Author paints image of complex lifestyle in Colorado City

The Spectrum (S. Utah)/March 17, 2004
By Jane Zhang

Colorado City, Ariz. -- To Ben Bistline, the myth of Colorado City lies in three words: Money, power and sex.

Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which controls most of the land and property in the area, preach that a man has to have at least three wives to go to heaven, he said.

But the men, most of them already giving up their money and belongings to the church, are not granted plural wives unless they are deemed to be "worthy" enough.

That is, Bistline said, they give the people in power enough money.

When schemes to gain money or power go awry, men are expelled, women and children "reassigned" and their houses and property repossessed by the church.

"Your first responsibility is to the leaders; Your family comes second," said Bistline, 68, a longtime Colorado City resident who believed in but never lived polygamy. "I had to make the decision. I knew if I didn't play the game, I wouldn't get another wife. But it wouldn't be worth it to me."

Nonetheless, the "game" inside the FLDS church, the largest polygamist enclave in America, was depicted in Bistline's new book, "The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona."

Filled with a bulk of reference texts, the book is not for outsiders seeking a quick peak into the increasingly secretive communal church, now headed by self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, 48.

But Bistline's 432-page textbook-sized work, often drawn from church and court documents and his personal journals, presents a comprehensive view of the FLDS church, which has survived constant internal power struggles, religious splits, government prosecutions, evictions of dissidents and court battles in both Utah and Arizona.

Jeffs, the church's reclusive prophet, rarely grants interviews. But Rod Parker, a longtime attorney for the FLDS church, said Bistline's book is not objective.

"He was venting all of his anger about the community," said Parker, who read portions of Bistline's self-published version of the book. "His imagination is running wild. I mean, his imagination is running amok."

For example, Bistline's book detailed how church leaders tightened their control on members by "revitalizing" the United Effort Plan, the church's financial arm. In the 1980s, the church informed members that they were "tenants at will," who, at the church leaders' liking, could be evicted.

But Parker said the church never changed the original intent of the UEP. Designed as "a charitable trust for religious purposes," he said, the UEP owns the property church members live on to prevent ownership by "outsiders."

"When people get into this, they get into it with their eyes open," Parker said. "It's a choice they make." For those who regret their choice, he said, they should live else where.

The sixth of 10 children, Bistline moved to Short Creek with his parents in 1945. His father, John Anthony Bistline, had sold the family's 10-acre property in Cache Valley to join the FLDS church.

As he became disillusioned about the church leadership, however, John Bistline wanted to withdraw from the church. But Bistline's mother, Jennie Johnson Bistline wanted to live polygamy. After John Bistline died in 1949, she married Richard Jessop as his fifth wife. But a few years later, she became dissatisfied by the constraints and moved out to her own cabin, Ben Bistline said.

While living with about 30 children in the Jessop household, Bistline fell in love with Annie, Jessop's daughter with Jessop's legal wife, Ida. But after the 1953 Short Creek Raid, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle had the men jailed in Kingman and women taken to Phoenix, the couple was separated for two years.

Then 15, Bistline stayed behind in Colorado City. When Annie returned from Phoenix with her mother two years later, they got married and later had 16 children. Both said they became disillusioned with the FLDS church.

Bistline said he stopped believing in the FLDS church in 1980 which he said is filled with nepotism. With about 20 men, Bistline, who took the UEP to court in 1987, finally obtained the right in 1999 to live in the home he built in Colorado City. But last year, he traded with the UEP for a trailer and moved to Cane Beds, a division about two miles outside of Colorado City.

The reason he wanted to write the book, Bistline said, was to dispel the "lies" of church leaders, especially the Barlows, sons of John Y. Barlow, founder of the FLDS church.

The Barlow clan has always tried to take control of the church, he noted in the book. For one, Sam Barlow, Colorado City's former town marshal, told people that his father believed he would be the prophet one day, Bistline said.

Ignoring the church's order of succession, he said, the Barlows opposed Marion Hammon becoming the next prophet. In 1986, Hammon left the FLDS church and established the Work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in nearby Centennial Park, also known as the Second Ward.

The Barlows obtained their "elite status" after Rulon Jeffs became the FLDS prophet, with Dan Barlow as Colorado City's mayor of 19 years and Joseph Barlow as Hildale's councilman for 41 years, Bistline said.

While the Barlows were waiting for their chances to be at the helm, however, Rulon Jeffs died and Warren Jeffs obtained power, Bistline said. On Jan. 10, Warren Jeffs expelled four Barlow brothers -- Dan, Joe, Louis and Nephi -- from the church.

"They created a God and their God got out of control," Bistline said. As "an egotistical maniac," he added, Warren Jeffs "just does insane things."

The new prophet has had an 8-foot wall built around his compound. On top of the tithing, he said, Warren Jeffs frequently asks for $500 donations from an estimated 10,000 members in Colorado City and Hildale.

Parker dismissed the so-called "Barlow conspiracy."

"Here is a 5,000-reasons-to-hate-Sam-Barlow book," Parker said. "I know Sam better than any of these people. I never heard him" saying he wanted to become a prophet.

He said he recently had lunch with the four expelled Barlow brothers who were repenting but "doing well" in St. George.

"They view it as a test to their faith," Parker said. "It's been a trial for them, but there's no anger or bitterness."

But Bistline predicted that the Barlows will wait for Jeffs to move to Mexico, where he is rumored to be building a compound.

"You can't convince me that they believe what Warren told them," he said. "I know them too well. They are playing a game."

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