Sunday evening, I attended a presentation at the University of Utah by one of my favorite high school history teachers, Vance Allred. He and his wife recounted their experiences of living in a polygamous cult, and explained why they brought their family out of polygamy in 1993.
Vance prefaced his life story by giving a historical overview of Mormon polygamy. He noted that Joseph Smith first addressed the issue of polygamy in the Book of Mormon, where the practice is conditionally condemned. Several years later, Joseph Smith received a revelation (D&C 132 that “celestial marriage” (polygamy) is a commandment and required for exaltation.
Polygamy was secretly practiced by Joseph Smith as early as 1833, and practiced to greater extent nearly a decade later in Nauvoo. Once in the Utah territory, free from mob violence and federal reach, the LDS Church began to openly practice polygamy.
Vance then detailed the historical events that resulted in the church’s abandonment of polygamy. There was a series of federal laws passed to outlaw polygamy. Among the first was the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln. The most draconian law was the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the LDS Church, dissolved its assets, and resulted in the imprisonment of many prominent Mormons. These and similar laws were deemed constitutional as per Reynolds v. United States, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled polygamy was not a protected religious practice.
Under such legal and political duress, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff issued the 1890 Manifesto—an official denunciation of polygamy. (Polygamy, though, wasn’t really discontinued until the Second Manifesto in 1904, during the Reed Smoot hearings.)
Mormon polygamists believe that the mainstream LDS Church has been in apostasy since 1890. One evidence of this that polygamists use, and which Vance’s father was fond of citing, is that Joseph Smith identified 1890/1891 as likely years for Christ’s Second Coming. But because the church abandoned polygamy in 1890, these predictions never came to fruition. Or so the argument goes.
Vance also debunked several popular myths regarding 19th-century Mormon polygamy.
Myth: “There were all these extra women who needed to be cared for.” In truth, there was always a shortage of women.
Myth: “The Church needed large numbers of children quickly.” Monogamous wives, however, actually bore more children than their polygamous counterparts—an average of 8 children compared to the polygamous wives’ 5.9.
Myth: “Polygamy was only an incidental part of Mormonism.” An analysis of 19th-century Mormon literature shows that only the topics of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith were mentioned more than polygamy. Its importance notwithstanding, he asserted that relatively few Mormons (an estimated 7%) engaged in polygamy. This disagrees with the late historian Richard Van Wagoner’s estimate of about 25%.
So what, then, accounts for the practice of polygamy? Vance said he suspects that much of early Mormon polygamy was and most of modern day polygamy is sex-driven.
After this discussion of the origins and history of Mormon polygamy, he shared his own personal history with polygamy.
Vance Allred was raised in one of the most famous polygamist families. His father, Rulon C. Allred, was the leader/prophet of a 9,000-member strong polygamous sect, now called the Apostolic United Brethren. Rulon had 7 wives (all of whom he wooed with identical love letters), and at least 48 children. On May 10, 1977, he was assassinated on the orders of Ervil LeBaron, head of a rival sect. This made headlines nationwide.
Growing up in a polygamous family was difficult for Vance. His family was scattered across various states in order to disguise their practice of polygamy. He was also not allowed to invite childhood friends over to the house for fear of outing the family as polygamists.
At 19, his father arranged for him to marry a 16-year-old girl, Tana. Vance was initially resistant, because he was already in love with a girl he met at the University of Utah. His father reassured him that, “If you marry enough women, you’ll get all the attributes you want.”
Eventually, though, Vance feel madly in love with Tana. While a polygamist, he married a couple more women, but his love for Tana was never diminished. And when they left polygamy, they left together. (By the time they left, Tana was his only wife; his other two marriages were short-lived.) Vance and Tana have been happily married for 39 years.
They moved to Montana with many others in the Allred group to establish the Kingdom of God and await the Second Coming of Christ, which they believed was imminent. There, they lived the communal Law of Consecration, whereby all possessions were shared among the church. Vance reports that those years were the happiest of his life, because there was an intoxicating sense of purpose, belonging, and community.
When he wasn’t busy building the Kingdom of God, he was busy getting a secular education. Vance studied history at the University of Montana. In 1984, he finished his senior thesis, “Mormon Polygamy and the Manifesto of 1890: A study of Hegemony and Social Conflict.” It was the first historical treatment of the 1890 Manifesto and a robust theological defense of polygamy. Mormon fundamentalists still refer to it today.
Tana Allred then spoke briefly about the struggles of being a woman in polygamy. She recalls wrestling with insecurities that were magnified by having to ‘compete’ for her husband’s love. When she lost weight due to stress and depression, she was chastised by her mother and grandmother for giving the public appearance that living polygamously was anything but ‘celestial.’
She mentioned, as an interesting aside, that one of Vance’s nieces is on “Sister Wives”, a new reality TV show on TLC that features a polygamist family in Lehi, Utah. And behind the happy facade displayed for the cameras, Tana claims Vance’s niece is privately unhappy. (This may well be true, but I’m uncomfortable with these kind of accusations. People sometimes say the same of atheists and homosexuals.)
In 1993, Vance discovered that a number of the apostles were guilty of incest and child molestation. He concluded that these men could not be men of god and that the church they headed was a fraud. Upon this discovery, he and his family immediately left the Allred group, and the police helped them go into hiding in Salt Lake City.
The transition from a polygamous cult to ‘normal’ society overwhelmed the family at times. Shortly after the move to Salt Lake, for instance, Vance was admitted to a local hospital on suicide watch. And Tana remembers seeing one of their sons repeatedly say “Stupid boy!” to his reflection in the bathroom mirror, faulting himself for ever having believed in Mormon fundamentalism.
Tana said that each family member needed a “year of healing.” Now, 17 years later, they have all successfully acclimated to their new lives. Vance and Tana are members of the mainstream LDS Church, but most of their kids are inactive or disbelieving. This isn’t a source of familial conflict for the Allreds, however. They respect their kids’ divergent paths.
“My father clipped my and my siblings’ wings,” Vance said, “I won’t do that to my kids. I’ll let them fly.”
And fly they have. Their children are leading fulfilling and successful lives, from studying medicine to playing in the NBA.
I am grateful the Allreds are sharing their incredible story with the public. Sunday’s presentation was filmed for an upcoming documentary about their family; I just wanted to do my small part of telling their story. And I think this blog’s audience can especially relate to it, many of us having left a religious tradition—an often painful, but ultimately liberating experience.