DALLAS The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy over a century ago, but it says the breakaway sects that practice plural marriage are giving it a public relations head ache.
Attention has once again been drawn to the issue by the raids this month on a Texas compound run by followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. More than 400 children were removed in the raids sparked by an abuse complaint and their fate remains in legal limbo.
Quentin Cook, a spiritual elder with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told Reuters in a telephone interview that his church of 13 million had to constantly contend with public misconceptions stirred by the actions of a few thousand polygamists who were not attached to it.
Members of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints keep to themselves on compounds in remote parts of Arizona, Utah, Texas and elsewhere.
"The confusion is of concern very much for the Church ... we have got over 13 million members and if you look at that membership the Church has doubled since 1987," Cook said on Tuesday.
He said many of the faith's members did not have an ancestral link to polygamy, which the Church condoned until 1890, and resented being lumped with those who practiced it.
"The vast majority of those would be converts to the Church; they would not be people who have any ancestors who would have been involved any way in polygamy ... They work in normal occupations; they are not living in compounds," he told Reuters from Salt Lake City, where the Church is based.
"So for them it is a concern and they are always disappointed when people seem to think that somehow there is a connection," he said.
Mormonism was founded in 1830 in New York state by Joseph Smith whom followers revere as a prophet who was instructed by God to set Christianity back on the right path. Cook is an apostle or elder of the faith's second-highest governing body, the Quorum of the Twelve.
One of the world's fastest growing and most affluent religions, it also has to deal with suspicion in U.S. evangelical circles, where it is widely regarded as a cult.
Cook said the polygamist activities of its breakaway kin complicated matters further.
"We have 53,000 missionaries out in the world (and they do) not even get a chance to talk because somebody is confusing us with a group that is not even attached to us," he said.
"Our average age of marrying is 24.5 years for men and 22.5 for women. We don't have these young marriages you see portrayed in this (polygamist) group."
Polygamy is outlawed everywhere in the United States but the male followers of such sects typically marry one woman officially and take the others as "spiritual wives."
This makes the women single in the eyes of the state, which can entitle them and their children to welfare benefits.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Mohammad Zargham)