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ELDORADO, TEXAS -- James Doyle rears back on the stick, and his Piper Cherokee 180 flops into the air, hastily rising above the dry cedars and prickly pears of Schleicher County. Doyle is a rural justice of the peace. He sets bails, judges misdemeanors, declares deaths and even pilots out-of-towners who'd like to take an overhead look at the West Texas dust.
Not ten seconds after takeoff, the white temple looms ahead, its disproportionately small cupola resting at least 90 feet above the surrounding ranchland. Built by a sect of Mormon polygamists, this stone homage to God looks like a mirage, like it belongs anywhere but here. But there it stands, defiantly miraculous, stupendous.
Doyle isn't very interested in the temple. He's seen it plenty of times, as has practically everyone else in town. Its top is visible from the highway, no plane necessary. But what you can't see from the ground is an entire town, nestled from outsiders in the small valley that runs through the middle of the polygamists' 1,691 acres. From on high you can see the cement plant, the dairy, the silos, the quarry, the trucks and the SUVs; the chicken coops, the orchards, the water and propane tanks; the irrigated fields, made arable from tons of manure, and the three-story houses, built log-cabin-style, save for one modification.
"In all of the buildings, the first floor has concrete walls," says Doyle, idling the engine for a better view. "It kind of makes you wonder if they're not preparing themselves." The JP doesn't draw the connection outright, but any talk of religious fundamentalists' hunkering down in Texas brings to mind images of Waco, where federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, resulting in dozens of deaths.
Doyle's new neighbors belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, a sect disowned by the mainstream Mormon Church. The fundies disagree with Salt Lake City on several key points of doctrine, including plural marriage and racism. (The mainstream church outlawed polygamy in 1890. It allowed blacks to become priests in 1978. Both decisions were no-goes for the fundamentalists.)
Last year the FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs, was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List. He's been charged with facilitating the marriage of underage girls; several charges of molestation have also been tacked on. Jeffs is said to travel with an entourage of devout followers, men armed and ready to do anything to protect their ticket to salvation.
It was just over two years ago that the citizens of Eldorado learned the church had bought some acreage outside their West Texas town and the polygamists -- sometimes called polygs ("puh-LIGS") or plygs ("pligs") -- started arriving. They came from an area on the Arizona-Utah border known as Short Creek, where until recently they exercised complete control over the twin towns of Colorado City and Hilldale. But now Short Creek is unraveling, one fundie at a time, and Prophet Jeffs has decided Zion belongs among the oil-derricked plains of Schleicher County.
The polygs weren't born in Texas, but they're getting here as fast as they can.
There are some 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons in the United States, although the most famous believers are quickly becoming the fictional Henricksons, of HBO's new series Big Love. The show paints a sympathetic portrait of actor Bill Paxton's dealings with his three wives, although, as the season progresses, more and more weirdness -- incest, molestation, extortion -- is coming to light.
When the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed the practice of polygamy, the move, a condition of Utah's being granted statehood, was dictated as much by politics as by belief. It opened a rift in the Mormon community like no other. For many, the doctrine of plural marriage was an integral part of their religion. These fundamentalists took to the hills and set up sects, sure theirs was the one true path to salvation.
(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not respond to requests for comment for this story, although a release on its Web site quotes President Gordon B. Hinckley as saying, "I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy.")
Many fundamentalist Mormons believe a man must have three wives to achieve salvation. This is called practicing the principle. A wife, in turn, must be married to a man who has at least two other wives, since women can enter the realm of heaven only if their man is already there. (If a wife dies before her husband, she's stuck in a celestial holding pattern until he passes.) But the husband also has to want her to come, calling out her name after death. No one wants to spend eternity with a nag, so this inevitably leads to a situation where a woman must kowtow to her man's every need in the present life, lest he choose to leave her behind in the next.
The largest sect of fundies is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, currently led by wanted man Warren Jeffs. Warren wrested control of the church after the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002. (Those who've seen Big Lovewill recall that fictional prophet Roman is often followed by his tall, brown-haired son, who looks like a handsome version of the real-life Warren.)