The Mormon Underground Fights Back
First the government persecuted them. Then the Mormon establishment turned against them. But throughout the West, Mormon polygamists, tax rebels, and home schoolers are fighting to follow their conscience.
"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
The Lord will fight our battles
And we'll help Him if we can
If what they now propose to do
Should ever come to pass
We'll burn up every inch of wood
And every blade of grass
We'll throw down all our houses
Every soul shall emigrate
And we'll organize ourselves
Into a roving mountain state
A peace agreement was finally reached, and Young allowed the army to pass through Salt Lake City to establish Camp Floyd, 30 miles south—but not before he ordered the temporary evacuation of virtually the entire population of the city and took down the American flags. In a proclamation issued before the peace, Young lamented, "For the last twenty-five years we have trusted officials of the Government, from Constables and Justices to Judges, Governors, and Presidents, only to be scorned, held in derision, insulted and betrayed."
Roy Potter, the modern-day polygamist, is fighting back in the best Mormon tradition. He first petitioned the Murray City Civil Service Commission for reinstatement to the police force. The commission was glad to be of service—if Potter would abandon his living arrangement. He rejected the offer.
Potter then mounted a challenge to Utah's anti-polygamy law on two fronts. He spoke out publicly for the rights of polygamists, in forums as diverse as the Donahue show and Us magazine. And he filed a lawsuit, which was heard in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1985.
Potter argued to the court that the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment and the right to privacy under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment ensured him and his wives the right to engage in a plural marriage. He cited a 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Supreme Court held that the state could not compel Amish families to send their children to public schools beyond the eighth grade. He also cited Briggs v. North Muskegon Police Department, a 1984 case in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a police officer and awarded him damages after he was dismissed for illegally cohabitating with a woman to whom he was not married.
Court records show that the Potter children had not been neglected, that the wives had entered into plural marriage with full knowledge and consent, and that "the practice of polygamy did not affect [Potter's] performance" as a police officer. All this the court admitted in its finding of facts.
Nevertheless, on April 28, 1985, Potter lost his case. The court argued that it "could find no authority for extending the constitutional right of privacy so far that it would protect polygamous marriages." Monogamy, declared the court, "is inextricably woven into the fabric of society. It is the bedrock upon which this culture is built."
Potter was understandably unhappy with the court's decision. How could it ignore the Briggs case of the cohabitating police officer? he asked in a recent interview. "It is ridiculous that a man and woman living together and having sexual intercourse, but not calling it marriage, is somehow different than those who live in plural marriage as a religious tenet."
The court, he noted, claims that government has a "compelling interest" in prohibiting polygamy. But Potter retorts with the classic individualist shot: "The state has no compelling interest when the rights of individuals are not infringed.…It is not correct to dictate against human social relationships which cause no harm to individuals or society."
The court's opinion in the Potter case was based primarily on a landmark Supreme Court case, Reynolds v. United States, decided in 1879. In that year, George Reynolds, private secretary to Brigham Young, lost his appeal of a sentence to "two years at hard labor" for violating a federal law forbidding polygamy.
Brigham young, the Mormon leader who had brought his followers westward, married 21 women in his lifetime. In 1871 he was arrested for "lascivious cohabitation" and brought before Judge James B. McKean.
In 1862 Congress had passed the Morrill Act banning polygamy in U.S. territories. But it wasn't enforced until 1871, when, fresh from their victory over the South's "relic of barbarism," the Radical Republicans of Congress turned their fire on Brigham Young and the Mormons.
Declared McKean, a New York judge installed as Utah's chief justice by anti-Mormon forces: "A system is on trial in the person of Brigham Young"—that of "federal authority versus polygamic theocracy." But the case was dismissed in early 1872; federal prosecutors had been so eager to convict the Mormon church president that they had improperly chosen the grand jury.
The next two decades saw the height of federal efforts to reconstruct and restrict the Mormons. The Poland Act of 1874 transferred control over all criminal and civil cases to U.S. territorial courts, thus stripping local Mormon judges of much of their power. Eight years later, the Edmunds Act made polygamists ineligible to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries and set the penalty for plural marriage at up to five years in prison.
The battle between polygamists and the federal government was now in full flower. Digging through history books reveals the extent of the war. "Polyg hunts" for "cohabs" became common in Utah, as federal judges set out to eliminate plural marriage. There were more than 1,000 convictions for polygamy under the Edmunds Act in the 10-year period following its passage, and in 1885 church president John Taylor reluctantly advised polygamists to go "underground" to avoid arrest and imprisonment. Though Brigham Young University historian Jessie Embry estimates that only 10 to 30 percent of Mormon men practiced plural marriage, nearly all the prominent church leaders did so, now underground. Church president Taylor died in hiding in 1887. He mourned the "shameless infringement of the Constitution" for which he had suffered.
The federal assault continued. In 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the church and allowed the federal government to seize all church property in excess of $50,000, including the Salt Lake City temple block. The church appealed but lost a 5–4 Supreme Court decision in 1890. The court called polygamy "a crime against the laws and abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world." The Mormon church, said the court, was a "contumacious organization" that sought to "oppose, thwart, and subvert…the will of the government of the United States." (Interestingly, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 also outlawed female suffrage in Utah; women had been voting there since 1870.)
Church leaders now believed that the only alternative to extinction was surrender. Later that year, president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto of 1890, also known as the Great Accommodation. Stating that "I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church," he announced: "My advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land." Thus began a long history of the Mormon church joining the government in rooting out polygamists and all manner of rebels against government doctrine.
By 1896, the federal government had returned the church property confiscated earlier. That same year, Utah was admitted to the Union as the 45th state with a constitution that, not coincidentally, prohibited polygamy. Although the connection has been a matter of some debate over the years, attorneys representing the state of Utah in Roy Potter's case in 1985 admitted that abolishing plural marriage was "the price of statehood."
"It's fine for the LDS church to give up their religious beliefs," declares the excommunicated Potter, but "it is not right to prevent other people from practicing theirs." Whereas early Mormons adopted "celestial marriage" as a revealed doctrine, Potter points out that "there was never a revelation to stop polygamy, much less to persecute and prosecute polygamists."
The Great Accommodation for the church and the government became the Great Capitulation for unreconstructed Mormons. When church president Taylor had advised polygamists to go underground in 1885, thousands had fled to new polygamist settlements throughout the remote areas of the desert Southwest. Many families living in plural marriages today trace their roots back five generations, to those early practitioners of passive resistance and civil disobedience.
The Mormon church supported federal raids—rhetorically—against polygamist settlements in Utah and northern Arizona in 1935, 1944, and 1953. The 1953 raid against the town of Short Creek, Arizona (now Colorado City), and its sister city Hildale, Utah, netted hundreds of residents, including 262 children, and "nearly broke the county in '53 putting all those people in jail," says Glenwood Humphries, chief deputy sheriff of Washington County, Utah. (Charges were eventually dropped.)
Humphries told reporters last year that arresting polygamists these days is "like trying to arrest Indians for using peyote." It just isn't done anymore; since 1953, Utah has had fewer than 25 convictions for polygamy. But how many people have, like Roy Potter, lost their government jobs and been excommunicated by the Mormon church is unknown.
Karl Bray was a Utah tax protestor. He died nine years ago, but his cause lives on in the Mormon underground, where paying taxes—or not paying them—is the newest battleground. Investigation reveals that the Mormon church has now joined forces with the IRS to suppress what many believe is a widespread tax revolt in the mountain west.
In 1973, LDS president Harold B. Lee directed an official Priesthood Bulletin to church members noting that "officials of the IRS have called attention to the fact that certain individuals, who claim church membership, are making it appear as though their opposition to the federal tax laws is Church sponsored." Lee prohibited local church leaders from allowing tax resisters to speak at any church functions.
A search through clippings from the church-owned Deseret News reveals that in 1976 Lee's successor, Spencer W. Kimball, held a series of closed-door meetings with LDS church leaders across the nation concerning the tax revolt. The Mormon church soon thereafter announced a crackdown on tax evaders and protesters among its members. It is now Mormon church policy that conviction for tax evasion merits an automatic trial before a church court, which can excommunicate, disfellowship, or bar Mormons from participating in temple rites. Several church members told me that members seeking "temple recommendations" permitting them to enter temples are sometimes subjected to questioning about tax-law compliance.
It is hard to say how widespread the tax revolt was, or has become. Investigation of the Mormon underground suggests that it runs deep in Mormon culture, though not among church leaders. Figures on the extent of noncompliance and protest are unavailable. Estimates from tax-revolt leaders in the early 1970s put noncompliance—generally, refusal to file an income-tax return—as high as 10 percent among taxpayers in Utah and southern Idaho.
There is only circumstantial evidence of IRS arm-twisting of the LDS church to help break the tax revolt. There is similar evidence that the agency mounted its own campaign in the 1970s to make a public example of one of the movement's most outspoken leaders, Karl Bray.
An ex-Mormon raised in Provo, Utah, Bray filed a widely publicized suit in 1972 alleging that the income tax is unconstitutional. The suit was unsuccessful, but the next year he ran a full-page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune challenging the constitutionality of the wage and price controls imposed by President Nixon and encouraging noncompliance. Bray ran a precious-metals business, and in 1974 he was fined for failing to keep records required by the price-control legislation.
By now, Bray was one of the most active and visible Utah tax protesters. Among his various public appearances, he discussed ways to resist the income tax on a Salt Lake City radio station.
In 1974, according to a Salt Lake Tribune report, the IRS worked a "mole" into Bray's business. The agency learned that he had obtained possession of an IRS seizure sticker, photocopied it, and was distributing copies in the city. Bray and three others were arrested and convicted for violating a law against copying such a sticker. (He appears to have been the first person ever convicted for the offense.)
Federal judge Willis Ritter claimed that Bray "was attempting to stir up a rebellion." Ritter, like exasperated Utah judges in days of old, exclaimed: "He comes pretty close to preaching insurrection against the government." He received the maximum sentence, six months in prison.
But Bray was indomitable. In 1976 he wrote and published Taxation and Tyranny, billed as "a complete guide to the tax rebellion." The IRS then brought charges against him for failure to file a 1972 tax return and seized his bank records, including the names of those who had purchased his tax-revolt manual by personal check. Bray, who had written only his name and the Fifth Amendment on his tax return, was fined $10,000 and sentenced to two years in prison. Seriously ill, he was released shortly before his term was to have ended. He died of lymphatic cancer in 1978.
An official in the "taxpayer education office" in the IRS's Salt Lake area office says that cases of noncompliance in Utah have declined in the 1980s. While Utah has recently experienced several highly publicized tax resistance cases, it would appear that bringing LDS church pressure to bear against the movement has worked to some extent. Exactly how well is difficult to determine, and the IRS would not seem to be the best source. The agency reported only 184 cases of protestors refusing to file in the Salt Lake City area in 1985, out of a population of roughly 750,000. But these figures are almost amusingly low when compared to the number of protestors I encountered in Utah. It is unlikely, however, that the IRS would ever admit publicly that it is catching only a small fraction of those refusing to file, since this would encourage would-be tax rebels.
Ezra Taft Benson, the out-spoken secretary of the Agriculture Department in the Eisenhower administration, became the Mormon church's 13th president, "prophet, seer, and revelator" in November 1985. Few outside of the church understand the importance of Benson's presidency, but insiders think that he may, if his past views are a reliable guide, help nudge the church back to its antistatist roots.
"When the Mormon church was first established," declares Cloyd Bird, a lifelong member of the LDS church who works as a professional writer from his Provo, Utah, home, "there was a great belief in liberty in a true sense. This was especially true of Joseph Smith," the church's founder.
The Mormon Declaration of Belief regarding government, issued in 1835 by Smith, echoes the Declaration of Independence: "We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life." Several years later, when Smith announced that he was running for the U.S. presidency in 1844, his platform called for "liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade and sailor's rights, and the protection of person and property."
In its early years, Utah and its Mormon population were staunch Democrats. (This is when the Democratic Party generally stood for smaller government than the Republicans did.) Today, most Mormons are Republicans, and the LDS church is often regarded as a bedrock member of the New Right. Utah gave 73 percent of its vote to Ronald Reagan in 1984, the highest of any state in the union.
The church's newest president, the 87-year-old Ezra Taft Benson, is the great grandson of his namesake, a pioneer founder of Utah who served as one of the highest church authorities under Brigham Young and who took eight wives in plural marriage during his lifetime. And according to Cloyd Bird, Benson "is the most competent scholar on free agency and capitalism in the Church."
A search through President Benson's writings before 1985 gives an idea of his views of government. "I am a libertarian," he wrote in his 1962 book, The Red Carpet. "I want to be known as a libertarian and as a constitutionalist in the tradition of James Madison—father of the Constitution." Seven years later, in An Enemy Hath Done This, Benson asserted, "The sole function of government is to protect life, liberty, and property and anything more than this is usurpation and oppression." His many works also criticized compulsory schooling, government welfare programs, and social security, which he condemned as "compulsory, unfair, and immoral."
On the other hand, some of Benson's writings were on the right-wing fringe; for instance, he spoke of the civil-rights movement as communist-inspired. And when I interviewed him several years ago, he loaded me down with John Birch Society material.
Benson had been uncommonly quiet on political matters since he assumed the presidency of the church—until he addressed an assembly on the subject of the Constitution at Brigham Young University in September 1986. In this major speech, he returned to individualist themes. Government, he declared, "cannot claim the power to redistribute money or property nor to force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will."
Benson's opposition to government coercion springs from the fundamental Mormon doctrine of free agency, an optimistic belief that man, by freely choosing to do good, can ensure favorable treatment in the afterlife. Benson drew on free agency and Mormon theology in his BYU speech to explain his support for individual liberties: "The central issue in [the premortal council of heaven] was, Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed Him stood for the former proposition—freedom of choice, Satan stood for the latter—coercion and force.…One of Lucifer's primary strategies has been to restrict our agency through the power of earthly governments."
Not all church members derive from the doctrine of free agency the same political conclusions as Benson. But if Benson's conception of the spiritual imperative of individual freedom spreads, as seems likely, it could in time alter Mormonism's place in the national New Right coalition. Free agency is a smoldering powder keg; when Benson writes that "the greatest right humans possess is the right of free choice, free will, free agency," he is not talking the language of the Moral Majority. He is talking the language of his Mormon forebears.
John Singer's murder still haunts Utah. As a young boy in Nazi Germany, Singer had been thrown out of SS training school for "rebellious behavior." For the rest of his life, he nursed a hatred of state authority. Singer moved to America after the war, settling in Summit County, Utah. There he gained a reputation as a fervently fundamentalist Mormon. He was excommunicated for his vocal belief that modern church leaders had strayed from early Mormon teachings on matters like polygamy. (Singer took a second wife shortly before his death in 1979.)
In 1973, Singer and his first wife Vickie pulled their children out of the South Summit Elementary School in Kamas, Utah. They objected to the school's curriculum and atmosphere, which they thought was too permissive and encouraged immoral behavior. To give their six children an old-fashioned Mormon upbringing, the Singers began teaching their kids at home, in a one-room school house that John had built.
Local opinion on Singer was divided. Some thought him an intolerant religious fanatic who was depriving his children by offering them an inferior home education; others looked upon him as a heroic champion of liberty. For his part, Singer protested, "We're not really as strange as people think. We're just common ol' folk. We're not trying to tell other people what to believe or how to live, we just want to be left alone."
But like so many Mormons before them, they were not left alone. For six years they were drawn into a running battle with state and local authorities over their right to educate their children at home. The Singers ruled out any compromise, refusing to accept state oversight of their home-schooling program. As Singer stated his position to the Summit School Board: "In a free society, the responsibility for a child's education is in the hand of his parents, not the state. Without freedom, this is lost. Remember, Hitler said, 'Give me the youth and I have the nation.'"
The Singers were charged with neglect and habitual truancy. They refused to attend the hearing and were cited for contempt of court. Fearing arrest, they refused to venture beyond their two-and-a-half-acre mountain farm.
On January 18, 1979, 10 lawmen, driving snowmobiles, swept down on Singer as he walked to his mailbox. Singer started running back toward the 19th-century-style cabin he had built. He drew a Colt automatic from his coat and waved it through the air. A shotgun blast rang out. John Singer fell bleeding into the snow. He had been shot in the back.
Nearby Salt Lake City, usually spotless, was soon awash with graffiti. Splashed across the front of the state Division of Family Services building was sloganeering that seemed more appropriate to Berkeley in the 1960s—or Utah in the 1850s—than to conservative modern Utah: "John Singer was murdered by the pigs."
There has been a distinct "backing off from home schoolers by authorities since the death of John Singer," notes Professor Larry Arnoldsen of the Brigham Young University College of Education. "I have a lot of people inquire about home schooling. It's booming." Arnoldsen, along with hundreds of families, participated in the recent annual conference of the Utah Home Schooling Association.
Arnoldsen credits the Mormon doctrine of free agency for the enduring interest in freedom of education. "Free agency teaches us that the locus of control is the individual. Nothing is more fundamental to Mormonism than the idea that every human being is in control of their life. To me it's the absolute truth."
Arnoldsen has been imparting that truth to budding secondary teachers at BYU for 17 years. An opponent of compulsory schooling and supporter of the home-school and alternative schooling movements, he argues that "educators need to recognize the autonomy of the learner. Too many educators think that you can make kids learn. Schools need to take into account the free agency and volition of children. Every individual has the right and obligation to define themselves. We screw people up when we tamper with this."
Like the renunciation of polygamy, the acceptance of widespread public education was imposed on the Mormons by the federal government. The Edmunds-Tucker bill of 1887 had as one of its objects the transfer of church property to Utah's poorly funded public schools. Prior to this, most Utahans attended church-supported schools that emphasized the teachings of Mormonism. Once Utah gained statehood, however, and Mormons gained control of public schools from non-Mormon territorial officials, the public-school system grew apace. But a remnant of Mormons is sticking to its individualist Mormon roots.
Utah's public-school tradition "goes back only 50 years," notes Arnoldsen. And while he readily admits that he's still in the minority of BYU faculty, he is hopeful. Partly because of Ezra Taft Benson's assumption of the Mormon presidency, "we're going to see more emphasis on freedom of the individual."
Alex Joseph, with his graying dark hair, rough-cut beard, and weather-beaten skin, is something of a cross between Henry David Thoreau and the outlaw Josey Wales. The 50-year-old Joseph is a classic example of the kind of backwoods government-hater that abounds in Utah; he has coyote cunning and the disposition of a sidewinder.
Alex Joseph is also the founder and mayor of Big Water, Utah, population 300—a town that is emerging, though few outside Utah are yet aware of it, as a focal point of the conflict between Mormon individualists and the government. Says Roy Potter of Big Water: "Some leaders in the church and the state government see it as an extreme embarrassment and an extreme danger."
Joseph is an excommunicated Mormon with nine wives. He has, at various times, been a Marine, an officer in the Modesto, California, police department, and an LDS chaplain in the California state prison system. In 1975, Joseph and his family were forcibly evicted from Cottonwood Canyon, near Big Water, by a SWAT team after the Josephs lost a legal battle over homestead rights with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Three years later, Joseph paid $18,000 for Glen Canyon City, the shell of a dying government construction town located in southern Utah, near Lake Powell. Glen Canyon—now Big Water—"was a terrible environment, a lawless boom town," claims Joseph, that today "is nice, peaceful, and crime-free." The city's population has more than tripled since 1978, many of the new residents being retirees who enjoy the fresh air and isolation.
"We are also incontestable," boasts Joseph, meaning that Big Water's incorporation as a town cannot be revoked. "Once a community collects property tax for two years, it cannot be challenged under Utah law." Big Water collected a token property tax (promptly repealed in November 1985), was routinely incorporated without challenge, and is now here to stay.
Joseph breathed a sigh of relief when the charter became irrevocable. Big Water, located in Kane County, Utah, is not your ordinary small town. Kane County, whose 4,300 residents are spread out across 3,900 square miles, encompasses some of the most intensely beautiful and rugged terrain in the United States. It is separated from high-tech, high-speed America by great desert expanses, impassable sandstone gorges, mile-high lines of red rock cliffs, and vast roadless tracks. It is also owned primarily by the federal government.
Mayor Joseph and the town's five-member council are determined to get the Bureau of Land Management to surrender its claim to the 83 percent of Big Water's six square miles that is federally owned. The federal government is viewed by residents as an unresponsive, absentee landlord—Joseph has had several run-ins with the BLM, most recently when he and some of his wives defied federal demands and cut down barbed wire fences belonging to the bureau. The council's goal of defederalizing the town is not hopeless; Page, Arizona, 20 miles east of Big Water, obtained 17 square miles from the federal government in 1975.
"I'm playing a noncontact sport with the government," says Joseph. This is true to the same extent that hockey is a noncontact sport. Mayor Joseph and four town council members recently switched from the Republican Party to the anti-government Libertarian Party. One of Joseph's wives, Elizabeth, manages the Big Water Times, the largest and most sought-after newspaper in the county. Unlike its competition, the Southern Utah News, which is full of Mormon church related stories about weddings, missions, births, and funerals, the Times hits hard on the continuing conflicts between Kane County residents and their federal landlords.
A final burr in the government's saddle is that Big Water welcomes polygamists. Many of the small towns in Kane County were first established in the 1880s and '90s by polygamists who'd gone underground or who were resisting the Great Accommodation.
There are only two polygamous families living in Big Water today, but as Roy Potter says, "We now have a gathering place." Indeed, Big Water may be a showcase for alternative family structures. Argues Elizabeth Joseph: "Polygamy is a feminist lifestyle. I can go off 400 miles to law school, and the family keeps running. I am a monogamist. My husband is a polygamist.
"Government has claimed a compelling interest in confining the family to only one structure," she continues. "So far, that has not been demonstrated to our satisfaction."
Boudicca Joseph, a real estate agent and another of Alex's wives, says that there is a "common denominator" among the residents of her little town: "We want to be left alone to live our lives and to do things that we can't do in other places."
They may get their chance in the isolation of Big Water, Utah. "This is where the pavement ends and the West begins," says Alex Joseph. "Freedom and wide-open spaces are what it's all about."
From Big Water to Salt Lake City, the tradition of resistance to government authority, engendered in Mormonism by its theology and forged by the persecution of generations of Saints, lives on. It is not always readily apparent; much of the rebellion is still hidden below the surface of the face that Utah, and Mormonism, presents to the nation. But the signs of change are evident in both the formal church and the fiercely individualist underground.
The harder the government pushes on the underground, the more sympathetic media attention it is likely to receive. The general Mormon population of Utah is already sympathetic, if not openly supportive, of the rebels. As the underground fights on, and new LDS president Ezra Taft Benson urges a renewed appreciation of the doctrine of free agency, the prospects for personal liberty in the Mormon kingdom are looking brighter every day.
Gerald M. King is a free-lance writer. His article on John Singer's murder appeared in REASON in July 1979. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Mormon Underground Fights Back".