The return of fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from her home last year, has raised questions not only about her nine months in captivity but about the role that religious fundamentalism and polygamy played in her abduction.
Smart was taken from her home at knifepoint on June 5, 2002 and found nine months later with a homeless man named Brian Mitchell, who also goes by the name Emmanuel. Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee were excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of their practice and advocacy of polygamy, a tradition that was disavowed by the church in 1890. Mitchell is a lifelong Mormon, who identified as a fundamentalist and who eventually formed his own sect, according to the Christian Science Monitor. He believes that God spoke to him and told him to take seven wives; authorities believe that this led him to the kidnapping and possible brainwashing of Smart, according to the Associated Press.
Though this case of polygamy is an extreme one, there are an estimated 50,000 practicing polygamists in the western US, according to the New York Times. The Fundamentalist church, which supports polygamy, branched from the Mormon Church in 1890 after polygamy was no longer accepted. David Bigler, a former Mormon and a historian of the church, told that “polygamy is an albatross the church has been unable to rid itself of.” More than 70 percent of the residents of Utah belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the past, Utah authorities rarely prosecuted polygamists. Yet in February, the Utah House overwhelmingly backed a bill that made marrying a second wife under the age of 18 a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, AP reports.