Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ervil LeBaron & The Extremes Of Religious Conviction

I've just finished two books which detail the bloody history of two Mormon sects headed by two very different brothers. The 4 O'Clock Murders gives a very well-written overview of the history of the LeBaron family, their Mormon fundamentalist faith and the events leading up to and following the religious split that would lead to a great deal of misery. Cult Insanity: A Memoir of Polygamy, Prophets, and Blood Atonement by Irene Spencer, a personal memoir of her time as the plural wife of Verlan LeBaron. As a (then) member of the family and someone who was privy to the internal politics of the sects it is an interesting insider account which complements The 4 O'Clock Murders and also contains a few moments of light relief.

The history of the faith journey of the LeBarons is far too convoluted (comprising as it does a few different claims to Mormon prophethood) to go into here. However the short (comparatively) story is that in the 1950s Joel LeBaron founded the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times claiming to be the "One Mighty and Strong" that the founder of the Latter-day Saint movement Joseph Smith had claimed would arrive to put the affairs of the church and the world in order. Many of Joel's brothers, including Verlan and Ervil, quickly accepted his claims. However Ervil hungered for power and eventually split the church. He and his followers, believing Ervil to be the true "One Might and Strong" founded the Church of the Lamb of God.

Ervil couldn't believe that many had failed to accept his claims and had stayed loyal to Joel. Hungry for power and desperate to take over Joel's church Ervil had Joel murdered by his followers. When this act failed to bring many converts (with the Firstborn members being quite understandably rather terrified by the events and scared of Ervil) he ordered an attack on Los Molinos, a Mexican colony of the Firstborn church. Drawing a crowd to fight a fire they had lit, Ervil's followers (hoping to catch Verlan, the new Firstborn leader) opened fire killing 2 and injuring dozens. Growing dissent and "disobedience" within his own church lead Ervil to order the murders of others including his own daughter.

Ervil's downfall came when he planned once more to ensnare Verlan. He decided the only way to draw an understandably paranoid and elusive Verlan into the open was a major funeral he couldn't fail to attend. Rulon Allred, then leader of one of the largest Mormon fundamentalist groups in the USA, was the target. Two women, one Ervil's plural wife Rena, murdered Allred at his place of work but a large police presence at his funeral meant the attempt on Verlan's life was aborted. Rena was acquited of the crime but later admitted it in an autobiography.

Ervil, however, finally faced justice for orchestrating the murder of Rulon Allred and died in prison in 1981. Unfortunately that was not the end of the horrors. Ervil left a list of people (mainly followers who abandoned his church in the aftermath of Allred murder trial) who he wanted "blood atoned" (murdered). And he also left over 50 children among whom a number were willing to carry out his orders. Many have died since (including 4 people all at once in the "4 O'Clock Murders) and some of his children and followers remain on the loose even today.

What on Earth possessed ordinary Americans and Mexicans to turn into cold-blooded killers? A mixture of unquestioning faith and tribalism allowed them to follow the orders of a crazy man preaching discarded Mormon principles. Both books give different insights into what drove Ervil (power, money and attention mainly) and how his followers were completely unable to see that (or, in some cases, embraced it). The events are a warning of where extreme belief can lead us.