SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The slaying in Mexico of nine people who belonged to a Mormon offshoot community where some people practice polygamy spotlights the mainstream church’s struggle to distance itself from plural marriage, which has a history in the faith but has long been denounced.
The victims’ connection to Mormonism featured prominently in headlines this week about the drug cartel attack on a caravan of American women and children living in Mexico, though there’s no indication they were targeted for their religion.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a short statement Tuesday expressing sympathy for the victims, while pointing out they didn’t belong to the mainstream church.
Church leaders were likely hoping to end confusion, which is common when news breaks about polygamous sects that are considered fundamentalist Mormons but who don’t belong to the mainstream church that banned polygamy a century ago, said Patrick Mason, a religious scholar who is the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.
It was a typical occurrence more than a decade ago when a group led by Warren Jeffs was in the news over allegations of child sexual abuse and a raid on its Texas ranch.
“The LDS church isn’t going to be able to shake the ghost of polygamy anytime soon,” Mason said. “That history will continue to haunt every aspect of Mormonism for a long time to come. It’s too powerful an image, it’s too powerful a cultural memory.”
Mason pointed to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center during church member Mitt Romney’s first run for president, which found “polygamy” was the most common word associated with members of the faith.
Popular TV shows about polygamous families, including the reality series “Sister Wives” and the fictional show “Big Love,” only exacerbated the confusion, he said.
Many people don’t know the difference between Methodists and Baptists, let alone the different factions of Mormonism, Mason said.
“In the minds of the wider public, everyone who goes by the term Mormon is lumped into one group, whether they are polygamous or monogamous or which group they adhere to,” said Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association, an independent organization.
The nine women and children killed by drug cartel gunmen in northern Mexico on Monday lived in a remote farming community where residents are descendants of former church members who fled U.S. prosecution of polygamy in the late 19th century.
Early church members practiced polygamy in the 1800s at the instruction of founder Joseph Smith, but the church disavowed it in 1890.
The Mexican community is one of a handful of Mormon splinter groups who still practice plural marriage. The most well known is a community on the Utah-Arizona border known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that was run by Jeffs, who is now serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
There are other smaller groups around Salt Lake City and in Missouri.
The Utah-based church in recent years has been more open about how polygamy was a key part of its history. It published an essay in 2014 detailing that Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men’s wives during the faith’s early polygamous days. In 2015, it included a small exhibit about polygamy in its revamped history museum in Salt Lake City.
A recent push by church President Russell M. Nelson to eradicate the use of previously embraced shorthand terms for the faith — “Mormon,” ″LDS” and “Mormon church” — has added an interesting wrinkle to the discussion, said W. Paul Reeve, the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah.
When Jeffs’ stories were generating attention, church officials argued that people should only call members of the mainstream church Mormons and avoid the term “fundamentalist Mormon,” Reeve said.
“The interesting irony is now the Salt Lake City-based church has said, ‘Don’t use the word Mormon in association with us,’ and yet they’re still fighting the same public affairs issues,” Reeves said.
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to elaborate on how the church handles the confusion, saying the faith wants to respect the grieving families.
Also muddling the issue is Smith’s revelation that God told him to practice plural marriage remains canonized in church scripture, the scholars noted.
The faith also allows men to be “sealed” for the afterlife to more than one wife if they remarry after their first wife dies, they said. Nelson, the church president, and one of his top counselors have remarried and been sealed to their second wives, Mason said.
“Still in Latter-day Saint theology, we have in polygamy,” said Mason, who’s a member of the faith. “It just happens in heaven, not here on Earth.”
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