Ever since Texas authorities removed 416 children from Yearning for Zion Ranch, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints has been making headlines. As is well-known, the FLDS teaches that plural marriage—whereby each man partners with at least three women—is essential to salvation. How does the church get enough ladies to go around?
By kicking out the boys. The FLDS doesn’t practice sex-selective abortion, nor does it recruit from outside the ranks. To reduce competition for wives, the church systematically expels adolescent boys, thus trimming the eligible male population. It’s estimated that the FLDS has thrown out between 400 and 1,400 male members in the last decade.
Church elders excommunicate boys as young as 14 ostensibly for bad behavior—like flirting with girls, watching a movie, listening to rock music, drinking, playing basketball, or wearing short-sleeve shirts. Sometimes called the “Lost Boys,” they’re considered apostates and cut off entirely from their relatives. Parents or siblings who protest are sometimes asked to pack their bags as well. Girls have also been cast out of the church, but this happens much less often. Usually this punishment is reserved for women who don’t wish to be part of a polygamous marriage.
The sect also expels married men who violate religious tenets. After the wrongdoer leaves, the church leader reassigns his wives to loyalists. In theory, those who repent in earnest can be reunited with their families. In practice, almost no one is allowed back.
Ever since breaking off from the mainstream Mormon Church in the 1930s, the FLDS has encouraged plural marriage. The sect maintains that polygamy results in a higher birthrate and thus increases the “righteous” population. Warren Jeffs, president of the priesthood from 2002 to 2007, is thought to have more than 50 children and at least 40 wives. When his father, Rulon Jeffs, died in 2002, he left behind an estimated 75 widows and 65 children.
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Explainer thanks Shannon Price of the Diversity Foundation, Rick Ross of the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, and Neil J. Young of Columbia University. Thanks also to reader Erica Hatfield for asking the question.