September 15, 2002

Void Mormon Leader Left Could Take Years to Fill


OLORADO CITY, Ariz., Sept. 12 — In their Sunday best, men in black, women in pastels, they came by the thousands today to honor their leader, a man they considered a prophet.

Outstanding he was, by some measure. President Rulon T. Jeffs, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who died Sept. 8 after a long illness, was 93. He is survived by 19 or 20 wives — no one could say for sure — about 60 children and hundreds of grandchildren. At least 33 sons were pallbearers, including two of his namesakes, Rulon F. and Rulon H.

As the eighth prophet of the church, in a line that began with the Mormon pioneer, Joseph Smith, Mr. Jeffs led the largest religious group in North America that still practices plural marriage and is ostracized by the mainstream Mormon Church for the same reason. The larger church, based in Salt Lake City, banned polygamy in the 1890's as a condition for Utah gaining statehood. The fundamentalists consider mainstream Mormons the renegades, for abandoning the original Mormon teachings to solve a political problem.

Today, more than 5,000 fundamentalists packed the Leroy S. Johnson Meeting House for a two-hour service, then slowly walked along a dusty road to the cemetery where Mr. Jeffs was buried. He was praised by one speaker as "a man of principle and sweetness," by another as a man who "lived the attributes of God." The lives of church members were so absorbed with him that the funeral program said at the top, "President Rulon T. Jeffs Presiding."

His death leaves a void in church leadership that could take years to fill. Fundamentalists warm to their prophets rather slowly, and for now two church members are in the running: Fred M. Jessop, 92, a longtime bishop, and one of Mr. Jeffs's sons, Warren S. Jeffs, 45.

"It could take months, even years," said Raymond Scott Berry, a Salt Lake lawyer who represents the church but is not a member. "It's not a political decision. It's based on a subtly growing consensus that evolves from their faith and prayerful attitude."

About 10,000 people in the United States and Canada belong to the Fundamentalist Church; the largest concentration of them, 4,000, live in the adjoining border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. They form a place perhaps like no other in the United States, coming as close to a theocracy as possible in a country where the Constitution provides a firewall between church and state.

Dan Barlow, 70, a symbol of the mix as an elder of the church and mayor of Colorado City for the last 17 years, said the church owns about 85 percent of the land in the two towns under an arrangement developed in the 1940's with Mr. Jeffs, a wealthy businessman for much of his life, as a leading negotiator. The church, he said, gives parcels to its members. If a family moves away or breaks with the church, the church can give the property to another family.

Until a few years ago, local children attended public schools. But church leaders encouraged families to enroll their children in church schools and the public schools closed.

The church has been less successful in improving the economic standard of its members. Almost 25 miles from the nearest town of any size, Colorado City and Hildale have few commercial businesses — a small restaurant, a clothing store, a gas station — but no movie theaters, no fast-food outlets, no welcome signs along the road that leads in and out. In Colorado City, the larger of the two towns with 3,334 residents, 78 percent of residents receive food stamps, compared with 18 percent for all of Arizona.

Mr. Berry called the fundamentalists "the last American pioneers," and their life here suggests as much. Houses sit on a grid of unpaved streets. Families raise horses and livestock adjacent to their house. In general, men can dress as they please, but women, including little girls, are required to wear long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses and to keep their hair long and braided.

But more than looks and location set them apart from mainstream America. Plural marriages, unusually large families and houses with multiple entrances attract the curiosity of outsiders and, to some degree, the interest of state officials.

Rarely are polygamists charged under bigamy laws, especially in Utah, where many residents are descendants of plural families, and prosecutors are reluctant to file charges against consenting adults in a religious context. Tom Green, who was recently sentenced in Juab County, Utah, to five years to life on a rape charge for impregnating one of his five wives when she was 13, was the first polygamist in 50 years to be prosecuted in Utah.

More often, members of plural families come to the attention of state and local officials through occasional allegations of welfare fraud, tax dodging, domestic violence and child abuse. But cases are difficult to build, said Ric Cantrell, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office. Not only are the county prosecutors generally overwhelmed with more serious offenses, he said, but investigators have trouble finding witnesses to testify.

Mr. Barlow said he would not comment on any criticisms of the church or its teachings, surely not on so solemn a day. He defended plural marriages as a core belief of the Fundamentalist Church, "that a man should have more than one family through marriages ordained by God." He said people are free to leave and insisted that no girl under 16 is forced into any marriage.

But he acknowledged that the church is under stress lately, largely through the encroachment of the outside world through television, the Internet and news reporters whose interest in Fundamentalist Mormons was spurred by the Tom Green case.

"Our biggest threat is the liberal world," Mr. Barlow said. "It changes our young people, turning them away from holy and good principle. They are free to go out into the outside world. That's one of the very principles of our gospel, a person is free to do something different. We just believe that we teach a better way."

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