Colorado City, Ariz. -- A power struggle between members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect has exposed deep fissures in the largest polygamous community in North America, a town in which most men have several wives and sometimes dozens of children.
A handful of congregants normally subservient to the dictates of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have begun to rebel against his rule. The rebellion was put in motion this month when Mr. Jeffs expelled more than 20 men from the church, stripping them of their wives and children and forcing them from their houses, over which the church claims ownership through a land trust controlled by Mr. Jeffs.
Invariably, in such purges, an excommunicated man's wives and children are put under the control of another man, who may then marry whomever he chooses, including female children, church members say.
In recent days, at least three teenage girls have fled Colorado City, just south of the Utah border, with the help of polygamy opponents. One of the girls said she had escaped to avoid being married, on Mr. Jeffs's orders, to a man many years her senior, a common practice here.
On Friday, in a protest without precedent, Ross Chatwin, whom Mr. Jeffs had expelled, publicly denounced Mr. Jeffs and compared his authoritarian style to that of Hitler. Several others joined Mr. Chatwin.
In expelling the men, Mr. Jeffs cited a revelation from God. But his detractors say he did so to thwart potential rivals to his authority.
"We need your help to stop Warren Jeffs from destroying families, kicking us out of our homes, and marrying our children into some kind of political brownie-point system," Mr. Chatwin told reporters and townspeople from his front porch as his wife, Lori, and six children stood by him. "This Hitler-like dictator has got to be stopped before he ruins us all," said Mr. Chatwin, 35, who does not practice polygamy.
In a culture that insists not only on secrecy but also on absolute fealty to a single leader, speaking out against him is tantamount to treason. Mr. Jeffs, 47, a former high school principal who does not grant interviews, controls virtually everything in town; his followers say he decides the fates of his flock in the afterlife.
He routinely forces girls, some of them barely teenagers, into plural marriages, to men who are often in their 50's and 60's, say people who are no longer his followers. Cooperation is rewarded; men who comply with Mr. Jeffs's demands are given more wives, under the church's teaching that a man must have at least three wives to get into the "celestial kingdom."
The fundamentalist community here evolved after members of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City officially renounced polygamy in 1890. The practice is forbidden under Utah law, if only sporadically enforced. The Arizona Constitution also forbids polygamy, although the prohibition was never written into state law. State officials have vowed to prosecute polygamists under child-abuse statutes.
Among the men expelled from the church are several members of the Barlow clan, including the Colorado City mayor, Dan Barlow, who was forced to resign. They are descendants of one of the fundamentalist sect's founders, John Y. Barlow, and lost a previous struggle for control in 2002 upon the death of Mr. Jeffs's father, Rulon, a former accountant who had ruled in a similarly autocratic manner and was said to have had as many as 70 wives.
"I knew at 13 that I didn't want to live like that," Fawn Louise Broadbent, 16, one of the teenagers who fled recently, said in an interview this month in The East Valley Tribune, before she was placed in a temporary foster home in Phoenix. "I want to be able to choose who I'm going to marry, and I want to go to a real school, not a church school. And I want to be a clothing designer, not somebody's 15th wife."
The three teenagers are not alone in their desire to leave, some residents say. "Young people live in fear that Warren Jeffs has control over their salvation," said Ben Bistline, 68, a former church member who has written a book on the history of polygamy here. "They think they're going to hell. It's all phony, but it works here as long as they keep the women and kids from being educated, from knowing what's going on in the outside world."
Some older women here - among the few who can be persuaded to speak openly - are ambivalent about polygamy.
"I think it's wrong when you're forced into it," said Lorie Wyler, who was one of four wives of a local man, with whom she had nine children, before she left him and the church several years ago. "I didn't want to be part of a religion that treated other people shabbily, that would take away people's homes. That's not Christlike."
More and more young people, she said, are rebelling. "Kids are leaving, it's not uncommon," said Ms. Wyler, a librarian. "This is getting ready to explode."
In Colorado City, which is neither a city nor much of a town, there are no traffic lights and there is no Main Street. A dairy farm lies in the town's center. All but a few of the streets are dirt tracks; passing pickup trucks kick up the red dust that is the hallmark of northern Arizona and its huge canyons. Many houses here are extraordinarily large, if cheaply made, to accommodate the sometimes extraordinarily large families that live in them.
Children, taught that the outside world is full of apostates, run from visitors bearing cameras. Women and girls wear faded, calf-length cotton dresses with long sleeves and high necks. Even in the searing desert heat, most are required to wear long johns and long-sleeved undershirts.
Many of the 6,000 residents of Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, live on welfare, at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the region, and make substantial payments to Mr. Jeffs, who lives in a walled compound protected by bodyguards and closed-circuit cameras. Some residents say they believe Mr. Jeffs, fearing a crackdown by the authorities in Arizona and Utah, plans to move his followers to Mexico.
Mr. Chatwin will not be among them. Holding up a hardback copy of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," by William L. Shirer, he said Colorado City was "going in the same direction."
His wife, Lori, had the final word. "Warren's not the prophet," she said. "What he does is not kind."