Editor’s note • Published in collaboration with The Guardian US.
Humansville, Mo. • After church, Flint Laub, his two wives and their 10 children sat down at the kitchen table to eat pizza.
The lunch was served in the big house, where Michelle Laub, 32, and her seven children live. Flint’s second wife is Ruth Anne Laub, 25, Michelle’s half sister. She recently gave birth to her third child. Ruth Anne Laub and her kids live in a second house a few steps away from the big one.
The Laubs live in a polygamous community of perhaps 400 people in rural Missouri between the towns of Humansville and Stockton. Residents call it “The Ranch,” though the agriculture is limited to a hayfield, a few cows and chickens. Those in the neighboring towns refer to the community as “The Compound,” but you won’t see any high walls or armed guards — just brown dirt roads winding through clusters of trees and homes.
Inside the big house, the adults laughed — a little — about what outsiders think about them. Flint Laub, 40, runs a roofing company. If someone asks him if he’s a polygamist, he’ll say yes. Sometimes people will ask if “The Compound” is really prepped for warfare, assuming the polygamists are survivalists (they’re not).
Ruth Anne Laub, who has worked as a first responder in Stockton, says someone once asked her if she believed in air conditioning. Yes, she said. Her house is modern; constructed from concrete poured into plastic foam.
“It probably bothers me that people think that’s who we are,” Ruth Anne Laub said, “but it’s funny, too.”
“If I was raised outside the religion,” Flint Laub said, “and heard about people with multiple wives, I would think that’s pretty crazy, too.”
In God’s eyes
“Missouri is the promised land,” said Sean Anderson, a 51-year-old fundamentalist Mormon from Mexico who also has lived in Arizona and Utah. He recently moved to The Ranch with his wife and their six children.
The residents come from polygamous churches that haven’t always gotten along. But here, the polygamists worship not only with one another but also with members of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially abandoned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found practicing it.
Despite their differences, the mainstream Latter-day Saints and people on The Ranch still share core beliefs — and the community still uses the 16 million-member church’s texts. This week, Seth Laub, an elder in the congregation, gave a lesson from the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.
“Nothing is hopeless in God’s eyes,” Laub told worshippers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 by the then-24-year-old, Vermont-born Joseph Smith. To this day, anyone considering themselves to be a Latter-day Saint still reveres Smith. Fundamentalist Mormons — the ones who are not part of the mainstream church and often practice polygamy — believe in heeding his original teachings, including a revelation Smith said he received three times between 1834 and 1842. The church leader told associates that an angel appeared to him and told him to practice plural marriage. Historians believe Smith married his first plural wife in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Smith was assassinated in 1844.
Today, some fundamentalist polygamists believe plural marriage is necessary to reach the highest heaven. Others practice polygamy simply to follow Smith’s teachings. These polygamists tend to believe in big families: women often give birth to 10 or more children. While some of the polygamist leaders have been known to have 20 or more wives, most men have two or three.
A voice on the mountain
The idea of The Ranch emerged Nov. 7, 1983, when Stephen Laub was at his home in Motoqua, an enclave in southwest Utah for members of a polygamous church called the Apostolic United Brethren, or AUB.
He was in the cellar, stocking and preparing it to ride out an apocalypse at the end of the millennium, when he heard someone call his name.
Laub went to his wives to ask what they wanted. They said they didn’t call him and didn’t hear a voice.
He heard the voice over eight days. Eventually, he tracked the voice to a nearby mountain. He started hiking. The voice had more instructions as he hiked farther up the mountain.
Laub recorded in his journal: “The Lord told me he wants me to go to Missouri and buy a farm.”
For Mormons of all stripes, Missouri — specifically Jackson County — is a landmark. Latter-day Saints began arriving there in 1831. That year, Smith had a prophecy that “Zion” was in Jackson County and that Jesus would return there one day.
But Latter-day Saints had conflicts with other Missouri settlers over land, commerce and governance and, by 1838, the violence grew so bad that modern textbooks call it the Missouri Mormon War. The ugliest episode happened that year, when at least 17 Latter-day Saints were massacred at a place called Haun’s Mill. Church members soon began fleeing the state.
When Laub hiked down from the mountain and arrived home, his brother Derril Laub and another resident, Bruce Compton, were there to help him with the cellar. He told them they needed to go to Missouri. Because Latter-day Saints believe their movement started with a revelation from God, no one challenged him.
They did ask where in Missouri they were supposed to go. To provide them with an answer, Stephen Laub hiked back up the mountain to seek a clarification. He said God told him to go about 100 miles south of Independence.
The next day, the Laub brothers, some of their sons, Compton and another resident named Kent Andra loaded into a blue pickup truck and began driving east.
“The idea was to build the kingdom of God, establish Zion,” Compton, now 76, said in a recent interview.
The men stopped in St. George to make a phone call. It was to the president of their AUB church, Owen Allred, in Salt Lake City. Stephen Laub conveyed his plan.
Allred didn’t like it. After being driven from Missouri, the early Latter-day Saint leaders issued prophecies saying God’s wrath would be visited upon western Missouri. While some Mormons believe the burned towns and bloodshed western Missouri suffered during the Civil War fulfilled the prophecy and wiped the slate clean, Allred was among those who thought Missouri still had it coming.
He told Stephen Laub to go look at Missouri but not to buy anything.
The truck stopped in Fort Scott, Kan., just across the state line from Missouri. The men went into a real estate office, where one of them saw a pamphlet advertising 600 acres between the Missouri towns of Stockton and Humansville.
It was a wooded, undeveloped property on one of the Ozark Mountains’ massive plateaus. The men drove to the site to inspect it. They had found their place.
They negotiated a purchase price of $300 an acre and paid $3,000 earnest money. They promised to make a down payment of $34,000 within 30 days. That was money the men didn’t have when they made the agreement. Other believers back in Utah chipped in, and the financing of the property has become part of its mythology — proof that God wanted them to be in southwest Missouri.
The group contributions were also the first example of ranch residents practicing what’s called a United Order, a communal form of living in which followers give money, entire pieces of property or time and talents to benefit the community.
A unique spot
At a coffee shop in Stockton on a blustery November day, Sean Anderson explained what he liked about living at The Ranch.
He’s a two-hour drive from Jackson County for the day Christ returns; he also likes that he can have discussions of church doctrine with other residents without fear of offending someone.
“They may not agree with me,” Anderson said, “and they aren’t going to ostracize me.”
That makes The Ranch a unique spot. Even though Mormon polygamists all trace their beliefs to the same place, they have had disagreements. The groups have tended to isolate themselves within specific neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley or locations in the Utah or Arizona deserts.
While the disputes largely have been peaceful, the most infamous episodes happened in the 1970s, when a polygamist named Ervil LeBaron ordered the murders of rival polygamous leaders and others who he thought offended God. One of the victims in 1977 was Rulon Allred, who founded the AUB. He was shot to death in his chiropractic clinic in Salt Lake City.
Today some of LeBaron’s and Allred’s relations live among the polygamists near Humansville. The Ranch has residents who hail from at least three distinct polygamous sects, plus what are known as independents. Those are people with fundamentalist Mormon beliefs who do not affiliate with a church.
Anderson would qualify as one of those. He was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and an American father. Anderson developed a belief in fundamental Mormonism. He had two wives for a time, but those marriages dissolved.
He and his current, lone wife, Clara Anderson, moved to The Ranch in the fall with their six children. Clara Anderson, 39, is one of Rulon Allred’s great-granddaughters.
Within the couple’s household, the Andersons acknowledge the roles are traditional. Sean works in construction and is a part owner of a barbecue restaurant while she tends to the children.
“I stay home with my kids because I want to stay home with my kids,” she said. “It’s not because Sean told me to stay home.”
Women from The Ranch are weary of the public perception of wives in polygamy as trapped inside a home. Some women hold jobs in the surrounding communities; some don’t.
A review of marriage licenses in southwest Missouri shows most residents of the polygamous community marry in their 20s, though a few brides and grooms have been as young as 17. In Mormon polygamy, the husband usually has one legal wife; subsequent marriages are ordained in a religious service, but there’s no license on file with a county clerk.
In Missouri, you can be convicted of bigamy if a married person “purports,” to quote the statute, to marry another person. The offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. That’s a lesser punishment than, say, in Utah, where polygamy is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or 15 years if it’s committed in conjunction with fraud or a violent offense.
Cedar County Prosecutor Ty Gaither — one of the locals who refers to the Missouri polygamous community as The Compound — said he has received no complaints about crimes there. He points out his county is home to multiple religious communities, including Amish and Mennonite.
“Let’s put it this way,” Gaither said of a plural marriage, “if I had three parties who were consenting adults, I wouldn’t have a complaining witness. If I had a complaining witness, we would take a look.”
On Sundays, there are two services at The Ranch. The bigger one, where Seth Laub gave his lesson, is in the late morning in the gymnasium of the private school the community operates. It’s open to anyone. A smaller service is held in the afternoon for people who worship with the Nielsen-Naylor Group, a polygamous church named for the Utah men who founded it.
Everything changes whenever there’s a fifth Sunday of the month. That’s when both worship services combine with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward in Stockton. A joint service is held at the private school with lessons from the Book of Mormon and traditional Latter-day Saint hymns.
The fifth Sunday services came about because some people from The Ranch joined the mainstream faith, and the various sides have similar teachings anyway.
“It's just something that we use to promote open discourse so people can associate and see we're not so different,” said Mark Bradshaw, 61.
Bradshaw is one of those converts. He and his family lived in Centennial Park, Ariz. They moved to The Ranch in 1990. There, he married a second wife.
Bradshaw and his second wife eventually had what he said was an amicable split. He didn’t want any more conflicts involving polygamy, he said, and wanted more opportunities for his children. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasizes programing for young people.
"There wasn't much that was going on here that was good for for the youth,” Bradshaw said.
Yet Bradshaw and his wife and their children continue to live on The Ranch.
"I like being out in the sticks,” he said. “I don't like living in town — never have."
Those who left
As they finished lunch, Flint, Michelle and Ruth Anne Laub talked more about some of the perceptions people have of their family.
Through the years, some have asked if the community has a relationship to Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in prison for crimes related to sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. (The answer is no; there are no known Jeffs followers at The Ranch.)
The spouses also discussed the changes they have seen in the community. AUB leaders in Utah were never pleased with those who moved to Missouri. As a result, the AUB hierarchy has had little to do with the Missouri community in the past 35 years.
Some people have come and gone, too. Compton, one of those Motoqua men who drove to Missouri in the pickup truck, didn’t find the Zion he was seeking.
Compton says living plural marriage and in a United Order gave him a lot of questions and not enough answers about God and what he wants. Before he moved to Missouri, Compton came across a book about Jewish Kabbalah during a work trip to California.
Kabbalah is meant to explain the relationship between God and the universe. Compton developed an interest in metaphysics. The other Motoqua men didn’t like it. They believed metaphysics conflicted with their fundamentalist faith beliefs. They eventually asked Compton to leave.
Compton separated from his plural wives, remarried to just one woman, and now leads a church in nearby Buffalo, Mo., where he preaches a belief in an almighty creator. He’ll teach from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Torah, the Quran or any other text promoting monotheism.
“I search for truth,” Compton said.
You can also buy a psychic reading from Compton and his wife, Connie Compton. The client will share certain information that Bruce relays to Connie. Through a trance, she will give advice or tell the client the cause of any physical or emotional ailments.
As for what’s next at what people call either The Compound or The Ranch, the residents years ago poured a concrete foundation for a temple against a small slope near the center of the community.
No one seems to know when the rest of the temple will be constructed or whether it will take the impetus of the residents or direction from God.
Correction: Jan. 7, 9:30 a.m. • Historians believe Joseph Smith married his first plural wife in Kirtland, Ohio. An earlier version misspelled the city's name.