'The Primer' helps decipher the world of polygamy

Fox News 13 Utah/March 20, 2011

St. George, Utah - Do you know what an "other mother" is? Or what it means to "keep sweet?"

These terms and more are explained in "The Primer," a book on fundamentalist Mormonism that basically is "everything you ever wanted to know about polygamy, but were afraid to ask."

"The Primer" is now being published by the Family Support Center, which administers the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government agencies, social service providers and members of polygamous communities with a common goal of reaching into and providing help to closed societies. The book was created by the Utah and Arizona Attorney General's Offices to help government officials and social workers understand the terms and customs unique to polygamous culture.

"'The Primer' is like a little textbook, so to speak," said Mike Leetham, an administrator of the Safety Net Committee. "Something that gives you the basic understanding and hopefully entices your curiousity to learn a little bit more about them."

The book details the history of Utah's various polygamous groups, from the Hildale-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the Davis Cooperative Society (sometimes known as the Kingstons), the Apostolic United Brethren in Bluffdale, the community of Centennial Park and Alex Joseph's "Confederate Nations of Israel" in Big Water. The majority of polygamists in Utah do not belong to any specific church, and are called "independents."

The book also covers Utah and Arizona's laws dealing with bigamy and polygamy (polygamy is illegal, but the Utah Attorney General's Office has repeatedly said it will only prosecute it in addition to crimes such as child-bride marriages or abuse, citing resource issues.) "The Primer" also includes a guide on how to recognize signs of abuse and domestic violence, with a goal of helping social service providers help people in sometimes closed polygamous societies who are more reluctant to seek help from "outsiders."

"It covers everything," said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and member of the Safety Net Committee.

"It covers religious doctrine, it covers slang. It covers terms that are offensive to polygamists and so if you use those terms, you may not be able to actually offer services because you've made the person mad."

Some of those terms are also found in "The Primer," including:

  • Clan: This term is occasionally used to refer to a fundamentalist community or family. Most fundamentalists consider this to be an offensive term and would prefer service providers to refrain from using it.

  • Compound: As with the term "clan," referring to a family's residence or to a community's property or ranch as a "compound" is seen as disparaging.

  • Some of the definitions provide a glimpse into fundamentalist culture. For example:

  • Other Mother: Children in polygamus families often use this term to refer to their biological mother's "sister wives."

  • Keep Sweet: An expression used in the FLDS community. Some understand it to mean maintaining a pleasant and compliant demeanor in the face of adversity.

  • Gentile: Fundamentalist Mormons may occassionaly use the term to refer to outsiders or those who do not adhere to their religious standards.

  • Bleeding the Beast: Some fundamentalists purportedly use this expression to refer to the practice of exploiting government financial assistance, partly for the purpose of assisting God in destorying the "evil" U.S. government.

"At first I did not like it," Susie Timpson, the chairwoman of the pro-polygamy Centennial Park Action Committee, said of "The Primer."

"I didn't like the glossary. There's a lot of definitions in there that do not apply to us. Like I mentioned, 'Bleeding the Beast' is repulsive to me and our community. We don't feel that way at all!"

Timpson and "The Primer's" creators acknowledge that not all terms are universal for the various polygamous groups. A recent census put out by the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices estimates about 37,000 people who consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons in Utah and surrounding states.

Timpson told Fox 13 she now believes "The Primer" is invaluable to people's understanding of polygamous culture.

"I was amazed how well done it was," she said of the final product. "I recommend people read it. I thought it was excellent."

"The Primer" is currently undergoing another revision with terms and explanations added or deleted, as fundamentalists and "outsiders," as they are sometimes called, learn to understand each other better.

"It's very educational," Leetham told Fox 13 about how the book has helped him understand polygamous culture. "I thought I knew a little bit about it. As I got into it, I realized I didn't know much."

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