FLDS–The Fundamentalist LDS Church


08-02 Leroy Johnson

Leroy S. Johnson

The split in 1852 over Joseph Musser’s insistence that Rulon C. Allred succeed him as fundamentalist leader resulted in the bulk of followers in southern Utah, specifically in the town of Shortcreek (later renamed Colorado City), following Leroy S. Johnson. Johnson and all Short Creek fundamentalists began to expand their polygamist enclave through the United Effort Plan. Unfortunately, they experienced a significant setback in 1953 as Arizona officials raided their little town.

The 1953 Arizona Raid 

Elected governor of Arizona in 1950, Howard Pyle heard complaints from cattlemen and other tax-paying citizens in the region of Short Creek, saying that the fundamentalists paid little or no taxes themselves but expected substantial state support in educating their broods of children. In response to these issues and others, Pyle hired the Burns Detective Agency of Los Angeles to investigate the possible polygamous activities alleged to be occurring there. Members of the agency approached the town purporting to be a movie studio looking for people to play the part of “extras” in upcoming movies and were permitted to photograph every citizen and family in the community.

Pyle examined the black and white photographs and expressed his concern. Poverty appeared rampant, and there were questions about the appropriate use of state funds in some of the government-sponsored programs there. The governor learned that the average age for first marriages for fundamentalist women then was sixteen years old, although girls as young as fourteen and fifteen were known to be married. The average age for their first childbirth was seventeen, requiring some teenage girls to obtain release time from school during the day in order to return home to nurse their babies. Pyle decided to prosecute and a secret raid was planned.

08-01 Tent at shortcreek

Courtesy USHS.

“On the 26th of July, 1953, in the dark, but early hours of the morning, storm-troopers under the direction and command of Governor Pyle of Arizona, swooped down upon the peaceful Short Creek community… With guns bristling and leveled at women and children, and with their badges all nice and shiny, and worn in the most conspicuous place, this invading army brought fright and enforced marshal law, to one of the most peaceful and modest communities of Americans in the United States.”[1] Sheriff Fred Porter exited the lead car as Leroy Johnson approached him saying, “We’re going to stand right here and shed our blood.”[2] Doubtless he meant what he said; thankfully, no blood was spilt.

Over 100 armed men participated, accompanied by “twenty-five car loads” of newspapermen, cameramen, and representatives of the national wire services and magazines who recorded a blow-by-blow account. A large tent was raised in the center of town and barbwire fences were used to segregate the 122 adults and 263 children who were apprehended, virtually every man, woman, and child in the community save six who were not fundamentalists. Of the women between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who were taken into custody, at least twelve were either pregnant or already the mother of several children.

In all, 36 men were arrested and over 190 women and children were taken into custody. Besides the obvious problems arising from the arrest of peaceful citizens, the confinement of females and minors brought a national backlash. Ultimately, Governor Pyle was not re-elected, and all of the individuals detained were restored to Short Creek—despite their continued practice of polygamy.

On the Utah side of the border, Governor J. Bracken Lee was invited to participate in the raid. He declined saying, “You do whatever you have to do but we’re not going to become involved.”[3] Utah politicians sought to avoid the debacle of group arrests, so the Utah Juvenile Court chose to prosecute a “test case” involving Leonard and Vera Black. Leonard was a polygamous husband of three wives, and twenty-six children, Vera the mother of eight of those children. An evaluation of the Black home found that the children’s minimal physical necessities were being provided, with no evidence to support an accusation of physical neglect. Though poverty was the norm, it was not a crime.

Throughout the investigation, the crucial issue involved was the polygamous relationship of Leonard and Vera. Since polygamy was illegal, the question boiled down to would the Blacks’ willingness to teach their children to break the law suspend their rights as parents to those children? After hearing the evidence, the judge believed that “the only way that the children of these polygamous families can be prevented from going into polygamy is by permanently separating them from their parents at a fairly young age, so that they will not be exposed to the fanatic religious teachings.” Consequently, he ruled that the Black home was an “immoral environment for rearing of the children.”[4]

Vera Black with her children

Vera Black with her children

A decree was issued on May 11, 1954, declaring that because the Black children were being taught to break the law, they were “neglected” as defined by Utah state law. Consequently, they should be taken from their parents and placed under the care of the Utah Department of Public Welfare. This extreme ruling eventually prompted Vera to sign a statement saying that she would comply with the law, thus allowing her to regain custody of her children.

Due to the perceived stigma associated with the 1953 raids at Short Creek, the name of the community was changed to Colorado City in 1963. Over the decades, they began to refer to themselves as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or FLDS Church. By then, people were prospering little by little with the population expanding to over five hundred inhabitants. They implemented the “work mission,” which required young men to serve for two years, not as missionaries preaching the gospel, but as employees earning the highest possible wages and sending all of their payroll checks directly to their priesthood leaders. They were to be supported by their families from home. After their two-year service, they would return to Short Creek and receive a wife and building lot.

The Law of Placing

One teaching that is unique to the FLDS Church involves the “Law of Placing.” Considered a “high and holy law,” it requires “young ladies [who are] anxious to marry, to submit themselves to the leadership and their father for direction and placement into a marriage of divine choosing.” The Law of Placing has its roots in the belief of the premortal existence. One fundamentalist leader taught:

You young people here today are blessed. Many of you are children of the covenant, were chosen from the other side to come down through your parents to carry on this special priesthood work and calling. Some of you young ladies are quick to run about trying to find a husband or you young men run without being sent to find a wife with little or no thought of preserving your birthright amongst the saints and the covenant you have made in the pre-existence. The Lord would have you at this time seek to bring yourselves to the feet of the priesthood, that the mind and will of the Lord may be made known as to whom you have made covenants with on the other side [in the premortal spirit world].[5]

While older men benefited from the Law of Placing, young men sometimes find themselves in a no man’s land in the community. Their hopes of marrying a suitable wife upon arriving at normal marriageable age diminish as female classmates and friends suddenly vanish from school and social activities, married off to older polygamists. Many young men were ostracized for one reason or another, leading to a group called the “lost boys.”

The United Effort Plan (UEP) gave FLDS leaders total control over homes and property, and the Law of Placing gave them control over families and marriages. This form of dominion and compulsion was despised by early Church leaders like Joseph Smith, who delineated the results of such behavior: “The heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:37).

Through the mid-twentieth century in Short Creek, each individual Priesthood Council member had the power to decide who would marry whom without discussing the arrangements with other council members. Followers who desired new wives could obtain the approval and cooperation of any member of the Priesthood Council to seal their marriages. In time, factions and cliques formed aligning themselves with the various council members.

The “One Man” Doctrine

One significant disagreement arose regarding the question of presiding authority: “Was there one man who ruled the PRIESTHOOD (and the group) or did the entire Priesthood Council preside?” Lorin Woolley’s teachings on the subject were completely ambiguous and could easily support either position. Leroy Johnson, the senior Priesthood Council member disagreed with Marion Hammond, who was next in seniority, and eventually dismissed him from the council. Subsequently, Hammond, with council member Alma Timpson, left Colorado City and established the “Second Ward,” in due course building their own meetinghouse. It was dedicated on September 27, 1986, precisely one hundred years after the date described by Lorin Woolley when John Taylor ordained five men to continue plural marriage. Consequently, the town was named “Centennial Park City.”

With the dismissal of Hammond, Rulon Jeffs was left as the next senior member and immediately took charge upon Johnson’s 1986 death. Jeffs too believed in the “one man” leadership theory. Accordingly, he followed Johnson’s pattern by not calling any new council members, contradicting the pattern set in the past by Lorin C. Woolley and John Y. Barlow. Other council members died so that by 1984, Rulon Jeffs ruled the FLDS Church and UEP alone and undisputed. A few counselors were called to assist, but they were not High Priest Apostles or marked to succeed Rulon Jeffs upon his death. Accordingly, the religious organization had changed significantly since Woolley first described it.

In 2000, the combined population of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, included over 5,200 people. Leroy S. Johnson had prophesied several times that the year 2000 would usher in the Millennium. Writer John Llewellyn penned: “On three occasions before Rulon Jeffs died, he called a select 2500 from his 10,000 members and instructed them to buy food and clothes and prepare to be lifted up. A plot of ground had actually been set aside designating the exact place of the gathering and expectant lifting. Before and after the lifting up, the faithful would need food and clothes. The utmost faithful purchased food in loyal anticipation, but the day before each gathering, Rulon called it off with the excuse that the Lord was giving them more time.”[6]

Rulon Jeffs and two of his wives.

Rulon Jeffs and two of his wives.

Despite the primary headquarters of the FLDS Church in Colorado City, Rulon Jeffs lived in a large estate at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Salt Lake Valley. Several buildings accommodated many of his sixty-seven wives and their children. It also included a youth education facility called the “Alta Academy.” Just prior to the year 2000, the Alta Academy and all the associated buildings and land were sold at a below-market rate. Then the entire population of the facility was transplanted to Colorado City, apparently in anticipation of some cataclysmic event that never materialized.

Rulon Jeffs passed away on September 7, 2002, creating a leadership vacuum in the FLDS Church. This lack of leadership was a result of the “one man” doctrine that prevented new council members from being called and a common belief that Rulon Jeffs himself would be physically renewed and personally deliver his priesthood keys back to Christ at the Second Coming.

Failure of the expectations did not hamper the efforts of Rulon’s son Warren Jeffs from assuming the helm. He had been positioning himself for a decade for the role, although he was never ordained to any priesthood position that would legitimize his leadership. Through his own efforts, Warren became the president of the UEP and had been his father’s spokesman for years. No other FLDS leader held the level of control that he had acquired, and soon he was acknowledged as the new leader of the FLDS Church.


Despite no reasonable claim to genuine sealing authority, Warren Jeffs did not hunker down in a defensive posture there in Colorado City. He soon excommunicated the sons of John Y. Barlow and all other potential rivals, except Fred Jessop, who died a year later. Next, he purchased land in Texas and oversaw the building of a temple there. Temple building had never been a part of the FLDS tradition, except for one prophesied by Barlow and Musser to be constructed at Berry Knoll between Colorado City and Centennial Park.

The United States government also created a fortuitous distraction by issuing a warrant for Jeffs’ arrest, ultimately landing him on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. By diverting attention away from core issues regarding his seemingly indefensible claims to possessing genuine priesthood keys, Warren maintained solid control of the UEP fortunes and FLDS followers.

Jeffs was convicted in September 2007 on two counts of rape as an accomplice and given two five-years-to-life sentences.  The following March, in response to a cell-phone call from a reportedly underage and pregnant girl within the Eldorado compound , Texas Rangers invaded the grounds and even broke into the temple, searching for evidence of child abuse or other felonies.  While it appeared state agents were not going to repeat the mistake of the state of Arizona in 1953, that of prosecuting the fathers for bigamy or polygamy, they were aggressive in taking over four hundred children into custody and assigning them to foster care.  Law enforcement officers pledged to quickly identify the abusers and the abused through DNA testing and other methods.  Several of the men were convicted after a lengthy and expensive set of trials.

In recent years Warren Jeffs has continued to control his followers from within prison walls. Many follow his dictates without question and a genuine cloak-and-dagger sentiment surrounding their attempts to smuggle his instruction out of the Texas prison have existed. How long Jeffs can continue his leadership under these conditions remains to be seen.

Concerning the FLDS members and the turmoil they have endured, it is likely that manh of them will somehow continue their religious traditions and practices. The alternative is to acknowledge the deep confusion and disorder that exists regarding their claims to sealing authority. To concede that FLDS leaders lacked sealing priesthood is to label all their plural marriages as unauthorized. It would also devalue the intense suffering and inconveniences FLDS polygamy has exacted. Hope of eternal vindication and exaltation would be lost. Accordingly, relinquishing the FLDS tradition will probably be too difficult for most.

For a more detailed view see Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006).

[1] “Oh America: Land of the Free—Home of the Brave—Where Art Thou?” Truth 19, no. 4 (September 1953): 97.

[2] Martha Sonntag Bradley, “The Women of Fundamentalism: Short Creek, 1953,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 30.

[3] Martha Sonntag Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 119.

[4] Ibid., 171.

[5] Kaziah May Hancock, Prisons of the Mind (West Jordan, Utah: Desert Blossom, 1987), 64. Hancock uses the pseudonym of “President Tellason” for the speaker, who is undoubtedly Leroy Johnson.

[6] John R. Llewellyn, Polygamy under Attack: From Tom Green to Brian David Mitchell (Scottsdale, Ariz.: Agreka Books, 2004), 155.