Jeffs--who had been a fugitive before his arrest Tuesday and faces charges of sexual misconduct for arranging marriages involving underage girls--leads one such community, called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), based in Hildale, Utah, and nearby Colorado City, Arizona.
Anne Wilde is the community relations director of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices--which organized the Salt Lake rally--the co-author of "Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage," and a fundamentalist Mormon unaffiliated with Jeffs' group. She spoke to Beliefnet about fundamentalist Mormonism, her differences with Jeffs, and her own plural marriage.
Why is plural marriage important to you? It's a strongly held religious conviction. However, that isn't the reason that we have gone public. We're really working toward equal civil rights. We're trying to separate the religious part from the civil part, and eventually we'd like to see polygamy decriminalized so consenting adults can live it more freely.
Are you yourself in a plural marriage?
I was for 33 years. I was his second wife, and very, very happy in it. My husband and I had a beautiful marriage. We did a lot of things, like writing books, that we enjoyed doing together. He died four years ago. But I still consider myself a polygamist at heart.
Have you kept up with the other wife or wives?
They've all passed away, except for one, and she and I see each other frequently.
How many were there?
A few. I never say how many. I can't answer for them, even though they've passed away.
What is your reaction to Warren Jeffs' arrest?
My first reaction was one of relief that that part of it is over. When you have a strong leader over a community for that long, eventually it seems to explode from within. I am glad that he was taken peacefully--there was no bloodshed, I don't think anybody wants that. I'm hoping he can get a fair trial, just like anyone else. I think he's entitled to that. It'll be interesting to see more of the particulars as time goes on.
Is Warren Jeffs connected with your group?
Not at all. Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist LDS church is only one of many fundamentalist groups. I've never met him, and I don't particularly want to meet him. I know some of the people who have left his community, but I am glad to say I am not associated with his leadership in any way.
Why are you glad about it?
I understand that he has exercised a lot of control over his people and has condoned and even married underage women. I believe that a girl ought to be 18, generally speaking, before she gets married, in monogamy or polygamy. And so there are things I've heard have gone on in that community that I am glad I am not a part of. And yet I still respect a lot of people that are members of that group.
I am glad you brought up this issue of young girls being taken into marriages.
I do not condone that or recommend it, and we've talked to the leaders of most of the other groups [fundamentalist Mormon groups, aside from Jeffs' FLDS], and they are beginning to feel the same, if they haven't always. They recommend 18 as the youngest age for marriage.
What do you think the future of Jeffs' movement is?
I think it's already factioned, to some degree. There are people down in Colorado City that don't seem to have a leader. Or maybe they do--I don't associate with them that closely. But it seems to me, from what I've heard, that they don't have a local leader down in Colorado City, and so I don't know if there will be other leaders who will come up and take Warren's place. That remains to be seen.
What is the difference between fundamentalist Mormons and mainstream LDS members?
We [fundamentalists] do not have one particular organized church. It consists of several groups and independents. The LDS church, of course, had it [polygamy] as one of their beliefs and practices in the early years of the church. They voted on it in 1852 as a tenet of the church, and then in 1890, they discontinued the practice, generally, in the church. But we believe, as fundamentalist Mormons, that it is a priesthood law and it can be lived separate from the church. So that's what we do. We distinguish ourselves from the mainstream LDS church.
However, as fundamentalist Mormons, people often get us confused with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is led by Warren Jeffs. They happen to have the term "fundamentalist" in the name of their church, so that confuses people, when really they are only a group that consists of about one quarter of the total population of fundamentalist Mormons in general.
I consider myself to be an independent fundamentalist Mormon. So that means I do not belong to a group, nor do I look for any strong leader to tell me how to live my religion. We have many friends that belong to the various groups, and we respect them, and we associate with them frequently.
My husband and I wrote a book called "95 Theses" and we went through 95 different doctrinal and ordinance changes. I can mention several of them. One of them is United Order [an organization that administered a form of communal living], which was discontinued in 1890 along with plural marriage. Another one was the belief in the Kingdom of God, which was the belief in a political kingdom that was related to the church organization and a part of it.
There was gathering: In the early days of the church, they preached that the Saints should all gather to one place. Now they say to the Saints, "Stay in the country where you are. Do not gather." So they've just reversed their opinion on a lot of these things.
When you say you practice without a strong leader like that, what do you mean? Are you a member of a Mormon church? I was for years a member of the LDS church. However, because of my beliefs, I am no longer a member.
A lot of people criticize polygamy as being inherently degrading to women.
I feel like it's just the opposite. It's not degrading at all. I'm a very independent woman. I liked my time, where I could do things on my own, and I could go out for dinner and a movie with my girlfriends, or I had one-on-one time with my kids. I just feel like it really gives the woman the best of both worlds, because she has more free time, and yet she has wonderful quality time with her husband as well.
A lot of the families will live together in the same house. Maybe there's two or three wives, and they live together and get along fine. Some of them maybe prefer to have their own homes. That's the way our family particularly decided on it, and that was our choice. Our husband didn't say, "Oh no, you have to live in the same home," or, "You have to live separately." We got to decide what would work best for our particular family.
In your marriage, what were some of the biggest challenges of the arrangement?
I could not tell some of my immediate family. For example, my parents. And that was very hard, because I would have liked to have told them, but they believed in the orthodox LDS church, and they felt like polygamy should not be lived right now. If they knew that I lived it, it would have caused a lot of sadness. So I didn't tell them for a long time. They eventually knew before they died. That was probably the hardest for me, that I couldn't tell people I would have liked to have told. I would like to have said, "I am so happy in this. This is the lifestyle for me."
How many polygamists do you estimate there are in America today?
You need to make a distinction. What I've understood--and I have no firsthand knowledge--is that there are approximately 100,000 Christian polygamists. They live it as a Bible law or maybe as a cultural law, a matter of convenience, all kinds of reasons.
And then there are what we call fundamentalist Mormons, and I did a survey recently about that, and there were probably about 37,000 that belong to a group or are independents. But among those, there are probably only 50%--and that's a real rough estimate--that actually live plural marriage. There are a lot of people who believe in it, but for whatever reason haven't lived it yet or maybe there spouses died or left.
What are the prospects for getting polygamy legalized?
What we are aiming for, at least as a first step, is to get it decriminalized, which means just to remove the criminal penalty from it. Right now, if a fellow has a job and his boss finds out he's got two or three wives, he can fire him, because he's guilty of a felony. Maybe he's doing a very good job, and the only thing the employer can find wrong is that he's living polygamy. He can fire him for that. I feel like that's really unfair.
Probably the first step is to get it reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. It is a felony in Utah.
Do you think there is openness in our culture to your lifestyle, more so than in the past?
I think so. People are more accepting of alternative lifestyles between consenting adults. The Lawrence v Texas case showed that--anything in your bedroom should be allowed. I feel like society, generally speaking, is a little bit more ready to accept and learn more about the polygamous lifestyle. Not that they're going to run and join and have a bunch more wives, but I think they're more understanding of our choices to do that.
I have to ask: Do people in your community watch the HBO show "Big Love?"
Even though that show is about our lifestyle, the friends that I have, most of them don't even have HBO. So if we were to watch it, we'd have to go to a friend's house who did have it. And that's what I did. I have a friend who is not a polygamist, and she has very high moral standards, don't get me wrong, it's just that they like HBO.
So I went to her house and watched it, and I also have copies of all 12 episodes. The first two were very offensive because of the graphic sex scenes that they display. That was hard to watch. We realize people have intimacy. We're not averse to that at all. But to watch it be portrayed as they portray it was very difficult. So after you got beyond the first two episodes, we were fine with it. It was very compelling. We liked the actors. A lot of the experiences they had were somewhat similar to reality, and there were some that weren't. But we enjoyed it, generally speaking.