Warren Jeffs was the prophet and president of a polygamist Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — until he was convicted and sentenced to life for child sexual assault.
On the border between Utah and Arizona rests the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City. To drive through either feels like a time warp. Women wear pastel-colored prairie dresses, most homes have livestock, and each man has nearly a dozen children - and at least three wives. This is the home of prophet and fundamentalist Mormon president Warren S. Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the FLDS Church.
10,000 people are believed to be followers of the FLDS Church and most of them live in these two towns of Hildale and Colorado City, though a handful are scattered across the United States as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.
In most respects, Warren Jeffs' followers are not too unlike the rest of us. They go to school, go to work, and spend time at home with their families.
It's just those families tend to be a little bit bigger than most because the fundamentalist Mormon members of the FLDS Church follow the commandment of Jeffs, who has told them: "You can't go to heaven and be a god unless you have more than one wife."
Life In Warren Jeffs' Polygamist Country
The FLDS splintered off of the better-known Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the explicit purpose of practicing polygamy.
It could be said that the church came into being in 1890 when amidst growing pressure from the U.S. government, LDS president and prophet Wilford Woodruff released a manifesto telling his followers to "refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land."
A handful of people refused to obey and so they set up their own church in Hildale and Colorado City. These towns were known then as Short Creek and living in these twin cities on state lines meant that the members of the new church could race across the border to dodge police raids.
Every man in Short Creek was expected to have at least two wives, although even that was considered a little on the low side. If a man wanted to achieve the highest form of salvation after death, the FLDS Church taught that a man really ought to have at least three wives. Officially, this facet is one of only a few of the FLDS Church’s differences from the LDS church; but in practice, it affects a lot.
Because they believe that any man should have a collection of wives who live under a doctrine of subservience to him, this means that there often isn't enough women to go around. In a society where each man has three wives, equality is difficult to achieve and so some of the men have to leave town to maintain the ratio.
When a teenage boy comes of age, his status in the FLDS Church is in constant jeopardy. He has to be on guard that he lives his life by the book because if he dabbles in sins like dating and listening to rock music, he could be damned to join the "Lost Boys": the hundreds of young men who have been kicked out of the FLDS church.
Those who make it through don’t get to choose their own wives. Love doesn’t play a big role in an FLDS Church marriage; instead, young men and women wait for their prophet, in this case, Warren S. Jeffs, to assess their worthiness and assign them their spouses.
But even then, the FLDS Church still struggles to make the numbers work. And so they import young girls from elsewhere in the country.
In 2011, the RCMP alleges, more than 50 young girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were taken out of their homes in Bountiful, British Columbia and sent off to Hildale and Colorado City, where they pushed into arranged marriages with FLDS men. At least two of those girls ended up married to the prophet Warren Jeffs himself. When they got married, one of those girls was 13 years old. The other was 12.
Seed Bearers And The Law Of Sarah
But if Charlene Jeffs, the estranged wife of Warren Jeffs, is to be believed, things are even darker underneath the surface of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A select group of church leaders, Charlene reported, have been designated as the FLDS Church's "seed bearers". These individuals alone are designated as having a bloodline worthy enough to create children, and so all other men are forbidden to reproduce - including with their own wives.
Instead, a seed bearer will come into their home and force themselves upon their wives, telling them that this is the command of the priesthood. As an ultimate humiliation, they force their husbands to hold their wives’ hands as they are raped. Indeed, by some accounts, under Warren Jeffs’ leadership, the religion seems to have devolved into a sex cult. According to Lorin Holm, another escaped FLDS member, women who sleep with Jeffs and the other church leaders are forced to engage in what they call the "Higher Law of Sarah."
The "Law of Sarah" has some mystical-sounding justifications, but, in essence, Warren Jeffs forced multiple wives to put on a group sex show before he assaulted them. The bloodline, Warren Jeffs insists, must stay strong and pure and, in a sense, it has. Because of the large number of wives granted to the Church's leaders, nearly every person in Hildale or Colorado City is directly descended from at least one of the town’s two founders: Joseph Smith Jessop and John Yeats Barlow.
So many fundamentalist Mormons of the twin cities are cousins that it has become overrun with a birth defect called fumarase deficiency - or as it’s been dubbed, "polygamist downs." The disease causes brain damage, intellectual disability, unusual facial features, epileptic seizures, and it’s part of the reason that Colorado City is home to an unusually vast graveyard of dead infants.
"It wasn't until I left the FLDS and moved away from the community that I realized I'd been to an unusually high number of funerals growing up in the Creek," an FLDS escapee, Alyssa Bistline, told Vice News.
"Outside, people don't die that often, and usually they're really old."
The FLDS Church Today
Today, the FLDS Church is in shambles. Warren Jeffs is in prison, convicted of raping two girls, one 12 and the other 15. He has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jeffs has gone into a fervor of prophecy and revelation behind bars. Without him, he’s told his followers, the world is doomed; in 2012, he prophecized that the world would end.
But the world is still here, and without him, Colorado City is changing. The property once owned by the church is opening up. Thousands of FLDS faithful are flocking out of the city and new arrivals and businesses are taking their place. The city even opened its first brewery in 2018.
Those who live there believe that Jeffs' rule is coming to an end. Colorado City resident Nick Dockstader told Fox 10 that, "That whole Warren Jeffs saga, it's just a tiny part and that part's going away now."
Still, the FLDS Church lives on today. Thousands are still faithful to the religion and to Warren Jeffs, while thousands more continue to follow their own forms of Mormon fundamentalism and polygamy in other parts of the country.
In other polygamist Mormon fundamentalist hotbeds like Rocky Ridge, Centennial Park, Bountiful, and Eldorado, the Warren Jeffs way lives on.