IIf one looked at Amazon’s “Best Mormonist Sellers” list in any given week, it is filled with books on Mormon fundamentalism. Jon Krakauer’s Under the banner of heaven, a story of the Lafferty brothers who killed an innocent woman and child in 1984, typically features in the top three places, and the memoir of Ruth Wariner (The sound of gravel), Rebecca Musser (The witness was in red) and Sam Brower (The Prophet’s Prey) are rarely far behind. Indeed, America’s fascination with these marginalized polygamists transcends print, like HBO Great love and TLC Sister Wives brought to the screen the most modern incarnation of these bands.
To this national enthusiasm for these exclusive communities is added the new documentary Stay gentle, directed by Don Argott, which began airing on Discovery + in November. The film takes a look at the twin fundamentalist cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, as a Mormon fundamentalist community once led by Warren Jeffs – an unsanctioned offshoot of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) – disintegrates into factions following his arrest, imprisonment and repossession of church lands. At the center of the film is a question: is it possible for the company to integrate people with divergent interests and loyalties? On the one hand, there are those in those cities who still see Jeffs as a God-ordained prophet, and on the other, there are those who see him as a dangerous impostor.
The question is important for modern America. And the film is a powerful exploration of a particular case study, filled with personalities and engaging twists. For example, the filmmakers do a great job of allowing fundamentalist women to speak for themselves rather than remaining the silent victims so typical in other media representations.
But the documentary’s existence and approach raises a similar, and perhaps even more urgent, question: Why do Americans continue to look to Mormon fundamentalists to answer this widespread cultural question? And in so doing, do they risk perpetuating the same framework that portrays these groups as both fascinating and marginalized in the public imagination?
While Mormon leaders announced the end of polygamy in 1890, they secretly maintained marital order for several decades. Church authorities both approved and initiated new plural unions until around 1910, and many continued to secretly practice the principle even after that. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that they attempted to root out new seals. In response, hundreds of members who believed polygamy was at the heart of Mormonism formalized their own organizations. Many of them moved to what was then known as Short Creek on the Arizona-Utah border. And despite the excommunications of the LDS Church and raids by state governments, the community continued to grow over the following decades and eventually became the hub of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints. Days, or FLDS.
The FLDS Church is just one of many denominations that are part of the surprisingly large fundamentalist Mormon diaspora, but they are often seen as the most rigid in their beliefs and the most strict in their practices. While it is difficult to determine their membership numbers, especially in recent years, many researchers believe they could have claimed as many as 10,000 members at their peak. (The total number of Mormon fundamentalists in the Rocky Mountain region may be up to three times this number, although it is impossible to estimate due to secrecy of the various institutions as well as the fact that many polygamists claim no official affiliation.) The church has received international news over the past two decades when their prophet and leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested for, among other things, sexual misconduct with a minor due to his multiple marriages with teenage girls, as well as a government raid on the isolated faith complex in Eldorado, Texas. Jeffs was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Stay gentle, which takes its title from a phrase associated with Jeffs and others to encourage their followers to remain pure and submissive, tells the story of the FLDS community in Short Creek over the past 20 years. He recounts how Jeffs set up high fences and other secret practices to protect his believers around the world, as well as how women and children lived his harsh instructions and directives. There are family videos of polygamous families singing and praying, the only thing that separates them from the typical American religious household is the number of mothers present. But there are also audio tapes of Jeffs’ monotonous voice dictating how they were to live their lives – how wives were to submit to their husbands and how families were to submit to him. The film tackles the well-trodden story of the “lost boys”, those young men who would have been forced to leave the community so that the older patriarchs had less competition for wives.
The real heart of the documentary, however, is its exploration of the “invisible civil war” that engulfed the community after Jeffs’ arrest. Faithful families who had previously purchased homes in Short Creek had dedicated them to church, which meant they were under the control of the United Effort Plan Trust. But after Jeffs’ conviction, that trust was placed in the hands of a state-appointed public council, and soon controlled by people who had previously shied away from the faith. Terrill Musser, who had previously left the faith but returned to the city with her family, and Shirlee Draper, once a plural wife who escaped with her children, have now found themselves masters of a property from which they had been banished. previously.
The rest of the film centers on this awkward dialogue between many different parties that maintain drastically divergent points of view. Could Short Creek, once a refuge for fundamentalists, become an inclusive refuge for people of all faiths?
One of the film’s most captivating figures is Christine Marie Katas. Although not a member of the fundamentalist faith, she has become the advocate of many of its women, positioning herself as an intermediary between competing interest groups in the community. But her own life story becomes a prism through which fundamentalist religion itself is viewed: years earlier, she had followed a man who claimed to be a Mormon prophet and asked her to live among the homeless. It wasn’t until she was repeatedly raped and abused that she discovered it was a fraudster performing an experiment to see what it would take to fool willing believers. So now, being attached to an unpopular tradition herself, she is equipped to help those who are married.
Stay gentle succeeds in emphasizing the importance of including those who hold unpopular beliefs. “We don’t ask anyone to believe something they don’t believe,” says one FLDS wife. “We just ask them to let us worship as we believe. Is it a crime? But this tolerance may seem condescending when described as “enlightened” observers aiding “irrational” fanatics. The documentary, in other words, makes FLDS women endearing, but they always appear ideologically distant, even exotic. Listening to plural wives defending Warren Jeffs can be shocking to observers in any setting, but is especially so when designed to emphasize the benevolence of those who are always willing to work with them. “Everyone has a story,” an onscreen producer says at one point, “and that’s their truth. And everyone has to accept it.
Mormon fundamentalism has created a vibrant and changing community that has suffered as many schisms as it has generations. Its birth as an organized movement corresponded to and was inspired by a larger cultural transition in America – the dawn of evangelical fundamentalism, an ideology from which it takes its name, but not all of its tenets – and it has evolved with almost every decade passing. Today there are Mormon fundamentalists who fill a dizzying spectrum, ranging from those like families on Sister Wives, embraces almost all of the pitfalls of modern America except one (monogamy), to those, like those presented in Stay gentle, wear meadow dresses, and host weddings for teenage girls. Even the FLDS tradition has changed dramatically in recent years and presents strong divisions within its own believers.
Stay gentle alludes to the changes that took place in the FLDS Church under Warren Jeffs, but the overall tenor of the film poses fundamentalists as heirlooms from an age past rather than products of the present. Little or no connection is established between their previous generations, nor their contemporaries who influence them now. (While historians or religious scholars were consulted on the project, none of their interviews resulted in the final product.) Wing in the Smithsonian.
Perhaps more than anyone interviewed for the film, the landscape of southern Utah and northern Arizona is the most dominant character. Wide-angle shots consistently show the deep red rocks, the arid climate and, most importantly, the towering mountain that casts a shadow over the entire valley. These striking cliffs often serve as a featured image and poignant metaphor for the community, as they do on book covers for presentations written by Jon Krakauer and Sam Brower. They represent not only the perceived rigidity of fundamentalist faith, but also a seemingly impenetrable border between them and the rest of society – a border, often implicit, between civilized and uncivilized.
Researchers, filmmakers and writers not only recognize this border, but they often reaffirm its presence and reinforce its permanence. This is true for those like Krakauer who want to use fundamentalists to point out the dangers of fanatic religion, as well as for those who, like Stay gentle, I hope to praise the merits of American universalism and inclusiveness. In both cases, believers stepped out of time and space, perched as in their own historical exhibit at the Museum of American Culture, unable to change, adapt, evolve, or even be understood according to their own terms. Once again, it is a people apart, a community that is only destined to appear juxtaposed and disconnected from its own history.
Until Americans stop understanding Mormon fundamentalism simply as a product of the ancient past, we will continue to miss the lessons they have for our present.
Benjamin E. Park teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University. He is co-editor of Review of Mormon Studies, editor of A Companion in American Religious History, and author of Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the US Border. He is currently working on a history of Mormonism in America for WW Norton / Liveright.