If one were to look at Amazon’s “Best Sellers in Mormonism” list on any given week, it is populated by books about Mormon fundamentalism. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a tale of the Lafferty brothers who killed an innocent woman and child in 1984, is usually in the top three spots, and memoirs by Ruth Wariner (The Sound of Gravel), Rebecca Musser (The Witness Wore Red), and Sam Brower (Prophet’s Prey) are rarely far behind. Indeed, America’s fascination with these marginalized polygamists transcends print, as HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives brought the more modern incarnation of these groups to the screen.
Added to this national infatuation with these exclusive communities is the new documentary Keep Sweet, directed by Don Argott, which began streaming on Discovery+ in November. The film looks at the twin fundamentalist towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, as the fundamentalist Mormon community once led by Warren Jeffs—an offshoot not sanctioned by the global Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)—disintegrates into factions in the wake of his arrest, imprisonment, and the repossession of the church’s land. At the center of the film is a question: Is it possible for society to incorporate people with divergent interests and loyalties? On the one hand, there are those in these towns who still see Jeffs as a God-ordained prophet, and on the other, there are those who see him as a dangerous fraud.
The question is an important one for modern America. And the film is a powerful exploration of one peculiar case study, filled with engaging personalities and twists. For example, the filmmakers do an excellent job in allowing fundamentalist women to speak for themselves rather than remain the silent victims so typical in other media depictions.
But the documentary’s own existence and approach raise a similar, and perhaps even more pressing, question: Why do Americans continue to turn to Mormon fundamentalists to answer this widespread cultural question? And in doing so, do they risk perpetuating the same framework that depicts these groups as both fascinating and marginalized in the public imagination?
While LDS leaders announced the end to polygamy in 1890, they covertly continued the marital order for several decades. Church authorities both approved and initiated new plural unions until around 1910, and many continued to secretly practice the principle even after that. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that they tried to root out new sealings. In response, hundreds of members who believed polygamy to be the core of Mormonism formalized their own organizations. Many of them moved to what was then known as Short Creek on the Arizona/Utah border. And despite excommunications from the LDS church and police raids from state governments, the community continued to grow over the next few decades, and eventually became the hub for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS.
The FLDS church is only one of many denominations that are part of the surprisingly broad fundamentalist Mormon diaspora, but they are often seen as the most rigid in their beliefs and strictest in their practices. Though it is difficult to determine the number of their adherents, especially in recent years, many scholars believe they might have claimed up to 10,000 members in their heyday. (The total number of Mormon fundamentalists in the Rocky Mountain region may be as many as three times that number, though it is impossible to gauge due to the various institutions’ secrecy as well as the fact that many polygamists don’t claim any official affiliation.) The church received international news in the last two decades when their prophet and leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested for, among other things, sexual misconduct with a minor due to his multiple marriages to teenage girls, as well as a government raid on the faith’s secluded compound in Eldorado, Texas. Jeffs was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Keep Sweet, which draws its title from a phrase associated with Jeffs and others to encourage their followers to remain pure and submissive, narrates the story of the FLDS community in Short Creek over the last 20 years. It tells about how Jeffs installed high fencing and other secretive practices to shield his believers from the wider world, as well as how the women and children experienced his severe instructions and guidelines. There are home videos of polygamous families singing and praying, the only thing separating them from the typical religious American household being the number of mothers present. But there are also audiocassettes of Jeffs’s monotone voice dictating how they were to live their lives—how wives were to submit to their husbands, and how families were to submit to him. The film touches on the well-trodden story of the “lost boys,” those young men allegedly forced to leave the community so that the elder patriarchs could have less competition for brides.
The real heart of the documentary, however, is its exploration of the “invisible civil war” that engulfed the community after Jeffs’s arrest. Faithful families who had previously purchased homes in Short Creek had consecrated them to the church, which meant they were under the control of the United Effort Plan Trust. But after Jeffs’s conviction, that trust was placed in the hands of a public board appointed by the state, and soon controlled by people who had previously fled the faith. Terrill Musser, who had previously left the faith but returned to the town with his family, and Shirlee Draper, formerly a plural wife who had escaped with her children, now found themselves in control of property from which they had previously been banished.
The rest of the film focuses on this awkward dialogue between many different parties who maintain radically divergent views. Could Short Creek, previously the refuge for fundamentalists, become an inclusive haven for people of all faiths?
One of the most gripping figures in the film is Christine Marie Katas. Though not a member of the fundamentalist faith, she has become an advocate for many of its women, positioning herself as an intermediary between the community’s competing interest groups. But her own life story becomes a prism through which fundamentalist religion itself is viewed: years earlier, she had followed a man who claimed to be a Mormon prophet and who instructed her to live among the homeless. It was only after being repeatedly raped and abused that she discovered he was a fraud performing an experiment to see what it would take to dupe willing believers. So now, having herself been attached to an unpopular tradition, she is equipped to help with those wedded to another.
Keep Sweet succeeds in emphasizing the importance of being inclusive of those who sustain unpopular beliefs. “We don’t ask anyone to believe something they don’t,” an FLDS wife declares. “We just ask them to let us worship as we believe. Is that a crime?” But that tolerance can come across as patronizing when depicted as the “enlightened” observers aiding the “irrational” fanatics. The documentary, in other words, makes the FLDS women endearing, but they still appear ideologically distant, if not exotic. Listening to the plural wives defend Warren Jeffs can be jarring for watchers in any context, but it is especially so when framed in the service of highlighting the benevolence of those still willing to work with them. “Everybody has a story,” a producer states on screen at one point, “and that’s their truth. And everybody needs to accept that.”
Mormon fundamentalism has spawned a dynamic and changing community that has endured as many schisms as it has generations. Its birth as an organized movement corresponded with and drew from a larger cultural transition in America—the dawning of evangelical fundamentalism, an ideology from which it takes its name, though not all its principles—and it has evolved with nearly every passing decade. Today, there are Mormon fundamentalists that fill a dizzying spectrum, ranging from those who, like the families on Sister Wives, embrace nearly every trapping of modern America save one (monogamy), to those who, like those featured in Keep Sweet, wear prairie dresses and arrange marriages for teenage daughters. Even the FLDS tradition has changed substantially in recent years and features stark divisions within its own believers.
Keep Sweet hints at the changes that took place in the FLDS Church under Warren Jeffs, but the overall tenor of the film posits the fundamentalists as heirlooms from a past age rather than products of the present. Little to no connection is made between their generations that came before, nor their contemporaries who influence them now. (If historians or religious studies scholars were consulted on the project, none of their interviews made it to the final product.) They make a compelling case for Americans to be more accommodating to the fundamentalists, but in the same way one would for a new wing in the Smithsonian.
Perhaps more than any individual interviewed for the film, the landscape of southern Utah and northern Arizona is the most dominating character. Wide-angle shots consistently show the deep-red rocks, the arid climate, and, especially, the imposing mountain that casts a shadow over the entire valley. These arresting cliffs often serve as a featured image and poignant metaphor for the community, as they do on the book covers for exposés written by Jon Krakauer and Sam Brower. They represent not only the perceived rigidity of the fundamentalist faith, but also a seemingly impenetrable boundary between them and the rest of society—a boundary, often implied, between civilized and uncivilized.
Scholars, filmmakers, and writers not only recognize this boundary, but they often reaffirm its presence and buttress its permanence. This is true for those who, like Krakauer, wish to use the fundamentalists to emphasize the dangers of fanatic religion, as well as for those who, like Keep Sweet, hope to praise the merits of American universalism and inclusivity. In both cases, the believers are taken out of time and place, perched as if in their own historical exhibit in the museum of American culture, unable to change, adapt, evolve, or even to be understood on their own terms. Once again, they are a people apart, a community only meant to appear in juxtaposition and divorced from its own history.
Until Americans cease understanding Mormon fundamentalism merely as a product of the ancient past, we will continue to miss the lessons they have for our present.
Benjamin E. Park teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University. He is the co-editor of Mormon Studies Review, editor of A Companion to American Religious History, and author of Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. He is currently working on a history of Mormonism in America for W. W. Norton/Liveright.