They are closer than you think

I read with horror the news this week that 9 fundamentalist Mormons in Northern Mexico were murdered, as did many of you. But at first, no doubt like many church members, I thought that this news had nothing to do with me. After all, they aren’t members of the Church, as the public affairs statement made by the newsroom makes clear.

Then I read the last name of several of those killed.

I’m related by marriage to a whole family of people with that last name. All of a sudden this whole situation became a lot more personal. And looking at the photos that have appeared in the media, I can imagine them as part of my family. They look like people I know.

I’ve tried to find out if my extended family is related to those murdered, but I don’t have enough information. But I can speculate. It seems likely that Mormons living in a fundamentalist community who have that surname might be descended from a pre-1890 Mormon family. Given an average of 30 years per generation, the pre-1890 ancestor of those murdered would be a 2nd or 3rd great grandparent. And if my family is also descended from that same ancestor, then at most they are 3rd or 4th cousins.

I know that’s a number of suppositions. But I don’t think they are out in left field. The descendants of Mormon pioneers commonly found in wards and stakes in the US are frequently related somehow — its one of the reasons why the “Relatives around me” feature in the Church’s Family Tree app works so well at church.

In my own case, both of my parents were grandchildren of polygamous families. That’s true for my wife also. To my knowledge no one in those families joined any of the fundamentalist Mormon groups, but I may be mistaken. But for my parent’s generation (born in 1930s), the members of these fundamentalist communities were first and second cousins. If you have pioneer ancestors, perhaps you have relatives who did join these groups?

I know that may be an uncomfortable idea for many church members. There’s something about the common roots of our church and their beliefs that makes us tend to reject those who come from what might uncharitably be called “apostasy.” They are like those who leave the church today—we tend to ostracize and punish them.

The result is that we often forget the implications of our own Article of Faith, which claims that all should be able to “follow the dictates of [their] own conscience” and says we allow others to “worship how, when, or what they may,” and suggests, I think, that we must treat them kindly regardless.

My point is simply that those who were murdered aren’t that far from us. 3rd or 4th cousins aren’t that far away. And if our ancestors had made different choices, perhaps we would have grown up like they did. And even if you don’t have pioneer ancestors, or if you aren’t related in any way, should that even matter?

I think that the idea that we are all children of heavenly parents, and, for that matter, all descended from a common human ancestor, is sometimes too remote an idea, especially in comparison to all the stuff we put up with day-to-day. Knowing our heavenly parentage too often doesn’t keep us from dismissing or maltreating our fellow humans. It doesn’t change our behavior. We hear of disasters or tragedies, and we ignore them because they aren’t close enough to matter to us.

For me, at least, realizing that the Mexicans killed recently were close to my family helps me see their humanity.1 And I hope I can use this to read the news better, with more empathy. For truly, those who were murdered are a part of us.

  1. edit: a comment below reminds me that they are dual citizens of both the U.S. and Mexico, so “Mexican” doesn’t tell the whole story.

20 comments for “They are closer than you think

  1. They were U.S. citizens, not Mexicans. That also should not affect our level of empathy, but I suspect that if they had been Mexican citizens there would have been little news of this for those of us north of the border.

  2. My understanding is that these families were sent – by the leaders of the Church – to Mexico so that they could continue to practice polygamy there. It’s not like they went there to be disobedient after the Manifesto. They were instructed to continue polygamy, and then when polygamy became very unpopular in Utah within just a few decades, they were rejected by Utah. These families have been treated poorly by our Church. I think if we understand the history we will not be so quick to reject them.

  3. I had a full-time missionary that I was friends with who was from southern Utah and openly talked about his cousins that were part of the polygamous groups with ties to Mexico. His last name was the same as some of those who died in the tragedy. As you mentioned with your experience, that really drove home things for me.

  4. They really are closer than most of us think. If you want to know how close, get to know some of them. Walk into their homes and see the “families are forever” needle point on the walls, the statue of Moroni, and other Mormon kitsch? See their food storage. Except for the two wives living there, you can’t tell it from any other good believing Mormon home.

    The groups in Southern Utah were also sent away from the Salt Lake area by the then prophet. They were told by the brethren that polygamy was a necessary part of the restoration that could not be removed from the earth until the second coming. They are obeying the instructions given to them by the prophet just like we in the larger branch think we are doing. Their branch was instructed to keep practicing polygamy be the very same prophets as told us to stop practicing polygamy. They were the most righteous families at the time was why they were selected for this important task. My ancestors were not so faithful, otherwise I would have been born into one of those groups.

  5. AM, according to news reports most of the Mormon group are Mexican citizens, and they are taught both English and Spanish

  6. AM, you do raise a good point — although I think it is peripheral to my post. Yes, I understand that, according to news reports, they are dual citizens. I can certainly change the post to reflect that. But, as you suggest, it shouldn’t change how we see them.

  7. Autumn and Anna, I’ve read a little of the history and I’ve heard before that “these families were sent – by the leaders of the Church – to Mexico” [and Southern Utah, and Canada too—in the case of my own ancestors] “so that they could continue to practice polygamy there.” I’m not well versed enough in the history to confirm that, but I’m also aware enough to know that there are those who would vociferously disagree. For this post can we not get into that aspect? Seems like something that should be addressed by someone who has done the research. I don’t think its crucial to the point.

  8. Kent, I think understanding that they *believe* that they were sent and teach their children that they were sent and are only obeying the prophet all that makes them seem more like us. It gives us something we can identify with. Rather than thinking of the as evil apostates, if we can understand their view of their faith, then we can better understand our similarities and our differences.

    I don’t care one bit about proving with historical evidence that President Taylor commanded…bla bla bla. It is what they believe that matters.

  9. No, the Mexican fundamentalists in this story do not trace their heritage back to the 1890’s Saints sent down by the Church. I think that Alma Dayer LeBaron Sr. is the source of this group. He moved down to Mexico in the late 1920’s. Ervil LeBAron, his son, went off the deep end and encouraged some murders decades later. Some of his other sons remained in Mexico and continued the practice of plural marriage. I believe these are the fundamentalists in the news.

  10. Again, I can’t see the value to speculating about the exact history of the group at La Mora, the home of those who were murdered. Regardless of their exact history, they are likely related to members of the church.

  11. When I first saw the story, all I saw was the reality of a horrendous murder of women and children. Do we have to try to find any common anything to feel the horror of that? Are you seeing people dismissing this as no big deal based on their faith?

  12. This is a great tragedy from any perspective. If there is “we” and “us,” then these people are part of “us” in very many ways. The corruption that pervades Mexico will continue to affect the people and governments of the US and many other Latin American nations. I marvel at how the unschooled boy on the frontier of upstate New York in the 1800s was prescient enough to give “secret combinations” such a prominent place in his book and a prominent role in the undoing of a civilization—unless it really happened that way?

  13. I think it’s more that it hits closer to home for me than it would otherwise than an issue of dismissing it based on their religion. I’ve met relatives of them in our church. They also share my religious/cultural heritage. The fact that many of them are now pulling up roots to flee violent persecution has echoes of Missouri and Nauvoo that my ancestors went through and were traumatized by. Old Man is correct on the history of the group, I believe, but regardless of the exact history, I feel a connection based on our common heritage. My heart would ache for them either way, but it aches more deeply because of that connection.

  14. Old Man and Chad, even if Alma LeBaron Sr. was one of the ancestors of this group, you have to remember that he moved there 100 years ago. That’s four generations. Unless his descendants are all inbred, there are many other families who have married into the group to make it what it is today. Many of us with pioneer heritage are related to them. They are our cousins, and we should claim them as family.

  15. Autumn, that’s a fair point. They were associated with the United Apostolic Brethren (one of the major groups that trace their origin to the history you referenced above) for a time before becoming their own group and may have intermarried. There are also a lot of marriages with independent Mormon polygamists in their groups, from what I understand. Either way, you and I are in agreement that we can treat them as family.

  16. I appreciate this post because:
    (1) in the ideal Zion-life to which we all aspire, we would love others without considerations of ‘us vs. them.’ We are not there yet, so reminders that ‘they’ are more ‘us’ than we realize is not a bad thing;

    (2) as several comments mentioned, there is a heritage of faith that underscores the lives of these families. I recently finished Richard Bennett’s “Temples Rising” (referred by an Oct 25th post on this site), and the chapters about Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto moved me. In the past I have been more judgmental against those who chose to continue living polygamy, but Bennett’s book helped me appreciate what an immense struggle it was for the Saints and Woodruff. I now have much less disdain and much more understanding for those who could not accept the Manifesto (and I hope that charity expands to the descendants of those who faced that choice as well).

    (3) Whether Mexican or American citizens (and whether the attack was about drugs, water rights, or something else), I am thankful that the media is covering this story of such wanton violence, because the attention invites scrutiny and change.

  17. For greater understanding of the sect’s history I would recommend reading “Prophet of Blood: The Untold Story of Ervil LaBaron and the Lambs of God” by Ben Bradlee Jr. and Dale Van Atta.

  18. Every news story I have read has identified the victims as dual-citizens (US/Mexico). This is part of the reason that some of the injured children were air-lifted from the border to US hospitals for treatment.

  19. I saw in a number of reports that there was someone with the last name Langford who was speaking for the family. I have an ancestor named James Harvey Langford who was married to two sisters. From what I’ve heard, James Harvey Langford was courting the younger sister and when he asked for her hand in marriage, the father required that he marry the older sister as well.

    My mother is telling me that we are descended from the younger sister and that the family who has suffered these losses is descended from the older sister.

    My maternal grandmother – Ida Rose Langford Hall wrote a family history that was titled “My Mexican Heritage” – I should probably go reread it. But this history recounts how our branch of the family was in Mexico for a time (to escape U.S. prosecution while they were practicing polygamy) – and eventually returned to the United States.

    All of this is just a reminder that I need to learn more about these family histories. There is a lot going on that I only have a vague notion about.

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