Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

The "Lost Boys" of Polygamy: Is Emancipation the Answer?

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

The "Lost Boys" of Polygamy: Is Emancipation the Answer?

Article excerpt


At just thirteen years old, Johnny Jessop was kicked out of his house.' Johnny's family was part of a radical religious sect in Hildale, Utah run by polygamist Warren Jeffs, who ordered Johnny's brother to tell Johnny to pack his belongings and leave.2 If Johnny stayed, his brother said he would be thrown out.3 Johnny left and spent several years squatting in houses with other "lost boys" - adolescent males exiled from polygamist communities.4 By the time Johnny was fifteen, he was living in a juvenile detention center and had experimented with alcohol and drugs.5 After a local charity intervened, Johnny obtained employment and is hoping to earn his GED someday.6 Johnny unsuccessfully filed suit to compel Warren Jeffs to reveal the location of his mother, Elsie Jessop, with whom he has not spoken for two years.7

This Note will address the legal and religious history of polygamy in the United States and the barriers that lost boys face after exile. In response to growing numbers of young men and women exiled from polygamist sects, the Utah legislature passed the state's first child emancipation statute, nicknamed the "Lost Boy Law,"8 in 2006. This Note will argue that the new Utah child emancipation statute will be only marginally effective in assisting the lost boys because they face additional barriers, such as a lack of education, fear of outsiders, little support from independent agencies, widespread anti-polygamist sentiment, and social deficiencies.9


Polygamy in the United States began in the mid- 183Os under the guidance of the founder of the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Church"),10 Joseph Smith." Though the Church officially denounced polygamy in 1890,12 splinter groups, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), continued the practice.13 The practice still continues, primarily in Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.14 The lost boy phenomenon arose as a result of both the natural dependence on a high female-to-male ratio and FLDS leader Warren Jeffs' s insistence that parents expel their young male children from the community to eliminate competition for wives.15

Polygamy is a blanket term that simply means "multiple marriages" and covers both polygyny, where one man marries multiple women, and polyandry, where one woman marries multiple men.16 The FLDS exclusively practices polygyny.17 "Plural marriage" is simply another synonym for polygamy, though many practicing polygamists prefer it because it lacks the stigma attached to the term "polygamy."18

A. Religious Background

The practice of polygamy in the United States officially began with the Revelation on Celestial Marriage made by the Church's founder, Joseph Smith, on July 12, 1843.19 The revelations came to Smith as "visions from heaven, evidences of angels."20 These visions were recorded and became the text of the Book of Mormon, one of the holy books of the modern Church.21 The text of the revelation encourages men who feel they have a celestial calling to take more than one wife to do so, and for current wives to submit to the practice.22 Critics of the Church assert that Smith was guided by sexual, rather than divine, urges to take on newer, younger wives well before the official revelation on polygamy in 1843.23 The Church community settled in Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young after an angry mob killed Smith while he was jailed for the destruction of the town printing press in Nauvoo, Illinois.24

The mass exodus to Utah was motivated by a desire to inhabit a mostly unpopulated area so that the Church could govern itself.25 Young publicly endorsed the practice of polygamy in 1852.26 The number of polygamists continued to grow, but by 1896 the Church was effectively forced to renounce polygamy in order for Utah to finally gain statehood.27 Once the Church formally stated that it would no longer support the practice of polygamy, several splinter groups broke from the mainstream church leadership to continue their lifestyle. …

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