Pinesdale, Mont. • Kimberly Herbert wondered if she would be allowed to marry in the temple.
She had dated a boy her age off and on for years. They discussed getting married. Then, in fall 2014, a dispute erupted in their church — the Apostolic United Brethren, a so-called Mormon fundamentalist group that believes in polygamy.
A daughter and two nieces accused Lynn Thompson, the AUB president, of fondling or molesting them as girls. Some in Pinesdale — a community so small with so few surnames that they call one another by their first names — continued following Lynn, now 77 years old, either because they still believe he was a prophet of God or that the allegations against him weren’t true or they just didn’t want to risk dividing their families.
Kimberly and her immediate family were not among the supporters.
Some residents who would not follow Lynn were denied what Mormons of all varieties call a temple recommend — a card from their bishop saying the person has followed the steps of the faith and are worthy to enter the temple. That led to some tough conversations between Kimberly and her boyfriend.
The couple decided to take a break in early 2016 to evaluate their beliefs and whether they would support Lynn. Kimberly’s views of Lynn didn’t change.
“At the end of six months,” Kimberly, now 21, said, “he came back and said, ‘I don’t feel that I can pursue this relationship if you don’t support Lynn Thompson.’”
The AUB has its headquarters in Bluffdale, Utah, and thousands of members have blended into life across the Salt Lake Valley. The structure of the church mirrors that of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned polygamy more than a century ago.
In Montana, the AUB is localized to Pinesdale, population 967, where the divisions over Lynn are most evident.
Some prominent people in this mountain town have stood against the AUB leader. That includes two from the AUB Priesthood Council, two Melchizedek Priesthood leaders, two bishops, the president of the all-female Relief Society, the Sunday school president, the elders quorum president, Seventies quorum president and the youth leaders. They all resigned their church callings and stopped paying tithes.
Those in Pinesdale who still want to worship in the Mormon fundamentalist way have started attending their own service that they call the Second Ward.
Enrollment at the private school, called Pines Academy, has declined. Marriages in both plural and monogamous households have been strained and some spouses have separated, Second Ward members say.
These members and others also worry that the AUB is divesting itself of its Montana outpost. Lynn has not visited, they say, since he was installed as president in 2014.
Even before he ascended, the AUB, which owns the land where most of Pinesdale’s houses sit, was considering subdividing the properties. That would allow the AUB to sell the lots.
The AUB has given no indication whether it plans to force residents to buy their lots or will sell them to someone else, but the possibility makes Second Ward members nervous. It was their tithes, they point out, that paid for the land and financed utility lines and other improvements.
Stephen Stoker, a 37-year-old Pinesdale resident, sees land ownership as a way the AUB leaders in Utah can retaliate against Lynn’s detractors and the dispute in Pinesdale can escalate.
“It’s going to get very unpleasant between Salt Lake and Pinesdale,” Stephen said.
The dissidents here acknowledge they still need their siblings — figuratively and often literally — in AUB.
AUB and the Second Ward continue to jointly operate the municipal government and Pines Academy. They even cooperate in community service projects, including a recent weekend trip into the Bitterroot National Forest to harvest firewood for senior citizens.
Yet, people in Pinesdale don’t see an easy resolution to the dispute.
“There’s too much water under the bridge now,” said Vilate Stoker, the principal at Pines Academy.
Lynn and AUB leaders did not return messages from The Salt Lake Tribune seeking comment.
Polygamous churches have split before. Pinesdale can even credit its creation to a difference of opinion among polygamists.
AUB is also known as “The Allred Group,” largely because of its first leader, Rulon C. Allred. In Utah during the early 1950s, he served on a council with other polygamists. Doctrinal differences emerged, and Rulon formed the AUB. Others on that council formed what would become the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, on the Utah-Arizona line.
Rulon lived in Salt Lake City, but he wanted the brethren to have a place where polygamy could be practiced without fear of prosecution. Bigamy is a misdemeanor in Montana, and state statutes do not forbid living with spiritual wives as they do in Utah, where bigamy is a felony.
In 1960, Rulon bought 640 acres of ranchland that became Pinesdale. The community sits in the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana, about an hour’s drive south of Missoula. Many Pinesdale residents still refer to their town as “The Ranch,” though the community was incorporated in 1983.
While the FLDS and other polygamous groups have reputations as isolationists, the AUB has been known as the church for more mainstream polygamists and Mormon fundamentalists. AUB members don’t wear prairie dresses. They don’t assign marriages or permit underage brides. They interact with the wider society. They report sexual abuse to law enforcement.
That persona has been pushed by the AUB’s best-known members: the Brown family from the reality television show “Sister Wives.” First living in Lehi, Utah, and now near Las Vegas, the Browns portray themselves as a suburban American family — just one that happens to include four wives and 18 children.
Pinesdale residents are integrated into Montana life as business owners, police officers, nurses and teachers. But they also have a rebellious streak.
Many residents, such as Peggy Lynch, started as members of the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church, which now excommunicates anyone found practicing plural marriage. Those LDS members joined the AUB to practice the more fundamentalist teachings of early Mormonism, whether it be polygamy or aspects of communal living.
With so many residents who had already left one church with which they didn’t agree, and being 495 miles from Bluffdale, Pinesdale residents largely did what they wanted, even if it meant ignoring directives from AUB headquarters.
“We’re freethinkers,” Peggy said.
Lex Herbert, the 48-year-old bishop of the Second Ward, recalled a time when the leadership sent instructions that teenagers couldn’t attend a dance unless they had a temple recommend. Maybe the restriction made sense in Utah, where the parents didn’t necessarily know their child’s date, Lex said, but not in Pinesdale, where the parents did. The bishops in Montana at the time didn’t enforce the policy.
Some Pinesdale residents had concerns about Lynn even before he became president and the sexual misconduct allegations came to light.
A blog operated by Peggy, called “Turmoil in the AUB,” documents embezzlement allegations against Lynn from 2005, when he was serving on the AUB’s governing council.
Citing witnesses and an AUB audit, one blog post accuses Lynn of embezzling $500,000 in tithing and other church funds over 10 years, including purchases of furniture, home repairs and travel. The blog post also says Lynn admitted using an AUB credit card to buy personal items, but that he repaid that money and that a bookkeeper made mistakes.
Whatever transpired, then-AUB President LaMoine Jenson, Lynn’s stepbrother, didn’t punish Lynn — instead, he named him as his successor.
Lynn became president when LaMoine died from cancer Sept. 2, 2014, at his Utah home in Eagle Mountain.
Two months later, one of Lynn’s daughters, Rosemary Williams, a plural wife whose family was on the short-lived reality show “My Five Wives,” wrote a blog post describing Lynn fondling her in Pinesdale when she was 12. Rosemary later wrote that her father apologized to her but said he doesn’t remember doing such a thing.
The same month Williams revealed her accusations, one of Lynn’s nieces wrote and shared her own account of Lynn molesting her when she was 10 years old and he was 15. A second niece soon wrote that Lynn molested her when she was age 6 and he was 19.
Second Ward members say Lynn and his loyalists on the AUB’s governing council have refused to answer the sex-abuse allegations. Some Pinesdale residents even drafted plans for a church trial. They were told through council members that God told Lynn not to submit to any such proceeding.
“We were trying so hard to give them ways to resolve it,” said Ruth Herbert, Kimberly’s mother and one of Lex’s two wives, “and we were just ignored.”
Changes in status
At a Sunday meeting on Feb. 1, 2015, one of Pinesdale‘s bishops, Morry Jessop, said he wished he could support Lynn, but he could not. It marked the first time someone in a Pinesdale public meeting refused to back the leader.
He wasn’t alone. The divisions became more apparent by mid-2015. The AUB stopped giving temple recommends to people who wouldn’t voice support for Lynn. People who had been faithful to the AUB for decades, if they weren’t born into it, no longer could participate in sacred ceremonies with their families.
“That was never part of the religion before,” said Micki Jessop, a Pinesdale resident and one of Rulon’s daughters. She’s among those who have quit attending any church.
Laynie Herbert, Lex’s second wife, said AUB changed the procedure for calling into and listening to the services held in Bluffdale. When Laynie texted to be added to the new listening system, she said, she received a reply that she couldn’t do so because she didn’t support Lynn.
The Second Ward was born out of spiritual necessity. Lex said some men who did not support Lynn wanted to continue offering their families the sacrament — called “communion” in many other faiths — in which the worshipper consumes a sip of wine or water and a bite of bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
The AUB believe two priesthood holders are needed to perform the sacrament. So Lex and another man began organizing Sunday services in the same meetinghouse in Pines Academy where the AUB met.
Some Second Ward attendees felt they needed to pay tithing to a bishop to comply with the scriptures. Lex was asked to become the bishop and accepted. He says he gives the money to needy people, spends it on service projects or gives it to charity, and he provides an accounting of the expenditures.
Second Ward members say they aren’t aware of the AUB taking extreme disciplinary action against Lynn detractors — no one has been excommunicated (stripped of church membership) and no one has been disfellowshipped (men are removed as priesthood holders and men and women can lose other positions in the church).
“We’ve pretty much disfellowshipped ourselves,” Peggy said.
Vilate, the principal at Pines Academy, loves the murals in her school, including the hallway decorated with various habitats.
There’s an African savanna and another habitat that resembles the mountains around Pinesdale. Graduating sixth-graders are allowed to paint an animal into the mural.
That animal population is slowing because enrollment at Pines Academy, which is financially supported by AUB and teaches kindergarten through sixth grade, is declining. According to numbers provided by Vilate, there are 129 students this year. That’s a drop of 28 percent since Lynn became president.
“Parents have said, ‘We are not supporting anything with AUB,’” Vilate said.
Vilate, 52, says parents instead are sending their children to the public schools in the neighboring towns or home schooling. For those who remain at Pines Academy, Vilate said the faculty has tried to maintain normality.
The faculty is a mix of AUB, Second Ward members and one teacher who recently joined the LDS Church. Instead of referring to teachers as “Mr.” or “Miss,” students place a “sister” or “brother” in front of the teachers’ first names.
There are religion classes, and when students ask about the split over Lynn, Vilate said, the teacher tells them to ask their parents.
Enrollment isn’t the only way Pines Academy has been affected. Vilate’s father, Dee Jessop, had been principal at the school for 47 years and served as chairman of the school board. Vilate says Dee was forced out because he didn’t support Lynn. He continues to teach math, but he plans to retire after this school year.
Vilate doesn’t support Lynn either and doesn’t attend any church now. She says she was made principal because she was already transitioning to succeed her father, and there was no ready replacement among the Lynn loyalists.
Not done with gospel
Second Ward members tell of some Pinesdale residents joining the LDS Church. Mormon missionaries have been visiting Ruth and Lex’s 17-year-old son.
Sitting with Peggy in the faculty lounge at Pines Academy, Vilate said she has attended LDS services with her children and has considered joining, but she worries she will have to stop living in a plural family. She is the second of three wives. She lives next door to her sister wives.
“So what’s wrong with Second Ward?” Peggy asked.
“I went there once, Peggy,” Vilate replied. “And I just felt like it was the same thing. I want something new; something with more excitement and energy.”
Every week, Second Ward members wonder whether this will be the Sunday that AUB has changed the locks on the meetinghouse. Through the first three Sundays in October, at least, the meetinghouse has remained open.
On the first Sunday in October, Peggy was called to speak during the service. She walked behind the pulpit and looked over the few faces and all the empty pews. She referenced the Bible story in which a jealous Cain murders his brother Abel. She said she was embarrassed AUB has allowed “wickedness” in its leadership.
“I want my children and my grandchildren to know that God keeps his promises if we keep ours,” she said.
Peggy also told the Second Ward congregants she believes they are a people God can use to establish Zion.