How Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt represent LDS teachings — and where they go wildly astray

Mainstream Latter-day Saints would view their behaviors as “totally beyond the pale,” scholar says, but some of the phrasing Franke uses in her journal is found in the faith’s culture.

A Washington County investigation cited “religious extremism” as the motivation behind the “horrific abuse” committed by Ruby Franke, a Latter-day Saint parenting influencer, and Jodi Hildebrandt, a fellow church member and former therapist, against two of Franke’s children.

“The women appeared to fully believe that the abuse they inflicted was necessary to teach the children how to properly repent for imagined ‘sins,’” investigators wrote in a Friday news release, “and to cast the evil spirits out of their bodies.”

The release also included the revelation that Hildebrandt had multiple meetings with high-ranking authorities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the time the abuse was taking place, according to a timeline provided by Franke. They included Brad Wilcox, counselor in the church’s global Young Men presidency, and general authority Seventy Jeremy Jaggi.

According to Franke, Hildebrandt met with Wilcox, a religion professor at church-owned Brigham Young University, and Jaggi in Salt Lake City on June 16, 2023. A previous entry, dated May 28, 2023, simply reads “Meet Jeremy Jaggi,” but does not say whether she and/or Hildebrandt were present at that appointment.

The church did not respond Friday to requests to verify that the meetings took place or what might have been discussed. There is no evidence to suggest that either leader — or a former mission president from whom Franke said Hildebrandt received a spiritual blessing (bestowal of strength and support by a male priesthood holder) May 21, 2023 — had knowledge of the abuse.

The two women, arrested in August, each pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse in December and were sentenced to at least four years in prison in February.

‘Spawns of Satan’

Included in that abuse was regular denial of food and water as well as beds to sleep in and forced manual labor. When police found the children Aug. 30, the then-12-year-old son was “emaciated” with open wounds and duct tape around his ankles and wrists. The 10-year-old daughter was malnourished.

Utah’s predominant faith teaches that, as it states in one of its guides for lay leaders, “abuse in any form is sinful, tragic and in total opposition to the teachings of the Savior.”

The church has repeatedly affirmed that its teachings and handbooks “are clear and unequivocal about the evils of abuse” and that “members who violate those teachings are disciplined by the church and may lose their privileges or membership.”

Its top leaders have proclaimed that abuse “cannot be tolerated” or “excused.”

In Franke’s diary entries, released Friday by investigators, the former host of the YouTube channel 8 Passengers writes that her actions are justified because evil spirits had possessed the bodies of her children.

“To begin separation from evil toward God, all the darkness needs [to be] exposed to light,” Franke writes in a July 23, 2023, entry. “And once the lies and sin is revealed, the body must engage in good work. And the good works need to be painful — otherwise the service becomes another feel–good distraction.”

She adds: “A day of fasting and prayer for me after learning my children have been spawns of Satan.”

At one point, Franke describes attempting an exorcism on her son, telling him to “give your demon friend a message for me. I will not rest. I will not stop. I will not leave. I will fight him until the day you die. I have the power of God and he must obey. I beat Satan. I win.”

She said she then looked in her son’s “eyes and with power and authority commanded, ‘GET OUT NOW! GO!’”

At that point, her son “immediately smiled, cried, slumped, softened,” and declared, “‘He’s gone! He left!’”

But Franke wasn’t convinced. Two days later, she wrote, “There is a soul-killing infection in my child.”

Outside the mainstream

According to the religious historian John-Charles Duffy, a teaching professor at Miami University, there is no doubt that any mainstream Latter-day Saint would find Hildebrandt’s and Franke’s behaviors “totally beyond the pale.”

But, the scholar said, that doesn’t mean that Franke’s worldview is totally divorced from the faith.

The mother of six’s emphasis on “exact obedience” and the need for constant repentance are, Duffy said, present in Latter-day Saint culture and teachings. And some of her language — phrases like “divine worth” and “a daughter of God” — is found in the church’s discourse.

He noted, however, that Franke appears to imbue her faith with strains of other Christian traditions.

“Her notion of demonic possession…almost sounds more Pentecostal,” Duffy said. “There is, of course, the LDS tradition that there are evil spirits around who tempt us. But this goes beyond that. She thinks she’s talking to demons herself.”

He added that the indication that Franke believes she can dispel them herself is also a departure from the Latter-day Saint framework, in which such actions are traditionally left up to male priesthood holders.

“There is a spectrum of people within the church who have views that are roughly more marginal” when it comes to certain issues, from the role of government to dietary restrictions, he explained. Hildebrandt and Franke, he suspected, had at some point tapped into a marginal Latter-day Saint subculture regarding child rearing, only to take that fringe view to an “even further extreme.”

“It’s not a jump,” he said, “but a shading.”

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