Estimates of the number of Mormon fundamentalists residing in the western United States, Canada and Mexico range from 20,000 to 60,000 (compared with over 10 million mainstream Mormons worldwide). Although there are numerous sects, the largest two are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church) and the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB). They each have 9,000 to 10,000+ members and both are headquartered in Utah, although the AUB also has a temple in Mexico. Not all sects espouse multiple marriage although many do. Exact numbers are hard to come by but it is thought that fewer than 15,000 are practicing polygamists.
Indeed, fundamentalist Mormons eschew the term "polygamy" as it implies multiple spouses, regardless of gender. Instead they favor the term "polygyny," meaning multiple wives. Even so, they rarely use either term, opting instead to refer to the practice as "The Principle" or "Celestial Marriage." In spite of the view that polygyny is the key difference between fundamentalist Mormonism and mainstream Mormonism it is believed that most members of fundamentalist sects are in fact monogamous, and further it is thought that fully three-quarters have never been members of the mainstream Mormon (LDS) church.
Still, the practice of polygyny is illegal and thus its practitioners are generally forced to keep their lifestyle a secret. Such secrecy has given rise to much fictional speculation. Not the least of which is the recent HBO series, Big Love. Previous representations include the 1987 Charles Bronson movie Messenger of Death and the 1981 television drama Child Bride of Short Creek. But there is some stuff that can't be made up, such as the conviction of Warren Jeffs, former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), for sex crimes resulting from the polygamous marriages he arranged for his followers. Marriages that often paired minor brides with adult husbands.
For the most part, fundamentalists regard mainstream Mormonism as an offshoot of the original Church founded by Joseph Smith in the 1830s and 1840s. Smith preached multiple marriage as the way to gain access to, and elevate one's status in, heaven because Smith preached that Jesus Christ was not only married but a polygynist. The Mormon Church discontinued the practice of multiple marriage after an 1890 "Manifesto" declared an end to it.
For additional information on Fundamental Mormonism or on Warren Jeffs:
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
This article was originally published in July 2010, and has been updated for the
May 2011 paperback release.
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