Closed Off from the World

A new book catalogues the injustices of breakaway Mormon communities.

Joseph Smith’s revelation from the angel Moroni in 1822 marked the origin of what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. His revelation occurred during the “Second Great Awakening” in America, a period of much religious ferment and social experimentation. Evangelism was widespread. Abolition and women’s rights movements developed. New religious sects and utopian communities based on socialist ideals sprang up, although most did not survive long. The LDS, or Mormon, church that grew out of this heady time not only survived but has evolved and thrived.

The survival of the Mormons was in the face of persecution that forced them to make several moves. During their sojourn in Illinois, Smith introduced the principle of plural marriage. Opposition to polygamy split the group. When some of his followers denounced him in print as a polygamist and fallen prophet, Smith retaliated by destroying their printing press. He was arrested for doing so. In 1844, while in jail awaiting trial, Smith was murdered by a mob. Led by Brigham Young, the remaining faithful made the overland trek to the inhospitable Salt Lake Basin and settled there. Some of the settlers practised plural marriage, in accordance with Smith’s special revelation. Their isolation in the unpopulated Salt Lake area allowed them to flourish.

Although insulated from the direct hostility of the mainstream, Mormons continued to experience pressure to abandon the practice of plural marriage. Under the threat of imprisonment and confiscation of their property for the crime of polygamy, the Mormons officially abandoned the practice in 1890. The LDS church now does not permit or condone plural marriage, but some dissidents refused to accept the ban. Individual families continued to live the principle of plural marriage, and some joined in communities of like-minded dissidents. These communities have evolved and continue to this day. They shield themselves from mainstream society as much as possible. The secretive, closed communities of polygamists maintain the self-narrative of persecution that was so much a part of the early history of the Mormons.

Daphne Bramham’s The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect tells the story of these closed communities in the United States and in British Columbia. She focuses particularly on Bountiful, British Columbia, sharing the extensive knowledge that she acquired as a journalist covering this story. Her detailed account of Bountiful is a story of abuse and exploitation. She charges the government with willful ignorance and negligence. In revealing the dynamics of the closed polygamous communities, she is issuing a call for action.

Bramham’s primary concern is the mistreatment of children, but her book is also a general indictment of the injustices inherent in hierarchical and highly authoritarian polygamist communities. The patriarchs control the resources of the communities and the lives of their followers. Men are financially exploited and controlled by the leaders, but it is women who suffer the most serious abuses. Women are expected to submit to and obey their fathers and husbands. Their role is to serve men and bear children. Women are raised to accept their place of subservience. Bramham’s discussion of the abuse and neglect of the children in this community provides some insight into why adults would remain. As children they are cut off from the outside world and raised to be unquestioningly obedient and dependent. When they reach adulthood, very few are able to break away from the only way of life they have ever known.

Bountiful has its own government-funded schools. Bramham details the gross inadequacy of the education provided. Little importance is placed on education, and few of the children graduate from high school. Bramham is outraged by the funding provided to and misused by Bountiful’s leaders. She writes that patriarch Winston Blackmore “battled the bureaucracy to get more money for his school” even though “he was encouraging and even ordering the boys to leave school to go to work for his companies.” In the case of girls, “he was either assigning them to marriages or sending them off to work as cooks at his company work camps.” The limited schooling that is offered seems to value religious doctrine over curriculum, and obedience and submission over critical analysis. Few of the children are prepared for anything but manual labour, motherhood and housekeeping. Bramham points to the failure of the government to provide proper oversight to the tax-payer–funded schools.

This early training in submission leaves the girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The patriarchs decide who is to marry. Members of the community do not have a free choice and are expected to comply with the assignments made by the leaders. The “child brides” of Bramham’s title are the underage girls assigned to plural marriages, usually with much older men. These alliances are not legal marriages. The girls have none of the legal rights of a spouse, only the duty to submit to the will and sexual demands of their husbands and to produce babies. The teenage pregnancy rate in Bountiful is far higher than in the rest of the province.

The boys are also mistreated. Denied a proper education, they provide a ready pool of cheap labour. Some of the boys are encouraged or forced to leave the community, because there are not enough girls to go around. As Bramham writes, “the arithmetic is not reassuring for fundamentalist Mormon boys.” The patriarchs take many wives, thus securing their place in the celestial kingdom. The “lost boys” are the surplus males who are denied wives. They have difficulty coping with life outside the compound. Some of them work for less than union wages for logging companies in British Columbia owned by fundamentalist Mormons. Bramham maintains that British Columbia has some of the worst child labour laws in North America:

”How can any kids fresh out of Grade 7 or Grade 8 or Grade 9 work around heavy machinery, green chains, conveyor belts and pits in the type of industrial setting that is listed as one of the most dangerous by B.C.’s Workers’ Compensation Board? Lax enforcement and lousy regulations.”

The strength of the book is in its engaging telling of the story. Bramham goes beyond reportage to urge government action, but she is more successful at narrative than at argument and a coherent plan of action. This is partly a matter of tone, which is more that of a frustrated and angry community activist than of a clear-eyed and reliable analyst. As well, inaccuracies reduce the persuasiveness of the book. I would have passed over one minor example had it not been a reference to me. Bramham ascribes to me an institutional affiliation that I do not hold and a statement that I did not make. (I teach at Queen’s University, not the University of Toronto, and the quote attributed to me was authored by Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre researchers.) Although not an important point, it did make me hesitate to rely on the accuracy of the text. There are no footnotes, so it is not possible to check the authorities that Bramham relies on.

A more substantive error appears when Bramham writes of a young man raised in Bountiful who “had no idea that the common practice of cousins marrying cousins is actually both illegal and dangerous.” Whatever the danger involved in marrying a cousin, it is not illegal to do so. Canada’s Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act gives an exhaustive statement of the relatives one may not legally marry: “No person shall marry another person if they are related lineally, or as brother or sister or half-brother or half-sister, including by adoption.” Apart from these restrictions, the act provides that “persons related by consanguinity, affinity or adoption are not prohibited from marrying each other by reason only of their relationship.”

Bramham’s reference to the age of consent to sexual activity suggests an incomplete understanding of that law as well. Bramham asserts that “Canada’s age of sexual consent is among the lowest in the developed world.” Around the world the age of consent varies widely between the ages of 12 and 18. Like some other countries, Canada sets a minimum age, but also a higher age for sexual activity with a person in a position of trust or authority over the child. Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits sexual activity with children under the age of 16, regardless of whether the child consented to, suggested or encouraged the activity. Exceptions to this general rule provide a lower age of consent when the accused “is not in a position of trust or authority towards the complainant, is not a person with whom the complainant is in a relationship of dependency and is not in a relationship with the complainant that is exploitative of the complainant.” In such a case, a child who is 12 or 13 may consent to sexual activity with someone who is under 20. Thus, young people close in age who engage in consensual activity are not subject to criminal sanctions for their sexual experimentation. In addition, the age of consent is 14 if the accused and the complainant are legally married. (Some provinces permit children under the age of 16 to marry with the consent of the parents and authorization of a court order.) More germane to the Bountiful situation is that the Criminal Code age of consent is 18 when the accused is in a position of trust or authority toward the child, is someone with whom the young person is in a relationship of dependency or is in a relationship with a young person that is exploitive of that young person. This provision seems applicable to the “assignment” of girls under 18 to older men at Bountiful. For the exploitive activity that is the subject of Bramham’s concern, Canada’s age of consent is among the highest in the world.

Criminal sexual activity with minors is distinct from the crime of polygamy. The constitutionality and efficacy of the Criminal Code provision prohibiting polygamy has been questioned. (I co-authored a report that did so.) Whatever the merits of the arguments for or against prosecutions for polygamy, these arguments do not apply to prosecutions for sexual offences against children. Consenting adults who choose to live in a plural marriage may have an argument that they should be left alone. But the patriarchs who use their position of authority to exploit children sexually do not. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not protect against prosecution for child abuse that is carried out in the name of religion.

The authorities should focus on prosecuting the offences against children, for which there seems to be abundant evidence. As well, it is clear from Bramham’s account that intervention is urgently needed to ensure proper education for the children and to protect them from exploitive and dangerous labour practices. Helping vulnerable members who remain embedded in and loyal to the community is difficult. They may not be cooperative witnesses in criminal trials, as we have seen recently in El Dorado, Texas, where authorities seized more than 400 children in a raid on a polygamous compound. They may collude with the patriarchs to flout school regulations and labour laws. They may be traumatized rather than helped by heavy-handed legal interventions. The long-term benefits and costs of the El Dorado raid cannot yet be assessed, but the short-term emotional and psychological costs are probably high.

Bramham notes the “frustrating paradox of the polygamous sect: leaving can be nearly as difficult as staying”. Because of the challenges of leaving a closed community, any plan to assist the vulnerable residents of Bountiful needs to include a significant investment of social services and support to facilitate the transition. The barriers are many: inculcated suspicion and fear of the outside world, inadequate education, lack of financial wherewithal, few contacts outside the community and inexperience in the ways of the world. Leaving the community means loss of contact with family and friends. Those who decide to leave or who are forced out need support.