Religious Studies 132W

Philip Jenkins

 

NOTES ON READING

DOROTHY ALLRED SOLOMON’S DAUGHTER OF THE SAINTS

 

Did you ever watch Big Love? Remember the scene where two women from a rival faction shoot Roman Grant? Well, that’s largely based on the real-life murder in 1977 of real life polygamist “cult leader” Rulon Allred, of the Apostolic United Brethren. Rulon’s daughter (one of dozens) is Dorothy Allred Solomon, whose family memoir this is. The 1977 murder, incidentally, is a major turning point in her story. This is in short a classic first-person account of life in a radically deviant religious community.

 

This page raises questions that you should consider while you are reading Daughter of the Saints. It also presents the structure of the class in which we discuss the book. Think throughout about what we learn here applies to other fringe movements.

 

(BTW, if you are a Big Love fan, Roman Grant is a mix of Rulon Allred and Rulon Jeffs, Alby is mainly meant to be Warren Jeffs, and “Juniper Creek” is Colorado City!)

 

We will discuss the book under eight main headings:

 

*The group itself

*Leaders

*Followers

*Conversion and recruitment

*Organization and culture

*The cult as family

*Deviance and violence

*Official response

 

A lot of the questions to be asked are the same that arise from other texts in the course, eg My Life in Orange. For example,

 

Do you think the book tells the full story? Is Dorothy’s account credible? Are there other questions you would have like to see answered?

 

What criticisms do you have of the book? What do you think of the writing style?

 

What really surprised you about the book? What incidents or stories really grabbed your attention?

 

One big theme of this book is childhood – it tells of Dorothy’s childhood, of course, but in other ways all the members of the group act like children. How? Does the image of the cult group as an extended family help us understand its appeal, and the social roles of members? In this instance of course, literal kinship creates very firm bonds within the group.

 

How did the cult treat regular family relationships and parent-child relationships? Why did they act like this?

 

What do we learn about sexual relationships within the group? How normal or abnormal were they? How did the children become involved in these relationships?

 

How far had the group institutionalized sexual deviance? Do you agree that the group was characterized by sexual abuse? Why were they so involved in relationships with underage girls?

 

What do you think of Dorothy’s childhood? What were its positive or attractive features? Was it restrictive and repressive, or oriented to freedom and the individual? What were the pluses and minuses of growing up in such a setting? Would the differences from conventional life be greater or smaller today?

 

How did the polygamist group support itself? What was its economic basis?

 

How stable or unstable was the group? What were its points of weakness?

 

How hierarchical was the group? How did members rise or fall, how did they gain or lose authority?

 

What did Dorothy think of her father as she was growing up? Does her view change?

 

The cult ends up being involved in serious violence. Why did this happen? What does this tell us about the linkage between violence and fringe religions more generally? Why is/was the polygamist world so prone to faction and clan feuds?

 

Does the organization deserve the title of “cult”? Why? Was it a harmful or anti-social organization? In what way?

 

Tell me about the cult leaders and the authority structure? Why did people accept this authority?

 

What is the basis of the leaders’ authority? How do people claim access to the supernatural? Tell me about the role of dreams, visions, healings, prophecies, revelations….

 

Why is The Principle such a critical part of the group’s thinking? Why do they not give it up?

 

What picture emerges of Rulon Allred? How does he fit the usual stereotypes of the crazy cult leader? What incidents or sayings struck you about him?

 

What means did the cult use to maintain its structure and discipline? How did people cut themselves off from the wider world?

 

What is meant by the concept of boundary control? How do small and fringe religious groups manipulate boundaries?

 

What role did language play in the process of creating boundaries? How about dress?

 

A sneaky question: based on what you read here – if you were designing your very own “cult”, how would you organize it to gain the maximum possible influence over people to do your bidding?

 

From the point of view of the women, what were the pluses and minuses of the plural marriage system? Why did they do it, what were the problems they faced, how did they cope with them – emotional, sexual, financial… On the other side, were there any advantages to the unconventional lifestyle?

 

By what legal basis does the United States prohibit polygamy, if it is demanded as a matter of religious principle? Why is it not subject to First Amendment protection? Might the legal situation change someday?

 

How far can we see the odd religious practices of the group as deliberate tactics to ensure obedience and orthodoxy?

 

Think throughout: how many of the cult’s activities and practices resembled those of regular religions, but carried to extremes – what examples might we point to here? What kinds of renunciations are common to mainstream religions?

 

What do people find in these groups that they don’t find in the mainstream society, and especially in mainstream religious groups?

 

How did members regard the outside world? How did they justify their flagrant violations of legality and systematic deceptions?

 

What do we learn about how authorities, social agencies and police responded to the cult? Should they have intervened sooner and harder?

 

Given that polygamy is so strictly condemned by state and federal authorities, how did these groups manage to survive for so long in relative peace?

 

What problems does a group like this for create for issues of religious liberty?

 

The book describes how and why people join and stay in groups that other people may regard as bizarre or dangerous. Why, in Dorothy’s view, does this happen?

 

Was there a particular individual case-study that really struck you as a revelation in explaining this process? Did you feel that these were people you could identify with? Take one person in particular and tell me about it.

 

If the group was so harmful, why did people join it and stay attached to it, often fanatically?

 

What happened to the movement?

 

What does the book tell us about how and why people (a) joined and (b) left the group? How did Dorothy herself break away? What allowed her to do this when many other women did not? What are her feeling about this break?

 

Cults are seen as much less of a threat or issue these days, compared to the heyday of the polygamists. What is different today from that time? In other words, how has the “market” changed over time. And how have “suppliers” of religious experiences changed their wares accordingly? How do they market and advertise themselves?

 

How does Dorothy’s account agree with or differ from the standard images of cults? Does her cultish upbringing seem to have scarred her for life? How does she look back on his upbringing? Does this surprise you?

 

At the end of the story, do you feel sorry for Dorothy as a victim or survivor? Or were there positive sides to her story? Has she forgiven?

 

Some Web resources you might find useful. For the Allred family, see

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rulon_C._Allred

For Rulon’s brother, see

http://www.rickross.com/reference/polygamy/polygamy73.html

http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,600112468,00.html

 

For the LeBaron family, see

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ervil_lebaron

(an incredible picture of real-life “cult violence”!)

 

For another notorious polygamist leader of more recent times, see for instance

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Jeffs

 

Dorothy herself has a website at

http://www.dorothyallredsolomon.com/

This includes some reviews of the book.

 

You can also find lots of other reviews, for instance at:

http://www.aml-online.org/reviews/b/B20034B.html

If you are looking for reviews, be aware that the book was originally published under the title Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk, so don’t be confused.

 

The book has lots of representative and illustrative quotes that apply to other fringe religious groups as well. I especially like:

"In the polygamist culture, personal identity is hard to come by. Social boundaries around the religious group keep out the larger world, but inside the group, personal boundaries are discouraged and readily breached."

 

Are there other quotes or sayings  that really grab your attention?