This post comes from Cristina Rosetti, a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside and is a Mormon Studies Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. Her dissertation examines spiritualism and fundamentalist Mormonism.
As new charges and depositions against Warren Jeffs surface, the FLDS is once again in the journalistic spotlight. This even includes a Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Petersen who captured the way former members of the FLDS are returning to Short Creek (referred to as the “Crick” by residents and frequent visitors alike), to rebuild a community that was left in ruin following the capture of Jeffs. [i] By any measure, they are succeeding. These are stories matter because they are often missing from work on Mormon fundamentalism. But, there are still other narratives and methods of story-telling that remain absent.
Most people, Mormon or otherwise, who read popular writings on fundamentalism are not aware of how we got here. To be fair, capturing the complex history of fundamentalism requires more space than many journalists are afforded (try writing the entirety of LDS history in one essay, even long-form). Writing on Mormonism is so centrally focused on an unbroken Priesthood lineage that began with Joseph Smith and ends with the current President of the LDS Church that other histories are left behind. The powerful testimonies from members of the Council of Friends, the compelling writings of Joseph Musser, and the lives of current fundamentalist leaders and Prophets are absent. These absences create a void in Mormon history that leave room for spectacle and causes outsiders to wonder how people like Warren Jeffs happened. It also leaves people assuming that all fundamentalists adhere to the same beliefs and practices.
One of the greatest challenges of journalism and ethnographic work is writing about people in a way that forces readers to turn inward and evaluate their own biases. So often, writing about Mormon fundamentalism is singularly focused on things perceived as strange or dangerous, to the detriment of powerful stories of faith and perseverance. When I tell people I’m currently writing about a fundamentalist group, most people jump to pastel dresses, waved hair, and images of Jeffs shackled in a courthouse. They forget that, with hundreds of different groups and Priesthood lineages, Mormon fundamentalism is bigger and more encompassing than we can imagine. Just in the Crick, members of multiple fundamentalist groups have come together to support the growing effort toward revitalization. This includes ex-FLDS, members of Centennial Park, independent fundamentalists, and others. Each has their own history in need of integration into the larger discussion on Mormonism.
As an ethnographer who spends time with fundamentalists from several groups, I am attuned to the concern of things appearing unnecessarily strange. For a place like the Crick, this concern is particularly real. In an effort to dispel preconceived ideas and the inclination toward spectacle, I often tell people to visit the Crick; this includes volunteering alongside members of the community, purchasing items at the Dairy Story and local restaurants (Berry Knoll has the best pizza), or donating to organizations run by former members of the FLDS.
For scholars of Mormonism, the history and contemporary experience of fundamentalists is an essential part of the broader story of Mormonism. This includes allowing members of these communities to tell their own stories and share their diverse experiences in their own voice. Without this, a full picture of the Mormon Restoration will remain out of reach. [ii]
Hilldale is my favorite city in Utah. The first time I visited the Crick, I was inspired by its rich history, resiliency, and the best iced coffee of my life, all of this with the red rock of Zion as a backdrop. [iii] If you want to understand the history of Mormonism and the current state of this community, go to the Crick. It has the most incredible slide in the entire state.
[ii] Unfortunately, for research surrounding the FLDS, this precludes the experiences of active members who are unable to speak with outsiders.
[iii] The best iced coffee used to be found at the Merry Wives Café. This establishment recently shut down and reopened as Mama Cecil’s Barista and Café. You should still go.