A Mainstream Mormon's Test of Faith

Seven months have passed since the polygamist raid in Eldorado, but the effects linger

Now Mormons have led companies like eBay and Black & Decker and Marriott. They sit on powerful senate committees and teach in Ivy League schools. As The New York Times recently noted, it's been a breathtaking journey from the radical fringes to the conservative center.

As the conference continues, a former Utah Supreme Court justice rises to talk about the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith, urging us to follow his example of sacrifice and obedience. Another speaker talks about our charge to help the poor and the needy.

During the two-hour session, no one mentions the polygamists in Eldorado. There is no call to urge the State of Texas to respect the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Mormons.

Flora Jessop grew up in an FLDS family.
AP Photo/Aaron J. Latham
Flora Jessop grew up in an FLDS family.
CPS officials asserted that all children at the YFZ Ranch were at risk for "emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse."
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
CPS officials asserted that all children at the YFZ Ranch were at risk for "emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse."

I'm not surprised. Since the Mormon church renounced polygamy, it has done everything possible to distance itself from the practice. But like a scab that won't heal, the church's past keeps festering.

As the story in Eldorado becomes a national obsession, the Mormons I attend church with in Plano never talk about our shared history with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or our shared beliefs. No one mentions polygamy. Rather, we worry that the media isn't distinguishing enough between the Mormons and the FLDS. "The other day on The View, Whoopi Goldberg asked how many wives Mitt Romney had," my wife tells me, incredulously. "And she was serious."

I understand the reaction, but as the story develops I begin to feel a kinship with these polygamists. I watch an anchor on CNN explain how law enforcement agents raided the compound with semiautomatic weapons drawn. I read news reports that detail how children wailed as they were ripped from the clutches of their parents. And I am moved when I learn that men of the community fell to their knees and wept as police stomped through their temple, desecrating what the polygamists considered a holy place.

I see parallels between their plight and the persecution early Mormons experienced. What's more, I begin to explore some of my own unresolved issues with the history of polygamy in my church, and in my family. While most of my Mormon friends want to distance themselves from the FLDS, I feel drawn to their story.

Eldorado sits 45 miles south of San Angelo, in a remote and desolate corner of West Texas. Most of its 2,000 residents work in the oil fields or in agriculture. As I look at a Texas map on a hot night in May, I can see why the FLDS picked the town to build a new Zion. It's in the middle of nowhere.

As I drive through the night, I recall what I know about the FLDS. They arrived in Texas five years earlier, when a man came into Eldorado looking for lots of land. His name was David Allred, and he said he wanted to build a corporate hunting retreat on the old Isaacs Ranch north of town.

It didn't take long for the locals to realize that something about Allred's story wasn't right. Before long, big log cabins were going up, followed by a cement plant, a grain silo and a medical clinic. In March 2004, an anti-polygamy activist named Flora Jessop traveled to Eldorado to hold a press conference that attracted about 50 reporters, some coming from as far away as Salt Lake City. Raised in the sect, she said she had 28 brothers and sisters who still lived in the FLDS stronghold along the Utah/Arizona border. Since her escape, she had dedicated her life to exposing the evils of the sect, which had broken from the mainstream Mormon church in 1930.

The FLDS, Jessop maintained, practically owned the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The mayor, the police chief — pretty much every official in town — practiced polygamy, and for more than 70 years the sect had successfully skirted bigamy laws, marrying second, third and fourth wives in secret spiritual marriages state officials could not prove.

Where once Utah and Arizona officials had looked the other way, media attention driven by Jessop and others was forcing officials to find new ways to go after the polygamists. The group's leader, a man named Warren Jeffs, was wanted on charges of child rape. When these states began seizing FLDS property and assets to pay for delinquent taxes, Jeffs sent some of his most loyal followers to Texas to build a new community.

The locals made no secret that they didn't want the polygamists in their town. In a May 2004 Dallas Observer article, town residents were openly hostile to the newcomers, suggesting that frontier justice wasn't out of the question.

The town's sheriff, David Doran, pled with residents to remain calm. "I know there's a lot of hype and hysteria right now, but everyone needs to know that we are on top of things," he told The Eldorado Success. "...At this time we have no evidence of any wrongdoing associated with the ranch. If and when we have evidence that a law has been broken out there, we won't hesitate to act."

The if-and-when came last March when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the umbrella for Child Protective Services, received a call alleging that a 16-year-old girl named Sarah was being physically and sexually abused at the ranch.

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