Salt Lake City, USA - Observers say an unprecedented number — up to 1,500 members — of the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs were barred from the group’s church after being told over the weekend they were "unworthy" to attend.
Most don’t appear to have been instructed to leave their families and their homes, as is common when people are excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but instead forbidden to enter the LSJ Meetinghouse in Colorado City, Ariz., said former FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop, now opposed to Jeffs.
"They were offered the opportunity to continue their repentance at another location, not at the main church with everyone else," he said. The people were reportedly estranged for expressing doubt of Jeffs, breaking one of his new, extreme rules or failing to pay increasingly high tithing totaling thousands of dollars.
"They may have kissed their wives, or forgot to sell their ATVs," Jessop said.
Former member Isaac Wyler said the outcasts included men, women and children, and in several cases families were divided, with one wife being declared worthy and another told to repent.
"There was a lot of families that got destroyed on Jan. 1," he said, but added he had heard no reports of violence. A smaller group is thought to have been excommunicated outright, but it’s not clear how big that group might be.
Former FLDS member Ezra Draper said that people were asked to "renew their covenants."
"It wasn’t any kind of doom and gloom apocalyptic, it’s more: ‘If we’re going to earn the favor of the Lord in this upcoming year and ask that the prophet be released from the prison, signify that you’re willing to obey by coming forward and renewing your covenants with the Lord,’" he said.
It’s not the first time Jeffs or other FLDS leaders have cast people out but allowed them to keep tithing or see their families, Wyler said, but a group this large is unprecedented. About 6,000 people total are estimated to live in the sect’s home base of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah.
Social service workers say haven’t seen an influx of people searching for help in the past few days, though the numbers increased throughout last year.
"I’m on the phone 24/7 with people, but haven’t seen them move as of yet," said Tonia Tewell, executive director of Holding out Help, a nonprofit for people leaving polygamy.
People were said to be contacted individually Saturday and Sunday and summoned to meetings at either the meetinghouse or one of the community’s school houses.
The word appears to have come down from Warren Jeffs’ brother Lyle Jeffs, the bishop of Colorado City and Hildale, who has conducted lengthy interviews with nearly every member of the sect over the past several months.
Jessop provided the series of eight questions he said Lyle Jeffs asked people, including: "Do you think only pure thoughts?" and "Are you saying your prayers in all that you do?" He asked the questions as he held the interviewee’s hand, Jessop said, to determine if they were lying.
Warren Jeffs, 56, is in prison in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, 12 and 15, who he took as polygamous wives. He’s now under investigation for possibly breaking prison phone rules by having his voice broadcast to his congregation Christmas Day in a sermon that set the first of the year as the deadline to be chosen or cast out.
Jeffs’ phone privileges have been suspended pending results of the investigation, said prison spokesman Jason Clark.
Also Tuesday, the Utah Attorney General’s Office received a 149-page book of apocalyptic "revelations from God," purportedly given to Jeffs and sent out by his followers. The revelations range from October 2010 through December 2011. About 20 of them are new and approximately 36 more are repeats, said AG’s Office spokesman Paul Murphy.