THE COLONY: Faith and blood in a promised land, by Sally Denton
Women often fare badly in religions created by men. Throughout history, male prophets have claimed divine authority to write laws that preserve male power and cast aside women as intellectual subordinates or evil tempters who threaten male glory.
While we reject sexism in other sectors of our society, it is ingrained in many religious beliefs. Nowhere on our continent does a belief based on male supremacy loom greater than in the polygamous sects of the American West and Northern Mexico, which follow the original teachings of the libidinous founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , Joseph Smith. Calling himself a “prophet, seer and revelator” in 1830, Smith defeated the religious start-ups of yore: he claimed that God—seen as masculine, always—allowed men to take multiple wives. Smith collected up to 40 herself, including a 14-year-old girl — a disturbing history Mormon leaders denied until 2014.
“Central to Smith’s theology was the doctrine that all male devotees were on the road to divinity,” writes Sally Denton in her carefully researched new book, “The Colony.” She continues, “In the Mormon patriarchal system, a woman could only enter heaven as an appendage of a man, yet a man could bring as many women into the eternal kingdom as he wished.” Not surprisingly, young men found Smith’s sales pitch very appealing.
Denton, an award-winning journalist and author of eight previous books (including two related to Mormonism), is a descendant of polygamists. In “The Colony,” she traces the lineage from Melissa LeBaron, the plural wife of one of Smith’s early acolytes, to today’s Colonia LeBaron, a polygamous community of 5,000 people in Chihuahua, Mexico.
“This book is an exploration of LeBaron—the place and the family—in an effort to explain the impulses that have driven thousands of women for generations, including ancestors of mine…to join or remain within a new American religion based on male supremacy and female servitude,” Denton writes.
Under pressure from the federal government, the Latter-day Saints issued a manifesto in 1890 banning plural marriage. The sudden change in dogma tore the church apart; fundamentalists, including the LeBarons, fled to Mexico to continue their polygamous lifestyle.
The author could not have found a more bizarre clan to profile than the LeBarons, whose history of murder of relatives, mental illness and incest rivals that of the Habsburgs. A LeBaron patriarch, after 14 years of marriage to one woman, claimed he had a vision that told him he needed a “quorum” of seven or more women to attain divinity. Another blamed God for his temptation of underage girls. Yet another incorporated UFOs and aliens into his teachings. A relative told Denton there was a “streak of madness running through the family,” the result of generations of marriages between cousins and even half-siblings. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for followers to distinguish between the “divine” revelations of their leaders and mental dysregulation.
Most of Denton’s polygamous sources insisted on anonymity, a reflection of a culture ruled by secrecy and fear. Practitioners circumvent the law by marrying only the first wife; later wives are relegated to “concubine” status, with few legal rights. Whether male practitioners truly believe Smith’s teachings or are merely “converted below the belt”—as one woman fleeing the colony suggests—is impossible to tease.
The clan has grown relatively wealthy in Chihuahua, where they own more than 12,000 acres of walnut and pecan orchards that rise like a green mirage from the parched landscape. The trees are irrigated with water diverted from communal aquifers and rivers, an action that has led to ongoing water wars with neighboring farmers.
The LeBarons made headlines in 1972, when Ervil LeBaron ordered a mafia-style hit on a rival polygamous leader: his own brother. The murder was the start of a 15-year massacre that claimed 33 lives, when Ervil (known in the press as “the Mormon Manson”) enlisted some of his 13 wives and 54 children to kill his enemies – murders financed by drug trafficking, bank robberies and a huge cross-border car theft gang.
In 2009, the family made headlines again when drug traffickers kidnapped a teenager from the colony and demanded a million dollars in ransom. The case caught the attention of Keith Raniere, leader of the Nxivm sex cult, who labeled himself “one of the top three problem solvers in the world” and flew to Mexico to advise the family. Raniere was struck by the “docility and submissiveness” of the LeBaron women, Denton writes, and chose 11 girls, ages 13 to 17, to take back to his New York state headquarters, ostensibly to to work as a Spanish teacher in a school he had founded, but in reality, according to prosecutors, to groom them as sexual partners. However, Raniere was unable to solve the polygamists-versus-narcos problem, which came to a head in 2019 when gunmen opened fire on a caravan of three LeBaron cars and a polygamous sister community, killing three women and six children. perished.
I got more and more angry when I read this book. While Denton offers an excellent history of a polygamous subculture, she never fully explains why women choose to remain in a religion that treats them so shabbily. But as someone who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and understands how self-eroding patriarchal religion can be for girls, I’ll make an effort to provide an answer. The stranglehold of a dogma imbedded in a child’s mind from childhood can only be loosened by exposure to new ideas. But for the LeBaron women – hampered by chronic pregnancy, economic dependence and lack of formal education – the chance of escaping that stranglehold is very slim.
“The colony is a magnet for trouble,” a woman who had fled long ago told Denton. “They have a good racket. A lot of the women are not there of their own free will.”
Perhaps women should start a belief system based on respect and equality for ourselves and our sisters. Oh wait, we already have one: it’s called feminism. Denton’s book is a testament to what happens when male power, under the guise of religious belief, is left unchecked.
Julia Scheeres is the author of “Jesus Land” and “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.” Her latest book, “Listen, World! How the Fearless Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most Read Woman,” will be published in September.
THE COLONY: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land, by Sally Denton | Illustrated | 288 pp. | Live right | $27.95