the tide. Meanwhile, the fact that FLDS communities continue to receive government funding for schools and other projects informs her writing with a palpable contempt.

The facts in The Secret Lives of Saints are shocking and disturbing, a reminder that we may not have to look too far to find cases of gross human injustice.

Sheryl Spencer lives in Guelph, Ont., and attends Dublin Street United. She recently began a master’s of divinity program at Emmanuel College in Toronto.
Originally published Tuesday, September 2, 2008