Polygamy dominates life in small towns
Breakaway sect continues illegal practice in Utah, Arizona communities
Martin and Pam Black

After 35 years of marriage, Martin and Pam Black are divorcing at Pam's insistence because she has broken away from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But they say they have become even closer friends.
Nick Adams/The Spectrum
Pam Black talks about her struggles

With a portrait of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith behind her, Pam Black talks about her struggles living in the culture of the fundamentalist Mormon church.
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HILDALE, Utah -- Pam Black had prayed for a "sister wife."

A man needed at least three wives before he could ascend to heaven, and only obedient, "virtuous" women would make it happen for him, she believed.

Yet after 35 years of marriage, she remained Martin Black's only wife.

"I was angry at God," recalled Pam Black, 51, who has broken ranks with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "I wanted it because I honestly thought that was the only way to get to God."

Five years have passed since she became an apostate, but 46 years of polygamous teaching still weigh heavily on her.

"I hated polygamy," she said. "I hated it. But I did not dare to tell anybody I hated it because I was afraid they would kick me out and (I would) go to hell. I did hate what I saw my sisters go through. I saw only abuse in polygamy."

One of the largest and fastest-growing polygamist groups in America, the FLDS church dominates the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The FLDS church, which has broken away from the mainstream LDS church, owns most of the area's land.

Daniel Barlow, mayor of Colorado City for 18 years, said FLDS members try to preserve a pioneer atmosphere, much like the Amish and the early LDS pioneers. They work together on construction projects or manufacturing jobs and rely on their prophet -- a church member believed to be able to speak for God -- for counseling and marital matters.

From 1990 to 2000, the population of the two towns grew 40 percent, mostly boosted by high birth rates. Among the 1,895 people living in Hildale and the 3,334 in Colorado City, the 2000 U.S. Census showed that more than 60 percent were younger than 18, with a median age of 13.1 in Hildale and 14.3 in Colorado City. While FLDS members often shop at Wal-Mart stores about an hour away in St. George, Utah, they rarely mingle with "outsiders."

"They have been abused," Barlow said. "They have been persecuted as a people, and they just want to live their religion and have the same benefits every American has, that live the way they feel is right."

Roots traced to 1840s

FLDS members trace the roots of their beliefs to Joseph Smith, who introduced the practice of polygamy to followers in the early 1840s. As it became more widely known, the principle drew public opposition, which contributed to the community turmoil behind Smith's 1844 assassination in Illinois.

After Brigham Young led LDS pioneers to Salt Lake City, the church in 1852 publicly announced polygamy as an official doctrine. But moral outrage among the American public prompted Congress to enact measures to outlaw polygamy. LDS church President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto in 1890 that abolished plural marriages, a decision that helped the territory achieve statehood.

Since then, LDS members practicing polygamy have been excommunicated and barred from LDS temples.

The LDS church has abandoned a "fundamental" principle advocated by Smith and Young, said Barlow, who calls himself "a fundamentalist Mormon." Until recently, he said, LDS leaders felt threatened by the FLDS church and actively persecuted polygamists.

The prosecution of polygamists is not a religious issue, said Donald Jessee, a spokesman for the LDS church, "it's the law. If there are those who are trying to bring (polygamists) to justice, that's a legal issue. It's nothing to do with the church."

In recent years, said Benjamin Bistline, a longtime resident of Colorado City who is not a polygamist, the increasingly secretive FLDS church has tightened its grip on its members.

FLDS members are told not to believe in dinosaur tracks or such scientific achievements as astronauts walking on the moon, Bistline said. And instead of saying "pregnant," people are told to say "with a child."

In August 2000, then-FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs called for FLDS children to be pulled from public schools. Student enrollment at Phelps Elementary School in Hildale plummeted from a peak of 350 students to 16 in 2001, forcing the Washington County School District to close and eventually sell the building.

"God's way of polygamy" has become "man's way of polygamy," said Julia Thomas, 76, Pam Black's mother. "(The current leaders) teach you how many children you should have, how many wives you have, how big your house is or what your name is. They are not preaching old doctrines, so all anybody can do is to rebel."

Although evicted by the FLDS church, Thomas still believes in "an ideal polygamy," where women are respected by men and men by women.

Pam Black's odyssey

On Sept. 7, 1963, 11-year-old Pam moved with her mother, three sisters and a brother to Short Creek, now Colorado City.

When she was 17, Pam's thick red hair caught the attention of a returned veteran from Korea, 27-year-old Martin. The eldest son of Leonard Black and his third wife, Larna, Martin grew up with 32 siblings.

"I went to her house," he recalled. "The beautiful red-haired girl came to (the) door with a pie, a cake on a tray. The first time I laid eyes on her, I fell in love. I mean, I really fell in love with her. ... She's full of energy, vibrant."

Before her mother knew, and before she really got to know her new suitor, Pam and Martin were rushed to Las Vegas with the approval of then-prophet Leroy Johnson to get married on Dec. 24, 1968.

She held out a framed family photo, with four daughters and nine sons huddled together and smiling. Her second daughter was stillborn.

"I was feeling more and more like a 'plaything' for my husband, and less and less like a beautiful woman," Pam Black recalled.

She tried to talk to Martin, but he shut down. The solution to family fights, FLDS counselors told them, was to make the women submit. Only through men with plural wives could women receive their blessings and go to heaven, they preached, but a disobedient woman was doomed.

The Blacks are now divorcing.

Martin Black admitted that he wanted more wives, saying a man had to have at least three if he wanted to go to heaven. "If you only get two, what are you going to do? You don't have enough," he said.

Not everyone can reach the "standard" for receiving plural wives, Barlow said.

"If a man is worthy, then he's called to that calling," Barlow said. "It's not something that everybody tries to do on their own."

The ones deemed "worthy" by the prophet are those who have money and property, who come from powerful families and who are in favor of the current leaders, Bistline said. Others are abused, driven out of town or find their plural wives "reassigned" to more "worthy" men.

"The leaders have got to keep people pure," Bistline said.
Originally published May 20, 2003