Under the banner of heav.., p.35

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 35

 

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
 



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  And who can believe that the Mormons ever would have turned away from the practice of Celestial Marriage, if it were not for federal pressure? . . . I cheerfully do prophesy that some day, not too far on in the twenty-first century, the Mormons will have enough political and financial power to sanction polygamy again. Without it, in some form or other, the complete vision of Joseph Smith never can be fulfilled.

  If Bloom's forecast is alarming, it also seems far-fetched. The LDS Church of the twenty-first century is very different from the church of the nineteenth century. As LDS historian Dale Morgan wrote in a letter to Juanita Brooks in 1945, “it was Joseph's personal magnetism that bound people to him originally,” but after his church was up and running, the religion “acquired an almost, independent existence. It acquired a dignity from the lives of its converts; it became a social force energizing the lives of innumerable people swept up in its course.”

  The Mormons have gained so much by abandoning polygamy that it is hard to imagine LDS authorities ever bringing it back by design. Mormondom's path is set less these days by theologians and wild-eyed prophets than by businessmen and publicists. The LDS Church has annual revenues estimated at more than $6 billion, and it is currently the largest employer in the state of Utah. For the better part of a century now, the church has been trending slowly but relentlessly toward the humdrum normality of middle America.

  But the mainstreaming of the Mormon Church has a distinctly ironic component. To whatever extent the LDS religion moves beyond the most problematic facets of Joseph Smith's theology and succeeds at becoming less and less peculiar, fundamentalists are bound to pull more and more converts from the Mormon Church's own swelling ranks. Communities like Colorado City and Bountiful will continue to win adherents from among the most fervent Saints, because there will always be Mormons who yearn to recapture the spirit and all-consuming passion of the founding prophet's vision—Mormons like Pamela Coronado.

  At the moment Coronado, in her early forties, wearing faded bib overalls, is stripping wallpaper from the front room of a run-down old farmhouse the Prophet Onias recently acquired. Tall and graceful, with piercing blue eyes that project great self-assurance from beneath a nimbus of blond curls, Pamela and her husband, David Coronado, became followers of Onias at the beginning of 1984, just after the School of the Prophets was established in Utah County. “We met Bob Crossfield—Onias—when we went to one of their meetings,” Pamela remembers. “We came because we'd come across The Book of Onias at a used-book store and had read Bob's revelations. Right away we both thought, ‘These sound like the revelations of Joseph Smith! This is just like The Doctrine and Covenants!' We were very impressed.”

  David Coronado was so impressed, in fact, that he wrote to the Philosophical Library, the vanity press that printed the book for Onias, to find out how to contact the author-prophet. “They told David that Bob had just moved his base of operations to the Provo area, right where we lived,” Pamela says. “So we went to a meeting. It was at the Lafferty family home in Provo, and we met Bob there, and the Laffertys. That's how we came into the Work.”

  Pamela had been raised in Provo, in a traditional Mormon family. “My dad was one of the first people to buy shares in the Dream Mine,” she announces proudly, although her parents were in no sense fundamentalists. In 1978, when she turned twenty-one, Pamela was called on a mission to France, and it was her experience as a missionary, she says, “that made me start questioning the direction the church was going. Every day I'd be out there bearing testimony of the truth of The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, which was fine, but whenever it came time to bear testimony of the prophet as ‘the Lord's only true and living prophet,' I had a real tough time saying what I was supposed to say. I just didn't believe in him, or where he was taking the church.” At the time, the LDS president and prophet was Spencer W. Kimball, who had just sent shock waves throughout Mormondom by radically revising church doctrine to allow men with black skin to enter the priesthood.

  At the conclusion of her mission, Pamela returned to Provo and took a job teaching at the Missionary Training Center, where she met David Coronado; they were married eight months later. David, it turned out, had been born in Colonia LeBaron, in Mexico, and was a member of the infamous LeBaron clan. During the height of Ervil LeBaron's killing binge, one of Ervil's crazed followers had actually fired a gun at David's mother, endeavoring to end her life, which had prompted her to emigrate to the United States with David and his eight siblings in order to escape the bloodshed.

  Although troubled by the violence in his heritage, when David reached adulthood he came to believe that the fundamentalist version of Mormonism was the true path to God. After he married Pamela—whose doubts about the mainstream church had only been growing since her mission—she came to share his fundamentalist perspective wholeheartedly. When they met the Prophet Onias in 1984, they were more than ready to join “the Work.”

  Six months later, though, Dan Lafferty murdered Brenda and Erica Lafferty, and the Coronados' world was upended. “When the Lafferty thing happened it scared everybody around here,” Pamela says. “It was so shocking. Because we were associated with the Lafferty family, people thought we had to be evil. We got excommunicated. For a while there, my family was afraid for our lives.”

  But neither the horror of the Lafferty murders nor the harassment and persecution that followed eroded the Coronados' faith in Onias and the Work. Both David and Pamela are convinced that opening the LDS priesthood to blacks was a terrible apostasy. And both believe completely in the principle of plural marriage—even though they have not yet engaged in polygamy themselves. “We've considered it many times,” Pamela says. “There have been many, many women who could have been part of our family—close friends who the whole family felt attracted to, and who felt attracted to the family. But when it came right down to it—well, it just never quite happened. At the time it was just too difficult.”

  Pamela stops stripping wallpaper, puts down her tools, and goes into the kitchen to prepare lunch for her daughter, Emmylou, and the Prophet Onias. “I could live the Principle more easily now that I'm older,” she says brightly. “I've matured a lot. I can see how my children would benefit from the talents of another woman. I'm not saying there wouldn't be difficult times. But I can also imagine how neat it could be.”

  A frown crosses Pamela's face. It entirely misses the point, she says, to think that joining the Work is mostly about plural marriage, or keeping blacks out of the priesthood, or other matters of doctrine. Such issues, she insists, are only “the superficial reasons” for her belief. She says the real basis for her faith “is spiritual. It's all about the spirit that exists in your heart.”

  Hearing this, the Prophet Onias pipes in. “The LDS Church has pretty well lost the spirit,” he says. “You go and hear them on Sunday, or you hear the things they say at General Conference, and you realize most of them feel nothing.”

  In marked contrast, the spirit burns for Pamela with a white-hot flame. The energy she draws from it is palpable; one can almost feel the heat emanating from her skin. “I tell you,” Pamela says, pressing her hands to her chest, beaming, “when you feel that spirit—the real spirit—there's nothing like it. You're full of fire inside.”

  And that fire is being spread very effectively to the next generation of fundamentalists. Pamela's daughter Emmylou, who is on the cusp of adolescence, lays out the plans for a house she has designed across the dining room table. “I did it on the Internet, according to the Principle,” she declares shyly, and then points out the home's numerous special features.

  “The exterior is going to be rammed earth or maybe adobe,” she explains. “It's eighty-five feet long by seventy-seven feet wide, all on one floor. This center part here will be open, like a courtyard. Over on this side is where the children's rooms are—one for the girls, one for the boys. Plus, there is a nursery for the young ones. The father's room, the master bedroom, is over here. And these are the mothers' r
ooms, one wife here and the other wife there. And the neat thing is, there's space to add another room here for a third wife.”

  As she describes the many unique elements she has designed, her enthusiasm builds. By the end of the virtual tour her eyes are gleaming. This is her dream home, customized for what she imagines to be the perfect life—the life she hopes to live when she grows up.

  TWENTY-SIX

  CANAAN MOUNTAIN

  In the Plateau Country the eye is not merely invited but compelled to notice the large things. From any point of vantage the view is likely to be open not with the twelve- or fifteen-mile radius of the plains, but with a radius that is often fifty and sometimes even seventy-five miles—and that is a long way to look, especially if there is nothing human in sight. The villages are hidden in the canyons and under the cliffs; there is nothing visible but the torn and slashed and windworn beauty of the absolute wasteland. And the beauty is death. Where the grass and trees and bushes are stripped off and the world laid naked you can see the globe being torn down and rebuilt. You can see the death and prognosticate the birth of epochs. You can see the tiny clinging bits of débris that historical time has left. If you are a Mormon waiting for the trump of the Last Days while you labor in building the Kingdom, you can be excused for expecting that those Last Days will come any time now. The world is dead and disintegrating before your eyes.

  WALLACE STEGNER,

  MORMON COUNTRY

  From a tranquil city park at the edge of Colorado City–Hildale, the sheer cliffs of Canaan Mountain erupt heavenward without preamble—a massive scarp of brick-red sandstone streaked with desert varnish, looming two thousand vertical feet above the fundamentalist stronghold. On top, the flat summit plateau feels like a lost world—an island in the sky, cut off from civilization, sprouting manzanita and mariposa lilies, wild roses and yucca, Indian paintbrush and stout ponderosa pines. “My brother David and I used to sneak up here every chance we got when we were kids,” says DeLoy Bateman. “Seemed like the only place where the religion couldn't control us.”

  DeLoy is perched at the edge of this mountaintop, staring down at the town where he was born and raised. It's the end of July, and the temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. DeLoy—who seems oblivious to the withering heat even though he is wearing long polyester pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and the religion's trademark long underwear—is an apostate from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and has no respect for its new prophet, Warren Jeffs, but he still resides in this xenophobic community, smack in the middle of town, and doubts that he'll ever live very far away.

  DeLoy no longer practices plural marriage. The second of his two wives moved out and now lives in St. George; her kids have remained with DeLoy in Colorado City, and she comes to visit them every week. “Since I don't believe in what the religion teaches anymore,” he explains, “I just can't justify polygamy.” And it isn't merely the fundamentalist religion that DeLoy has abandoned—he announces that he's done with religion, period. Unlike most who have rejected the teachings of the FLDS Church, he didn't convert to mainline Mormonism, or another branch of Christianity, or some New Age faith. DeLoy has become an atheist. He no longer believes in God.

  It hasn't been an easy transformation. “My whole life, I've had this need to believe in something,” he says. “I've wanted answers to why we were put here, just like everybody else. The religion provided those answers. And there is so much else that's good about it. The truth is, everything I ever learned came from this religion. It made me what I am. And I'm proud of what I am. This religion is in my blood. I mean, heck, look at me.”

  Holding his arms out from his sides, palms forward, DeLoy looks down at what he's wearing, and takes stock with a self-deprecating snort: “Even though I don't believe anymore, I'm still wearing the garment—the sacred long underwear. I try not to wear it, but I just can't seem to leave it off, even on hot summer days like this. For some reason not wearing it just doesn't feel right. I feel naked.” He laughs again, then adds, “That ought to tell you something about the power of this religion.”

  DeLoy returns his gaze to the orderly grid of homes and fields at the base of the mountain. “It's hard for outsiders to accept, but there is so much that's positive about this town. The people that live in those houses down there, they're extremely hardworking. And strong. Yeah, I'm real attached to Colorado City. . . . I think it's a real good community to raise a family in.” DeLoy says this, and means it, even though he's talked at length to several of the women in town who've reported being sexually abused as girls and insist that pedophilia is rampant within the community. “I don't doubt their stories are true,” he acknowledges. “I know for a fact there's men in the priesthood who have slept with their own daughters, which is horrible. But that kind of thing goes on everywhere, and I actually think there's less of it here than in the outside world.”

  In any case, it wasn't the culture's sexual customs or its lifestyle constraints that finally induced DeLoy to apostatize. Rather, he says, “It just got to be where I could no longer ignore that the religion is a lie. It's not like the prophets that control everybody are intentionally fooling the people—as far as I can tell Rulon and Warren and Winston and them sincerely believe the lie themselves. I'm not sure about that, but I think so. And it's not just their religion that's a lie. I've really come to believe that all religions are lies. Every single one of 'em.

  “Could there be supreme power out there somewhere? Is there a grand plan behind the big bang, the creation of the universe, the evolution of species? I don't know, I suppose it's possible; I guess I'd like to at least allow for the possibility in the back of my mind. But common sense tells me otherwise.”

  Although DeLoy says that he was “extremely religious” throughout his youth, he also had a probing, unremittingly curious mind. “Even as a young boy,” he says, “I remember wondering about contradictions between what the religion taught and scientific truth. But Uncle Roy told us that the way to handle that was just to avoid asking certain kinds of questions. So I trained myself to ignore the contradictions. I got good at not letting myself think about them.”

  Because DeLoy was smart and the religion needed educators for its school, when he turned eighteen the prophet—his adoptive grandfather, Uncle Roy—sent him to Southern Utah State College, an hour up the road in Cedar City, to become a teacher. “I was sent with him,” recalls DeLoy's first wife, Eunice Bateman, who had been commanded by the prophet to marry DeLoy a short while earlier. “Neither of us had ever lived outside of Colorado City. Our second child was born a year after he started school. I felt so different from everyone there—I felt like an outcast. I was homesick for Colorado City the whole time Dee was in college. But I kept pretty busy raising babies and doing his typing and helping with his homework.” After getting his degree, DeLoy returned to Colorado City and went to work educating the town's youth.

  Despite feeling like a fish out of water when he left his hometown and set up residence in the larger world, DeLoy says, “I loved college. Looking back, I suppose it was the beginning of the end for me. I stayed in the religion for another twenty years, but going to college in Cedar City was when I had my eyes opened. That's where I took my first geology course. Afterward I came home and told Uncle Roy, ‘There's a professor over there trying to tell us the earth is four and a half billion years old, but the religion says its only six thousand years old. How can that be?' Which shows you why education is such a problem for the Work. You take someone like me, who was always as stalwart as could be, and then you ship him off to get an education and the guy goes and apostatizes on you. Happens over and over again. And every time it does, it makes the leaders more inclined to keep people from learning.”

  When DeLoy finally lost his faith and left the UEP, his three oldest kids were married and no longer living at home. These three children have remained in the religion, but he has worked hard to teach the other fourteen kids to think for themsel
ves and to question what the UEP has inculcated. “Sometimes I worry about what would become of the little ones,” DeLoy muses, “if something happened to me and the wife—if we died. My older children would take the younger kids into their homes and look after them, but they'd be brought right back into the religion. I think those kids would be happy with that—they'd probably never know the difference. But they'd be stunted. They'd never get to exercise their imaginations.”

  To help prepare his children for this possibility, and to instill in them a healthy skepticism about religious dogma of all kinds, on December 31, 1999, DeLoy and Eunice loaded their entire brood into two vans (whenever the Bateman family travels anywhere together, at least two large vehicles are required to transport everyone) and made the three-hour drive to Las Vegas in order to ring in the new millennium.

  “We took 'em all down to the center of the Las Vegas Strip,” he explains, “which is supposedly one of the wickedest places on earth, and the first place God was going to destroy when the clock struck midnight. We went to the New York–New York Casino, and stood outside in the street there with thousands and thousands of other people as the ball dropped and they counted down the seconds to the year 2000. And you know what? The millennium came, and the world didn't end. I think that made quite an impression on the kids.” DeLoy laughs hard, shaking his head.

  Now that he's no longer a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, DeLoy is astonished at some of the beliefs the religion instills in its members. “It staggers me,” he says, “to look back on the things I used to believe. For example, ever since I was a child we were taught that Negroes were terrible, that they weren't even human. And we had no way to learn otherwise. There were never any blacks in town. They were entirely foreign to us. I never even seen a Negro until I was practically an adult, when I saw one on a trip down to St. George. I remember staring at him for just as long as I could stare—I'd never encountered such a creature. It was like he was some kind of strange animal to me.

 

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