The (lack of) attention Mr. Harmston's death has received surprises me. This man and his following once were a matter of significant media coverage and community concern. Even the shadowy figures of LDS Church Security were once detected gathering intelligence (I briefly mention an incident I was present for in my opening entry to this blog). Now, The Salt Lake Tribune is the only local news outlet to even report on it.
There have been a few posts to Mormon Fundamentalist related Yahoo groups I infrequently check in on. The one place I would have expected to be buzzing with activity is the attack blog run by an anonymous ex-follower at manticult.com. In recent years, the entries and reader comments on that site have been the only place I have been able to find containing information on the TLC (The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days) that is not long outdated
I don't know what to make of Jim Harmston. I see two viable possibilities. Either he was a liar and an imposter in the same manner as Elizabeth Smart kidnapper Brian David Mitchell, or a Warren Jeffs-style lunatic.
Testimony and evidence indicate imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs would self-induce a state where is body would go into a seizure, and his mind would go into hallucinations. That is the real function of the suspicious, custom made bed with side rails Texas investigators found in the basement of the FLDS temple they desecrated. Jeffs really believes his own delusions. The voices in his head told him his favorite wife Naomi Jessop would die. His grief gave every indication of being genuine. To this day she remains alive and well. In jail he would spend so much time on his knees praying that his knees developed ulcers, and the jailors began forcibly dragging him off his knees. In Utah and Arizona, he let his attorneys present a defense that proved effective, but in Texas, he defied the guidance of his counsel, fired them, and represented himself, making threats that the court must abandon the prosecution or face the imminent wrath of God. He believed that God would follow through.
The FLDS are a specific sect of Mormon Fundamentalism. Those on the internet who apply FLDS to all Mormon Fundamentalists are misusing the term. Formally, The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
When he thinks he can talk his way out of trouble, Brian David Mitchell, the self-styled Prophet Immanuel David Isaiah, conducts himself very rationally. It was when he realized the rest of his life would be spent in confinement, the only question was, the big house or the nut house, that he played the fool. At federal trial we learned that though he has commonly been referred to as a street preacher, Mitchell had no desire to convert anybody to anything. Due to social phobia he needed to get thoroughly liquored up, then he would make his way downtown, where his actual activities were a matter of panhandling for money. The measure of sincere religion is whether the purported religious person acts to further the interests of his deity, or himself. The prosecution demonstrated that Mitchell never did any projects of service for either his fellow man or his God. He's not a particularly religious man. His religion-speak and his crudely self-manufactured Old Testament garb were for show. They were no more indicative of his true self than a man's donning of a policeman's costume, for Halloween or for deception, indicates an honest desire to uphold the causes of law and order.
I once traveled to Manti, stayed in the home of Jim and Elaine Harmston, and sat through the two long days he took to present his introductory seminar, The Models. On Sunday, I left about an hour or two before he was due to wrap up. I smiled goodbye at Elaine on my way out. I don't think she smiled back.
This was just before Jim's revelation to withdraw from public outreach, that marked the end of incoming converts and the growth of his organization. If he was just making up wild stories to get the money to fund a luxurious retirement, while his followers sat by candlelight in houses with the utilities shut off for non-payment, then the revelation probably meant he had reached the point where he had stashed away enough dough to accomplish the objective. He took a lot of people for a lot of it.
At The Models, two personality traits were apparent, the charisma to gain followers, and the overbearing and domineering nature that would chew them up and spit them out. A combination of disillusioned mainstream Mormons, and outcasts from other Mormon Fundamentalist factions, TLC converts started out as some of the most dedicated to the cause of building a communal zion.
Ask your average mainstream Mormon what he thinks about quitting his job, selling his house, giving all the proceeds to a new church, moving to a rural agricultural county with minimal job prospects, buying another house, transferring title over to the church, placing a sign in the yard declaring it as church property under stewardship, taking out loans he never intends to repay, giving that money to the church, than trusting the church to provide his family's groceries?
After the TLC, most of them vow to have nothing more to do with religion, in any form, for the rest of their lives.
At first this whole thing began as what I see as very positive, an outpouring of what I believe was genuine spiritual (supernatural) phenomena. In the early 1990's, people from various places, who did not know each other in advance, felt a prompting to move to Utah's Sanpete Valley. They joined the LDS wards in the area, and news spread of a study group (outside the official auspices of the church). They would meet, read the revelations they were receiving, and were amazed that the spirit was independently telling them all some remarkably similar things.
As one who laments the way Mormons have drifted away from their original communalism, I think this had all the makings of something wonderful...until one destructive personality entered the picture. The grandeur of Jim Harmston's claimed experiences with heavenly messengers exceeds every prophet in the entire Restoration Movement, including Joseph Smith. The fruits borne of Harmston's ministry are less impressive.
The mainstream Mormon Church promotes the validity of individual inspiration...so long as you abide by their structure of tiered authority. An individual is entitled to inspiration to guide his or her own life. A father to guide his family. But when you start declaring inspiration for those outside your stewardship, start contradicting the inspiration of those in a calling of priesthood leadership above yourself, your days in the church are numbered.
By the time I made my pilgrimage to Manti, I felt no spiritual manifestation. The study group was no more. The LDS had purged the dissidents, and they Harmston had established the True and Living Church.
The early 1990's contained many interesting instances of internal dissent in Mormon Utah. The liberals rallied behind the September Six, I watched as they proceed in a long line to place flowers on the steps of the Church Office Building. Patrick Waters began the Utah Free Militia with some well attended meetings and training sessions in Utah County, though quickly what remained was just a few scattered small teams. Since Waters openly used his real name as a presenter at Sunstone, representing the Militia, I feel mentioning it here is giving away no secret. Mike Rigby was actively distributing what people referred to as his "White Bible" (Sacred Scriptures is the actual title), holding study groups with some off-the-wall ideas such as Lucifer had repented and Cain had taken over the job of the Devil, and taking up a collection for a large newspaper ad declaring that the great cleansing of the Earth is about to begin.
Nothing remotely like that is happening today, even though we now have the amazing abilities of the internet to bring together people of common interests. I miss it.
I sent a letter by mail thanking Jim and Elaine for their hospitality. I wished them and their church well, stating that I felt no spiritual indication telling me to get involved, but if that changed I would, be back in contact. I received no reply. I find it highly probable Jim's response was some hocus-pocus in a ritual to condemn me over to the buffetings of satan. Yes, I take that lightly.
If actively functioning Mormon based polygamy groups numbered in the hundreds, I could see one deceased leader not being considered newsworthy. Just off the top of my head I can name off about eight, and a few more that might be, but I don't know the current status.
That manticult site is the only source I have to know what remained of the TLC just prior to Jim's death. Rather than hearing me paraphrase, adding one more person to the kids game of whispering in people's ear to find out how badly the message gets distorted with repeated retelling, you can go see for yourself. I'll just say this, it doesn't sound like much was left.
The tone of this blog entry is harsh. I didn't expect it to be quite so when I started making mental notes for it. I actually am very sympathetic to the people of Mormon based polygamy. The last thing I want to do is join my voice with anti-polygamy activists to create a bad impression of good people. Leaders are another matter.
Libertarian pundit P. J. O'Rourke is noted for his thoughtful quote, beginning with, Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. It's not just polygamous leaders, and it's not just religious leaders.
Jesus cautioned to be innocent but not naive, (Matthew 10:16). Many common claims against the people of polygamy are based in prejudice and not based in fact. Failing to take this passage to heart is a valid criticism of these people. They find themselves under bad leaders more often than not.