The popular HBO show “Big Love” features a polygamist family headed by actor Bill Paxton who has three wives living in the Salt Lake City suburbs. Each wife has her very own house nestled in a neat little row and joined together by a common yard with a pool.

Brigham Young, proud polygamistThis is the fantasized version of polygamy HBO-syle.

Paxton and his brood live secretly concocting cover stories to keep their nosy Mormon neighbors guessing.

But back in the bad old days when polygamy flourished in Salt Lake City there was no need to hide as Paxton’s paranoid character does on the television series. Polygamy was practiced and honored from the top down by church members.

Mormon “prophet” Brigham Young lived quite publicly with his many wives in downtown Salt Lake, virtually in the shadow of the Mormon Temple.

Young’s home named “The Beehive” was considered the official residence of the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). And right next door he housed his plural wives in what is known as the “Lion House” named for the stone lion placed above its porch.

The Mormon leader took pride in polygamy and regarded it far more seriously than the fictional character Paxton plays on HBO. Brigham Young reportedly married and/or was “sealed” to more than 50 women and had at least 57 known children.

Some researchers have concluded that Young had 27 wives.

“Lion House” caretakers say that the building was “designed with a communal family in mind.” And though the property had no swimming pool like Paxton’s, it included twenty bedrooms. Lion House has been lovingly preserved by Young’s faithful religious progeny and its 150th anniversary is being celebrated this year reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Mormon historians say the home housed 75 people, including 40 children under the age of 13.

The second Mormon “prophet” used to summon his wives by ringing a big bell three times every evening. Young died in one of the bedrooms within “Lion House” during 1877.

'Lion House'Today the house is used as a public place and is booked for parties, dinners and special events, even once for a bar mitzvah.

“If Brigham Young were around, he would be happy to see it used that way,” said its executive chef.

Well, maybe not about a bar mitzvah, given his view that Mormons have effectively replaced the Jews with their own “restored priesthood” according to the revelation given to their original “prophet” Joseph Smith.

Some say that the Lion House is haunted. Perhaps by the spirits of Young’s deceased wives still responding to ringing bells.

Mormons themselves seem to be haunted by the practice of polygamy, which was ended by the Mormon Church officially in 1890.

However, Utah still has quite a few diehard polygamists and remains populated with many descendants of polygamists, including many that claim Brigham Young as an ancestor.

The preservation of places like “Lion House” demonstrates the often conflicted and ambivalent feelings Mormons have about polygamy and polygamists, which is an important part of their history.

Mormons denounce present-day polygamists, but at the same time honor historic ones such as Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and his immediate successor and Utah pioneer Brigham Young.

To say the least, polygamy remains something of a Mormon conundrum.

“Sparring between Mormons and traditional Christians found a new venue last week – a movie theater in San Diego” reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Joseph Smith's claims the basis for MormonismThe newspaper in the heart of Utah asks “Are Mormons Christian”?

According to a Mormon sociologist and the director of a Mormon movie they are.

However, historically Mormons have never been recognized as “Christians” by any denomination of Christianity. And this includes even the most liberal branches of Protestantism.

Nevertheless Mormons often insist they are “Christians,” claiming that because Jesus Christ is included within their belief system, this makes their faith “Christian.”

However, here are three major doctrinal differences that have created a “chasm” between Mormonism and historical Christianity as reported by Christianity Today. 

  • Mormons “accept both the Old Testament and New Testament as Scripture…but also consider the Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith’s other works, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Convenants, to be authoritative.”
  • Mormons “reject the traditional concept of the Trinity [and]…believe God the Father and God the Son have fleshly bodies and that the Holy Ghost is a spirit man.”
  • “Mormons teach that God was once a finite being who achieved his exalted rank by ‘progressing.’”

These beliefs set Mormons apart from Christians and historical Christianity.

Instead, Mormonism is a uniquely American religion based upon the claims of Joseph Smith, beginning in 1827.

Mormon Church President Gordon Hinckley just told the faithful gathered at a conference, “There is no basis for racial hatred from any member of the Church. If any of you have used such words, go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness” reports The Daily Herald of Utah.

Gordon Hinckley holds forthHowever, historically the Mormon Church itself is racist based upon the “words: within its so-called “Book of Mormon,” which was magically translated by its founder Joseph Smith.

This then begs the question should Hinckley “ask for forgiveness” for himself and his church?

He better do it quick. The 95-year-old Mormon leader doesn’t seem to have much time left. Appearing frail at the conference the anointed “prophet” had surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his intestine early this year reports Associated Press.

Mormons believe Smith’s supernaturally translated stories about “Nephites” that were “pure,” a word officially changed from “white” in 1981, and “delightsome.” Their adversaries were the idol-worshiping Lamanites that received a “curse of blackness,” turning their skin dark. And according to Mormonism it was the Lamanites that became the principal ancestors of Native Americans.

Due to this “curse” of color until 1978 the Mormon priesthood was for whites only, which essentially includes all the church’s male members.

Today millions of Mormons are not white and the church’s growth is largely outside the United States. But to date there has never been a member of its highest body, “First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles,” that was not white. And there have been few members of its elite governing bodies known as the First and Second Quorum of the Seventy that were not white.

In 1989 Native American George P. Lee, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy submitted a letter of protest to the First Presidency criticizing its President Ezra Taft Benson for encouraging “an attitude of superior race, white supremacy [and] racist attitude…”

Lee was subsequently excommunicated for “…apostasy and other conduct unbecoming a member of the Church,” reports Watchman Fellowship.

Arguably, racism remains enshrined within the “Book of Mormon,” through its bizarre mythology of wars between pre-Columbian American peoples that no credible non-Mormon historian believes ever existed.

Mounting scientific evidence continues to contradict the text sacred to Mormons and demonstrate that its historical claims are false. But for true believers, scientific evidence disputing their scriptures is sacrilege and an attack or expression of “bigotry” against their religion reported the Los Angeles Times.

However, science and history are not about faith, but rather based upon facts. And is not religious persecution to question the historical claims made by Mormons.

One Mormon academic Thomas Murphy, chairman of the Edmonds Community College Anthropology Department, was almost excommunicated for daring to dispute Mormon doctrine.

Joseph Smith 'lied'?“The Book of Mormon assumes that dark skin is a curse for wickedness. I’m trying to examine where that idea came from,” the anthropologist told the Seattle Post in 2003 amidst much controversy over his scientific findings based upon DNA evidence.

“Sin, Skin and Seed: The Mistakes of Man in the Book of Mormon” was the title of one of Professor Murphy’s lectures.

“The Book of Mormon is a piece of 19th century fiction, and that means that we have to acknowledge sometimes Joseph Smith lied,” Murphy told the Los Angeles Times.

This words must mean “heresy” to Mormon leaders, who would probably like to deal with the anthropologist the way the Roman Catholic Church once dealt with Galileo, whose writings were banned by the Inquisition.

Murphy insists, “The Mormon faith is going to survive one way or another. The Catholic Church survived Galileo, but they first had to admit they were wrong.”

Don’t expect President Hinckley to admit that, an admission though hard to avoid, would impugn the status of venerated church founder Joseph Smith.

If Smith “lied” than perhaps he wasn’t a “prophet.” And that begs this question; where does that leave Mormons?

HBO will launch its new series about polygamy called “Big Love” this Sunday. But before the airing of the show’s first episode critics have already weighed in.

Joseph Smith the first Mormon polygamist“To make polygamy…the subject of television entertainment is not only a bad idea, but it’s going to add to the pain of those victims,” a Mormon Church spokesperson told Associated Press.

However, it should be pointed out that the pain of polygamy actually began in 1843 when Joseph Smith the fanciful creator of Mormonism claimed he received a “revelation from God” that essentially allowed him to have as many women as he wanted.

This supposed and rather self-serving message from the Almighty set into place a practice that would continue amongst Mormons for decades. And notably included not only Smith, but also the church’s second most revered “prophet” Brigham Young, who had scores of wives.

Later a very pragmatic Mormon prophet named Wilford Woodruff would come up with his own convenient “revelation” during 1890, just in time for Utah’s Mormons to meet a precondition for statehood.

However, many Mormons continued to believe in Joseph Smith’s earlier epiphany and kept observing the practice of polygamy, despite what would eventually be known as ”The Woodruff Manifesto.”

There are about 50,000 polygamists still left in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Some are strange idiosyncratic groups like the one led by an excommunicated former Mormon James Harmston in Manti, Utah called “The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days,” or “TLC” for short. Harmston says that he is the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, that’s his ”revelation.”

But many polygamists can trace their history back to the time when most Mormons routinely observed the practice as something similar to an “article of faith.”

And the Mormon Church doesn’t appreciate HBO reminding everyone about all this.

Brigham Young had scores of wives“You only have to mention Salt Lake City and polygamy and Mormons in the same breath and people will start to get those old stereotypes again,” the Mormon spokesperson told Associated Press.

The legacy of polygamy is indeed strewn with stereotypical patriarchal authoritarian types beginning with Smith and Young.

The Village Voice review reports that HBO has cast actor Harry Dean Stanton as the “cultish” leader of its fictional rural polygamist clan. At one point during the first episode Stanton declares, “There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law, and I think you know which side I’m on.”

Well, that sounds like something Joseph Smith and Brigham Young might have said.   

Most recently the pain of polygamy has quite literally come running and screaming from behind closed doors into the media spotlight. Those that have escaped its sinister embrace have told of rapes, beatings and the plight of underage girls married off to middle aged men.

Incest and birth defects due to the inbred nature of polygamist communities have also recently been detailed.

All of this has finally been scrutinized after years of official neglect by the legal authorities in Utah and Arizona, the two states with the largest population of polygamists.

The most prominent polygamist groups within these states are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) once headquartered in Arizona and the Kingston clan in Utah. Both of these rich and powerful groups have experienced judicial crackdowns as the courts have intervened to reign in their excesses. 

Warren Jeffs, the titular “prophet” of the FLDS is now a leader on the lam hunted by the FBI with a reward on his anointed head.

Kingston patriarchs have been sentenced to jail time and the courts regarding their care and treatment of children have monitored some families within that group.

The abuse is not in just the isolated areas, [polygamy] deals with power and control. Those individuals feel coerced into it, even if it’s a subtle coercion, a religious coercion,” says Vicky Prunty, director of the anti-polygamy group Tapestry Against Polygamy. 

HBO “Big Love” co-creator Mark V. Olsen wants everyone to know, “There is no way we want to whitewash the abuses. That’s very important to us. Stick with us in our story lines. This is a concern that we are responsive to.”

However, ”Big Love” seems to have more in common with the hit show ”Desperate Housewives” than the real living conditions often endured by polygamist families.

The Village Voice says HBO is “making the viewer sympathize with husband Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who comes across not as an exploitative patriarch but as a decent man stretched to the limit…It’s an entertaining, never ending power struggle with a distinct pecking order.”  

Is this the Hollywood version of polygamy?

Meanwhile the women and children caught within the web of polygamy probably don’t find their lives quite so “entertaining.”

Beginning with the death of Rulon Jeffs in 2002 the largest polygamist group in America called the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (FLDS) began its decline.

The FLDS had reached its zenith of power and privileges under Rulon Jeffs; it was regarded as almost a virtual kingdom within the states of Utah and Arizona and seemed to be untouchable.Jeffs who ruled over as many as 12,000 members ran the twin state border communities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. He controlled vast property holdings through a trust, local government, schools, police, not to mention his own family of 19 to 75 wives and dozens of children.Warren Jeffs wanted fugitive

The Canadian polygamist community of Bountiful in British Columbia was a loyal FLDS satellite governed by Winston Blackmore, one of Jeffs’ obedient lieutenants. But when Jeffs died at 92 or 93 Blackmore’s loyalty did not transfer automatically to his leader’s son and heir apparent Warren Jeffs.

Warren Jeffs, though declared “prophet” and undeclared king of the religious empire, proved to be something of a bungler and unable to hold it together. The FLDS beset by both criminal and civil proceedings and also internal wrangling is now crumbling and falling apart.

Another very prominent polygamist family the Kingstons held sway over a 1,500-member sect with an estimated worth of $150 million in business assets. Their empire exists within Salt Lake County and in other parts of Utah and Nevada. But it would be a runaway 16-year-old girl that would begin to unravel this polygamist kingdom. A minor child that escaped after a brutal beating for refusing to marry her 32-year-old uncle and become his 15th wife. For the first time the secrecy surrounding the Kingston clan and its hierarchy fell away as it was scrutinized in open court.

The most prevalent theme of public disgust with polygamy seems to be the treatment of minor children such as the Kingston teenager who testified that her father “belt whipped” her “28 lashes across her back and thighs” until she bled and lost consciousness.

The courts have refused to consider that the Kingstons or the Jeffs were somehow above the law because of their religious beliefs. And court rulings instead have made it clear that they may believe whatever they want, but not do anything they wish in the name of those beliefs.

A warrant was eventually issued for the arrest of Warren Jeffs on sexual misconduct charges. Now the 49-year-old heir to his father’s kingdom is a fugitive.

The Mormon Church (LDS) in Utah, which pretty much has veto power over whatever goes on in that state, apparently has had enough of the polygamists. LDS leaders have seemingly decided to do some housecleaning regarding something like a crazy uncle in their attic.

Once upon a time the LDS essentially mandated polygamy. Its founder Joseph Smith was a notorious polygamist as was his successor Brigham Young who brought the new religion to Utah. But in 1890 in preparation for statehood and to avoid federal intervention the LDS gave up that practice through what is called the “Woodruff Manifesto” issued by its then president and declared “prophet” Wilford Woodruff.

Nevertheless there were those diehards that would not let go of polygamy and they persisted, often isolating themselves in Utah, Arizona, Montana, Canada and Mexico.

Recent events appear to be leading to the demise of the two largest, richest and most well organized polygamist groups in America. Almost certainly the FLDS will eventually collapse and the Kingston clan has been badly bruised by its legal troubles.

Rather than continuing to exist in relative secrecy North America’s polygamists now live largely in a fishbowl watched by the media and frequently spotlighted. HBO is even running a dramatic series called “Big Love” about a fictional polygamist family living in Salt Lake City.

Temple within polygamist stronghold in TexasWarren Jeffs in an apparent futile effort to hold onto whatever he can has built his own compound with a huge temple as its centerpiece in West Texas. The 1,700-acre “retreat” is called the “YFZ Ranch,” which stands for “Yearning for Zion,” near the town of Eldorado. This may be the last stronghold of the once mighty Jeffs clan and it includes group housing, farming, and an array of machinery and work projects.

The edifice built within the YFZ is impressive and it is the first-ever temple built by the FLDS.

However, it is likely to also be its last.

The YFZ property itself may not exist long either as a holding controlled by Warren Jeffs.

“They’re going to lose the whole thing,” says former FLDS member Ross Chatwin. “It was built upon money that didn’t belong to Warren. It was built on the backs of the UEP (United Effort Plan, the FLDS financial trust) itself, the people that built it,” he told the Desert News.

So it seems that the temple built by Jeffs is likely to eventually become a peculiar ruin and historical anachronism, connected to another time.

There is a $50,000 reward now being offered by the FBI for information leading to the arrest of Warren Jeffs.

The residents of the tiny town of Eldorado worry that another Waco might be in the making, the 1993 standoff at the cult compound of the Branch Davidians led by another would-be “prophet” David Koresh that ended in tragedy.

More than one hundred years after the Woodruff Manifesto the organized practice of polygamy and its primary strongholds seem to be falling apart and their era may have finally ended at the beginning of the 21st Century.

“Banned in Boston” used to be a good hook years ago for promoting a controversial book or movie. Conventional wisdom seemed to be that if something was too hot for the stodgy elite of Boston, it must be pretty good.

But times have changed and Boston now has an openly gay congressman. So Beantown may get bumped, as Salt Lake City (SLC) assumes the conservative title.

A gay film titled Latter Days, which features a Mormon missionary who does more than proselytize on his mission in LA, has made Mormons angry and is apparently banned in Utah’s capital reports Associated Press.

This “coming out” story is not something Mormon leaders appear to appreciate. The film’s dark humor includes the missionary’s co-religionists trying to literally jolt him out of it, through “aversion therapy” with electrocution.

A Mormon theater owner in SLC said, “We thought it lacked artistic merit. If it has merit, we play it.”

But a Mormon moviemaker with dubious “artistic” credentials and no previous feature film credits didn’t have a problem arranging a venue in Salt Lake for the opening of his “Book of Mormon” movie. Many of the faithful made a pilgrimage out of that premiere reported the Salt Lake Herald-Tribune.

Threats of a boycott were made regarding running the gay film in Utah, subsequently its opening was cancelled reports Zap.

Mormons like movies about Mormons, but apparently only those made by Mormons in good standing and/or with an approved story line.

A gay ex-Mormon made the film Latter Days.

Interestingly, Mormons recently complained that nonbelievers don’t seem to properly appreciate their films reports NPR.

Maybe it’s because they “lacked artistic merit”?

Whatever criteria LDS leaders and critics apply to films one thing is for sure, banning Later Days will probably give the movie some buzz and a boost at the box office.

Maybe the mantra for this film should be “See the film Mormons banned in Salt Lake”?

The Evangelical Christian missionary organization called “Jews for Jesus” is stirring up quite a ruckus in South Florida reports the Sun Sentinel.

The hit and run antics of these peripatetic proselytizers has been reported by the media since the 1970s, when an ordained Baptist minister named Martin Rosen founded the controversial group.

Pastor Martin was previously associated with an organization known as the American Board of Mission to the Jews, but he had bigger plans. So about thirty years ago he set up his own shop.

Business was good because Martin was clever in the way he marketed his missionary enterprise. Instead of just another Christian ministry he picked and trademarked the name “Jews for Jesus” (JFJ).

This garnered immediate attention, which then led to increasing fund-raising opportunities amongst his fellow Evangelicals.

Baptist, Nazarene, Evangelical Free and other churches included within the so-called “born-again” movement of Christians, essentially supports JFJ.

The Assemblies of God, the largest denomination of Pentecostal Christians, seems to prefer its own network of “Messianic Jews,” such as the so-called “Jewish Voice.”

Pastor Martin is retired now, but the ministry he created is something like a little kingdom. The annual budget for the group is $24 million and it has 240 full-time paid staff located in numerous offices.

However, if anyone were to judge the group strictly by its results (i.e. the number of conversions actually achieved) their success rate is modest. Very few Jews convert to fundamentalist Christianity, and even fewer through this group’s efforts.

Nevertheless, like many well-funded enterprises this one keeps chugging along anyway.

JFJ typically stages “campaigns” targeting large Jewish populations. Subsequently, they then inundate a community with unsolicited tracts, handouts etc. Some communities have found that they can cause a serious litter problem, as their tracts are quickly tossed aside by pedestrians.

But JFJ thrives on confrontation. “It’s a slick marketing technique. They perfected it over 30 years,” one Jewish leader told the Sentinel.

Recently in Palm Beach this was clearly evident as their confrontational strategy garnered controversy and press attention.

“It provided more publicity than we could have afforded on our budget. The publicity has been a great help for us,” the Florida JFJ coordinator told the Palm Beach Post.

The point apparently is to stir up a reaction through incendiary events and tracts and then exploit this eventually for fund-raising.

However, not all Evangelicals support such efforts.

Billy Graham has denounced the idea of targeting specific religious groups in missionary drives. And some Evangelical leaders in Florida announced that they too oppose this type of proselytizing reported the Palm Beach Post.

JFJ has repeatedly been accused of using “deception” to convert Jews. And one Jew has taken them to court.

A Jewish woman who claims that it was falsely reported within JFJ’s newsletter that she converted is currently suing the organization.

She is the stepmother of a JFJ staffer and her stepson wrote for the group’s newsletter in 2002 that she tearfully converted at her husband’s bedside.

But the Jewish mother said the account was “completely fictitious” reported Associated Press.

JFJ likes to cast its conflict with the Jewish community as an old one. Claiming it’s a “2,000 year old argument” between Jews about the identity of Jesus.

However, that’s not the principle issue that raises concern. Instead, it’s the issue of Jewish identity.

Simply put, the Jewish community has historically always established the parameters of its own identity.

“There’s no rabbi…who’s going to be the arbiter of what the Jewish religion teaches,” one JFJ leader retorted.

This is a new argument.

Since when are the rabbis not the arbiters of what the Jewish religion teaches? Who is then “Jews for Jesus”?

Would JFJ and its supporters concede that someone outside of Christianity has the right to determine the parameters of their faith’s identity?

Specifically, what Christian denomination has officially acknowledged that Mormons are Christians?

None.

But Mormons say they are “Christians.”

Would Evangelicals that claim “Jews for Jesus” are somehow “completed Jews,” also accept Mormons as “completed Christians”?

After all Mormons say their Book of Mormon essentially completes the New Testament.

No, you won’t find any Evangelicals or JFJ staffers making that argument.

N. Eldon Tanner a past member of the Mormon First Presidency said before his death in 1983 that downtown Salt Lake City (SLC) is “the Mormon Church’s living room” reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

And they have their own interior design plans too.

The Mormon Church (LDS) has decided how downtown Salt Lake will be developed in some detail.

LDS unveiled its plan earlier this month, right down to allotted parking.

The church owns related shopping malls and bought up other nearby property through one of its holding corporations.

LDS will apparently dictate what stores; restaurants and drinking will be allowed.

Mayor Rocky Anderson called the plan “fantastic” reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Anderson learned the hard way not to oppose the church, through its heavy-handed effort to halt free speech around its historic downtown temple.

A former SLC mayor said LDS must “keep its living room clean [and] attractive.”

But at least half of the city’s residents are not practicing Mormons. Isn’t downtown also their living room?

Never mind.

The best non-Mormons can expect to decide upon is maybe a recreation room in the suburbs, while their supposedly representative government, meets in the dining room to eat whatever LDS serves.

The Mormon Church (LDS) is buying up another chunk of downtown Salt Lake City (SLC).

First the church apparently was intent on establishing a buffer zone for its historical temple, where free speech would be prohibited. Now it apparently wants to offer city residents a trade off, through better shopping opportunities.

After all, who needs to waste time on free speech when you can have fun shopping?

The LDS investment arm called Property Reserve Inc. cut a deal to purchase two shopping plazas, which will potentially be combined into one super mall by linking them up with a skywalk, reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

This is what the Mormon Church calls its “master plan” to determine development of downtown SLC.

“It’s great. I think it’s wonderful that the church is going to take over,” said one exited resident.

However, the LDS “take over” of Utah was long ago an accomplished “master plan.”

A Commission in Utah sought the last word from the Mormon Church before rendering its final decision regarding the method of state executions.

Church leaders offered their opinion, which seems to carry the weight of law in Utah. They demurred that that the church “has no objection to the elimination of the firing squad,” reports Fox News.

Death by firing squad has been the method for capital punishment in the 45th state for some time.

A Mormon doctrine says blood must be shed for justice to be done regarding murder.

But apparently the church has decided that negative media attention surrounding firing squads doesn’t suit its more pragmatic public relations needs.

Once again Utah officials have bowed before the Mormon Church, demonstrating that theocracy is not just a principle encouraged by mullahs in a distant land.

Recently the church has squelched free speech around its historic temple in Salt Lake, humbled the mayor for resisting its edicts and even dictated the planning of shopping malls.

Separation of church and state?

Well, maybe not in Utah.