WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mainstream Mormons and a breakaway sect that practices polygamy illegally are battling over who can call themselves “fundamentalist Mormons.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, appealed last month to media to refrain from referring to polygamists as “fundamentalist Mormons” following a raid of a Texas polygamist community accused of sexual abuse.
That brought a sharp rebuke this week from those who see themselves as true believers in Mormonism as practiced by the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, who historians say took at least two dozen wives.
“We strenuously object to any efforts to deprive us and others of the freedom to name and describe ourselves by terms of our own choosing,” said a joint statement from four groups who call themselves “fundamentalist Mormons.”
The Salt Lake City, Utah-based Mormon Church introduced polygamy before the Civil War, but banned it in 1890 when the federal government threatened to deny Utah statehood. Today, about 40,000 “fundamentalist Mormons” in Utah and nearby states practice polygamy illegally.
Excommunicated by the Mormon Church, they see themselves as loyal followers of Smith, who in 1843 announced a revelation from God saying polygamy was a crucial key to entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
“We are proud of our Mormon heritage. Plural marriage is only one of the tenets of our religion,” said the statement from the groups, which include the Principle Voices Coalition run by Anne Wilde, an outspoken advocate of polygamist rights.
“What distinguishes us from the modern, mainstream church is that we have endeavored to observe the original, fundamental precepts of the restored Gospel, while the church itself has, since the early 1900s, repudiated several of them.”
Many “fundamentalist Mormons” have sought to distance themselves from the renegade sect in Texas, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, whose members were accused of taking adolescent brides.
The allegations sparked a standoff with authorities at an isolated West Texas compound run by followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
The mainstream Mormon Church bristles at any suggestion of a connection between its followers and polygamy.
“We would like to be known and recognized for whom we are and what we believe, and not be inaccurately associated with beliefs and practices that we condemn in the strongest terms,” the church said in its advisory to media.
It commissioned a poll that showed that 36 percent of Americans thought that the Texas compound was part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, and that 6 percent thought the two groups were partly related.
Reporting by Jason Szep