Zion on the Prairie
[Published in Museo 11, Spring 2009]
If you drive northeast of the tiny town of Eldorado, Texas (pop. 2,000) on Schleicher County Road 300, there isn’t much to see, save the occasional oil well and the limitless, low-lying brush of the dry landscape. But four miles or so out of town, as the calm monotony of west Texas ranch country begins to set in, you’ll come upon an unmarked, padlocked gate, initially indistinguishable from those found at countless other dusty turnoffs along the road. This one is different, though: in the distance, far beyond the wire mesh fence, a collection of buildings, anchored by a prominent white structure, conspicuously rises like a mirage from the otherwise vacant prairie. An agricultural complex, you might think, or perhaps some kind of industrial park. But no: inside the gate lies the site of the most recent chapter of America’s history of confrontation between fundamentalist religion and organized democracy. The gate itself represents nothing less than the front line in the enduring battle over the power of the state to interfere in private religious affairs, an unresolved conflict that, in many ways, is written into this country’s DNA. It’s a complex story of migration, polygamy, alleged pedophilia, vast sums of money, and of course, great controversy. But perhaps more than anything, it’s a story of one of the most radical and compelling utopian experiments in recent American history.
The saga begins with a man named David Allred, who materialized in Eldorado in the fall of 2003 looking to buy some land. For a reported sum of $700,000, Allred secured a 1,700-plus-acre tract of land northeast of the town, completing the sale under the auspices of YFZ Land, LLC, explaining that it would be used as a corporate hunting retreat for wealthy clients of his Utah company. Upon the closing of the transaction, dozens of workers arrived almost immediately, quickly installed a small camp of trailer homes on site, and commenced construction on three large structures, supposedly hunting lodges for guests of the new ranch. But as construction continued around the clock, and as materials, equipment, and personnel continued to arrive en masse, by the following spring, townspeople began to whisper about the goings-on up at the ranch. Stoked by reports from local pilots who had flown over the property, the aggressive investigative reporting of the town’s newspaper, and, most of all, by rumors emanating from an obscure corner of Utah, an alternate reality began to emerge.
Allred was no ordinary Utah businessman. His company, YFZ Land, was in fact a front for a much larger entity, the United Effort Plan (UEP), a religious trust founded in the 1940s by a reclusive splinter group of Mormons, designed to consolidate assets and shield its members from public oversight. Operating under the rubric of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), this branch of Mormonism traces its roots back to the 1890 grand bargain between the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and the federal government of the United States, in which the Church agreed to forswear its controversial practice of polygamy in return for gaining statehood for Utah. Polygamy persisted, however, in the rural reaches of the new state, as certain members of the Church refused to renounce a fundamental tenet of Mormonism as established by founder Joseph Smith earlier in the nineteenth century: the belief in a direct correspondence between the number of wives a man has and his chances of gaining entry to Heaven.
The FLDS was thus born as a breakaway sect in protest against the LDS’s compromise with the federal government, and its followers slowly built a stronghold in the southwestern corner of Utah, in and around a border settlement called Short Creek, now known as the sister municipalities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. Seeing themselves in the age-old American tradition of religious groups withdrawing from mainstream society to escape persecution, the FLDS flourished in isolation, building their own institutions and economy, amassing great wealth in the communal UEP trust. Their strategic location, straddling a state border, afforded a protective measure of jurisdictional ambiguity that shielded them sufficiently from state interference for most of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, the UEP had mushroomed into a one-to-two hundred million dollar entity, and the FLDS had become a de facto dictatorship under the reign of member Warren Steed Jeffs, who inherited control over the church and its trust from his ailing father. A self-declared prophet who claims direct descent from Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, Jeffs quickly assumed control over all aspects of FLDS life, arranging marriages, reassigning wives at his discretion, confiscating houses, and excommunicating those who refused to bend to his will.
Jeffs’s fervent insistence on expanding the scope of polygamy—he is rumored to have more than seventy wives—exacerbated an implicit problem with the practice. Within a finite population (the FLDS is said to number some 10,000), there is an equally finite supply of potential brides, and the more aggressive the pursuit of polygamy, the more rapid the logic of supply and demand takes effect. As the men turn to ever younger girls for their so-called “celestial brides,” a pattern of institutionalized pedophilia sets in. By the early part of this decade, lurid tales began to seep out of the FLDS community, particularly from excommunicated FLDS members, disenchanted with Jeffs’ increasingly erratic stewardship, which attracted the attention of state authorities. Drawn by sensational stories of polygamy, pedophilia, and forced marriages, the media began sustained coverage of the sect’s activities, and the FLDS was once again thrust unwillingly into the national spotlight.
It was within this unstable milieu of mounting scrutiny, suspicion, and incipient internal dissent that Jeffs began to formulate his Plan B. Perhaps knowingly, Jeffs—who before long would be indicted on a host of sexual assault charges and subsequently placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list—concluded that the FLDS would need to retreat from their twin citadels and relocate their nerve center, once again escaping the public eye. But he had more in mind than merely going underground: instead of maintaining the sect’s dependent relationship with the machinery and institutions of mainstream America, Jeffs reconceived the FLDS as an autonomous sovereignty, divorced from American society and its laws. He envisioned a shift away from the lifestyle of parallel coexistence popularized by the HBO drama “Big Love,” and instead, towards an idealistic notion of a self-sustaining polygamist society that would thrive independently, outside the realm of contemporary civilization. It was at this moment, fueled by vanity, fear, and delusion, that Jeffs became a utopian visionary.
Enter David Allred, dispatched by Jeffs under the guise of YFZ Land, LLC to secure a site for a new polygamist utopia. Yearning for Zion, it would be called (hence the acronym YFZ), and it would be realized with the vast financial resources accrued by the FLDS over the past half century. While details of the design and planning of the new settlement are not known, it is evident that there was an overarching vision from the start. For unlike the towns of Colorado City and Hildale, in which the FLDS homesteads—oversized yet conspicuously unadorned McMansions—are improvisationally integrated into an existing urban context, Yearning for Zion presented a carte blanche for the FLDS to express their ideology as an explicitly architectural proposition. And while the Eldorado locals continued to refer to the site as a “ranch” even after the revelation that Allred’s corporate retreat was in fact a project of polygamist colonization, that term belies the ambition of the FLDS: Yearning for Zion is no mere ranch, but rather a city, complete with all the attendant complexities, contradictions, and aspirations inherent in any city.
Given the reclusive, secretive nature of the FLDS, outsiders can only experience Yearning for Zion from the air. Thanks to J.D. Doyle, a local pilot in Eldorado who has compiled photographs of the city under construction, we have a relatively complete record of its development. As the city expanded, two notable characteristics of Yearning for Zion became apparent: the relentless grid pattern of its growth and its immense scale, the latter somewhat deceptively minimized in aerial photographs. The first three buildings to be constructed, presumably residences for the first FLDS settlers who arrived from Short Creek, were built ad hoc, in a diagonal row along the north-south axis, perhaps in response to the site’s topography. But these buildings were soon followed by the construction of a host of support structures—greenhouses, grain silos, maintenance sheds, workshops, and a concrete production facility—all of which were organized along a strict grid pattern, oriented precisely to the cardinal directions. The first three buildings were quickly subsumed into an ever-expanding Jeffersonian grid of the kind that so often provided the template for American frontier settlements. To date, the original residences are the only structures that deviate from the grid.
As construction on the city progressed, a distinctive architecture emerged. The first three buildings, each at least 10,000 square feet in size, established the FLDS residential typology: stacked log construction on a concrete base, raised porches, green gabled roofs, and consistently awkward, oversized proportions. The contrast of these buildings with their landscape is exacerbated by the odd choice to build with logs in an area of the state where there are no trees. Thus it seems that the FLDS’s intention is to invoke the mythologized American cabins of past settlers, and by extension, portray themselves as the quintessential American frontier society. In a remarkable, bizarre synthesis of formal convention (notions of what a house ought to look like) with the functional demands of a polygamist lifestyle, the typical FLDS house strives to project the idealized image of American domesticity, yet everything is scaled up in size as needed in order to accommodate the numerous sister-wives, as the brides are called, and scores of children who live inside.
The siting of the residences is similarly dictated by a grossly exaggerated sense of scale. Each superblock, several thousand feet square and easily equivalent to a New York City block, contains just one or two of these units. But although the American democratic ideal of a house and lawn is taken to the extreme here in Zion, the urban model is not without hierarchy. Within the first year, a large H-shaped structure was built adjacent to and on axis with the sect’s meeting house. Said to be Jeffs’s private compound, this enormous abode could easily house hundreds, and its completion marked a turning point for the church’s new Texan outpost: their leader and prophet would soon arrive.
Jeffs’s architectural ambitions went well beyond a new home for him and his sprawling family. On January 1, 2005, he materialized in Eldorado—his last reported appearance before going on the run—to conduct a dedication ceremony for a massive structure that had only recently commenced construction. This new building, the first and only FLDS temple, completed within a matter of months, was marked by a comprehensive depth of utopian vision and would become the iconic emblem of Jeffs’s Texan endeavor and the controversy that ensued. Dedicated to the Lord, Mormon temples are reserved for special forms of worship and differ from the relatively ordinary meetinghouses used for weekly prayer. Clad in white limestone quarried and cut on the property, the YFZ temple rises above a pristinely manicured grass lawn and can be seen for miles. In fact, it can only be seen from a significant distance, due to the twelve-foot-high perimeter walls that surround it. Its whiteness—in stark contrast to the drab Texan prairie—is arresting, but even more breathtaking is its scale. The building’s image taps into the small-town American imaginary of what civic architecture should look like, complete with a stately structure anchoring the town green. But the incongruity of the structure is jarring in the land of “Friday Night Lights,” where visionary architecture is usually limited to high school football stadia and grain silos.
Jeffs’s audacious decision to build a major temple in Eldorado was part of his broader attempt to usurp the mantle of Mormonism from the mainstream LDS church, which has a history of constructing iconic temples throughout the world, with notable examples including those in Oakland, San Diego, and Kensington, Maryland near Washington, DC, as well as the central temple in downtown Salt Lake City. The importance of the temple dates to the earliest days of the Church, which, under the leadership of founder Joseph Smith, was settled in Nauvoo, llinois in the late 1830s and early 1840s, after Mormons fled persecution at earlier settlements in New York, Ohio, and Missouri. Smith had prophesied a Mormon Zion from the outset, and his hope was that the new city of Nauvoo would fulfill this vision. At the center of the city was a temple, constructed of white limestone, and the Mormon settlers rapidly established a civic infrastructure, complete with their own newspaper, university, judiciary system, and militia. But this first Mormon experiment in municipal theocracy was not fated to last. Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob in 1844, and his followers, under the leadership of Brigham Young, fled westward in 1846, eventually founding Salt Lake City. In 1848, the Nauvoo Temple was destroyed by fire under suspicious circumstances and, to this day, remains for Mormons—both mainstream and fundamentalist—a reminder of the tumultuous origins of their Church. For the FLDS particularly, the dream of the Nauvoo experiment and its destroyed temple represents the Zion to which they yearn to return.
A number of the YFZ temple’s features, such as the tablet-shaped windows and steeple comprised of a dome perched atop an octagonal drum, refer directly to those of the Illinois building; the scale, white limestone material and basilica-like proportions suggest a connection as well. Jeffs and the FLDS have always insisted on their rightful title as the true standard-bearers of the Mormon faith. But the construction of the Eldorado temple in the approximate image of Nauvoo takes this challenge to new heights by establishing an architectural bond to the structure associated with Mormonism’s inception, thereby linking the FLDS cause to Smith’s utopian mission.
The differences, however, between the two are also consequential for understanding the nature of utopia as imagined by the FLDS. The Nauvoo Temple, which has since been rebuilt by the LDS (2002), fits into the American tradition of neoclassical municipal building that can be found in small towns throughout the country. One could imagine such a building alternatively serving as a city hall, school, or post office. The FLDS reinterpretation departs from Nauvoo in its sloped roof, more characteristic of Christian spiritual architecture, but the neoclassical ornamental embellishments are gone, replaced by an almost abstract checkerboard field of square limestone panels, punctuated only by mirrored glass windows, peculiar features for any religious building. And, perhaps most notably, each corner is anchored by a round turret, a form typical of military fortification. The turrets are topped with crenellations that continue around the roofline, suggesting the profile of a castle or a fort, thereby producing an uncanny confusion of religious monumentality and the architecture of military defense.
Like Smith’s experiment at Nauvoo, Yearning for Zion’s ambitious scope only increased the unwanted scrutiny and suspicion of outsiders, which was not conducive to the ongoing legal struggles of the FLDS. After a long period of investigation and subsequent flight, Jeffs was apprehended for sexual assault in the summer of 2006, although it is suspected that he still maintains firm control of the FLDS from prison. State authorities in both Utah and Arizona looked to Eldorado in their efforts to uncover the murky dealings of Jeffs and the FLDS, financial and otherwise. As the legal troubles escalated, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the brewing tensions between FLDS and state government bubbled over into a more direct confrontation.
The tipping point came on March 29, 2008, when a hotline in Texas received a phone call from a sixteen-year-old FLDS girl who resided at Yearning for Zion, claiming that she had been forced to marry an older man, bear his children, and endure sustained sexual assault. The state was convinced that this was the long-awaited smoking gun that would at last confirm the alleged misdeeds of the FLDS. A week later, in a dramatic and coordinated display of force, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies entered the Yearning for Zion property. SWAT teams, helicopters, and an armored personnel carrier descended on the ranch, and authorities began a thorough search of the grounds, expecting to find evidence of sustained patterns of child abuse and pedophilia. Speculation abounded that the temple—off limits to all but the most senior FLDS members—contained all the secrets and was where the celestial marriages were consecrated. The national media arrived, ecstatic and hopeful.
In a now familiar story, the state Child Protective Services agency, suspecting abuse, proceeded to remove more than 450 FLDS children from the ranch, separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care throughout the region. In the following weeks, the media paraded images and interviews of devastated FLDS mothers grieving for their children. Fielding the women—with their trademark pioneer dresses, braided coifs, and strange dialect (a product of a century of cultural isolation)—proved to be a media-savvy counterassault by the FLDS. The women conveyed a sense of united desperation and undeserved trauma, but the spectacle of grief masked their stubborn refusal to compromise their polygamist principles or admit any fault. The ACLU issued a statement in tentative solidarity with the FLDS, Larry King and Oprah arrived, and the nation found itself pondering yet another potentially catastrophic standoff between state law enforcement and religious extremists.
The standoff never came. On May 29, after a series of appeals, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Child Protective Services must return the children to their families, and that the state’s actions were unwarranted. It also later emerged that the original distress call was a hoax, perpetrated by a disillusioned former FLDS woman in Utah hoping to provoke exactly the kind of reaction that the phone call set in motion. Many had anticipated a rehash of the 1993 Waco conflict, in which the confrontation between David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult and federal law enforcement ended in a violent climax, but such hostilities never materialized. The FLDS emerged relatively unscathed; a handful of charges related to sexual crimes and bigamy have been handed down, but otherwise life in Zion continues much as it did before the raid.
Despite the fact that the FLDS utopia in Texas was founded upon the morally taboo practice of polygamy, and despite that YFZ is, in many respects, an exercise in Jeffs’s narcissism, it’s hard to dismiss the group as simply another religious cult that built itself a compound in the hinterland. The logistical foresight is staggering; the FLDS were able to build, from nothing, an infrastructural apparatus that includes a water pumping station; wastewater treatment plant; provisions for food including agricultural fields, orchards, livestock pens, and grain silos; and education, healthcare, and security systems, while also making plans for the construction of future buildings, with the intent of supporting a population in the thousands. But like all utopian projects, this one too is incomplete and contradictory: FLDS members are often spotted in the big-box stores of San Angelo, forty-five miles to the north, eagerly purchasing consumer items in bulk. But this, in a way, underscores Zion’s place in the context of American utopian thought and American society at large, as theirs is a drive to imagine a future different from that with which they would otherwise be faced. And though it may require a temporary suspension of judgment, as the alternate future imagined by this utopia is rife with its own unsavory implications, we discount the lessons of Yearning for Zion at our own peril.
With their prophet incarcerated and their financial assets now frozen in the state of Utah, the members of FLDS at Yearning for Zion persevere nonetheless. Although the anticlimactic outcome of last year’s raid, which failed to produce the violent apotheosis expected by so many, is a kind of vindication, the FLDS can take nothing for granted and remain as vigilant as ever in the defense of their way of life. For the moment, the sect exists in limbo, waiting to see how this latest round of trouble plays out, but they are still clearly guided by Jeffs’s visionary paranoia. His lasting legacy, no doubt, will be the FLDS’s renewed commitment to the nomadic strategy of self-defense that has defined Mormonism since its outset. Indeed, it turns out that the ranch land in Texas was not the only property purchased by Allred, the FLDS land scout, in the fall of 2003. He secured two additional large tracts of land in the rural stretches of the American west, near Mancos, Colorado and Pringle, South Dakota; locals in both areas have reported construction activity and the arrival of polygamist settlers. It is also rumored that the FLDS’s goal is to create a settlement in Missouri, their presumed location of the Garden of Eden. The long march to Zion goes on.