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Polygamy, Incest, and Mormons within the Media — The Revealer

(Picture supply: Netflix’s Hold Candy, Pray, and Obey)

Half I

In 2003, Jeremy Kingston pled guilty earlier than the Third District Court docket of Utah to an unlawful sexual relationship with a minor. The “relationship,” extra aptly described as ongoing rape, was between Kingston (then 24) and his 15-year-old cousin, LuAnn Kingston. In the course of the trial, Kingston testified that “he had a sexual relationship with LuAnn Kingston beginning when she was 15 and that she was his first cousin.” He additional admitted that “his mom and LuAnn Kingston’s mom are sisters, and her father is his grandfather.” The trial ended with Kingston receiving a five-year jail sentence, of which he served a mere 9 months.

Jeremy Kingston is a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society or “Kingston group,” a Mormon fundamentalist group with a historical past of incestuous marriage. Activists and students on the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented a number of instances of incest primarily based on data from former group members. Rolling Stone reported related instances, which recounted the group’s doctrinal justification for the abuse. For members of the religion, the observe is a matter of perceived necessity to retain a specific bloodline primarily based on their perception that the group’s early leaders had a direct lineage with Jesus Christ.

Jeremy Kingston’s trial for felony incest made headlines for a lot of causes, together with the rarity of the conviction. For years, former members of the Kingston group sought prosecution for incestuous marriages with little success. Jeremy Kingston’s prosecution supplied transient hope. Across the time of the trial, former members of the group approached Utah Legal professional Normal Mark Shurtleff about incest locally and put collectively a “household tree” to doc the crimes, saying that they had “compiled sufficient incest proof to lock” up the perpetrators “for all times.” However no prosecutions came about.

In Jeremy Kingston’s case, the general public’s major concern was the age of the younger lady, not her familial relationship to the perpetrator. To the frustration of survivors, incest by no means appeared to warrant its personal prosecution. This too-common drawback is rooted within the historic conflation between Mormon polygamy and incest, and media depictions of each. Scholars and activists have lengthy mentioned the problems that stem from the notion that Mormon polygamy and incest are one in the identical. Consequently, prosecutors hardly ever take authorized motion to focus on incest inside polygamous communities, permitting it to proceed unpunished and with little authorized recourse for survivors.

Half II

Starting within the nineteenth century, American opponents of polygamy sought to conflate the observe with felony conduct, similar to incest, to painting Mormon plural marriage as inherently deviant, harmful, and worthy of prosecution. Since 1933, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has not permitted polygamy. However polygamy stays a central tenet for a lot of different communities that hint their founding to Joseph Smith. Versus the LDS Church, these communities imagine they’re upholding the basics of Smith’s teachings, together with polygamy, and are subsequently generally known as Mormon “fundamentalists” to indicate their separation from the LDS Church headquartered in Salt Lake Metropolis. As we speak’s debates over polygamy middle on Mormon fundamentalists.

Authorized prosecutions for polygamy have all the time been fraught, regardless of nice efforts to imprison polygamists. There are lots of causes for this, however one major purpose is logistical. There will not be sufficient police or prisons to prosecute the 35,000+ polygamists within the Intermountain West, and including that degree of policing is an unpopular public coverage.

The priority over polygamy usually, and Mormonism particularly, stemmed from widespread considerations in 19th-century America over “right” and “civilized” marriage. From the onset of public debates over correct marriage, ministers and authorities leaders who had been involved with the morality of the nation questioned the permissibility of relationships between shut members of the family. These debates sought to articulate a common norm for marriage, which was difficult by biblical accounts of incest.

The earliest rules over incest handled the observe as a sin, moderately than a criminal offense. Pulpits, not courtrooms, had been the middle of the talk, which included questioning which marriages constituted incest. May an uncle marry his niece? May two cousins marry each other? As spiritual leaders debated these questions, legislators hardly ever included incest in case regulation. As an alternative, for a lot of Individuals, incest was a shame relegated to the shadows that acted as a metaphor for a “dangerous marriage,” a “dangerous household,” and “dangerous faith.”

(Picture of an early polygamous household. Picture supply: The Guardian)

Mormons themselves weren’t a part of these public debates. Nonetheless, their polygamous marriage system quickly turned a central concern that escalated to the USA Congress and Supreme Court docket. It didn’t assist that Mormons started practising polygamy because the nationwide debate over marriage reached its peak between 1842 and 1846. Some Mormon historians date the revival of plural marriage to 1831, the 12 months Joseph Smith started learning the Previous Testomony and have become intrigued with the biblical patriarchs’ observe of polygamy. Akin to the polygamous leaders of previous, Smith believed he was known as to reintroduce the observe as a part of the “restoration of all things.” It was not till over a decade later, on July 12, 1843, that Smith recorded what turned Doctrine and Covenants 132, which laid the inspiration for Mormon polygamy and the concept households are sealed in an everlasting union. Whereas Smith linked polygamy to the restoration of Abraham’s marriage system by means of the Law of Sarah, Smith’s teachings failed to say one essential factor: Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister. Much more, the presence of incestuous marriages within the Bible is in depth. Because of this, it’s maybe not shocking that Individuals involved with Mormon polygamy additionally got here to affiliate the observe with incestuous marriage.

The primary allegations of Mormon incest appeared in anti-Mormon accounts of the religion. Among the many most vital instances had been documented by Catherine Lewis, a lady who joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its earliest years and left when rumors circulated that others had been practising polygamy. In her 1848 exposé, she described a younger lady pressured into an incestuous marriage who advised Lewis, “I used to be younger, they usually [Mormon leaders] deceived me, by saying the salvation of our complete household relied on it. I say once more, I’ll by no means be sealed [married] to my Father; no, I’ll sooner be damned and go to hell, if I have to.’” Tales like this fueled anti-Mormon sentiment throughout the nation.

Whereas salacious accounts of incestuous Mormon marriages circulated all through the nation and its western territories, leaders of the Church quickly made their very own apologetic claims for the observe. Between 1852 and 1854, Brigham Younger, the President of the LDS church following Smith’s loss of life, made a number of statements that supported the potential of incestuous marriage. In a February 22, 1852 sermon, Brigham Younger defined, “That is one thing pertaining to our marriage relation. The entire world will assume what an terrible factor it’s. What an terrible factor it will be if the Mormons ought to simply say we imagine in marrying brothers and sisters. Effectively, we will be beneath the need of doing it, as a result of we can’t discover anyone else to marry. The entire world are on the identical factor, and will probably be so long as man exists upon the earth.” Following this pronouncement, incestuous marriage didn’t turn into a widespread observe, save for a handful of instances. However with these phrases, Bringham Younger sanctioned the chance.

In time, Younger’s feedback turned proto-eugenic. The early Mormon church had taught that race was an indication of righteousness or wickedness, and the church inspired “right” marriages amongst whites. Mormon “sealing” was subsequently not merely about marriage. It was concerning the capacity to unite highly effective, white households. Drawing on this, Younger and others argued for a pure bloodline that stemmed from polygamous unions amongst and between influential Mormon households.

Younger’s phrases and people of anti-Mormon detractors united polygamy with incest within the minds of many Individuals. Outsiders invoked the “ultimate taboo” to disparage Mormonism and deride their controversial marriage practices. Whether or not or not Mormons participated in marriages with shut members of the family was unimportant. The conflation between their marriage system and America’s most taboo sexual relationship ostracized Mormons and stigmatized them for many years.

Half III

Subsuming incest tales into accounts of polygamy didn’t finish within the nineteenth century; it continues at this time. FX and Hulu’s lately launched and Emmy-nominated collection, Underneath the Banner of Heaven, is one such instance.

Banner is predicated on the true-crime bestseller about Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers who made headlines after the 1984 double homicide of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, and her toddler daughter, Erica Lane Lafferty. The lads had been raised within the LDS Church. Nonetheless, within the Seventies, the lads joined a fringe Mormon group led by a person named Robert Crossfield (Prophet Onias), additionally a former member of the LDS Church. The group, known as the College of the Prophets, understood itself to be an genuine remnant of the faith based by Joseph Smith. They had been one among the many Mormon fundamentalist groups to advertise polygamy.

Because the Lafferty brothers entered Robert Crossfield’s orbit, they turned concerned about polygamy and sought to observe the early Mormon doctrine. By the point of the murders, Crossfield advocated for incestuous marriage and married no less than one among his organic youngsters. On the time, this was not unusual. A number of Mormon fundamentalist leaders who emerged within the Seventies and 80s engaged in incestuous relationships. Most notably, Ross LeBaron and Fred Collier, males who led their very own Mormon fundamentalist communities, justified incestuous marriage and have become key figures within the argument that polygamy was merely incest by one other title. Within the revelation that catalyzed incest in his household, Robert Crossfield referred to his daughter as a “handmaid,” a time period utilized in reference to Joseph Smith’s spouse in Doctrine and Covenants 132. Crossfield used this language to justify marrying his daughter, a criminal offense that also haunts Crossfield’s descendants.

Like Crossfield, Dan Lafferty’s try at a polygamous union concerned grooming his personal daughter to marry him. Based on the e book and collection, Dan’s spouse, Matilda, walked in on her husband giving a chiropractic adjustment to their daughter that involved her. After confronting Dan, Matilda discovered of Dan’s “vigorous sexual spirit” and his plan to marry their 12 and 14-year-old daughters as plural wives. Fearing for the destiny of her daughters, Matilda snuck them out of their house. The native LDS management subsequently ex-communicated Dan. (Following the present’s launch, Dan Lafferty’s daughter, Rebecca, introduced her plans for a e book that particulars her expertise rising up beneath her father’s abusive household headship, the place she witnessed her father sexually abuse her sisters.)

The disturbing realities of incest throughout the Lafferty story had been principally overshadowed by the murders, leaving different Lafferty victims within the shadows. In Banner and elsewhere, incest turned a plot machine that solidified a villain for the viewers. This isn’t new. In media portrayals of polygamous Mormons, incestuous abuse usually acts as a metaphor for human depravity and the end result of polygamy’s slippery slope. The issue, in Banner and elsewhere, is that incest will not be merely a plot machine to sign a villain’s depravity. Incest is actual, pervasive, and will be profoundly damaging.

Half IV 

In her reflections on Banner, Lindsay Hansen Park, a historic advisor for the present, defined, “The collection isn’t an indictment on fundamentalism, however it’s an indictment on secrets and techniques.” The persistence of incest in Mormon fundamentalism is a kind of secrets and techniques.

Whereas mainstream media has given some consideration to fundamentalist Mormon incestuous marriages, too usually, as with Banner, these media portrayals fail to middle victims of incest or exhibit why authorized motion is important. Most lately, Netflix’s docuseries Hold Candy: Pray and Obey explores Elissa Wall’s experiences within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and paperwork the lives of different survivors from the FLDS. The FLDS, led by Warren Jeffs, garnered media consideration years in the past following a extensively televised raid on the group that was an try and save the children from polygamy. Jeffs confronted allegations of incest. However these allegations weren’t prosecuted regardless of Elissa Wall’s testimony of forced marriage to her cousin on the hand of Jeffs in Nevada — a state the place incestuous marriage is against the law.


In her writings about media portrayals of minority spiritual teams, faith scholar Megan Goodwin has argued that polygamy is not necessarily abusive. That is true. Neither is monogamy inherently freed from abuse. However in the USA, polygamy is virtually synonymous with hurt and heinous conduct. This was the identical rhetoric used to deride Mormons within the early a long time of the brand new faith. And at this time, media accounts too usually use polygamy and incest as a storyline machine to bolster villain storylines. The conflation encourages gawking disapproval and nothing extra.

As a rustic, each in our media and in our authorized system, we’ve got neglected survivors of incest and saved the totality of their tales hidden from the general public eye. Tales about polygamy collapse incestual abuse right into a traditionally demonized marriage system, inflicting survivors of incest to vanish. Incest stays a widespread actuality in insular polygamous communities. Taking survivors of incestuous abuse critically requires untangling how the nation conflated abuse, marriage, faith, and household in our historical past and media.

In 2020, Utah took step one towards this disentanglement. Senate Invoice 102 successfully decriminalized polygamy, reducing the felony standing to an infraction if the individuals will not be concerned in different felony conduct. The laws sought to finish polygamy’s conflation with incest, in addition to different crimes related to these controversial marriages. The purpose was elevated reporting and entry to social companies for victims and survivors. For the reason that time of the invoice’s passing, one non-profit acknowledged that sexual abuse reporting doubled within the polygamous communities they serve. The numbers make tangible the gravity of the issue. Ending the conflation between polygamy and incest will start the method of justice for survivors, and different states should do the identical now.


Cristina Rosetti is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Utah Tech College. Her analysis focuses on the historical past and lived expertise of Mormon fundamentalists within the Intermountain West.

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