CIRCLEVILLE, Utah - Stephen Butt didn't set out to be a polygamist.
A decade ago, he was happily married to one wife, busy with his church and working as a cult-exit counselor in Maine. Then he met a young woman who had been so abused by a cult that he saw only one way to gain her trust for treatment.
He married her.
Now Butt lives in Utah with three wives and five children, ministering to a group of nearly 1,000 around the country who call themselves Christian polygamists.
Unlike the estimated 25,000-35,000 polygamists living in the West who trace their roots to historical Mormonism, Butt and his Protestant peers say plural marriage comes straight from the Old Testament.
"We believe that plural marriage is allowed for in the Bible to meet practical, real needs, and this should be acknowledged by the Christian church," Butt said.
He points to passages that say David, Solomon and other patriarchs had many wives.
"Obviously polygamy can't be something that's immoral if God allowed it with these people whom he showed so much favor," he said.
To spread the word, Butt and his three wives moved to southern Utah about a month ago and bought Circleville's original Mormon chapel. They plan to start the first Be Free Patriarchal Christian Church here - in a town of about 300 settled by Mormon pioneers in 1864.
They intend to take their message to the plural families living in southern Utah and expand into California, the Southeast and then abroad to countries with polygamous cultures. It will be easier to convert cultural polygamists to Christianity, Butt figures, than to persuade mainstream Christian churches to accept plural marriage.
Though Butt talks about multiple wives and uses the term "polygamy," he is mindful bigamy is illegal and is quick to point out his second and third wives are bound to him by God's word alone. Only his first wife has a marriage license, though all three women wear wedding rings.
Butt doesn't; he's still available.
In an anteroom of their old stone church, the family makes plans for next month, when another Christian polygamist family will be joining it from Georgia. Butt, 49, sits in a tweed recliner, his wives and children scattered around him and a poster of a male lion on the wall above his head. On one couch sits 51-year-old Diane, his legal wife, with their two children: Andri, 14, and Jon, 13.
Dawn - a 34-year-old woman who joined the family a little over year ago - plays on another with her 2-year-old son, Isaac. The twins she and Butt had, 5-month-old Jacob and Abigail, squirm on a blanket below.
And in a chair to Butt's right rests Merry-ann, 44, the woman Butt brought home a decade ago.
"It was like, 'Honey, I brought home the bread and milk and, by the way, here's a new woman,' " Diane Butt says with a laugh.
She wasn't enthusiastic about her newly plural status back then, "but if you would ask me today if I would choose this way of life, I would say most definitely."
More and more people seem to be living a polyamorous lifestyle - or at least coming out of the closet, according to Brett Hill, editor of Loving More, a magazine for people with more than one partner.
"This is the same thing that happened with the gay movement, where a lot of people were gay but you just didn't know about it," he said. "There are a lot of people who have more than one partner in their life. . . . In fact, we believe most people do, but they just lie about it."
And many practitioners, rejected by their churches for abandoning monogamy, are trying to reconcile their lifestyle and their faith, said Dave Hutchison, who organizes a Phoenix-based group called Liberated Christians.
"The Christian church would call us 'backslidden born-againers' or something ridiculous," one woman in a plural relationship said via e-mail. She did not want to be named for fear of scaring off her real estate customers.
"We are no longer churchgoers. But we do hold fast to the basics of Christian teachings in that we are definitely 'loving one another.' For us, it is all about love, and family."
Hutchison believes the woman's sentiments are common, but most people never act on them.
"You have a lot of Christians feeling this way, then feeling guilty they're feeling this way, so they come to us and see the Biblical basis (of multiple spouses)," he said. "And all of a sudden they become liberated."
Most find freedom on the Internet, where a half-dozen Web sites trumpet Christian polygamy and underground practitioners make contact. Some sites even carry personal ads: "We are a married, Christian couple seeking a Christian sister-wife. He is 30 years old and called into the ministry," one reads.
Butt has his own site, recounting how he moved his family from Maine to Utah. That's how his third wife, Dawn - who was a single mother living near Chicago - found the group. It's also how they stay in touch while living in this isolated spot a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Circleville is close to one thing: Just 90 miles south are the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Arizona's Colorado City, long known as a hotbed for plural marriage.
The Butts say they are not like those polygamists, who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons. Fundamentalists believe Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, in response to questions about why Biblical patriarchs had multiple wives, was shown by God that polygamy is a means of exaltation in heaven. And they refuse to recognize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 1890 ban on the practice.
One fundamentalist sect, the Latter-day Church of Christ, recently came under scrutiny when two prominent members were convicted: David Ortell Kingston, for having sex with his 16-year-old niece; and the girl's father, John Daniel Kingston, for belt-whipping her when she ran away from her uncle. The girl testified that she was forced to be her uncle's 15th wife.
The Butts call the polygamous incest and abuse the Kingston cases brought to light "appalling" and insist their lifestyle is about freedom, not oppression.
In their view, a husband should be a traditionally strong family leader; the womenfolk should look up to him just as he looks up to God. But that doesn't mean slavery, they say - a good husband provides "headship" so his wives can fulfill their own potential.
And what about polyandry, one woman having plural husbands? Butt seemed surprised at the question. It seems unnatural, he said; plus, it's not in the Bible. Instead, polygamy is a way to guarantee that all women are taken care of.
"There are more women than men in the Christian church," Butt said. "So without allowing for Biblical plural marriage, this forces many Christian women to marry unbelievers or to go without the love of a husband and a family, and we feel this is really a burden to impose on half the population."
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