Few missionary efforts to reach an unreached people group could be done with so little time and travel expenses as a mission to Hildale/Colorado City. Certainly reaching and evangelizing to a group such as the polygamists is no less important than the Richardson’s efforts in the jungle, but this mission comes without a language barrier, bugs, or cannibalism. There are nearby Christian churches in neighboring towns, likely ready to offer support. And there happens to be a small group of former polygamists that could serve as an access point in understanding the theology and culture, even provide a bridge to opportunities. In what follows, this post will offer a background of the Hildale/Colorado Community, a brief survey of the mission work or lack there of already being done, and a proposal for a mission to this American unreached people group.
The Primer, a guidebook by the Attorneys General of Utah and Arizona, written for those working with Fundamentalist Mormon families states, “there are approximately 37,000 people (residing primarily in the Rocky Mountain region) who consider themselves to be Fundamentalist Mormons. This means they adhere to the religious doctrines of early Mormonism which include polygamy or ‘plural marriage’, sometimes called ‘The Principle’.”8 As McConkie explains, “In the early days of this dispensation, as part of the promised restitution of all things, the Lord revealed the principle of plural marriage to the Prophet [Joseph Smith]. Later the Prophet and leading brethren were commanded to enter into enter into the practice, which they did in all virtue and purity of heart despite the consequent animosity and prejudices of worldly people.”9 Brigham Young, the next LDS prophet, continued teaching the ordinance of plural marriage, which was openly practiced among Mormons in Utah until 1890 despite outside pressure. McConkie writes, “At that time conditions were such that the Lord by revelation withdrew the command to continue the practice, and President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto directing that it cease.”10 But this did not end the practice of plural marriage among Mormons. Krakauer argues, “For the next two decades members of the Mormon First Presidency privately advised Saints that polygamy should be continued, albeit discreetly, and top leaders of the church secretly preformed numerous plural marriages.”11 In 1910—after the Salt Lake Tribune cast light on the underground practice, and under tremendous pressure, the LDS Church finally ended plural marriage among its members. However, “a significant number of dedicated Saints,” writes Krakaur, “were convinced that Wilford Woodruff had been grievously mistaken when he’d issued the Manifesto, and that heeding it ran counter to the religion’s most sacred principles.”12 Holding to the prophecy of Joseph Smith, this group of entrenched Mormons eventually came to proudly call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists. With the exception of plural marriage, the Fundamentalists initially shared in the faith and practice of the mainline LDS; but over time, shifts in theology and practice, along with splinters in leadership birthed not only many different sects of Fundamentalists Mormons, it also caused a divergence from the mainline Mormon religion.
Today, Fundamental Mormon residents of Hildale/Colorado City are highly shaped by the direction and teaching of their prophet-leaders and the actions of the outside world beyond their city lines. It is probably not easy for the residents to forget 100 police officers raiding Hildale/Colorado City, arresting the men and bussing frightened women and children to southern Arizona, even if it was 1953. And although not in the same community, recent raids in Texas have likely stirred the memories of those living in Hildale/Colorado City. “These events have resulted in deep scars among Fundamentalist Mormons” states The Primer, “and helped to foster a fear of government agencies and a distrust of ‘outsiders’.”13 There is a high likelihood of mistrust of anything with the appearance of a government agency and the polygamist group tends to prefer “non-traditional therapies, including herbs, reflexology, massage, homeopathy, naturopathy, spiritual healing and lay midwifery.”14
The influence of religious control might be shocking to many Americans. Most of the land is owned by a trust called the United Effort Plan, which until recently, was ran by Warren Jeffs and five other leaders of the FLDS organization. A strong influence over the local government agencies also tends to keep the community homogenized. The Primer states,
Women dress with a distinct appearance, very modest, covered from neck to toe. Their hair is kept long, but styled in such a way that it is not free flowing. Long pants and collared long sleeve shirts are typical of the men.22 Jewelry is unthinkable. Clothing is about function, not fashion, but then, there is little reason to create an impression with apparel. “Dating or courting are forbidden” and the women tend to marry very young—often to older men—and children bearing begins immediately.23 Author Elissa Wall paints a chilling picture in her book, Stolen Innocence, narrating how she was forced to marry her 19-year-old first cousin at age 14.24
Fundamentalist Mormons may use Christian terminology but they have altered the definitions. They are not, by all standards of doctrinal orthodoxy, Christian. Those living in Hildale/Colorado City are not only geographically isolated in the middle of the desert, they are imprisoned by their own religious culture. Converting to Christianity may likely result in a complete separation from family and friends, termination of employment, removal of all property, and potentially banishment from the city. And without much of an education and a mysterious upbringing void of social norms like the Internet, television, and magazines, leaving the city is likely a frightening proposition. For those who have never lived outside Hildale/Colorado City, there is a good possibility of never having heard the gospel. This is a mission field no less significant than Don and Carol Richardson’s jungles of New Guinea.
Presently, there are no local and openly public Christian churches located in Hildale/Colorado City. Being substantially removed from any other Arizona cities, the closest reasonable churches are located 25 miles north in Hurricane, Utah; but even then, there are a couple small Christian churches within the neighboring community—First Southern Baptist and Northbridge Chapel. St. Paul Catholic Center is also located in Hurricane. Approximately ten miles to the north of Hurricane (which is a total of about 35 miles from Hildale/Colorado City), is La Verkin, home to a single Christian church called Mountain View Bible Church. Ten miles to the southwest of Hurricane is St. George, the largest city in Washington County. There are just under a dozen or so Christian churches located in St. George, which includes the Catholic assemblies.
Examining Washington County—of which most of its population resides in St. George—the Association of Religious Data Archives reports that in 2000, only about 2.4% of the population were either evangelical or mainline Christians.26 This number is nearly half that of the entire state of Utah (which is only 4.3%), both being substantially lower than the national figure of 46.7%.27 Because Utah has such a low number of mainline and evangelical Christians within its boards, the churches that are working to evangelize their communities are already facing a large mission field on limited resources. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the few Christians living in St. George and Hurricane are working to reach their immediate neighboring cities and have little time to venture into the neighboring, untrusting community of Hildale/Colorado City. This is not to say, however, that there is no Christian mission work targeted at Hildale/Colorado City.
Various secular cooperative groups such as Safety Net and Tapestry Against Polygamy are working to eliminate the atrocities that can arise in polygamist families, but these groups do not generally focus on theology or spiritual matters. Additionally, many Christian churches are working with organizations such as Holding out Help, which provides housing for women and children that flee polygamy. And some churches have even developed ministries targeted specially to Fundamentalist Mormons living throughout Utah. One such ministry, A Shield and Refuge, produces a local television show that seeks to answers the questions of polygamists. Main Street Church of Brigham City supports it. Other ministries work to generate awareness about Mormonism and Fundamental Mormonism and occasionally conduct evangelism efforts directed at these groups. These ministries include Standing Together, Mormon Research Ministries, and Utah Lighthouse Ministries. But secular or not, this author is aware of no recent Christian organizations to have directed efforts into the geographic area and people group of Hildale/Colorado City.
While the purpose of evangelism into any community is to share and proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus, some special consideration is necessary for Hildale/Colorado City. The community is not only an enclave of Fundamentalist Mormons, it is a totalitarian city with a specific design to exclude and persecute those not of the same faith as well as those no longer submitting to the authority of the FLDS. As The Primer indicates, those leaving the faith may face immediate needs and challenges to include “no means of transportation, no income (no food, clothing or household goods), no housing arrangements (in some cases for numerous children), no education arrangements, incomplete birth or Social Security records, no family or friends for support, an uncooperative or combative relationship with an ex-partner, legal custody conflicts, fear of reprisals, no knowledge of how to seek social services assistance, and ostracism from the former faith or congregation.”30 Therefore, any Christian effort in Hildale/Colorado City must also be prepared to help overcome these difficulties. That may be in the form of direct help or guiding the individual or family to other agencies that may be of assistance in specific trouble areas.
Being willing to go into the Hildale/Colorado City community and realizing the magnitude of need that may arise upon conversion, the first and most important step is prayer. “In prayer” writes Grudem, “God allows us as creatures to be involved in activities that are eternally important. When we pray, the work of the kingdom is advanced. In this way, prayer gives us opportunity to be involved in a significant way in the word of the kingdom an this gives expression to our greatness as creatures made in God’s image.”31 An example of the early Church praying before mission work is found in Acts 13:1-3. Here, the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for missionary work and then the disciples still prayed some more before sending them. And not only will prayer among those venturing into Hildale/Colorado City be important, it will be necessary that the missionaries have a support network regularly entering into prayer for the community and the missionary work.
The next step of the mission strategy is investigation and reconnoiter. In order to get an understanding of the area, it will be important for the missionary or missionaries32 to journey to Hildale/Colorado City for short mission trip simply to look around and get a “feel” for the community. There are no lodging options so the missionaries will need to find a hotel in Hurricane or St. George. It may be beneficial to visit with the local churches of Hurricane and St. George to find out if they are engaged in any missionary work in Hildale/Colorado City, and if not, determine what kind of support they may be able to offer, if any. Then as much time as possible should be spent in Hildale/Colorado City. Meals should be eaten in the few restaurants such as Mary Wives, the lone sit-down restaurant on the Hildale side of the border, and at The Border Store, the highway gas station. If possible, purchases should be made at the single grocery in town. A visit to the city park might also be in order. If asked, missionaries should be honest about the reason for their visit, saying, “We are followers of Jesus Christ and have been praying for your community. We wanted to come here to see if we might be able to serve you in some way, pray for you, and share the love of Jesus Christ with you.” Missionaries should be prepared for any reaction. In addition, the missionaries should use this time to ask if there is anything they might pray for the person. Also, the missionaries should try to make time to pray for the Holy Spirit’s work in the city, and they should engage in some prayer walking. While this trip is primarily for the missionaries, they should also have material to leave with residents if the opportunity arises. However, this material should not be argumentative-style tracts.
Following this initial trip, the missionaries should continue to pray about this mission. They should also use any preparation time to read and learn as much history of the FLDS and their theology as possible. Materials that can be left for people in the community should be selected, such as Bibles and other helpful guides in understanding the gospel. These materials should be small enough that the curious polygamists can easily hide them and prevent any unwanted trouble. Support from churches and fellow believers should be well established so the missionaries are able to afford food and housing for a long-term mission. Housing should be secured in Hurricane or St. George until the missionaries have established enough acceptance to be granted housing in Hildale/Colorado City. Likely, the missionaries will never be accepted as part of the community. And the missionaries should have transportation reliable enough to travel back and forth between Hurricane and Hildale/Colorado City.
Before starting a long-term mission, the missionaries and supporting churches should determine if they know any former polygamists who have converted to Christianity but may still have family members living in Hildale/Colorado City. If so (and if the former polygamists are willing), they should meet with the missionaries to share their backgrounds, conversion stories, present situation, magnitude of Christ’s influence in their lives, and anything else they may wish to share with their family still entrenched in Mormon Fundamentalism. The missionaries should ask the former polygamists to commit to regular prayer for the FLDS community, family members, the missionaries, and the mission efforts. The former polygamists should also be encouraged to send e-mails, letters, and photos to the missionaries. Additionally, a system should be instituted so that in the event that the Holy Spirit creates opportunities, the missionaries can act as an underground communication vehicle between disconnected family members willing to break the command of no communication. (Hopefully, this small rebellion directed at learning about a loved one could prove to be a critical relationship opportunity for the missionaries.) It might also be helpful for the missionaries to have a small digital camera so they may take photos to send back to the former polygamist.
Finally, the missionaries should familiarize themselves with the various programs that offer assistance to fleeing polygamists. They should introduce themselves and make a small list of contact numbers and information they can give out if necessary.
Once the missionaries have their support in place, it is time to move to Hurricane. While the option of finding employment is an easy possibility in Hurricane or St. George, they should refrain from working unless they can find employment in Hildale/Colorado City; and even then, employment should only be seen as a way to get close to people in the mission field. Regular routines of life should be established. They should try to eat every meal in the few public places, becoming “regulars” at every place possible. In doing so, they should not only remain accessible, they should be intentional about initiating natural conversation with the other patrons and staff. Asking about the specials or what the waiter likes best could be good starter questions. The missionaries should also determine if one of these locations might be appropriate to engage in a short Bible study together. Eventually as the missionaries develop routines, they will understand those of the staff and community and potentially have the opportunity to notice when something has changed in the routines of others. This opens the door for personal questions, such as “I missed you on Wednesday; were you on vacation or out sick, or was it something else? It’s not the same around here without you.” Missionaries should also attend events that are open to the public such as town meetings. And they should start a regular routine of prayer walking.
Another possibility (as determined by the missionaries) might be to turn back to open-air style preaching from time to time. In the early years of American history when entertainment was sparse, people attended tent meetings for something to do. This may be a possibility, but not at the cost of other missional efforts in the community. If a missionary is musically gifted, this kind of entertainment might also be tried. But again, this is only after the missionaries have been in the community long enough to determine how effective it may be and whether or not it is appropriate.
It is possible that the Holy Spirit will act quickly and results could be surprising; however, it is likely that missionaries will see little success and few open opportunities for a long time, potentially even years. The significant key however, is sticking with the mission over a great duration. Therefore, the missionaries should establish routines and rhythms of work and rest that will prevent discouragement and burnout. This should include daily Bible reading and study as well as ample prayer throughout the day. They should seek opportunities to worship God.
As missionaries are able to establish relationships and proclaim the gospel, hope should be held that entire families are saved and wish to remain in the community rather than flee. Should this occur, an effort to set up worship gatherings and services with the believers must take place. On the other hand, should converts desire to leave the community, the missionaries should be ready to connect the new believers with any services they may need and a good Christian community wherever they my desire to go.
1. Multnomah University, Peace Child, DVD, Directed by Rolf Forsberg (Worcester, PA: Vision Video, 1972).
** This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.