Centennial Park, a tiny community of less than 1,500 people residents nestled on the edge of Colorado City in Mohave County, Ariz., isn’t a place that stands out in most ways. The median household income of around $45,000 is a little below the statewide average but still respectable. The typical Centennial Park inhabitant is 38 years old, commutes to a white-collar job in a neighboring town, and lives in a household with children.
But there is one striking difference between Centennial Park and most of the rest of America. Almost all of its inhabitants are members of a breakaway Mormon sect that still practices polygamy, or plural marriage, in which one man generally has simultaneous relationships with multiple wives.
The word polygamy carries with it ominous connotations. For many, it may
conjure up images of primitive tribes or ancient kings, or of lust-crazed
cultists hiding out in fenced-in rural compounds with harems of teenage girls
forced to marry against their will. But based upon various journalistic
accounts, those conceptions seem to bear little resemblance to the staid,
clean-cut lifestyle followed by the residents of Centennial Park.
"I'll just come out and tell you, I feel very blessed--this lifestyle is wonderful," one of Centennial Park’s residents, a businessman with three wives, told TV reporter Lisa Ling in 2007. "We bring these women into the home and they are treated incredibly. They have every convenience and every single thing that can be provided for them. So it's a very mutual relationship."
Richard’s wives, Ling discovered, turned out to be in agreement. “"It's our choice. We wanted to," explained one, who noted that nothing prevented them from leaving if they became unhappy. And the three were so comfortable sharing a husband that they had become close friends. So close, in fact, that if Richard ever died, they “probably” would simply search for a new husband for the entire trio.
They aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for plural marriage. Even though marrying more than one woman is technically illegal, researchers at Brigham Young University have estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 Americans live a polygamist lifestyle, according to a 2010 Public Radio International story.
Polygamy has existed for thousands of years. Most ancient societies were
polygamous —in the Old Testament, for example, King Solomon had an astonishing
700 wives -- is still practiced in parts
of Africa and the Middle East. In Europe, however, the classical Greeks and
Romans established monogamy as the legal norm--though in both societies, men
still were allowed to have plural relationships with female slaves) —and it’s
stayed that way ever since.
It was in America that plural marriage first reemerged in western culture. In the 1830s or 1840s, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith, after being asked by Old Testament leaders had multiple wives, claimed to have had a revelation that his followers should practice polygamy. Beginning in 1852, when an LDS leader named Orson Pratt made a public speech defending plural marriage as an important tenet of the faith, the church began publicly to encourage members to become polygamists. According to Utah historian Jessie L. Embry, however, only a minority of Mormons who settled Utah actually followed that directive. Those men who did usually only took two wives, who usually lived in separate homes and raised their children separately, with the husbands visiting each household periodically. But different LDS members handled plural marriage life differently. “There were no established rules about how family members should relate to each other,” Embry wrote in the Utah History Encyclopedia. “Instead, each family adapted to their particular circumstances.
But Mormon polygamy met with disapproval from other Americans. In 1854, the Republican Party denounced it and slavery as the “twin relics of barbarism,” and in 1862, Congress outlawed it in the territories by passing the Morrill Act, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879. In 1882, Congress passed an even tougher law, the Edmunds Act, which made polygamy a felony punishable by five years’ imprisonment and a then-steep $500 fine, and disqualified polygamists from holding political office or serving on juries.
In 1890, the church finally relented. LDS President Wilford Woodruff publicly
issued a statement recommending that Mormons “refrain from contracting any
marriages forbidden by the law of the land." In 1910, church leaders
prohibited the polygamy outright, and excommunicated anyone who had entered
into a plural marriage after 1904.
But some Mormons believed that the church wrongly had given in to government pressure, and refused to obey. They broke off to form a splinter group, which took root in Short Creek (now called Colorado City), and other towns along the Arizona-Utah border.
The presence of the polygamy colonies didn’t sit well with Arizona law enforcement authorities, and they repeatedly raided the towns. In 1953, the battle culminated when Arizona police officers and National Guard soldiers entered Short Creek and took most of the community into custody. The effort to eradicate polygamy backfired, however, when public outrage over the seizure of the polygamists’ children led to Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle being voted out of office. Thus chastened, law enforcement authorities pretty much turned a blind eye to the polygamists for decades, and the polygamist communities themselves grew increasingly insular and suspicious of outside authority.
With little outside scrutiny, the polygamists became increasingly powerful and autocratic in their isolated corner of the Southwest. By the early 2000s, the main polygamist group, which became known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had grown to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in strength, and largely controlled the communities of Colorado City and Hildale, with its influence extending even into local police departments. Warren Jeffs, the leader of FLDS, had so much power that he sometimes “reassigned” families, taking away the wives and children of men who were deemed unworthy, and handing them over to other men. Teenaged males often were expelled from the communities, so that they would not grow up to compete with older, more powerful men for wives.
Ultimately, after allegations of child abuse and other misconduct inside FLDS, law enforcement officials again went after the polygamists. In 2011, FLDS leader Jeffs was convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls, and sentenced to life in prison.
The polygamists in the Centennial Park community are a separate group from FLDS. They broke away from the main polygamist community in the 1980s after a leadership dispute, and resettled on land outside of Colorado City. For the past several decades, the two factions have lived side-by-side but pretty much avoided contact, according to a 2012 thesis by Southern Utah University graduate student Michael K. Ault, who spent extensive time interviewing families in the Centennial Park group.
Unlike the secretive FLDS, the Centennial Park group has chosen to interact with the outside world, appearing on TV programs and giving media interviews in an effort to improve polygamy’s unsavory reputation. A website maintained by an advocacy group in the community says that it is against the coercive practices—such as underage girls being forced to marry older men—that got FLDS leader Jeffs into trouble. Instead, Centennial Park says that its aim is “to achieve a political and social environment within which both polygamous and non-polygamous cultures may comfortably fit into an integrated society.”