The Presence of One Man Rule in FLDS Mormonism: Contextualizing an American Religion that Became Synonymous with Abuse
In the 1980s, the religious community that later incorporated as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) underwent a hierarchical transformation that shifted the locus of power away from a multi-person council who oversaw the faith toward One Man Rule, a doctrine that solidified authority around a single man. One Man Rule permeated every aspect of the faith, including marriage, family arrangements, and the economic order of the community. More than simply temporal affairs, the One Man held unquestionable power because he made God present in the lives of the community. In the American imagination, the most famous man to hold this title is Warren Jeffs, the incarcerated leader of the FLDS. Within the context of isolation and social ostracization, One Man Rule emerged as a system that enabled and narrated abuse.
Warren Jeffs did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, he is part of a larger history of both internal religious struggle and outside persecution that created a landscape where Jeffs succeeded at making rape a matter of doctrine. In 1886, the third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), John Taylor, recorded a revelation where he proclaimed that the laws of God are irrevocable. Within the context of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which allowed the federal government to confiscate Church property over the practice of polygamy, the law in question was interpreted as polygamy. By this point, polygamy had been a foundational tenet for generations. First revealed through the plural marriage revelation in 1843, Doctrine and Covenants 132, restored the practice of the early Patriarchs of taking additional wives and concubines. At the same time, the revelation altered Mormon cosmology. Within Mormonism, all human beings are embodied gods in embryo and hold the ability to become god. God is embodied in Mormonism and married, presumably polygamously. To become like God, through exaltation, human beings must marry in the same manner.
However, not all marriage created eternal and deifying bonds. Marriages that offered exaltation required the priesthood. Within Mormonism, the priesthood is twofold. It is the power of God that creates worlds and it is the men who wield that power. In his work on priesthood, Jonathan Stapley writes in The Power of Godliness, “This heaven was not a future reward for the faithful or the elect; it was a material heaven on earth, constructed welding link by welding link on the anvil of the temple altar” (2018, 17). For fundamentalist Mormons, the priesthood connects the disparate welding links.
Prior to the emergence of what is today recognized as the FLDS, the polygamist Mormons in southern Utah were led by a council of men who believed themselves to be the embodiment of priesthood. Following the Revelation in 1886, fundamentalist Mormons assert that Taylor ordained six men who were called to continue the practice of polygamy trough the power of the priesthood, even as the LDS Church underwent two separate attempts to convince the U.S. that polygamy ended, first in 1890 and later in 1904. As the LDS Church gradually ended the practice of polygamy and began the systemic removal of those who continued to contract new marriages, Short Creek emerged as a refuge for the Mormons who saw themselves at odds with the Church.
Short Creek became known as both the home of polygamist Mormons and a site of hostility. Many members of the community were excommunicated from the LDS Church and the town underwent two historic raids in 1944 and 1953. In each instance, women and men were imprisoned and children were taken from their homes. The 1953 raid in particular became an event of lasting trauma with parents educating their children on the dangers of law enforcement and the need for isolation. The raids created a space marked by isolation.
It is within this context of increased government hostility that Short Creek underwent a hierarchy transformation. Beginning in the late 1930s, the leadership began to consolidate their power around one man, John Y. Under Barlow, the United Effort Plan established a communitarian program. As the senior leader of the movement, Barlow asserted his position as head of both the priesthood and temporal affairs. It was also under Barlow that placement marriages began. Placement marriages are a form of arranged marriage where partnership is determined by the priesthood, rather than couple choice. In her work on Mormon fundamentalism, historian Marianne Watson identified placement marriages as a 1940s development and not a longstanding tradition within the fundamentalist movement” (in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2007, 87). Following Barlow’s death in 1949, the escalation toward One Man Rule intensified. The trend toward One Man Rule ran parallel to the trend toward placement marriage. Under the new leader, LeRoy Johnson, sermons increasingly moved toward talks on authority and the importance of the One Man’s place in the community, specifically in terms of priesthood and sealing authority. In an infamous 1984 sermon, LeRoy S. Johnson condemned a group of men who split from the faith over disagreement on authority. Standing the faithful, he said, “There is only one man at a time, and that is the way it has been through out all the history of God’s dealings with people, both in this world and the world before this one, and the world before that one. Only one man at a time holds the keys and power of the sealing power, and those who act during his administration are only acting under a delegated authority” (The L. S. Johnson Sermons, Vol. 7, 1983-84, 352). With this sermon, One Man Rule concretized as FLDS doctrine.
The requirement for obedience to the One Man in marriage became more pronounced as the council model of leadership was fully disbanded under Rulon Jeffs. Following the death of LeRoy Johnson, Jeffs rose to power, abolished the Council, and solidified One Man Rule as a tenet of the FLDS faith and the foundation for FLDS cosmology. Even before the death of Johnson, Jeffs began speaking on the importance of One Man Rule, setting the groundwork for his later tenure as leader of Short Creek. One comment that is representative of Rulon T. Jeffs’ typical commentary comes to us through a talk he gave to the congregation in British Columbia on the ability of One Man Rule to seal families together: “These keys and powers are conferred upon one man. The keys of the power of sealing and of the Holy Priesthood are conferred upon one man. By whom? It’s all right here” (The L. S. Johnson Sermons, Vol. 7, 1983-84, 303). He then went on to quote Doctrine and Covenants 132:7, “All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed.” Assumably, that medium was Rulon Jeffs.
This system was further exacerbated by Rulon Jeffs’ son, Warren Jeffs. Within his religious framework, the head of the priesthood was not only a matter of family bonds, but the individual’s sole access to salvation. For young women, this involved marriage, often to Warren Jeffs. Within Warren’s Church, placement marriage became, as Marianne Watson referred to it, “the greatest outward expression and symbol of devotion to God and their religion” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:7). Under Warren the culture of isolation and increased consolidation of leadership came together to create a system where abuse thrived. While in multiple leadership positions, he spoke on the raids and warned children of an outside world that did not want them. In one such sermon, he asked children to imagine losing their parents at the hands of outsiders. As isolation rhetoric increased, he once again further concretized the position of the priesthood head as sole access for family and exaltation. The isolation, fear of outsiders, and presence of Warren as the One Man came together to create a space where abuse became the rule.
Within a religious system such as Mormonism, where a marriage through sealing is a prerequisite for exaltation, the man who determines marriage also determines the individual’s eternal fate. Marianne Watson argued, “It is my belief that FLDS placement marriage derived from the belief that obedience to priesthood leaders is a requirement for salvation” (in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2007, 84). Within this framework, obeying the head of the priesthood in marriage was the single most important form of obedience that held eternal consequences.
Under Warren Jeff’s leadership, the marriages in the community increasingly involved child marriage, incest, and rape. In Robert Orsi’s work on the real presence in Catholicism, he speaks to the complicated nature of abuse at the hands of clergy who make the sacred present in the lives of believers. In History and Presence, he writes, “Their privileged intimacy with God really present endowed predator priests with a sense of entitlement over the bodies and souls of children and adolescents and contributed to their impunity” (2016, 219). In a similar way, Warren’s place as the individual’s access to exaltation through embodied ritual practice created spaces that fostered abuse. The power of God present among the people became a person who weaponized isolation and the power of God to ensure silence. This only increased as he moved the most faithful to Yearning for Zion Ranch in El Dorado, TX, the site of the infamous 2008 raid.
Following the raid, Warren Jeffs became a household name for many families across the United States. The home that was built in anticipation for his release from prison was turned into America’s Most Wanted Motel. Photos of his plural wives were displayed across television screens, and his Church became synonymous with both abuse and the entire fundamentalist movement. In their own way, media, television, and public commentary reimagined fundamentalist history to center the story of Warren Jeffs, reifying One Man Rule. The outcome of the perpetuation of One Man Rule led to stigma, instigated harmful legislation, created barriers for resources, and continued the cycle of isolation among communities outside of Warren Jeff’s jurisdiction. As stigma increased, and fundamentalism became increasingly associated with Warren Jeffs, other fundamentalist groups have begun to retrench, some closing off conversion, one of Warren’s first methods of increased isolation. In addition, more and more groups are moving toward One Man Rule, and survivors of abuse are coming forward with stories from their own communities. Unfortunately, even today, their stories remain eclipsed by the stories we tell of the One Man the outside world most cares about, Warren Jeffs.
The histories we tell about Mormon fundamentalism matter. The abuse that happened in the FLDS stems from the weaponization of the priesthood doctrine that cultivated a cosmology where a single individual held access to both family and God. However, the legal and cultural context within which Warren rose to power led to his own immunity. In speaking on fundamentalism, it is of central importance to ensure scholarship does not perpetuate the cycle. The FLDS had a history before Warren. Warren Jeffs was shaped by a cultural context of fear and isolation that only amplified as his presence in the community became synonymous with the power of God. The stories we tell about the community and the way we continue to have conversations about abuse within fundamentalism will help determine the future of a community that became synonymous with abuse.
Cristina Rosetti is an independent scholar based in Salt Lake City, UT. Her research examines the history and lived experience of Mormon fundamentalists in the intermountain West.