St. George man stumbles across rare FLDS books

Associated Press/June 18, 2007
By Jennifer Dobnere

Salt Lake City -- It's a book collector's dream -- rifling through the shelves of a secondhand store with the hope of finding a valuable volume for a bargain basement price and stumbling onto a gold mine.

It happened January 31 to a St. George man, who plunked down $40 and took home eight books of sermons and writings from elders of the secretive, polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Adding interest to the find -- the books are inked in red with a property stamp from Purgatory Correctional Facility, which is the Washington County jail in Hurricane where FLDS church president Warren Jeffs is awaiting trial on charges of rape by accomplice.

The volumes are rare and likely worth much more than the St. George man paid, said booksellers who trade in early writings from leaders of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion to which the FLDS church traces its roots.

"Those books are unbelievably scarce," said Tom Kimball, an American Fork collector and seller. "They could be worth thousands. It's every Mormon book nerd's fantasy."

The FLDS live intensely private lives and shun most interaction with outsiders, including members of their own families who leave the faith. For decades members have lived in the remote twins towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., dressing in 19th century-style clothes, rejecting the trappings of modernity and striving for perfect obedience to God.

Drawing on the early theology of the Mormon church, the sect continues to practice polygamy, believing that plural marriage brings exaltation in heaven. They consider church president Jeffs a prophet who communicates with God.

While some fundamentalist works are available, the "cultish" nature of the various polygamous clans usually means printed materials circulate only internally, said Ken Sanders, owner of a rare books store in Salt Lake City.

A check of Utah's college and university libraries found that while some had copies of fundamentalist books, magazines and pamphlets published in the early 20th century by Joseph Musser and Ogden Kraut, none knew of, or had seen, any collected works from the FLDS.

Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Mormon church, had a few books about FLDS elders in its library archives, but only a single FLDS-written manuscript, curator John Murphy said.

"It's very, very rare," said Stan Larson, curator of manuscripts at the University of Utah's Marriott Library. "We would be very glad to have them."

The volumes were produced between 1994 and 2006 by the Twin City Courier Press, of Hildale, a company owned and operated by a member of the fundamentalist church.

Each of the 8 1/2-by-11 books is hard-bound in a black cover with its title printed in gold leaf. Depending on the volume, publishing credits are either awarded to Jeffs or his predecessor and father, Rulon Jeffs.

Six of the books are the collected sermons of former FLDS President Leroy S. Johnson, who led the fundamentalist church from 1955 until his death at age 98 on Nov. 25, 1986. The sermons begin in 1950 and each reflects the occasion or location where it was delivered, including the southern Utah communities originally called Short Creek, Salt Lake City and a small FLDS enclave in Canada.

Some of the writings appear to be from Johnson's own hand, imparting his personal stories, reflections or anecdotes. Others draw primarily on scriptural references from either the Bible or the Book of Mormon, citing sermons or speeches from early leaders including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor.

Two of the books are collections of "Zion's Light Shining," a monthly FLDS newsletter that originated with Rulon Jeffs, who assumed leadership of the church in the 1980s. The newsletters, each about 40 pages, date back to February 1999 and contain similar material, along with writings from various FLDS elders.

"With Every Breath, Keep Sweet, No Matter What" and "Perfect Obedience Produces Perfect Faith," the newsletter masthead reads, reinforcing two deeply touted FLDS philosophies.

Ben Bistline, a former FLDS church member and a historian who has written two books about the FLDS, said the volumes are likely reprints of books first published about 1980. Then the collected works of Johnson were churned out in paperback for church members' personal use.

"But you had to get permission of the prophet to buy one," recalled Bistline, of Cane Beds, Ariz. "They published the books to promote polygamy and their way of thinking."

Bistline questions whether the volumes are a complete record. If memory serves, he said, FLDS leaders selected the teachings they thought would be most useful to members.

Although some of the writings tout the practice of plural marriage and others warn of government persecution from the states of Utah and Arizona, there's not much fire and brimstone, nor fodder for a sex-driven episode of the HBO TV series about a polygamous family, "Big Love."

The St. George collector, a fundamentalist who asked that his name not be published to protect his privacy, said he bought the volumes because of his interest in early Mormonism and fundamentalist beliefs. He told The Associated Press he had no immediate interest in selling or donating the books.

"An interesting find for me," he wrote in an e-mail about the books.

It's unclear when or how the books made their way to the jail, said Washington County sheriff's Lt. Jake Adams said.

Jeffs, 51, is charged with two felony counts of rape as an accomplice for having forced a religious marriage between a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. He's been at the jail since September 2006.

The jail accepts book donations from publishers, businesses, libraries and individuals, but there is no record of receiving the books or when they might have been sent to the Mormon church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store.

"I'm not surprised we have FLDS literature," said Adams, adding that the jail often has inmates with ties to the FLDS communities. "I am surprised that we would get rid of them."

It's unlikely the decision was tied to the incarceration of Jeffs, Adams said.

The books are hardbacks and the jail only allows softcover volumes, because a soft book can't be used as a weapon, he said.

Kimball hopes the books eventually end up in the rare books collection of an Utah library for research use by historians.

"It's really where they belong," Kimball said.

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