SALT LAKE CITY – Polygamy-practicing fundamentalists with religious roots in early Mormon theology are rankled by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' campaign to direct the way news organizations define those sects.
"We strenuously object to any efforts to deprive us and others of the freedom to name and describe ourselves by terms of our own choosing," the Principle Voices Coalition said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Fundamentalist Mormons have been referred to by that name since the 1930s, often by the church itself. We are proud of our Mormon heritage."
Fundamentalists revere the same prophets as the mainstream Mormon church, including founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, both of whom practiced polygamy. They also share the mainline church's use of the Book of Mormon as a primary text, along with the Doctrine & Covenants, in which plural marriage remains part of scriptural teachings.
On June 24, a Mormon church attorney sent a letter to newspaper, magazine and broadcast media outlets asking that the term "fundamentalist Mormon" be dropped from news reports.
The letter is primarily aimed at drawing a hard line between the Salt Lake City-based faith and the Utah/Arizona-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which practices polygamy and has been prominent in news reports since authorities in April raided the sect's west Texas ranch and seized more than 400 children during an investigation of child abuse allegations.
"I don't know how you can't call them fundamentalist Mormons," said John Walsh, a Mormon and religious scholar, who served as an expert witness for the state of Texas during the FLDS case. "A Mormon is someone who believes in the Book of Mormon ... who has a belief that Joseph Smith was called of God in some way."
From the fundamentalist point of view, they are the "real Mormons" because they continue to adhere to Smith's original teaching that polygamy brought exaltation in heaven, said B. Carmon Hardy, a polygamy expert and retired history professor at California State University-Fullerton.
A Mormon church spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the coalition's statement.
In 1890, a Mormon church manifesto denounced polygamy and opened the door for Utah's statehood. But church leaders continued to privately sanction plural marriage for decades, scattering some Mormons to Mexico and other locations to continue the practice. The author of two volumes on polygamy, Hardy said it wasn't until the 1920s that church leadership began to actively excommunicate known polygamists.
"These fundamentalists had good reason to look upon themselves as the most faithful," Hardy said.
The raid on the FLDS' Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, led to two months of news reports that cast negative publicity on the 13 million-member mainstream Mormon church. A Mormon church-paid survey of 1,000 Texans found 36 percent believed the two churches were directly connected. That prompted the Mormons to launch a campaign of videos, stories and bullet-point explainers that seek to better define differences between Mormons and polygamous groups.
Among the difference the church outlines:
— The Mormon church excommunicates members found practicing it;
— Members wear regular, modern clothes and have contemporary hairstyles;
— The church encourages both secular and religious education;
— The church doesn't practice or condone arranged marriages; and
— One cannot be a polygamist and be Mormon.
Principle Voices co-founder Mary Batchelor said fundamentalists take exception to the church's list.
"The inference is that the differences are wide," said Batchelor, an independent who is not currently in a plural marriage. "We have a lot of those same values, we may not have millions of members, so we don't have the same reach, but we are not that different."
Batchelor said two pages of enumerated differences show a lack of understanding on the part of the Mormons.
"It stereotypes everybody based on what's been printed in some newspapers," she said. "We think that's unfair. It's generalizing."
A survey by Principle Voices conducted in 2006 found roughly 37,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalists living across the West, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota and Texas. The majority do not belong to any organized church.
Most fundamentalists live in average neighborhoods, wear modern clothes and hairstyles, encourage education and don't practice arranged marriages, Batchelor said. Many engage in the wider community and trace their family roots to the early Mormon pioneers who founded Utah, she said.
In the statement, the coalition says what distinguishes fundamentalists from the mainstream church is their commitment to "original, fundamental" teachings that the Mormon church has repudiated in the last century.
"There is a disingenuous quality to what the Mormon church is doing now because they are having to deny so much of their history," Hardy said.
From his studies, Walsh concludes that the main differences between Mormons and their fundamentalist cousins really boil down to differences in daily living, not theology.
"Obviously, Joseph Smith would be excommunicated today for practicing polygamy," Mormon scholar Newell Bringhurst said. "That's the supreme irony."