From the archives: Polygamist James Dee Harmston's hex, wives and videotape
Editors note: James Dee Harmston died Thursday. Below is a Salt Lake Tribune article from April 26, 1998, discussing him and his polygamous group, The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days. The headline read: "Hex, Wives and Videotape: Polygamist Leader Shaking Up Manti."
Manti • Jim Harmston is a polygamist who calls Mormons ``morons'' and swears he will turn LDS Church leader Boyd K. Packer black.
He acknowledges that one of his wives, a teen-ager, is not a good lover, but gloats that ``she's the most cuddling little thing you ever saw in all your life.''
Harmston's critics say these rants and boasts, caught on video and audio tapes, are an accurate taste of the wackiness and wickedness brewing behind the doors of Harmston's 4-year-old, 300-member polygamist church.
Harmston likely isn't happy copies of the cassettes are in the hands of people who do not belong to his ``True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Saints of the Last Days'' (TLC), which is headquartered in a tidy bright-red brick building across from City Hall in Manti, a central Utah city of 3,000.
He also likely is bugged that some in his flock have strayed all the way into 6th District Court, where they hope to convince a jury Harmston duped them out of more than $250,000, then failed to deliver Jesus Christ in the living flesh as they were promised.
But if Harmston is unhappy, he isn't talking.
``You won't get a single soul inside this church that will talk to you until we're ready to deal with the issue in the courts,'' says Harmston, a 57-year-old ex-Realtor who moved to Manti from the Wasatch Front earlier this decade.
There are two tapes circulating about Manti, and residents are popping copies into their VCRs with a mix of trepidation and prurient glee. For four years they have quietly wondered what went on behind TLC's closed doors, and now they have got a glimpse.
A 3 1/2-hour videotape of a Feb. 23 sermon given by Harmston, taped by church leaders, was obtained by former TLC member Rodney Cloward days before he quit the church. Cloward also surreptitiously made an audio tape where Harmston acknowledged taking a 16-year-old bride, though Harmston and the girl are not legally married.
About half the male members of TLC have more than one wife.
Cloward said he is making the tapes public to expose Harmston for what he is: ``a cold-natured, non-compassionate-type man, in the way he robs the poor.''
Other ex-members are suing Harmston with the same goal in mind.
``This is not about the money,'' says Cindy Stewart, one of three plaintiffs suing Harmston for $264,390 they say they gave TLC. ``The reason I'm doing this is so not one more person gets sucked in.''
Harmston has denied he has inappropriately taken any money from TLC members.
``They [the plaintiffs] made contributions to the church in the form of donations, but it's nowhere near that kind of money,'' Harmston said earlier this month.
``There isn't much I can say, except we will file a response and it will probably be accompanied by countercharges because we're really getting tired of this harassment.''
The plaintiffs claim they gave Harmston almost everything they had because he convinced them that he was the only way they would get to meet Jesus Christ.
``You think we're insane?'' Stewart asks. ``Maybe we were. But we've woken up.''
Manti residents say they also are waking up.
``They hate to see something so sinful and so obvious right here in our little town,'' says Lloyd Smith, a Manti resident and retired psychologist who spent the past year learning everything he can about TLC and Harmston. Local Mormon leaders say when Harmston first arrived in Manti, he was welcomed as a devout Mormon who carried a temple recommend proof of his good standing in the LDS Church.
``Then he started a study group with fellow Mormons, and the local church authorities did not like that,'' says Smith.
The LDS leaders asked Harmston to stop. He didn't, and he was eventually ex-communicated. Harmston then founded TLC.
Most members, Smith says, are not Sanpete County natives. Many are ex-Mormons disillusioned with a church they say has strayed from the ideals espoused by church founder Joseph Smith.
Intense pressure from the federal government in the 1890s forced LDS leaders to disavow the longstanding practice of taking more than one wife. Ever since, renegade polygamist groups have popped up professing to carry the true mantle of Mormonism, but because sex outside of marriage has become common in modern America, prosecutors haven't tried to throw polygamists in jail since the 1950s. There are an estimated tens of thousands of polygamists in Utah today. But Harmston stands out because ex-members say he preaches of impending violent battles. They say he talks about taking over the Manti LDS temple.
Residents are wary.
``The potential for violence is there, at least the seeds,'' says David Call, general manager of the Manti Messenger, a weekly newspaper located next door to TLC headquarters. ``He hasn't acted on any of his emotions, but when you get a radical element like this, you just don't know what could happen. That's what people are afraid of.''
And they believe the group could become more volatile as ex-members continue to publicly criticize TLC.
``He's losing ground, and the more ground he loses, the weirder he's going to get,'' says Call's wife, Beverly. ``People are worried about how he's going to go down. Because they don't want a Waco-type thing.''
Because of the tapes, many residents now have viewed first-hand the venom Harmston spews at Mormons.
Take, for example, Harmston's tirade against LDS leadership.
``Let me tell you what, those hypocritical jackasses will be called into accountability,'' Harmston, dressed in a crisp white shirt and bolo tie, told the congregation during his Feb. 23 sermon.
``And those great, big elders, like Boyd K. Packer, who demands that the people rise when he enters the room, will be taken down,'' Harmston, a burly man with slicked-back gray hair, gray beard and jet-black eyebrows, rants in rich cadence.
``He will be called into accountability, but I tell you in the name of the living God, that man's skin is going to be turned as black as coal before he makes his departure. And how do I know that? Because I am the one that's going to make it that way! Because God will not be mocked any longer!''
While Call says it is hard to ignore such threats, he says it is all more pathetic than intimidating.
``If they didn't have the LDS Church to pick on, they wouldn't even have a religion,'' he says.