By Popular Demand

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:


Anonymous said…
John, thanks for this. I think you've outlined well the issues surrounding the word "Mormon" and efforts by the mainstream church to claim sole ownership of it either as an adjective or a noun. I always kind of cringe when I see that, given the parallels between these efforts and those made by some evangelicals to deny mainstream LDS the identity of Christian. It all comes down to the politics of identity, I suppose.
Anonymous said…
I'm not too sure "Mormon Fundamentalist" works from a descriptive perspective. Imagine a group that rejects Vatican II, believes that the the Pope is apostate, and sets up its own Papal government based on pre-Vatican II orthodoxy plus some new secarian edicts that have transformed the liturgy. Would calling them "Catholic Fundamentalists" make sense? I tend to think not.

I typically go with "Sectarian Polygamists," though that covers Christian polygamists that share no history with Mormonism.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the commentary, John. Your Mormon readership appreciates it. I, like David, find it somewhat bothersome that the LDS Church claims a monopoly the term "Mormon" yet regularly begs the larger Christian community to stop denying Mormons the title of Christian. It really does present some quite fascinating issues of identity yet to be thoroughly explored.

Also, the most thorough coverage on the Texas-FLDS situation that I've found is available at,a Mormon blog run by an LDS lawyer.
John G. Turner said…
I suppose a broader question, then, is when is the term "fundamentalist" appopriate.

When conservative Protestants in the early 1900s either left or were kicked out of the mainstream Protestant denominations and formed their own groups, they called themselves fundamentalists and were called as such by others. Perhaps the key is self-identification. In the FLDS case, they at least identify themselves as Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Do they call themselves "Mormon fundamentalists" or "fundamentalist Mormons?" There clearly is an organic connection to mainstream Mormonism. Perhaps simply using the name FLDS is enough to make that connection clear without being offensive to other Latter-day Saints.
Anonymous said…
My understanding is that contemporary polygamists that have historical ties to the LDS movement embrace both the term fundamentalist and the term Mormon, regardless of the order in which the terms are used.
Rebecca said…
The members self-identify as being fundamentalist and mormons. FLDS means Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It seems to me that the media is merely being respectful to the group members by using those terms.

I see a strong parallel between fundamentalist muslims who blow things up and the mainstream muslims who want to distance themselves from the other group. The fundamentalist groups tend to be FAR smaller but get a lot more (generally negative) publicity.
Vigilante said…
Correction: The Waco siege occurred on this date (actually) in 1993. I think it is appropriate, on its 15th anniversary, to point out that the Branch Davidians in Waco constituted just another closed, secretive, sexually abusive cult that was left to fester unattended too long, with horrific consequences. David Koresh was a charlatan and a false prophet. The tragedy at Mount Carmel in '93 will forever be on his head.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks -- you are correct on the date of the Waco siege. I'll try to correct it.
Anonymous said…
I suppose that this is a problem with all religious groups. Anyone can call themselves anything.

Right now there is a group of people in Russia living in a cave convinced that the end of the world is going to happen in a few weeks. This group calls themselves the "true" Russian Orthodox church. Their leader is in a mental institution.

It would be understandable for Orthodox people to be upset if the media kept calling the group Russian Orthodox when they are in no way connected to the church.Or for the media to say that Orthodox people live in caves. Or that Orthodox people believe the end of the world will happen in May of 2008.
Anonymous said…
I do remember the media pointing out back in 1993 that the Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Luckily for the SDA, I don't seem to hear the connection any more when the story is retold.

As for the term fundamentalist, why is it never used in an honorific way. I mean, are there not fundamentalist peace activists or fundamentalist civil rights advocates? Is fundamentalist simply a dogged follower of one perspective, or must it necessarily be applied to one with view demonstrably outside the mainstream? I suspect it has now evolved into the latter, since I never hear of any mainstream group trying to salvage the term.

That being the case, a phrase like "fundamentalist polygamous sect" is kind of redundant, whereas "fundamentalist mormon" actually communicates something, namely, that this particular mormon group is extreme and not to be identified with the mainstream LDS.
Anonymous said…
Apart from the term fundamentalist, the term "radical" is also used in a negative sense. However, the term only means the root of something.

Therefore, "radical" can be positive or negative.

If you are a "radical fundamentalist"...I have no idea what that means.
Vigilante said…
I agree. I use "radical" in a positive way, as in the analytic sense: diagnosing a situation, condition or institution by drilling down until you identify its roots. As opposed to fundamentalism which has to do with following the precepts of a document; and as opposed to extremism which has to deal with how drastic a particular response is.

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