Just exactly how many wives he had—or has, since he’s only out of circulation, not breath—isn’t clear. Estimations go beyond what you can count on toes and fingers. Maybe forty, maybe more. Youngest? —just twelve years old.
Warren Jeffs was a long-time resident of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, right there with other major-league offenders. Today he’s in jail in Texas, where he’d started yet another polygamous community.
He’s not finished as a prophet and has told his devoted that one day soon Jesus Christ will break down prison walls, step into his cell, and spring him as if that day were yet another resurrection. Together, they’ll come back home. To that end, from prison, Warren Jeffs told his people to build him a compound where he and the Lord—and his favorite wives—could take up joyful residence.
So they did—right there in Colorado City, AZ, a desert hamlet of 8000 spread lazily beneath breath-taking sandstone mountains, a village where most everyone believed in “Celestial Marriage,” even if many didn’t practice it. Jeffs’ loyal following built a spacious compound for him, more hotel-ish than residence. Accommodating all those wives and children requires endless rooms.
Polygamy has a long history among the Mormons, a history and a practice that Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) believe the liberal Mormons should never have abandoned. Already in 1890, the prophet Wilfred Woodruff had a vision shaped more deftly by practical circumstance—a desire to fit into American culture—than it was by profound, divine revelation. Woodruff’s Manifesto officially terminated polygamy, a (upper case) Principle Joseph Smith himself had proclaimed, some argue, because he couldn’t curb what his wife considered serial adultery.
These days, those who know something about life in Utah know it isn’t only the FLDS who practice polygamy; lots of LDS folks live in “Celestial Marriage” beneath the radar. Bigamy is officially illegal in Utah, but many polygamists are not abusers or child molesters.
But Warren Jeffs of Colorado City, AZ, certainly was, and that’s why he’s in prison. When Jeffs was picked up outside Las Vegas, he had 16 cell phones, three wigs, and nearly 60 thousand dollars. He’s serving a life-plus-20-year sentence.
But when Jeffs went off to jail, his physical absence took the edge off his authority in town. No longer could he determine who lived in Colorado City and who didn’t. Ex-members simply would no longer take his bullying from afar. His power diminishing, he commanded his followers to end all building. Today, around town, ghostly houses haunt almost every block.
But things appear to be looking up in Colorado City, AZ. A new church plant is getting on its feet, a church Jeffs would not have tolerated. What’s more, around many compounds in town, walls are coming down, walls that once sealed secrets. One of Jeffs’ own compounds has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast with the saucy name of “Most Wanted.”
What was once locked up tight behind walls is no longer. One of the most fearsome images I saw downstairs in those dormitory domiciles was a couple of bedrooms that only locked from the outside. Took my breath away.
But there’s this, this wonder: one of Jeffs’ residencies, a hotel-like place with more than forty bedrooms is, as we speak, in the running to become a halfway house for women freed from sex-trafficking. You read that right.
Forgive me for gushing, but I can’t help saying there’s something breathtaking about that oh-so unlikely transformation, so impossible that it begs a smile, maybe even a laugh. Listen: an institution-like, walled-in prison house created for several dozen sister-wives living under the dark hand of a despotic, madman prophet, that place is now magically—gracefully!—restored, reupholstered, refurbished—dare I say redeemed?–to become instead a prayerful medium to liberation, hope, and praise.
Wednesday, Jes Kast opened the doors to her New York City congregation to make a point that is just as valid in a strange village stuck up on the dusty high country desert. a place so deliberately far away people have to hunt to find it.
“Grace specializes,” Jes wrote, “in the mess of humanity.”
No kidding. No kidding.