Eight years ago, a particularly nasty cult leader named Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison. Jeffs was – and still is – the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an extremist Mormon splinter group with enclaves scattered across the American West.
The FLDS, like most cults, was controlled with an iron fist, and members were expected to live like slaves serving the whims of an all-powerful leader. Both Warren Jeffs and the previous leader, his uncle Rulon, ruled by fear, demanded absolute obedience in all things, and exiled people from the community and their families for the slightest infraction. But what drew law enforcement’s attention was the FLDS practice of treating women and girls like livestock that could be given away to men in polygamous “marriages” without their consent (actually, it would be more accurate to say that church doctrine was facilitating rape on a wide scale).
After a failed attempt to flee from justice, Jeffs was captured and convicted of aggravated sexual assault against underage girls. But in spite of his imprisonment, he’s continued to run the FLDS cult from his cell. He incorrectly predicted the world would end in 2012, and wrote a massive tome of revelations, Jesus Christ Message to All Nations, whose main theme is that God wants us to release Warren Jeffs from prison or else.
That was where things stood until recently. But this month I read a very encouraging report on Al-Jazeera America, which says that without Jeffs’ presence, the FLDS’ main outpost in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona is finally starting to unravel:
“I finally heard about this thing called Facebook, like, a year ago. I had no idea what it was,” says 22-year-old Brigham Johnson, rubbing his neat beard nervously.
He’s embarrassed it took him so long to stumble upon the social-media site. But when he finally did, it was life changing.
“I sneaked a look on a computer, even though that was forbidden, and I found some old friends who’d got out. I was, like, ‘Wow, they’ve been living here in town all this time.’ That’s when I knew I could leave,” he says.
…There are no official statistics, but Sam Brower, a Utah-based private investigator who has worked on local and federal probes into the FLDS, says that more are leaving “than we have seen for many years.” He believes that 500 to 1,000 members have left in the last one to two years and about 10,000 remain, mostly in Short Creek, with others scattered in small groups elsewhere.
As I’ve argued in the past, the internet is a lifeline for people trapped in the most restrictive and stifling forms of fundamentalism. Jeffs, like all cult leaders, ordered his followers not to watch or read outside media or talk to people outside the sect, especially former members who’d been excommunicated. But smartphones smuggled into the community, almost as if it were North Korea, have made it possible for FLDS members to contact exiled friends and relatives, to learn about the outside world and to hear the truth about their imprisoned leader.
And when they decide they want to walk away, the internet also allows them to find refuge. There’s an Underground Railroad-like network of shelters run by ex-FLDS members who’re willing to open their homes to escapees and give them a chance to get back on their feet.
Some have found new ways of getting out, such as connecting with others on the outside via social media. Others are seeking shelter in an expanding network of safe houses, where volunteers take the escapees into their homes in an echo of the historic Underground Railroad, which once helped slaves to flee.
“Sites like Facebook and Snapchat have become the new highway for those leaving so they can reconnect with ex-members. It’s easier to leave now than when I ran away 10 years ago and had no idea where I was going,” says Elissa Wall, who fled after Jeffs forced her to marry her first cousin when she was 14. Now Wall helps others get out.
In this respect, Jeffs shot himself in the foot. His dictatorial tendency to exile people for the slightest disobedience has ensured that there’s a large, active community of former members ready to extend a hand to others who want to get out of the cult. Even if he weren’t such an eager tyrant, the math of polygamy requires that a steady stream of unmarriageable young men be disposed of so that they don’t create social strife. In the FLDS sect, this was done by excommunicating them on flimsy pretexts, an unfairness that was bound to further stoke anger and resentment. (One of them was Warren Jeffs’ own nephew.)
The other thing accelerating the decline is that, with Jeffs behind bars, the authorities are closing in from other directions. A federal lawsuit asserts that the mayors, utility companies and police departments of the FLDS towns acted as deputies of the cult, abusing their powers to harass and intimidate dissidents and ex-members: threatening them with malicious false arrest, refusing to connect water and electricity to their houses, or running them out of town altogether.
If the suit is successful, state authorities will take over control of the towns, further weakening Jeffs’ hold on the people. It’s possible that this noxious and harmful cult might eventually collapse altogether, which would be the best possible ending. For the people still enmeshed in it, it might be a frightening and disorienting experience to be cut off from the only source of guidance they’ve ever known. But from what it sounds like, there’ll be plenty of help for them when they’re ready to reclaim their lives and rejoin the rest of the world.