Into Hildale-Colorado City: Reaching Unreached People Groups

Depicted in the film, Peace Child, Don and Carol Richardson ventured deep into the jungles of New Guinea to share the gospel with a small cannibalistic tribe that placed treachery as its highest value.1 The year was 1962 and few people could have imagined the success that the Richardson’s would experience. Seminary and Bible college students viewing this film today in comfortable classrooms, nestled safely in American communities, probably see missions of this caliber as only available to those who wish to canoe up piranha-filled rivers to visit tribal people who speak an unknown language, where they will have to eat insects, risk malaria, and translate the New Testament. These students do not likely imagine that pockets of unreached people groups exist in America; but the reality is they do. One such group is the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist community situated on the Utah-Arizona border. On the Utah side is the smaller community of Hildale; its larger counterpart is Colorado City, Arizona. This totalitarian community—recently famed by the media’s coverage if its leader’s legal troubles, Warren Jeffs—is a community basically void of any Christians. Hildale/Colorado City is essentially a community of polygamists and nothing else. It is an unreached people group within the United States.

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.

 Located on in Washington County along the southern border of Utah, Hildale is the smaller northern portion of the Hildale/Colorado City community. The 2000 Census reports that Hildale’s population was 1,895 people. It is a small town, covering only 2.9 square miles.2 Considering that in 1970, the population was reported at only 480 people, this town has experienced a consistent growth with each new census.3 Just over the Arizona border—which cuts through the northern third of the community—is Colorado City. Originally named Short Creek, the town remained a small cattle rancher gathering, until approximately 1930 when “a group of religious fundamentalists came from Utah seeking refuge and played a major part in pioneering the community to the thriving little city that it is today.”4 They renamed the town Colorado City, and in 2008, the Arizona Department of Commerce and the US Census Bureau listed its population at 4,042. Krakauer however, argues that this joint Utah-Arizona community has nearly 9,000 inhabitants, and “all but a handful of the town’s residents are Mormon Fundamentalists.”5 At least three Mormon Fundamentalist or polygamist sects call Hildale/Colorado City home according to Krakauer; one of them being the world’s largest and most well known sects, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also know as the United Effort Plan or simply FLDS.6 “They live in this patch of desert” Krakauer writes, “in the hope of being left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage without interference from government authorities or the LDS Church.”7 

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, 
The community values obedience to leaders. For many years, church members have occupied roles in most phases of civil government in the twin towns. This has led to some criticism that opposing voices have little opportunity for influence. It has been alleged that the FLDS Church controls the police force, city council, city government, and elected officials.15

The grip of church leadership also holds strong control over the community’s ability to receive outside information. Members of the FLDS, at least in Hildale/Colorado City “are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers.”16 The Primer continues, stating,
Those who have left the community have reported that popular music, radios and television are considered “worldly” and are thus inappropriate and forbidden in this community. Children are usually home-schooled or attend a church school until junior high, after which time they are assigned “work missions” or they get married. Former members state that they did not receive sex education, they were taught the Holocaust never occurred and that the government fabricated the story of man’s landing on the moon.17

Few members of the FLDS leave Hildale/Colorado City voluntarily; and if they do, family and friends are forbidden from communicating with them, they often lose their land, and are excommunicated from their church.18 “Former members say that leaving is seen as a terrible sin,” reports The Primer, “and may incur the most severe punishment and divine condemnation.”19 Wives may even be reassigned to other men in the community.20 Disagreements with leadership or leaving the dominant religion may result evection from the community. And for whatever reason, the community has forced hundreds of boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 (dubbed “The Lost Boys”) to leave Hildale/Colorado City without any support.21

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.

While there is a small number of secular organizations publicly reaching out to the people of Hildale/Colorado City, it is difficult to determine what the missional work of the Christian Church might be. Because of the reluctance to trust outsiders, and because the state of Utah is already a population grossly short of Christians25 (making the entire state a potential mission field), the Christian mission efforts to evangelize Hildale/Colorado City are few and generally kept out of the public awareness.

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.

The overarching purpose of any mission strategy should be the fulfillment of Jesus’ command commonly known as the Great Commission. Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”28 Mark’s writing of this commission might be more encouraging to missionaries headed to Hildale/Colorado City. It simply reads, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”29 Therefore, a strategy must be developed in order that the gospel is proclaimed to the people 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.

No piranhas can be found on Highway 59 between Hurricane and Hildale/Colorado City. The FLDS are not cannibals. Everybody involved speaks English. And the mission field is in the United States. But as Bible college and seminary graduates are getting fired up about gallivanting into tropical rainforests to take the gospel to unreached people groups, they should not overlook Hildale/Colorado City. Sure, the residents might frequently use the name of Jesus, but they do not know him and have never heard his gospel, the real gospel of the Bible. There are potentially 8,000 to 9,000 unreached people only 5 hours away from Salt Lake City, only 3 hours from Las Vegas, and under 6 from Phoenix. There is no language barrier. Nobody eats bugs. And still, this people group is waiting to hear the gospel, waiting to meet Jesus. It is the hope and prayer of this author that the unreached people group of Hildale/Colorado City are no longer unreached, but reached, and gloriously praising the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Association of Religious Data Archives. “County Membership Report: Washington County, Utah.” (accessed October 13, 2010).

Association of Religious Data Archives. “State Membership Report: Utah.” (accessed October 13, 2010).

Association of Religious Data Archives. “U.S. Membership Report.” (accessed October 13, 2010). “Colorado City.” A “Community Profile” listed under “Community Profile Index.” (accessed October 11, 2010).

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966.

Multnomah University. Peace Child, DVD. Directed by Rolf Forsberg. Worshester, PA: Vision Video, 1972

Offices of the Utah and Arizona Attorneys General. The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families. Updated August 2009. “Census 2000: 235 Utah Cities Ranked by Land Area and Population Density” under “Documents.” (accessed October 11, 2010). “Office of the Attorney General: Mark Shurtleff.” “The ‘Lost Boys’ Law” under “Press Releases.” (accessed October 12, 2010). “Utah Municipalities / Census Designated Places” under “Documents.” (accessed October 11, 2010).

1.  Multnomah University, Peace Child, DVD, Directed by Rolf Forsberg (Worcester, PA: Vision Video, 1972).
2., “Census 2000: 235 Utah Cities Ranked by Land Area and Population Density” under “Documents,” (accessed October 11, 2010), 2.
3., “Utah Municipalities / Census Designated Places” under “Documents,” (accessed October 11, 2010), 5.
4., “Colorado City,” a “Community Profile” under “Community Profile Index,” (accessed October 11, 2010).
5. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), 18.
6.  Krakauer, 18.
7. Krakuaer, 18.
8. Offices of the Utah and Arizona Attorneys General, The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families, Updated August 2009,, 7.
9. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1966), 578.
10. McConkie, 578.
11. Krakauer, 255.
12. Krakauer, 255.
13 The Primer, 8.
14. The Primer, 6.
15. The Primer, 18.
16. Krakauer, 11.
17. The Primer, 19.
18 The Primer, 18.
19. The Primer, 18.
20. The Primer, 18.
21., “Office of the Attorney General: Mark Shurtleff,” “The ‘Lost Boys’ Law” under “Press Releases,” (accessed October 12, 2010).
22. The Primer, 19.
23. The Primer, 19.
24. Elissa Wall, and Lisa Beth Pulitzer, Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2008).
25. When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are excluded from the definition of Christian.
26. Association of Religious Data Archives, “County Membership Report: Washington County, Utah,” (accessed October 13, 2010).
27. Association of Religious Data Archives, “State Membership Report: Utah,” (accessed October 13, 2010), and Association of Religious Data Archives, “U.S. Membership Report,” (accessed October 13, 2010).
28. Matthew 28:19-20, ESV.
29. Mark 16:15, ESV.
30. The Primer, 5.
31. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 377.
32. No indication of how many missionaries should go will be given in this paper. It should remain in the hands of those willing and able as well as those sent by the Holy Spirit. While this author believes there should be no less than two, it will be assumed that this strategy is for multiple missionaries.

* Photo is registered under a creative commons license.
** 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.