A Holdout Polygamist, 88, Defies the Mormons

New York Times/February 23, 2002
By Charlie LeDuff

Bluffdale, Utah -- These are the generations of Allred: William, a colonist, begat Isaac, and Isaac lived many years and begat William. William, who walked to the Great Salt Lake alongside Brigham Young, begat a son during the journey and named him Byron. Byron begat Byron Jr. and then lived two and forty years more. Byron Jr. begat many children including one named Owen.

Owen has lived 88 years. He has 8 wives, has raised 23 children and 25 stepchildren and counts 208 grandchildren. He keeps his wives happily in four houses side by side on a private road on the edge of this Salt Lake City suburb, where the sprawl ends at the scrub bush, and the scrub bush ends at the slopes of the snow- capped mountains.

"People have the wrong idea that we're old-time kooks who prey on young girls," Mr. Allred explained in an afternoon chat. "I suppose I'm guilty of that. My youngest wife is 64. My oldest girl is 93."

Mr. Allred, urbane and sharp-witted, is the patriarch of the Apostolic United Brethren. The Brethren live collectively and say they keep true to the original revelations of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. Among those revelations is polygamy and the belief that Adam, the original man, was God.

With the international spotlight on the Mormons during the Olympics this month, church officials, much to their frustration, have repeatedly had to answer questions about their polygamist past. The church, which has long considered polygamists as blasphemers, excommunicated Mr. Allred in 1942, when he married his second wife.

But as sure as the white-haired old-timer was sitting in his high- backed chair and his oldest wife was still in her nightclothes, polygamy does exist. Those who practice it say they are the ones who are misunderstood. They call themselves the true torchbearers of the Word.

Mr. Allred says the state attorney general made veiled threats in an effort to keep him quiet while the Olympics are in town, so that he not embarrass the state.

"I was going to keep quiet, too," he said as one of his wives smoothed his hair and fussed over his clothes as he sat for a portrait.

"But I want people to know we're not crazy, we don't have tails," Mr. Allred said. "We believe in the original word handed down through the prophet Joseph Smith. I want to say that religion can't just change whenever you want it to. What kind of religion is that?"

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, disavowed polygamy in 1890, when Wilford Woodruff, the president of the church, received a revelation from God saying the time for multiple marriage had passed. In return, the Utah territory received statehood.

There are perhaps 50,000 members of polygamist families in Utah today, about 5,000 of them in Mr. Allred's church, the state says. Utah's population is 2.2 million. Old Testament prophets and early members of the Mormon Church, like Smith and Young, practiced polygamy. Senator Orrin G. Hatch is the great-grandson of a polygamist, and Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, who once said polygamy might enjoy protection as a religious freedom, is the great-great-grandson of a polygamist.

Today, polygamy is described by its detractors as a sewer of child abuse and welfare fraud.

Even Mr. Allred says child abuse is a problem in polygamist circles. "The thing is a stinking mess," he said.

"It takes twice as good a man to have two wives as it does to have one," Mr. Allred said. "We require that the man show ability to support his family and the women be of consenting age."

The patriarch of the Allred clan popped into public view last year, when the Legislature made it a felony to marry a minor or preside over the secret spiritual wedding of a 14- year-old. This came in the wake of Tom Green, a polygamist (and member of a different Mormon offshoot) now serving five years in prison for bigamy with five "spiritual wives" and for accepting welfare checks for his 30 "fatherless" children.

Mr. Allred defended his way of life to the Legislature in a speech that he recalled like this:

"Right now in the state of Utah if a young woman goes out to love-making with her boyfriend and gets pregnant and has a child out of wedlock and bears a child, the state will pay for the doctor bills, the child's food and clothing and health care. But if a man marries that woman and takes her home with him as his wife and honors and respects her, loves that woman and child with all his heart, then he's an evil man, a felon. I can't believe that."

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the state attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, said there was no threat to Mr. Allred from his office to keep quiet, calling it all a misunderstanding.

Mr. Murphy also said that the Allred family tended to be self-supporting. Moreover, he said, when a member of his Apostolic United Brethren was recently charged with having sexual contact with minors, Mr. Allred shunned him.

"He cooperated fully with the authorities and kicked the guy out of the church," Mr. Murphy said.

The justification for polygamy comes from the belief that a soul is freed from pre-existence when a person is born and so the greatest good a Mormon can do is to have children. The Mormons trudged across thousands of miles in the early 19th century, persecuted, beaten and murdered for, above all, their belief in polygamy.

"I'm a Mormon, that's what I was taught and I can't deny it to save my life," Mr. Allred said, excited now, his hands trembling. "I'm not a wicked man at all."

And his Mormon lineage is impeccable. His great-grandmother Orissa Bates began the transcontinental journey with Joseph Smith in upstate New York, the birthplace of Mormonism. In 1846, she took a husband, William Moore Allred, in Nauvoo, Ill., the town where Smith was set upon by a mob and killed. His grandfather Byron Harvey Allred was born on the journey from Illinois to Utah.

His father, Byron Harvey Allred Jr., was a prominent Mormon elder, the speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives and a missionary.

After Owen Allred was excommunicated from the Mormon Church 60 years ago, he and his brothers built a communal life to support their large families. He became a living prophet to his clan in the mid-1970's when his brother Rulon was murdered by a rival band of polygamists.

The clan now owns a dairy with 108 milk cows and 250 head of cattle in western Utah and a large cabinet- making factory.

As for the day-to-day support and maintenance of a family as large as a traveling circus troupe, Mr. Allred gave over to understatement:

"It wasn't easy, I'll tell you. Never have more than eight kids in the house."

He worked most of his adult life in the stills of the oil refineries. His wives worked, too, raising their families in separate households.

"When we were young, it was difficult and there were jealousies of course," said his wife, his better eighth, who asked that her name not appear in the newspapers. "But you grow older and you find your place in life. We all love each other, visit and spend time with our own families."

The gentleman of the houses talked little about sex except to say he had a bathrobe and a set of slippers in each home.

"It's been a great life," he said of his family. "They say, `Those poor polygamist children.' But I would line my children up against anybody's."

Mr. Allred asked that the world be told one thing.

"I hate to be hated," he said. "I think everybody does. I want to be part, but I want to be myself and live the way I believe, the way the Lord told me to do.

"Now does that make me an evil person?"

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