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From the Archives: Polygamist James Dee Harmston and his doomsday predictions

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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.

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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.

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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."

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