May Jeffs had enough of prophets.
Her grandfather and an uncle were presidents of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Their orders dictated what Jeffs could eat, wear, watch and listen to, along with where she could go and whom she could see.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to ever be tied to something that controls me like that again,’” Jeffs said.
Her older brother had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She saw how he and her sister-in-law, who was born into the mainstream faith, made mistakes and weren’t sent away to repent or worried that they would go to hell.
“They used their religion to help them,” Jeffs said, “instead of being used by their religion.”
Jeffs is one of perhaps thousands of people who have left polygamous or fundamentalist Mormon churches through the years. No one knows how many of them join the much-larger, 16 million-member Salt Lake City-based church.
In interviews, former fundamentalists like Jeffs describe the obstacles they had to overcome before joining the LDS Church. Some of those hurdles were created by their experiences in fundamentalism. Sometimes they were placed there by the LDS Church.
Even most fundamentalists refer to it as “The Church” since the faith they grew up in took its teachings from Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The fundamentalists already have familiarity, for instance, with the church’s texts.
Ben Thomas left the FLDS in 2013. Like Jeffs, he was weary of taking religious orders and wary of joining another denomination that demanded such obedience.
He investigated multiple churches, he said, but “just kept feeling like I was missing something.”
Thomas’ wife — he never married a second — and eight children did not follow him out of the FLDS. He and his wife divorced. His relationships with his kids were strained. Thomas prayed and decided if he couldn’t provide them salvation in this life, he needed to do so in the next.
In spring 2016, Thomas called a friend of his in Sandy who was a member of the LDS Church. That friend sent missionaries to see Thomas.
When the missionaries asked if he could accept then-church President Thomas S. Monson as his prophet, Thomas stumbled.
“It triggered so many feelings in me,” Thomas said, “just that keyword ‘prophet.’”
Thomas prayed about that question for a few more weeks before telling the missionaries yes, he said. Thomas was baptized in June 2016. He remarried about a year later in the Mount Timpanogos Temple in American Fork.
The conversions to mainstream Mormonism of Thomas and Jeffs were made simpler because they were never polygamists. Some who were in plural marriages have reported having to go through extra interviews with a Latter-day Saint general authority to ensure they weren’t planning to continue with polygamy, which the LDS Church officially abandoned in 1890.
James Thompson was a widower, remarried and then married a plural wife, too, while he was a member of the Apostolic United Brethren, also known as the Allred Group. In a written history he provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, Thompson described how his legal wife divorced him, and she and their two sons joined the mainstream church.
In spring 2003, James Thompson had stopped worshipping with the AUB and decided he wanted his other children to have the spiritual opportunities afforded to Latter-day Saints. Two young sons were ready to join, but missionaries told them they would have to move out of Thompson’s home or wait until they were 18.
Thompson was furious at the prospect of his sons having to choose their father or a faith. He eventually had a meeting with Latter-day Saint apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin. Thompson argued that his sons were being held back spiritually for decisions their dad had made. The boys soon were baptized.
Thompson joined the church not long afterward.
“I now had two of the best missionaries within my own house,” Thompson wrote.
Thompson also wrote to the governing First Presidency, asking leaders not to force converts to move out of homes, especially children, just because there may be polygamists living there.
Lawrence Barlow considered joining the LDS Church but opted against it. Barlow had been in the FLDS but had never been a polygamist.
That hardly means he doesn’t believe in polygamy. During an interview with a Latter-day Saint general authority in 2014, Barlow said he pointed out polygamy is still in the faith’s sacred canon, specifically the Doctrine and Covenants. Barlow also said he had a difficult time accepting Monson, who died in January 2018, as God’s only mouthpiece on Earth.
“I know who my creator is,” Barlow said. “I don’t need anyone’s stamp of approval.”
Barlow still has an affinity for the LDS Church. Within two weeks of that interview, Barlow’s wife had a massive stroke from which she’s still recovering. The general authority put Barlow’s family on the prayer rolls — a gesture Barlow still appreciates.
“I have a deep love and respect,” Barlow said, “for people living the gospel as best they know how.”
After seeing how her brother and sister-in-law practiced their religion, May Jeffs met with Latter-day Saint missionaries. While the proselytizers revered Monson, Jeffs said, they made clear their emphasis was on Christian teachings.
“I knew who Jesus Christ was growing up,” Jeffs said, “but we didn’t really learn about him.”
Jeffs, who was still in high school, also attended a youth handcart trek and saw how Latter-day Saint culture was far less rigid than FLDS culture.
She got baptized her senior year, served a mission in Minneapolis and is now a 21-year-old student attending Utah Valley University in Orem.
Like Thomas and Thompson, joining the LDS Church hasn’t solved all the family problems in her life. People who leave the FLDS are considered apostates — those who join the mainstream faith even more so because they are viewed as having rejected the salvation offered to them through the FLDS prophet.
Still, Jeffs believes becoming a mainstream Latter-day Saint is for everyone. “But everyone has to have their own journey.”