by John G. Turner
End-of-the-semester busyness has prevented me from closely following the media firestorm resulting from the raid of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Also, I'm not in any sense intimately familiar with either the legal details of the case or the history of government action against polygamist sects. However, in the interest of our loyal readers...
The amount of media coverage reflects popular fascination with both with polygamy and Mormonism (more on the latter below). When I read about the raid, I immediately thought of several historical precedents: the arrest of Mormon "cohabs" in the 1880s, the 1953 Short Creek (later renamed Colorado City) raid, and the 1993 Waco Siege. The latter had nothing to do with Mormonism but involved polygamy and child abuse as well as weapons violations. In my mind, none of these serve as good models for government action against allegedly deviant behavior.
Instead of following the legal details of the case, I'm interested in the reaction of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, see this press release from the church "Newsroom":
Elder Cook said it is very confusing to the public when some media use “Mormon” to describe the Texas-based polygamous group that is currently under investigation for possible incidents of child abuse. He reiterated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with over 13 million members worldwide, is not connected in any way to sects that practice polygamy.
The Church's "Style Guide" encourages the media to make clear distinctions between the mainstream Church and offshoots like the FLDS:
When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, the terms “Mormons,” “Mormon fundamentalist,” “Mormon dissidents,” etc. are incorrect. The Associated Press Stylebook notes: “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other ... churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith’s death.”
I can well understand the Church's desire to distance itself from current-day polygamists. I groan every semester when students ask me whether the Latter-day Saints still practice polygamy. I imagine a large number believe that they do (at least until I enlighten them). Any association with FLDS folks, moreover, casts doubt on the Church's more recent self-presentation as a mainstream American religion.
That being said, the term "Mormon fundamentalist" or "fundamentalist Mormon" still seems commonsensical to me as long as other proper distinctions are made. After all, these are Latter Day Saints who broke away -- or were forced out -- after the Church discontinued the practice of polygamy. The Church began excommunicating polygamists around 1909, and those who wished to continue the practice of taking additional wives eventually formed the FLDS and other offshoots. The FLDS church, to the best of my knowledge, understands itself as adhering to the fundamentals of the Restoration begun by Joseph Smith, Jr.
I know we have some Latter-day Saint readers out there. I hesitated to post on this issue because it is controversial and I don't feel on solid ground. However, for the sake of further discussion, I wanted to raise this issue of terminology. Any thoughts or suggestions?
For futher reading, I recommend this post by Jonathan Stapley at By Common Consent, one of my favorite Mormon blogs: