By Brian Hales
Currently there are roughly 40,000 "Mormon fundamentalists" across the Wasatch Front and around the world. Their numbers have steadily grown from the dozens that began the movement in the 1920s. As modernity and societal forces bear down on their leaders and members, what changes, if any, are likely?
Historical studies show that persecution, such as that experienced by the FLDS Church in 2008, serves to fortify the faith and unite participants. With the general liberalization of American values, some observers believe that polygamy could become legal within the next decade or that governmental resolve to prosecute will dwindle. Childhood marriage and welfare fraud would continue to be prosecuted, but the punishment for plural marriage could diminish or disappear all together. Should this occur, one of the binding forces within the Mormon fundamentalist community would be largely eliminated. Gone too would be the "cloak and dagger" dimension of the practice, which some participants seem to have enjoyed.
However, in exchange for those losses would be a new softening of the justice system to the practice. Believers in Joseph Smith would be deterred from the practice only by doctrinal constraints imposed by the mother church, constraints that some current pluralists find easy to surmount. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be unmoved in their condemnation and excommunication of polygamists, but the diminished social stigma could increase numbers.
One intriguing possibility is that the movement to legalize plural marriage would collide with efforts to sanction same-sex marriage. Were both groups to be successful, same-sex plural marriage would be the outcome. The result would include "omnigamy" or network marriage. Dozens of men and women could be connected through "marriage" ceremonies, creating a novel matrimonial form and legal nightmares for divorce courts and businesses providing benefits to families. Joseph Smith's theology condemns homosexual behavior in any circumstance, so Mormon fundamentalists would be compelled to support only legislation to permit heterosexual plural marriage.
In past decades, four classes of individuals have provided a steady influx into the fundamentalist ranks. First are men and women who honestly believe that the mother Church has erred in doctrines and teachings. The second group is comprised of women who probably will not experience marriage through any other venue. Within the third group are "religious tumbleweeds" who transition through Mormon fundamentalism usually on their way to other forms of enlightenment. The last group includes zealots and fanatics who might otherwise be blowing up abortion clinics had they not embraced polygamy's banner.
Doubtless the last three groups will provide a continuous inflow that would be enhanced if polygamy was legalized or punishments reduced. Women who long for companionship might more easily settle for part of a good man rather than have no husband at all. Religious drifters may be less stymied due to a fresh openness, embracing the challenge of plural marriage to see if it met their spiritual needs. Fanatics might more easily identify polygamists groups to join, groups that now are inclined to fly below government radar as much as possible.
The first group however, those individuals who genuinely believe the mainstream Church has erred, may be less impressed by changes in civil law. For them, other forces on the horizon could decrease their participation in fundamentalist programs including plural marriage. New research and studies that deal with Joseph Smith's polygamy are soon to be published. They demonstrate important differences between the current traditions and practices of Mormon fundamentalists today if compared to those of their founder. The recognition of those distinctions could stem the tide of converts to some degree and even convince those now practicing fundamentalist polygamy that their methods would not be approved by the Prophet they profess to revere, Joseph Smith, who established all true fundamental doctrines.
Fundamentalists can be found attached to all major religions. There are Catholic fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Jewish fundamentalists. Each group is formed by "reactionists" who respond to changes within their mother churches and to modern forces in civilization. Mormon fundamentalists will, in the coming years, confront new challenges within and without. That they will persist is unquestioned, but whether historical discoveries and doctrinal observations, coupled with increased public leniency, will greatly alter their numbers of adherents or the style of their practices, remains to be seen.
Brian Hales is a Utah-based anesthesiologist and expert on polygamous break-offs from the LDS Church. He is the author of numerous books, including Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto. Read more about him at MormonScholarsTestify.