CIRCLEVILLE, Utah--A decade ago, Stephen Butt says he was happily married, busy with his church and working as a cult exit counselor in Maine. His work with a young woman who had been abused by a cult took an unexpected direction. She became his wife.

Now Butt lives in Utah with three wives and five children, ministering to nearly 1,000 people around the country who call themselves Christian polygamists. Unlike the estimated 25,000-35,000 polygamists living in the West who trace their roots to historical Mormonism, Butt and his Protestant peers say plural marriage comes straight from the Old Testament.

``We believe that plural marriage is allowed for in the Bible to meet practical, real needs, and this should be acknowledged by the Christian church,'' Butt said. He points to passages that say David, Solomon and other patriarchs had many wives. ``Obviously polygamy can't be something that's immoral if God allowed it with these people whom he showed so much favor.''

To spread the word, Butt and his family moved to southern Utah recently and bought Circleville's original Mormon chapel. They plan to start the first Be Free Patriarchal Christian Church in this town of about 300 settled by Mormon pioneers in 1864.

They intend to take their message to the polygamist families living in southern Utah, and expand into California, the Southeast and then abroad to countries with polygamous cultures. It will be easier to convert cultural polygamists to Christianity, Butt figures, than to persuade mainstream Christian churches--all of which reject polygamy as being in conflict with a moral Christian lifestyle--to accept plural marriage.

Though Butt talks about multiple wives and uses the term ``polygamy,'' he is mindful that bigamy is illegal and points out his second and third wives are bound to him by God's word alone. Though all three women wear wedding rings (something Butt himself does not do), only his first wife has a marriage license.

In an anteroom of their old stone church, Butt, 49, sits in a recliner, his wives and children around him and a poster of a male lion on the wall above his head. On one couch sits 51-year-old Diane, his legal wife, with their two children: Andri, 14, and John, 13.

Dawn, a 34-year-old woman who joined the family a little over a year ago, plays on another with her 2-year-old son, Isaac. The twins she and Butt had, 5-month-old Jacob and Abigail, squirm on a blanket.

To Butt's right is Merry-Ann, 44, the woman he brought home a decade ago. ``It was like, `Honey, I brought home the bread and milk and, by the way, here's a new woman,''' Diane Butt says with a laugh.

She wasn't enthusiastic back then, ``But if you would ask me today if I would choose this way of life, I would say most definitely.''

A growing number of people are living with more than one partner - and acknowledging it, according to Brett Hill, editor of Loving More, a magazine for people with multiple partners. ``This is the same thing that happened with the gay movement, where a lot of people were gay but you just didn't know about it,'' he said. ``There are a lot of people who have more than one partner in their life. ... In fact, we believe most people do, but they just lie about it.''

Many practitioners, rejected by their churches for abandoning monogamy, are trying to reconcile their lifestyle and their faith, said Dave Hutchison, who organized a Phoenix-based group called Liberated Christians.

``You have a lot of Christians feeling this way, then feeling guilty they're feeling this way, so they come to us and see the Biblical basis,'' he said. ``And all of a sudden they become liberated.''

Many find freedom on the Internet, where a half-dozen Web sites trumpet Christian polygamy and underground practitioners make contact. Some sites even carry personal ads. An example: ``We are a married, Christian couple seeking a Christian sister-wife. He is 30 years old and called into the ministry.''

Butt has his own site, www.bfree.org, that recounts how he moved his family from Maine to Utah. That's how his third wife, Dawn--who was a single mother living near Chicago--found the group. It's also how they stay in touch while living in this isolated spot a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City. Just 90 miles south are the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., known as hotbeds for plural marriage.

The Butts say they are not like those polygamists, who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in 1890, the fundamentalists believe Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith was shown by God that polygamy is a means of exaltation in heaven.

One fundamentalist sect, The Latter-day Church of Christ, recently came under scrutiny when two members were convicted: David Ortell Kingston for having sex with his 16-year-old niece, and the girl's father, John Daniel Kingston, for belt-whipping her when she ran away from her uncle. The girl testified that she was forced to be her uncle's 15th wife.

The Butts call the polygamous abuse the Kingston cases brought to light ``appalling'' and insist their lifestyle is about freedom, not oppression.

And what about polyandry, one woman having multiple husbands? Butt seemed surprised at the question. It seems unnatural, he said; besides, it's not in the Bible.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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