Mormon Fundamentalism and Violence: A Historical Analysis

by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 1995, all rights reserved

And it shall come to pass that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God.(1)

In August 1972, followers of Ervil Morel LeBaron murdered his brother, Joel LeBaron as part of a power struggle for control of their particular polygamist church group. Ervil LeBaron quickly became the leader of the Church of the Lamb of God and proceeded to direct his followers in the murders of more than thirty people, all of them members of various polygamist groups. These murders included the execution style killing of prominent Salt Lake City polygamist leader Rulon Allred, as well as several members who tried to leave the LeBaron sect. (2)

Before LeBaron died in the Utah State Penitentiary in 1981, he authored a book entitled "The Book of New Covenants," which detailed a list of former followers who were to die in the name of God. Throughout the 1980's, children of LeBaron murdered several former church members in Dallas, Houston, Utah, and Mexico.(3)

In July 1978, the former David Longo, who had himself re-christened Immanuel David, drove a truck up a canyon east of Salt Lake City and proceeded to commit suicide by asphyxiating himself on the exhaust of the vehicle. Three days later, his wife ordered or pushed each of their seven children off the 11th floor balcony of a prominent Salt Lake City hotel to their deaths on the pavement below. She finally jumped herself, thus ending the grisly multiple homicide/suicide scene.(4)

In 1979, a long running battle between John Singer and Summit County, over whether Singer should be allowed to educate his children at home, came to a striking climax when Singer was shot and killed by police when he resisted their attempts to arrest him. Singer had refused to accept court judgements that his children needed to be educated in the public schools. He was shot during the attempted arrest when police feared that he would shoot one of them.(5)

On July 24, 1984, Ronald and Dan Lafferty went to the home of their brother Allen, located in American Fork, Utah, and slit the throats of his wife and fifteen month old child with a ten inch hunting knife. Ron and Dan later claimed that they had received a revelation from God telling them to kill these individuals, and that an additional revelation had instructed them to flee to Reno where they were to gamble and binge on booze, pot, and whores.(6)

In January of 1988, Adam Swapp bombed a Mormon Stake Center in Kamas, Utah in retaliation for the death of his father-in-law, John Singer, who was killed by police nine years earlier. Swapp and his family then proceeded to hold off an army of police officers and federal agents in a 13 day standoff before police finally stormed their cabin and took them into custody following a violent gun battle in which one officer was killed.(7)

In August of 1994, former Mormon church member Jim Harmston organized his own church named The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days. Attracting a devout group of polygamists, the church preaches that Armageddon is at hand and that the Federal Government is corrupt. The group's accumulation of guns and food supplies has resulted in comparisons between them and the Branch Davidians at Waco. Many in the group fear that federal agents will attack them.(8)

The common thread among all these incidents is the fact that the participants were believers in fundamentalist Mormon doctrines, including the practice of polygamy. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) officially renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890, citing the manifesto of Wilford Woodruff, the actual practice of polygamy and adherence to other fundamentalist doctrines has continued to create problems for leaders of the main body of the Saints, and has led to the creation of several splinter groups which have left the larger group for reasons of doctrinal difference. It is important to state at the outset that most fundamentalist Mormons are decent, law abiding, and God fearing people who work hard and only wish to be left alone. However, given the incidents listed above, a study of this culture and its practices is warranted as well.

In order to understand why a body of people, faithful to the original doctrines of the church and numbering between 10,000 and 30,000 individuals, has spawned so many individuals prone to violent and antisocial activity, it is necessary to explore the doctrines, ideas, and cultural practices of these people. This paper is concerned with understanding this propensity for violence through an analysis of the historical basis for beliefs, doctrines, and practices of these people. In order to understand such strange and ruthless behaviors, an understanding of the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is necessary.


Perhaps the quintessential modern American religion, claiming a worldwide membership of nearly nine million, the Mormon church began in 1823 when Joseph Smith Jr. claimed that he had visited with God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees in upstate New York. Smith later translated the Book of Mormon from a set of gold tablets he claimed to have received from an angel named Moroni. Smith officially organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on April 6, 1830. One of the fundamental tenets of this new faith was that God spoke to the members on a regular basis and that anyone in the faith was capable of receiving revelation.

Church leaders began the practice of polygamy, surreptitiously, not long after the church was organized. Some accounts argue that Joseph Smith began experimenting with polygamy as early as 1831.(9) Regardless of when the practice of polygamy started, by the time Joseph Smith informed the elders of his revelation regarding the practice of polygamy in 1843, it is clear that Smith was married to at least seven women.(10) After 1843, the practice of polygamy among church elders became a fairly common practice, although the church did not officially sanction the practice until the general church conference of 1852.

Polygamy was not the only activity that distinguished the new church. Beginning during a period of great social experimentation in America, the church instituted several novel social programs which distinguished it from the mainstream of American society. Some of these ideas, beliefs, and practices--still held by fundamentalists today, include the concept of the gathering, the Law of Consecration (or United Order), a strong belief in personal revelation, heavenly visitations, inspired dreams and visions, the doctrine of Blood Atonement, the belief that the laws of God are more important than the laws of men, and the concept that the government of the United States is irredeemably corrupt and will be destroyed.(11)

Since each of these concepts was at odds with society at large, it was almost inevitable that the Saints would find trouble, and they did. Clashes with "gentiles" in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois pushed the Mormons west to Utah and inspired a strong persecution complex among them. Even in Utah, the Mormons were strongly persecuted for the practice of polygamy and were often in open rebellion against the United States government. President Buchanan went so far as to send an army in an attempt to enforce US law among the Mormons.(12) It is impossible to understand the mind set of the fundamentalist Mormon without understanding this persecution complex. While almost all Mormons in Utah feel, to some degree, that their ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs, the fundamentalist groups have a double reason for this feeling. Not only were their ancestors persecuted for their beliefs, they are persecuted by mainstream Mormons and gentiles alike for maintaining their stance with the teachings of early church leaders.

This persecution complex frequently complements other fundamentalist concepts to create an atmosphere where misunderstanding and violence can easily occur. To better understand how this interaction occurs, I will explore each of these concepts, discussing their historical development and exploring how they combine to create this sort of atmosphere.


The practice of polygamy was the most obvious of all new church doctrines which indicated that the church had no intention of playing by the already established rules of American society. When Brigham Young announced that polygamy would be the official religious practice of the church, and that it was sanctioned by God, the cry of outrage from the rest of America was immediate. The Republican Party quickly tailored its platform in opposition to the "twin relics of barbarism." "The Democrats, not wishing to imply support of polygamy by their support of slavery, became as vehement as were their political opponents in denouncing the Mormon institution of Polygamy."(13)

By the time Buchanan entered the White House in 1857, he was convinced that the Mormons were in a state of rebellion and would not accept government appointees unless forced to do so. In response, he sent an army under the command of Albert Sidney Johnston, to Utah for the purpose of putting down the rebellion. The Mormons did not take this affront to their society lying down. They were convinced that the millennium was at hand and that the demise of the United States government was imminent. They were more than willing to fight for their way of life against Johnston's army, and did conduct limited guerrilla warfare against the army as it made its way to Utah. A negotiated settlement finally led to the acceptance of Buchanan's appointee as governor, and the Mormons were allowed to continue the practice of polygamy.(14)

Polygamy continued unabated during the course of the Civil War, and except for the passage of the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act, attentions of the government were directed toward the more divisive question of slavery. Once the war ended, however, the popular sentiment to end polygamy surfaced again. Government attempts to stop the practice of polygamy continued throughout the 1870's and 1880's. Under the provisions of the Edmunds Act and the Edmunds-Tucker Act, Mormons were precluded from voting, wives and children were declared illegitimate, and the property of the church was confiscated. Many Mormon leaders were jailed or had to go into hiding. In response to such intense persecution, Wilford Woodruff signed the Woodruff Manifesto under duress, putting an official end to the church's practice of polygamy.(15)

While the official practice of polygamy had ended, most Mormons still continued the practice. There is clear evidence that polygamous marriages were sanctioned by apostles of the church as late as 1904, and the practice probably continued covertly into the 1930's.(16) There were a number of Mormons who never accepted the Manifesto. They became fundamentalists. Their continued practice of polygamy came increasingly under the scrutiny of both Federal and church officials.

Although the main body of Mormons had officially renounced polygamy and other fundamentalist doctrines, there was still a great deal of sympathy among Mormons in Utah toward those who continued the practice. However, when the church leaders began to realize that the perception of polygamy was hurting the image of the church in the 1930's and 1940's, they began to denounce the practice more strongly. Under the leadership of J. Reuben Clark, a councillor to President Heber J. Grant, the church instituted a program of forcing Mormon men to sign loyalty oaths stating that they denounced "the advocacy and practice of plural marriage . . . and that I myself am not living in such alleged marriage relationship." Those who refused to sign were summarily excommunicated. By 1940, Clark had directed loyal priesthood leaders to spy on all people attending meetings at houses of known fundamentalists, encouraged the Salt Lake City librarian to remove all fundamentalist literature from the library, instructed the Salt Lake City postmaster to prohibit all fundamentalist mailings, and encouraged criminal prosecution of fundamentalists.(17) This harsh treatment of fundamentalists continued throughout the 1940's and 1950's, culminating in the Short Creek raid of 1953. It was conducted under the direction of Arizona Governor Howard Pyle, and more than a hundred law enforcement officials who placed the entire town under martial law and tried to arrest the town's leaders, who had fled in the night. This incident created national outrage except in Utah, where the church supported the activities of the law enforcement officers.(18)

Polygamists were now social outcasts in relation to both the church and the society at large. They continued to rely on their faith and rejected the new direction that the main body of the church had taken. Polygamy sets the fundamentalists apart from the world and isolates their culture. An examination of this isolation in relation to other beliefs will illustrate how the fundamentalist propensity for violence has come to be.

The Gathering

The gathering of the Saints was a policy implemented by the church leaders while the Mormons were living in Kirtland. The goal of the gathering was to bring all Mormons to Zion. Missionaries were dispatched to convert new members to the faith in Europe, Canada, and other parts of America. Those new members were urged to congregate with the main body of the church and prepare for the coming of Christ, which they believed was imminent. The gathering policy continued as the Mormons moved west, and was finally discontinued during the panic of 1893, when church leaders noticed the high levels of unemployment in Salt Lake City. They began to urge new converts to the faith to remain in their homelands and further the growth of the church abroad.(19)

The fundamentalists disagreed with bringing the gathering to an end. They believed, and continue to believe, that the return of Christ was imminent. They continue to urge believers to gather together and prepare for the advent of the millennial reign. This gathering phenomenon serves to congregate the believers in close-knit communities that are largely self sufficient and have few ties to the outside world. This reinforces the isolation of fundamentalists and removes them further from the reality of world affairs.

The isolation of fundamentalist groups and other cults serves to create a sense of "otherness" that increases tendencies for violence. According to Stuart Wright, a professor of sociology at Lamar University,

"Moreover, they and their followers are not afraid to die for their beliefs, convinced that their acts of religious conviction can be defined as martyrdom, earning them spiritual rewards. Communal groups, by definition, have separated from mainstream society to build a distinct lifestyle and moral order. They have already made a statement about their disapproval of conventional norms and values. Their very purpose in life is epitomized in this existence and becomes meaningless if co-opted or destroyed by the surrounding society."(20)

The Law of Consecration and the United Order

The Law of Consecration was a revelation received by Joseph Smith in 1831.(21) It stipulated that all the property of the Saints should be held in common and distributed "that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants."(22) Mormons were early communists as they attempted to practice the law of consecration in the 1830's, but this experiment was unsuccessful, in part because of the Panic of 1837. Brigham Young attempted to implement the Law of Consecration under the auspices of a plan he termed "The United Order" on two separate occasions in the 1850's and 1870's with varying degrees of success. This economic system, designed to create self-sufficiency among Mormons and isolate them from the "gentile economy," was ultimately abandoned as the economy of Utah became integrated with the national economy.(23)

Fundamentalists still believe in the teachings of Brigham Young and other early church leaders, and believe that the only true economic order is the United Order. They use this statement by Orson Pratt as part of their justification for believing that the law of consecration should continue to be practiced.

"The Lord said in that revelation that the principle which he had revealed in relation to the properties of his Church must be carried out to the very letter upon the land of Zion; and those individuals who would not give heed to it, but sought to obtain their inheritances in an individual way by purchasing it themselves from the Government should have their names blotted out from the book of the names of the righteous, and if their children pursued the same course their names should be blotted out too, they and their children should not be known in the book of the law of the Lord as being entitled to an inheritance among the Saints in Zion. We find therefore, that the Lord drove out this people because we were unworthy to receive our inheritances by consecration. As a people, we did not strictly comply with that which the Lord required. Neither did they comply in Kirtland. This ought to be an example for us who are living at a later period in the history of the Church of the living God, and who ought, by this time, to have become thoroughly experienced in the law of God."(24)

Not all fundamentalist groups practice the Law of Consecration, but several groups use modified forms of the United Order. Most notably, the Kingston group operates a conglomerate worth more than $150 million, with group members transferring all personal property to the group.(25) In Colorado City, Arizona, the land for the community is held in a common trust known as the United Effort Plan Trust.(26)

The economic practices of fundamentalists hold a special key to understanding violence. Like all Mormons, fundamentalists tithe one-tenth of their earnings to their leaders. They are generally very thrifty and hard working people, and in the groups where property is held in common, the leaders generally control the assets.

"[Owen] Allred testified at Ervil LeBaron's murder trial that Allred's approximately 2,000 followers in the Apostolic United Brethren pay about $125,000 in annual tithing and that his group owned more than $1 million in property. That testimony underscores the wealth that belongs to some polygamist groups."(27)

This makes the leadership of a fundamentalist group a potentially lucrative situation. It is widely believed that a major motivation behind the death of Rulon Allred was a desire on the part of Ervil LeBaron to gain the assets and tithes from the Allred group members.

The various implementations of the "law of consecration" have also created tensions when members try to leave the main group. Because all property is consecrated to the group, leaving the group often entails a great deal of economic hardship. This serves to create resentment among disaffected members who feel they can't leave without giving up their homes and property.(28)

Personal Revelation and Heavenly Visitations

The Mormon Church began with a personal visit from God and Jesus Christ, and visitations from heavenly personages were common occurrences in the early church. Numerous stories of visits from angels, apostles of Jesus, and even God himself grace the pages of church history. The Doctrine and Covenants makes several references to the appearance of God in the temple(29) and the entire Doctrine and Covenants was delivered to the church through revelation. Members of the early church believed that personal revelation was a gift from God and that it came frequently when one kept the commandments and lived a righteous life.(30) There are literally hundreds of accounts of how people were directed through personal revelation.

Mormons also believed in living prophets. Like the prophets of old, they believed that God spoke his will through the mouths of his prophets. There are numerous examples in the early history of Utah where various groups broke away from the main body of the church to follow different prophets who believed they had the gifts of prophecy and revelation. The Godbeites and Morrisites are the two most famous of these groups.(31)

When the church abandoned the practice of polygamy, it was logical that some groups of people would refuse to follow the counsel of the church leaders. These groups began to follow their own prophets and leaders. Two of the most influential of these breakaway leaders were Dayer LeBaron(32) and Joseph Musser.(33) Both men were extremely devout and believed that they had received special "keys" from God which instructed them to continue the practice of polygamy and other fundamentalist beliefs. These new fundamentalists believed firmly in the gifts of modern revelation and prophecy, and held a firm faith that otherworldy beings would continue to visit them on earth and instruct them in ways to keep the true and living church alive on the earth.

The lines of authority and the keys to the priesthood are very important concepts among all Mormon groups. They believe it is important that their authority to act in the capacity of church leaders be directly traceable to Jesus Christ. Most Mormon priesthood holders can tell you the specific lineage through which their personal priesthood authority is derived. The polygamist groups that developed under the leadership of Dayer LeBaron and Joseph Musser derive their church authority from two early Mormon leaders.

The LeBarons claimed that Benjamin F. Johnson, an early follower of Joseph Smith, bequeathed special priesthood keys, "the Right of the Firstborn Sceptre in Israel," from Joseph directly to the LeBaron family. Dayer told his family that Benjamin F. Johnson visited him in an angelic form after his death to inform him about the true scope of his mission on earth.(34) This claim supposedly gave them the right to lead the "true church," and they later used this claim in an attempt to assert their authority over all fundamentalist groups.

In 1955, Ross, Joel, and Floren LeBaron filed papers in Salt Lake to incorporate the Church of the Firstborn in the Fulness of Times. They quickly converted their brothers, Ervil and Alma, and then began missionary work to convert others. Ervil was especially charismatic and had a great deal of success converting people in Mexico, Utah, and in France. Soon the church claimed over five hundred members, with Joel declaring himself the "One Mighty and Strong" who would restore the polygamous heritage of the original church. With Ervil as second in command, the group claimed supremacy over all other fundamentalist groups.(35)

When Joel began to notice how unstable Ervil was, he threw him out of the church. Ervil's response was a revelation that Joel was to be removed as an obstacle to the work of God. He ordered Joel's murder in August 1972. After this incident, Ervil took control of the church, calling it the Church of the Lamb of God, and began receiving hundreds of revelations. He received revelations that allowed him to print numerous doctrinal pamphlets, and revelations which instructed his followers about whom they should kill next. Ervil had declared himself a prophet of God, claimed that he spoke for God here on Earth, and produced the revelations to prove it.(36) The LeBaron group and the Musser group, claiming authority to lead the faithful from different sources, were about to combine themselves forever in history.

Joseph Musser claimed his leadership authority from John Taylor, the third president of the LDS church. In 1886, John Taylor received a revelation and a visit from God while avoiding federal authorities and hiding out in Centerville, Utah. During this revelation, God instructed Taylor that the church must continue the practice of polygamy no matter what else happened. At the time of the revelation, church leaders had been considering a manifesto that would abandon the practice of polygamy. On the morning after the revelation, Taylor stated, "Sign that document, --Never! I would suffer my right hand to be severed from my body first. Sanction it, --Never! I would suffer my tongue to be torn from its roots in my mouth before I would sanction it!"(37)

Taylor then set apart Lorin C. Woolley and four other men, charging them that they should never let a year pass by without children being born under the principle of plural marriage. They were also given the authority to ordain others in carrying the work forward. Using this authority, Woolley began the first fundamentalist organization in 1929. After his death, a series of other leaders were ordained and placed in charge of the organization, most notably, J. Leslie Broadbent and John Y. Barlow. After their deaths, control of the organization fell to Joseph Musser in 1949.(38)

Musser was the shepherd for the small flock until a stroke left him slightly incapacitated and he ordained Rulon C. Allred to be his "Second Elder." This ordination created some controversy among the laity, and when Musser finally died in 1954 some of the members chose to follow LeRoy Johnson as the leader in Short Creek. Others chose to follow Allred in Salt Lake City, and his group came to be known as the Apostolic United Brethren.(39)

Ervil LeBaron saw Allred's Apostolic United Brethren as a threat to his organization. He saw them as removing potential converts, diverting tithing and assets, and most importantly, fragmenting the faith. He had revelations to kill Rulon Allred as a method to gain control of Allred's group, and to remove any power threat from his brother Verlan, who he planned to have killed at Allred's funeral. Owen Allred analyzed the LeBaron phenomenon, stating,

" I've known the LeBaron family for over 40 years and some of the brothers are good men, they disowned Ervil years ago because he was crazy, only after power and money -- he was always demanding that Rulon tithe to him, and he wouldn't, that's why they killed him. And this bunch now, why they're just a pack of murdering thugs. They shouldn't even be called polygamists . . ."(40)

The role of Musser and his followers was to continually emphasize the revelatory and eternal nature of fundamentalist doctrines. They did this by publishing their revelations and the revelations of early church leaders regarding important religious subjects.(41) Ervil LeBaron also published his revelations on such subjects, and those revelations eventually served to strike terror into the hearts of fundamentalists everywhere.(42)

Importantly, in each of the cases cited at the beginning of this article, the principle actors indicated a heavy reliance on revelations from God as the driving force behind their actions. Immanuel David frequently claimed the gifts of prophecy and revelation, blessed his son that he would become the prophet of the church,(43) and often etched his revelations into the blades of hunting knives.(44) Ron and Dan Lafferty recorded specific revelations from God instructing them to kill, and Ron later asked a reporter, "If God came to you and asked you to take someone's life, would you?"(45) John Singer relied heavily upon revelation in his fight with the Utah justice system,(46) and the Singer family truly believed that John would be resurrected and come to save them in their standoff with the authorities after they bombed the church in Kamas.(47)

In an interview for this paper on May 6, 1995, a fundamentalist who maintains membership in the Apostolic United Brethren stated that he had no doubt that the revelations claimed by Ervil LeBaron were valid. He called them "black revelations," saying that they must have come from Satan. He also said that the Harmston group in Manti, Utah had also experienced several revelations, and had received visits from angels and resurrected personages who were early Mormon leaders.(48) In a second interview, conducted on May 20, 1995, Douglas LeBaron confirmed the fact that the Harmston group claimed to have received several heavenly visitors.(49)

The conclusion is inescapable: strong reliance on revelation creates an atmosphere where the proclivity for violence can flourish. According to Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College, nearly all cults insert themselves aggressively into their members lives, but the "potential to explode depends on the leader's mental health and whether or not the leader can be pushed over the cliff." Keys to watch for are whether the leader "has made himself into God's mouthpiece, or God," if the group has a strong fortress mentality, and to what extent the group has armed itself.(50) C. Jess Grossbeck, a psychiatrist at the Utah State Mental Hospital points out that

"The idea of getting one's direction from God is very fundamental to the Mormon way of life. There are certain individuals who have visionary or other kinds of altered states-of-consciousness experiences that have a hallmark of coming from a deity. With a religion like Mormonism, there already is a theological structure in place to call upon to explain this phenomenon."(51)

Blood Atonement and Oaths of Vengeance

In 1842, Joseph Smith received a series of revelations regarding the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. His goal was the establishment of a theocratic kingdom at Nauvoo, Illinois where he would be the King of Israel, and the Council of Fifty would be the governmental structure which would prepare the way for the millennial reign of Christ. As part of the elaboration for this theocratic plan, Smith presented what would come to be known as the doctrine of "Blood Atonement." The concept behind this doctrine was that people who committed particularly grievous acts against the Mormons would have to shed their blood to atone for the sins they had committed. The Mormons, especially the Danites, used the doctrine of blood atonement as justification for the depredations they committed during their war against the Missourians. Orrin Porter Rockwell also used the concept of blood atonement as justification for his assassination attempt on Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs.(52)

When Joseph Smith was killed on June 27, 1844, his assassins created the circumstances for what has become known as the "Oath of Vengeance." A corollary to the doctrine of blood atonement, the oath of vengeance was created on the first anniversary of Smith's death as a formal prayer for God's vengeance upon those who shed the blood of the prophet's. Six months later this oath of vengeance became a part of the Mormon temple endowment ceremony.(53) The specific oath stated the following:

" You and each of you do solemnly promise and vow that you will pray and never cease to pray and never cease to importune High Heaven to avenge the blood of the prophets on this nation and that you will teach this to your children and your children's children until the third and fourth generation."(54)

This oath of vengeance was used several times in 1845 as justification for killing people who had been involved in the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.(55)

When the doctrines of blood atonement and oath of vengeance were dropped as part of church doctrine, fundamentalists saw this as yet another instance of the church caving in to political pressure. They still believe firmly in these doctrines. Kraut remarks that "Today, the doctrine of blood atonement is never taught and rarely mentioned. The idea of capital punishment has almost become eradicated by communists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and liberal educators. The Oath of Vengeance is no longer a part of the temple ceremony."(56)

This belief in blood atonement and oaths of vengeance serves to further the atmosphere of violence that surrounds fundamentalist culture. Such doctrines make it much easier to believe that violent acts of murder are the will of God. After Adam Swapp bombed the church in Kamas, law enforcement authorities received letters from Swapp stating that their role in John Singer's death made them guilty of "cold blooded murder," and that "this blood cries to the Lord for vengeance. The Lord's holy arm cannot be stayed any longer."(57)

Ervil LeBaron developed the doctrine of blood atonement further, arguing that sinners should shed their blood to save their souls. He also developed an extension to the doctrine which he called the "Law of Liberty," which held that false prophets, traitors, and children who did not obey his directives would be killed. His "Book of New Covenants" was then created as a list of traitors to his cause so that family members could continue to exact his revenge even after his death.(58) According to Salt Lake County district attorney investigator Richard Forbes, the creed defined individuals who left the sect as "sons of perdition" and required they be killed before the Kingdom of God could come to Earth. Forbes also said that the sect's regulations for its members spell out specific punishment for leaving the group, stating that the rules outline, "one-on-one punishment specifically, and that was the death penalty to anyone who forsakes the law."(59)

Laws of God and Laws of Men

The theocracy, planned for in Kirtland and Missouri and organized at Nauvoo by Joseph Smith, evolved on the strength of Mormon millennial views. The Mormons were clearly prepared for the destruction of the US Government and the beginning of the millennial reign. They saw their duty as preparing a political and religious system to be ready for the return of Christ. This need to prepare a theocracy to usher in the return of Christ led to the development of concepts such as "religious sovereignty," where Smith declared the Mormons a separate religious nation within the political entity of the United States, and "theocratic ethics," where Mormon leaders argued for their right to perform civil functions without sanction of the state, defended their right to ignore the laws of the state when they were in conflict with the "laws of God." This new theocratic view created a great deal of friction and violence between the Mormons and Gentiles of Missouri.(60)

The early history of Mormonism is fraught with violence. Mormons defended their doctrines and their rights to religious freedom against all who opposed them. They did this because they believed that they were living a higher law and were not bound by the laws of the state. Fundamentalists still believe in this concept of religious sovereignty and have used it universally in justifying their actions. Their claim that the laws of God are more important that the laws of the state gives them a religious basis for breaking laws they feel are unjust.

On the other hand, when the church veered away from rebellion and toward harmony with the laws of the United States, fundamentalists were now persecuted from two angles. While justification for ignoring the laws of the state could be found by obeying the laws of God, Joseph Musser began to explain why fundamentalists would no longer follow the leaders of the church. His argument centered around the authority of the church and the authority of the priesthood.

Musser's contention was that the church was a temporal and political organization, while the priesthood was the true organization of God here on earth. He argued that the president of the church was not necessarily the president of the priesthood. He did not consider himself in opposition to the gospel, only in opposition to a hierarchy in error. He also wrote that since "church is subservient to the priesthood, any action taken by it against those entering the law [plural marriage] is, null and void. A man or woman cannot properly be cut off [from] the church for keeping the law of God, for the church belongs to God and God cannot act a lie and remain God."(61) Musser then reasoned that fundamentalists were subject only to direction from priesthood leaders who accepted the "truth" about plural marriage.(62)

John Singer is perhaps the best example of a fundamentalist who adamantly maintained that the laws of God must be followed when in conflict with the laws of the state. Singer removed his children from the public schools in spite of Utah's compulsory attendance law because he believed that the schools were corrupting his children with principles contrary to God's laws.(63) Once the state forced the Singers into a position where they either had to send their children to school or give them up to foster homes, they chose to adopt the siege mentality and continued to maintain that they were practicing the laws of God.(64)

When the Lafferty's were bound over to the court for trial, both of them refused representation by an attorney. According to Judge Sumison, they were

"looking at this thing from a spiritual plain. . .relying on God to get them through this thing, and appear to be prepared to suffer any consequences that might entail. They seem happy and content to do that. I have explained to them that their religious defense is probably not going to fly in the courts. You're talking about courts of man and not courts of God, and the religious defense they want to present may not be admissible in the courts of man."(65)

When Dan Lafferty represented himself, he spent most of his defense quoting scripture and ultimately argued that God's court, and not man's court, must judge him.(66)

Joseph Smith once wrote,

"That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,--at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted--by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added . . . even things which may be considered abominable to all who do not understand the order of heaven . . ."(67)

This view of the world allows people incredible latitude. They can ignore the norms of society in favor of whatever they perceive to be the norms of God. Any social system organized in this manner leaves itself wide open to violence. Anyone can have revelations and these revelations must then be carried out because they are the laws of God. Such a system not only helps to explain the history of violence associated with fundamentalist Mormon doctrine, but also explains why the groups are so frequently splintered and fragmented, constantly running after the next self-proclaimed "One Mighty and Strong."

Fall of the US Government

The Mormon Church had its origins in the 1820's in a region historians now refer to as the "burnt over district." During this time, upstate New York was swept with a religious revival based on the belief that the millennium was at hand.(68) The Mormons originated as a millennialist sect, and their beliefs haven't changed greatly. Members of the church refer constantly to the second coming of Christ. Part of this original belief in the impending millennium was easily translated into the belief that the government of the United States would soon collapse.

When the Mormons failed to receive federal aid for their cause against the Missouri mobs, church leaders prophesied this governmental collapse. As the nation slid closer to the slavery crisis, most Mormons were sure that the pressure would create the prophesied collapse. They were sure that the Civil War was the fulfillment of this prophecy. The emergence of a stronger federal government after the war failed to dim this thinking. Mormons were sure that a government which so badly persecuted God's chosen people could not long survive. This statement by Wilford Woodruff is a good example of the many revelations and prophecies that church leaders made regarding the fall of the United States government.

"I ask myself the question, can the American nation escape? The answer comes, No; its destruction, as well as the destruction of the world, is sure; just as sure as the nations that once inhabited this continent of North and South America because of their wickedness, so will He destroy them, and sooner or later they will reap the fruits of their own wicked acts, and be numbered among the past."(69)

Fundamentalists have always believed that the second coming of Christ is close at hand, and they have always been politically conservative, but the followers of Jim Harmston have raised new concerns about millennialism among fundamentalists. Many of his followers claim that they were excommunicated for their ultra-conservative political beliefs and their preoccupation with the end of the world. Most members of the group believe that Christ will return on April 6, 2000. Many of the believers are well-armed conspiracy minded survivalists who have retreated to the central Utah mountains to await Armageddon.(70)

The conservative fervor among these new fundamentalist Mormons reached a fever pitch in 1992 when over 28,000 of them voted for ultra-conservative candidate James "Bo" Gritz. The fundamentalists interpret many current events, from the rise of the European Community to the placement of computer bar codes on toothpaste tubes, as fulfilling Mormon prophecies that the "end times" are near. They see the "new world order" as part of a predicted conspiracy by Jews, lawyers and bankers to promote a "one world" government that would deny the political and religious rights protected by the divinely inspired U.S. Constitution. They are storing large quantities of food and are preparing for a chaotic global breakdown which will be marked by an explosion of violence among the black and Hispanic urban masses and turmoil in the Third World.(71)

This new breed of Mormon fundamentalism is especially troubling. Rather than a small band obsessed with power and tithing money, rather than an isolated prophet with a revelation to kill, here is a group of people, feeling persecuted and armed with whatever they can find. Believing in their gifts of prophecy and revelation, fired up by heavenly visions and doctrines of blood atonement and oaths of vengeance, they have isolated themselves in a small valley and wait for the end of the world, concerned all the while that the government is about to take away their freedoms. This is a situation that certainly bears watching.


As an exploration of the relationship between Mormon fundamentalism and violence, this paper has analyzed the origins of Mormon fundamentalist doctrines and illustrated how these doctrines can become operationalized in a violent way. Fundamentalists are isolated, committed to their beliefs, and live in a faith with a violent history. They believe strongly in the gifts of prophecy and revelation, claim that they are frequently visited by heavenly personages, and are instructed in how they should conduct their lives. They believe that they are following the laws of God, which are superior to the laws of society. Most fundamentalists are religious, law abiding people, but sometimes this potent blend of religion, isolation, revelation and action combines to create a culture of violence.

America is a unique nation in that it guarantees the freedom of religion with the first amendment and the right to bear arms with the second amendment. This means that people can believe whatever they want, and they can buy the guns to protect that belief. Throughout the history of their faith, Mormons have relied on the constitution, their faith, and their guns to protect their rights. That tradition continues in the form of Mormon fundamentalism today, and can be expected to continue into the future.


(1)The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published in Salt Lake City in various editions, sec. 85:7, hereafter D&C with numbers of section and verse(s).

(2)Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 212-217

(3)Pamela Abramson, "A hand from the grave." Newsweek, 21 December 1987, 45

(4)Cynthia Gorney, "The Prophet' who failed: Immanuel David's tragic journey," The Washington Post, 11 August 1978, B1.

(5)David Fleisher and David M. Freedman, Death of an American: The Killing of John Singer, (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1983), 175-197.

(6)Ted C. Fishman, "Unholy voices? Legal prosecution of religiously inspired violence," Playboy, November 1992, 58.

(7)James Coates, "Cult's Resurrection Delivered Only Death. Polygamist Violence Stuns Utah Town." The Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1988, 21.

(8)Chris Jorgensen, "Schism Disrupts the Faithful in Sanpete Valley," The Salt Lake Tribune, 28 August 1994, A1; Chris Jorgensen, "Ex-Mormons Found New Faith, Preach Polygamy and Doom," The Salt Lake Tribune, 20 August 1994, D1.

(9)Van Wagoner, 5.

(10)Van Wagoner, 35.

(11)Ogden Kraut, 95 Theses (Dugway, Utah: By the author, Box 222, n.d.), 14-135.

(12)Eugene E. Campbell, "Governmental Beginnings," In Utah's History, eds. Richard Poll, Thomas Alexander, Eugene Campbell and David Miller, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), 165-170.

(13)Campbell, 165.

(14)Campbell, 168-170.

(15)Gustive O. Larson, "The Crusade and the Manifesto," In Utah's History, ed. Richard Poll, Thomas Alexander, Eugene Campbell and David Miller, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), 257-273.

(16)Van Wagoner, 183-194.

(17)D. Michael Quinn, J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1983), 184-186.

(18)Van Wagoner, 201-205.

(19)Dean L. May, "Towards a Dependent Commonwealth," In Utah's History, ed. Richard Poll, Thomas Alexander, Eugene Campbell and David Miller, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), 237-238.

(20)Stuart A. Wright, "Before We Write Off Cult, Society Needs Answers," The Houston Chronicle, 27 April 1993, sec. A, 11.

(21)D&C, 42:30-39, 70-73.

(22)D&C, 42:33.

(23)May, 230-234.

(24)Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London and Liverpool: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1855-86), 15:358.

(25)Julianne Basinger, "Utah Polygamists Run Secretive Multimillion Dollar Conglomerate," The Los Angeles Times, 8 August 1993, sec. A, 13.

(26)Ann Japenga, "Arizona Town's Uneasy Marriage to Polygamy; Accepted Religious Tenet to Some is an Oppressive Doctrine to Others," The Los Angeles Times, 13 April 1986, sec. 6, 1.

(27)Janice Perry, "Polygamy Spreading Despite Laws," United Press International, 7 April 1985, BC Cycle.

(28)Japenga, 1.

(29)D&C 6:37, 76:23, 110:1-10.

(30)Samuel Taylor, Family Kingdom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), References throughout the book.

(31)T. Edgar Lyon and Glenn M. Leonard, "The Churches in the Territory," In Utah's History, ed. Richard Poll, Thomas Alexander, Eugene Campbell and David Miller, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), 322-323.

(32)Lou Cannon, "Violent Death Shadows Polygamist Sect," The Washington Post, 8 August 1977, sec. 1, A1.

(33)Martha Sonntag Bradley, "Joseph W. Musser: Dissenter or Fearless Crusader for Truth?" In Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, eds., Roger Launius and Linda Thatcher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 262-279.

(34)Van Wagoner, 212.

(35)Van Wagoner, 213-217.

(36)Verlan LeBaron, The LeBaron Story (Lubbock, Texas: Keele Press, 1981).

(37)Taylor, 275.

(38)Van Wagoner, 209. (39)Van Wagoner, 210-211.

(40)Bella Stumbo, "Polygamists: Tale of Two Families," The Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1988, sec. 1, 1.

(41)Bradley, 272.

(42)Stumbo, 1.

(43)Gorney, B1.

(44)Larry Tye, "After Waco, The Focus Shifts to Other Cults," The Boston Globe, 30 April 1993, sec. National, 1.

(45)No byline, "Polygamists Refuse Attorney in Murder Trial," United Press International, 11 September, 1984, AM Cycle.

(46)Fliesher and Freedman, References are throughout the book.

(47)Coates, 21.

(48)Anonymous, interview by author, 6 May 1995, Cedar City.

(49)Douglas LeBaron, interview by author, 20 May 1995, Cedar City.

(50)Tye, 1.

(51)Perry, BC Cycle.

(52)D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 110-113.

(53)Quinn, 1994, 179.

(54)Kraut, 79.

(55)Quinn, 1994, 180-181.

(56)Kraut, 78-79.

(57)No Byline, "Polygamist Violence Surfaces Again," United Press International, 17 January 1988, BC Cycle.

(58)Abramson, 45.

(59)Paula Dittrick, "Utah Investigator Testifies About Blood Atonement," United Press International, 12 January 1993, BC Cycle.

(60)Quinn, 1994, 79-103.

(61)Joseph W. Musser, Journal (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press, 1990), 11. This volume is a published collection of excerpts from Musser's journals over a fifty year period.

(62)Bradley, 263.

(63)Fleisher and Freedman, 1-4.

(64)Fleisher and Freedman, 147-163.

(65)No Byline, "Polygamists Refuse Attorney in Murder Trial," United Press International, 11 September 1984, AM Cycle.

(66)Fishman, 58.

(67)Quinn, 1994, 112.

(68)Quinn, 1994, 2.

(69)Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, 21:301.

(70)Douglas LeBaron, interview by author, 20 May 1995.

(71)Hugh Dellios, "Doomsday Mormons Say Church Rejects Them," The Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1993, 19.

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Anonymous. Interview by author. 6 May 1995, Cedar City.

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