While the vast majority of Mormons belong to the LDS Church, which renounced polygamy at the end of the 19th century, a number of independent groups have since broken from the Church over various doctrinal differences—including plural marriage. Polygamy, USA, which debuted on the National Geographic Channel earlier this month [Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT], follows the fundamentalist Mormons of Centennial Park, Arizona, population 1,500. The following commentary from Centennial Park spiritual leader Claude Cawley does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of RD. –Eds.
Anyone who makes an in-depth study of Mormonism would know that there is a very extensive body of material explicating the doctrines and tenets that Joseph Smith revealed. Certainly, the basic ideals of Christianity are part of these, but Joseph Smith also advocated many things that go beyond common Christian tradition.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or mainstream Mormon Church, has abandoned or severely modified many of these things, including the practice of plural marriage, the practice of communal living (called the United Order), the wearing of the garments as outlined by Joseph Smith, and the preservation of original temple ordinances recorded by Brigham Young from those taught by Joseph Smith. People in Centennial Park, Arizona are striving to preserve plural marriage and many other tenets from Joseph Smith, including the authority he received to perform ordinances. Most other organizations have perverted or abandoned these things.
The creation of Centennial Park is an outcome of events that have occurred over nearly 130 years. The community strives to function in the original tradition of the Mormon fundamentalist movement that began in 1886. That era marked the height of Congress’ movement against the LDS Church over the Church’s practice of plural marriage. Through these years, offshoots from the movement’s original group of people have occurred, many of them claiming to be the genuine movement. We believe that the practices of Centennial Park are more true to the original movement than any of these other groups, including the FLDS, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which during the leadership of Warren Jeffs became the most prominent of these offshoots represented in the media. The intent of gathering in Centennial Park is to preserve and practice the principles established by Joseph Smith, when he originated the LDS Church.
Because the practice of plural marriage has been made a serious crime, especially by the states of Arizona, Idaho, and Utah, the fundamentalist movement has been carried out as surreptitiously as possible by its adherents. Communities trying to live by its tenets have, therefore, been closed to the outside world. Two things have occurred which have caused Centennial Park to open its doors to interaction with the outside world and allow exposure in the media: first, the appeal from community service organizations such as Child Protective Services for the people of the polygamous communities to be more transparent, so that they can understand how to make their services available to those who need them, and second, the debacle that Colorado City and the FLDS have become in the public eye. We do not wish to be portrayed with the broad-brush picture taken from coverage of the FLDS. [See RD’s coverage of the FLDS here –Eds.]
We realize that, to overcome stereotypes associated with the activities in Colorado City and general attitudes toward practicing plural marriage, something must be done to portray the people of Centennial Park in an open and close-up manner that will demonstrate the common humanness we all have as productive and respectable citizens of our communities. The hope is that people will realize that our living plural marriage is not the stereotype envisioned by people at large; it is based on a sincere religious belief, held in combination with all the moral principles of any devout Christian community. There is a general misconception that men among the community look to plural marriage as a means to satisfy their lust and exploit and degrade women. It is this stereotype that we would like to dispel by showing the contrary to the general public. If sufficient public opinion is changed, it may be possible to decriminalize the practice, allowing polygamists to participate more freely in society.
The program put together for the National Geographic Channel seeks to fulfill this role in portraying Centennial Park. Other television programs have aimed at more sensational (and often misrepresentative) aspects of life in plural marriage, at best a half-truth about the lifestyle, although their presentations have had no influence on the decision to open up Centennial Park for this program. Naturally, there is a concern in many minds about how the people of Centennial Park will be perceived by viewers of the program, but it seems worth the effort at least to portray their humanness. Hopefully, viewers will take away the perceptions that inhabitants of Centennial Park are every bit as worthwhile and respectable citizens in our society as any others; that they are not immoral; and that they live lives as upright and praiseworthy as any other people.