I was prompted to write this when I read this month’s excellent cover story on the FLDS in the National Geographic. I’m sure most of my readers recall the saga that played out on national television in 2008 when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services removed 437 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, TX after receiving what turned out to be a hoax phone call alleging widespread sexual abuse there by FLDS men. This seizure led to the largest child custody battle in U.S. history, which resulted in the eventual return of all the children to the compound when the Third Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the families. An excellent account of the events leading up to the confrontation written by Katy Vine was recently published by TexasMonthly [preview available here].
When this story broke nationally I was struck as were many others at the fact that this group was committed to homeschooling. My book was about to come out, so it was too late to include anything about the group in it, but I had written a bit about earlier Mormon homeschooling. Though Utah Mormons eventually embraced public education for the most part, Brigham Young himself and many other early Mormons relied on homeschooling to educate their children. Mormons played a key role in the 1980s homeschooling movement as well, with figures like Joyce Kinmont providing leadership and collaborating sometimes with other homeschooling activists. So it is not surprising that a group of Fundamentalist Mormons who believe that the mainline Mormon Church has fallen away would return to the historic Mormon practice of homeschooling.
The FLDS has outposts in many places other than the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ). In fact, as Vine’s article explains, the YFZ site didn’t even exist until 2003, when Arizona and Utah government officials began cracking down on FLDS practices in those states. FLDS leaders fled to the Texas site because of sparse population and laws allowing consensual marriage of 14 year-olds. In only a few months the YFZ ranch grew to a population in the thousands, and distrustful neighbors worked to raise the age of legal marriage. Though the actual phone call provoking the government raid was from out of state, tensions between FLDS members and other locals had been high for several years. As Vine tells it, something was bound to happen eventually.
It turns out that the FLDS has been in the news with respect to homeschooling before. Back in 2000, when much of the Church lived along the Arizona-Utah border near Colorado City, AZ, the Church made headlines when leader Warren Jeffs called for a massive exodus of the Church’s children from the public schools, urging them to be homeschooled using a FLDS curriculum instead. As Education Week reported in its Sept. 13, 2000 issue, enrollment in the Colorado City Unified School District in 2000 dropped from 988 to 350, and 2/3 of the teaching force and staff resigned as well. In neighboring Hildale, Utah, enrollment in one elementary school dropped from 220 to 96, and 11 of the 13 teachers resigned. When this mass exodus occurred, few of the families filed affidavits as required by Utah and Colorado if a parent wishes to homeschool.
Four years later Colorado City School District was back in the news because it had run out of money. Its Superintendent Alvin Barlow, a member of the FLDS, had tried to sound upbeat despite the massive exodus in 2000, but by 2004 his district was penniless and he was under investigation for possible mismanagement of funds. All of this is reported in the November 14, 2004 issue of Education Week.
The National Geographic story explains how prior to 1986 the FLDS had been a relatively decentralized, loose organization whose titular leader was “an avuncular man named Leroy Johnson” (51). But upon Johnson’s death in ’86 leadership shifted to the Jeffs family, whose patriarch Rulon was declared Prophet and went about consolidating power. Though Rulon didn’t die until 2002, by 2000 his son Warren was largely running the church, and his homeschooling call was part of a larger and longer pattern of increasing isolation from mainstream, or “gentile” society, and a more thoroughgoing return to 19th century Mormon practices.
Toward the end of the National Geographic story, after discussing many of the controversies within the movement (including alleged dumping of excess males, strong discipline of dissent, genetic disease due to inbreeding, and the widespread practice of marrying off girls as young as 12) author Scott Anderson makes a remarkable statement. After quoting Melinda Fischer Jeffs’ glowing appraisal of Prophet Warren Jeffs, Anderson notes,
Melinda’s defense of Jeffs underscores one of the most curious aspects of the polygamous faith: the central role of women in defending it…. Today FLDS women in the Hildale-Colorado City area have ample opportunity to ‘escape’–they have cell phones, they drive cars, there are no armed guards keeping them in–yet they don’t. (57)
Some FLDS women have in fact “escaped” (placed in quotes by Anderson because that’s the title of the memoir of former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop), but most of them are the sect’s strongest defenders. Why? Partly, Anderson thinks, it’s because the closed world of the FLDS makes the thought of trying to live on the outside a scary prospect indeed. But the real lure for women, says Anderson, is power:
The FLDS women I spoke with tended to be far more articulate and confident than the men, most of whom seemed paralyzed by bashfulness….As a result, what has all the trappings of a patriarchal culture, actually has many elements of a matriarchal one. (57)
Anderson’s observation has been made by others studying other conservative religious homeschooling subcultures. In my book I stressed how a movement that defines itself so powerfully as anti-feminist in many ways reflects feminist ideals–empowered women raising domesticated boys and strong daughters, for example. Brad Wilcox made similar claims for the broader evangelical world from the male side in his book Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.
Perhaps what’s most interesting in all of this is that in many ways (modest dress, submissive demeanor, quiverfull families, homespun living) these Mormon polygamists are the living embodiment of the ideals celebrated by other Christian homeschoolers. I’m not sure what Doug Phillips or Geoffrey Botkin would think of this, but there it is.