Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killing for God

Killing for God

To understand how a polygamous psychopath killed in God's name, you've got to dig down to the roots of the Mormon faith itself.

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith

In 1823, a young farmer named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni showed him gold plates engraved with ancient scriptures. These would later be known as the Book of Mormon.

Among other things, the tablets held that Jews emigrated to the Americas from Israel in 7 B.C. and were the ancestors of the Native Americans, and that a resurrected Jesus Christ appeared in the New World before ascending to heaven.

Smith formed a religion around these tablets.

Smith's beliefs evolved over time to include the practice of polygamy, in which a man takes more than one wife. Smith figured that God allowed the Old Testament patriarchs to wed multiple women, and it was the holy duty of Mormon males to continue that tradition. (The Church of Latter Day Saints forbids women, however, from engaging in polyandry - the practice of taking more than one husband.)

But mainstream Christians condemned Smith's polygamous teachings as immoral and Smith publicly denied he practiced it, all the while amassing a harem of 33 wives and secretly urging his disciples to follow his example. Thanks to the many births produced by these unions, the ranks of the Mormons quickly swelled to one of the largest religions in America.

But polygamy didn't sit well with the U.S. government either, which officially outlawed the practice in 1862. Caving in to pressure from Washington, the Mormon church renounced it in 1890.

This ruling failed to deter fundamentalist Mormons, who split with the Church over the issue of starting churches that allowed an ongoing collection of wives. Faced with constant harassment from their neighbors and law enforcement, many Mormon fundamentalists fled to northern Mexico, where they formed polygamous colonies in remote regions of the desert and were largely ignored by the local government.

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