Mormons – Murders – Multiple Wives

In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream. 

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Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.

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Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah. 

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Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.

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Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.

What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.

Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

[Jim Jones, Peoples Temple Church Services]

The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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