SALT LAKE CITY (BP) — Standing outside the locked bedroom door, little Doris Hanson heard her mother’s daily, tearful prayers. She discovered years later why her mother’s pleas were never answered.
“God didn’t answer her prayers because she was praying to a fake God,” Hanson told Baptist Press decades after her childhood. “She believed in work salvation, polygamy, sexuality for heaven, sexual favors, sexual exchange for heaven. It’s horrible, the loneliness, the deceit, the lies.”
A member of the Latter Day Church of Christ (Kingston) polygamy clan, Hanson’s mother was one of two concurrent wives. She didn’t live with her “husband,” concealed his identity from Hanson and her siblings, and lied to government authorities who inquired of the children’s paternity.
Hanson fled her mother’s home at age 18, avoiding a promised “marriage” to the Kingston sect leader. She accepted Jesus 25 years later and is today a 72-year-old Southern Baptist spreading the truth of the Gospel to fundamentalist Mormons who believe in polygamy for salvation. Polygamy is still practiced in the U.S. today, estimated to encompass perhaps 100,000 people.
Hanson leads A Shield and Refuge Ministry, a Christian outreach launched in early 2008 to share the Gospel with polygamists in particular. Through her weekly online talk show, “Polygamy: What Love is This?” Hanson reaches mainline as well as fundamentalist Mormons. Teaching the truth is her main goal, Hanson said. But she also works to place former polygamists in private host homes and is raising money to build the Hagar Home to house polygamy refugees.
Twenty miles away in Draper, Utah, Holding Out Help focuses expressly on helping women and children flee polygamous sects and live independently, extending the love of Christ as the Gospel in action. Tonia Tewell, Holding Out Help executive director, provides housing, basic necessities and a plethora of aid to those fleeing polygamy, and often has a waiting list.
“We realized they needed so much more than just a roof. They were like refugees coming in from another country,” Tewell said, recalling the earliest years of her ministry founded in 2009. “We were overwhelmed with their needs of food and clothing, not only the shelter, but counseling, education, legal services, the most basic of life skills.”
Hope Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Sandy, Utah, is among Holding Out Help’s supporters, pastor Ben Heile told BP.
“Any of the calls to mercy that we have in Scripture definitely apply to these people, specifically to the women and children,” Heile said. “But the husbands who perpetuate the abuse are also people that need Christ’s love.
“Polygamy is definitely a part of our history as a state,” Heile said. “The desire to engage this community and reverse that curse is what we’re called to in Christ.”
The Salt Lake Baptist Association in Salt Lake City is starting to reach fundamentalist Mormons through the association’s food and clothing ministry, the Concern Center. But the center does not target polygamists specifically. About 10 families fleeing the Kingstons have sought help there in the past nine months or so, association executive director Ron Clement told BP.
“We do share Christ with them intentionally and we’re trying to see if we can get them into Bible study,” Clement said. “It’s been pretty slow going. They come out of (polygamy) and they’re pretty distrusting of anyone. We just try to be very open and loving toward them. We give them a lot of food. If we have it available, we try to give them as much as possible.”
The Kingston clan is suffering as some of its leaders, Jacob, Isaiah, Kelly and Rachel Kingston, face multiple federal criminal counts including mail fraud and money laundering in association with their company, Washakie Renewable Energy, KSL-TV in Salt Lake City reported Jan. 23.
The Kingstons are among a half dozen or more sects in the U.S. that continue to teach and practice polygamy as a requirement for salvation, including the prominent Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), associated with jailed polygamist Warren Jeffs. Also active are the Apostolic United Brethren (Allreds), the Righteous Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Petersons), Rockland Ranch (Rocks), the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (Harmstons) and several independent groups difficult to track, Hanson said.
Hanson is a member of Millcreek Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, a Southern Baptist congregation of about 25 members. Her ministry is sponsored by the nondenominational Main Street Church in Brigham City, Utah. She’s available to speak at churches and ministry groups, and her weekly broadcast is available at www.whatloveisthis.tv.
“Many times we have in our own backyard unreached people. Mormonism and polygamy especially is one of those unreached people groups,” Hanson said. “There’s a lot of Christians who minister to Mormons, but it seems like up until the past few years polygamy has been more of a circus freak show than a missions field, as far as Christians are concerned.”
More common than outreaches to polygamists are ministries to the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormons), including the Mormonism Research Ministry (MRM) in Draper, led by Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever.
While the LDS church officially dropped the practice of polygamy in 1890 amid governmental pressure, the church still believes in polygamy in the afterlife, Johnson told BP.
“For instance, if a man’s wife dies to whom he was sealed for time and eternity in one of the 161 LDS temples located around the world, then he has the ability to marry another woman, also for time and eternity, provided she was never married for eternity to another man,” Johnson said. “If this happens, the man is sealed to two women, both of whom he expects to see in the celestial kingdom, which is the very best a Mormon can hope to attain and is associated with godhood of those individuals.”
Hanson and Tewell estimate there are between 40,000 and 100,000 people living in polygamy in the Western U.S., Canada and Mexico, although numbers are difficult to confirm because of deep-rooted secrecy. Groups are in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, California, Canada and Mexico, Hanson said. Government documents might indicate polygamists have one wife, but concurrent unions are typically performed by sect leaders to avoid prosecution, the ministers told BP.
Fundamentalist Mormons believe men will inherit a planet of their own in heaven for every wife they have on earth, and will continue to be sexually active in heaven, fathering “spirit babies to populate their planets,” Hanson said.
“I was raised in polygamy and the people today who are born and raised in polygamy, it’s all they know, so it’s not so weird to them.”
Those needing help tend to find Hanson and Tewell through word of mouth.
“Their emotional state is zero hope,” Tewell said. “They are told that outsiders are evil, and that they are condemned to hell. The women are told they are going to be used and raped within a week.
“That is the state with which we get these people,” Tewell said. “Counseling is imperative for what we do, trauma counseling especially.”
Tewell founded Holding Out Help after taking into her home a family that had fled polygamy.
“After serving that first family, it completely rocked our world in such a positive way,” Tewell told BP. “We felt we’re supposed to be believers in God. How can we turn our backs and say ‘No, we’re not going to start an organization, and no we’re not going to help your family?’
“We just felt like God called us to that,” Tewell said, “and what a privilege it is to be able to serve God in this way.” Holding Out Help assists more than 600 women and children a year, and often has a waiting list. The ministry is accessible at holdingouthelp.org.
Each polygamous sect is different. But among FLDS women seeking help from Tewell, she said, 75 percent have suffered sexual abuse, they average a sixth-to eighth-grade education, 99 percent suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, 92 percent suffer emotional, religious or physical abuse, and 90 percent either have no insurance or are on Medicaid. The FLDS sect has fractured since Jeff’s 2011 imprisonment but is still active.
Tewell places families and children in transitional housing, using donations and volunteers. Hope Church has helped the ministry with transitional housing and mentoring.
“We channel some of our resources and people to help make transitional homes a safe landing place for women and children that may be fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs” pastor Heile told BP.
At A Shield and Refuge, Hanson’s knowledge of salvation by grace is foundational to the ministry.
“I realized I had loved ones and many, many people who were still in the polygamy group … and they were all depending on polygamy for their salvation,” Hanson said. “God just laid it on my heart. I actually wanted to get on the housetops and just shout it. ‘You don’t have to do this.’
“If the polygamists could know this, there would be a lot of people who would reject polygamy,” she said. “That’s my purpose; bring them the Word of God.”