By Ken Driggs
Ken Driggs is an attorney living in Atlanta, Georgia. He specializes in criminal defense and has a graduate degree in legal history. He has visited and written about Fundamentalist Mormons since 1988.
“Beware of false prophets,
which come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
As a longtime student of Mormon Fundamentalism, I have wondered about the hold Warren Jeffs, the prophet and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) continues to exert on his followers, even while in prison. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown,1 a harrowing 2011 book about Jim Jones and the mass murder/suicide of 900 at Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana, offers vital insights into Jeffs’ continuing sway.
The 14th child of FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs,2 Warren (born 1955) was the principal of Alta Academy, an FLDS school outside Salt Lake City, Utah, for 22 years until members were told to gather at the center communities of Colorado City, AZ/Hildale, UT in 1998. The area is historically known as Short Creek.
One woman who left the FLDS observed Warren Jeffs’ growing influence by 1995. She wrote “Warren Jeffs was becoming a subtle but more powerful presence in our daily lives. This struck me as odd because there were many other men who were more powerful in the FLDS than he. But he was Uncle Rulon’s favorite son, and the prophet would often say that Warren spoke for him.”3
Under Rulon Jeffs’ administration and that of Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow4 the FLDS remained socially and politically conservative but constructively engaged with the outside world. Personal friendships and profitable business relationships were the norm. FLDS members lived and worked in urban areas, had a large public school system which employed many FLDS, businesses on the nearby highway catering to passers by, including at least two restaurants—The Mark Twain and The Merry Wives Cafe—a motel, a branch of the Bank of Ephraim, and service stations.
Rulon Jeffs spent his last several years incapacitated by a series of strokes and Warren Jeffs acted as his stand-in until Rulon died in 2002 at age 92.5 There were an estimated 10,000 FLDS believers at the time.6
As Warren Jeffs consolidated power, he made the FLDS a progressively more insular people. In July 2000 “he stood up in church and told the people that they needed to take their children out of the public schools. ‘The time is short,’ he said from the pulpit. ‘The prophet has directed the people to pull your children out of the schools of the world and start priesthood school.’” This edict “resulted in the closing of the Colorado City Unified School District and a huge loss of jobs and income for many in the community.”7 This exodus from the public schools generated a lot of press coverage.8 The edict was motivated in part by the fact that many members of the break-away Centennial Park community were employed at the school.
In December 2003 the FLDS bought 1,400 acres outside Eldorado in West Texas, which became the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch populated by those most loyal to Jeffs. The property was built up as a self-sustaining community of about 1,400, including an impressive temple. During his administration, younger and younger girls were taken as plural wives at the ranch. Eventually it was alleged that Jeffs had married girls as young as twelve. Increasingly the object of both civil and criminal actions, Jeffs went underground the summer of 2004 to avoid being served, running the community from the shadows.9 He was finally captured during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas on 28 August 2006. On 5 September 2006, Jeffs was delivered by helicopter to the Washington County Jail in Purgatory, Utah.10
Jeffs represented himself at a trial in Texas and was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault on a child for underage brides aged 12 and 15. The State’s case included a creepy 20-minute audiotape of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old bride in front of an audience. He was convicted and sentenced to life plus twenty years. He botched an attempt to appeal. Since then, Jeffs has been held in a prison near Palestine, Texas.11 The YFZ Ranch, valued between $28 and 33.8 million, was deemed part of a criminal enterprise and confiscated by the State in 2012.12
However, Jeffs’ incarceration hasn’t diminished his power over the majority of the FLDS. Many still consider him a prophet of God. The Associated Press recently estimated Jeffs’ followers as down to about 6,000.13
Jim Jones is known mainly as the leader of Jonestown, a religious-socialist settlement in Guyana, South America where, in fall 1978, he and more than 900 of his followers committed suicide, most by ingesting a poisoned drink mix.
Jones started in Indiana as a preacher dedicated to racially integrating the local Pentecostal churches. He became a committed Marxist and looked for ways to promote socialism through his preaching and church organization. In 1965 he transplanted his congregation to California. As his church grew, Jones increased his control over the lives of its membership. He pursued the goal of starting a “socialist utopia” by leasing 4,000 acres from the Guyanese government and sending work crews down to build an infrastructure and housing. In 1977, he caught wind of a soon-to-be-published expose of his church (the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church) and immediately moved himself and many of his followers to Jonestown.
Jones lived there with his followers for a little over a year before the Concerned Relatives organization, made up of former members of the People’s Temple, convinced Congressman Leo Ryan to go on a fact-finding tour of Jonestown to make sure everyone there was safe. Ryan was attacked while in Jonestown, and then, as he boarded a small plane to leave, the “Red Brigade” (Jones’ enforcement arm) shot at Ryan, the media accompanying him, and some defectors, killing five including Ryan. That evening, Jones delivered a sermon directing his people to drink Flavor Aid mixed with sedatives and cyanide in an act of “revolutionary suicide.” More than 900 people died.
Though Jeffs and Jones led very different movements, their leadership tactics have much in common. Among the ones I will focus on are: 1) isolation, 2) disruption of families, 3) escalation of financial demands, and 4) claiming absolute authority.
During his time in California, Jim Jones began psychologically isolating his followers from the outside world, even though the majority of them lived in and around urban areas like San Francisco. To complete that isolation, he situated Jonestown deep in the jungles of South America. Scheeres wrote “Deep in the Guyanese jungle, Jones created a vacuum of reason where his madness played out unfettered.”14 No telephones connected them with the outside world. Mail—both incoming and outgoing—was heavily censored. When his followers’ American relatives tried to contact them over radio, the relatives said that the responses of their loved ones sounded scripted and wooden.15
The YFZ Ranch was Warren Jeffs’ Jonestown. Though the compound was located near a major highway, and only 50 miles from San Angelo, Texas, Jeffs created an environment where his followers’ psychological isolation was close to complete. In Short Creek—and later the ranch—Jeffs ordered that there be no television, Internet,16 or other mass media consumption. Further, Jeffs preached that those who left the community—whether voluntarily or through excommunication—or opposed his leadership were apostates. Communication between parents and expelled children, mostly boys who came to be known as “Lost Boys,” were tolerated only to encourage a wanderer’s total recommitment to Jeffs’ leadership. Jeffs even prohibited contact with other polygamous Mormon groups such as the “Centennial Park” group, which split off from the FLDS in the 1980s.
But Jeffs and Jones didn’t just cut their people off from the outside world, they actively made them afraid of it. In California, Jones staged assassination attempts on himself, and then, in Jonestown, a fake invasion where terrified Jonestown residents fled to the central pavilion, hunkering down for six days as they took turns guarding the building.17
Of course, the world was constantly impinging on the FLDS community: legal actions were being brought against the FLDS and its leaders, and defectors would speak out publicly against Jeffs, but each of these was portrayed as a religious test for the FLDS. After his capture, Jeffs made many suicide attempts while in custody, and once renounced his prophethood, but even these were portrayed as tests.18
In some ways, Jeffs’ warnings about the outside world were confirmed. For example, in April 2008, Texas state officials used very heavy-handed tactics during the YFZ Ranch raid, taking 468 children and distributing them all over Texas, in some cases temporarily losing the children. Then, in 2012, the State seized the ranch.
Disruption of Families
Jones imposed his socialist ideals onto the family structure within his community, including the idea of children being raised by communities instead of nuclear families. In fact, the families of those seen to be dissenters could sometimes be “broken up and kids farmed out to different communes.”19 In Jonestown, Jones went so far as to set up a “relationship committee [which] approved romantic pairings.” Those who engaged in unapproved liaisons were banished to the “learning crew,” a group assigned difficult or distasteful tasks such as latrine duty.”20
Jones “denounced marriage and family as bourgeois inventions and initiated numerous, secret affairs with both male and female followers.”21 He “told members that they should consider the Temple their sole family and to throw away photos of deceased relatives.”22 Separated from his wife (though she remained in his church) Jones kept a stable of female concubines and sometimes engaged in sex with men. “At meetings, Jones sometimes called on residents to testify to his skills as a lover.”23
Family relationships could be similarly disrupted under Jeffs’ administration. During a famous 2004 church meeting, Jeffs told twenty-one men to stand up — many holding high positions in the FLDS — and denounced them as apostates. He told them to leave the community immediately. Their wives and children were usually reassigned to other men, and sometimes reassigned further depending on Jeffs’ whims.
Many others have been expelled from the FLDS since then; rarely have they been given a reason for the action. Some excommunicated FLDS have told me about being confronted at their homes by Jeffs’ agents who told them they were found to be “unclean” and that they must leave immediately and “repent from afar.” Some moved as far away as Minnesota or the energy fields of North Dakota. I am unaware of any expelled individuals restored to their former status and families.
I have heard multiple accounts of plural wives who wished to leave the FLDS with their husbands. In many instances Jeffs quickly placed these women with new husbands.
Parents who were expelled from the FLDS were often ordered to sign documents assigning their children to families loyal to Jeffs. These documents were totally unenforceable but the parents were generally unsophisticated about the law and accepted their legitimacy. Some have recently begun to fight back, trying to locate and recover their children. There is a growing “underground railroad” where sympathetic activists bring wives and children out of the community. (However, many of these escapees find the non-FLDS world intimidating and difficult to navigate.) More recently, some of them moved back to Short Creek and recovered their forfeited homes.
Jones used a similar tactic, holding family members hostage as a way to control those who had left the community. “Whenever a resident left Jonestown for a medical checkup or some other business, he (Jones) made sure at least one of the person’s relatives stayed behind as ransom.”24
Jeffs further upset family systems by adding his own element to the FLDS tradition of “placement marriage” (where the prophet was told by God who should marry whom), marrying younger and younger brides.25 Based on his marriages to and sexual relations with 12-year-olds, Jeffs appears to have been a genuine pedophile. In fact, he was the subject of a civil suit alleging that he raped his young nephew Brent Jeffs when Warren was headmaster of Alta Academy.26 Some dissenters have accused Jeffs of accepting underage brides from their fathers as trades for positions of power with the FLDS.27
Escalation of Financial Demands
Jones preached a kind of “apostolic socialism or divine socialism,”28 wherein he required his believers to sign over their homes, savings, social security checks, and paychecks to his church. “It was harder to quit the church after you went communal. Jones promised members lifetime care in exchange for their complete financial commitment. Members sold everything they had — homes, stocks, and jewelry — and gave proceeds to the church before moving into a [People’s Temple Full Gospel Church] apartment so they had nothing to fall back on if they left.”29 After Jones’ relocation to Guyana, the Social Security Administration stopped forwarding social security checks to Jonestown and tried to investigate “rumors that residents were forced to sign over their checks to the Temple.”30
The United Effort Plan, the FLDS’s version of 19th-century Mormonism’s United Order, and Jeffs’ escalating financial assessments amount to the same thing. Those who leave the FLDS usually have next to nothing with which to navigate the outside world — from money to identification papers. The homes and businesses they built up while with the FLDS remained with the UEP.
When Jeffs expelled FLDS adult male members, they were often told to continue sending money to the leadership, implying that they might be able to regain their place in the community and their families if they did. More recently, he has also been mandating assessments from faithful families still in the community. I have heard stories of up to $1,000 a month in assessments for each family member, including children, which have often been met by racking up credit card debt.
One FLDS refugee wrote, “I had been in the FLDS Church from the moment I was born. It was all I knew and the only way I could imagine living. From my teachings, I knew that the prophet’s job was to dictate what was best for us and that the words he spoke came straight from God. I believe that my impending marriage was the will of God and therefore nothing could be done to stop it.”31
Both Jeffs and Jones were considered absolute authorities over their respective communities. Jones held so much sway that he was even able to step away from traditional Christianity, deny God, and reject the Bible, all while holding himself out as what amounts to God on earth.32 At one point, the United States Consul was directed to investigate the worries of relatives who had lost family members to Jonestown. During a visit the consul offered to drive unhappy members out of the community but none accepted. “[H]e couldn’t understand how a single man could wield that kind of power over so many people.”33
Jeffs presented himself as God’s prophet in a way that denied the validity of any other interpretations or leadership. In 2013 he published his own 968-page book of revelations, a kind of FLDS Doctrine & Covenants, copies of which were mailed to political leaders and libraries all over the world: Jesus Christ [sic] Message to All Nations by “President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God.”34
Jeffs could hold such a powerful position because of the FLDS teaching of “one man rule.”35 Though fundamentalist Mormonism was initially guided by a seven-member Priesthood Council presided over by a senior leader, the death of John Y. Barlow in 1949 instigated a split between those who supported Joseph W. Musser as Barlow’s successor and those who opposed him. (This is called the “priesthood split” in fundamentalist circles.) Those who followed Musser largely became the much more assimilated and moderate Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), which still has a functioning Priesthood Council. Those who opposed Musser eventually gravitated to Leroy S. Johnson and became the FLDS.36 Over time, the Council atrophied. By the time Rulon Jeffs took leadership, it had ceased to exist, leaving him no longer needing to gain consensus for his decisions.37 So when Warren took over, he had unilateral control, answering to no one. We have seen throughout this article what that kind of power can lead to.
Without a doubt, Warren Jeffs has done enormous harm to the religious community he seized control of. My longtime personal experience with the FLDS people has taught me that they are, on the whole, good, decent, and hardworking. Warren Jeffs and his inner circle are in no way representative of them. It saddens me that they have been victimized by Jeffs.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (3 Nephi 14:15).
- Julia Scheeres, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, (New York: Free Press, 2011). Hereinafter Lives.
- Rulon Jeffs was born 6 December 1909 and died 8 September 2002. He was ordained a high priest apostle and placed on the fundamentalist Mormon Priesthood Council on 19 April 1945. In 1986, with the death of Leroy S. Johnson, he assumed leadership of what became the FLDS.
- Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer, Escape (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 215. Hereinafter Escape.
- Born in 1923 to Fundamentalist Mormon leader John Y. Barlow and his third wife Martha Jessop, Dan Barlow was appointed mayor of Colorado City shortly after the city was incorporated on 17 September 1985. Benjamin G. Bistline, The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona (Scottsdale, AZ: Agreka Books, 2004), 262. Hereinafter Polygamists. Barlow was excommunicated by Warren Jeffs for no apparent reason on 12 January 2004 and now lives with a son in St. George, Utah. Full disclosure, Dan and I have been good friends since 1988.
- Michael Janofsky, “Mormon Leader is survived by 33 Sons and a Void,” New York Times, 15 September 2002, 16.
- In 2009 the advocacy group Principle Voices estimated that there were 38,000 Fundamentalist Mormons, including 15,000 unaffiliated, 10,000 FLDS, 7,500 Apostolic United Brethren, 2,000 in Centennial Park, 2,000 in the Davis County Cooperative, and 1,500 in other groups. Brooke Adams, “About 38K Fundamentalist Mormons Are Counted,” Salt Lake Tribune, 27 September 2009, A18.
- Elissa Wall with Lisa Pulitzer, Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs (New York: Harper Collins, 2008, 110–111. Hereinafter Stolen. See also “In July of 2000, Warren Jeffs, on behalf of his ailing father Rulon Jeffs, had announced that members of the FLDS Church should home-school their children, completely cutting ties with non-members and former members” in Brian C. Hales, Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalists: The Generation after the Manifesto (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 341.
- Mark Shaffer, “Town Split by Mormon Fight,” Arizona Republic, 29 August 2000, A1; Hilary Groutage Smith, “Polygamists Heed Call; Enrollment Drops,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 August 2000, A1; “Polygamists are leaving public schools,” Deseret News, 2–3 August 2000, A1; Greg Burton, “Polygamists Pull Kids From School,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 August 2000, B2.
- Stolen, 344.
- Kirk Johnson, “Leader of Polygamous Mormon Sect Is Arrested in Nevada,” New York Times, 30 August 2006, A1; Ben Winslow and Nancy Perkins, “Jeffs to Appear Before a Judge in Utah Today,” Deseret News, 7 September 2006.
- For an account of the YFZ Ranch Raid, Jeffs’ trial and those of several of his followers see Ken Driggs, “‘Texas Has its Own View of Polygamists’: The Texas FLDS Raid and Trials,” Sunstone, August 2013, 6–16.
- The ranch was seized under Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. It was District Court case no. 3164 in Schleicher County. See: Matthew Waller, “State Moves to Seize FLDS Ranch Property,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 29 November 2012, 1A; Matthew Waller, “Effort to Seize YFZ a Blow to Sect,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 2 December 2012, 1A; Lindsay Whitehurst, “Texas Follows the Money in Fight for FLDS Ranch,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 7 December 2012, 5A; Jennifer Rios, “Seized Ranch Sits in Limbo,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 20 October 2014, 1A; Jennifer Rios, “Former FLDS Ranch Forfeited to State,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 9 January 2014, 1A; and Jennifer Rios, “Last Residents Leaving Enclave,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 18 April 2014, 1A.
- Brady McCombs, “Town Once Run by Polygamist Leader Sharply Divided,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 25 January 2015, 8B.
- Lives, 199.
- Lives, 129-130.
- I do not subscribe to the delusion that everything on the Internet is reliable.
- Lives, 92–94.
- While in jail, Jeffs attempted to hang himself in 2007, and subsequently to kill himself by banging his head into his cell wall, and starve himself. A Utah trial judge ordered a competency evaluation by state mental health experts. See Brooke Adams, “Force-feeding Resumes as Jeffs Refuses to Eat,” Salt Lake Tribune, 4 August 2009.
- On disruption of family relationships see Lives at 41, 87, 104, 116, 123–124.
- Lives, 157.
- Lives, 40.
- Lives, 50.
- Lives, 154.
- Lives, 104.
- Marianne Watson, “The 1948 Secret Marriage of Luis J. Barlow: Origins of FLDS Placement Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40 (Spring 2007): 83–136. Note an autobiographical account of placement marriage at 14-year-old girl at Elissa Wall in Stolen.
- See Brent W. Jeffs with Maia Szalavitz, Lost Boy (New York: Broadway Books, 2009).
- Note the allegation that Jones used attractive women “to bedazzle” California and Gynanian officials in Lives, 81.
- Lives, 24, 31.
- Lives, 43.
- Lives, 127.
- Stolen, 125.
- Lives, 155.
- Lives, 168–169. Note a similar experience with FBI agents raiding a Los Angeles Scientology site where they found 120 believers imprisoned in a basement as part of the “Rehabilitation Project Force” program who refused freedom when offered it. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 141.
- President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God,” Jesus Christ Message to All Nations, 2nd edition. (Colorado City, AZ: Twin City Courier, 2013). Matthew Waller, “FLDS Starts Media Blitz,” San Angelo Standard-Times, 27 January 2012, 7A.
- See Rulon Jeffs, History of Priesthood Succession in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times and Some Challenges to the One Man Rule: Also Includes Personal History of Rulon Jeffs (Sandy, Utah: President Rulon Jeffs for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1997). Photocopy in the possession of the author.
- Leroy S. Johnson: 1888–1986. See Ken Driggs, “Fundamentalist Attitudes toward the Church: The Sermons of Leroy S. Johnson,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 21 (Summer 1990): 38–60.
- See Ken Driggs, “Imprisonment, Defiance, and Division: A History of Mormon Fundamentalism in the 1940s and 1950s,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 2005): 65–95, 91–95.