The story of how a polygamous sect rules the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has fascinated journalists and law enforcement for years.
I’ve previously written about the sect for GetReligion here. The latest news (and a hat tip to former GetReligionista James Davis for bringing it to our attention) has been how an influx of new residents into the area is slowly loosening the FLDS’ grip.
One’s worst enemies are always from within, as the Associated Press told us last week. It turns out that Hildale’s new mayor, who is stirring up things, knows the ins and outs of the sect only too well.
The new mayor of a mostly polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border is finishing off a complete overhaul of municipal staff and boards after mass resignations when she took office in January to become the first woman and first non-member of the polygamous sect to hold the seat.
Six of the seven Hildale, Utah, town workers quit after Mayor Donia Jessop was elected and took charge of the local government run by the sect for more than a century. They were joined by nine members of various town boards, including utility board chairman Jacob N. Jessop. All were members of the sect, the mayor said.
Jacob Jessop said his religious beliefs prevented him from working for a woman and with people who are not sect members, according to resignation letters obtained Thursday by The Associated Press through a public records request. The mayor’s husband is distantly related to Jessop in the town of about 3,000 people where many have that last name.
Most are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of Mormonism that continues polygamy more than a century after mainstream Mormons ceased doing so.
What’s really interesting is the nature of the new mayor herself:
Donia Jessop is a former member of the religious group but left four years ago over unrest about (sect leader Warren) Jeffs was running the group. She returned to Hildale to buy an evicted member’s home and start a business. She is in a plural marriage but no longer follows the tenets of the FLDS religion.
Nothing more is said about the mayor’s personal life but what a hole in this story! Donia Jessop left the community but is still one of several wives? Why were these tasty details left out?
Since the whole affair is obviously Jessop v. Jessop, is this more an interreligious battle than a secularized mayor shedding light into a dark hole? If Donia Jessop is snapping up an evicted member’s home, she’s got major history with this group. And does she still consider herself FLDS? Or even Mormon?
The Salt Lake Tribune has been following this story as has been the Salt Lake City affiliate of Fox News. But no one explores Jessop’s life like this Newsweek story from last November does. But it doesn’t allege that she’s in a polygamous union like the AP story does. Saith Newsweek:
Jessop's family was one of the dozens excommunicated from the church nearly a decade ago as religious leaders pushed out possible rivals under the guise of God finding them "unworthy" or unclean. Jessop refused to split up her family on the church's orders after some relatives were deemed worthy of church membership and others were not, so she left the community with her husband and 10 children. After years of practicing the faith and being raised in the polygamous life, she abandoned her religion and moved her family 35 miles away to a town called St. George.
Now the AP story said she left four years ago. Jessop got some training in childhood education and the kind of attachment orders kids undergo when they’re taken from their bio parents and placed with other families in the FLDS. She eventually realized she might be needed in Hildale.
Her family moved back to Hildale in July 2016 and rediscovered a town of cult victims craving the community they had depended on for years. Jessop formed the Short Creek Community Alliance, a group of non-church members who were desperate for change. They knew the only way to get the town into recovery was to change the town’s government—and plenty of people were eager to see the church "dictatorship" finally overturned. Jessop decided to run for the mayoral seat against the church-sponsored incumbent Philip Barlow.
However, the church sent people out against her and even the local police were part of the conspiracy until her victory at the polls. Near the end, the piece describes where she’s at spiritually:
As she works to rebuild her community and leave Jeffs's legacy behind, she is rediscovering her spiritual side. Jessop said she believes in a higher power and while she rejected the religious doctrine that controlled her life, she is now driven by kindness toward others and a love for everyone in her community—including the former FLDS members who she would like to see continue to reside on the town's land.
It sounds to me that she’s no longer in a polygamous union and that AP got that fact wrong too. But I’m willing to be corrected. Obviously this woman, as she tries to rebuild the town from a theocracy to a democracy, is a fascinating story. I'm hoping more reporters will follow her progress and take the time to research just how she juggles all the crazy faith factors that make up this tale.