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Polygamy in America

Polygamy in America
As San Diegans prepare to celebrate Valentine's Day with their "one and only," there are towns in America where Valentine's Day is a lot more complicated. We'll explore the phenomenon of POLYGAMY IN AMERICA, the feature story in this month's National Geographic magazine.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): It's an odd sort of Valentine that the National Geographic magazine and channel have given us this month. The magazine's February issue features an in-depth article on polygamy, that is, “Polygamy in America.” And their TV channel will premiere a documentary this week called “Inside Polygamy.” There seems to be a fascination with this lifestyle, as evidenced by the success of the HBO series “Big Love.” Even as polygamist compounds are raided and their leaders put on trial, the questions linger about why such cults still exist in the United States, why child welfare authorities have turned a blind eye for so long, and why some women still put up with it. I'd like to welcome my guest, Scott Anderson. He's a war correspondent and novelist, and he wrote the feature article “Polygamy in America” in this month's National Geographic. And welcome, Scott, to These Days.

SCOTT ANDERSON (Author): Thank you, Maureen, nice to be here.


CAVANAUGH: If you could start out by telling us about the town of Colorado City, Arizona, where your report starts out. That’s sort of really polygamy central in the United States, isn’t it?

ANDERSON: That’s right. It’s actually twin communities. It’s Colorado City and Hilldale, and it’s right on the Utah, Arizona border. And the placement is actually rather important because when it became a center for polygamy back in the 1920s, 1930s, it was – the situation right on the border was so that if there were raids carried out by one state or the other, members could just slip across the state line to the other side. But it has been a center of polygamy for a very, very long time.

CAVANAUGH: And about how big is the polygamy group in Colorado City and Hilldale?

ANDERSON: Well, there’s several different groups. The FLDS, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, which is the group that I focused on and that’s the group that their prophet is Warren Jeffs, who’s now in prison. There’s about 6000 members in the Colorado City area, and about 10,000 nationwide. There’s several smaller groups and not groups at all, just individuals who practice polygamy in the Colorado City area.

CAVANAUGH: I see. What relationship, if any, does this town have with the big raid that we all might remember on a polygamy compound in Texas. Are all of these FLDS communities linked?


ANDERSON: Yes, they’re all linked. The Colorado City is the largest and the oldest. It’s – Yeah, as I said, it goes back to the ‘20s or ‘30s and as I recall, the FLDS was incorporated as a group in the 1950s. The YFC, the Yearning For Zion Ranch in West Texas, it was the site of the raid in 2008, that was the new outpost of the FLDS and Warren Jeffs saw it as it was going to become the new center of the FLDS. It’s the only FLDS community, of which there’s probably about a dozen around the American west, it’s the only one that had a consecrated temple. So it’s clear that it was meant to be a special place before the raid.

CAVANAUGH: I think that most people understand that the FLDS Church is an offshoot, a breakaway portion of the LDS Church, the Mormon Church. When the Mormon, the mainstream Mormon religion basically abandoned the practice of plural marriage, the FLDS community decided to retain it as a fundamental part of their religion. If you could, Scott, tell us what is the purpose of polygamy in this religion?

ANDERSON: Well, it goes back to the teachings of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church. He had a revelation, called an everlasting covenant, that their – the saints’ mission on earth was to multiply and replenish the earth. And that was his rationale for practicing polygamy. He was assassinated largely for – by a gentile mob, largely for the polygamy statute. So the polygamy went underground for quite awhile and it wasn’t until the Mormons came out to Utah in the 1840s and 1850s that they openly declared that it was their religious duty to practice polygamy. That became very contentious when Utah was trying to join the union and trying to become part of the United States. So the Mormon leadership at that time had a revelation that – saying to outlaw polygamy. And that’s created the great schism between the mainstream Mormon Church and fundamentalist groups like the FLDS because what they see is that the renunciation of polygamy was just a political move. They don’t see it as a divine revelation, so in a fundamental way groups like the FLDS, they see themselves as the true Mormon Church now and the LDS is the apostates.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with writer Scott Anderson about his feature article in this month’s National Geographic “Polygamy in America.” And, Scott, when we think of this brand of polygamy in America, it seems strangely chaste and anachronistic especially because of what the people in this group wear. Why do all the women wear the same kind of dress and wear their hair in exactly the same way? Is this part of the religion?

ANDERSON: It is. It is. And that is the odd thing. You imagine that – I mean, I think as an outsider, you think of a polygamist community as where a man can have, you know, six, seven, in some cases 20 wives and children in the triple digits. You imagine there’s sort of a libertine quality to it.


ANDERSON: But it is very interesting that women all – they wear these I call them prairie dresses. It’s a style that apparently was popular in Utah in the 1850s, 1860s and this, you know, very elaborate hairstyles. So there is kind of a disjuncture in going around this community. At the same – and added to that is even the women there, they all – everyone I met, they drive, they have cell phones, they’re – they tend to be very computer literate. So whenever you start feeling like you’ve placed this group in some sort of timeline of history, something’ll come along to alter that.

CAVANAUGH: And yet just to show you how really strict this group of people are about covering up, you have photography with – by Stephanie Sinclair accompanies this feature article and there’s this wonderful photograph of five girls, they’re frolicking in a stream and they’re absolutely fully clothed from neck to ankle and they’re soaking wet.

ANDERSON: That’s right. Yeah, they – I’ve – you – I’ve never even – Even girls, I would say, from about the age of four or five, they’re dressed in these outfits and also with the very kind of fancy hairstyles. And, yeah, you never see the – see them any other way. The interesting thing is, even with the boys, they tend to wear workshirts and blue jeans and they – the buttons are always right up to the last button on the neck and the sleeves are always rolled down. You try to show as little flesh as possible, and that’s true even for boys.

CAVANAUGH: How big are these polygamist families?

ANDERSON: Well, the family that’s featured on the documentary on the National Geographic Channel is the man has 10 wives and over 100 children. I spent quite a bit of time in Colorado City with a man named Joe Jessop who has over 50 children and because most of those have remained in the polygamist faith or lifestyle, the next generation is probably well over 300. And it just becomes exponential. I met a lot of people from fundamentalist families who had 60, 70, 80 sisters and brothers.

CAVANAUGH: Now the question comes to mind, how does a family this big support itself?

ANDERSON: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I think there’s this idea that, especially the FLDS, is kind of hardscrabble and it’s not true at all. The men specialize in construction and heavy machinery construction, and the men – the boys start working at a very young age, so what’s happened is all through the American west, there are these FLDS affiliated construction companies that can bid and, because they’re all church members, underbid on major contracts, major construction contracts. So it’s actually a rather wealthy community. And they have established lots of farms in different places. The YFC Ranch in west Texas, it was amazing when I went on there, and this is very hardscrabble land, it’s very rocky, very dry, in west Texas. And it was phenomenal what they were doing. They were literally crushing stone, starting with giant boulders and then down to smaller rocks and then right down to powder, and creating earth. And planting orchards, planting fields, so they’re an extremely industrious and very savvy group of people.

CAVANAUGH: There is the allegation that these polygamist organizations in southern Utah and northern Arizona actually abuse the welfare system. Did you find any evidence of that?

ANDERSON: Yeah, we’ve – I’ve heard that. And, I mean, I think there’s a number of charges that can be, you know, leveled at FLDS. That seems to be one that’s actually rather erroneous. I had heard that over time but the more you look into it, there would be isolated cases but the welfare – I believe that at least with the FLDS, that really has very much the separatist idea of wanting to be involved in the government as little as possible. And at least with the FLDS, it’s been exaggerated.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Scott Anderson about his feature article “Polygamy in America” in this month’s National Geographic magazine. How, Scott, are all these children educated?

ANDERSON: In Colorado City, all – virtually all, and I believe all, the FLDS kids are home schooled. That’s not necessarily true with some of the other FLDS communities in different parts of the west. But in Colorado City, they’re all home schooled.

CAVANAUGH: Now most of the time authorities, I think, have taken a sort of hands-off attitude towards these polygamist communities but, you know, many people ask why since polygamy is illegal and there have been allegations, some confirmed, of underage marriages taking place in them, how do they get away with it?

ANDERSON: That’s a good question. I think it’s been so prevalent for so long. I mean, the FLDS, especially under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, I think served as a lightning rod but, you know, there have been tens of thousands of polygamists throughout the American west and a lot of them moved into northern Mexico. There’s very large polygamist communities throughout the provinces of northern Mexico. And I think that there was this, for a long time there was just the sense of well, you know, as long as they stay to themselves, they’re not really proselytizing. It’s not really a proselytizing faith. You know, you can’t really do much about it. In Colorado City, over the years, going back to the 1940s, there’ve been three or four different attempts, raids both by Arizona and Utah, the state, to try to crack down on what was happening in Colorado City, and they always turned into fiascos largely because they could never get a woman to testify that she was in a plural marriage. So the attempts that have been made over the years to crack down on it have always been a failure.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you mentioned, the prophet of the FLDS Church is a man named Warren Jeffs and he’s currently serving a prison sentence after being convicted as an accomplice to rape because of those underage marriages. And yet in your article, he’s apparently still revered inside this church.

ANDERSON: Oh, very much so. Any home, any FLDS home I went into, there would be a very large portrait of Warren Jeffs in the living room and, in some cases, in every room in the house. There’s – I would say the vast majority of the FLDS members are still very – see him as their prophet and are very devoted to him.

CAVANAUGH: Why is that, do you think, Scott?

ANDERSON: You know, I think there’s – I think there’s an omen of the boiling toad syndrome…


ANDERSON: …which is, you know, this is a group that goes back and certainly traced their religious roots back 150 years. And I think what would happen with Warren Jeffs—and it started under his father, who was the previous prophet, Rulon Jeffs—is that what went from a very loosely organized faith, and often just individual families did it, there was not a lot of organization to it, but the FLDS over time became increasingly under the sway of what they call one-man rule and this man is a prophet who, in their faith, is getting dictates directly from God. And I think what was happening over time is, and it started under Rulon Jeffs, but it became more so under Warren Jeffs, that the thrall he had over – the power he had over people really started to become all consuming to a point where, in 2004, Warren Jeffs reassigned—that’s the official word they use—reassigned 20 families. He got a revelation to move the wives and children from one man to another but in 20 cases in one day. And the amazing thing is that, to my knowledge, all but one family obeyed that dictate. So that speaks of incredible power of a man who is, again, in their faith is guided by God, to be able to move, you know, wives and children from one man to another.

CAVANAUGH: Now in your article, you talk about, and you mentioned it a little bit here, this sort of disconcerting combination of these old-fashioned ways but with newfangled devices that everybody seems to have in the FLDS community. Tell us a little more about that.

ANDERSON: Well, it’s funny. I was attending a funeral, and funerals tend to be occasions for huge gatherings…


ANDERSON: …within the FLDS and there were probably 6,000 mourners who had shown up to – for this woman’s – the viewing of this woman’s body and for the memorial service. And these vast lines of people stretching out over this parking lot to go in to pay their respects, all the men dressed in suits, all the boys dressed in suits, all the women and girls dressed in these prairie outfits. And I was looking at the crowd and I just noticed that hardly anyone was wearing glasses and so I – the man who was sort of guiding me, I said, I just kind of posited the theory that it’s like, well, maybe because there is so much intermarriage, maybe they have a good eyesight gene that’s passed on.


ANDERSON: And he kind of laughed and he said, no, he said, actually, we’re all just really into laser surgery. So – and it’s – I mean, it’s remarkable how few people in the community you see wearing glasses. And apparently that’s why so…

CAVANAUGH: Plus, the cell phones and the SUVs and all of that.

ANDERSON: That’s right, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, would you say, Scott, that, you know, it seems, reading this article, that the day of people being allowed to indulge in practices like this where they – where huge numbers of kids are basically sort of indoctrinated into just one view of the world and that young girls remain in peril of being married, you know, in their teenage years, I wonder if you would say law enforcement and child welfare authorities are now closing in on these communities?

ANDERSON: You know, it’s an excellent question. My feeling is that what’s going to happen is – I think there’s a collective unease with Warren Jeffs among law enforcement agencies in Arizona and Utah, and the federal government, and Texas, obviously. I think that probably what’s going to happen is that they’re going to really go after the leadership of the FLDS and I think that a lot of these men are going to end up in prison. I think in Warren Jeffs’ case, he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison. But I don’t think it’s really going to fundamentally change or end this way of life. You know, again, this – the FLDS name might disappear but this idea of Mormon fundamentalists practicing polygamy, I think it’ll continue. And the interesting thing because I was there at a time when, you know, shortly after Warren Jeffs had been imprisoned when they had indicted 12 or 13 of the leaders from down in west Texas. And what everyone said to me was, you know, our whole faith is about persecution. We’ve been persecuted from the beginning days of the Mormon Church so this just makes us stronger and it makes us closer to our faith. And if you look at other religions in the past, I mean, whether you want to call this group a religion or a cult or whatever you feel about its beliefs, religious groups in general, when they’re persecuted—and that’s what they see themselves as being—it actually makes them stronger. So I think that this group, again, maybe not in name but certainly in their – in practice, will continue on.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Maureen, my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Scott Anderson’s featured article in this month’s National Geographic magazine is called “Polygamy in America.” And the National Geographic Channel will air “Inside Polygamy: Life in Bountiful” this Wednesday night at nine. If you’d like to comment on anything you hear on These Days, you can go to and post a comment. Thank you for listening. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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