Mexican killings spotlight the twists and turns in the history of Mormon polygamy

Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

After nine people belonging to a Mormon offshoot community were killed in Mexico this week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a short statement expressing sympathy for the victims while clarifying that they didn’t belong to the mainstream church.

That the global faith of 16.3 million members would feel the need to make such a clarification amid a tragedy underscored the conundrum the church faces when big news happens with splinter groups that practice polygamy. Plural marriage was key during the faith’s founding days, but the Utah-based church denounced it more than a century ago.

The victims’ connection to Mormonism featured prominently in headlines this week about the drug cartel attack on a caravan of American women and children living in Mexico, though there’s no indication they were targeted for their religion.

Church leaders were likely hoping to end widespread confusion among outsiders about the faith’s stance on polygamy and links to the offshoots, said Patrick Mason, a religious scholar who is the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to elaborate on how the church handles the confusion, saying it wants to respect the grieving families.

Similar confusion was common more than a decade ago when a group led by Warren Jeffs was in the news over allegations of child sexual abuse and a raid on the sect’s Texas ranch.

“The LDS Church isn’t going to be able to shake the ghost of polygamy anytime soon,” Mason said. “That history will continue to haunt every aspect of Mormonism for a long time to come. It’s too powerful an image; it’s too powerful a cultural memory.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Mason speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast on Oct. 4, 2019.

Mason pointed to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center during church member Mitt Romney’s first run for president, which found “polygamy” was the most common word associated with members of the faith.

Popular TV shows about polygamous families, including the reality series “Sister Wives” and the fictional show “Big Love,” only exacerbated the confusion, he said.

Many people don’t know the difference between Methodists and Baptists, let alone the different factions of Mormonism, Mason said.

“In the minds of the wider public, everyone who goes by the term Mormon is lumped into one group, whether they are polygamous or monogamous or which group they adhere to,” said Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association, an independent organization.

The nine women and children killed by drug cartel gunmen in northern Mexico on Monday lived in a remote farming community where residents are descendants of former Latter-day Saints who fled U.S. prosecution of polygamy in the late 19th century.

Early church members practiced polygamy in the 1800s at the instruction of founder Joseph Smith, but the church disavowed it in 1890.

The Mexican community is one of a handful of Mormon splinter groups that still practice plural marriage. The most well known is a community on the Utah-Arizona state line known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that was run by Jeffs, who is now serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.

FLDS members have since been spreading out across the West.

(File photo, The Salt Lake Tribune) File photo Warren Jeffs, who is now serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.

There are other smaller groups around Salt Lake City and in Missouri.

The Utah-based church in recent years has been more open about how polygamy was a key part of its history. It published an essay detailing that Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men’s wives during the faith’s early polygamous days. In 2015, it included a small exhibit about polygamy in its revamped history museum in Salt Lake City.

A recent push by church President Russell M. Nelson to eradicate the use of previously embraced shorthand terms for the faith — “Mormon,” “LDS” and “Mormon church” — has added an interesting wrinkle to the discussion, said W. Paul Reeve, the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Church President Russell M. Nelson speaks at a news conference Friday, April 19, 2019.

When Jeffs’ stories were generating attention, church officials argued that people should only call members of the mainstream church Mormons and avoid the term “fundamentalist Mormon,” Reeve said.

“The interesting irony,” Reeve said, “is now the Salt Lake City-based church has said, ‘Don’t use the word Mormon in association with us,’ and yet they’re still fighting the same public affairs issues.”

Also muddling the issue is the fact that Smith’s revelation that God told him to practice plural marriage remains canonized in church scripture, the scholars noted.

The faith also allows men to be “sealed” for the afterlife to more than one wife if they remarry after their first wife dies, they said. Nelson, the church president, and one of his top counselors have remarried and been sealed to their second wives, Mason said.

“Still, in Latter-day Saint theology, we have polygamy,” said Mason, who’s a member of the faith. “It just happens in heaven, not here on Earth.”