New Research Reveals Secrets About Psychology of Polygamous Sects and Their Leaders

Top Forensic Psychiatrist Inspired by Study of Elizabeth Smart's Accused Kidnappers

ABC News/March 1, 2010

A judge ruled today that Brian David Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, forcing her to be one of his multiple wives, and holding her between 2002 and 2003, is competent to stand trial.

Mitchell, 56, was declared psychotic and incompetent in Utah State Court in 2005, but Federal prosecutors, who indicted Mitchell in 2008, asked a U.S. District Court to conduct another competency trial.

Prosecutors asked forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and the chairman of The Forensic Panel, to examine Mitchell, a street preacher who has claimed to be a Mormon prophet.

To better understand the tenets of fundamentalist Mormon doctrines and practices and determine the differences between religion and psychosis, Welner analyzed the case histories of more than 60 leaders of American fundamentalist sects. He identified a number of psychiatric and justice issues distinct to polygamous and rejectionist sect leaders and followers and presented this research for the first time at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in Seattle last week.

Welner, who is also a consultant to ABC News, shared his findings in a glimpse of the context he had to consider in evaluating Brian David Mitchell:

Q: What has surprised you the most about what you've learned about the polygamous sects?

A: The sexuality issues are not to be generalized. There are sects in which one finds absolute perversion on the order of the depravity scale, and there are others in which polygamy serves the sect in ways that have nothing to do with the gratification of the leader. This study has taught me that their enforced solitude and separation from the mainstream does often conceal crime that is more devastating to human rights than anything we cover in our most sensational news. But to simply dismiss polygamists as a bunch of degenerates is a simplified broad brush.

Q: We've covered a number of cases of polygamous sects. What is the connection with the Mormons?

A: Joseph Smith, the prophet who spawned the Mormon religion in the 1830s and 1840s, recorded the revelation of polygamy. Controversial even within the church, the LDS church advanced polygamy only beginning in 1852, some years after Smith's murder. Polygamy became part of the mainstream Mormon church identity at a time when Mormons were persecuted, slaughtered, and endangered. Antagonism toward the Mormons was quite active at the legislative level; polygamy was outlawed in the U.S. in 1862.

With the Mormon community largely migrated to Utah and dominating the law there, the practice continued despite an 1878 higher court decision in Reynolds v. United States that polygamy was not protected religious activity. Pressure from the U.S. government escalated to threatened harsh financial sanctions and threats of confiscation of property. Amidst this pressure, the church discontinued polygamy in 1890 with the Manifesto of President Wilford Woodruff.

The Mormon faith is one with a particular respect for scripture, history, and orthodoxy. In the years since the decision to abandon polygamy, dissent within the church has argued that polygamy is a sacred tenet, for having originated from revelations to Joseph Smith. Over 200 groups have splintered from the LDS church, many in order to restore what they commonly refer to celestial marriage.

Q: So are they Mormons?

A: The Mormons say no, the polygamists often say yes; so it depends on whom you speak to. I would best characterize them as the cousins you never see, never talk to, can't relate to and who live far away. It is clear that fundamentalist LDS sects place great importance in the sacred Mormon texts. But each sect has its own customs, only one of which may be polygamy. I was surprised to learn how little awareness many Mormons have of these sects.

The polygamous sects perpetuate that separation in order to more creatively apply practices according to their own leader's dogma, and the LDS enforces that separation in order to maintain its hard-fought efforts to demonstrate adherence to its own church doctrine and to U.S. law. American laws forbidding polygamy have pushed many such sects to locate beyond the Mexican and Canadian borders, close to isolated stretches of the western United States where they can live in more anonymous communities.

Q: Is it just polygamy that splinters the fundamentalist LDS?

A: No, although that is the most controversial red line for many such new religions, and they really are new religions. They have their own unique prophets, sometimes their own unique scripture, and not surprisingly, unique revelation. Any of these would be an apostasy for which the LDS would end any association.

Even when this is not the case, the Mormon church has, and in 1992 in particular, purged itself of what appear to be elements too fixated on the apocalypse. In that sense it is not the fundamentalists who have rejected Mormonism, it is the Mormon church that has rejected them and therefore sharpened those distinctions.

Like adherents of any religion that confront modernization and the secular world, some Mormons reject what they experience as departures from their traditions. They are drawn even to sects that practice polygamy for reasons that have more to do with the ability to practice in a traditional fashion that they feel the LDS has abandoned.

The research also introduced me to the important role of Joseph Smith's passage in "Doctrines and Covenants," in which he prophesies that "one mighty and strong," a prophet who will rise up and "who will come to set in order the house of God." In the over 160 years since Joseph Smith's murder, many have announced themselves as the "one mighty and strong," with aims to restore and reinvigorate the purity of the church. Some of these folks then start their own sects, because the Church of LDS does not recognize their standing and they have no choice but to proceed excommunicated. Brian David Mitchell was one of those who so declared himself as "one mighty and strong."

Q: That sounds psychotic, doesn't it?

A: Does it? Joseph Smith founded an entire religion now numbering tens of millions having declared himself a prophet and having experienced revelations. Would we declare him psychotic now? I think not.

"One mighty and strong" is not a peculiar notion hatched out of a disturbed mind, but a byproduct of a prophecy from Mormon doctrine. Someone, all Mormons believe, is the "one mighty and strong." Who that is, is a mystery. If one announces that he is the "one mighty and strong," because that reflects what he calls a divine ordination and a matter of spirituality, it's hard to prove it a delusion when one has no communion with God to prove it to be a false belief.

Again, LDS is Latter Day Saints, embracing the possibilities of prophets among us in this latter day. It is in a culture where there is a prophet in the present day, and in which man and God communicate on a deeply personal level, that these experiences take place.

In the course of my research, I interviewed a man who has taught in fundamentalist circles who finds that he has met over a hundred people in his life who believed themselves, quite earnestly, to be the "one mighty and strong." He described it as a spiritual journey in which one is immersed and intense in the devotion of one's belief. He himself believed for a time that he was the "one mighty and strong," then backed away from what he believed to be too much a calling for him. But his and many others who assume this identity arrive to a point on a spiritual continuum in which they surrender to faith. Unless it is something else.

Q: What else could it be?

A: The power of religious ordination enables someone who is psychopathic to exploit the devout around them. How expedient a position to be a prophet, with unquestionable superiority and providence. For the wrong person, it is absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

It is always possible that part of a psychotic person's thinking is an assertion that he is one mighty and strong. However, there would have to be a history that separates that person from all of the others who have so declared themselves, undertaken unusual practices because of their announced status, yet never having aroused even a sense that they were mentally ill. The lesson is that when one meets a person who announces himself as the "one mighty and strong," you have to study far more about the person in order to draw conclusions as to whether he is devout, criminal, or mad. Or more than one of the above.

Q: You described these sects as "new religions." Can you generalize findings about other new religions to the understanding of fundamentalist LDS sects?

A: Not really. The most significant distinction between these sects and other fringe or lesser known religions is the notion that a person experiences vivid revelations and communicates directly with God. Many psychiatrists and psychologists, hearing this, would erroneously label an entire people to be mad. So a religion that does not normalize such florid experiences cannot serve as a yardstick by which fundamentalist LDS sects can be studied. One cannot apply studies of other religions to the fundamentalist LDS with any validity or reliability. This is an area of psychiatry that is sorely underdeveloped, especially when one considers the complexity of mental health issues that may attach themselves to these cases, and how many people in such sects are engaging in activities that could be prosecuted.

Q: How do polygamy sects and rejectionists align? Are rejectionists only those who challenge the mainstream Mormon faith?

A: Fundamentalists who separate themselves from the LDS also shun contact with broader society and regard it with contempt. Their teaching is disdainful of the outside world and followers are forbidden to have contact with it. But rejectionists include many who are not even Mormon.

These enclaves of polygamous sects share a rejectionist philosophy with those groups such as the Freemen who are vehemently anti-tax, resentful of their government using their resources selfishly and who live without identification and "off the grid," often in a survivalist and self-sufficient mode. In a similar vein, fundamentalist LDS rail against the mainstream Mormon Church for its use of their tithes, even as these groups typically support themselves with intense financial entanglement with followers.

One community is secular, the other religious. Both pose similar justice issues when it comes to tax evasion and the completeness of their rejection of American justice. Rejectionism by fundamentalist LDS groups and by adherents to the Freemen philosophy has led to complex mental competency questions in recent years. Mitchell is only one of the most recent.

Q: Why do you find it so important to study the leaders of these sects?

A: Because the dogma of the group reflects the psychology of the leader. There are a number of such sects that have begun with separation from the church of doctrine, and have degenerated over matters of how others are treated merely by succession of leadership. The leader is given such absolute power and in certain instances, a deification that the sect lives in the shadow of his personality, its strengths and its darkness.

Q: You talked before about "one mighty and strong." Now you speak about deification. Isn't that a bit strong? And is it not psychotic?

A: Bruce David Longo referred to himself as the "Holy Ghost." He also referred to himself as Immanuel David. His followers included his wife and seven children and up to 20 members of his family. He lived in a hotel among others where he lived well, and no one ever questioned his being rational.

James Harmston has characterized himself as the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, Isaiah, and King Arthur. After seeing the movie "Braveheart," he asserted that he once lived as William Wallace. Far beyond his nuclear family, Harmston has 18 wives and a stable community operating in Manti, Utah. He has never been characterized as psychotic. Nathaniel Baldwin preached that Indians' skin would lighten from his preaching; JH Sherwood the literal descendant of Aaron, and John Tanner Clark the direct descendant of Jesus Christ. The grandiosity is unmistakable, and sometimes familiar. Each leader, however, is quite different. Closer study of how he relates to the trajectory of his rise, his church, how he practices marriage and his sexuality give greater insight into his mental state and personality. More on this in Part 2.

Dr. Michael Welner is chairman of The Forensic Panel, a national forensic science practice.

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