SALT LAKE CITY — Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, to his followers a prophet who speaks directly with God, is likely to continue to lead his church from behind bars after being sentenced to life in prison on child sex assault charges.
“The vast majority are just not going to leave,” Atlanta-based polygamy historian and writer Ken Driggs said. “They’ve got family ties and marriage ties and a culture deeply rooted in their faith.”
Followers of Jeffs’ Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are likely to still revere him as a prophet, despite evidence presented in the Texas case that he had sex with girls from the sect as young as 12, former church members and experts say. Jeffs, 55, was sentenced by a Texas jury Tuesday and will not be eligible for parole until he is at least 100 year s old.
There was no mass exodus in 2007 after Jeffs’ conviction on Utah sex assault charges. Most members remained loyal. As he spent almost five years in various jails, Jeffs continued to spiritually direct the faith, counsel followers and lead Sunday services by phone.
His legal grip on the church also remains strong.
Last week, the Utah Department of Commerce reaffirmed Jeffs as the head of the corporations that make up the FLDS after a church bishop unsuccessfully sought to seize control. Commerce officials said William E. Jessop ultimately failed to prove he was ordained by the previous prophet to control the church.
Elissa Wall, a former FLDS member and the victim in Utah’s 2007 case, called Jeffs’ Texas conviction and life sentence a “true miracle.”
Even so, she believes that followers have been so indoctrinated in the faith that most will likely remain faithful, believing that Jeffs is God’s spokesman on Earth and their path to salvation.
“The vast majority will stay,” Wall said, but added that the sentencing could spark change.
“Now we can really begin to focus on liberating these people and freeing their minds from the mental shackles that Warren Jeffs has put on them,” Wall told The Associated Press.
Jeffs married the then 14-year-old Wall to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. Wall said later she had objected to the marriage and was forced into sex. She left the church in 2004 after being granted a rare divorce because she was pregnant with another man’s child.
Jeffs’ 2007 conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court last year, but his life sentence in Texas may now make retrying him moot.
Wall said it is unlikely church members even know much about the Texas case and the evidence against Jeffs. He has banned television and all books except scripture. He has counseled members against reading newspapers or using the Internet.
“They probably have zero contact with the outside world. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t know yet,” Wall said. “And if they do know, I’m sure they are being blamed for this verdict. It’s their fault … they weren’t faithful and obedient enough.”
Wall said many parents may believe it to be an honor, the holiest of privileges, to have their young daughters selected by Jeffs for marriage.
“That religious power is ten times more powerful than anything else,” Wall said.
Willie Jessop, Jeffs’ former spokesman, said the FLDS community remains in denial but that Jeffs’ conviction could be the “beginning of a crisis.”
He considers himself an active FLDS member, but refused to speak anymore on Jeffs’ behalf after he became aware of the Texas child sex charges. Jeffs then attempted to remove him from his home in the FLDS community of Hildale, Utah, and reassign his wives and children, but Jessop refused to leave.
He said Tuesday’s life sentence for Jeffs may start a process of “deep soul searching” for some church members.
“I think they may get frustrated and then there’s a long grieving process that you have to go through before you can come to the reconstructive state,” Jessop said. “That’s a long ways down from where we are today.”
Jeffs rose to power in 2002 following the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs, who had led the church for nearly 20 years. The faith’s basic principles are rooted in polygamy, a legacy of early Mormon church teachings that held plural marriage brought exaltation in heaven. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood, howe ver, and excommunicates members who engage in the practice.
An estimated 40,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalists split from the church and have continued to practice plural marriage across the West. At roughly 10,000 members, the FLDS is the largest and arguably the most embattled of the organized fundamentalist groups.
In 1944 and 1953, authorities raided the sect’s twin polygamous border towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz. — known then as Short Creek — jailing dozens of men and women and putting their children in foster care.
The raids cemented a mistrust of government, sending church members further into their insular society.
The 2008 Texas raid on the church’s Yearning for Zion ranch that led to Jeffs’ current conviction likely galvanized a whole new generation of followers against outsiders, experts say.
There is a history of the devout — across various religions — remaining loyal to their faith even in the face of serious crimes, said Philip Jenkins, a professor of humanities at Penn State University. “It fits very well into the scholarly literature on failed messiahs,” he said. “Maybe all the charges were bogus, or maybe all the things he was doing were done as some prophecy.”
Church dissidents say Jeffs’ reign has been anything but benevolent. They say that under Jeffs, the number of underage marriages increased dramatically and families were fractured. Dozens of teen boys and men were excommunicated for alleged acts of disobedience, with their wives and children being reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers.
Some former members remain bitter.
“I think he’s a religious pervert,” Richard Holm, who was thrown out of the church in 2003, leaving behind his three wives and 17 kids, said in a previous interview with the AP. “His leadership has totally disrupted whatever was good about the church.”