Religion April 2009

Prophet Without Honor

Among the polygamists in Hildale and Colorado City
Bob Daemmrich/Corbis

Image credit: Bob Daemmrich/Corbis

Four years ago, when Bruce Wisan first started traveling to the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City, a remote fundamentalist Mormon community on the border of Utah and Arizona where polygamy is openly practiced, people shunned him in the rutted, unpaved streets. They called him an instrument of Satan. He couldn’t even persuade the local café to serve him lunch.

The residents had reason to be suspicious. Wisan was appointed by a Utah state court to safeguard and manage the fundamentalist Mormon trust that has administered 85 percent of the property in the twin cities since 1942. His immediate predecessor was Warren Jeffs, the community’s notoriously authoritarian “Prophet,” who was convicted as an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl. (Jeffs has multiple wives himself, and still faces charges in Arizona and Texas.)

Wisan’s job was to clean up the mess Jeffs left behind. As Wisan told me, the prophet had stopped defending the trust from two lawsuits (later settled) and was possibly mismanaging its assets. Jeffs was also known for splitting wives from husbands, “reassigning” families to suit his whims, expelling dozens of men who challenged his authority, and transferring houses at will (practices he surreptitiously continued after Wisan arrived). To compound the confusion, before his arrest, Jeffs had orchestrated a stealthy exodus of select followers to a new compound in Texas. Even the most open, honest attempt to figure out who deserved to live where could bog down in dizzying complication.

For Wisan, a 62-year-old accountant from Salt Lake City with just one marriage to his name, the assignment was pure culture shock. “It’s a foreign country here,” he told me. “They have their own language, their own dress, their own police.”

In a sense, Wisan had to play prophet himself—albeit a prophet with a seven-member advisory board. One of his goals was to dissolve the trust and give individuals the right to own their own homes. That goal, though, assumed a degree of cooperation that the fundamentalists have only sporadically given him. “I don’t feel protected by Mr. Wisan’s management,” one church member wrote online recently. “I feel exploited!”

That defiance started to crumble when Wisan threatened a judiciously chosen few families with eviction if they did not pay their property taxes, and they buckled to his authority.

Everything changed again, though, in the wake of last April’s police raid on the community in Texas, and the temporary transfer of more than 400 children into state custody.

An enraged church leadership switched to a new policy of out-and-out confrontation, and began suing to block Wisan’s every move. In the past few months, many of the Texas families have returned, determined to regain their old houses—and provoking feuds with the occupants. Church members’ tax bills have gone unpaid for months.

For now, both sides are in a court-ordered “stand-down,” the civil equivalent of a temporary cease-fire, but hostility seethes just beneath the surface, and the comprehensive settlement Wisan has sought since he arrived still looks elusive. The church’s aim, Wisan says, is to reclaim its land just as surely as it reclaimed its children in Texas. “They characterize the situation as me against them, but they are the biggest portion of my constituents,” Wisan insisted. “I represent them; they just don’t want me to.”

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Andrew Gumbel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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