An intimate look into the FLDS, one of the America’s most secretive Mormon sects

Few people had heard of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) before April 2008, when law enforcement officials conducted a raid on a remote compound in West Texas known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch. For days after, television viewers witnessed the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of children and women, all dressed in old-fashioned prairie dresses, with elaborately coiffed hair, being herded onto school buses by social workers and police officers.

That raid had been spurred by phone calls to a domestic violence shelter, purportedly from a 16-year-old girl who claimed she was being sexually and physically abused on the ranch by her middle-aged husband. The call turned out to be a hoax, but what lent credibility to the calls was that the residents of YFZ Ranch were disciples of the polygamist FLDS and its “prophet,” Warren Jeffs who, in May 2006, was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in Utah state on charges of arranging unlawful marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls.


To spend time with the FLDS is to come away with a more nuanced view than what was seen on the news. That view is only revealed gradually because of the insular nature of the community.

With more than 10 000 members, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the largest Mormon fundamentalist denominations and one of the largest practitioners of plural marriage in the United States. The Fundamentalist Church of LDS emerged in the early 1900s when its founding members left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The split occurred mainly because the LDS Church rejected polygamy and decided to excommunicate practitioners of plural marriage. The FLDS Church headquarters were originally located in what was then known as Short Creek, Arizona, on the southern border of Utah. The settlement expanded into Utah and became incorporated as the twin municipalities of Hildale (Utah) and Colorado City (Arizona).

Many of the oversize homes are tucked behind high walls, both to give children a safe place to play and to shield families from gawking Gentiles, as non-Mormons are called. Residents are encouraged to keep a low profile as polygamy is against the law in America and men in this community can have anywhere between two and twenty or more wives plus multitudes of children. This practice, known as The Principal, is seldom prosecuted in America’s Mormon dominated south-western states because it was established by the founder of mainstream Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and as a result most Mormons are descendents of polygamous parents even though there is now widespread renunciation of the practice.

After the raid, I spent several months living in Texas learning extensively about the FLDS before taking a single shot. But after dogged perseverance and the support of credible publications such as National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, I was finally allowed to document more than anyone from “the outside” had previously witnessed. And even with permission directly from Warren Jeffs in prison, each day of photographing was like starting anew. There was often a tangible sense of persecution and fear at the idea that I could expose their way of life to the world.

While I do not necessarily agree with all FLDS beliefs and actions, I am grateful for having had the rare opportunity to see how a community continues to survive amidst what they see as a battle over faith and the authority’s desire to do away with their unconventional lifestyle.

Stephanie Sinclair

Stephanie Sinclair

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