LDS Church makes it easier for children of polygamists to convert

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors take in the sights at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly has removed a policy that said children of polygamists could not join the Utah-based faith without disavowing their parents’ beliefs and moving out of the family home.

The policy on polygamists’ kids was cited by the church as the precedent for the November 2015 edict excluding children of same-sex couples unless they similarly distanced themselves from their parents. Top church leaders removed the LGBTQ policy in April of this year.

The guidelines on offspring from polygamous households received far less public criticism but did get some attention that the LGBTQ policy did not — discussion on reality television. In a 2015 episode of “Sister Wives,” about a polygamous family, then-19-year-old Maddie Brown sought to convert to the LDS Church but refused to repudiate her parents beliefs to do so.

Now, children from polygamous homes, like those from LGTBQ couples, can join the LDS Church in the same way as kids from other households — by being at least 8 years old and having at least one parent or guardian’s permission.

LDS Church representatives confirmed the change Tuesday night.

“The handbook has been updated to reflect earlier announcements by church leaders related to the baptisms of children whose parents are in a polygamous or same-sex relationship," church spokesman Daniel Woodruff wrote in an email.

Handbook 1, which spells out guidelines for local lay leaders, previously said that these children could not be baptized unless:

“1. The children accept the teachings and doctrines of the church.

“2. The children repudiate the teachings upon which their parents based their practice of plural marriage.

“3. Minor children are not living in a home where polygamy is being taught or practiced.”

Even then, the conversions had to be approved by the governing First Presidency, which consists of the church president and his two counselors.

In the latest handbook update, those requirements have been deleted.

Word of the change seeped onto social media Monday, when Jaclyn Foster, who is pursuing a master’s degree in American history, with an emphasis in Mormon studies, at the University of Utah, posted on Twitter the revised handbook passages.

Foster, who supports the change, said she received the loosened requirements from a man holding a local leadership position. She said the now-discarded rules appear to have been a way to combat one of the largest public misconceptions about the mainstream church — that it still condones polygamy.

“[Mainstream] Mormons are actually more afraid of polygamy than homosexuality,” Foster said, “because of the history.”

In this March 29, 2016, file photo, an obelisk marks the birthplace of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith in Sharon, Vt. . (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File)

The church says founder Joseph Smith received multiple revelations from God to enact polygamy. The practice grew after Mormon pioneers moved to the Great Basin.

Polygamy put members at odds with the federal government, and the church officially abandoned it in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood. Today, the church excommunicates any members engaged in plural marriage.

Some so-called fundamentalist Mormons, however, believe the institution remains necessary to follow Smith’s teachings and have joined splinter sects. Others of these followers have converted to the mainstream church, but they must quit practicing polygamy before joining.

Foster said removing the policy on children makes the LDS Church more welcoming to converts and brings it more in line with Mormonism’s Second Article of Faith, which states, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Many interpret that sentence to mean children should not suffer for their parents’ deeds.

It’s unclear how closely local lay leaders followed the policy in the first place.

Earlier this year, James Thompson, who was once a polygamist, told The Salt Lake Tribune that when two of his sons were ready to join the LDS Church, the policy requiring them to move out of his home was waived after Thompson had a meeting with a Latter-day Saint apostle.

(Shannon Mullane for High Country News) The Fosters and other families blasted holes in sandstone before filling them with suburban-style homes at Rockland Ranch. While most who live in the community are polygamists or fundamentalist Mormons, some families belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Benjamin Shaffer, a Seventy with Christ’s Church, also known as The Branch, said his children are baptized in both his church and the mainstream faith. His two older children, he said, even perform baptisms for the dead at both churches’ temples.

Shaffer and the children’s mother are divorced and the kids split their time between the two churches. He said the kids’ Latter-day Saint bishops simply ignored or defied the policy that would have kept the children away.

Shaffer said officially deleting the policy is “more Christlike,” but he worries about its effect on fundamentalist Mormonism.

“As more Mormon fundamentalists join the church,” Shaffer said, “not only will that dilute our numbers and encourage people to give up important doctrines and ordinances of the gospel, but I’m pessimistic that Mormon fundamentalists will fundamentally change the [LDS] Church rather than the other way around.”

Cristina Rosetti, who holds a doctorate from the University of California-Riverside in religious studies and has focused her research on Mormon fundamentalism, said the policy about children threatened to tear apart families with differing views on Mormonism and ignored how some fundamentalists still worship at Latter-day Saint meetinghouses.

"Polygamy is still part of the LDS Church [theology],” Rosetti said, “so we can’t pretend that policies about living polygamists doesn’t affect the LDS Church. There’s so much crossover.”

Anna Knecht’s parents were polygamists, but at age 9 she felt inspired to join the LDS Church. Her parents were supportive. Decades later, she and her husband continue to live at southern Utah’s Rockland Ranch, where many households, including some of her siblings, live in plural families.

Some children from polygamous families would like to go on proselytizing missions or participate in other activities available through the 16 million-member LDS Church, Knecht said, and removing the policy puts fewer barriers in their way.

“Most the youth that I know of that have gotten involved in the church,” Knecht said, “are looking at their parents’ background and not wanting that for themselves.”