A fundamentalist Mormon differs from the Latter Day Saint Mormons in his or her belief in polygamy. The founder of the Mormon religion, the Prophet Joseph Smith, practiced and preached polygamy as a means to salvation. In the late 1800s Mormons began giving up polygamist living in an effort to gain statehood for Utah. By 1904 Polygamy was grounds for immediate excommunication from the LDS church. Polygamy separated the “fundamentalist” Mormons from the mainstream Latter Day Saints. The fundamentalist Mormons continued to practice polygamy in isolation of the LDS church; there are an estimated 50 to 100 thousand practicing polygamists today.
Irene Spencer, the author of Cult Insanity, was raised in a family of Polygamists. She was indoctrinated in the fundamentalist beliefs of the founding fathers from a young age. Despite the Polygamy, Irene’s family was integrated in the larger Mormon community, and her lifestyle did not lack the basic creature comforts enjoyed by typical American society. However, against her parents inclinations, she ran off and married Verlan Lebaron and moved to the Lebaron family ranch in Baja California. On the ranch, Irene is isolated from the life and comforts she once knew; now living without indoor plumbing or electricity in a three room adobe hut.
Despite the scant third world living conditions, the Lebaron family ranch is a place of relative peace. Irene’s husband Verlan maintains the ranch with his brothers, Joel, Alma, and Ervil. The community grows as the brothers begin to acquire more wives and impregnate them with more children. Joel Lebaron, the eldest brother on the ranch, has a revelation from God that he is “the One Strong and Mighty” chosen to prepare a community of believers to usher in the second coming of Christ. Joel creates the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times. His most ardent supporter, Brother Ervil Lebaron, helps Joel in convincing the others in the community that Joel is the anointed prophet spoken of in historical Mormon teaching. After much propaganda and proselytizing, new members begin to trickle into the community.
As members of the new church swell, Ervil Lebaron’s ego grows to dramatic proportions. Ervil subjugates those living on the ranch to do his bidding and follow his commands as though he were God incarnate. Refusal to submit to Ervil’s desires automatically brands one as a traitor to God, punishable by death. Ervil invokes a host of passages from early Mormon teachings and the Mormon bible to back up his authority over life and death. The Firstborn Prophet Joel Lebaron recognizes and denounces Ervil’s abusive tactics and excommunicates him from his Church. Enraged, Ervil starts his own church, The Lambs of God, and begins all out war on the Church of the Firstborn, targeting and killing those who oppose his authority.
While there are no literary fireworks, Irene Spencer’s story is moving and lively. However, Irene writes as if she were a journalist covering the development of this cult. At times her character seems so sane and detached that you forget that she actually believed her brother in law Joel Lebaron to be “God’s Chosen Power on Earth”. Irene writes about and describes the delusional religious beliefs of some of the members of the community as though they were silly and a tool for comic relief. Maybe that is her feeling 20 plus years after the fact, but it leaves me to wonder how such a grounded person got trapped in similar delusions.
Overall, this is a great informative read about a shocking fundamentalist cult. Irene Spencer shows how religious polygamy is used as a tool to ensnare women to subjugation and pregnancy is used to make sure they don’t escape. Her account gives insight into how cryptic and obscure religious texts fueled and justified Ervil Lebaron’s lust for power and blood. It shows the lethal danger of living in an isolated community in which truth itself is decided by one individual.
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