Monday, June 6, 2022

A Mormon Fundamentalist Review: Under the Banner of Heaven Ep. 7

 


I am an excommunication whore...

At least, this is what a friend said about me tongue-in-cheek, given the number of times I have been the recipient of excommunications.

Four times.  I have been excommunicated four times.  Once from the LDS Church at the tender age of 20 for "apostasy" - apostasy being studying the principle of plural marriage and believing that it should be lived.  Once about five years later from the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), a polygamous offshoot of the LDS Church, cut off for helping compose a list of complaints and mass mailing it to the whole church.  A third time twelve years later in a smaller community for disagreeing with the leader on the topic of race, and the final time just five years ago simply for being a certain race. (Much more on this topic in later posts.)

Whereas excommunications are a hard thing to go through, I am grateful for each experience, because they taught me hard yet valuable lessons that I likely wouldn't experience elsewhere.  The result is that I now consider myself an Independent Mormon Fundamentalist, not belonging to any formally organized church or group.  It's better this way.  Lonelier, yes.  But better.  It is with a measure of pride that I can say that I have always stood up for what I perceive to be correct principle.

So, here's the funny part - despite going through so many excommunications, I have never had an excommunication trial or hearing.  Not once.  In the LDS Church, I received in the mail both the invitation to my trial and the results - both on the same day.  I was tried in absentia.  In the AUB, we were "invited" not to return and then shunned by people we assumed were friends.  No trial.  The third one was the most bizarre.

Every Sunday morning, we used to get up at the crack of dawn and meet for prayers in the upstairs room of our chapel.  There was an altar up there, and we dressed in our temple clothes to pray.  Everyone had a key to the prayer room, so that we could use the room privately whenever we wanted.  The way we found out we were excommunicated - we showed up one morning to find that the locks to the prayer room had been changed.  Our keys didn't work, and we were barred from entering a prayer room we had labored to help build.  We were released from our callings without thanks or even notification.  I had taught Youth Sunday School for ten years; my wives had been involved with Primary for just as long.  Other people were simply called to replace us, and the way we found out was through the rumor mill.  Can you think of anything more Mormon and passive aggressive than just changing locks without talking to anyone? (The fourth time I was excommunicated was from a much smaller group and was sort of mutual.  I just stopped going.)

Something else peculiar happened after the locks were changed.  In a public meeting, the leader of this group was discussing me and the other people who were cut off, and he physically dusted his feet of us.  I was shocked when I heard this.  This man was supposed to be my friend.  This was something that you reserve for your enemies.  The dusting of the feet is a symbol of casting off the wicked and unrepentant and delivering them over to the wrath of God.  Just because I had a differing opinion with "one man", I was not only cast out, but cursed.

The scene in Episode 7, the final episode of the FX/ Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven, where the General Authority dusts his feet of Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and the murder investigation of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica - that scene was triggering for me.  Without a doubt, there were many things in the episode that I found disturbing and triggering.  But that particular scene struck a personal chord with me.  It brought me to remembrance of all the excommunications I have garnered, and that time when a man I used to love dusted his feet of me...

The custom of shaking the dust from your feet against someone was taken from the New Testament where the apostles were given instructions in regard to how to handle those who denied them hospitality while out in the world preaching the Word.  They were to "depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet" and that it "would be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city" (Matthew 15: 14-15).  As the early Latter-Day Saints began to send out missionaries out, they appropriated the same custom, and it is found several places in Doctrine & Covenants:

"And in whatsoever place ye shall enter, and they receive you not in my name, ye shall leave a cursing instead of a blessing, by casting off the dust of your feet against them as a testimony, and cleansing your feet by the wayside." D&C 24: 15

So, how was that performed by the Saints?  Was it simply stamping your feet as depicted in Episode 7?  It was actually a formal priesthood ordinance.  In 1880, during the tenure of John Taylor, the leadership of the church were wanted men and hiding from the federal authorities, Wilford Woodruff was hiding in a sheep camp in Sunset, Arizona - not far from where I live as I write this.  Even though John Taylor was the president at the time, Woodruff dictated the words of a lengthy revelation addressed to the Quorum of the Twelve.  This revelation is known to fundamentalists as the 1880 Revelation and can be found with other uncanonized revelations in both fundamentalist publications The Four Hidden Revelations and Unpublished Revelations.  In regard to the many enemies of the church, the revelation said:

"Go ye alone by yourselves, whether in heat or in cold and cleanse your feet in water, pure water, it matters not whether it be by the running streams, or in your closets; but leave these testimonies before the Lord and the heavenly hosts; and when.. ye do these things with purity of heart, I the Lord will hear your prayers and am bound by oath and covenant to defend you and fight your battles."

As an interesting, yet not completely irrelevant, aside, the FLDS Church reject completely the 1880 Revelation - not just because Wilford Woodruff was the "traitor" who compromised with the government and issued the Manifesto that ended plural marriage, but because the revelation tells the apostles that they "hold in common the Keys".  That flies in the face of their One Man Rule doctrine that gives Warren Jeffs the excuse to be the only one in control.  More abuse of power, but more on that later...

The 1880 Revelation also instructs the apostles to "gather yourselves together in your Holy places and clothe yourselves in the robes of the Holy Priesthood and there offer up your prayers..."  So, the recipe to get the Lord to fight your battles was to perform the washing of feet ordinance as testimony against your enemies and to place the names of your enemies on your prayer lists before God.  It was said that Joseph Smith's prayer meetings were more like cursing meetings, because he had so many people against him and so many court cases.

So, why am I telling stories of my collection of excommunications?  Why am I recounting that I never had a priesthood tribunal?  Or was listened to?  That I had a curse laid upon me by an alleged friend?  Because all of this is representative of what I perceive as the greatest problem in Mormonism - both mainstream LDS and Mormon fundamentalist - the arbitrary abuse of power.

And imperfect as Under the Banner was on some levels, Dustin Lance Black captured this perfectly.  The General Authority dusting off his feet against Pyre, or the blessing laid upon the head of Brenda by church leaders compelling her to stay in a situation that proved fatal, or the many scenes that depict priesthood holders extracting blind obedience from wives - both the Laffertys and even Pyre.  It doesn't matter that many of these events were fictionalized.  They resonated with many, many people.  Because so many have gone through strikingly similar events.

My wife and me at the premiere

The combination of arbitrary abuse of power in tandem with unquestioning obedience is a dangerous thing.  This unholy union led to the tragedy of Mountain Meadows, and it led to the to the brutal murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty, and her daughter, Erica.  How I wept to see both of these scenes depicted on the small screen!  Because these are the fruits of our folly.  These are the real casualties of our ideological speculation.  This is the product of our vanity - that blood soaks the carpet of a quaint home in American Fork, Utah and drenches the stones of a mountain valley in southern Utah.  All of Mormonism is under condemnation because of this blood, and the only way to move past it is to confront it.  The fact that a TV show has made us so uncomfortable proves that there must be a reckoning.  If we prayed for the blood of Joseph Smith to be avenged to the third and fourth generations, if we believed that this was a thing, how long will we be held accountable for the blood we have spilled?  For the doctrines that led to bloodshed?

I am a Mormon fundamentalist.  Yet I walk comfortably in ex-Mormon circles.  That's in part because ex-Mos and fundies both asked the hard questions; we came up with different answers to the questions.  But I am asked all the time -"Why are you still a believer?  Knowing all that you know, why are you still a believer?"  The answer to that is complicated.  A couple of years ago, I met for a couple of hours with a cultural anthropology professor from California.  She asked me a series of questions about my beliefs afterwards, and she left baffled.  She expected to find a dyed-in-the-wool, Trump-supporting, Bible-thumping fundamentalist.  I think she was almost disappointed that I didn't fit the stereotype.  I am not a literalist, and I question every doctrine, every teaching, any principle, every revelation that crosses my path.  And I'm not afraid to toss out things that don't make sense or serve me any longer.  Some people have a "shelf" - I have a "garbage can".

And that is because - me, along with the people I'm close to - witnessed so much abuse of power along our path of Mormon fundamentalism that we have developed a penchant for questioning everything, much to the annoyance of many of our contemporaries.  Also, we have a deep distrust of leadership, and none of us ever want to put ourselves in any capacity where we are in charge of anyone.  Ever.  And that is because of what the Prophet Joseph wrote in D&C 121:39:

"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

This is a universal truth.  All men.  Even myself.  I've seen abuse of power among fundamentalist men. 

"Follow your file leader." "When the brethren speak, the thinking has been done." "Stand at the rack, hay or no hay." "You cannot question us, because you are not our peer."

These are literally things I have heard said.  And here is the freaky part - I have seen that capacity within myself as well.  And it scares the hell out of me.  So, I try to remain humble as best as I can.  Many things in my life have helped keep me that way, including numerous excommunications.  So, I decline leadership. I'm a nobody.

One of the reasons I have held to my Mormon faith are several spiritual experiences.  These make it hard to question my faith. I usually keep them close to my heart and don't share them with others, but permit me to share one that may be relevant.

My deceased father came to me in a dream, dressed in his temple whites.  I recognized in my dream that he was from the other side, so I asked him what he had to say to me.  He embraced me and whispered in my ear three times, "Test all topics the way you are taught in the temple."  Then he vanished.

Beyond the alliteration, I have pondered over the years what that might mean.  I have come to the conclusion - we must test all topics.  Everything should be questioned.  Nothing is unimpeachable.  Doctrines.  Teachings.  Practices.  Everything can and must be tried.  Even our beloved leaders.  Only then can we make sense of these brutal murders and ensure they never happen again.

I've reached the end of my reviews for Under the Banner of Heaven.  I started out this review not knowing what I was going to write about.  I hope it didn't come across too preachy.  I want to thank Dustin Lance Black, Troy Williams, and Lindsay Hansen Park for their vision.


Thursday, June 2, 2022

Through the Veil: A Mormon Fundamentalist Temple Experience

AUB temple, Ozumba, Mexico

 In the autumn of 1992, I drove early in the morning with my parents to a large house at the bottom of a ravine at the Point-of-the-Mountain in Bluffdale, Utah - only a mile, or two, from the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper.  The air was crisp, and I got out of the car, carrying a plastic bag of neatly-folded white clothing.  We walked towards the ordinary looking two-story house, and I felt a flood of nervous energy.  I didn't know what to expect as we walked, not to the front door, but through the garage door.  The garage was dark, empty, and nondescript with cold, cement floors.  At the back of the garage, there was a short set of steps that led to a heavy door.  Above the door was a sign that said: "Holiness to the Lord".

We knocked at the door, and we were admitted into a waiting room.  The cold sparseness of the garage belied the opulence of the waiting room.  The carpet was clean, and the walls were freshly painted, adorned with hardwood trim.  The chairs were luxurious and cushioned.  The waiting room was already filled with other people waiting, wearing jackets and street clothes in the chilly morning, carrying bags with them, so we took a seat.  My future bride and her parents were among them.  She smiled brightly at me, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.  But she didn't say anything to me.  No one said anything.  Everyone in the room was hushed and not speaking.  At the head of the room, with a chair facing towards us was Owen Allred, the man I regarded at the time as my prophet, the senior member of the Priesthood Council of the Apostolic United Brethren, or the AUB.  (Except that no one in the AUB called it that.  They called it "The Work", or simply "The Group".)

Brother Owen was usually a gregarious and good-natured old man.  His customary way of greeting me was to punch me on the shoulder, sometimes hard enough to nearly knock me over.  Once when I grew a goatee, he grabbed my facial hair and yanked until there were nearly tears, demanding, "What's this?"  But he almost always ended each rough encounter by grabbing my head, bumping my forehead to his, growling, "I sure love you, brother!"  But not today.  In this waiting room, Brother Owen didn't even look up at me.  He was solemn, dressed in his white suit.  He silently made marks in a white ledger he carried, and, as I watched him, he never looked more like a prophet.  

Owen Allred and me, 1994

In the silence, I studied Owen and the room.  I tried to gauge the feeling in there.  One thing I noticed on the door were golden stars arranged in the pattern of the Big Dipper.  When I went to sacrament meetings, when I sang hymns, there was a certain feeling I got.  The feeling in this room was... different.  To this day, I don't know how else to describe it, but there was a palpably different feeling from regular worship.  This was more primeval, more powerful.  Soon, I was the first one called into the washing and anointing room...

So, why am I telling the story of my receiving the temple endowment as a practicing Mormon fundamentalist?  Because the temple ceremony has become relevant in online discussions following depicted dramatically on the FX/ Hulu limited series, Under the Banner of Heaven.  The internet is abuzz with discourse about the more bizarre and hidden aspect of Mormon worship.  Ex-Mormons speak freely about how troubling and traumatic the experience was for them.  Faithful Latter-Day Saints remain quiet and reticent on the subject.  I suppose, among believers, it rests upon me to recount my experiences going through the temple ceremony since I am unafraid to discuss the particulars.  I have made a great study of the endowment, its archetypal sources, and its history of practice among Mormon polygamists.  As open as I am, however, there are some things I am unwilling to disclose or discuss, mainly the things I have covenanted not to reveal.  You can read all about those things online anyway.  They're not hidden.

The temple endowment ceremony is relatively new among Mormon fundamentalists.  The initial division between polygamists and the LDS Church was ephemeral in the 1920s.  At first, excommunications for post-Manifesto plural marriages were pro tempore and for show for the government who was watching to make sure that Mormons fulfilled their promise to end the practice of polygamy.  Even those who were excommunicated seemed to not be totally rejected by the greater LDS community.  For instance, Patriarch John W. Woolley was no longer allowed to sit near the podium in his ward during sacrament meetings after being cut off from the church, but he was still afforded a place of honor in a separate chair just to the side of the podium.  In the early days of fundamentalism, the children of fundamentalists were still able to attend church functions, including going on missions, including going to the temple.  So, whenever a fundamentalist family wanted their children to receive their endowments, they sent them to the LDS Church.

The AUB Council circa 1990

This was in keeping with the commission given to Lorin C. Woolley, the founder of the fundamentalist movement, that they were not to interfere or duplicate anything that the church was able to do.  After all, it was still the Lord's Church, even if it was in an "out of order" state.  Fundamentalists were told that they were not to organize, not to recreate any of the church's  auxiliaries.  They were to perpetuate plural marriage only.  This was their calling - to keep alive the one principle that the church had done away with until the church was ready to accept polygamy again.  And so, polygamists sent their children to make covenants in the temples of the LDS Church.

At least until the schism between mainstream members and fundamentalists grew wider.  There came a day when the children of polygamists were no longer welcome in the church, and a whole generation of plyg kids grew up with no knowledge of the endowment.  The temple was simply a beautiful yet impregnable building viewed from afar, a symbol as cold and as unwelcoming as the church who had cast them out.  Fundamentalism still continued to garner new adherents from the church, and most of them had experienced the temple ceremony while in the church.  But the temple doors were effectively closed to all older fundamentalist families.  As the LDS Church altered the garment pattern, Rulon Allred made a practice of placing the old-style long garments on newer fundamentalists who were wearing the newer church garment, but that's the extent of temple-style work done by fundamentalists.  (It should be pointed out that the LeBaron tradition possibly has a much different story.)

Rulon used to instruct his people to pray for the doors of the LDS temples to be opened up to them, so they could enter into them again.  They pray for this even now.

Then came the lifting of the priesthood ban by the LDS Church, which allowed all worthy members to enter the temples, regardless of race or color.  (I have a lot to say on this subject at a later date.)  The question came to the AUB Council - with the lifting of the priesthood ban, would the Lord still accept of endowments done by the Mormon Church.  So, they decided to convene a meeting, presided by Owen Allred, to pray over the matter.

On January 23, 1981, the AUB Council met in Crescent, Utah to pray about what to do about temple work.  Half of the council was old enough to be endowed, and the other half had not.  They split into two groups - one group dressed in temple robes to pray, and the other group in a separate room prayed on their own.  They reconvened and wrote their impressions on a piece of paper, and the consensus was that they should begin temple work.  After they reached a decision, Owen began to dictate the words of a revelation.  The scribe was so shocked what was happening that his jaw dropped and his pen dropped, and he missed much of the wording.  But this is what he got:

"The word of the Lord unto my servants:

 "I have waited this long time for you to present yourselves before me in this manner.  I have heard your prayers and will answer you according to your desires in regards to keeping all of the laws and ordinances of the Priesthood, as well as the ordinances of My House alive on the earth, in as much as I am unable to accept the ordinances in My House.

 "I am your Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for the sins of the world.  It is your calling and responsibility to keep alive these principles in this dispensation lest they be taken from the earth and the earth be destroyed.

"Remain humble and prayerful.  Do not become proud in your callings lest you be destroyed in the spirit.  Seek me in prayer, clothed in the Holy Robes of the priesthood, united in faith and I will answer all of your righteous desires.  I am your Lord, Jesus, Christ.  Even so.  Amen."

This revelation is still relatively hidden from the AUB.  Most still don't know about it.  When it was published anonymously in 1994, Owen, over the pulpit, called it a "betrayal".

From this point on, they started to prepare to administer temple blessings.  The first step was to create a script for the ceremony.  They obtained scripts of the modern endowment in both English and Spanish on the downlow from the LDS Church.  They purchased documents from unaffiliated historian and polygamist, Fred Collier.  One of the Council members, Bill Baird, had been to the temple so many times as an LDS member that he filled the monthly temple quota for his ward by himself.  He had been taken under the wing of the Cardston Temple president and taught the intricacies of the ceremony.  So, the AUB took all of these items and created the endowment, which is close to the 1877 St. George ceremony.

AUB Endowment House (LH), Bluffdale, UT

Next, came the construction of a facility wherein to administer these blessings.  A nondescript house in Bluffdale, Utah was outfitted inside to be an endowment house, which was where I was married.  Next, they constructed a temple in the AUB colony in Ozumba, Mexico.  I have spoken to people who were at the dedication.  It was reportedly a pentecostal experience.  Many reported seeing their departed in the temple.  The night of the dedication, they closed the temple up, only to notice the lights left on inside.  Someone went in to turn the lights off, but they were already off.  They reported an unearthly glow coming from inside the building.  They also planned on building a temple in Pinesdale, Montana, but the funds were diverted to build a school instead.

When my family joined the AUB in 1991, the group had been administering endowments for about five or six years. Our path to fundamentalism had been a long one, and my parents, who once had gone to the LDS temple at least once a week, had not attended in protest for many years and were happy to again have a chance to dress in their robes.  They were giddy to travel down to Mexico with the Council and spend a week in that temple.

So it was that I got engaged and found myself in the endowment house in Utah, in the waiting room across from Owen Allred.  They called me into the washing and anointing room, which was awkward, but it was my dad who performed it.  Then the garment was placed upon me - the long garment with long sleeves, all the way to the wrist and all the way to the ankles, complete with string ties.  The garment was hot and itchy and uncomfortable to wear under your clothing. 

From there, I was escorted to the Creation Room by my father.  I was the first one in there.  My dad took me up front to be seated.  He placed both hands on my shoulders lovingly and looked into my eyes.  His eyes were teary.  He told me that my future bride and I had been selected as the "couple at the altar", and that it was a great honor for me.  Then he left me by myself.  As I sat there alone, I remember hearing clearly the voice of LaMoine Jenson in the next room, the next leader of the AUB, gossiping to someone about different members of the Group, mentioning them by name, saying that they had been teaching false doctrine.  It was a startling moment for me.  I could see neither, but I could hear them clearly.  I don't think that they were aware that anyone could hear them.

People began to file into the room after their own washings and anointings, and, once everybody was there, the endowment started.  It is essentially a passion play, and the AUB performs it live.  No movie like the LDS Church.  In fact, later, I saw some of the actors in church meetings, people I had never seen before the endowment, and I continued to think of them in my mind as the characters they played for a longtime after.  "Oh look, there's Satan!" "Hey, there's the Preacher!"  There were plenty of temple workers there to help me with the change of clothes and to guide me through the prescribed gestures.  (Yes, there were penalties.)  There was nothing really new in the endowment for me, nothing that I hadn't already learned in my scripture studies, but I remember things making more sense to me at the time.

My bride on our honeymoon

At the veil, my dad helped me through, and then I brought my wife through the veil.  One good thing about the AUB, being believers of "patriarchal order", or allowing fathers to administer ordinances for their own family as much as possible.  In fact, when the time came for my bride and me to be sealed, Owen Allred called my father up to perform my sealing.  Owen explained, "Your father is sealing you both, but it is through my authority.  Just like my name will be the one on your marriage certificate as the officiator."

So, my father performed the sealing ceremony while I stared at my blushing bride.  Then we left the building as an endowed, married couple, long garments beneath our clothes, our skin still slick with olive oil as they use it quite liberally during the anointing.

That was the extent of my endowment experience within the AUB.  I got invited to another session a couple of months later, but I was sick, so I declined going.  I got invited to one of their monthly prayer meetings.  These meetings were by invitation only, and those in attendance would dress in the robes and pray in the true order.  There were so many people in the prayer room that there was a circle within the prayer circle.  At that meeting I went to, Dave Watson, the current leader of the AUB, was called to the Council.

Fundamentalist temple

You have to understand - the AUB has about 9,000 members, and only one endowment house available in the U.S. They only have one session per month.  The waiting list to go in and do work for the dead is six months long.  And many members aren't even aware that the AUB does work for the dead.  When I asked Ron Allred, a Council member, why this was so, he retorted, "Then don't tell them!  If they don't know about it, maybe they're not supposed to know!"  The AUB suffers from an elitist mentality, which is one of the reasons why I left/ was thrown out eventually.

With my one and only experience being endowed, I used to practice the signs in front of the bathroom mirror so that I wouldn't forget.  When I was tossed out of the AUB, I got involved with several other groups before I settled on becoming an Independent Mormon fundamentalist, without formal church or group.  And everywhere I have been, I have done temple work.  I served as a temple worker for over twenty years.  At one point, I had the entire ceremony memorized inside and out.  I studied the meaning and origins of the symbols, searching out older archetypes.  I studied Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah, Wicca, Egyptian and Eleusinian Mysteries, pagan tradition, gnosticism - anything that would help me understand the endowment better.  I have performed endowments in houses that were repurposed and redecorated to serve as makeshift, temporary temples.  I have entered endowment houses and fundamentalist temples.  Several groups have temples outside of the LDS Church.  Christ's Church has two temples.  The FLDS have a temple (although I suspect that they have little understanding what goes on in one).  The same can be said of many, many groups.  The endowment is alive and well...

So what do I think about the endowment as portrayed in Under the Banner?  Well, I have a hard time seeing anything like that depicted for television.  It's too sacred for me.  It's something that, for me, is beautiful and not ominous. That said, it was done beautifully and tastefully.  The costumes were immaculate.  The set was realistic.  Do I think that people can use the teachings of the temple to justify harmful, and even violent acts and behavior?  Of course.  Although I think that arises from a lack of understanding, and that is our fault.  We make something so sacred and secret - yes, secret is the word - that we offer no instruction or explanation.  People go in unprepared and leave baffled.  Temples should be places of learning, not bewilderment.  How can you agree to a covenant or oath if you have no idea what it is you're swearing?


Thursday, May 26, 2022

A Mormon Fundamentalist Review: Under the Banner of Heaven Ep. 5 & 6


 So, I knew a guy...

Let's call him "Clyde", even though that's not really his name.  I knew him through the internet in the 2000s, on the Yahoo! discussion groups, specifically groups with Mormon topics.  Back in those days, I was hotheaded and ready to debate controversial points of Mormon doctrine.  Nowadays, I'm not so much like that, but back then I would debate with guys like Clyde on a regular basis.  Clyde was LDS and not Mormon fundamentalist, like me.  But he was the type of of Latter-Day Saint who was not afraid to "delve into the mysteries", or discuss matters that were forbidden to bring up in church settings.  I found Clyde to be a bit arrogant and a bit of a know-it-all, but I didn't think much on him after that.

About seven years later, I got a message from Clyde one evening.  He stated that he was sitting with the missionaries in my Arizona hometown, and they mentioned my name to him.  I asked him if he lived in the area, and he said that he had just moved here.  So, I invited Clyde and his family over for dinner one Friday night, along with other Mormon fundamentalist friends from the area.  Clyde was clean-cut and friendly.  He was very intelligent and well-spoken, but he was always self-assured and intense.  But I liked him right away.  He had a large family, and his teens hit it off right away with my teens.  His wife was timid and quiet and didn't  have much to say.

Friday dinners with Clyde, his family, and my fundie friends soon became a weekly tradition.  We bonded over good food and gospel talk.  Clyde would eventually argue his ideas, and the discussion usually turned into a heated argument.  Usually between Clyde and my fundamentalist friends.  When the discussion started getting vehement, I would sit on the couch and tune it out.  Twenty years of circular debates on same topics over and over had burned me out.  I am interested in a free exchange of ideas between people, but I have zero interest in trying to convince anyone that I am right or being pressed upon by anyone to believe a certain way.  For instance, Clyde believed that plural marriage was not an essential to exaltation, only an option, and fundamentalists, of course, believe that plural marriage must be lived to attain the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom.  Ideas like this would be bantered back and forth until late in the night, and I would sit, quiet and bored, until everyone left. Still, I loved the good company, and I really, really liked Clyde.

One thing I noticed about Clyde - a need to always be right.  He was not open to any new ideas and didn't want to consider anything that you might tell him, but he was gonna tell you how things were.  As I got to know him better, he shared with me some of his personal history.  He wasn't always just LDS, but he had belonged to the Second Book of Commandments (2BC) people, once known as the School of the Prophets.  The 2BC is a book of modern day revelations written by Robert Crossfield, also known as the Prophet Onias.  (I always laughed at that name.  I suppose "The Prophet Onias" sounds more prophet-like than "The Prophet Bob".)  I knew that this was the group that the Lafferty brothers had belonged to, and I balked when he told me that he had been involved with this same organization.  But Clyde quickly disavowed and distanced himself from the Laffertys.  He assured me that he did not sanction what they had done, but condemned it.  Still, it sounded a bit weird to me. The Lafferty murders carry a huge stigma with fundamentalists.

Clyde described their version of scripture study, which were really guided meditations on how to get your own revelations.  He described a process of emptying your mind with a pen and paper in front of you and writing the first thing that comes to your mind, kind of like automatic writing.  This is how they received their revelations, and this is the same way the Laffertys received their "revelations".  Then they would share them with each other.

As all things tend to do, the Friday dinners came to an end after a few months when Clyde and his family returned to Utah.  I was sad to see him go and still miss those dinners as all my friends have moved, and I'm all alone now.  I kept in touch with Clyde via social media, and so it was that I saw photos of him with a pretty woman.  I contacted him and guessed that he had entered plural marriage, and he confirmed to me that, indeed, this was his plural wife - a woman he had known in the 2BC days.  I was really surprised that he had taken such a drastic step outside of the mainstream church, but I was very happy for him.

After a while, I noticed his posts become more erratic and vehement, almost belligerent.  He would post long rants about the gospel and about the government, and he would get quite upset when anyone would disagree with him publicly.  This isn't my first rodeo.  I could see where this was headed.  So, I really wasn't surprised when he emailed me a list of "revelations" he had received, and he wanted to know my thoughts.  Truthfully, I never read them.  I scanned them to know that he adopted a "prophet name" other than his own.  Frankly, I was too sad to see him go down this path to read them.  After a week or two, he wrote me again, demanding to know if I had read them or not.  I offered a lame reply that I would get around to it, but I never did.  I never really heard anymore from Clyde after that.

I did hear whispers in fundamentalist circles that he had named himself the "One Mighty and Strong", but he posted on social media that this claim was false.  But it was evident to me that he was making some sort of claim.

The concept of One Mighty and Strong figures prominently in both Episodes 5 and 6 of Under the Banner of Heaven, just as it figures strongly in Mormon fundamentalist cosmology.  The reference comes from a letter written by Joseph Smith to W.W. Phelps in 1832 where he makes some cryptic prophecies similar to passages in Isaiah:

"It shall come to pass, that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God, and to arrange by lot the inheritances of the Saints, whose names are found, and the names of their fathers, and of their children enrolled in the book of the law of God: while that man, who was called of God and appointed, that putteth forth his hand to steady the ark of God, shall fall by the vivid shaft of lightning."


This verse is canonized in LDS scripture still as part of Section 85 of Doctrine & Covenants.  The LDS Church hates this scripture, because Mormon fundamentalists love it so much.  The LDS Church hates it, because it implies that "the house of God" - or the church - must be "set in order".  To be set in order suggests that the church must first be out of order, and that is problematic for a worldwide church that claims to be infallible and unable to lead the Saints astray.  And so they have established an elaborate explanation that One Mighty and Strong refers to Edward Partridge, an early Mormon bishop, thereby making the setting in order a thing of the past and not a future event.

Mormon fundamentalists love Section 85, because it gives them justification for being separate from the Mother Church and gives them hope that everything will be set right by some individual foretold by prophecy.  The result is a horde of men over the last two centuries who have proclaimed themselves to be the One Mighty and Strong.  For instance, Ben LeBaron, in the early 1960s, was arrested for holding up traffic on 3300 South and State Street in Salt Lake City for doing one-armed push-ups - fifty of them - to prove that he was One Mighty and Strong.  It always seems to be the unhinged element of Mormon fundamentalism that makes these grandiose claims.

And it becomes a joke to those of us fundies on the more normal spectrum.  (How many "Ones" can there be?) ("No, you can't be the One Mighty and Strong, because I'm One Mighty and Strong!")  Most fundamentalists believe that One Mighty and Strong will be Joseph Smith returned in his glory, because this being is described as having "light for a covering", or a resurrected being.  Both Joseph Musser and Ogden Kraut taught this.  But in 1867, W.W. Phelps wrote to  Brigham Young about the letter sent to him by the Prophet Joseph:

"Now this revelation was sent to me in Zion, and has reference to the time when Adam our Father & God, comes at the beginning of our Eternal Lot of inheritance."


So, the One Mighty and Strong was always Adam, returning at the end of the world to assign inheritances at Adam-Ondi-Ahman.  I wish that all of these claimants, heretics, and false prophets would have understood this passage.  It might have spared a lot of heartache and grief.  But maybe not.  Our religion seems to draw out the fringe element.  In my 32 years as a fundamentalist, I can't tell you how many Ones Mighty and Strong I have come across, how many reincarnated Joseph Smiths, how many Holy Ghosts in the flesh.  I have learned to identify them quickly and give them a wide berth.

Me & Stone

Here is another story of a man I knew - I will call him by his nickname, Stone.  Stone passed away many years ago, but he was a dear friend of mine.  When he came back from Vietnam in the mid 1970s, he was walking through downtown Salt Lake City one Sunday when he passed a storefront and heard someone speaking in tongues.  He recognized it as the Japanese language, so he entered the building to find a church meeting going on.  It was John Bryant's congregation - recently broken off from the AUB.  Stone took a seat and wound up joining that church.  This was how he came into fundamentalism.

John Bryant had spirited away members of the AUB and founded a United Order in the Nevada desert.  (They later relocated to Oregon.)  But many people left - including Stone - when it was revealed that Bryant was creating a sex cult tinged with Mormonism.  He turned the endowment into something kinky.  Some of those who left went back to the AUB, and I heard about it there.  A funny story - when the AUB was preparing to do the endowment for the first time in 1982, they had some temple prep classes, and one woman who had only experienced the Bryant version of the temple ceremony told the unendowed candidates, "Don't be surprised when you hear the F-word in the endowment.  It's the most sacred of words."  Apparently, Bryant was liberal with the word "fuck" in his version of the temple ritual.

I had no idea that Ron Lafferty had received baptism from John Bryant until Lindsay Hansen Park called me to ask questions about Bryant.  I got to hear some of the script from this episode while they were filming.

Watching this show has made me realize that I have known a lot of - forgive the expression - kooks during my career as a fundamentalist.  Has this become so commonplace for me that I have become lackadaisical about it?  Instead of giving these types a wide berth is there something more I could be doing about it?  These are the types of questions that I, as a Mormon fundamentalist, ask myself as I watch this program.

The program places the blame squarely on personal revelation, and they may be right.  Yet personal revelation is one of most vital tenets of the Mormon faith.  Personal revelation is one of  the most important tenets to me, and I have had special experiences in my life.  However, I have a litmus test that I have in my own life - I don't accept anyone else's testimony unless I have a witness for myself.  This has helped me to test all topics.  It doesn't matter how much priesthood a man holds.  His revelations don't mean anything to me unless I have had the same revelation.  This has helped me call into question many doctrines in the LDS Church and Mormon fundamentalism that I don't accept at face value anymore.  I have been taught that revelation comes from three sources - from God, from Satan, and from yourself.  My experience is that most "revelations" come from the latter two.  With personal revelation, there is the threat of deception, even self-deception.  If your revelation is suggesting harm to someone else, or taking away someone's liberty or happiness, it's not from God.

I'm reminded of something a hippie friend of mine suggested when I was in college, "Maybe Abraham failed the test when God told him to kill his son, Isaac, and he listened."



Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Mormon Fundamentalist Review: Under the Banner of Heaven Ep. 4


  As a child, we used to drive from Utah to Arizona quite often.  My family lived in the central Utah town of Richfield, but my mother was from South Phoenix.  A few times a year, we would make the trek to visit my mother's family.  However, on the way, we would stop by Colorado City, home of the FLDS, to visit my dad's Jessop relatives.  As the car drew nearer to those red cliffs. my dad would get agitated with us.  Why was our hair so long?  Never mind that it was the '70s - everyone wore their hair a little long.  But too "long" for my dad was covering the ears.  Nobody wore their hair like that in Short Creek.  They had short, '50s conservative haircuts.  My dad also urged us to roll our sleeves down and button our shirts up all the way.  Just like the boys in Colorado City.  Soon, we rolled down the red dirt road in front of the house of the elderly kin my dad used to like to visit - Uncle Vergel or Uncle Fred.

The thing is - even though we were Jessops, we weren't FLDS or Mormon fundamentalists.  Yet.  We were LDS.  My dad was raised by his mother in southern California, away from his polygamous Jessop relatives.  He knew nothing about them except what he was told - they were evil, dirty men.  He did everything a good Mormon is supposed to do - paid his tithing, went to the temple, served a mission, married a good Mormon girl.   But when he moved to Utah to attend BYU, he came across his polygamous relatives and found that they were nothing like he was told.  They were decent and hard-working.  And very moral.  Being the super ex-missionary, he set out to prove them wrong.  Much of his time was spent in the BYU Special Collections Section, reading books like Women of Mormondom.  He read about controversial topics like the Adam-God Doctrine.  He became obsessed with his studies.  He skipped classes to pore over old books.  And my mom started to worry.
My dad and me, 1970

One night, she wrote a letter of concern to Harold B. Lee, the president of the LDS Church back then.  She expressed concern about his studies.  Soon, they were called in to see Apostle Mark E. Petersen, the general authority in charge of handling members investigating fundamentalism.  My dad assumed that Petersen would say something like, "Brother Jessop, the general membership of the church is not ready for the things you have been studying.  Can we ask you to keep this information under your hat?"  Instead, Petersen lied to him, said that the early brethren never taught the things that he had read.  My father was scolded and threatened with excommunication.  My father left Petersen's office dejected.  An apostle of the Lord had just lied to him. 


Petersen referred him over to Stake President Richards, a prominent member of the church, the owner of Granite Furniture, and assigned by the church to address fundamentalist cases.  Richards was kinder to my parents, and said to my father, "Can't you put these things on a shelf?  Can't you believe what you do and still remain in the church?"  This satisfied me dad, and he returned to church,  He didn't become a fundamentalist for another twenty years.  But he persisted in studying.  And occasionally opening his mouth, which frequently got him in trouble with the stake Seventies leader or the bishop.  And he stopped by Colorado City as often as possible...


To this day, I don't know if he had intention of joining the FLDS, but he would sit in the living room with Uncle Vergel and talk gospel.  Sometimes, we would spend the night.  Uncle Vergel's elderly wife (one of them) would serve us meals with steaming homemade bread, fresh peaches, and canned jam, but I didn't think they were Mormon because they drank coffee every morning.  My dad and Uncle Vergel would talk for hours about things like Lorin Woolley, the Eight-Hour Meeting, and the 1953 Short Creek Raid.  While they talked, I was a darker-skinned Mexican kid ("Are you a Lamanite?") playing outside with my blonde Jessop cousins - the boys in button-up shirts and the girls wearing prairie dresses over their jeans and sneakers.  There were a row of trailers behind Uncle Vergel's brick house, and I remember younger women with swooping hairdos hanging out wet laundry, the dusty wind catching their long dresses.  It wasn't until I examined this memory later in life that I realized that those women were Uncle Vergel's other wives.  The kids would regale me with stories of finding Indian pottery and arrowheads, of lost treasure buried somewhere in the red canyons, and one boy even bragged to me that he had been to Fredonia before - all of forty miles away.

My parents circa 1999

So, why am I telling a story about my father and his experiences in a review of the FX/ Hulu limited series, Under the Banner of Heaven?  Because my dad's journey closely mirrors Dan Lafferty's. (Dan is played beautifully by Wyatt Russell.)  Roughly around the same age, they both were studying controversial Mormon doctrines.  They both studied in BYU's tight-security library (you could only look at the books in the company of a professor) and were both dissatisfied with the answers they found there.  Both visited the FLDS and other Mormon fundamentalist groups, hoping to find answers that the LDS Church couldn't or wouldn't provide.  Both perused books that were considered forbidden.  Both were ultimately excommunicated from the church where they grew up, being charged of apostasy.  They both married women from other countries.  Dan's wife was from Ireland, and my mother was born in Mexico.


But there were some marked differences between them.  For instance, my dad distrusted the government, sure, but he wasn't a tax-evading zealot.  He was a civil servant all of his life.  But my dad was definitely a maverick in somewhat the same way.  Next, and rather obviously, my dad never murdered anyone.  My dad was a self-described jovial "fat man".  He was kind, compassionate, and raised us to treat people with dignity and respect.


So, whereas there are many comparisons that can be drawn between my dad and Dan Lafferty, somewhere there is a vast difference.  Somewhere their stories diverged greatly from each other.  Dan Lafferty murdered people.  My dad never did.  Dan Lafferty claimed to be the reincarnated Prophet Elijah.  My dad refused to let people thrust him into positions of leadership, to place him on a pedestal.  But he could have, if he wanted.  And people tried.  He used to claim that he had an A-type personality.  He had the priesthood authority to assume some sort of mantle; he had received his second anointing.  But he was self-effacing to a fault.  He never claimed superiority over people and tried to treat others as equals.  Oh, he had his faults.  Many, many faults.  But he was no Dan Lafferty.  In fact, the Lafferty brothers made him sick.  So, how did two men who started on such similar paths become so wildly different?  Even I struggle to understand.


Me & my dad, 1975, photo credit K. Reid

My dad spoke often about an experience that perhaps illustrates the difference.  My dad went to the funeral of his Aunt Kay Jeffs in Colorado City in 1989.  He entered the FLDS chapel and took a seat near a man and all of his wives.  This man with all of his brides took up all of one pew.  But it was this man's face that drew my dad's attention.  The man sat surrounded by his wives, but he wore a hard countenance, his mouth drawn into a taut line as if daring his wives to step out of line.  He used his sheer will to extract obedience and meekness out of his wives.  This man exuded a billigerence, and my dad knew immediately that he could never be like him.  


For many years, my dad was lucky to have bishops and stake presidents who overlooked his fundamentalist leanings until he was "blessed with one who didn't", as my dad said.  The bishop in our ward had a father who came back from the South Pacific where he was the mission president.  This man was appalled to find quasi-fundamentalists in his ward.  He called in a favor, and soon my dad, and the whole family, were excommunicated, on the order of Salt Lake.  Even my thirteen-year old sister.  In September, 1990, I was called into the bishop's office where he asked me two questions: "Do you believe that plural marriage should be lived today?" ("Yes.") and "Do you sustain Ezra Taft Benson as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and the only man on the earth to hold the keys?" ("No.") That was it; that was the extent of my interview.  I went off to college, and I received the invitation to my priesthood court and the results of my trial after the fact, on the same day.  (I was, however, encouraged to keep paying tithing through someone else.)


The scene in Under the Banner where Detective Pyre and his family go to church and have fellow ward members look at them askance and turn their faces away was very poignant to me.  I have experienced that very thing.  Shortly after our excommunication, it was announced over the pulpit to have no more association with us.  How do I know?  I wasn't there, but a dear friend of mine who was investigating the church was there the day of the announcement, and she told me about it.  She told me that they could not make her end her friendship with me.  To this day, I am occasionally treated like a pariah.  People who know me will pretend they don't know me, walk the other way.  Why?  Because I am the devil.  I am worse than an apostate.  I am a reminder of that part of the Mormon past that they are desperate to forget.  (I have to add a caveat - the branch in our little Arizona town treats us very well.  Here is an interview I did with Salt Lake Tribune that illustrates this fact.)  I can count one one hand the number of LDS friends who have come up to me and asked me why I got excommunicated.  I cherish my true LDS friends very deeply.


So, my dad, Ted Jessop, was cut off from the church he loved and worked his whole life to build up.  He spent the last fourteen years of his life as a Mormon fundamentalist, putting in as much effort into that as he did in the church.  He was a mover and a shaker, a bull in a china shop.  He questioned the status quo of the AUB, shaking them to their core before being thrown out of there as well.  He died on June 29, 2002.  He was a man of principle.


And he was no Dan Lafferty...


One final testimony about my dad.  He loved his food, especially Mexican food.  At his funeral, we rented a school auditorium, and many people from the community and his work life attended.  A man we knew volunteered to cook the meal for the family, not especially a religious man.  While he was cooking, stirring a big pot of carne asada, he approached us, very abashed.


"I don't know how to say this," he said.  "But while I was stirring the meat, I felt the presence of your dad standing right next to me.  And he was saying, 'Mmmmm'."



Monday, May 9, 2022

A Mormon Fundamentalist Review: Under the Banner of Heaven Ep. 3

 In March 2015, I went to Haun's Mill in Caldwell County, Missouri...


Haun's Mill is a place of significance in Mormon history.  On October 30, 1838, an armed mob led by the sheriff of nearby Livingston County rode their horses into the peaceful settlement of Mormon farmers and gunned down the men, women, and children.  The Mormons attempted to hide in a barn, but the mob aimed their guns between the slats and fired indiscriminately.  Seventeen died, fifteen were wounded.  The dead were dumped into a deep well and buried.  Their bodies remain there to this day.


This scene was depicted on the recent episode (#3) of the limited FX/ Hulu series, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Haun's Mill, Missouri in 2015


As I rolled onto the Haun's Mill property, I was surprised.  The LDS Church had just purchased the property from the Community of Christ a few years earlier in 2012.  I had made the pilgrimage  to several LDS sites over the years - the St. George Tabernacle, the Lion House, Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith's birthplace in Sharon, Vermont, Nauvoo - and all of the church history sites were set up the same way.  Parking lots.  Visitor's centers.  An elderly couple giving rehearsed tours and answering questions.  Not Haun's Mill.  It was bare and unadorned.  I don't know what it's like now, but in 2015, it was a lonely stretch of dirt road, a set of tire tracks though the grass.  The utter silence and lack of visitors was deafening.  The road leads to an unremarkable copse of trees with a creek running through it.  A solitary marker was the only evidence that you were standing on a site of historical significance.  (The official monument and millstone are miles away in nearby Breckenridge.)  But the haunted, desolate feeling of Haun's Mill was palpable.  A heavy feeling clung to the air like a pall hanging over the place, and I could feel it.  This location of massacre has a hold on the collective Mormon memory, and yet it is a place that seems to want to be forgotten.


The visit to Haun's Mill was part of a personal tour being given to me by local historian and former mayor of nearby Chillicothe, Jeffrey Foli, taking us to various sites in Daviess, Caldwell, and Livingston Counties that pertained to the 1838 Mormon War, a series of conflicts between Mormon settlers and local Missourians that led to a state-sanctioned Extermination Order and the forced expulsion of the Latter-Day Saints out of Missouri.  As we stood on the grassy clearing of Haun's Mill, Jeff reverently recounted to our small group the details of the gruesome massacre, including how a young Missouri man named Ira Glaze, who may have had mental issues, pressed the barrel of his shotgun against the forehead of a 10-year-old Mormon boy named Sardius Smith and pulled the trigger.  A Missouri onlooker coldly remarked, "Nits breed lice."  This scene was also portrayed on Under the Banner of Heaven.

Me at Haun's Mill in 2015

Jeff told us that, a few days earlier, Ira Glaze was captured by the Mormon militia in the vicinity of a buried cannon, abandoned by the Missouri mob.  The Mormons took the poor boy, stripped him naked, tied him to the cannon, and marched the cannon with Glaze strapped to it for miles in the hot sun to their encampment at Adam-Ondi-Ahman.  There, Joseph Smith rallied his brothers-in-arms by personally discharging the cannon, with shouts of "Hosanna" before they released Ira Glaze, who returned, skulking and seething, back to his Missouri comrades.


The question I ask myself - if my Mormon forebearers had not humiliated and assaulted Ira Glaze by stripping him naked and strapping him to a cannon, would he have thought twice about raising a rifle to the head of a little boy?  Who caused that anger within him, that murderous rage?  We did.  And violence always begets violence.


In Mormon culture, we tend to see ourselves as the victims at the hands of the Missouri mobs.  But rarely do we try to understand how we provoked the attacks or where our own fault lies.  Jeff's tour helped me to see this.  We took land, made unfair business trades, voted in bloc.  They burned our homes, plundered our farms, and drove us from our lands.  But we Mormons also burned their homes, plundered their farms, and drove them from their lands.  They murdered us.  We murdered them.


Missouri changed us.  Years of persecution and perpetual hounding marked our culture permanently.  In The Kingdom Or Nothing, author Samuel Taylor recounts the history of his grandfather, John Taylor, who would eventually go on to become the third president of the LDS Church.  John Taylor had been a Methodist preacher in Toronto when he converted to the Mormon Church.  He had been with the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio and had known the peace, love, and glad tidings of the restored gospel.  He moved to Far West, Missouri in the midst of the Mormon War and found a marked difference in the Saints compared to in Ohio.  More militant.  Ready for violence.  In Ohio, leaders like Brigham Young and Joseph Smith had been affable and good-natured.  In Missouri, hardship, persecution, and loss had hardened them.  They walked around the encampment armed with rifles.  It was then that John Taylor realized that he wasn't just a minister.  He was a soldier in a real war.  This realization changed him for the rest of his life.  And it changed all of the Mormon population.  Our beloved prophet murdered.  Blood oathsThe Oath of VengeanceDanitesDestroying Angels.  Frontier justice.  Mountain Meadows. Blood atonement.  Murder.


We have a dark past...


And Under the Banner has brought some of that past under scrutiny.  It has been interesting to be online and see the visceral reactions of Mormons to both the book and the television program which illustrates violent episodes from our history, culminating to the transition of the Laffertys from faithful Latter-Day Saints to violent zealots who used their religion as an excuse to murder Brenda Wright Lafferty and her baby daughter, Erica.  It has been interesting to feel my own reaction, my own defensiveness.  This discomfort at looking at our past being elucidated by a TV show is proof to me that we have some owning-up to do, some true soul-searching.  For years, we have swept our past under the proverbial rug.  Perhaps it's time to confront it, discuss it, come to terms with it.  Only then can we truly move forward.


Don't get me wrong - I think that neither the book nor TV series are pristine.  Jon Krakauer's narrative is lurid, too sweeping.  Dustin Lance Black's dialogue is too hokey and feels stilted.  And yet they got so many things right.  The worthiness interview with the bishop.  Anyone who has been in the LDS Church knows how uncomfortable they are.  I can't think of anything more humiliating than being a gawky preteen in an office alone with a grown-ass man and being asked by the bishop whether or not you masturbate.  And the ensuing discussion between Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and his wife was beautifully acted out and rang so true to the Mormon experience.


And then the temple endowment.  The endowment...  I have always disliked when TV shows or movies portray the temple ceremony.  I didn't like it in Big Love, and I don't like it in Under the Banner of Heaven.  It's too sacred to me.  However, I understand how this portrayal drives the plot forward.  Although, I have to admit - it was beautifully executed.  They did a fantastic job stylistically.  They didn't quite get everything right about the particulars of the ceremony.  (Neither did Big Love.)  It has given me quite a bit of opportunity to talk about our temple ceremonies online.  Not many Latter-Day Saints are very well-versed in the symbolism and meaning in such an esoteric ritual, because they are not given proper instruction.  Conversely, Mormon fundamentalists - like me - were given instructions to help us understand the endowment, and thus probably know more about it than our LDS counterparts.


But the topic that has been discussed the most online following this episode is that of blood atonement, the idea taught by Brigham Young, and others, that some sins are so pernicious that they can only be remedied by the spilling of your blood.  There are rumors of the early days of Utah, blood atonements being carried out all throughout the desert.  Over the course of this week, I have seen some weird attempts at trying to justify the concept.  On the flip side, I have heard some ex-Mormons imply that, if you retain your belief and faith in this religion, you are condoning blood atonement.  I reject both points of view.


In a recent panel discussion last week for Sunstone Foundation, I stated quite adamantly that, as a Mormon fundamentalist, I totally reject the concept of blood atonement.  I don't care if Brigham Young taught it.  I don't believe in it.  At all.  First of all, because it negates the saving power of Christ's atonement.  Next, because it usurps God's authority to decide who lives and who dies.  I would never want the power to decide someone's fate, nor would I want anyone to have that power over me.  That is treading on dangerous ground - the very same ground tread upon by the Laffertys!  No, thank you!  If that makes me some sort of liberal or progressive Mormon, so be it!  Blood atonement - I'm not here for it!  Our religion ought to be a religion of peace.


To quote Jiddu Krisnamurti:


"When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent.  Do you see why it is violent?  Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.  When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence.  So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind."


Or better yet, read the words of Joseph Smith:


"But meddle not with any man for his religion: all governments ought to permit every man to enjoy his religion unmolested.  No man is authorized to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.  Every man has a natural, and, in our country, a constitutional right to be a false prophet, as well as a true prophet.  If I show, verily, that I have the truth of God, and show that ninety-nine out of every hundred professing religious ministers are false teachers, having no authority, while they pretend to hold the keys of God's kingdom on earth, and was to kill them because they are false teachers, it would deluge the whole world with blood."


You can listen to more about Mormon history in Missouri on my recent podcast discussion with Lindsay Hansen Park on Year of Polygamy.



Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A Mormon Fundamentalist Review: Under the Banner of Heaven Ep. 1 & 2

 











In 2003, I belonged to a United Order - a type of hippie commune, except that there were no hippies, there were Mormon polygamists.  And I was one of the Mormon polygamists who lived there, having two wives at the time.  (I only have one at the moment.)  


Life was not idyllic in the "Order", the commune.  We didn't sing songs around campfires with flowers in our hair.  We lived in trailers on a windy, dusty stretch of Arizona desert - no neighbors, miles from any town, completely isolated.  We tried to coax vegetables out of inhospitable soil and worked meager jobs, turning over our paychecks at the end of the week to the Order to be re-distributed to those in need.  The Order rules forbade us from having a TV, but that was okay,  We didn't have any electricity to begin with and hauled our own water.  Our children would crowd around the TV at the coin laundry where we washed our clothes every week, huddling around the glimmer of the screen, transfixed and mesmerized.


So, why did we live in this spartan lifestyle?  We were trying to build the Kingdom of God.


Without a TV, I would unwind at nights with a book in my hand, crouching under the dim light of a candle until my eyes hurt.  I would read everything I could get my hands on, and not just religious texts, but history books, sci-fi and fantasy, thrillers, anything.  At our weekly trip to the public library, I would load up with as many books as I was allowed to check out.  By 2003, Jon Krakauer was already one of my favorite authors.  I had previously devoured Into the Wild and Into Thin Air and thoroughly enjoyed them.  So, when I saw that he was publishing Under the Banner of Heaven, an exploration of Mormon fundamentalism, specifically the gruesome murder of Brenda Lafferty in 1984, along with her infant daughter.  I knew that I had to read this book.


As expected, Krakauer's writing style sucked me right in, and I finished the book in a couple of days.  It was completely captivating.  But it left me with a sense of malaise.  I had heard of the Lafferty murders for most of my life - a heinous act committed against a woman and her child.  But I was completely detached from this.  It was just something I had heard mentioned in hushed circles, but always with the sense that this was them.  Not us.  I always felt far removed from this tragic event.  Krakauer brought it forefront.  Krakauer made it real for me.  His sensory depiction as he turned the words of the killer into a horrifying study of violence - it left me sick inside.  Along with his account of the murder, he wove in a narrative of Latter-Day Saint history, specifically points of violence from our past.  By the time I reached the conclusion, I was livid.


Over the years, I have had to qualify my opinion of Banner to others.  "I really like it, but I disagree with his conclusions."


Krakauer concluded that the Mormon faith has had the seeds of violence planted within it since its inception.  That Mormonism is inherently violent.


Looking back, I don't know why this upset me so much.  I mean, I wasn't violent.  Even though I lived off-grid on a Mormon compound, I was happy.  I loved my family and wanted them to be happy, too.  How could my religion inspire, as a character in the first episode expresses, "dangerous men"?  Mormon fundamentalists aren't dangerous!  Aren't they?


Skip forward almost twenty years to 2021, and I am no longer a polygamist, the United Order dissolved, and I have a TV.  (I still live on the same dry patch of desert, though.)   While visiting a polygamous community in Missouri, I got a phone call from my dear friend, Lindsay Hansen Park, director of Sunstone Foundation and the host of Year of Polygamy.  She informed me that she had been brought in by a production team as a consultant for a TV miniseries adaptation for Under the Banner of Heaven for FX and Hulu.  She told me that Andrew Garfield was attached to the project, and she was being brought on to use her wealth of knowledge of Mormon culture to help lend authenticity to the program.  The show creator, Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning writer of Milk and one of the writers of  Big Love, came from an LDS background but needed someone who understood the minutiae of the weird world of Mormon fundamentalism.  That's where Lindsay came in.


Where I came in, Lindsay fielded some questions to me about Mormon fundamentalism - priesthood ordinances, customs, and history.  It's a bizarre culture I'm in, and I've been a part of it for almost 35 years.  There were other fundamentalists that worked with Lindsay in the same fashion, but I was just thrilled to be a part of this project, even as far-removed from it as I was.  Plus, it gave me huge cred with some of my teenage kids to be working on something involving Andrew Garfield.


It is probably relevant to add that not everyone in the fundamentalist community was thrilled with my ephemeral connection to the project.  I caught some flak for it.  Probably for the same reasons I myself might have hesitated in the past to get involved - Banner comes across as "anti" literature (although that view is shortsighted, as I will soon express.)  The way I justified my involvement to other fundies - hatchet job or not, I'm going to do my damnedest to make sure they get it right.


I was delighted when Lindsay invited me to the premiere two days ago in Salt Lake City.  Getting to the premiere was an adventure in itself that perhaps deserves its own post.  Needless to say, I was able to travel to the premiere with my wife Martha and two of my kids, including my 18-year-old daughter who was hoping to catch a glimpse of Garfield.  (Little does he know that she has staked a claim on him, along with possibly dozens of people of all sexes in the theater.)  I will add that Garfield is intelligent, funny, and affable.  Anyone who casually quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, is okay by me.


The screening started, and the first thing that choked me up was the blood - Brenda Lafferty's blood on the floor.  I had such a visceral reaction that I could almost smell it.  Just like Krakauer's book, it made it real.  Brenda Lafferty was a real person.  And she really died.  She died, because some men had some really fucked up interpretations of my religion.  Daisy Edgar-Jones's heart-wrenching performance made it all the more poignant for me.  Just like Garfield's  Utah detective brought warmth and humanity to the narrative.  I watched the first two episodes of the series, and I have no intention of spoiling the plot.  But I will say that they have scenes interspersed that depict scenes from early church history, just like Krakauer's book, including portrayals of Joseph Smith and Emma Smith (portrayed by the lovely Tyner Rushing).


I do have some minor criticisms about the show, but they are just small items - like I grew up in the early '80s in rural Utah, and no active LDS member dressed like that or wore their hair like that, at least that I knew.  And the dialogue feels a bit stilted sometimes.  I felt the same way about Big Love.  It's like, they are using our vernacular, our buzzwords, but not in any way that anyone I know would use it.  Perhaps it's meant to be expository for the uninitiated, but dude, no plyg I know talks that way.  Even my daughter, who has not chosen the faith, made the same observations.


Beyond those very miniscule criticisms, this series is impressive.  It's definitely top notch and needs to win some Emmys.  It is beautifully shot.  The acting is superb and believable.  The emotional intensity is high.  (Be warned: this is not a "feel good" show.)  It will have you at the edge of your seat.


So, why did I feel my face get hot when I described the series to my Mormon fundamentalist father-in-law this morning?


Because I know how plygs are going to take this.  And that's as a personal attack on our culture.  They will feel - as they have felt before, and with good reason - that all polygamists are being painted with the same broad brush.  And perhaps they are.  I don't know.  I personally heard Dustin Lance Black, the show's creator, state that this is the story of a family's "descent into fundamentalism and darkness".  As if the two are equivalent.  And they're not.  I know they're not.  I'm not sure if he meant it that way, but it felt that way.  I'm not going to lie - it really stung to hear that.  Most fundamentalists I know are nothing like the Laffertys.  But let's be honest - all of us in the plyg world know someone, or many someones, like them.  


So, the question to ask - what is it about our religion and culture that draws some of the smartest, most compassionate people I know, along with some of the most batshit-crazy zealots?  How can this incongruous mix of people exist side by side?  Do you know how many people I have known over my long career who have claimed to regularly speak with God?  Who believe they are the One Mighty and Strong?  Or some reincarnation of some biblical prophet?  I've lost count.  There have been so many.  Generally, I tend to try to stay away from them as much as possible.  I never let fundamentalists get close to me until I've vetted them and know them better.  There is a reason that I love being an Independent, without church or group.  So that I can put distance.


Case in point - I'll never forget the time many years ago that I invited a man I had never met to the house to visit.  He and I sat outside my house on chairs, and one of the first things he said to me was his sexual preference in young girls.  I couldn't get that guy away from my property quick enough, but I remember worrying, "This guy knows where I live."  I'm not so trusting now.


That is the question - what is it in my religion that attracts these types of extreme personalities?  That is the real question.  And the answer?  I don't really know.  As a believer, I have some spiritual explanations, but I don't think I will be casting these pearls before the proverbial swine.  (Not that you're swine.)  But these are the questions we need to ask, because the Laffertys are not an anomaly.  Eventually, there was a Brian David Mitchell.  And then a Chad Daybell.  It keeps happening over and over again.  We need to have a dialogue about it, so that we can understand and so that it doesn't happen again.  Perhaps this TV series will spark that discussion.


Perhaps that's what Jon Krakauer - and Dustin Lance Black - had in mind when they both set out to tell this story.


I feel fortunate and blessed to know that there is also beauty in Mormonism.  I prefer to focus on the light, not the darkness.  But not to the point of denying the existence of the darkness.  And recognizing it in ourselves. We tread on dangerous ground when we think there is nothing left to learn.  I think it was expressed best by Andrew Garfield, in a theater in downtown Salt Lake City two night ago, "A life of faith is not a life of certainty.  A life of faith is a life of doubt."