An Introduction to Fundamentalist Faith

Achurch that grew from the violent frontiers of the Old West now fills the halls of modern and modest meetinghouses, but members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not the only faithful who call themselves Mormons. Hundreds of groups profess to be the truest iteration of the church that was founded by Joseph Smith, and a subset of them has captured renewed national interest through recent documentaries and the FX series Under The Banner Of Heaven. What do we really know about Mormon Fundamentalists? How much do the documentarians and the TV writers get right? Consider this simply an initiation into Mormon Fundamentalist faith in Utah.


It’s hard to go anywhere in Utah without spying a sign of its deeply religious past (and present). From Temple Square to the home of Brigham Young to This Is The Place Heritage Park, these religious artifacts of the 19th century are monuments to the history of not just The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) but many, many other groups that believe themselves the faithful followers of Joseph Smith’s original church. 

Fundamentalist Faith Utah
Dan (Wyatt Russel) and Ron Lafferty (Sam Worthington) with School of the Prophets, Under The Banner Of Heaven ep. 7 “Blood Atonement” 

The frontier religion that began with a young man’s vision in New York, that traveled across the midwest and found its home in Utah, has birthed, by some estimates, more than 400 offshoots and break-off groups. While all of these sects place themselves under the banner of Mormonism, some sought for what they call a return to the fundamental practices and beliefs of the early—very early—Mormon Church. The most well-known of these fundamental practices is polygamy, which the State of Utah decriminalized in 2020, and FX’s series Under The Banner Of Heaven has introduced the uninitiated to another: blood atonement. 

A violent relic of a frontier faith, blood atonement conjures images of some of the most notorious figures in Mormon Fundamentalism. Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered their sister-in-law Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter in American Fork in 1984. Warren Jeffs instituted a tyrannical one-man-rule over the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz. through control, manipulation and abuse before he was convicted of raping children and sentenced to life in prison only a decade ago.

But for every Lafferty and Jeffs, there are hundreds of everyday, ordinary people—fundamentalists—doing their best to hold fast and true to the articles of their faith. We see their faces, as well as the likes of Jeffs, in a slew of new documentaries, demonstrating a growing fascination of our fundamentalist neighbors: Discovery+’s Keep Sweet, not to be confused with Netflix’s Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and Paramount’s Preaching Evil

Some look like what we might typically think of when someone says “Mormon Fundamentalist.” We picture a woman in a long, plain dress, hair piled high to heaven with intricate braids and plaits. Others might look more like members of the mainstream LDS Church on any given Sunday, including women in modest blouses and skirts and men in blocky black suits and neckties. The uniform might change, but they have all called themselves Mormons, and many look up to those monuments of Utah’s theocratic past and are filled with the same sense of reverence and respect as any member of the mainstream iteration of the faith. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: For clarity, we refer to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both by its full name and the LDS Church and to its members as “mainstream” Mormons.

Timeline of Mormon Fundamentalism

1832

Joseph Smith prophesies of “one mighty and strong.”

1832
1862

Polygamy in the U.S. is outlawed with the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law. 

1862
1890

LDS President Wilfred Woodruff issues D&C Official Declaration 1 or The Manifesto.

1890
1942

The United Effort Plan (UEP) is started in Short Creek.

1942
1982

Bob Crossfield (AKA Prophet Onias) formally establishes the School of the Prophets, later joined by members of the Lafferty family.

1982
1984

Dan and Ron Lafferty kill their sister-in-law Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica. 

1984
1986

Leroy Johnson passes away and Rulon Jeffs becomes leader of the Short Creek fundamentalists, incorporating as the FLDS Church. 

1986
2002

Warren Jeffs becomes FLDS president.

2002
2006

Jeffs is placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list and apprehended in August.

2006
2011

Jeffs convicted in Texas on two counts of sexual assault of a child and sentenced to life in prison.

2011

To see a complete timeline up to the current date, click here.



A Selected Glossary of Polygamist Terms, Beliefs and Practices 

(From Utah and Arizona attorneys’ general 2006 publication “The Primer” and other sources; not all terms and beliefs apply to all groups)

Adam/God doctrine: Some fundamentalists believe Adam is God the Father and came to the Garden of Eden with Eve, who was one of his many wives. There are disputes concerning this belief, but many practicing polygamists still adhere to this doctrine. 

Bleeding the Beast: An expression used by some fundamentalists as a rationale for accepting (and sometimes abusing) assistance (i.e., financial grants, WIC, TANF, food stamps, housing, medical assistance, etc.) from governmental agencies. Within certain groups, it is taught that “bleeding the beast” will assist God in destroying the “evil” U.S. Government and is considered a righteous endeavor. 

Blood Atonement: Some groups teach a doctrine known as “blood atonement,” which was introduced by Joseph Smith, embraced by Brigham Young, but no longer espoused by the mainstream church. It requires a person to have their blood “spilt upon the ground” to repent for what are considered to be unforgivable sins. 

Fundamentalist Faith Utah
Short Creek, the largely FLDS community composed of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., from Discovery+ documentary Keep Sweet. Photo courtesy of Discovery+

Creekers: Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) who live in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are often called “Creekers.” The nickname “Creekers” began when this area was called Short Creek. 

Double Cousin: One may call a person a “double cousin” if he or she is related to them through both their mother’s and father’s families. 

First Rate or Second Rate: According to historians, some fundamentalists are considered first-rate or elite because of their bloodline. Women and their children can also be considered first-rate and receive special privileges within the family if they are favored by the husband. 

Fundie: A slang term short for “fundamentalist” in reference to Fundamentalist Mormons.

God Squad: This slang term refers to a group of men within the FLDS community who monitored and reported the activities of its members to the church leadership under Warren Jeffs. 

House Mother: A sister-wife who stays home to provide the daily care for children of other wives who work outside the home. 

Joy Book: Girls are said to be listed in this book while they wait for the FLDS prophet to have a revelation about whom they will marry. 

Lifting-Up: The FLDS Church reportedly predicted that some members would be “lifted up” into heaven while God destroyed the wicked, and then be returned to Earth to peacefully live polygamy. When no one was lifted-up, the members were blamed for sinning and lacking faith. 

Lost Boys: Young, unmarried men who are exiled from FLDS communities. Some have been told they were asked to leave for being a bad influence but many believe it is because they are competing with older men who are looking for wives. 

Memory Gem: Phrases that are rehearsed and repeated by members of the Kingston group. Some repeat the Memory Gems each day before family prayer. Examples include: “If The Order doesn’t have it, we don’t need it,” “True happiness is not found in doing what you want to do but in learning to like to do the things you ought to do,” and “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all else will be added.” 

Fundamentalist Faith Utah
FLDS members, from Netflix documentary series Keep Sweet: Pray And Obey. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Mother Church: Some fundamentalists use this term for the mainstream LDS Church. They believe they are custodians of certain “keys” to rites and authority and will eventually reunite with or replace the LDS Church at a later time. 

Numbered Men: The Kingston group uses this term to refer to male members who hope to be numbered among the Lord’s people. They are believed to be part of the 144,000 people mentioned in the Biblical Book of Revelation. Some men are selected by the Kingston leaders to receive their actual “number” in public meetings. 

Plyg or Polyg: A highly offensive and demeaning term for those who practice polygamy. 

Sister Wives: Women married to the same man. Other terms that identify this position are “other girls in the family,” “other mothers,” or “other ladies.” 


The FLDS…After Warren Jeffs

While many of the new documentaries on the Fundamentalist LDS Church cover the rise, crimes and eventual fall of Warren Jeffs, Keep Sweet on Discovery+ was more interested in examining life in the Short Creek community after Jeffs received a lifelong prison sentence. 

Before Jeffs went to jail, a documentary crew may have been run out of Short Creek by the so-called “god squad” (Jeffs’ pick-up-driving private security forces). Now, many of the walls have come down (including literal walls that Jeffs had constructed around the community), and there’s a new sheriff in town. 

Photo courtesy of Discover+

Lindsay Hansen Park has been making regular trips down to Hildale (the half of the community on the Utah side of the border) for the better part of a decade. “Before, it was lawless, in every sense of the word,” says Park. “Hildale had to go through a lot of growing pains to become a legitimate town.” Where once Jeffs had closed all of the public schools, they’re back open now and students have had success in both academics and sports. After historically rejecting modern medicine, the community now has a health and dental clinic. The police and government are no longer run by the FLDS church, with the election of Donia Jessop as mayor in 2017. Jessop is the first woman and ex-member of the FLDS to ever be elected mayor in Hildale. 

In the Keep Sweet documentary, a point of contention that remains in Short Creek—the United Effort Plan (UEP), a land trust, which includes hundreds of homes formerly controlled by the FLDS, is now under the purview of a nonreligious board. Under the board, some former FLDS members—who were exiled, left or escaped Jeffs’ church—have returned to their homes. Some homes have been sold to “outsiders.” And some FLDS members, still faithful to Jeffs, have been evicted for refusing to cooperate with the board’s criteria to keep their homes because they do not recognize the board’s authority. 

But both Park and the Keep Sweet documentary point to a Fourth of July celebration as a sign of hope for the future of Short Creek. When Jeffs was in power, he had banned the large celebration, which had been a beloved event for many of the residents. After his arrest, the people of Hildale put on their first big Independence Day extravaganza in years. “I was there. It felt historic,” says Park. “It was also a celebration of independence from Jeffs.”


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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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