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Mormons seek distance from polygamist sects

As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.

Church officials knew the sect's similar name and practice of polygamy — part of Mormon church life until it was banned more than a century ago — would cause people to confuse the two.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, is starting a public relations campaign that seeks a delicate balance: distinguishing itself from a small, separate group that claims some of the same history while not denigrating someone else's beliefs.

It's a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren't interested in attacking someone else's beliefs," LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. "At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us."

"Mormons," he said, "have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas."

Church agnostic on raids
The LDS church has not taken a stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas, subsequent child-custody battle and ongoing grand jury investigation into whether FLDS members committed any crimes.

"We don't know if there's abuse of children," Cook said in an interview. "We would condemn that ... We don't know all the facts."

Cook said the church's feeling that it had to do something was confirmed by a survey of 1,000 people it commissioned in late May that found 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the "Mormon Church" based in Salt Lake City.

Another 6 percent said the LDS and FLDS were partly related, 29 percent said the groups were not connected at all, and 29 percent weren't sure, the survey found.

The centerpiece of the new campaign — church officials provided The Associated Press a preview before its release — is a package of materials and video on the LDS Web site.

The video clips feature interviews with video of Texas LDS church members — an orthopedic surgeon, a former Houston Oilers quarterback, a news anchor — to show that church members are part of the community and "much like everybody else," as opposed to insular polygamist groups.

The Web site highlights other differences. There no arranged marriages in the LDS church, and members "wear regular clothing and have contemporary hairstyles," for instance.

Monogamy v. polygamy
Polygamy has always been a difficult issue for the church, with its latest discussion coming in the article, "Differences from Polygamous Groups," part of the Web site package.

The Book of Mormon teaches that the church's standard doctrine is monogamy, the article says. However, there are times in history, including during Old Testament times of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when polygamy was introduced to "raise a righteous seed unto the Lord," it says.

The Mormon church in 1890 prohibited the practice of polygamy and excommunicates members who disobey.

The article goes on to cite how Mormons of the 19th century practiced polygamy differently than polygamist groups of today: A woman could choose to marry or not, and could leave such a relationship. Two-thirds of plural marriages involved just two wives, it said.

"The biggest challenge facing the LDS church is not distinguishing their present from the fundamentalist present, but getting people to understand the difference between their past and the current practice of the fundamentalist groups," said Kathleen Flake, an associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. "This initiative, I believe, is their first attempt to do that."

Not mentioned are the plural marriages of church founder Joseph Smith — who scholars say had at least 28 wives, some as young as 14 — or his successor, Brigham Young, who married at least 20 women.

Unfair comparison?
Photographs of young FLDS wives with church prophet Warren Jeffs have drawn outrage.

Cook said comparing the FLDS' practices to the early Mormon church isn't fair. People generally married younger then, and most Mormon wives were in their early 20s, he said. He also cited the LDS church's legacy of women's rights during the polygamy era; women in the Utah Territory won the right to vote in 1870.

Although the Mormon church distances itself from polygamist groups like the FLDS, the groups are not unrelated, said Jan Shipps, a historian who specializes in Mormonism. They share common roots, call themselves Mormon and recognize Joseph Smith as a prophet, she said.

"You can see why the (LDS) church is doing its best to draw a line between the two," she said. "The problem is that by drawing the line, they don't recognize the shared history both accept."

Shipps said it's accurate to call sects like the FLDS "fundamentalist Mormons" because she, and other scholars, considers Mormonism a new religious tradition with several expressions.

The LDS church, which considers itself Christian, sees it differently.

As part of the new initiative to set itself apart from polygamist groups, the church's general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week urging sensitivity in coverage and asking that the term "fundamentalist Mormon" not be used.

"Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated," he wrote, "and then started their own religion."