Rulon Jeffs: patriarch, president, prophet for polygamy

Salt Lake Tribune/June 28, 1998
By Tom Zoellner

Rulon Jeffs--married 19 women, fathered more than 60 children and became president and prophet of the largest polygamist church in North America.
SANDY -- On a hot night in July 1940, a tax accountant named Rulon Jeffs crawled back into bed with his wife for the first time in several weeks.

Court records say the young Mormon couple had been fighting over something she dreaded: his desire to marry another wife and join the ranks of the polygamists. Jeffs had told her he had taken a trip to the mountains and had a vision of the woman God wanted him to marry. It was a girl who worked at a store in Provo.

Zola Jeffs told her husband she feared he no longer loved her, that he had become cold and indifferent. He responded by telling her that if she did not embrace polygamy and accept the other wife, things could never be the same between them again.

In the course of his long and extraordinary life, Rulon Jeffs would go on to marry not just the new girl but a reported 19 additional women, including a recent marriage in which the bride is some 70 years his junior. He also sat on the boards of multimillion-dollar corporations, purchased a huge estate in one of Utah's most expensive neighborhoods, fathered more than 60 children and eventually became the president and prophet of the largest polygamist church in North America -- a man held in Godlike acclaim by more than 5,000 devoted followers in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, who treat his words as divinely inspired.

Meanwhile, his first wife, Zola, became ``so worried and upset that she cried almost day and night, that her milk dried up so she was no longer able to nurse her baby,'' according to court records of their 1941 divorce. She took the couple's two young sons to Pasadena, Calif.

``I respect him for who he is and for the integrity he has for following his beliefs, but his ways are different from my ways,'' said one of those sons, Dick Hodson, a devout Mormon who lives in Orem. ``Our paths have separated.''

Jeffs, who is now 88 and living inside a walled compound at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, would not consent to an interview. He is reportedly in frail health.

Those who have met him say he cuts a memorable figure, even in his old age.

``He's tall and stately and conservative, very patriarchal,'' said Ed Firmage, a University of Utah law professor and Zola Hodson's nephew. ``But he's also a warm-feeling person and after talking to him for a while, you get the feeling he's a man of great personal integrity and willing to take some blows for the sake of his beliefs.''

Peculiar time: Jeffs was born in 1909, at a peculiar time in Utah history. It was the sunset of polygamy as an accepted lifestyle.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had enjoyed almost 70 years of self-governance on the frontier, was becoming increasingly assimilated with the rest of the United States -- a process historians have called ``The Great Accommodation.''

As a key part of this effort, LDS authorities were beginning to seriously enforce their promise to excommunicate members who continued to take more than one wife.

Rulon's father was David Jeffs, an ardent polygamist who refused to give up his belief in the controversial dogma and believed the mainline church had gone seriously astray. Despite his father's urgent teachings, the younger Jeffs nevertheless became a faithful Mormon who came to loathe polygamy.

During the Great Depression, he went on a mission to England, where he reportedly had a troubling experience. Jeffs had managed to save enough money to go on a tour of Europe after his mission, but the mission president asked him to stay on a bit longer. The young missionary had to spend his touring money and even borrow more money from the mission president, who later demanded repayment.

``That had a souring effect on him,'' said Hodson.

Jeffs came back to Salt Lake City to take a $185-per-month job with the Utah State Tax Commission, with his own office in the state Capitol. He also married Zola Brown, daughter of renowned LDS Church Apostle Hugh B. Brown.

After the birth of the couple's first son, Jeffs cautiously began to try a reconciliation with his father, who became a frequent guest at Sunday suppers. David Jeffs began to talk about polygamy -- and this time, his son listened. ``Over time, the old man's powerful personality just captivated Rulon,'' said Firmage.

Jeffs began to talk nonstop to his wife about the idea, and even equipped the couple's new home with a basement to accommodate a second wife.

On April 14, 1941, two weeks after Zola divorced him, Jeffs was excommunicated from the LDS Church. He did not bother to attend his church trial and moved into a house on Lincoln Street in Salt Lake City, which was a center for polygamist activity.

``For the first time I say, I would put God's work before anything else in my life,'' Jeffs wrote at the time. ``I know where I am and where I am going.''

He was caught in one of the government roundups of polygamists in 1944 and was held briefly in the Salt Lake County Jail, which he called a ``nasty place.''

The criminal case against Jeffs was dismissed. And his business savvy became a tremendous asset to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the polygamist communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

``Colorado City was poor and undeveloped until Rulon took leadership and financial management,'' said Janet Johansen, a former member who used to attend church services at Jeffs' home. ``He's the money man.''

One-man rule: Although Jeffs did not have a permanent home in either Colorado City or Hildale, he eventually became the anointed successor to longtime fundamentalist prophet Leroy S. Johnson, who died in 1986. But this triggered a bitter fight over Jeffs' insistence upon ``one-man rule'' over the church. Several prominent members wanted power to reside with a seven-man priesthood council, which Jeffs' loyalists derided as a ``seven-headed monster.''

Jeffs and his supporters promptly sent eviction notices to dissidents living on church land. His power became even more apparent when the FLDS Church formally incorporated in 1991. Only his name appears on documents, as agent, president and sole trustee.

The idea of autocratic authority has been important to Jeffs over his life. ``I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience,'' he preached in December 1946, two years after his release from jail. ``I have found I have enjoyed the greatest freedom when I have rendered strict obedience to those who are over me.''

His sermons over the years often have plucked this theme: Access to God comes only through faith in the living priesthood.

The bottom line: Jeffs worked as an accountant and remained so friendly with his ex-wife's family that for years he did the bookkeeping for one of their businesses. In 1968 he founded Utah Tool & Die Co., which now employs about 70 people and generates $4.8 million in sales annually, according to Dun and Bradstreet, an information-services corporation.

``Everything he does has a reflection of red or black ink,'' said John Williams, a dissident from the FLDS Church who has known Jeffs since 1952. ``He's very financially motivated.''

Jeffs was ousted as president of Federated Security Insurance Co. in 1958 after the board of directors discovered he had solicited proxies in his own name in a failed attempt to fire all the directors. At the time, the Salt Lake City-based company had $41 million of insurance policies in force.

According to Hodson, Jeffs' religion ultimately forced him to withdraw from the boards of several companies. Some of his partners have reportedly been squeamish about public association with a known polygamist.

Jeffs retired from his accounting business in 1983, turning it over to his son Leroy, a CPA. Leroy, 45, is an officer in four other businesses in Salt Lake County and an electrical company and retail store in Hildale.

Unlike prophet Johnson, who lived and worked in the border towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Jeffs' leadership emanated from Salt Lake County. At his headquarters in the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Jeffs also leads an estimated 1,000 devotees of the FLDS Church along the Wasatch Front.

The faithful on the border are not disturbed by Jeffs' distance from the mother church, nor his visible wealth in Salt Lake County. ``His people love and trust him completely,'' said a former Colorado City man.

The faithful made out tithing checks to Jeffs personally, never to the church, Jeffs acknowledged in a 1989 deposition. He said he deposited tithing and other contributions to the Rulon T. Jeffs Trust Account, a checking account in existence since 1969, which he alone controlled.

Unlikely newsmaker: Though Jeffs has a passion for privacy, his name surfaced in a few news reports after the Jan. 15, 1986, Challenger space-shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts.

Jeffs was on the board of directors for Hydrapak. The West Jordan firm manufactured the O-ring, which allowed a plume of fiery gas to escape, igniting the shuttle's liquid-fuel tank.

Eight months after the explosion, his name was dropped from incorporation papers. Jeffs' son Wallace, who bought Hydrapak in September 1986, insisted in a telephone interview that he never knew of his father's involvement with the firm.

Lloyd L. Wall, who is Hydrapak's former president, treasurer and director at the time of the Challenger explosion, lives in one of Rulon Jeffs' five Salt Lake County homes, this one described on tax rolls as situated on a half-acre wooded lot, valued at $287,000.

Jeffs' own home at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon is even more impressive: His big house (8,300 square feet) has 23 bedrooms, two kitchens, 10 baths and four fireplaces. The smaller home next door has a total of 22 rooms, and a $200,000 mortgage taken in April of last year.

The compound's steel grain silos, plain concrete walls and huge houses give it the appearance of a feudal estate plunked down in the middle of a modern, upscale American neighborhood.

Inside the walls is a private, unaccredited school, Alta Academy, with 386 students and a literary magazine called the Student Star, which bears the motto: ``Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.''

The principal of Alta Academy is Warren Jeffs, one of Rulon's many sons, who is said to be the primary gatekeeper for access to the prophet.

The most historic feature of the 4-acre spread is a cottage called The Carriage House, which used to be a bunkhouse for the quarrymen who took granite out of Little Cottonwood Canyon to build the Salt Lake LDS Temple.

Rulon's house was built in 1968 by the young men of the FLDS Church, who worked without pay, according to Gary Hilton, one of Jeffs' sons who has left the church.

The kitchen features industrial-size refrigerators and applicances to feed all the wives, sons and dependents. Others who have been inside the house say each wife has her own bedroom, but the same picture of Rulon graces each nightstand.

``He liked the fine things in life, but not to excess -- Cadillacs and good furniture,'' said Hilton, who grew up in the Sandy compound. ``He was very meticulous about quality and doing quality work. If a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well.'' Jeffs currently owns two Lincoln cars, four vans, a pickup truck and a motor home, according to the Utah Department of Motor Vehicle records.

Jeffs also was an officer, director and trustee in two corporations that eventually became part of Dynamic American Corp., headquartered in Hildale, that specializes in mining and farm equipment. The Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an investigation of Dynamic American Corp., according to documents filed in U.S. District Court for Utah. The SEC has subpoenaed records of Jethro Barlow and Oliver Barlow, the firm's officers, to determine if the company overvalued a $40 million tin mine in Bolivia to inflate the value of its stock.

`Would gladly die': Today, Jeffs sits at the head of the FLDS Priesthood -- the earthly manifestation of God -- for the 6,000-member church. Believers ``would gladly die for him,'' said ex-member Joe Knudson.

Followers' devotion to him is so great, said faithful member Karen Barlow, that they would unhesitatingly abandon one of the most cherished tenets of their faith -- plural marriage -- if he ever gave the word.

``If our leader said there should be no more polygamy, there would be none,'' she said. ``Our foundation is obedience, acceptance of church authority and a belief in one-man rule.''

Long after his place among the leadership of the FLDS Church was secure, Jeffs looked back on his broken marriage with Zola.

``I knew I had to go forward and do whatever the Lord required of me,'' he said in a 1973 sermon. ``The Lord has multiplied and blessed me a hundredfold, for which I am grateful.''

Salt Lake Tribune news editor Dawn House contributed to this story.

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