Meet the modern Americans who still have faith in polygamy
By Ward, Olivia
Foreign Affairs Report
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—The dusty prairie morning chokes in the midday heat, but inside her spacious kitchen Lucy is crisp and in control, the captain of all she surveys.
She’s a solid, handsome woman with bright blue eyes and upswept greying hair: the embodiment of good pioneering stock. Her life has been a series of trials she’s faced and triumphed over on this unforgiving land. At 57, she has earned her laurels.
But there is no rest for Lucy. There’s an active career as a consultant, and an aging husband to care for — along with five other wives and an assortment of children, the remainder of 47 who have been born, nurtured, bidden farewell and sometimes mourned during five turbulent decades.
This multi-layered house south of Salt Lake, designed by Lucy herself (“never had a lesson in architecture”), is filled with comfortable, come-lately flourishes. But the past is not a foreign country here. Its daily presence presses in on the large extended family, its weight inescapable.
Lucy and her 78-year-old husband Sam are fundamentalist Mormon polygamists — cast out by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which suspended the practice of plural marriage in 1890 and insists that they have no right to call themselves Mormons.
They speak on condition of anonymity, because officially they are outlaws. But they make up only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 polygamists in the United States, many of them spread across the southwestern states of Utah, Arizona and Nevada. And most live not in fortresses bristling with guns, but uneasily blended into communities that greet them with puzzlement, don’t-ask-don’t-tell tolerance, or outright hostility.
They are perhaps the last living imprint of their Mormon ancestors, carrying the beliefs that burned within those forebears as they settled in the inhospitable pre-Utah state of Deseret: an embattled, hardscrabble society that their mainstream descendents now fervently hope to leave behind, like some wandering tribe that, embarrassingly, will not stay lost.
They are also the worst nightmare of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and others who hope that Mormonism can blend seamlessly into the American social and political landscape. The presence of polygamists is all the more dangerous because “they” and “we” are joined at the historical hip by a common ancestry.
“We’ve had harassment,” says Lucy, matter-of-factly. “It’s wherever you go. Some people are friendly, others . . . ” She gestures at the green-and-brown landscape stretching beyond the rambling suburban house, where the only shade is from the clumps of trees she planted by hand.
But the fact that this group of old believers exists in relative peace and obscurity is something of a victory, considering its adherents more than a century ago resigned themselves to the fringes of society and the Mormon faith. They rejected the mainstream church’s decision to fall in line with U.S. laws and abandon the practice of polygamy. The edict was like a silver bullet through the heart of their beliefs.
“The family, and particularly the plural family, became the foundation of the social order God desired,” historian Matthew Bowman writes of the early Mormons in his book, The Mormon People.
Polygamy began with an Abrahamic revelation from Mormon founder Joseph Smith, which declared that plural marriage was not only sanctioned by God, but “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” allowing the participants to inherit “thrones, kingdoms . . . exaltation and glory” in the afterlife. Without “celestial marriage,” or polygamy (more properly known as polygyny), the prospect of eternal salvation was dim.
It was not an easy sell in the mid-1800s. At a time when prudish Victorians were draping their “naked” piano legs with frills, followers of Smith and successor Brigham Young wrestled down their scruples and plunged into plural marriage, believing it would ensure that “Mormon societies were stable, their members committed to the health of the community, and they lacked the poor underclass that fostered crime and debauchery in the United States.”
The thousands who practise polygamy today flow from that bloodline. They include those whose families abandoned the practice but later returned to the fold, and those who fled — like Romney’s ancestors — across the Mexican or Canadian border to continue the “true faith.”
Sam, a soft-spoken shepherd of his little flock of a few dozen families, is one of the former.
“I didn’t start out as a fundamentalist,” says the slight, silver-haired man, clad in the sober black that is a uniform of the fundamentalist church faithful: a symbolic holdover from a pre-Technicolor world where revelation and reality merge.
As a teenager in a mainstream Utah LDS household in the 1950s, Sam felt there was “something missing,” as though the emptiness of the land had somehow invaded his life. He prayed. Fundamentalist leaders gave counsel. The answer came.
“There were principles that the church had done away with,” he says. “I didn’t think it was right.”
Lucy chimes in: “There was more meat in what those leaders were saying. The LDS church had the milk.”
By the time he was 20, Sam had already married a teenage bride, who soon became pregnant. His new faith embraced plural marriage. Obediently, he took a second wife.
Two decades later the Lord would intervene again in Sam’s marital affairs. And then it was, if not a coup de foudre — anathema to fundamentalists who decry sexual attraction before marriage — then a heavenly bolt from the blue. One that, felicitously, hit the unworldly and homebound 20-year-old Lucy at the same time.
“I had made up my mind that I wanted to be in a plural marriage, like my own family,” she said. “My mother had numerous children and the family was huge. I had offers of scholarships but I didn’t want to stay in school. All those pep rallies and dances and football games just seemed frivolous.”
In spite of her father’s opposition, she dropped out before her high school finals and stayed home to grapple with the demanding vocation of polygamous householding.
After “three years of praying,” she knew her husband would be the quiet, 40-year-old Sam, who taught a youth group she attended in his home, and whose wives and children she had come to know. With down-to-earth practicality, she reckoned it was better not to be the first wife of a young man with unproven husbanding skills.
When the revelation first struck Lucy, Sam was unaware of his impending union. But one day, as he saw her walk through the door of the church, looking even younger than her years, “something hit: that girl would be my wife.”
Lucy, meanwhile, was eager to begin a new life that fulfilled the doctrines of her childhood. “My mother taught me that I had made a promise, a covenant with somebody before I came to this earth. And that we would marry and have a family. We made covenants with the (unborn) children we would bring here.”
The promises — which underpin the practice of plural marriage — would be fulfilled with Sam’s and Lucy’s more than half-dozen children, adding to the swelling family ranks.
But on their wedding night in 1976, Lucy says, “we just talked all night. We didn’t have any real contact before we were married. It was the first time I could find out about him and about the household.” But she adds quickly, love was in the picture, too. “When we came to an agreement that we’d marry, I started to think, ‘Do I really love him?’ I prayed about it.”
She glances fondly at her husband. “Now, when I look back on it, I didn’t need to pray, because I fell in love with him very swiftly. My prayers were answered.”
That didn’t prevent Sam from dividing his time among five other wives. Some had been “compassionate” marriages, harking back to patriarchal biblical times when widows were rescued from loneliness and destitution by polygamous unions. “There needs to be a father figure, someone to lead the family,” says Lucy.
But, “nobody here was underage and nobody was forced,” she adds, leaning forward, as though expecting a familiar argument: “I think there’s too much made these days of people marrying young.
“Even at 15, I wanted to get married. I think it’s a modern phenomenon that people marry older now. Who’s to judge? When you look at the immorality and the unwed mothers today, isn’t it better to have people taking responsibility at young ages?”
The question hangs in the air.
It’s one of the most crucial issues under debate as polygamist families struggle for decriminalization. A struggle they have only just gained confidence to wage in public.
“We aren’t asking for plural marriage to be legalized,” says activist Anne Wilde, who spent most of her adult life in a “totally happy” polygamous union that was nevertheless carried on in secret. “We believe that as long as the people are consenting adults, and there is no underage marriage or abuse or (welfare) fraud going on, it should be treated like other kinds of unions. People recognize diversity now.”
But the struggle for acceptance is difficult. The polygamy that makes headlines is of the most lurid kind — murderous clan leaders, fake prophets, authoritarian brutality, virtual imprisonment of young women, casting out of young males who might compete for eligible females, forced marriage, genetic disease and child abuse. The five-alarm case is that of Warren Jeffs, who once played a role in British Columbia’s Bountiful colony and is serving a life sentence in Texas on child sexual assault charges.
Mainstream Mormons look on and shudder, seeing their own claim to legitimacy in American society sink with each sensational new report that links them with a practice they reject and revile.
The backlash against fundamentalists — which includes excommunication and economic exclusion — puts more fear into pluralist communities than crackdowns by the state authorities, which have abandoned sweeping raids in favour of a policy of tolerance, in the absence of serious criminal behaviour.
Bigamy and plural marriage remain illegal throughout the United States. But by supporting community groups that help troubled polygamist families, Utah and Arizona authorities have reached a working truce.
“We’re concentrating on the safety issue,” says Paul Murphy, director of communications for the Utah attorney general’s office. “We believe a lot of it is education — preventing crime, not focusing on prosecution. We try to help people under the radar.”
The daunting alternative is jailing thousands, breaking up families and putting the children under the care of the state.
Priscilla and Marlyne Hammon remember a more perilous time.
The two women, now in their 50s, have an American Gothic air: scraped back coifs, no makeup and modestly cut skirts and jackets. Their families have survived extraordinary travails in the service of a faith that was publicly ridiculed and condemned.
In 1953, when Priscilla was an infant, Arizona state authorities raided her parents’ polygamous community of Short Creek — later (confusingly) renamed Colorado City — straddling the border with Utah. It was described as the largest mass arrest of its time.
“About 100 police surrounded it at gunpoint, at 4 a.m. All the men were put into the schoolhouse and the women were taken to Phoenix. The plan was to adopt out all the children, to destroy all the records and destroy polygamy,” she says, recounting each detail as though it were yesterday.
While 100 men were briefly jailed then released on a year’s probation, the women were forced into distant parts of the state. But Arizona authorities balked at relocating their more than 250 children. The mothers and children were scattered, forced to live in “nursing homes or old sheds,” the forerunners of today’s immigration detention centres.
Within a few years they had trickled back to their husbands and communities. Predictably, there were more marriages and more children. As in other polygamous groups cast out by the Mormon church, their own priesthoods carried out the ceremonies.
Even in Utah’s increasingly cosmopolitan towns today, the fear of discovery is pervasive, and polygamous parents and children live watchfully, expecting the unexpected. The fear is palpable: of humiliation, of exclusion, of the collapse of businesses and the bullying of children in school. It is hard to pursue legal protection for plural wives and children, to obtain documents such as birth certificates and to get medical help for prenatal care and childbirth.
For some, constant subterfuge leads to a siege mentality, a sense of persecution and pariahood. For children, it can be a psychologically splitting experience, forcing them to move between two different, even opposing, worlds.
Fed up with their furtive lives, some polygamists are fighting back, urged by Wilde and her Principle Voices advocacy group, which seeks to educate the wider community on the “real facts” of contemporary plural marriage.
In the past decade, they have joined rallies and spoken out for plural marriage. The reality show Sister Wives brought polygamous daily life to American living rooms, and it gained a new gloss in the popular TV series Big Love.
Unlike the mainstream LDS church, the fundamentalists are divided among about a dozen groups and categories, ranging from gun-toting survivalists to the family next door in Salt Lake.
Nicole, a young woman in her 20s, escaped a tightly wound community that exemplified the darkest stereotypes of polygamy.
“My mother was a plural wife and I had problems with physical and sexual abuse,” she says. “I was kicked out of school in eighth grade. On my 16th birthday my father gave me a choice of two men and insisted that I marry one.”
But many other polygamists lead lives more ordinary and middle-class, if challenging.
“Our kids get teased because of our lifestyle. It’s a dynamic we just learned to ignore,” says Valerie Darger, one of three wives of businessman Joe Darger — and with her sweep of dark hair and form-fitting clothes, a glamorous poster girl for plural marriage. Last year the family published a cover-blowing book, Love Times Three, with writer Brooke Adams, to “fight the misunderstandings” that make polygamists outcasts.
Unlike some urban polygamists, whose husbands lead covert, nomadic lives among different houses, the Dargers live together under one roof, with Joe portioning his time among the three wives. “There’s Vicki’s night and Alina’s night and my night. He’s able to see all of us,” says Valerie.
Sharing began early for the Dargers. Both Vicki and Alina — cousins and rivals for Joe’s affection in high school — knew they wanted to marry the husky, blue-eyed football player with the rakish smile. His polygamous mother suggested they all join hands. After some soul-searching and an unsurprisingly awkward courtship, the trio was married in 1989.
Two decades later they became a quartet. Valerie, Vicki’s twin sister, was broke and depressed after leaving another unhappy plural marriage with her own five children. After urging from Vicki and Alina, and a rapidly igniting spark with Joe, she agreed to join the family, which already boasted about a dozen kids.
“Joe came home from work one day and suddenly I was seeing him differently,” she recalls, smiling. “I found out he saw me differently, too. It just evolved from there.”
But she admits, “everyone has to make adjustments. There are jealousies and misunderstandings.”
There’s also economics. With 24 children to care for, food bills alone can reach $700 a week. Clothing is recycled, entertainment is at home and everyone pitches in to keep the wheels of the household turning. The wives have worked at a variety of businesses and Joe must be diligent to maintain the family income.
For men, polygamy is no bargain. Those who are seeking sex can find it more easily and cheaply in an extramarital affair where the financial responsibilities are fewer and problems of numerous wives and children don’t have to be thrashed out on a daily basis.
For women, “sister wives” may ease the burden of childcare and household chores. But even in a celestial marriage, the human intrudes on the divine. A husband’s divided loyalties may be worrying, as well as emotionally taxing. With only the first, or legal, wife entitled to a man’s property if he dies or they divorce, the others must stay in his favour to avoid being cut off and destitute.
For children, too, polygamy is a tense lifestyle of secrecy from the outside world. “I found out the hard way that some people’s attitudes changed once they knew about my family,” wrote Alina Darger’s 18-year-old daughter Laura in Love Times Three. After a school chum discovered how they lived, she recalled, “the other girls ostracized me . . . I learned to change the subject whenever I was asked personal questions.”
That could change if polygamists gain legitimacy. But their struggle for decriminalization is only beginning. In the eyes of many LDS members, they cannot even call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, so estranged are they from the mainstream church.
But, says Becky Johns, a professor at Utah’s Weber State University, “those who practise it truly believe this is the way they must live to attain the highest degree of celestial paradise when they die. ‘It’s the way God wants us to live.’ A commandment, not an option.”
The ultimate challenge to the anti-polygamy laws would be a constitutional one in court. For mainstream Mormons, a victory for plural marriage would be an unwelcome blast from a past they have spent more than a century burying.
The first shot has been fired by reality stars Kody Brown and his “sister wives,” who are going up against Utah’s anti-polygamy law on the grounds that it violates freedom of association and the right to privacy in intimate relationships.
But if polygamy is decriminalized in the future, it may be because of growing liberalization of American society, accepting relationships such as gay marriage as part of the changing social scene — an ultimate irony for a fundamentalist faith firmly rooted in the hard moral soil of the 19th century.
Polygamous families will carry on regardless, cocooned in their own moral universe — one that promises a peace that passes all understanding of skeptical unbelievers.
“Would I do it all over again if I had the choice?” asks Valerie Darger. “Totally. It’s our sacredly held belief.”