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Friday, December 11, 1998 Published at 16:45 GMT

Polygamy thrives in Utah

Brian Barron investigates polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists

In the heart of Salt Lake City, with the mountains of the Wassatch Range towering all around, is the hallowed ground of the Mormons.

It's called Temple Square. Here, over 150 years ago, Brigham Young struck the ground with his cane and announced a temple would be built.

The Mormons had fled 1,300 miles across America, persecuted above all for their belief in polygamy, which their founding prophet described as the door to salvation.

Late last century the Mormon hierarchy - under threat of Federal military intervention - abandoned the custom as a quid pro quo for Utah being granted statehood.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons prefer to be known, has a world-wide following of ten million, with over 50,000 missionaries spreading the word.

Temple Square is a manicured square mile of lawns, flowerbeds, monumental spires and bronze effigies of the church's pioneers.

It's a successful marketing effort to recreate the same sense of timeless solidity and tradition as, say, the Vatican.

Polygamy back on the agenda

Beyond the confines of a church that seems firmly in control of its orthodox flock and their collective income, are the rebels - over 50,000 self-styled Mormon fundamentalists still practising polygamy in the four Rocky Mountain states of Utah, Idaho, Montana and Arizona.

There has been no major crackdown on the polygamists since a clumsily-handled raid 45 years ago on a remote community on Utah's border with Arizona.

Now, questions about polygamy have resurfaced because of the case of a 16-year-old girl in protective custody after running away from her polygamous family.

She said her father had flogged her for resisting marriage to her uncle, who had 14 wives already.

This is a rare case of polygamists being prosecuted. It's happening solely because of the egregious nature of the offences.

The Mormon mainstream is embarrassed by the fundamentalists, who've been excommunicated for years.

Among the fundamentalists

That hasn't stopped the half a dozen strongest polygamous clans from prospering.

Typical of the clan patriarchs is Owen Allred, a courtly white-haired old charmer with eight wives and over 5,000 fundamentalist followers. He became a living prophet to his clan when his brother was murdered by a rival cultist.

Now, as autumn flecks the distant mountain-tops with snow, Mr Allred sits under an oak tree surrounded by 50 members of his extended family and flanked by his two most senior wives.

Mr Allred, despite his plural beliefs, seems a civilised character. Grandpa, shouts one of the many children, can you give me a hand with the ladder in the orchard? Mr Allred obliges.

His clan insist there's no brain-washing tyranny within their ranks, but the pressure to conform is enormous. Children can be married off at 16 or even younger.

During three days of meetings with the fundamentalists, their leaders were surprisingly open.

'Nothing but a meat market'

But I wasn't invited to their Friday night barn dance. One disillusioned former clan wife - now an activist against the polygamists - said these dances give the menfolk the chance to eye emerging new talent. It's nothing but a meat market, she said with disdain.

The patriarch did ask me to a prayer session in the clan's unmarked church. There are no identifying signs outside because the fundamentalists fear persecution for their polygamous ways.

The large number of children are a reminder of the clan's belief that true Mormons obtain the highest level in heaven by having babies, thus freeing souls from pre-existence. That's the justification for polygamy.

But for the youngest, the social consequences must be hard. As Salt Lake City goes the way of other Western communities and expands, suburb by suburb, so these clan families rub up against American reality. What is a boy or girl whose father has eight, ten or even 15 wives to tell school friends without incurring derision?

A new millennium dawns...

At present, the fundamentalist clans seem to be growing larger. The biggest clans, like the Allreds and Kingstons, own land and property worth millions.

Still, the coming millenium could prove troublesome for these male supremacist clans. And I don't mean because of the numerous prophets of doom in their ranks.

Forget such fantasy - the difficulties ahead are likely to be rooted in modern America's changing face, such as the rise of women's rights groups - even in the West. A bunch of disgruntled ex-wives have set up shop in Salt Lake City.

Then there's Utah's date with Olympics history, for it's hosting the Winter Games in 2002. That will bring outside scrutiny that seems long overdue. It could force a hitherto timid state government to be more forthright with the polygamists' inward-looking communities.

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