SALT LAKE CITY — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs may be serving a life-plus-20-year sentence in a Texas prison, but his grip on most of his 10,000 followers doesn't appear to be lessening and some former insiders say he's imposing even more rigid requirements that are roiling the church and splitting its members.
The edicts from Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, form the basis for what he's called the "Holy United Order." An estimated 1,500 men, women and children church members failed to meet the stringent standards by a Jan. 1 deadline, said Willie Jessop, a former FLDS spokesman who no longer reveres Jeffs.
Whether those members were excommunicated outright or have been put on probationary status until they can prove they meet the standards remains unclear, Jessop and others said. Some marriages have been dissolved and families split up as Jeffs works from his prison cell to reshape his church.
Since about mid-November, Jeffs' brother, Lyle Jeffs, has been conducting personal interviews with members to determine their worthiness under the new order, the former church members say.
"There are eight questions, but before they get there, they ask, 'Do you accept Warren Jeffs as God's mouthpiece and your prophet,' and if you believe he can rule in all the affairs of your life," said Jessop.
A copy of the question list was provided to The Associated Press. The inquiries range from the purity of an individual's thoughts and whether they are saying daily prayers to whether they have carnal desires or "dwell in the wickedness of evil dross of this generation."
"He regulates sex and money on behalf of God," said Jessop. "It's pretty real and it's damn serious."
Jeffs is in a Houston prison and could not be reached for comment. Request for comment left for Lyle Jeffs, who runs the daily operations of the church, was not returned on Friday. Vaughan Taylor, a church patriarch, declined comment.
But not all FLDS are submissively accepting the "correction" as church disciplinary actions are called.
Some spouses are refusing church-directed breakups and choosing to leave the faith on their own. Some are leaving the community along the Utah-Arizona state line, while many have chosen to remain in their homes.
"What makes this important is that there has never been a time when people in the community have taken this sort of stand against Warren," said Jessop, who left the church a year ago, but still considers himself FLDS. "I think the church is going through a social crisis that is extremely painful, but in the long term, it's healthy."
From his daily conversation with other FLDS, Jessop said he senses a growing confusion among members about the validity of the church's leadership.
"Warren has created a wholesale distrust of the church," he said. "Everyone is second-guessing their religion."
Jeffs, 56, rose to power in 2002 following the death of his father who had led the church for nearly 20 years. The church practices polygamy, a legacy of early Mormon church teachings that held plural marriage brought exaltation in heaven.
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood, however, and excommunicates members who engage in the practice. An estimated 40,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalists have continued to practice plural marriage across the West. The FLDS are the largest of any organized fundamentalist group.
Faithful FLDS members revere Jeffs as a prophet, despite his conviction in August in Texas of sexually assaulting two underage sect girls whom he took as plural wives.
From prison Jeffs shepherds his flock through messages passed to visitors, letters and phone calls, including two on Christmas Day that were played over speakerphones to followers gathered at a meeting house in Hildale, Utah. That violation of prison rules earned Jeffs a 90-day suspension of his phone privileges.
Jessop said Jeffs' "United Order" requirements were once loosely used as conditions for living at the faith's Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas.
But about a year ago, Jeffs said the rules would be globally imposed on church members living in the twin towns along the Utah-Arizona border, Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., and in church enclaves in South Dakota and British Columbia, said Jessop.
As the end of 2011 approached, the pressure to meet the standards increased, former church members still living in Hildale and Colorado City say.
"We started to hear about (church leaders) kicking people out," said Isaac Wyler, who was excommunicated in 2004. "We heard that at the end of the year (members) were going to be destroyed if they weren't chosen."
Among the newly reinforced rules: No Internet access, no recreation equipment or toys and no sexual relations between spouses without Jeffs' permission, which mean no children being born in the community.
Members are also expected to give 100 percent of their earnings to the church, meeting only their basic needs through goods obtained from a church cooperative known as the Bishop's Storehouse.
Former FLDS member Richard Holm, who was excommunicated by Warren Jeffs, believes the recent crackdown on members shows a level of desperation among the church's senior most leaders that's not been previously seen by the FLDS community.
"I think there's an evolution taking place that is a major change," said Holm, whose brother remained a senior church leader until he, too, was ejected about six weeks ago. "I'm really glad to see people one by one break free of it."
But the evolution will come slowly for some, Jessop predicts.
Obedience and a mistrust of the outside world run deep in FLDS culture. Church members trust each other and their prophet above all others and many don't believe news reports — if they have seen them at all — about Warren Jeffs' sexual misdeeds with underage girls are true.
In addition, Jessop said, Jeffs' previous criminal conviction in Utah was overturned — seemingly proving the church leader's predictions that prayer and obedience would set him free. Then and now, he's told members he remains imprisoned because they are not keeping church covenants and living worthy lives.
Most FLDS have also had few personal interactions with Jeffs, whom Jessop said worked overtime to keep the flock from knowing all that he did.
"What he teaches is so opposite of what he did," said Jessop. "You never got to see the man behind the curtain and there were so many curtains and so much secrecy."
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