"WE'RE MOVING," said Roy Potter. "We've been receiving more threatening telephone calls. I can take care of myself, but I don't want the children involved." Boxes were packed and waiting in his modest home in a suburb of Salt Lake City. With a touch of bitterness in his voice Potter added, "There are some groups of people here who claim to be for liberty but are upset about what I've been doing to promote a better understanding of it.
"What Roy Potter has been doing is publicly defending his right to practice polygamy, or "plural marriage," as it is often called. An estimated 30,000-50,000 people are engaged in plural marriage in the western United States, most of them in the Mormon stronghold of Utah. Potter and the other polygamists are on the front lines of what investigation shows is a growing movement within Mormon culture against the expansion of state authority.
Royston E. Potter converted to the Mormon Church in 1971, at the age of 18. He attended Ricks College, a Mormon-operated school in Idaho, and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1976 with a degree in justice administration and law enforcement. He joined the Murray, Utah, police department and served, from all reports, with distinction.
But Potter, who looks about as clean-cut as they come, had become involved in 1979 in fundamentalist Mormonism, a growing underground movement that preaches, among other things, a return to Mormonisms polygamist roots. Roy took two wives, Vera and Mary, and the family today has eight children.
In 1982, an anonymous caller informed the Murray Police Department that Potter is a polygamist. This element of his religious belief must be practiced furtively to avoid the long arm of the law. Potter was not arrested, but he was fired from his job and excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (LDS)-commonly, the Mormons. The (lds) church is the dominant social force in Utah, claiming over 70 percent of the state's 1.5 million residents, and excommunication and the resultant ostracism is a serious matter.
JOSEPH SMITH, a 25-year-old backwoodsman, founded the Mormon church in 1830 in upstate New York, site of great moral and religious ferment in those days. The church's first "prophet, seer, and revelator" stated that the Angel Moroni had appeared to him in a vision and showed him a sheaf of gold plates, on which was revealed the true history of the people of the North American continent.
Smith soon published the Book of Mormon and began proselytizing. He foretold the pending apocalypse and the fall of all established churches and governments. He preached that the righteous must emigrate from "Babylon" to "Zion," the homeland of his people, to wait for the millennial return of Christ.
A new social order was also revealed to Smith: "celestial marriage," or polygamy. Smith entered into a plural marriage in 1835, though he didn't reveal this to close associates until 1843. "The objective of celestial marriage in the mind of Joseph Smith is not clear," wrote historian Nels Anderson in 1942. "Except in terms of beauty or some other intangible value, polygamy is not explained." But it became an identifying tenet of the Mormon faith. Roy Potter's plural marriage would hardly have raised an eyebrow in those days, let alone put the church elders in league with the government.
The Mormons learned early not to trust government. Between 1835 and 1845, they were driven out of settlements by mobs and governments in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Wrote historian Anderson: "During that period the church met with resistance and persecution experienced by no other group, political or religious, in American history."
After Joseph Smith was killed in a Carthage, Illinois, jail in 1844 (he was set upon by a mob after ordering an anti-Mormon press destroyed), leadership fell to Brigham Young, who directed the flight of "the Saints" westward. They settled in 1847 in the area around what is now Salt Lake City, which at that time was nominally Mexican territory. The area was ceded to the United States the next year by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and "Deseret"-"honeybee," in Mormon folklore-petitioned for admission to the Union. In 1850, Utah (federal officials looked askance at the Mormon word Deseret) was granted status as a U.S. territory. Mormon leader Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor by President Millard Fillmore.
After Young made public the Mormon practice of plural marriage in 1852, Utah bashing became a popular political pastime. The new Republican Party campaigned in 1856 against the "twin relics of barbarism"-slavery and polygamy.
In 1857, President James Buchanan dispatched 4,000 troops to remove Young as territorial governor and install a new, non-Mormon governor, Alfred Cumming. Federal officials worried that Young, who eschewed legislative formalities in favor of town-meeting-style government, was "an absolute dictator." Rumors of polygamous behavior and "secret oaths" binding Mormons to Young were rife. Finally, as federal judge W. W. Drummond charged, "Federal officials are insulted, harassed, and annoyed. . .and are forced to listen to Mormons condemning the Government."
Mormon guerrilla fighters kept the U.S. Army troops at bay in the rugged mountains of northern Utah until 1858. Young warned that if the army attempted to occupy Salt Lake City, Mormon fighters would burn the city down. As a popular Mormon war song went:
If Uncle Sam's determined
On his very foolish plan