Practicing “The Principle” In Modern Times
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ At 81, Rhea Kunz has eight children, more than 130 grandchildren and great- grandchildren, and was one of four women to share the same husband.
She was once jailed for polygamy and says she suffered death threats from power-hungry patriarchs.
None of it has swayed her belief in the ″high and holy calling″ that Mormon fundamentalists call ″the Principle.″
But she said she is alarmed by an outbreak of violence among rival polygamous sects, marked by the Oct. 16 slaying of polygamist leader Daniel Ben Jordan.
Jordan, a son-in-law and one-time follower of convicted murderer and polygamous patriarch Ervil LeBaron, was killed at a Utah campsite in a shooting authorities say may have had religious overtones.
LeBaron himself died in prison in 1981 after being convicted of masterminding the 1977 murder of Kunz’ brother, Rulon Allred, the leader of a rival sect, and conspiring to kill his own brother, Verlan LeBaron.
Kunz, who was born to polygamists and separated from her husband shortly before she served a few days in jail in 1944 for refusing to denounce polygamy, says the violence contradicts the tenets of Mormon fundamentalism.
″Everything is out of order. There is such a concentration of evil and vice,″ Kunz said last week. ″The fundamentalists are crying out for the setting in order of the House of God as much as anyone else.″
Authorities and scholars estimate that there are 25,000 to 30,000 practicing polygamists in the West, with most in Utah.
Once a focus of police in Utah, Arizona and other Western states, prosecution of polygamists has virtually ceased since the 1960s. In 1984 Elizabeth Joseph, a polygamous wife, ran for Kane County attorney and lost, and her husband, Big Water Mayor Alex Joseph, ran for the Kane County Commission in 1986 on the Libertarian ticket.
Charges were never filed against Joseph or any of his 11 wives.
Prosecutors said society’s more liberal attitudes toward marital relationships dissuaded them from pressing charges under the state’s cohabitation law.
″It’s kind of ludicrous to enforce that when you have people living together without matrimony,″ said U.S. Attorney Brent Ward.
For the most part, the polygamous groups remain closed to outsiders. But the more relaxed climate has persuaded Kunz to speak out to correct what she sees as misconceptions about polygamists.
″The main run of them are hard-working people, just honest people trying to get along. They’re just good folk,″ said Kunz, who has eight children, more than 80 grandchildren and more than 50 great-grandchildren.
Kunz belongs to none of the four major polygamist groups that sprang up after the Mormon Church, as a condition of Utah statehood, officially abandoned the practice of plural marriage in 1890.
But her roots run deep among the dissidents who braved excommunication and criminal prosecution to keep polygamy alive. Her father fled to Mexico in the late 19th century rather than abandon his two wives. In 1944, Kunz accompanied her husband and his three other wives to jail rather than renounce ″the Principle.″
She said that in the 1970s followers of Ervil LeBaron also threatened her life in a bloody bid to control two of the major polygamous sects.
But she said none of the trials have shaken her conviction that plural marriage was ordained by God for his most faithful servants.
″People who haven’t had any contact or knowledge of these things, they get their own ideas. Most of the inquiries are superficial, such as who earns the living, who does the work, sex,″ Kunz said. ″That shows their ignorance of a beautiful and holy law. That law was given to bring the choicest spirits into the world.″
Polygamy was introduced in the 1840s to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by church founder Joseph Smith, who said God had commanded it.
Tom Green, a polygamist who is compiling a history of Mormon fundamentalism, said the major sects are the United Apostolic Brethren, founded by Rulon Allred and now led by his brother, Owen; the Davis County Co- op, which combines polygamy and communal business interests; the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, based in Chihuahua, Mexico; and followers of the late LeRoy Johnson who inhabit adjacent towns on the Utah- Arizona border.
But Kunz and Green concede that in many cases, the modern practice of polygamy has strayed from the ideal espoused by early Mormon leaders.
Green, like Kunz an independent, said that in some instances, sect leaders dole out wives based on payment of tithes.
Marriage in some groups also may depend on whether young men turn over their paychecks to the church for a two-year period, a variation of the Mormon practice of sending young men on two-year prosyletizing missions.
Kunz said few men enter polygamy for sexual adventure simply because extramarital sex is readily available without taking on the responsibility of a second family. But she added that few polygamous husbands treat their wives with the respect and consideration called for by fundamentalist doctrines.
″There are men who really and truthfully understand the place of honor a woman has, but they are few and far between,″ Kunz said. ″Brigham Young said polygamy would damn more men than it would save. It takes really unselfishness, real dedication to live this law right.″