A Mainstream Mormon's Test of Faith

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

Law enforcement never did find Sarah, but they did trace the phone calls to 33-year-old Rozita Swinton, a Colorado woman who had a history of making false reports. It seemed almost certain that the call, which resulted in the seizure of 468 children and the largest child custody case in U.S. history, was a hoax.

This only added to my mixed feelings about the case.

According to news reports, the group was violent (its doctrine of blood atonement reportedly called for the killing of enemies by slitting their throats and letting the blood soak the ground), and sect members had built their community on the Utah/Arizona border through child labor, a separatist racial indoctrination, forced teen marriages and a policy of tax and welfare fraud they referred to as "bleeding the beast."

Jesse Hyde's family has practiced Mormonism for six generations. He's pictured here with his father.
Photo courtesy Jesse Hyde
Jesse Hyde's family has practiced Mormonism for six generations. He's pictured here with his father.
Hyde spreads the word as a missionary in Brazil. Despite his doubts, he has embraced his faith.
Photo courtesy Jesse Hyde
Hyde spreads the word as a missionary in Brazil. Despite his doubts, he has embraced his faith.

None of this sounded remotely like my religion, and I had trouble understanding how we had any beliefs in common. At the same time, I doubted some of these stories. They had, after all, come from a handful of dissenters with their own personal agenda of payback.

Part of my skepticism came from the persecution complex all Mormons carry, at least those living in the United States. While polygamy is a taboo subject in church, every Mormon boy knows that Joseph Smith was repeatedly tarred and feathered for his beliefs, and that he died at the hands of an angry mob in 1844. Many of us know the story of the Haun's Mill Massacre, in which 18 Mormons, including children, were killed in October of 1838 at close range by a Missouri militia ( the Missouri legislature issued an apology only three years ago). Fewer are aware that thousands of Mormons were jailed after the Civil War in what The New York Times recently called "the most coordinated campaign of religious repression in U.S. history." Utah couldn't even become a state until it disavowed polygamy.

I thought times had changed, but if the campaign of Mitt Romney taught Mormons anything, it's that a wide gulf remains between the way we think we're perceived and public opinion. Despite years of missionary work and millions of dollars spent on humanitarian aid, Mormonism remains for many a weird religion, and for others, something far worse: a sinister cult that brainwashes its followers. Last year, 29 percent of Republicans said they would never vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The editor of the online magazine Slate, which targets sophisticated readers, declared Joseph Smith an "obvious con man" and Mitt Romney a fool for believing in him. Weeks later, the comedian David Cross finished a riff on Mormons with the following punch line: "Mormons are fucking idiots." It's hard to imagine a comedian saying something similar about Jews or Muslims and getting away with it. Yet Mormons seem fair game.

Part of it I understand. The one-time practice of polygamy, the sacred undergarment we wear, the temples where we do baptisms for the dead, our belief that Jesus Christ visited the Americas after his resurrection — all of this might sound bizarre, and maybe a little creepy. The truth is that for me, even as a child, some of it was hard to understand. But nothing has been harder to come to grips with than polygamy.

For most of my life, I knew little about the practice in my church's early years. I understood that some Mormon pioneers like Brigham Young had dozens of wives — this, an unavoidable part of early church history — but I considered it an oddity of another time. Polygamy never came up at home, and it certainly didn't come up at church.

It was only while living in New York, pursuing a master's degree in journalism, that I began to educate myself. My interest was piqued when I started reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, a best-seller about the history of violence and polygamy in the Mormon church that everyone in school was talking about. I began reading books I had been told to stay away from, including a biography of Joseph Smith, and was surprised to learn that he had taken additional wives for years without telling his first wife. Some of these women, whom Smith married in secret ceremonies, were already married to other men. The book's author explained that Smith needed a theological framework to harmonize his philandering ways with his Puritanical sensibilities. I found this offensive, growing up with the belief that Smith was a saint, a man as close to godliness as any, save Jesus Christ. But how could I square this belief with the facts of his life?

I searched for an answer, finally finding one in a revelation he wrote in 1843. Polygamy, he claimed, was a restoration of the ancient order of things. Abraham and Isaac had practiced polygamy, and so would the Mormons.

When Smith died in 1844, his followers accepted Brigham Young as their new prophet and followed him west to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they established a mini-theocracy of saints who lived a communal lifestyle and practiced plural marriage openly.

For the first time, I began to question my parents about polygamy. My mother told me that if it weren't for polygamy I wouldn't exist. Our ancestor William Hyde, who led a wagon train from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, had five wives. My family came from the fifth. I found William Hyde's journal and started reading it. He saw polygamy as an eternal principle that would never be taken from the earth, a belief that would have meshed perfectly with the orthodoxy of the ­modern-day fundamentalists.

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