Editors note: James Dee Harmston died Thursday. Below is a Salt Lake Tribune article from Dec. 19, 1999, discussing him and his polygamous group, The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days. The headline read: “Is Time Up for Utah Polygamous Sect?”
James D. Harmston and his fledgling polygamous sect once craved the limelight, opening their store-front church to the media and the curious and preaching to the world over the Internet. That was before time ran out.
The day has now arrived, the church says in a final (for now at least) cyberspace warning.
“God has shut the mouths of his servants and will begin to do His own work of rendering judgment and calamity upon the wicked and ungodly.”
Some former disciples of The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC) believe the ominous words mean Harmston and his 300-member following intend to make good on his apocalyptic visions, which include sacking the Mormon Church’s Salt Lake Temple and seizing power over this central Utah valley to establish a new Zion.
Harmston, a 58-year-old former real-estate agent, is in a crowded field of doomsayers who preach the biblical end is nigh; for many, that’s as close as midnight New Year’s Eve, the moment they predict mass computer failures and power outages will spark world-wide chaos.
But apart from gloomy Internet prophesies and a torrent of dire rumors, there are few tangible signs that Harmston’s doomsday clock is ready to strike. According to even his biggest detractors, Harmston isn’t stockpiling weapons or digging bunkers, and his followers, who live throughout the valley, continue their everyday lives.
“It is certainly a date of great significance,” says TLC member Dan Simmons, momentarily breaking what followers call a God-ordered silence on church matters to speak to a pair of reporters. “But we don’t think it’s the end of the world.”
That doesn’t mean state and federal authorities won’t be watching. With less than two weeks left in the fading millennium, Harmston’s is one of dozens of fringe Utah groups law enforcement will keep a cautious eye on.
But while officials from New York to Los Angeles have made elaborate plans to deal with outbursts from doomsday cults, hate groups and anti-government radicals, Utah investigators don’t foresee any uprisings as the new year turns.
“It’s not going to be Armageddon,” says Department of Public Safety spokesman Christopher Kramer. “We’re not going to have looting and pillaging in the streets, we’re not going to have chaos -- it’s just not going to happen.”
Rumors of apocalyptic upheavals have swirled around Harmston’s church since it opened five years ago in a quaint red brick building across from Manti City Hall.
“He teaches the first thing that will happen is he will get the power,” says Rodney Clowdus, a former TLC apostle. “Then he and his apostles -- he calls them his warriors -- will go out and destroy people.”
But Sanpete County Sheriff Claude Pickett, like many in this heavily Mormon town of 3,000, dismisses Harmston’s threats, which have been caught on video and audio tapes, as typical firebrand fare. Still, he plans to have extra deputies out on New Year’s Eve, just in case.
“My concern is that someone in his [congregation] will take what he’s saying literally and try to act on it,” Pickett says. “But until they actually march on the temple, I’m not going to arrest them.”
Kramer says the Public Safety Department has identified 63 groups in Utah that it will be watching as the millennium changes, though the agency will not disclose any of the names.
But so far, the department has not found cause for alarm, particularly among religious groups.
“Our feeling is these groups tend to pull into themselves, they tend to be more focused on internal issues,” Kramer says.
Harmston’s rants and boasts are far different from the peaceful approach to the apocalypse taken by most of Utah’s other separatist religious sects.
In Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, -- border communities still steeped in polygamy and communalism -- the millennium appears to be approaching at a languid, matter-of-fact pace.
Recent reports from ex-members suggest there have been mass weddings of young girls in order to prepare them for a “millennial liftoff.” One person close to the community says he knows a member forgoing surgery because she expects to “transcend” to a celestial afterlife.
But earlier this month, laborers in Hildale were laying borders for sidewalks and applying mortar to a red-brick wall at a city park, tasks that exude Norman Rockwell America, not biblical transition.
“Life is going to go on,” says Dan Barlow, mayor of Colorado City and one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), the nation’s largest polygamous church.
“I don’t expect any major upheaval of any kind,” he says. “As long as we look forward to the coming of the savior, there’s going to be some changes . . . but as far as our people making any special efforts there are none, except the emphasis on the personal preparation of people’s lives.”
Still, preparations for a liftoff may be behind a rash of high school dropouts, says Ben Bistline, an ex-member who tangled with the FLDS over ownership of his home. Cottonwood High School (Colorado City) Principal Laurence Steed says he can’t explain the high dropout rate -- one of the highest in Arizona -- although he knows some students are opting to go to private schools in town.
“I have good communication with parents here, and I don’t argue with them,” he says. “We have some who withdraw and they just disappear.”
Asked if he knew whether former students were marrying at increased rates, Steed chose to end an interview.
Like Harmston and others, much of what FLDS leaders teach can be traced to the early teaching of Mormon founder Joseph Smith.
Mormons once taught that 250,000 LDS faithful would return to Jackson County, Mo., for the second coming of Jesus Christ, predicted for 1890. Rulon Jeffs, the current FLDS prophet, bases his teaching of Christ’s second coming on the story of Enoch, a city lifted to heaven.
The story is included in the Pearl of Great Price, which, along with the Book of Mormon, the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants, form the Mormon canon of scripture. While the rest of the world faces Armageddon, Enoch returns to join a latter-day Zion, or, as taught by Jeffs, the polygamous enclaves of Colorado City and Hildale.
In a five-page lesson obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Jeffs’ son Warren advises members to “sharpen up our preparation” for the return of Christ, and he equates his father’s move to the border communities as a final step. The elder Jeffs recently moved out of his longtime compound in Little Cottonwood Canyon to live with several of his wives in a palatial Hildale home.
“I would like to see you all in the glorified Zion, which is soon to come,’’ the elder Jeffs says in the lesson.
“All the evil powers are concentrated against us,” adds his son.
Apocalyptic prophecies were also in the air in the days immediately preceding an earlier FLDS prophet’s death. LeRoy Johnson reportedly predicted that nearby Hoover Dam would burst and the waters of Lake Mead would flood Las Vegas.
Some religious scholars believe Johnson’s prophecies -- which have been collected in a four-volume set and widely distributed among FLDS members -- laid the foundation for the doomsday doctrine of today.
The problem with people who prepare for the end of the world is they focus on predictions rather than inner growth, says Owen Allred, prophet of the Bluffdale-headquartered Apostolic United Brethren, the nation’s second largest polygamous church.
Allred, too, believes the promise of Enoch, although he thinks it futile to affix a deadline.
“The prophecy is going to be fulfilled, but goodness sakes, we have thought that for 200 years,” he says. “To say it’s going to be such and such a time, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to even guess.”
Allred urges followers to prepare for the millennium as they would for any other day.
“The message I always teach is do the best you can to be right in the eyes of God,” he says. “Love your neighbor. Try your best to be Christlike. If we are getting closer to a judgment day, let us make sure our hands are clean.”
Harmston, meanwhile, says “God has commanded” him to stop preaching. He no longer grants interviews. And his Web site, www.tlcmanti.org, which once was a broad platform of doctrines, sermons and member testimonials, now consists of a sole document filled with scriptural prophesies and Harmston’s own revelations of doom.
“In the days of Noah, the time arrived that Noah ceased his warnings and exhortations to a wicked generation and boarded the Ark,” the site says. “It is now time for the rains of destruction to begin.”