Two Many Wives - fight against polygamy
Advocacy groups and legislators are cracking down on polygamy in Utah, but fundamentalist Mormons are fighting back, coming out of the closet to assert their religious beliefs.

Standing at his kitchen counter, wolfing down taco pizza during his lunch hour and cradling his infant daughter, Jeremy Thompson seems to have it all: The 28-year-old doctor has six healthy children, a thriving medical practice, a comfortable home and a minivan in the garage. But he has something most modern suburbanites don't have: two wives.

He may look like a typical husband, but Thompson is a practicing polygamist. Born and raised as a fundamentalist Mormon, he believes he must take more than one wife to reach the highest level of exaltation in heaven.

In Utah, polygamy is outlawed both by statute and the state constitution. For the last 30 years, authorities have followed a don't-ask, don't-tell policy toward polygamists, but recent charges of underage marriage and incest within some plural families have thrust what arguably is the most persecuted religious minority in American history back into the line of fire.

Alarmed by reports from an advocacy group called Tapestry Against Polygamy, the state attorney general hired a full-time investigator in October to probe the state's "closed societies." In May, the local debate is expected to draw national attention when a man with five wives becomes the first to face bigamy charges in more than 50 years.

"The Legislature has become more hostile in the last two or three years because of the perception of abuse," says former state Rep. David Zolman, a rare public official who has come out in defense of polygamy. Last month, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt signed into law the "child-bride" bill, which stiffens penalties for parents or others who coerce girls younger than age 18 into marriage.

For generations, polygamists have reacted to state crackdowns by going underground, changing their names and swearing their children to secrecy. Those who failed to slink back far enough into the shadows sometimes found themselves arrested, their homes lost, their children taken from them.

But not this time. Faced with a rising tide of angry public opinion, polygamists such as Thompson are fighting back. Thompson's two wives -- his legal wife Melanie, age 27, and his "spiritual" wife Mary Jane, age 23 -- made Utah history when they appeared with a group of polygamists at the state capitol to testify against the legislation they claim will make it impossible to practice their faith.

Much to everyone's surprise, they won. Legislators removed controversial language from the child-bride bill, a victory that has emboldened some of those in the polygamous community to speak out on behalf of their way of life as never before. "People were totally shocked When these polygamous women came out," recalls Melanie Thompson. "We had a group of 11, and people said, `Wow, I can't believe you have this many.' We said, 'Hey, this is nothing.'"

Estimates of how many people live in polygamy remain sketchy, but state authorities believe there are at least 30,000 in Utah and as many as 80,000 nationwide. Most of those are in the Rocky Mountain West, although polygamous clans also have been identified in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Ron Barton, who led the investigation for the Utah Attorney General's Office. The largest polygamous community is in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, a remote spot whose 10,000 residents are nearly all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the mayor and sheriff.

There is little census data on polygamists, but those living in such societies say their numbers are growing: Women with six or more children are commonplace in polygamous marriages. In one extreme case, Paul Kingston, the leader of the Kingston clan in Salt Lake City, is said to have 34 wives and more than 200 children.

Fundamentalist Mormons do almost no recruiting -- indeed, in many cases they discourage converts from joining what they consider a difficult way of life. Even so, their ranks have benefited from defections by mainstream Mormons. Owen Allred, the 87-year-old leader of the so-called Allred clan, the state's second-largest polygamous community, sees about five converts from mainstream Mormonism every month. He attributes the growth of his church, the Apostolic United Brethren, to its strict adherence to the original teachings of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

Smith taught that living in polygamy, or celestial marriage, was required for heaven's highest blessings (although not for salvation). Many of his followers, including his immediate successor, Brigham Young, continued to live in polygamy after Smith was killed, and they fled from Illinois to Utah in 1846. Plural marriage was commonly practiced in Utah until the federal government made statehood contingent upon the abolition of polygamy. The church's president, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto outlawing the practice in 1890, six years before Utah joined the union.

Mainstream Mormons hold that Woodruff issued the antipolygamy manifesto as the direct result of a revelation from God, not in an effort to curry favor with the federal government. "A key tenet of our faith is the belief in continuing revelation," says church spokesman Michael Purdy. But some Mormons never gave up polygamy, even when threatened with excommunication by the main church. Shunned and subjected to periodic raids and arrests, many relocated to remote regions of Utah, forming their own churches and societies as they continued to practice their faith.

That wasn't always enough to keep them out of the law's reach. In 1953, Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, disturbed that a polygamist community had drifted over the state line into Arizona, ordered the arrest of all married men in the border town of Short Creek on charges of bigamy, adultery and rape. The Arizona National Guard bused 56 women and 153 children to Phoenix, where they planned to place them in Mormon homes so they could live "a proper and normal life."

Given the difficulties of proving polygamy where no marriage licenses existed, the raid resulted in no arrests. Instead, the public became outraged by newspaper photographs showing children being pried from their fathers' arms. Two years later, the episode was judged a massive failure, and the families were returned to their former homes. Pyle paid for the Short Creek raid with his political career when he was defeated in the next election.

That history of persecution has done little to unite polygamous clans. Many perpetually are quarreling over differences in their doctrines. Allred's older brother, Rulon, was killed 24 years ago during a feud with the LeBaron clan. Still, the old-fashioned 19th-century religion holds a surprisingly strong lure for the young. Most of those attending church on a recent Sunday were younger than age 40, and many were teen-agers.

Melanie Thompson had just graduated from high school when she met a polygamist family while working as a nanny. "I was trying to convert them -- you know, 'If you go to my church, I'll go to your church,'" she recalls. "But, instead, I had a revelation. I started to read more about what they were saying."

Convinced that fundamentalism was the true faith, she broke with Mormonism and began attending the Allred church. Her family was devastated by the news, although they have since made amends. "It was pretty hard at first," she admits. "But now everyone's fine. I have sisters who aren't active in the church anymore, so I'm not the only one who's different."

Vicky Prunty has a similar story, but without the happy ending. Born and raised within the mainstream Mormon faith, she was attending Brigham Young University when she converted to fundamentalism. For years, she dedicated herself to living as a plural wife but, after two disastrous marriages, she since has become one of polygamy's most visible critics. In 1998, she and a handful of Other former wives founded Tapestry of Polygamy, which since has evolved into Tapestry Against Polygamy. The group maintains that polygamy is a form of domestic violence that often leads to other abuses, notably incest and the clandestine marriage of underage girls.

A few months after organizing, a sensational case catapulted the group's cause into the spotlight. A 16-year-old girl from the Kingston clan told authorities she was beaten by her father, Daniel Kingston, after running away from a polygamous marriage to her uncle. Tapestry leaders were interviewed and quoted throughout the state, accusing the clans of regularly forcing teen-age girls into marriage and drumming up public sentiment against polygamy. Their charges helped fuel the state Legislature's decision last year to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 and to hire a full-time investigator. The group also lobbied heavily for the child-bride bill.

Tapestry members say the Kingston case -- Daniel ultimately was convicted of felony child abuse -- is just the tip of the iceberg. They cite examples of other women forced to wed cousins or uncles and clans that regularly marry off teen-age girls to men old enough to be their grandfathers. According to state Sen. Ron Allen, author of the child-bride bill, the problem is rife in polygamous communities -- he has turned over a list of 108 girls married off to older men to state and local law enforcement. "This policy of ignoring it for the past 100 years is not going to solve it," the Democratic lawmaker told the Deseret News. "It is not solving the problem of these poor children who need our help."

Tapestry leaders contend that incest also is rampant within polygamy. After generations of living in closed societies, many of the followers are related, making it difficult to marry someone who doesn't share a bloodline. Sometimes, the incest goes a step further. Leaders of Tapestry say women are being married to their fathers. One woman claims she and her sisters were raped for years by her father. Another asserts that as a 12-year-old, she was passed around among church leaders for sex.

Plural wives concur with some of the claims, but other charges leave them sputtering in disbelief. They question the memories and motives of some former wives, suggesting they have an ax to grind. They accuse Tapestry members of weaving increasingly outrageous tales of abuse to keep public opinion on its side and to encourage grant giving. They note that Tapestry members rely on controversial techniques such as hypnotherapy to tease out repressed memories. "These repressed memories may not have actually existed," says Marianne Watson, whose family has practiced polygamy since the 1840s. "You really have to highly question their methods."

The most notorious example of polygamy may be the Colorado City clan, where 92-year-old clan patriarch Rulon Jeffs is estimated to have at least 60 wives, some as young as 18 or 19 years old. Because Jeffs suffers from Parkinson's disease, the clan is run by his son Warren.

LuAnn Fischer, a Colorado City clan member excommunicated in September, says Warren Jeffs began assigning dozens of young wives to his father about 10 years ago as a way of preventing them from marrying other men. When his father dies, the younger Jeffs can then marry them off in exchange for leverage, money or favors. "The best-looking, smartest girls marry Rulon," says Fischer, who is writing a book about her life in the clan. "Warren is going to barter them off when Rulon dies." The elderly Jeffs isn't consummating these marriages, however. "They call his home 'the nunnery,'" says Fischer.

Supporters of plural marriage insist that Rulon Jeffs is the rare exception. About two-thirds of polygamous men have just two wives, while almost 90 percent have three or less. Less than 5 percent have more than five, says Watson, a plural wife who coauthored Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage with Mary Batchelor and Anne Wilde.

Those who try to paint all polygamists with the same broad brush can expect an earful from Allred, however. His group opposes arranged marriages, incestuous unions, the marriage of young girls and even polygamy when the man involved cannot properly support more than one wife. He recently urged the church's young people to delay marriage until the man is at least age 22 and the woman age 20.

Allred, whose eight wives all qualify for senior-citizen discounts, also believes in "free agency," in which church members may decide for themselves whether they want to practice polygamy. Of his own 23 adult children, about half are living "in the principle." The others have chosen monogamy, which is fine with him. As for the women of Tapestry, he surprisingly is sympathetic. "I know them," he says. "They were treated wrongly when they tried to live in plural marriage." He pauses, then adds wryly: "But no one in monogamy was ever treated wrong."

Thompson would be the first to attest that the life of a polygamist husband is not the erotic fantasy it's cracked up to be. Balancing the emotional needs of two wives and dealing with their inherent jealousies and insecurities is more taxing than most men realize, he says. "It's not an easy way of life. It's hell unless you have the conviction that what you're doing is right. You can't overcome the fear and jealousy that come with this unless you rely on the Lord. I think most men would crack under the pressure."

Besides, in a day and age when sex outside of marriage and cohabitation often are seen as socially acceptable, men no longer need the cover of polygamy to lure multiple partners. "It's a lot more trouble than people think," says Melanie Thompson. "If sex is what you're looking for, there are easier ways to do it."

For some women, living in polygamy allows them to make their relationships with God and their families the center of their lives. "It's not about our individual relationship with our husband; it's about our working together as a family," says Mary Jane Thompson.

Certainly public opinion continues to run against plural marriage. Tapestry's Rowenna Erickson wants to see the state enforce its antipolygamy statute. Ideally, she'd like to see plural wives removed from their polygamous marriages and "deprogrammed" of their beliefs. "It's power and control," she says. "I struggled to come out of it. It's a cult."

But given the difficulties of proving polygamous relationships, not to mention the First Amendment issues involved, that's unlikely to happen. Indeed, in a day and age when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner can announce that he's living with eight playmates, the lines between the lifestyles of polygamists and the rest of American society are becoming increasingly blurred.
Originally published May 7, 2001